The Proditio Ring

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The Proditio Ring
Ileana Pal, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Amidst the haze of youthful recklessness, a tight-knit group of friends is thrust into a world of ancient curses and dark secrets.


The Proditio Ring

By Ileana Pal


This story is about James. James, who was once everything, in an instant, became nothing. They say time heals, but every time I think back to that night, it appears more viscerally than ever. Of the story’s five friends, I was perhaps the most insignificant, which may explain why my retelling of that night is most significant. 

If our lives can be considered as novels, this story is but one chapter. But often the different parts of life don’t have obvious demarcations as chapters do.  Instead, one stage ends in a blur, concluding ambiguously enough for its threshold to only become discernible in retrospect. This is not the case with my story, which closed a chapter with a sharp branding that was stamped clearly then and has continued to sting ever since. 

Looking back, now, as I write this, I realize the events of that night at The Pond weren’t merely a division between chapters. They did, in fact, signal the start of a completely new book. My character has been forever divided between who I was before – that mere follower, a foot soldier – and who I am after.

I label those years with my friends as ‘the former years’. The years of the reckless freedom of university life enveloped in the youthful haze of overconfidence and invincibility.  It wasn’t forever, we knew. Yet we were determined to ignore the ticking clock and follow our favourite poet’s advice to suck the marrow out of life’s every moment. We always thought we had more time.

We were sons and daughters of influential people, legends even, and soon we would leave this campus, one that we ruled like young royals. But before our time came, we had mistakes to make and hills to die on. So, we drank and danced so often that the nights melded together. And the days, lectures, exams, and droning professors, were only obstacles to wade through to make it to the music.

That night, when everything changed, we were all feeling it: the anticipation of our approaching graduation and determination to get in those last dances before the clock struck midnight.

My memory of that night begins with a montage of us as we so often were in the former years: cycles ridden fast down empty roads leading to the valley, bottles clinking together in baskets, dripping a trail of dew. With no eyewitnesses and the trail evaporating in seconds, we left no evidence. Soon there would be music, a bonfire, and another night of memories to be rehashed years down the line.

The music that night rang louder, the rum flowed faster, and the fire burned brighter. The crowd of students dancing around the flames tightened every so often, trying to take in every innocent second we had left. Or perhaps I remember that night as so because it’s the only one to become distinguishable from the others.

My friends, those dear friends who didn’t remain as such after, huddled together, meeting outside the main mass. Our laughs were loud enough to be heard above the music, the five of us combating the entire year’s students.

“Turner is after me I swear to you!” Kath insisted to us, nudging her chin towards her alleged suitor. We groaned because we must at the thought of Turner. Jeffery drunkenly waddles towards her and encompasses her in a brotherly hug, walking them away from the general direction of her stalker. 

“You stay away, you hear?” he advises gravely, as though Kath wasn’t older (by three minutes) and wiser.

“Pond, guys. Let’s go.”  

That was James. In our first year at uni, we learnt three things the hard way: 1. James never drank. 2. James never smoked. 3. Never ask why.

But even with his aversions to substances, it was always James who led us toward trouble. Or at least most of us. Anthea – sensible, pragmatic Anthea – was the only one of us immune to him. She questioned and doubted him, and on a rare occasion, she even convinced us to be wary. But she didn’t have his draw, the magnet that latched us to him, the pull that even she admitted to being awed by. So, when James led us to The Pond, we followed, and this time even without protests from an already tipsy Anthea.

Looking back, now, that may have been our fatal flaw: our blind dedication to James, which, even when questioned by one of our own, only got stronger throughout the years.

He knew it, too. I realized later that he thrived on his need to lead and have us follow. Ironically, he would have been lost without it. But these thoughts came too late. If they hadn’t, perhaps I would have noticed his pause after he told us something, as though thinking, ‘This is it. This is the moment they stop following.’

But until that night, we never did.

The five of us trotted to The Pond, which I was sure was a misnomer because it was big enough to classify as a lake. I wasn’t sure why, but every so often, on those nights that we spent dancing in the valley, James would take us there, to The Pond. I never noticed a pattern (not that I tried), but it was important to him. Normally we did nothing. We would sit by the water, and sometimes Jeffrey would skip stones (badly). The conversation was slow, no one sober enough to coble intelligent sentences together (except for James of course, but he preferred the silence). The long night always ended with us almost becoming sober enough to cycle home to our beds.

Tonight was different. I think James knew that we, the five of us, weren’t alone when we began our walk to the lake. He seemed on edge, looking back every once in a while. The firelight was too dim to help much, so by the time we were halfway there, it was only the full moon lighting our path.

“Do you guys hear that?” Anthea whispered, putting a hand on my shoulder to stop me in place.

Jeffery turned to enquire, “Hear what?”

“Shhh,” I hissed, hearing a grunt. “She’s right, I heard it, too.”

“Probably a snake.”

“No, shh, you didn’t hear it. It’s not a snake.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then came a faint and periodic grunting audible from no discernable direction. I watched as the rest of my friends slowly caught on to the sound. 

And then James – because of course it was James – whispered, “I know what that is,” with such surety and resignation that I knew he had heard it before Anthea pointed it out.

There was silence for a few moments, or as silent as it could get with the faint grunting, and then Anthea finally whispered, “Well? Care to share?” Her lack of patience for James always frustrated me.

“I don’t think he will,” said the voice of a little girl.

Kath and I jumped. Between us, I felt Jeffery freeze. Anthea had turned her back to me, looking behind us with eyes wide with questions: A little girl?! 

My eyes met Jeffery’s and I knew we thought the same thing: there was no little girl to be seen.

“Guys, what’s that, who’s that? What’s happening, what the…?”  Kath’s voice was low but had a this is freaking me out tone. There was drumming in my ears and my hands felt cold. When I looked down, I saw that they were shivering.

“James?” I whispered reproachfully, slowly moving my eyes to him. He looked defeated, eyes full of regret. 

“James, what’s going on?”

“I told you he won’t tell. But no one ever listens to the little girl, do they? No one ever listens because oh, what does she know?”

Kath let out a whimper, and I could feel Anthea move closer, shaking. I looked around but still saw no source for the voice.

“If this is a prank, it’s stupid. Leave us alone,” this was Jefferey. He sounded fearless but I’d known him long enough to tell he was close to terrified.

“Jeff,” James warned. “Don’t.”

“This is stupid,” Anthea whispered. She grabbed my arm and started walking. “We’re going back to the fire.”

“Thea, no,” James ordered, but Anthea didn’t listen to James, not like we did. But listening to James had got us here, so I allowed Anthea’s grip to pull me towards the fire (looking back, that might have saved my life).

“They’re running away, Jamesey. Won’t you stop them?” the voice asked.

“Thea! Sean!” but it wasn’t James calling our names, it was Kath. I heard the tears in her voice and pulled Anthea to a halt. We turned back and couldn’t believe our eyes.

Kath and Jefferey were almost calf-deep in the ground, going under fast. My eyes blurred, almost unbelieving of what was happening before me. It was like the mud was eating them, pulling them down into the earth.

“Thea!” Kath wailed, watery eyes almost begging in the moonlight.

I gripped Anthea’s arm, turning to her with wide eyes, “What’s going on?!” But she knew as much as I did.

“Sean!” This time it was James calling my name. “Sean, listen to me. Come back,” James warned. “Trust me, Sean, please.”

“Sean,” Anthea whispered, pulling me closer. “Listen.” I turned to her with wide eyes, confused. “Not to James. Listen. Open your ears.”

Always the follower, I did as she said. I tuned out Kath’s wails and listened, but heard nothing.

I paused.

I heard nothing.

“It’s gone. The grunting, it’s gone.” I whispered to her, then shifted my eyes back to James. I could tell he knew. He knew that we knew. But I’m not sure what we knew.

“What has he done, Sean?” Anthea whispered. “What has he gotten us into?”

“It doesn’t matter, does it,” I realised aloud. “What do we do now?”

“Sean, just come back, you need to trust me,” James begged. I stared at him for a long second, thoughts crossing my mind like lightning as I processed the sight before me. This was the same James who had only to say the word, and I would follow like a lost puppy. He was the man whom I had followed to the darkest alleys of London in first year; the man I had jumped down a three-metre wall for, even with my fear of heights.

But looking at him now, at him begging, his eyes desperate, I felt bile rise in my throat.

My eyes shifted to Kath and Jeffery, and I knew then, was certain of it, that if I didn’t help them get away from James, I would regret it my whole life.

“We have to help them,” I whispered to Anthea, but when I turned to look at her, I saw that she had moved even further back. 

“Anthea!” I whispered a shout.

She shook her head at me: “We don’t know what we’re facing, Sean. We don’t know. We don’t stand a chance.”

A chance.

A memory flashed before me, and I remember that word being spoken with distinct emphasis. I thought back to that day in first year, playing out the memory in my mind:

“A chance! That’s all we need, I know I can make it work, we just need to try!” James was unusually excited, walking with a skip as we crossed the hill. “A chance to finally show our fathers that we are worth it!”

“Professor Atkins already said no, James. He made us promise not to disturb the grave. Besides, we can’t enter the graveyard and you know it,” Anthea cautioned, always the spoilsport.

The Lost Graveyard, which had as many stories as bodies, now also held the key that legend said gave ultimate power: Proditio’s Ring. The moment Atkins had told us about it, we knew what we had to do. 

“Oh, come on! Like we haven’t done worse,” Kath rolled her eyes, running to join James at the front of the pack. “So, what’s the plan? When do we go?”

“Tonight. But I go alone. Anthea is right, it’s too dangerous for everyone. I’ll go alone and update you guys in the morning.”

The next morning, James was nowhere to be found. We waited till afternoon and then set off to search the boundary of the locked graveyard, to check if we could see him through the iron grills dividing us from the beyond.

“How would he have gone in? The professor’s the only one with the keys, and the walls are so high…” I was worried. The morning had been an anxious one without James to rationalise it.

“This is James, Sean. He must have found a way,” Jeffery shook his head. “The question is: did he manage to get out?”

We searched till dusk, but our lost leader was nowhere to be found. Eventually, we headed to bed, all anxious but tired enough for a fitful sleep.

We woke up to James. He was in bed, asleep. He looked peaceful, although paler than normal. When we asked him where he was, we got vague replies.

“But did you find it? The grave? And the ring, was it inside?” Anthea asked hypocritically.

“No, I don’t think it’s there,” was all that James said. It was the only answer we ever got if we brought up that night. And then slowly, the group gave up on the hunt. Our hunger for power was sated in other ways. 

I’d forgotten about the grave until a storm woke me months later and I spotted James sneaking out of our dorm house. I followed him because it was James and I always follow James. I followed as he led me to the graveyard. I saw from behind a tree as he stood before the gates. But a rustle behind me made me turn back and when I looked again, he was gone.

I ran home, the first time I remember turning my back on James.

I never mentioned it to him, fearing it had only been a lucid nightmare.

“You’re wrong,” I whispered to Anthea. “You’re wrong, we know exactly what we’re facing. We’ve known since year one.”

She shook her head, frowning in confusion and fear.

“He found it, Anthea. James found the grave; He has the ring.”

And it was like I could see the flood of memories returning to her: our sleepless nights in the library, researching the myths and legends we never believed were make-belief.

“He has the ring,” Anthea whispered, astounded. Her wide eyes turned to James, and I watched as her face turned to stone. It was Anthea who had come to us with the idea. It was she who did the research, and told us about the possibilities and how it could change our lives, and make us powerful beyond our imagination. It was her idea. 

“He found the grave. And he never told us.”

Kath let out a loud shriek. She and Jeff were now shoulder-deep in mud, and I could feel our time running out.

“Hey, Thea, listen,” I gripped her arm, shaking her out of her confined fury. “Think. What do you remember from then? What’s happening, how can we stop this? How can we save them?”

Thea nodded, frowning the way she did when tackling a particularly difficult question. “At this distance from James, whatever he’s doing won’t affect us. He can’t hurt us while we’re here. Whatever happens, we can’t get closer.”

“Thea…  I don’t believe he wants to hurt us.”

Anthea scoffed. “You’re blinded by him, Sean. But now is not the time. We can’t get closer, and I’m not hearing arguments.”

“Fine. What then?”

Thea paused for a moment, a pause that took entirely too long and then nodded. She turned to me, “The scripts from the library, remember what they said?

Follow the night as it leaves, because only in darkness will you find the ring…

Go to where the child waits endlessly, and start the deed’”

“‘…but beware, for the ring is found twice, and twice it shall kill.’”

“‘…two must die, but only aloud and with cries, or the ring is not sated and will go back to the night.

“They need to stay quiet,” I whispered. At Anthea’s nod, I turned to my friends, “Kath! Jeff! Stay quiet!”

But Kath’s wails were too loud for them to hear us, and Jeff was sobbing into his hands. “Get a stone, a rock, something for us to throw at them,” Anthea ordered, already looking around. I spotted a long stick poking out of a pile of leaves, retrieved it and chucked it hard at my friends, “Guys!”.

The stick splattered on the quicksand near Kath, making her jerk with shock. She looked up at me with wide eyes, spluttering to quiet her tears. The quiet seemed to catch Jeff’s attention and he looked up at them.

“Kath, Jeff, listen to me!” I attempted to scream in the calming tone I could. “You need to stay quiet, OK? You need to stop screaming, crying, anything.” Kath let out a whimper, looking close to hysteria again. 

“Kath listen to me!” Anthea screamed, sounding almost angry. “Breathe with me, just like yoga every morning, OK?!”

“It’s not going to work guys; they’re too far gone.” James was staring at us with calm eyes, his previous desperation now replaced with cold determination. He sounded sure, certain that he had won. But I had known him too long to believe the facade. No one knows a man better than his followers. And I could see the fear behind his eyes, the terror that we could stop him, that we knew how.

But his words were enough to instill fear in Kath. She sobbed quietly, now neck-deep in mud.

“Sean, look,” Anthea was pointing at Jeff. His eyes were closed, and he was breathing deeply. “He knows, he’s figured it out,” she whispered to me.

“Look at the mud,” I whispered back. Jefferey seemed to be slowly lifting up, the mud was now only at his waist compared to Kath’s neck. I screamed out at Kath, “Hey! Look at Jeff! Do what he’s doing!”

It took a few tries, some convincing from us and some panicked threats from James, but Kath knew the scripts too. As she slowly lifted from the soil, James got increasingly louder.

“I think we can go closer now,” Anthea whispered, taking a tentative step towards our friends.

I grabbed her hand hastily, “Are you sure?”.

“Sean. For once follow the right person,” Anthea looked at him knowingly and started forwards.

With a deep sigh, I followed.

I can’t say I remember much from the rest of the night. James ran off the moment he saw us getting close. The sun was rising, and the party was ending, so the four of us decided to head back to the dorms and recover from the nightmarish events of the night.

James was gone for several days after. When we were asked about it, we simply shrugged and walked away.

We spoke about it amongst ourselves though. Where could he be? Was he ok? Was he alive? But at the end of it, we realised we were all too angry to care.

Or perhaps anger was not the real emotion. We felt betrayed.

But with James gone, our group dissolved. Kath and Jeff, bonded by siblinghood and shared trauma, resigned themselves from us (though they were forever grateful for us saving them), and Anthea was always too busy studying. We were friends, but not close.

Then one day we returned to the dorm house to find James’ room empty. All the books, the art, the posters, they were all gone. The uni said he had gotten transferred to a better institution. And although we knew that was not true, we found that we didn’t care.

Years later though, I find myself sometimes wondering where he could be. Sometimes I see him on the train, smiling at me softly. And then that smile would turn cruel, gruesome, and then I would blink, and he’d be gone.

But he will never truly be gone.

They say that the one who finds the ring finds it twice.

Ileana Pal

About the Author
Ileana Pal has been studying mechanical engineering for three years at PolyU. She is from India but had spent most of her life in South Africa before arriving in Hong Kong for her studies. To complement her academics, this ambitious student has been the President of the International Students Association, a research assistant, and most recently the Student Managing Editor of Inscribe’s Issue 9. While firmly grounded in her academics, she has a dream to travel to outer space.  

Author’s Reflection
Literature has always excited me, especially since my grade five teacher praised a story I wrote about karma. However, as a mechanical engineering undergraduate, I didn’t have many opportunities to explore this interest as a young adult. That changed as my journey with Inscribe began in the summer of 2022, when I contacted the then Editor-in-Chief, Chrissy Burns, to volunteer as a student editor for the eighth issue. Working for Inscribe reminded me why I loved stories, whether it be reading one by another student, or writing my own.  

As an author of the ninth edition of Inscribe, I created a story that went through a few iterations. What began as a reflective essay, evolved into a drama, and then a thriller. If I’m being honest, I felt more like a wanderer being drawn down a dark but compelling path to a distant illumination that was always just out of reach…until it finally wasn’t.  

I owe thanks to my co-editors of Inscribe, who helped me navigate my thoughts and ideas. Working with this team on this and all the others in this publication, has certainly helped me grow as a writer and editor.