The Three Earth Trials

May’s theme was Deadly Games.

Synopsis

Malosi and her team go on an adventure of a lifetime through three different versions of Earth. Along the way, they learn that legend does not always match reality.

The Three Earth Trials

by Ian Williams

Malosi stood facing the open mouth of the cave she hoped would take her to another world, and she wondered, is it just me, or does it look a little angry? Two long ridges, running along the top of the cave, arched downward and met in the middle, making what looked to her to be two disapproving eyebrows. It made her doubt her willingness to enter.

But enter she would, for it was a great honour. One only the bravest were afforded.

A portal to another dimension had formed between the cave’s walls every two years since the first time, forty-five years ago. And each time it had, two teams of teenagers were sent through as a test of their worthiness. To return alive was a success, but to return with the famous emblem, left behind by the first man to use the portals—a legendary man named Tala—was the ultimate show of strength.

Malosi had only agreed to take part because her best friend’s, Vale and Atamai, had wanted to try. They had passed every test and shown a talent for problem solving. The three of them were going to see what only a small group of her people had before. With Vale and Atamai in position beside her now, Malosi felt a spike of confidence. They were a tight group of friends, just the three of them.

“You think we can win?” Vale patted Malosi on the shoulder to ask.

With messy red hair and goofy looking eyes, Vale was the buffoon of the team. He wore the same style of clothing as Atamai, with a woollen body wrap that ended just above the knees and was tied around the waist with a length of worn rope. Instead of shoes, he had his older brother’s hand-me-down sandals, which had seen better days.

“I’m certain we can,” Malosi whispered in reply. Her own clothing was a little more rugged. She wore a skirt, that her mother had made from a spare sack, and an upper-body wrap that clung tight to her chest; the perfect outfit to run in.

She turned back to check her parents were still watching. Even at eighteen years old, she liked to have them near during times like this. They waved back at her with pride and excitement. To them this was the proudest moment of their lives.

While Malosi smiled at her mother and father, and Vale scratched his head—which often housed life of its own—Atamai remained quiet. His way was to consider things in detail, even things that did not demand it. He was a thinker, a problem solver.

“Stop scratching, you’ll anger the mites.” Malosi swiped Vale’s hand away.

“Sorry. They’re a little overactive today.” He checked his finger for any stowaways. One tiny mite had gone along for the short ride, which ended inside his mouth. “Mmmmm, crunchy.”

“You … are … gross.”

It was a nice day to be outside, Malosi noted. The sun had risen high up into the sky and was warming the earth and trees with its invisible, heated fingers. While the breath of mother nature was gentle and only tickled the leaves a little. If they were heading out for a nice walk, then it was the perfect weather.

Maybe we should be doing that instead? Malosi thought with an indignant sigh.

She gave a cautious glance to her side, where a rival team were warming up for the Three Earth Trials with a round of stretches. They were a well-prepared team, more so than Malosi’s, and were the favourites to win. With a dedicated trainer in their corner, who had once been through the very same thing himself, they were looking like they might be the first team to return the emblem. They were certainly expected to survive at least.

In contrast to Malosi’s team, her rivals wore only the best their people had to offer. Being the favourites meant they were afforded more of what they needed. From newly woven clothing to the strongest of sandals, they had it all. But Malosi didn’t mind, because what they lacked was humility.

Arrogance will get you into trouble, Malosi’s father had told her once.

The moment the leader of their people arrived, wearing her usual free-flowing robe, with an over-sized hood hung around her back, everyone became still. Even the slight breeze had stopped to show its respect to the most revered of the elders. She was a woman of advanced years, most guessed around seventy-ish, whom everyone obeyed at all times. If they did not, then she had a habit of whacking them on the shin with her walking stick.

In her heyday, she was the closest person to the now legendary Tala and the most knowledgeable of his great journey. She had told his story so many times that she could now recite it from memory. Each year a new class of young ones would hear this story and grow up wishing they could repeat his feats. Malosi and the others her age had heard it a lot too, almost every year in fact.

“Welcome,” Pule began, taking position in front of the two small groups, just before the opening of the cave.

“Hi!” Vale said all too loudly. He received a sharp nudge from Malosi beside him.

“Do not speak, young man, until I request it.” Pule pointed her walking stick in roughly the direction of Vale; her eyesight wasn’t quite as good as it once was. “Now. We are gathered here, on this beautiful day, to fulfil a promise made many moons ago. Do you young ones know the story of Tala the Great Explorer?”

When none of them answered, Malosi’s father, Tama, stepped forward and whispered something. Malosi heard it clearly. He urged her to be brave and answer the question, otherwise she may not be deemed worthy enough to enter the portal.

“What was that, young man?” Pule stepped to the side and held her stick out to Tama. She suffered with poor hearing as well as bad eyesight.

“It was nothing, Madam Pule. I was just telling my daughter…”

Pule swung her stick into Tama’s thigh, the sound resembling a swooping bird hitting a wall face-first. Tama yelped, then added another sorry. Speaking again only elicited another whack from his great leader. She had a mean swing on her too.

At the front, Malosi could only giggle at the sight of her father leaping about the place like the ground beneath him was on fire. Pule had a bit of a temper on her. It was a little unusual for someone of Tama’s age to be on the receiving end of an impromptu telling off, though.

“If your father just stopped speaking, then Madam Pule would have no need to punish him,” Atamai said, in the same matter-of-fact way he always spoke. Unlike Vale, Atamai only spoke when he had something to say.

Unfortunately, he picked the wrong time to start.

“So many naughty children here today,” Pule said, letting loose with a smack from her stick on Atamai’s behind. She then finally returned to the front and went on with her story. As she did, those who had new bruises now rubbed them gently.

Malosi could hear her father say in the background, “What did I do wrong?”

The rival group only glared at the unruly behaviour on display. They were a dour bunch, who appeared unimpressed with Malosi’s team and those there to support them. Few words had been exchanged between groups and it had been clear that they were disinterested in sharing any more.

“Now, where was I?” Pule began. “Ah yes, the tale of Tala the Great Explorer. In the year 338, forty-five years ago now, Tala did stumble upon this place. He searched for a cool place to rest his tired body—he was tired because of all his walking, you see. And while escaping from the great heat of the midday, he took refuge inside this cave.”

Due to Pule’s bad eyesight, she pointed her stick a little too far to her right to aim anywhere near the opening of the cave. But everyone knew not to say a word. She paused for a moment and began looking around herself.

“Erm … in the year 338, Tala did…”

“Madam Pule?” It was Ita, the leader of the rival team, who spoke up. She was a rather disagreeable girl with a thin face and a nose that was permanently upturned, as though she could smell something bad at all times.

“Yes, child?”

“You were further into the story than that.”

Malosi took the chance to show some enthusiasm herself. “Yes, you said that Tala took refuge inside the cave.” Take that, Ita! Malosi thought.

Ita sent a scornful look in return, one that seemed to say, I’m on to you! She whispered something to her friends. Matamali, a shy girl who only spoke when Ita allowed it, laughed quietly. While Fili, being the only boy in their group, sent his own message of warning to his counterparts by slamming a fist into his other palm.

“Of course. Oh, you are a studious young girl, aren’t you? Unlike your father.” Pule spoke loudly so everyone could hear her next sentence. “He was a very bad student.”

Malosi turned slightly to see her father’s face and found him frowning now. He often called their great leader, Pule the Mule. So, the dislike was mutual.

“Yes. Good.” Pule licked her dry lips as she thought of the next bit. “And Tala did rest for the day and waited for night. But his hiding place contained a secret. As he slept, a glowing doorway appeared and called for him to enter. Upon his awakening, he rubbed his eyes with overwhelming disbelief…”

She made everyone act out the same actions as her. First, she stretched as though coming out of a long sleep, then pretended to rub her eyes, but eyes that seemed giant in comparison to her real ones.

“…A brave and courageous man, Tala did enter the glowing doorway and was led to another valley. A valley very much like ours, but in a different place also.”

“He then met the Brave Warrior, didn’t he?” Vale interrupted. He always wanted to get to the good bits quickly.

“Yes, he did, young one. He met a very brave warrior. In the new land, Tala found many dangers lurking around, ready to attack. If not for the Brave Warrior’s strength and great sword of shining metal, Tala would have perished. He described a man ten-feet-tall and as wide as five men. The only thing to rival the Brave Warrior’s size was his appetite.

“After a day in that place, Tala had learnt many new skills, which he would share with others upon his triumphant return. But return he did not, until he had ventured on further. You see, while out in the Brave Warrior’s vast wheat field, Tala was shown another doorway. And where did this one go? It went…”

“To the land of the gleaming towers.” This time Vale’s interruption garnered a strained look from Pule. He was pushing it now.

“Yes, to the land of a thousand gleaming towers, what the people of that strange land call sky-scrapers. While our homes are made with the wood we cut from the trees, theirs are mountainous things made from magical materials. Tala told stories of glass and crabon fibra, but few would ever believe him. He also told of strange objects that followed a pathway between the mountains, called altomobiles.

“But the third land was the most dangerous of them all. He forged through a vast jungle, full of wild animals and stinging plants, before reaching a glistening ocean. In that place Tala came across people able to breath beneath the waves. Unfortunately, his stay there was not a good one.”

“I love this bit,” Vale whispered this time.

Malosi returned a smile that told of her agreement with his statement. The last bit of the story, one they had heard throughout their lifetime, was her favourite too.

“Tala did face a giant creature, one much older than any person walking this land. The water people did their best to hold back the beast, while Tala threw rocks and spears. But the creature was too strong, and eventually Tala was forced to run from that land. Now, who can tell me what he left behind in the third land?”

Malosi decided to answer, before her rival, Ita, could. “Tala carried with him the sacred emblem of our people. He had taken it without permission and mislaid it during his great journey.”

“Very good, Malosi. And why do we come here each year?”

“Because to follow in Tala’s footsteps is a great honour, and the one who can return the emblem will forever be a hero to our people.”

“Indeed. Unfortunately, none who have ventured through the portal have managed that.” Pule straightened out her crooked back as she spoke. She was becoming tired already. “This is a dangerous task … blah, blah, blah. I’m sure you’ve heard this all before.”

Behind Pule, a bright flicker emanated from inside the cave. Tiny fingers of electricity reached for the side walls. They danced around for a short while before finding a point of rock to cling to. Everyone, apart from the completely oblivious Pule,  watched as another world appeared within the cave.

The sight had the others almost tearful at the beauty of it. Malosi gripped Vale and Atamai’s arms, as if checking they saw it too. She had heard the stories, seen the giant statue of Tala in the middle of her small town, and even had a replica of the famous emblem in her room at home. But she never thought she would see the portal for herself.

Tama stepped forward and excitedly pushed Malosi’s small group forward. The Three Earth Trials had begun, and he wanted his daughter to be the first one through. He wasn’t the only one either, the other group led by Ita was also inching closer to the portal.

But Pule had not finished talking yet. Her poor hearing and eyesight meant she had no idea what was going on behind her. “What are you doing now, Tama? You are such a naughty boy.”

“The portal, Madam Pule… It is open,” he said, pointing.

“I beg your pardon. Speak up, boy.”

“The portal…”

“The portal, yes,” Pule parroted back.

“It is open.”

“Will it open?”

“No….” Tama was almost breathless, he was so frustrated. “Just turn around you silly old bat and see for yourself.”

Pule got his point in the end, but not before she had put a big black mark on his record. “Dear me. Well, then you should go, young ones. Go and follow in Tala’s great footprints… Wait, is that right? Isn’t there’s something else before that bit?”

“Madam Pule!” Tama shouted.

“Oh, forget it. Remember Tala’s story and find his long-lost emblem. May he look down upon you from the heavens and give you good luck.”

Malosi, still being pushed forward by her father, took hold of her friends and dragged them along with her. At the point of no return, she looked back to her father and saw just how proud he was of her. His smile was bigger than any she had ever seen on his face before.

The three of them walked into the cave and lost sight of their home and that of Ita’s group too. Malosi’s team had won the race to the portal. It was only a small head start, but she was intent on making good use of it.

The 1st Earth

On the other side of the portal, Malosi stepped into a grey land, with not a single plant or animal in sight. It was far from the green and fertile land Tala’s story had described. There were no fields of wheat, just acres of dust and dry dirt. An overcast sky hinted of a coming storm and a cold wind rolled across the valley floor. But it didn’t appear any rain had fallen in this place for years.

Behind her, Vale stumbled through the portal and landed face-first in the dry dirt. Atamai kept his balance, until he ran into Vale and repeated the same unfortunate action of hitting the ground. Only Malosi had been able to remain standing.

“Okay, this is what we’ve been training for,” she said, taking control without question. “This is the land of the Brave Warrior. We should find his home, if we ever want to find safety.”

Malosi remembered Tala’s tale and immediately prepared herself for an attack from wild animals. What she hadn’t expected was to be immediately set upon by Ita’s group the very second they appeared through the portal.

Fili, with his large fists clenched and ready to strike, ran straight into Vale and shoved him back to the ground. “Out of my way!”

“Hey, leave him alone.” Malosi stepped forward and came face to face with Ita’s sharp face. Matamali stood behind, her eyes avoiding anyone else’s.

“Stay out of our way,” Ita snarled. “We’re here to win. You’re only here because Pule feels sorry for you. Isn’t that right, Matamali?”

“Yeah, Pule feels sorry for you.”

Atamai was furious, but his response was still a measured one. “Our chances of success are only marginally less than yours.”

“Whatever,” Ita continued. “Just remember, we’re the ones everyone wants to win, not you. So, why don’t you just give up now?”

“No way. Atamai, Vale and I will never give up, not until we’ve returned the emblem.”

Without waiting to hear Malosi’s response, Ita led her group off in the direction of a small hill in the distance. She called over her shoulder, “Find your own route. You aren’t allowed to follow us.”

“Yeah, or I’ll give you a clobberin’,” Fili added.

Vale stuck out his tongue in reply; a childish reaction, but one that seemed to make him feel better.

By the time Ita’s group had gotten far enough away and it was safe to talk, Atamai put his thoughts to the others. “I suspect they already know where the next portal will be. After all, they were advised by a previous participant.”

Malosi set off walking in the same direction as their rival group.

“Wait,” Atamai said, catching up to her. “We should stay together at all times.”

“Agreed.” Malosi shouted over her shoulder, “Vale, get a move on, we can’t hang around for long.”

“Are we to follow them, even after their threat?”

“I don’t see what choice we have, Atamai. Once we find The Brave Warrior, we’ll know what to do next.”

Vale caught up and then began his long list of complaints. “My head itches, my bum is sore and all I can taste is this dusty land beneath my tired feet. If Fili wasn’t so big, I’d have taken him on, just like Tala took on the beast in the water land.” He spat a thick blob of phlegm to the side and then went on. “When we find The Brave Warrior, I really hope he has lots of delicious food waiting for us…”

Malosi stopped the group with her hands outstretched. “Hang on a second. Vale, did you only want to come here for the food?”

“Well, yeah. You’ve heard the tales as well as I have; Tala ate wondrous fruits and the most delectable of sweet bread. Oh, and the most succulent of meat from the beasts walking the earth. I can almost taste it now, all dripping in fat and crispy all the way through.”

“Dammit, now I can taste it too.”

“I can also,” Atamai added. “But I suspect Ita’s group will be the ones to partake in any feasts.”

Vale set off ahead of the others. “Then we should try and get there first.”

As they trudged across a flat plain running suspiciously close to Ita’s route, the three of them imagined an enormous table full of goodies. Malosi could feel an emptiness form in her stomach at the thought it. The daydream was a welcome reprise to the bland scenery they were crossing, which primarily consisted of a dry and cracked earth all the way to the edge of the valley. All that interrupted this featureless view were the occasional sand dunes.

Malosi had made sure their slower pace would keep them away from their rivals. So, after a few miles of wandering, they were completely out of sight and were able to relax a little. Then at the top of another sand dune something wonderful came into view.

She was ecstatic to have found a sign of life, finally. A thin plume of smoke floated into the sky, carried away on the dry winds. It had to be The Brave Warrior’s home. She raced ahead of the others, intent on cresting the last remaining dune as fast as possible. Her sandals kicked up the sand, which made them feel more like spades than footwear.

At the top, she saw it. Sat in the middle of their view across the landscape, was a wooden house, with a thatched roof covered in dirt and sand. It sat alone apart from a large tree overhanging it. The scene was quiet, almost silent if not for the occasional tumble weed rolling by.

“That’s it,” Malosi said as she began running down dune, her legs flapping back and forth almost by themselves. She heard the others trying to keep up with her, then…

Oof!

Vale lost his footing and rolled the rest of the way. He yelled expletives all the long way down to the bottom, overtaking Malosi along the way. His body became a tangle of limbs, like someone had put him inside an invisible barrel and pushed him at speed. At the bottom, he didn’t stop immediately. He had a few more feet to roll before that happened.

He sat up, his eyes spinning and his mouth agape, and said, “Did I win?”

Malosi laughed, as she usually did when Vale’s clumsy side came out.

“This place is unkind, in appearance and structure. Nothing but dirt and weeds.” Atamai looked about himself with obvious disgust. He dusted himself down even when the dust had already left him.

Calling from behind, Vale said, “I don’t know, I think I like it here. It’s very … sparse.”

“Not unlike the inside of your head,” Atamai said, in a rare moment of humour.

“Hey, that’s not fair.”

But before Malosi could tell them both to concentrate, and to look out for the beasts that roamed this land, or Ita’s group, which could be nearby somewhere, an angry voice echoed out across the barren land.

“Get off me damn crops!”

Malosi, Vale and Atamai froze in place and searched the area for the owner of the booming voice, not at once realising who it must be. It was Atamai that spotted the giant of a man racing over to them from the single-floor house, the only structure for what looked like many, many miles.

Each of them turned their faces toward the ground in search of these crops the man talked of. Malosi could see nothing but more dirt and a slightly green shoot peeking out from beneath her left sandal. She lifted her foot and the small plant came with it.

“No, you’ve blimmin’ killed it.” An old man, with a severe hunch to his back and a thick white beard that hung low, hobbled over to them. He was massive, but much weaker than the man they were expecting to see. His leathery trousers were pulled tight under his overhanging belly and he wore a white shirt many sizes too small for him. So small in fact that it appeared about ready to burst each time he breathed in.

“Good day to you, sir,” Atamai said, his introduction about as formal as it could be, considering the place they found themselves in.

Good day? Good day?!” The man had to pull up his trousers to stop them from slipping down. “I was ‘aving a lovely day, ‘til yous idiots turned up. You trampled me entire crop.”

“We apologise,” Malosi replied. “But it was only one little plant.”

“I’ll give you, one little plant. That was this year’s ‘arvest, and you stepped on it. Oooh, I should gives the three of you a darn good thrashing for this. You’re lucky I’s due a nap, otherwise I’d put on me metal armour, grab me sword and take you little whipper-snappers on.”

It suddenly clicked in Malosi’s mind who they had stumbled into; it was The Brave Warrior after all. She admired his size and height, but something was wrong. The Brave Warrior had gotten fat.

“And Tala did meet a Brave Warrior…” she said, not thinking of who could hear her.

The Brave—old—Warrior stopped ranting to take on board what Malosi had said. He then rolled his eyes and began walking back to his house. “This way.”

“Pardon?”

“Whad’ya want, a please? Just follow me.”

So, they did. While two were a little hesitant, the other was not. Vale bounded across the dirt, sticking close to The Brave Warrior; maybe a little too close.

“Goodness sake, boy. Will’ya give me some breathing room ‘ere? I isn’t a young man anymore. Can’t be ‘aving you jumpin’ round like a ground squirrel. Either gets inside the house or gets out me way.”

Vale ignored the request. “Are you preparing dinner? Or maybe lunch?”

“What on this dull earth is you talking about?”

“We heard you have an almost endless appetite and that you prepare the best food in any land.”

“And who told you that?”

“Tala.”

“Always with that foolish drunk.”

Malosi and Atamai shared a look in response to that comment. Tala was no drunk, he was a hero, a legend even … wasn’t he? He was someone every child wanted to become. They grew up learning of his great journey and wished they could emulate his achievements. Calling him a drunk was like calling their most respected elder, Pule, a dirty hog—or a mule.

They were led through a door much taller than any male in Malosi’s land, and into a giant room with a table in the centre made from an ancient piece of wood. The table could house at least half a dozen people on either side. At the end was one chair, a behemoth of solid wood and metal, and behind that a brick fireplace with an empty spit across it.

Noticing the lack of a banquet awaiting them, Vale became dejected. He went straight to the fire to check for anything he could tuck into, even a soup would have sufficed. But there was nothing, not even a crumb for him to chew on.

The Brave Warrior took the large chair at the end of the table and gestured to the bench seats running either side of him. He wriggled about in his spot until he appeared to find a comfortable position.

Malosi and Atamai climbed onto the nearest bench seat and tried their best to ignore Vale’s rummaging in the background—he’d now moved on to searching the lowest cupboards. They could hardly believe they were there among the many wooden pieces of furniture calved by The Brave Warrior’s hefty hands. They could each pick out one or two of the objects described in Tala’s tale. It was a dark place, with only a few candles to light it.

“So,” The Brave Warrior began, “yous from t’other place, isn’t you, where that Tala fellow came from.”

“Indeed, we are, sir,” Atamai answered.

“Well, go on then, ask your questions: ‘Why’s you so fat?’ ‘Why’s you so old?’ ‘Can we see your sword and armour?’ Oh, and me old favourite, ‘Can ya teach me to fight too?’ You lot always bombard me with questions or ignore me entirely.” He swung his leg up, trying to land it confidently on the table, but instead it flopped back down again. His second attempt was successful, only with the help of both of his wrinkled arms.

“Yeah, I have a question,” Vale interrupted. “Where’s the food?”

“The food? Oh, of course. That Tala pillock told you all ‘bout my feast, didn’t he? Well, there ain’t one. I mean there was, and he bloody ate it all. I’d had one good harvest and planned on stretching the supplies out until the next caravan arrived with more. Then he shows up and eats everything.

“I’s been trying my dandiest to get a crop like that again, but … well, you’ve seen it out there. It’s as dry as my scalp,” he said, rubbing his almost entirely bald head and watching as a flurry of white flakes landed upon the table.

Malosi leant against the edge of the table as she spoke. “But we were told the food in this place was plentiful and ripe. Tala’s stories also said you were a brave warrior.”

This made the man sit up abruptly and accidentally drop his feet to the floor with a thud. “I am a brave warrior, little missy. I’ll have you know I was once feared all across this land.”

“And now?” Atamai asked.

“And now … I’m old. It happens, you know. Look, do you want to see me sword or not?”

Vale suddenly poked his head out from inside a cupboard, his interest piqued by the second most important thing he wanted to see. He looked to the others like a rodent foraging for food where it was not supposed to, namely in someone’s home.

“Oh, we’d like that very much, thank you.” Malosi was on her feet before The Brave Warrior had rocked onto his own. He nearly fell into the table as his tired ankles took his body weight. Once he had steadied himself with his chair, he then stepped out. He wandered, seemingly without aim, toward a door and into a small side room—small by his standard, at least. When he returned, in his arms were piles of dented metal and a sharp sword sticking out at the side.

He swung around unexpectedly, to place his load on the wooden surface, and nearly took Vale’s head off. Malosi drew in a severe breath just as Vale ducked to avoid the weapon. Her goofy friend had a knack for near misses.

Dumping the pile of metal pieces on the table, each a part of his famous suit of armour, The Brave Warrior stood back and let his guests investigate it for themselves. “See? Only the very greatest warrior would‘ave something like this. And the sword, well, that was made so only I could lift it, with these muscles…” He attempted to flex his arms, but the arthritis in his elbow caused him to rethink the motion. “Dangit.”

Neither Malosi nor Atamai could bring themselves to touch any of it. This was the protective suit of a legend, of a person most barely believed could really exist. Except, this was not quite how they thought this meeting would go. They expected to be shocked by the Brave Warrior’s strength, speed and agility. Not to feel a little sorry for him.

The man had once been exactly as Tala had described, but that was forty-five years ago. Things had to change, Malosi knew that. It did beg the question, though, of how much else had changed in that time. Those that had visited before had never dared to defy Tala’s story upon their return. It seemed that the truth wasn’t as important as the myth it had created.

She didn’t get much time to consider these things before Vale once again got himself into trouble. He had gone straight for the sword, which was almost as tall as him, and proceeded to lift it above his head. The weight inevitably toppled him over backwards.

“Hey! Careful with that thing,” The Brave Warrior said. But his three guests were too excited to slow down now, the shyness had washed away in an instant.

Vale dragged the sword along the ground toward the door, the steel scraping a groove in the wooden floor. He made no attempt to lift it up again, this would work fine instead. He also didn’t take any notice of The Brave Warrior holding his head in his hands and shaking it from side to side.

Outside, Malosi and Vale both picked up the sword together and raised it aloft. They were in charge of the most powerful sword Tala had ever seen during his journey. Surely it housed immense power, even in the hands of the slightly smaller people holding it.

“I want to swing it as hard as I can,” Vale insisted, pushing Malosi aside. He brought the sword as far back as he could and prepared to put his all into the swing. In his haste, he had not noticed the sword had now dug into the dry earth. He continued forward while the sword stayed in place.

“Oh, for goodness sake,” The Brave Warrior said in disbelief at the sorry sight.

It was Malosi’s turn next. She went over to the sword and tried her best to pull it out of the ground, but it wouldn’t budge. It began to annoy her after a few attempts. Only by putting her back muscles to work did it eventually move. She held it carefully, balancing the weapon so it stood straight and proud.

“Look, look, I’m holding it, I’m actually…”

“Errm, Malosi,” Vale interrupted.

“Not yet, Vale, it’s still my turn.”

A loud growl caught Malosi’s attention finally. She lowered the sword to the ground the moment she saw the pack of beasts standing a few metres away. They were ragged things, with thin stomachs and exposed ribs. These creatures had not seen a good meal for a while. The nearest one bared its disgustingly yellow teeth, a line of spittle hanging from its gums.

“The wild beasts have found us.” Atamai took a step to his right, to be with Malosi and the sword. The two of them—Vale was a good few feet behind them—stood their ground ready to attempt another swing of the sword. “Tala was right, this is indeed a violent land. These beasts will tear us limb from limb…”

A loud whistle from behind them brought that danger to the floor, with each of the creatures suddenly lying down. What had seemed threatening at first, now appeared entirely docile. The nearest beast no longer displayed its teeth, but a long, slobbering tongue.

“What you callin’ Beasts?” The Brave Warrior was staggering his way toward them, a big grin on his face.

“Aren’t they here to eat us?” Malosi said. “Tala told us that…”

“Never mind that idiot. I’m starting to think he made up a load’a cobblerbaggle.” He approached one of the creatures, which now appeared more like a giant dog than a ravenous beast, and stroked it with a keenness only a faithful pet would allow. “See, nothin’ to worry about here. These fellas just come by for any spare food or water I might’ave.”

Malosi couldn’t believe her eyes. The tales were once again not quite correct. Perhaps there was some truth in the idea that Tala might have spun a tale that was not entirely true. She quickly dismissed that idea. The passage of time had simply altered the way of things, that was all.

“I suppose they were once fierce animals, roaming the land in search of prey.” She looked to The Brave Warrior, almost mournfully, and whispered to herself, “Things have changed.”

“I’ll take that, thank you.” The Brave Warrior walked over to Malosi and took the sword from her. He rested it against his shoulder. “Now, these here creatures may be friendly, but I’d still advise you keep your fingers to yourself… Wait, what in this dusty world are you doing, boy?”

Everyone turned to see what situation Vale had now stumbled into and were shocked to see him staring deep into the open maw of the closest creature. It had its mouth wide open as though offering its teeth for inspection, and Vale was the unsuspecting dentist.

“Vale!” Malosi called.

The creature snapped its jaw closed just as Vale removed his head from its gaping mouth, ignorant of how close he had come to losing it. He gave the others a confused look, as though saying ‘what did I do wrong now?’

“I think we should return to me home,” The Brave Warrior said, acutely aware of the fact that Vale could find danger in any situation, however safe.

They all followed closely behind, leaving the pack of beasts still resting on the ground and panting like a chaotic orchestra, with an overabundance of saliva and bad breath. They entered the house, and all took a seat around the large table.

“Now,” The Brave Warrior began, “I will tell you the true story of my deeds. I suspect Tala may ‘ave created a false image of me. I will correct that image for you.”

After that The Brave Warrior regaled them with the most gloriously detailed recount of his life. From his very first battle as a young man barely out of his teens, to his last fight during a time of great disruption. He told of how a terrible drought had swept across his land many years ago—a few years after Tala’s visit. It had changed everything, even the temperament of the land’s people.

“We stopped our warring ways and worked together to survive. Those caravans I mentioned—the ones that bring me supplies each month—are run by my once worst enemy. Now, we are respectful and thankful of each other.”

Tala’s visit had been anything but enjoyable for The Brave Warrior. He spoke of Tala as nothing more than a greedy pest, who enjoyed others’ hospitality far too readily. In the end, and after Tala had eaten him ‘out of house and home’, he’d convinced Tala that it was time to go.

“I had to give him me very last bottle of ale before he finally left me alone. The man was blind drunk by the time he went through that portal thing. Now, I’ve never been able to remember the recipe for that ale since. Oh, what I’d gives for a little sip of that now…”

He went on to tell of how he had become quite accustomed to seeing people from Malosi’s realm appearing and asking him questions. He admitted that he had once enjoyed it. Being so revered again was something he couldn’t turn his back on.

“I noticed a change after only a few years of the first portal appearing, though. I gather your people now see this as a strange sport or some great adventure? No one hangs around for long these days.”

Atamai answered, “It is an honour to follow in Tala’s footsteps.”

“Yes, all over my crops,” The Brave Warrior mumbled. “Anyways, these portals are an unknown kind of magic to me, something I no longer question.”

And as for the previous groups that came before Malosi’s…

“Never seen ‘em again. Once they went through that second portal, they was gone. I guess this land wasn’t quite as violent as they once thought. Best you be careful when you go on with your journey; there’s a real danger somewheres along the way.” The Brave Warrior stopped and leant his head back to see the sky through an open hatch high up in the roof. “Oh my, it’s nearly time for you to go. The portal always appears just before noon.”

At that, Malosi leapt up from the bench seat and urged the others to do the same. “Quickly. We must not miss the portal. We are still required to find it.”

“Oh, there’s no worry there, little missy.” The Brave Warrior walked to the door and opened it for them. He then pointed. “Portal should appear just over that hill, just about … there,” he said, just as a glowing shape appeared. In the thinning light, the portal popped and fizzed like it was partly alive. “Best not hang around; looks like you’re not the first to find it.”

Almost immediately after the portal appeared, Ita and her two underlings appeared from behind it and stepped straight through. They were waiting for it to open.

“They must have known already,” Malosi realised. “Go, get after them, we can’t be left behind.”

Atamai and Vale led the way, not evening looking back to see why their leader had stayed back. They were intent on getting through as quickly as possible.

“Bet I can get there first,” Vale proclaimed, much to Atamai’s annoyance.

Malosi stopped just outside The Brave Warrior’s home, turned to him and said, “Thank you Brave Warrior. Your reputation as the strongest man alive is still true.”

“Well that is a nice thing to say. I thanks you too. Now, remember what I said and take care of yourselves.”

Heading off, Malosi then had another thought. “Can I ask, what is your true name? I wish to know so I may tell others about the real you.”

“Of course.” He appeared energized by the thoughtfulness of the question. “My true name is Faavalevalea.”

The name was far too long to remember. Malosi tried her best to say it back, but that proved a bad idea. “Faavalevevleav…” She gave up quickly. “Brave Warrior it is then.”

The Brave Warrior laughed a hearty and booming laugh, one that surprised and excited Malosi in equal measure. She then raced for the portal, trying her best not to be left too far behind by her friends. They had already disappeared, so she had some distance to make up still.

“Onwards!” Malosi called joyfully as she stepped over the glowing threshold. She meant to follow with another chant of the same message, maybe even a skip and a jump to her steps too, but that was not to be.

The 2nd Earth

The second realm then came into view and it shocked Malosi, causing her to slap a hand to her mouth. She was still in the same valley, but the land had become drained of colour. The dirty, dusty place from before had turned into a vast and sprawling metropolis. They had arrived in a grassy park somewhere in the centre.

All around were stone paths weaving their way between the giant glass-clad structures as tall as the mountains making up the valley. On these were strange looking vehicles that whizzed along almost silently, and at great speed. So fast that they became a blur. Malosi rubbed her eyes to make sure she wasn’t hallucinating. In her realm, the only way to travel was by boat or horse.

“My goodness,” she said, as she met the others ahead of her, both with their mouths agape. It surprised her to see the tall structures around them were glowing from the inside, bathing the valley in brightness that rivalled the sun above.

Vale was next to speak. “Woah, look at all those shiny mountains.”

“Let’s not get too distracted.” Atamai said. “We must find the next portal.”

The small advantage Ita, Fila and Matamali had over their group made Malosi hurry the others along. She could see them walking at a brisk pace toward the tallest of the buildings around them. It looked to be the most important one of the glass mountains; so, it had to be the best place to start.

Ita would get there a good few minutes before them at the speed her group had adopted too. So far, the race was very one-sided.

“Come on, quicken the pace,” Malosi ordered.

Vale dragged his feet along, almost tripping himself. “I’m still tired after the last walk. Can’t we rest here for a little while?”

Malosi laughed. “It will do you good to work those small muscles of yours. Let’s get going.”

A tiny light, as bright as the glass structures around it, weaved its way between the tops of the buildings and headed straight for them. It lurched downward suddenly like a swooping bird and was soon flying only inches above the ground.

“What’s that?”

“Where?” Malosi stopped mid-step and looked to where Atamai pointed.

Vale stood beside them, searching for the light in entirely the wrong direction. “I don’t see anything.”

“There, just there. It came down from the tips of the shiny mountains.”

The craft looked likely to run straight into them, it was going so fast. They backed away as it came at them, afraid it might be about to attack. Then it stopped as though hitting an imaginary wall. They could finally see its true form, revealed through the glare of its lights. A curved glass bubble, mounted between two large rotors, hovered in front of them, its inside empty apart from a row of small seats.

Malosi couldn’t understand how the thing could exist, it was so strange to her. It appeared to be some kind of flying beast made of metal, one able to create light from round eyes attached to the top of its glass bubble. She thought it shared a lot of its appearance with the ground carts she could still see were following the stone paths.

“Stay back, it might be dangerous,” she ordered of the others.

“I think it is safe, look,” Atamai replied, again pointing to something important. “One has appeared for Ita’s team too. She and the others are already boarding theirs.”

As usual, Vale was acting on impulse alone. He held out his hand toward the craft, confused by the beam of light aimed at them and intent on touching it somehow. When he got too close Malosi yanked him back again. She was about to scold him when the flying craft spoke first.

“Welcome humans. What is your destination?”

Where’s its mouth? Malosi thought. “Erm, well, we wish to find the portal.” It was all she could think of asking.

A door swung open in the side of the glass bubble and the craft slowly turned to the side. Neither of them spoke; they were still trying to figure out how the thing worked. They simply entered and found a seat—the most comfortable seats they’d ever let touch their behinds.

The craft then whisked them away, climbing steeply and putting their stomachs under a sudden strain with the movement. It levelled out around the height of the surrounding mountains, giving them an unbelievable view of the city. The largest village they had encountered before would have fit inside the park they appeared in.

Vale found the ordeal a little too much to cope with and puked all over his window. His view of this realm was now a messy smear and nothing much else.

They quickly lost sight of Ita’s craft. After taking off, their rivals had chosen a different route, heading instead along the roads and disappearing between the towers. It was clear to Malosi that Ita’s group had more information than they should have. This was supposed to be a test, but the other team had all the answers. It was the only way they could know where to go immediately after appearing in each realm.

Ita, you are no more than a dirty cheat, Malosi thought.

When their craft reached its destination, it fell from the sky and gave its passengers the fright of their lives. Vale screamed a high-pitched noise that made him turn red in the face. They were certain they were going to die in a devastating crash, their journey brought to an abrupt end by an all too fast meeting with the ground. But the end didn’t come. To their surprise, the craft stopped just in time and let them off as though nothing had happened.

They fought each other to be the first back onto solid ground, a fight Malosi won with ease. When she returned to her feet, she found herself surrounded by people.

“Thank you for your business,” the craft said, before it shot off into the sky once more, leaving them with no idea where to go next and surrounded by strangers. They couldn’t follow Ita’s group this time. The portal would open, and they might never see it. A sudden feeling of hopelessness came over Malosi at the thought of failure.

She turned her attention to the people walking by, who gave her the odd look. They wore dull coloured clothing, most in a shade of grey, and hair cut short. Male or female, it didn’t seem to matter, they dressed the same way. She also noticed that not one of them could walk in a straight line. They bumped into each other, trod on each other’s toes, tripped over their own feet and generally appeared to struggle to stay upright.

More ground vehicles—just glass spheres mounted on four wheels—ran up and down the street beside them. They followed the routes at a slower pace this far inside the city. Strangely, around the sides of these vehicles were soft, cushioned areas. The purpose of this wasn’t obvious to Malosi until someone stepped in front of one of the vehicles.

“Watch out!” she shouted, a split second too late.

The person fell to the ground and was taken under the vehicle. It made no attempt to avoid them, it just carried on along the route. Then something odd happened. When the vehicle moved on, the person it had hit lay asleep on the ground, no mark on them at all. In fact, they were snoring quite contently.

Atamai gave out a stifled laugh, something very unusual for him.

“She didn’t even notice it ran over her,” Malosi said in disbelief. Her voice broke as a particularly clumsy person walked straight into the side of her. She regained her composure, then said, “This is a strange land. Where do we go? If Ita knows already, then we are much further behind than before.”

“I’ll ask, see if anyone knows,” Vale answered, then tapped the shoulder of a nearby woman. She spun around to face him and nearly fell flat on her face. The sudden turn appeared to have thrown her balance.

“Wait, wait, I’m okay, I’m okay,” she said, using Vale to steady herself. “Now, what was it that you wanted, my goofy-faced friend.” Her expression changed in an instant to something closer to disgust. She then burped out loud. “Ah, there we go. Thought I was going to vomit then. So … erm … what did you say your name was?”

“I didn’t…”

“Oh yes, goofy eyes. Well, aren’t you funny looking.” She ruffled Vale’s hair and then wandered off, completely oblivious to the fact she hadn’t answered his question at all. Her path was erratic, weaving left and right, and sending her ricocheting off yet more unsteady people like a pinball. She walked for a few feet further, then disappeared over the waist-high edge of a nearby fountain. “Whoooooo,” she called out, flipping over and into the water with a loud splash.

“What in the world is wrong with these people.” Malosi had to step out of the way again. The entire population appeared entirely intoxicated. They walked in front of the padded cars, bounced off the soft ground and then simply got up again. The place was one giant cushioned playground.

Atamai had the sense to follow the herd and see where they went. “They seem to have a route in mind.”

They each agreed and were soon led to an open square. Everyone was heading toward a building at the far corner. People walked up, or rather tripped up, the steps leading to the entrance of the building and where then ushered through revolving glass doors by a mechanical being.

As Malosi’s small group approached, there was a sudden halt in the long queue they had now instinctively joined. She bobbed her head around those in front and saw the revolving doors come to a grinding stop.

“Please,” the mechanical being said, “one at a time, one … at … a … time.”

To see what was going on, she sidestepped the queue and headed to the front. Stuck in the gap between a revolving door and the frame were three people, all of whom didn’t seem to realise what they were doing. Their legs jutted out, their arms flayed around, and their faces were squashed against the glass in varying different expressions.

“Excuse me,” Malosi said, approaching the mechanical man with her arms held up to show she meant no harm.

Vale and Atamai instead went to help with freeing up the revolving door. They pulled at loose legs, stopped when one of them let rip with a storm-force fart, then dragged out those they could.

“Yes, what is it?” The metal face of the door attendant moved just like a human’s, and at that moment its expression was of great frustration.

“What is going on here?”

“Oh, just another jam, that’s all. It happens a lot these days.” He turned back to the door as another group bunched up against the frame. “No, no, no. You must wait your turn.”

One of the people just behind Malosi barged past, his hand up in the air. “Did you say it was my turn,” he said. Before anyone could tell him that it wasn’t yet his turn, he ran straight into the glass window beside the door and knocked himself out cold.

The mechanical man sighed.

“What has made these people act so oddly?” Atamai asked as a loose hand slapped him across the face.

“You’re a hansom one, aren’t you?” a lady stuck in the doorway said to him. She stroked his face in a flirty manner.

“Stop that.”

“Oh, but…” She stopped to hiccup. “I really, really love you, so, so…”

Vale was finding it all hilarious. For once, he wasn’t the one causing a problem. Rather than help Atamai, he took a moment to store the comical sight in his memory.

“Do you not know?” A squeak sound followed the raising of the mechanical man’s left eyebrow. He considered Malosi more closely, his eyes surveying the many differences between her and the people of his own realm. “Where did you come from?”

“We are from a different, but also similar, place. We came through a glowing portal, in search of Tala’s emblem–”

“Tala’s realm? Oh, why didn’t you say that earlier.” He took one last look at the human blockage keeping his rotating door from moving and then clapped. “Well, let’s get this sorted quickly, otherwise these people aren’t going anywhere. After that, why don’t you come with me?”

“To where?”

“We have much to discuss. Tala’s influence on this realm has been far reaching. You’ll want to speak to our leader about it.”

With a few hard pushes against the door, the mechanical man got the doors moving again. He treated the blockage like a clogged drain, pushing and pushing until whatever was in the way came loose. The people inside simply slid out the other side and were once again on their way. Not one of them thought of thanking whoever had helped them.

He then stopped the queue and ushered Malosi, Atamai and Vale inside the building. It was a sight to behold in there. Everything was so clean, much cleaner than anything in Malosi’s realm. There was no mud on the floor, brought in on people’s shoes, no dust or cobwebs hiding in the high corners and not one single stone rattling around inside.

At the end of the lobby was a set of lifts, each with far too many people crammed inside. When the doors tried to close they got stuck on someone’s foot and opened again. Each lift was doing this over and over again; another problem to be sorted out.

The mechanical man stood in front of the lifts, his metal head swinging from left to right. “Must I explain this to you all again?”

Malosi offered her help and pulled a person out of each lift until the doors could finally close. She could see the job was one that had few rewards. Still, lending a hand seemed the right thing to do.

“Thank you. What is your name?”

“Malosi, and these are my friends, Vale and Atamai.”

“Well, I am glad to meet you. I must say, others from your realm have rarely been so kind.” The mechanical man called another lift and let them enter before him. “Now, let’s go see The Administrator.”

Once again Malosi was sent hurtling up through the air inside a strange vehicle. Almost everything in this place was made of materials she knew her people were yet to discover. They went up for only a short while this time, which Vale’s stomach was eternally grateful for. When the doors opened again, they were surprised to find themselves on the very highest floor, many, many metres above the ground.

The mechanical man stepped out of the lift and proceeded to tell them all about the person they were about to meet, but no one followed. His voice was getting quieter as he wandered away, unaware that Malosi and the others were too afraid to exit the lift. It took him a few moments more to realise this.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, popping his head back around the lift door.

Vale and Atamai were huddled close to the wall, while Malosi edged slowly toward the exit, where a giant glass window looked out to the blue sky, and the ground much farther below. At least in the flying craft they were too distracted to feel any sense of vertigo. None of them wanted to get near to the window.

“Oh, I see. I forgot.” The mechanical man walked over to the window and tapped his finger against the glass. It wobbled a little and then reset. “This is glass. It will stop you from falling out of the building. One day your people will be able to make walls of glass like this. Please, come.”

Being the bravest of the three, Malosi was expected to try first. She slid her back along the wall and around the door of the lift. Bit by bit, her confidence grew, until she was certain she could walk right up to the glass and lean against it. Then her eyes shot down to the ground again. In the end, she settled for being able to stand without holding a wall.

The others did the same, after seeing how safe it really was—something they would believe only after Malosi had shown them. They all then followed the mechanical man through two giant doors, as thick as a horse is wide, which led on to an empty room.

Vale went directly to the centre of the room and spun around, his arms flung out to his side. “It’s just like when the lake freezes in winter. Look, I can skate forever on this surface.” He soon lost his footing and slammed his backside down on the ground.

Atamai was speaking when the floor beneath Vale rose up unexpectedly. From out of the solid ground came a metal desk, with a busy man, a human man this time, working away. He punched paperwork with a stamp and then filed it into one of many folders piled up beside him. The man had no idea Vale was still sitting on top of the section of flooring now hovering above the desk.

“Good afternoon, Administrator Vega,” the mechanical man said, bowing slightly.

Without looking up from his paperwork, Administrator Vega replied, “Yes, yes, what is it? I’m very busy.”

“These three are from Tala’s realm.”

At the mention of Tala’s name, Administrator Vega ceased his stamping and looked over the top of his pile of folders. His eyes were surrounded by dark grey patches of skin, making him look exhausted. Atop his head was a full head of hair, but a good portion of it had turned white.

“Tala’s people, really?”

Malosi answered, “Yes, we are, good sir. We are taking part in the Three Earth Trials.” She offered him her hand proudly.

“Do you have any idea how much of a mess Tala left us in, what was it, forty-five years ago?” Administrator Vega stood abruptly, spotted Vale staring back at him from above the desk, and then stepped out from behind it. He pushed his tie flat against his white shirt before continuing. “Before he showed up here, I had the most efficient workforce in all the world. They arrived on time, worked without break and then went home not one millisecond early and… Does he have to be up there?”

Realising Administrator Vega meant him, Vale hopped down and returned to Malosi’s side.

“Tala’s stories did not mention he saw trouble in this land.” Atamai’s questioning glance didn’t go down well with Administrator Vega, who squinted and pursed his lips in reply. “Erm … I…”

Malosi took over. “Yes, Tala only said how strange and shiny it was. Are you sure it was Tala who caused your…, what problem are you having, exactly?”

“Didn’t you notice? Everyone here, apart from me, is blind drunk all the time. My entire city is now inhabited by intoxicated idiots, and it’s all Tala’s fault. If he hadn’t showed up one day, with his big bottle of mind-numbing liquid, what I believe he called ‘the most bottom-kicking ale in history’, then none of this would’ve happened.”

“The Brave Warrior’s last bottle of ale,” Atamai said, realising this before the others.

“Yes, that must be it.” Administrator Vega leant against the edge of his desk. “He brought it with him through that damn portal and shared it with my workforce. They got a taste for it almost immediately. Now they’re drunk all day long.”

“But doesn’t the alcohol make them sick?” Vale asked. “It makes our people ill if they drink too much.”

“Well, that’s the thing. Some very smart people decided to make changes to the recipe. The liquid they consume now doesn’t have any side-effects other than making them drunk, of course. They can, and do, drink the stuff all day long, like water.” Administrator Vega pushed himself away from his desk and walked over to the wall behind it. He slid his hand down the smooth white surface and waited as the wall split in two.

Beyond their room was a more expansive space, made of much dirtier metals and poorly lit. It was in stark contrast to the rest of building. This place wasn’t seen by many people and so had let itself go a little. A steel walkway led on to a central column that stood firmly in the middle of the building, but which appeared unattached to the rest of the structure. Below the walkway was a straight drop to the ground.

Malosi and the others wandered across to the centre structure, their eyes drawn down into the dim depths below. If anyone fell over the edge they would continue to fall for a long time, she suspected.

“What is worse than having an unreliable workforce,” Administrator Vega said, “is that I can’t even replace them with mechanical units.” He stopped by a pedestal made of solid stone. There was nothing on top of it, but it appeared there should have been. A round indent the size of a fist was carved into the stone. “Do you know what used to be here?”

“Was it a pair of shoes?” Vale asked.

“What? No, of course not…”

“A hat maybe then?”

“This isn’t my wardrobe, it’s the central processing site for this city. It was once the place from which everything was controlled—a brain of sorts. Now, without the Orb to focus and amplify the sunlight that powers this machine, it is utterly useless. I couldn’t possibly create and program enough artificial workers to replace my drunken workforce by myself. I need this machine’s help.”

Despite having absolutely no idea what Administrator Vega was talking about, Malosi could predict what was coming next. She could already hear the sentence before Administrator Vega had let it reach his tongue.

“Your friend Tala, stole it from us. He evidently liked how it looked and took it for himself. Now do you see my problem?”

“Indeed, we do,” Atamai answered.

“Good. If I could just get the Orb back, I could restart the system and create a workforce to keep this place running. I need more of him.” Administrator Vega gestured coldly to the mechanical man standing at the rear of their group.

Malosi had a point she wanted to make, something that had disturbed her earlier in the conversation. “And what about your people? What will become of them?”

“They can drink themselves into oblivion, for all I care.”

“Administrator Vega, please reconsider.” The mechanical man stepped forward, a steely-eyed determination on his face that made his features appear more human than before.

“Reconsider what?”

“We should help the people, make them want to give up this alcohol.”

Administrator Vega dismissed the comment with a flick of his hand.

“No, he’s right,” Malosi added. “You said you had a workforce that always arrived on time and never took a break. Well, maybe that is the real problem you face here. These people appear to be trying to escape a hard life of endless work.”

“So, what are you suggesting?”

“Give the people a break.”

“I beg your pardon…”

“I mean, allow them a break each day, during work hours. In my land, we reward hard work but never force it upon people. We encourage them. And when they need a rest, we let them have one.”

“And what good does that do? It just wastes time; time I haven’t got to spare, I might add.”

The mechanical man was eager to add to the conversation, and so he did, with a passionate plea. “It will make them happy, sir.”

“My concern is with running this place, not to make people happy.”

“But, you will have a loyal workforce that wants to work, rather than one that does so because they have no choice. If we can get the central computer back up again, we can make those changes finally. We could build more like me to share the workload. Then the people can work as much as they are able to. You could give them periods of rest during the workday too.”

Administrator Vega rubbed his chin as he thought over a response. So far, his every word had been one of selfishness and only about his own agenda. But it appeared he was at least willing to listen now. “And how much would all this cost me?”

“Less than it would if your entire enterprise came crashing down around you.” The mechanical man wasn’t holding back now.

The comment ignited something inside Administrator Vega’s eyes. They widened and then glazed over. There was a process going on inside his head that required all his concentration. The calculations were running at light speed across his mind’s eye.

“How about this?” Malosi began, to break up an awkward moment. “As we are on the same journey as Tala, we will try and find your missing item and return it to you. We’ll help you make the changes you need.”

“I’m sorry, could you say that again?” Administrator Vega snapped out of his distracted state and stared at Malosi, bewildered and a little suspicious too. “I barely know you people, and you want to help me? The others from your realm usually just appear and then head out through the next portal. In fact, you’re the first one’s we’ve spoken to in any detail since my dear father spoke to Tala himself.”

Malosi’s smile was wide and sincere. “My father always says, ‘make others happy, and they will do the same in return’.”

It was a good moment, one that could be ruined easily. Malosi’s heart sank when she realised Vale was preparing to speak next.

“And as my father once told me,” he said, “Never poo in the same hole twice.”

The others fell silent, not at all sure how to respond to that. The mechanical man decided to check the screws in his arm were tight, Atamai looked up to the roof of the building, Malosi wiped her hand across her face, and Administrator Vega…

Began laughing out loud. It was the first time he had appeared relaxed since their arrival.

“Oh my, that is one of the best things I’ve ever heard. I would say the same applies to deal making. When you’ve made a deal so one-sided that you just can’t believe you got away with it, you never go back, in case they got it wrong.” He patted Vale on the back so hard that he nearly launched the poor sap over the railing. “You are a wise young man.”

None of the others could believe the reaction. For a short while they had expected Administrator Vega to order them out of the building, and to never come back ever again. But luckily for them, he shared a similar sense of humour to Vale.

“Then I propose we form an agreement. I, Administrator Vega, will accept your help in finding the Orb. And in return?”

There were two important things that Malosi wanted. First, “Can you take us to the next portal?” The second thing she asked for was for someone else, someone she wanted—but did not need—to help. “Also, can you give us the recipe for the ale, so we can share it with The Brave Warrior?”

Administrator Vega looked pleased by this, like he was making one of those one-sided deals again. “Is that all you want? I could give you money, or precious metals, or technology; and all you want is a recipe and a ride to the next portal?” The others nodded. “Well, certainly. This journey you’re on must mean a great deal to your people.”

“I would very much like to take them myself,” the mechanical man said.

“Absolutely. Please, show our guests to their destination. I’ll have a vehicle dispatched to this building for you. It will be on the roof by the time you get there. When you return with the Orb I will give you the recipe for this terrible ale.” Administrator Vega then grabbed Malosi’s hand and shook it rapidly, before repeating the same process with the others. He attempted a smile, but it made his face scrunch up like it wasn’t at all used to doing so. “Good luck on your journey.”

“Thank you,” Malosi said. She then followed the mechanical man back along the walkway.

They headed through the hallway, passed the lifts, and took a short trip up two more floors. It was a much nicer journey for Malosi, Atamai and Vale than taking the lifts would have been. For one, they could keep themselves from getting dizzy with all the unexpected movements.

They exited through one final door and were out in the open air. A gust of wind surprised them. They were on top of a mountain, it seemed.

“Wow, what a view.” Vale went to run toward the edge, where only a single steel bar protected them from a fall. He was held back by Atamai, who grabbed at Vale’s sleeve to keep him in place.

“I must thank you.”

Malosi turned to the mechanical man and replied, “You can thank us when we’ve found Administrator Vega’s lost item.” Behind her, another of the flying vehicles was preparing to land, its rotors tilting back to slow its approach. “If Tala took the item through the portal, then we know who will have it now.”

As the craft landed and the doors slid open, the mechanical man appeared to become concerned with something. “Please be careful on your journey. I have heard stories about the next place. The people there are violent, with no interest in seeing outsiders in their land. I have seen others from you home only just make it out alive.”

“We’ll be okay.”

It certainly worried Malosi, but it wasn’t enough to make her doubt herself or her team. She knew they could face any problem and come out on top. She couldn’t say why she was so confident about this, only that it felt right. There was something about the combination of the three of them that seemed to work.

Ita’s group were never as well matched. They had one voice, not three individual ones. What Ita said was what happened, even if Fili or Matamali had a better suggestion—although Malosi doubted Fili ever had his own thoughts.

Boarding the flying vehicle was easier now that they knew what was coming next. They held on tight as it lifted off, hovered long enough for them to wave goodbye to the mechanical man, and then raced up into the sky. Soon they were skimming the tops of the other buildings and heading toward the surrounding mountain range.

When their craft had levelled out, Atamai spoke. “I suspect Tala’s stories were not entirely true.”

Malosi had thought the same thing herself a few times already. “From what we’ve seen so far, I doubt it more the longer I dwell on it. For a great legend, he really has caused a lot of trouble. Do you think he lied on purpose?”

“That is a question I fear we will never find an answer for. If he was permanently intoxicated, then perhaps he did not know what was really going on around him.”

Vale chipped in while watching the scenery pass by. “Well, my father once said…”

“I think we’ve heard enough of your father’s sayings for one day, Vale.” Malosi laughed.

“No, I’m serious. My father told me that Tala was known as a great story teller, even before his trip through the portals. Only he told stories on the streets, for money … drinking money.”

“Interesting,” Atamai said, his eyes concentrating directly ahead. “So, Tala knew the value of a good story. It is a good one too.”

“It’s the best story ever.”

Their craft swiftly halted at the edge of the city and again plummeted to the ground. It let out a loud rumble as the rotors worked hard to touch down softly. When it finally landed, it opened its doors and then thanked them for their service. We didn’t do anything, Malosi thought in reply to the craft, so why are you thanking us? It then rocketed away again, leaving a swirling cloud of dust in its wake.

They were now at the foot of a steep, gravelly incline that went up the base of the mountains making up the valley’s edge. The craft had taken them all that way in barely a minute, a journey that would have required a few hours by foot or even horse-and-cart. Malosi gawked at the distance they had travelled. She could no longer even locate where they had come from.

“Is this the correct place? I see no portal anywhere,” Atamai said.

She stopped daydreaming and searched around for any glimmering lights nearby. There was nothing but trees and gravel all the way up to the snow-covered tips of the mountains. Had they missed the portal?

“It’s over here.” Vale stood near a row of thick trees a few metres away from the steep incline. He pulled at a pile of branches at the bottom, which covered up something between two of the trees. “Someone tried to hide it.”

The others helped with removing the debris until a light shone through. This portal was smaller than the others and partially covered by the ground. They would have to duck to get through.

“Ita thought she could stop us finding it. What a cheat,” Malosi said. She kicked away any last bits and knelt, ready to crawl through the portal.

Atamai put a hand on her shoulder before she went any further. “If Ita, Fili and Matamali are already in the third realm then we may have already lost.”

“I’m not giving up until I know for sure. Come on, let’s get going.”

There was no time for a reply before Malosi had disappeared through the exit portal.

The 3rd Earth

On her hands and knees, Malosi worked her way through the undergrowth that had appeared in front of her. It was different to the much dryer forest scenery of before. This was damp and sticky, and far more overgrown. Things stuck to her hands, her knees, her feet; some of which she was sure was alive. It made crawling especially awkward.

Eventually, she came across a clearing, just a small area where she could then stand and brush herself down. It was there that she got her first good look of the third Earth, and she was impressed.

“The great jungle,” she said, the words leaving her mouth like a joyful proclamation.

All the stories had ended with this place, the most dangerous of them all. So far Malosi had seen things she could never have imagined. Now she was preparing to see things she may wish she hadn’t. Whatever danger lurked in this place, she would face it, as so many others had before her.

Except, at the back of her mind, lingered a strange feeling. The thought occurred to her that if Tala’s story had failed to match what she had seen of the previous realms, would it in this land as well? Maybe the danger here was like the others, and not as evident as she expected.

Atamai and Vale crawled out of the plant life behind her and immediately rid themselves of the mess of the jungle. They both then froze with amazed looks on their faces, the same one Malosi had adorned too.

“I’ve never seen plants like this before,” Vale said. He walked over to a weird looking piece of flora, with a bowl-shaped flower in colours more varied than any in their home land. He reached out his finger, ready to poke it. It returned his curiosity with a tentative lean in his direction. The closer Vale got, the wider the small flower opened out to reveal a spiny inside, spines not too dissimilar to the teeth of The Brave Warrior’s beasts. When the two were about to meet, Malosi acted, stamping hard on the colourful plant.

“That thing was about to bite you, Vale. You need to be careful here. Don’t touch anything, don’t get too close and absolutely never go off alone. Understood?” She waited for a nod of acknowledgement, but none was forthcoming. Instead Vale stared straight past her. “Hey, are you listening to me?”

Vale slowly raised a finger and pointed to something behind Malosi. She turned to see. “What on Earth….” she said, not sure what to make of what she was looking at.

Standing at least three feet taller than Malosi, was another, much larger, version of the plant that had been about to attack Vale. This one had a bowl-flower the size of a melon and a sticky tongue wrapped many times around Atamai’s legs. It dangled him above its flower-mouth, where the spikes twitched excitedly inside.

“Perhaps one of you could help me?” Atamai said, his voice calm despite his predicament. He appeared only mildly annoyed, but for him that was as good as enraged.

Malosi and Vale threw rocks, sticks, branches, anything they could find to hand, but they all bounced off the plant and only disturbed it slightly. They then turned to kicking it as hard as they could, until their feet were sore. Nothing they did made a difference; the thing was going to eat Atamai and he was about to explode with … average frustration.

“Can we hurry this up a bit, please?”

“Hang on, Atamai, let me find some dry sticks. I’ll see if we can start a small fire and burn it.”

“I don’t believe we have the time for–”

A whizzing sound broke their conversation, and the plant, in half. From somewhere deep in the jungle, someone had thrown a weapon that cut the plant at the stem. The bowl-flower landed in a mushy heap, flicked about a couple of times and then wilted away. The sticky tongue loosened around Atamai’s feet, allowing him to unravel it and throw it to the side in disgust.

The ordeal had come to an end and all that remained was to thank the person responsible for the rescue. Malosi tried to do that, but her words were ceased by a sharp spear being thrust in her direction. The rescuer, it seemed, wasn’t there to rescue them at all.

“You will come with us,” the stranger said.

Malosi switched her focus from the sharp end of the spear to the other. Holding it was a thin man, with grey skin and an odd pattern decorating his body. He wore a loincloth and not much else. When he went to speak again, she made out teeth that were more like fangs.

“You are our prisoner,” he went on. He then grabbed Malosi and pulled her forward.

“Get your hands off me.” She turned to call over her friends and was disappointed to see they had already been captured.

More people came out of hiding and surrounded Malosi’s small group. They were all the same, with the same pattern on their skin, like an all-body war paint. Their skin was rough and scaly, and always damp to the touch. Malosi could feel her arm slipping in the man’s grip, against an oily substance that seemed to be permanently dripping from him.

“Take them.” The man held Malosi back while the others were dragged through the jungle. “Welcome to the Land of the Water People. Isn’t that what you people call this place?”

Malosi was taken on a journey through the thick jungle. She didn’t speak along the way. Part of her was glad to be taken prisoner. Her first few moments in the jungle had been more dangerous than any time in the other realms. At least this way she and her friends could avoid being eaten by another giant plant or bashed across the head by rocks thrown by swinging creatures living within the trees. No, this was safer, for now. What would come next would only matter once out of the jungle.

This, Malosi thought, is the jungle Tala was talking about. Well, he didn’t exaggerate, this place is violent.

They came to an opening in the jungle a short while later, a beam of sunlight guiding them toward it. The world then became one of water, rather than land. It was the same valley, but now it was full of water, as far as the eye could see.

When Malosi realised they were being led into the water, she spoke up. “We can’t breathe underwater.”

“Then hold your breath,” the man replied, shoving her into the water without a care.

She did just as he said, taking in a massive lungful of air and holding it as the man dragged her below the surface. It was clear water, so she could see a good distance in front of her. She could make out the steady slope of the floor all the way to the bottom. Except the bottom wasn’t bare, it was full of life. An underwater village had been created.

Surprise made Malosi accidentally release a flurry of bubbles. She quickly shut her mouth again and watched as it all came into view. She saw stone houses, with people inside and acting completely normal, despite being submerged. If not for the tint of colour the water cast over everything, she could have believed she was in any village back home.

Her feet lost touch of the bottom when the man decided to swim the rest of the way. It was only a short journey, still it was enough to test how long she could hold her breath. By the time they reached their destination, she was about ready to choke.

The building they entered was one that could hold air, to Malosi’s great relief. They swam through a doorway cut into the bottom and then headed up to the surface. The second they hit air, Malosi took in enough of it to make her a little dizzy. She swam toward a set of steps that led onto dry land a few metres away.

Vale and Atamai appeared behind her soon enough, both spluttering and trying to catch their breath. They were soaked through. Vale tried his best to wring his sleeves dry, and only succeeded in dripping more water into his lap. After that he decided to swing his arms about to let the air dry them. But by doing that he splashed water all over Atamai.

“Vale, will you please stop that.”

“Oops, sorry, Atamai, didn’t realise.”

“No, I expect not.”

Their capturers remained in the water, their heads bobbing on the surface as they watched.

Malosi went over to the edge of the steps and shouted at them. “Why are we here?” She got nothing in reply. They submerged and were out of sight, not a single word of explanation before they left.

“Well, that’s just rude.”

“Hey, what are you idiots doing here?” Someone called from nearby.

She spun around to find Fili standing a few metres away. He pumped his fists, and smiled, his teeth showing all the way to the gums. Being such a big fellow meant Ita and Matamali could almost entirely hide behind him.

But what caught Malosi’s attention, more than the worrying grin on Fili’s face, were the scratches across his skin and the many tears to his clothing. Ita and Matamali stepped out of his shadow and revealed they were the same too. They had seen hardship along their journey and looked exhausted.

“I thought I told you lot not to get in my way,” Ita said. She then took a moment to look over her rivals. It quickly dawned on her that Malosi’s group had somehow avoided the same hardship. “How come you look so tidy?”

Malosi ignored the question in favour of one of her own. “What’s going on?”

“Beats me. We arrived an hour ago and these people captured us, then brought us here. Tala’s story did say these were bad people. I’ve got to say, I’m surprised you made it this far.” Ita walked over to Malosi. “How did you make it past those dog-beasts in The Brave Warrior’s land?”

“We didn’t. The Brave Warrior tamed them years ago.”

“I see. And what about the Land of a Thousand Towers; how did you manage to find your way through that? It’s a maze of shiny structures. Other, much better teams than yours, have become lost in there.”

“We didn’t try. We met a mechanical man who assisted us. We offered him help, and in exchange we took us to the portal.”

Vale interrupted. “Yeah, we met Administrator Vega.”

“What? The Administrator Vega, as in the man Tala spoke of. How?”

He nodded, a big grin on his goofy face.

Ita became angry after that. “I don’t believe you. We’ve seen hardship all the way. First, the beasts in the first Earth attacked us and chased us all the way to the exit, then we got lost in the second Earth and were nearly killed by the carts that raced along the ground, then we ended up here. And you’re telling me you saw none of that?”

“Yep.”

“Well, good for you. But look where it got you; here with us. Now we’re all going to end up the same way as most of the others who’ve come here.”

Malosi couldn’t disagree with Ita there. All that remained for them was to find out exactly how dangerous this place was.

In their own little groups, they waited for the water people to return. Malosi, Vale and Atamai discussed a possible plan of escape, but it didn’t get much further than swimming for their lives. Which direction was best, or how far it was to the surface was far from known, so the plan ended there.

It was an hour or so before anyone came to them. A single figure appeared, rising out of the water all the way to his midriff. He also wore only a thin sheet loincloth. Before he went to speak, a set of gills opened and closed in the sides of his neck.

“My name is Vai,” he said, his skin glistening and more of a bluish colour than the grey of before. “You are from Tala’s land, correct?”

“Ye–”

“I’ll handle this,” Ita snapped, cutting Malosi off. “We’re Tala’s people and we demand you release us.”

“You are in no position to demand anything from us. We have captured you.”

When Ita went to speak again, Malosi broke in first. “We’re sorry for arriving unannounced,” she said, giving Ita a glare. “Would you mind telling us why we are to be your prisoners?”

Vai rolled his eyes. “Do I really have to do this every single time?”

The others shared confused expressions.

“Fine,” Vai continued. “You aren’t prisoners here.”

Vale let out a loud phew sound and went to wipe his forehead. He stopped the second he heard Vai’s next comment.

“You are our sacrifice.”

“Say that again,” Malosi said.

“I believe Tala told you about the Crawlax?” Everyone nodded. “Good, good. Well, for centuries we were its prey. It would return here every year and demand we hand over a handful of our citizens.”

Vale had to ask. “What did the Crawlax do to them?”

“It ate them, dummy,” Ita snapped.

“We feared it for a long, long time.” Vai moved to the steps and transferred seamlessly to the dry land. His webbed toes wiggled as his feet came out of the water. “Then one day, we decided to stand up against it. We put together an army of soldiers and prepared to face it when it returned. Our plan was to trap it first, then attack from all angles. And guess who showed up and ruined it all?”

Oh, for goodness sake, Malosi thought as she guessed correctly.

“It was your legendary Tala. We were trying to lure the Crawlax into a shallow cave, where we planned on releasing enough rocks to seal it inside. It took us months to gather together the rocks and boulders, and weeks more to move them into position. We secured them above the opening of the cave, with vines from the jungle. When the time was right, we were to untie the vines and let them fall into the water.

“It was all going to plan. We had the Crawlax almost into position, when Tala tripped on the vines and released the rocks too early. No one had even met him before that day. He just arrived, ruined everything and then ran.” He stopped and reconsidered. “Okay, we chased him out.”

“What happened after that?” Atamai asked.

“The Crawlax got mad and punished us. It took ten of our people that year. We vowed never to let it happen again. So, when more of your people arrived a few years later, we saw an opportunity to stop it.”

Malosi sighed. “Let me guess, that’s when you started feeding our people to the Crawlax?”

“That is correct. Now, don’t take it personally, this is nothing to do with who you are. It’s just someone has to be given to the Crawlax, and we would rather it be you.”

“That’s not fair,” Vale said, scrunching his face up.

“No, it isn’t. But if we had given over more of our people each year, then there wouldn’t be any of us left.” Vai stepped aside as his guards came out of the water. “So, the plan is simple; we’ll take you to where the Crawlax appears each year and then we’ll hand you over to it. How’s that?”

“I hate that plan.” Fili went for one of the guards and was instantly stopped by a quick punch to the face. He landed on his backside, dazed.

Vale decided to try the same himself and charged at the nearest guard. Unfortunately for him, the guard was quick to see him coming and simply stepped out of the way. “Yehooooo,” Vale yelled as he missed his target and ran straight into the water.

“Okay.” Vai shook his head. “Now that’s all sorted, let’s get going, shall we?” He gestured to his men, who each took a prisoner into the water.

Malosi didn’t struggle this time, she knew they were beat. But while the others were seeing their end quickly approaching, she was thinking on something she hoped would help them. As she was taken beneath the water and swam along as much as she could, she considered a plan of her own.

In each of these lands she had encountered a mess left by Tala. The Brave Warrior had seen the last of his precious ale go through the portal with Tala, which had then caused a problem of its own. That ale had turned a strong workforce into an incoherent mass, and the only way of helping was a small item that Tala had stolen. And now, in the third and final Earth, the result of Tala’s visit was even worse. Because of his actions, the Crawlax had escaped capture and continued to demand a yearly sacrifice.

What they needed was something to offer in return for their freedom, and Malosi knew exactly what that should be. She saw it clearly in her mind as the water rushed by her face. So, when they resurfaced, on a small island at the end of the valley, made from a stack of boulders, she put her plea forward.

“Vai, we know someone that can help defeat the Crawlax.” The sentence had barely left her mouth before it brought everyone to a sudden halt.

“Are you about to propose what I think you are?” Atamai said.

“Yep.”

Vai was over by a set of poles, six in all, that had been spiked into the ground. This was evidently where the captives were to be tied and left. “Then perhaps you could share it with us.”

“On our journey—Tala’s journey—we met the bravest ever warrior. He was once an unstoppable fighter, one feared across his land. Atamai, Vale and I befriended him before we left his realm. I believe he is still strong enough to defend your people from this beast.”

Vai was stunned into silence. He looked to those around him and saw the same shock on his guards’ faces.

“If you let us go, we will bring him here and he will defeat the Crawlax for you.”

“Yes, let’s do that,” Vale said. “Let’s not feed anyone to anything today. What do you say?”

For a few moments, Vai didn’t say a word. His expression changed multiple times, from the initial look of shock, to confusion, then to suspicion. When he finally spoke, it was with deliberation. “If I agree to his, what guarantee will I have that you will do as you say?”

“I suppose we’ll just have to trust each other.”

“Yeah, I kinda have a problem with that.” Vai’s stern look in Ita’s direction suggested a difficult first meeting, one that had now marred his opinion of that year’s Three Earth Trials participants. “I will agree, but with a slight amendment. I will allow only one person from each team to go through the portal. Pick those two now. But be warned, if they fail to return before the Crawlax arrives, then the rest of you will be this year’s sacrifice. So, do you agree?” He held out his slippery hand for Malosi to shake.

“Okay, I choose Atamai from my team,” Malosi said. “He is the most intelligent person I know. He will convince The Brave Warrior he should come.”

“And what about you?” Vai asked Ita.

“Me,” she replied, to no one’s surprise, not even Fili and Matamali’s.

“Good. Well, with that settled, I think you should get going.”

Malosi stood in front of Vai before he could disappear into the water again. “There’s just one tiny thing we need first.”

“And what is that?”

“To convince The Brave Warrior to come he’ll want his beloved ale recipe returned to him. But to get that from Administrator Vega we’ll need what Tala stole from him.”

Vai rolled his eyes. “Would that be his emblem?”

All six of Malosi’s people suddenly came to life with excitement, their faces beaming giant smiles. None of them had thought the emblem even worth mentioning anymore, it was surely lost. Administrator Vega’s missing Orb was the subject of Malosi’s attention, until now. So, had they finally succeeded in finding Tala’s emblem, after all these years?

No.

“He didn’t leave it here. When he ran away from the fight with the Crawlax he took everything he had with him.”

Their faces dropped again, deflated like a balloon with a tiny, wheezing puncture.

“Well, almost everything.” Vai turned to one of his guards and whispered something. The guard then dived into the water and swam, at great speed, to where the valley ended and the landscape opened out into a great flat ocean, rolling on for miles of wave after peaceful wave.

Built into the left-side valley wall, as it gently sloped into the ocean, was a stone platform with a tall pole mounted in the centre. The guard approached the pole and twisted it, putting in all his effort to get it moving. When the pole had been turned 90 degrees, a bright stream of light fell upon the small island Malosi and the others were watching from.

Vai stood proudly as warmth engulfed them all. “Tala left a strange orb, about the size of my fist, that focuses daylight. We now use it to warn of the Crawlax’s return.”

Even though Malosi couldn’t see anything but a blinding light atop the distant pole, she knew it was the right thing. “Oh, my goodness, that’s it! Please, can we take it?”

“And leave my people vulnerable to sudden attack? Never.”

Atamai stepped away from the post he had been assigned. “Vai, I am a man of my word. If you allow us to take the Orb, we will bring a hero to your land, one that could rid you of your enemy forever. Would it not be preferable to never require a warning system at all?”

Malosi was pleased to see Vai thinking this over in detail. Once again, the combination of intelligence, strength and luck—none of which came from Ita’s group—had led them to a solution.

Vai’s answer was given with a wide grin, full of teeth and blue gums. “I agree. Guards, take Atamai and Ita to the portal and give them the Orb. The rest of you,” he said, speaking to the remaining prisoners, “will be tied to your posts while we wait. Now go.”

Neither Atamai or Ita wasted any time and were away in seconds, splashing about the surface of the water while the guards dragged them along. They were out of sight shortly after. Malosi and the others were then tied to their posts, their hands behind them and their feet together.

 

They waited for what seemed like an eternity in the heat of the sun. Every ripple of water made them each struggle to turn their heads toward the valley entrance in case the Crawlax was early. Without the Orb warning system working, it could arrive at any second and they wouldn’t know until it was too late.

Vai’s people returned to the water whenever their scaly skin began to dry. They could only cope with an hour at most out in the open air, before the cooling powers of the ocean were required again. Malosi was a little envious at times, when the heat became too much for even her.

It had become a quiet place, with a gentle ocean lapping at the rocks nearby, sending the occasional spray of water in Malosi’s direction. Above them, birds circled and squawked, and made the odd dive at fishes bobbing their heads out of the water. If not for their current predicament, Malosi would have enjoyed being there, but the rope had begun to dig in her wrist and she had the urge to pee—the first sign that she, the strongest of them all, was feeling nervous now.

It was a few hours of waiting before something broke the silence. Except it wasn’t the call of Atamai and Ita announcing their triumphant return.

“The Crawlax is coming!” a guard shouted from the entrance to the valley. His voice was faint at that distance.

Oh no, we’re out of time. Where are you Atamai?

A wave grew out of the calmest body of water Malosi had ever seen before. The Cralwax was moving fast. It pushed the water aside in a V shape, rather than move through it. Then, as it reached the tiny rock island, it rose out of the ocean, until they could see almost half of its enormous, amphibious body. Its lanky arms were twice the length of its upper body.

With a mountainous voice, it said, “Are these for me?”

“Oh, great Crawlax.” Vai was clearly shaken. “We are thankful for your return. Yes, these are this year’s gift to you, in exchange for our safety.”

The Crawlax leant in, taking a closer look at the offering. By the way its bottom lip vibrated, and the saliva flowed, it was clearly satisfied by what it saw. “Pitiful beings, not worthy of my attention. I will devour you as a snack before my main meal,” it said, opening its mouth wide, then freezing suddenly in surprise.

Malosi snapped her head away from the towering creature, dripping its slimy residue onto her and the others, as someone called out.

“There won’t be any of that from nows on, my dear Crablix.”

“It is called, The Crawlax, Brave Warrior,” Atamai corrected.

“You made it!” Malosi was overjoyed to see her friend had returned with The Brave Warrior. Ita, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen.

“Oh, I wouldn’t miss out on a fight like this, little missy.” The Brave Warrior stood taller than before, with his body fully clad with armour and carrying his famous sword over his shoulder. To get him inside a suit so many sizes smaller than his now more rotund size, he had been forced to tuck in as much fat as possible and let the rest bulge out around the seams. He still cut an impressive figure, one to challenge any creature.

The Crawlax laughed, although it sounded more like an incoming thunderstorm to Malosi. “I fear no man. Especially one so old. I will crush you into…”

“Quiet! Now, you listens to me, sunny jim…”

Being interrupted by an entity so much smaller than itself made the Crawlax angry. It swiped one of its thin, bony arms across the small island, flinging The Brave Warrior into the sky with the force of a tornado.

“Woooooooo,” they heard as The Brave Warrior continued out of view.

Only with him out the way did the Crawlax then return to the job in hand; having its dinner.

“No more,” it growled as it reached for Fili, still helplessly tied to his post.

Malosi thought it was over already, that their brave warrior had failed, when a furious belch echoed across the valley. She searched where the sound had originated and saw nothing but the same around her; water and a behemoth of a being about ready to tuck into its meal. When a second burp followed, it was joined by a bashing of metal against metal.

The Brave Warrior appeared again, this time flying through the air like a glistening bullet. He landed both of his armoured feet on top of the Crawlax’s head, dazing it for a split second. The fight, it seemed, was more even than they had believed. And Malosi could now see why. Hanging from his neck was an empty flask.

She looked to Atamai.

“The Brave Warrior should really have been named The Drunken Warrior. The Ale always gave him strength,” Atamai replied, seeing the question written on Malosi’s face.

“Woo hoo, go BW,” Vale yelled. He was loving his front row seat for the greatest fight in their land’s history. He ducked each time the Crawlax swung a punch, grimaced with every hit The Brave Warrior took to his large gut and cheered each time The Brave Warrior’s sword hit back.

Malosi, satisfied with letting them fight by themselves, took to addressing Vai. “We have done our part, Vai. Now you must do yours and let us go.”

He couldn’t take his eyes off the fight. “Sure, sure, whatever, you can go. Oooh,” he said as the Crawlax’s legs wobbled with a rather heavy hit to the face.

“Ha, don’t likes that, he don’ts,” The Brave Warrior said, before hitting the creature again.

The guards untied the prisoners, but no one was going anywhere while the fight went on. They would stay until it was finally over. Then, after things had calmed down again, they would talk for hours. With the Crawlax defeated, they would finally get to know each other properly.

Malosi and the others enjoyed a great feast, put on by Vai’s personal cook. Vale was the most pleased by this. After all, he had missed out on The Brave Warrior’s feast. He was getting what he finally wanted, and so was everyone else, finally.

Ninety Years Later

In a classroom of twelve children, Miss Porofesa walked up and down between the wooden desks, checking over her students’ work. She smiled when she saw the correct answer, frowned when she didn’t.

Then she came upon the answer she liked the most. It was to the question: What was the true purpose of the Three Earth Trials? The child’s answer was simple, ‘To follow the example of those who came before us’.

She was pleased to see her class had been listening.

“Pay attention now please children,” she said, with a gentle clap of her hands to draw their eyes from their paper. “As it is a wonderfully sunny day outside, why don’t we take class into the gardens today?”

The children cheered in unison. They jumped at any chance of leaving the stuffy classroom behind.

“Good, let’s go then.”

Miss Porofesa walked her class along the busy streets, making sure they all held hands and kept up the pace. She took them first to the great statue of Tala the Explorer—the Great in his name had been removed ninety years before.

“Can anyone tell me who this is?” she asked.

A boy at the back shot his arm up to the sky and wiggled it until she chose him. “It’s Tala the Explorer. He first discovered the portals many, many years ago. He caused lots of trouble for the three other earths…”

“He did indeed. Although, he told a story that no one could resist listening too.” Miss Porofesa sat on the base of Tala’s statue and looked up to his face, metres above them. “He inspired The Three Earth Trials, which still continue to this very day.”

After answering the questions of the more curious students, of which she was grateful to have quite a few, she moved them on to the next location on the tour. This time it was a mural that took up an entire wall of the town hall, a vastly bigger building than the one of Tala’s days. The image showed a collection of characters, in varying heroic poses, and each of the three Earths, painted in the finest detail.

Again, she asked her students, “Who can tell me what is going on here?”

A young girl, with red bows in her blonde hair, replied. “That one is Malosi,” she said, pointing out each character in order of her preference. “That one is Vale and that one is Atamai. I think that big old man there is The Brave Warrior.”

“Very good. And what are they doing?”

“They are bringing harmony to each of the three Earths.”

“Well done, my dear. That is right. Combining the strength of Malosi, the intelligence of Atamai and the luck of Vale, they were able to correct what Tala made bad in each Earth. They brought The Brave Warrior back his beloved Ale, which restored his power. In the second Earth, they found and returned the Orb for Administrator Vega. Now, what did they do in the third Earth?”

A boy with thick glasses answered this time. “They helped the water people and The Brave Warrior defeat the Crawlax.”

“Exactly right. Not only did they do all these things, but they also changed The Three Earth Trials for the rest of us. Because they united each Earth, we can now travel between them whenever we want. Taking part in The Three Earth Trials now means following in their footsteps and finding your own challenges to overcome, as they once did.”

Miss Porofesa let the children explore the mural for themselves for a short while after that, giving her a moment of rest. She let the sun beat down upon her face, let her eyes shut and breathed in deeply. She enjoyed these times as much as she children did. The stories she had grown up with—of Malosi, Atamai and Vale—remained as vivid in her mind as the first day she’d heard them. They were a joy to recite.

When she opened her eyes again she was surprised to see one of her students waiting there. “Oh, I didn’t see you there, young one. Is there something you wish to know?”

“Yes, Miss,” the little girl said. “When Malosi, Atamai and Vale were doing The Three Earth Trials, weren’t they looking for something?”

“Ah yes, Tala’s lost emblem. You are correct, they were.”

“So, did they find it in the end?”

“Oh, indeed they did. Can you guess where it was?”

The girl shook her head. She gave a look to her friends, who were freely running about and having fun. It was clear she wanted to go play with them, but her curiosity was outweighing that desire.

Miss Porofesa knelt and told the end of the story. “When the Crawlax was finally defeated, everyone rejoiced. The Water People’s home had been freed and they were very grateful to Malosi and the others. But what were they to eat?”

“Did they eat that horrible Crawlax?”

“Yes, they did, and it tasted wonderful, like the freshest fish straight from a stream of crystal clear waters. They cooked large chunks of it and shared it around all three of the different Earths. But while The Brave Warrior was cutting slices of the Crawlax with his giant sword he noticed something caught in its throat.”

“Was it the emblem?”

“You got it. It turned out that during Tala’s escape many years before Malosi and the others arrived, he stumbled and dropped it behind him. Well, the Crawlax saw this and gobbled it straight up without a thought.”

The little girl laughed. “It was inside the Crawlax all that time?”

“It was, until Malosi, Atamai, Vale, Fili and Matamali returned it to us. If you look very carefully, you will find the emblem hanging around Malosi’s neck. That is the real thing, I might add. And because you took the time to find out, you are the only one in your class who will know.” She winked jokingly. “That is what Malosi and her team did throughout their journey; they asked questions and took the time and care to learn about others. No one before them had done that. Others were too interested in being the first to complete The Three Earth Trials. Now, run along, little one.”

After that the little girl skipped away, leaving Miss Porofesa to think about the world she lived in and how much it had changed since Malosi’s time ninety years earlier. Her home now had the technology of the second Earth, and from the third Earth, enough water to grow an endless supply of crops. For times of celebration, they had the strongest Ales from the first Earth.

She could see skyscrapers in the distance, electric vehicles running along roads and more people than she could ever count. Only ninety years earlier it had been just a single village of no more than a few hundred residents. And it had all been achieved because of a group of three people on a journey of adventure and discovery.

“Malosi, Atamai and Vale,” she said, arching her head up to the colourful depictions on the wall behind her. “You have our thanks. May your legacy go on for a thousand years or more.”

She called to the children to return to her, bringing their time outside to an end. Time to do some more teaching, she thought with a smile. It was Maths next; not as fun as history, she admitted to herself, but necessary all the same.

 

THE END