Elaine had always been protective of her three children.
Her eldest, Lester Junior (nicknamed Lenny to differentiate from his father's name) had married early. At seventeen he had been dating a girl from college and this had progressed to an untimely pregnancy. Little Iona was born weighing seven pounds and had been a handful from the beginning. It seemed the tot existed in two states – blissfully asleep and screaming awake. Lenny had married Karen after the birth of their child and had worked his way up in a retail position at a large department store.
They now lived in a council flat; the three of them. Iona had developed into a bright and cheerful nine year old who loved horses and drawing 'art' for the kitchen fridge. Blonde like her mother, Iona had developed a love for animals after keeping hamsters in her bedroom.
The middle child of Elaine and Lester (River) had been plagued with lifelong problems. Born premature and with a hole in his heart, the boy had been slow to grow. He met his milestones but they took far longer. Elaine was still proud of her little guy and treated him as if he were wrapped in a cotton wool bud. Protecting him from the world.
However, once River reached school and was bullied in his early teenage years, he developed a lot of mental health problems. Elaine blamed the 'system' for not recognising the problem (River kept the whole bullying saga a secret until years later when he confessed in tears.) and for the troublesome birth and early problems as a baby.
Growing into his adult life, River found himself slipping between euphoria and discontent, the world around him depressing him further. There seemed to be so much 'bad stuff' happening everywhere and the good things that counteracted the negative seemed few and far-between. Elaine tried to shield her son but with his entry into adulthood, there wasn't much more she could do than be there for her son. He talked to her about feeling overwhelmed by the world frequently, feeling as though he did not fit in or belong anywhere.
The saving grace for River came in the form of his sister, Kayleigh. She was born five years after her brother and she became a little hope-beacon for River to cherish. He spent a lot of time with his little sister and they played together often. They would pretend they were in magical worlds in fearsome battles. It took the edge off River's illness and little Kayleigh seemed to know just how to break into her brother's sadness and counteract it with a funny remark or fact she had learned.
River liked his facts and his sister supplied as many as she could. She would watch countless documentaries even at a young age to stock up on her internal database and seemed to know the right time to divulge them to her brother. Facts about anything, from the natural world; man-made structures to the universe. Kayleigh lapped them all up to share with River.
Now, River was preparing for the first journey he had ever made in his life. He was twenty-one and felt the need to explore the magical world of Mazoria and to find out who might be behind the protective barrier being breached. Having no idea what to expect, he was told to pack lightly.
Maelstrom had found them a minibus and they were driving to each of the settlements. There were three settlements to visit, each with a Master Mage. Rudimentary roads existed to each of their destinations so, in a way, the whole thing felt like a safari of sorts.
"I'm coming too!" Kayleigh griped as she watched River pack. He was wearing his sunglasses and headphones, preparing himself mentally for the trip ahead.
"You know it isn't allowed." River explained, patiently. "Only a few of the village men, or magical creatures are leaving on his expedition. No women are coming at all."
"That is totally unfair." Kayleigh said at once. "I am resourceful and I am good when you freak out, River. They'll need me there too."
"I do not freak out!" River sighed, rolling his eyes.
"Sure. Whatever you say. What happens if you get overwhelmed by something? You think you can breathe it out?" Kayleigh asked, seriously.
"I'll have to." River sighed, packing his bag.
"I'm going down to talk to mum. I need to go too. This isn't fair!" Kayleigh stomped out of the room and River heard the sound of raised voices from downstairs. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he pinched his brow with his forefingers and tried to settle his nerves.
Maelstrom believed in him. Even with all his issues (or as Maelstrom had coined them; concerns) he believed that River had an important part to play in this mission. River had always been side-lined by those with well-meaning intentions but he longed to make his mark on the world. Have some input into his destiny that didn't involve staying at home and keeping to himself.
Maelstrom was possibly the first real friend River had ever made, outside of his family.
Grabbing his bag, River took a deep breath and walked down the stairs to confront his bickering family. Maelstrom was sitting at the kitchen table observing the drama with a wry smile as River came to sit beside him.
"Good afternoon, friend. Are you all packed?" Maelstrom asked, amiably.
"Yes, sure. Kayleigh wants to come too." River sighed. "She's always been close to me. Had my back. She's not even thinking of the danger out there, she just wants to be next to me."
"I think she is a good companion." Maelstrom admitted. "Slightly headstrong, sure. But what teenage girl isn't? There is only one person in this room who can decide if she comes with us or not."
"My mother." River nodded.
"No. You, River. This is your call." Maelstrom admitted.
"Why me?" River asked, astounded. He had never been asked to make an important decision before. Usually, his parents made the call and he just followed along. Like a good son should.
"Because you are the focus of why Kayleigh wants to come with us." Maelstrom said. "She wants to be your wingman, of sorts."
River chuckled at that. "If I had the choice, I'd let her come along. She's almost eighteen. She's never even been abroad. Why not?"
"Understood." Maelstrom grinned and looked directly at Elaine. She sighed, gripping the kitchen unit for support and shook her head.
"I don't want anything to happen to her!" Elaine said at last, softly. "I don't really have any control over River as he is a young man. But Kayleigh? She's not even eighteen yet! I have a duty to protect her!"
"I will protect them both if that is what River chooses." Maelstrom promised.
"I think Kayleigh would love it." River confessed at once. "She's never really had a chance to travel and we'd see so much more of this world other than one small village."
"If River wants his sister to tag along then so be it." Elaine huffed. "I just want to keep my babies safe."
"They are technically young adults." Maelstrom corrected. "I understand the desire to keep them from harm but they should be allowed certain freedoms."
"Very well." Elaine said. "Go pack, Kayleigh. Make it a small bag, though."
"Neat!" Kayleigh skipped back upstairs to her room, quickly putting together a bag of essentials for the journey.
"Do not worry, Elaine. They both have a mage to protect them." Maelstrom chuckled. "I will keep both of your children perfectly safe. I promise."
"I know. I trust you, Maelstrom. It's just hard for a mother to let go." Elaine admitted.
"They will be in a minibus for most of it." Maelstrom said. "They will see some of the creatures in Mazoria from a safe distance. It will be good for them both."
Maelstrom turned to River, handing a small case over to him. "Take this. I call it a sensory stone. You place it on your forehead and it fastens to the skin, feeding signals to your brain and body. As a result your senses will be dampened to a more bearable degree. Your eyes will shine more brightly but they will automatically filter and process light on your behalf, keeping your mood stabilised. They have something a little like this in your world called transition lenses but this sensory stone adapts all five senses sending messages to your eyes and brain. Think of it as science, magic and technology all rolled into one little gadget that will make the world around you easier to manage."
"Will it hurt?" River asked, opening the box and taking out a little triangular stone. It was the same colour as his eyes but glowed a little. It looked supernatural.
"Not at all. It will just make your journey with us a little easier. Although, your eyes will glow like you are some kind of superhero. It also means you don't have to take your headphones or sunglasses. The stone is a lot more subtle and it is wires directly to your brain using magic." Maelstrom explained. "This will enhance the natural colour of your eyes and will be visible in the dark. You will also be able to see clearly in complete darkness as your vision modifies to the light (or lack therefore of) around you."
"Awesome." River popped the triangular stone onto his brow and the little jewel sank into the skin immediately. Closing his eyes he felt a new power surging through his body. Opening his eyes again he blinked as he looked up at his mother, then over at Maelstrom. "Feels like it is a part of my body already. Everything seems calmer. I feel calmer. Instead of being shielded by my headphones and sunglasses, I feel powerful. Like I can control what is happening to all my senses much better."
Kayleigh came down the stairs with her travel bag and took a double-take at her brother. "Wow. Your eyes are glowing, River. What is that on your forehead? It's glowing too!"
River laughed and three of them left the house (with many goodbye cuddles and kisses from Elaine to both of her children) and the Maplin children followed Maelstrom to the vehicle.
The minibus was a sad affair, a grey hulking thing from the normal world. Maelstrom was uttering protection spells around the exterior whilst the travellers put their small packs in the boot of the vehicle and arranged themselves on the passenger seats. In total there were nine seats in the whole vehicle.
Maelstrom would be driving as he was able to properly press the pedals. The other Council members were far too short for driving duties. River sat on the passenger seat next to Maelstrom.
Kayleigh, Piotra and Aruso divided themselves evenly between the seven remaining backseats, leaving gaps between them all.
"We could have gotten away with a regular car." Maelstrom sighed, shaking his head at the amount of space in the back of the minibus. "It's a bit of a waste but we haven't got time to get another vehicle. We'll have to make do."
Everyone seemed excited as the minibus roared into life with Maelstrom at the helm, windows were wound down and the fresh breeze of the countryside wafted through the vehicle. It was exhilarating to be free of the barrier protecting Dale and Kayleigh was singing in the back with her two shorter companions. Piotra and Aruso seemed to know a lot of folk songs and kept up the good mood as greenery flashed alongside the minibus.
Suddenly, Maelstrom stopped the car.
"River! Kayleigh! Over there!" Maelstrom pointed to a hill where a dark stallion was munching on some grass. Dark, glorious wings sprouted from the back of the magnificent animal as it confidently ignored them and continued to chew heartily.
"A Stallimoth." Maelstrom confirmed. "One of many, no doubt. They form troops all over Mazoria and band together to keep each other safe from predators."
"Wow, that is quite beautiful." Kayleigh breathed. The beast had looked up from the grass directly at the minibus, eyes locked on the unfamiliar sight.
"Notice the wings are torn. Seldom do you see them with their fragile wings intact. They get into a lot of scrapes over the years and, most noticeably there are many tears to their beautiful wings. Buttermares also have a problem with torn wings, hence the reason they are generally considered to be extremely valuable if they remain intact." Maelstrom explained.
The animal whinnied at them and then took off, galloping away at a fast pace.
"They can fly?" Kayleigh asked in amazement. "Those wings don't look substantial enough to carry their weight."
"No. They are merely decoration. When it rains, they cover their bodies with the wings and they act like an umbrella of sorts." Maelstrom said.
Maelstrom started the minibus again and the party set off at a rapid speed.
"We are travelling to the northwest of the MidLands." Maelstrom explained. "Towards the frozen fields but the settlement is just before everything turns to ice. A cooler place but not icy. The name of the town is Gowant. They are large beings there, from trolls to giants. Master Laurent is the head of the Council. Very fond of his beer. He protects the northern borders and keeps the town of Gowant safe from harm with protective barriers, very much like the one I use in Dale."
Fields had given way to sharp hilly rises, the ground dipping and rising before them as the minibus chugged along. Some of the inclines were quite rough and the vehicle seemed to have trouble, slowing down as the engine laboured.
"We are passing the settlement of Quiven to your right." Maelstrom said.
"We will be visiting them once our work at Gowant is completed."
"Neat." Kayleigh spotted the small town from afar. "There are a lot of trees there."
"Quiven has normal homes, homes on the river and even homes in the trees. It is in a perpetual state of Autumn and the leaves are always brightly coloured." Maelstrom explained.
"Sounds magical." Kayleigh breathed.
"There is a flock of Chickeys over there. See them? The town breeds them for their brightly coloured eggs."
The vehicle entered more barren terrain and Maelstrom manoeuvred the vehicle over some hilly inclines once again. There were animals roaming around but they seemed to be at a fair distance from the noisy minibus, keeping well away from the roaring engine and hulking grey metal. Inclines in the hills became more extreme and the minibus appeared to sputter with the effort of climbing them.
"Once we get over these, we should be on flat ground again." Maelstrom advised. "The town of Gowant should be seen on the horizon of the next hill.
"I see it." River spotted the shining buildings in the distance. They seemed much more modern than those of Dale.
"They are a product of the ice in the Frozen Fields." Maelstrom said. "It is especially dense and doesn't melt much. They use this ice as building blocks and create homes from them."
As the minibus neared the structures it became apparent that the buildings were HUGE. Maelstrom had advised them that large people lived in the town but it was still a shock to see the massive buildings getting ever closer.
The place was bigger than Dale, substantially bigger.
Maelstrom drove straight through to the centre of town passing the tallest people Kayleigh and River had ever seen (the minibus seemed like a toy driving through town) and parked near a massive building marked TOWNHOUSE OF GOWANT.