Sunday, 28 June 2015

Subscribers Only: Phoebe September, the Rainbow Bridge and the Ghost Cat

Phoebe September wished that she could tickle the ghost cat behind the ears but ectoplasmic fur could not be tickled. It really was a beautiful creature, milk white, softly glowing. It languished on the sill of the window as if considering an evening's prowl, maybe one with a few dead mice at the end.

Like most ghosts the cat was tied to the structure that it haunted. Phoebe felt sad for the cat. It was stuck in an abandoned shadow mansion all alone. All alone most of the time. All alone except for tonight.

"Come on, light, fiddlesticks!" Frederick said. He was hunched over a pile of wood intended to serve as that evening's fire. It appeared that he wasn't having much luck with his tinderbox.

"There's no need to get uptight," Phoebe said, fully aware of the irony of her encouraging someone else to calm down.

"What?" Frederick said, looking up at her from his task. "No. I was actually telling the fiddlesticks to light. I think a musician may once have lived here. That's where I got this wood."

Phoebe examined the wood pile closer. Now that she was paying attention she could make out the tangled wisps of horsehair curled up on the ends of some of the sticks.

"Oh," she said. With a flick of her wrist she released a small ball of orange plasma. The wood pile burst into flames. "There."

"Why didn't you just do that ten minutes ago?" Frederick asked.

"I felt like a little sit down and some quiet," Phoebe replied. "Sorry."

The rest of this story can be found on my Patreon and is for subscribers only. There will be another story for non-subscribers in two weeks. If you want access to more stories and puzzling adventures subscribe on my Patreon for as little as $1 a month.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Levercastle Puzzle Adventure

This first part of the Levercastle Puzzle Adventure is free to everyone. Following this subscribers at $1+ will get a new puzzle in the series every fortnight $5+ subscribers will get a puzzle every week in an alternating pattern with an exclusive $5 puzzle adventure "The Unwilling Servant".

Try the puzzle here.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Pale God In The Barrel

There exists a stretch of ocean waters off the coast of the Faerie Lands known as the Shark Seas. The area reaches from the tip of the Pheban Peninsula, to the northernmost shores of the Dreamtime Lands. Then from the Island of Avaiki, to the wastes of the Bear Tundra.

Sharks swim these waters, of course they do, but they are just one of the many dangers that await the unwary sailor. Not that there are many sailors. The oceans of Faerie are not well travelled.

Many times has it been noted that the lands of Faerie are not the closest companions of sensible geography. With all the bridges and forests and caves and crossways maps are more of a suggestion than a statement of fact.

This is, if anything, more true of the oceans of Faerie than anywhere else. The situation has worsened since the time of the Vanishing. It used to be that if you sailed out from the western Shadow kingdoms you would eventually land upon the shores of the Terra Draconis. When the land of the dragons disappeared within the folds of dark magic that route was closed forever.

There is the odd vessel that sets out from Phebe, or the Bear Tundra. Fishermen use tethered boats to ply their trade. Faerie fishermen are a nervous bunch. Many are given to fits of twitching.

Then there are adventurers and explorers. All hoping to find something of profit on the numerous islands scattered across the Shark Seas. Such voyages tend to be undertaken by sailors with nothing to tie them to land. No one with a family to leave behind would ever take their chances on a journey from which they would almost certainly never return.

For this reason most of the manned vessels that sail upon the Shark Seas are peopled with mortal men. A single bad storm, a whirlpool crossway or an encounter with a grumpy undine can lead to mortal vessels becoming lost this way. Those that make it to the Shark Seas are fortunate indeed. Many begin their circuitous journey in the Ocean of Mists where no faerie sailor would ever go.

The situations that lead to mortal men washing up on the palm-fringed beaches of a Shark Sea island are calamitous indeed. Many who survive these circumstances do so at the expense of their original vessels. It is not too remarkable a thing to discover a couple of sad mortal souls marooned with no more than a row boat upon the soft white sands.

The natives of the Shark Islands tell stories of stranded sailors. Usually these stories are passed down for several generations until the next incident occurs.

Rona-Iki was a young woman who once lived upon the island of Jas-Nwi (translated from the local tongue 'Our Home'). She possessed a vast imagination, which many would count as a gift. In an island community a broad mind was often seen more as a nuisance. If the other members of the tribe were in a particularly bad mood they might even call it a curse.

Rona saw pictures in clouds, heard voices in the curl of the waves and imagined monsters made of rock living deep within the earth. She had heard all the stories of the sky god and the sea god and the god who lived under the mountain. She had made up her own stories about these gods.

She liked to think that her stories gave the gods more rounded characters. She borrowed without hesitation from the stories the grandparents told. She was the kind of person who would wonder how a strange, red-skinned god might come to Jas-Nwi in a row boat and what sort of god that would be.

The god in a row boat theme was one that Rona thought about often. The story of three red-skinned gods wearing white wigs was one she heard often. They came to the island in the time of her great grand-father. She had considered the details of the tale so often that sometimes it appeared real.

One of the gods had left behind a gift, a coat and a triangular hat. None of the children were allowed to touch the coat or hat, they did get to see it displayed on feast days.

When Rona found the barrel that was yelling for help on the sunset beach it had nearly pulled her mind inside out. Whenever she imagined finding gods on the beach they came in a row-boat, not in a barrel. A barrel was barely enough space to contain one god, let alone three or four. Unless they were small.

Rona's imagination ran riot, a dozen tiny gods, arriving in a barrel. Maybe they would mistake her, four sticks tall in her seventeenth year, for a different type of god. She may have to explain to these tiny gods that she was just a person. She might have to stop them from worshipping at her feet.

As she approached the barrel it appeared to her that there was only one voice calling for help from within. That tended to suggest that there was only one person in the barrel. That tended to suggest that no one would be worshipping her any time soon.

Rona squashed down the possibility of disappointment as she came near to the barrel. After all one god was one more than anyone had discovered in four generations. Not only that but it was the only god ever to be discovered in a barrel in living memory.

"Ca nennyb ordy heeermeeee?" came the voice from with in the barrel. Strange words that Rona did not recognise. It seems that gods spoke in their own tongue. Rona wondered that a random stream of noise like that could be understood by anyone. Why didn't the gods just speak like everyone else?

"Duh liddiz tuk," came a pleading tone from the barrel. "Ih zennybore dee neeer?"

The barrel was quite unlike any that Rona had seen before. Uncle Dev made barrels out of hollowed out gourds that one found on the mush-fruit tree on the lower slopes of the great mountain. All he did was make sure the insides were clean, paint them up to look nice and stick a lid over the hole.

This barrel was a construction using many sticks of wood. It was bound at both ends by metal hoops so smooth and regular that Rona did not know how they could even be. Unless they were the skin from some strange metal fruit that grew in the land of the gods. Maybe the gods cut the skin into strips and bent it to make hoops.

The land of the gods was already far more interesting than Jas-Nwi. All Rona knew was that they must have giant metal fruit there. Apparently they had no gourds. Still, nobody could have everything.

The god had fallen silent. Rona did not want anything bad to have happened. She reached out her hand and rapped on the hard skin of wood that made up the body of the barrel.

"Hello," she said. "Strange god, are you in there?"

"Hoozat?" said the god. "Ih zummun dehhr?"

"I'm sorry, I don't speak like a god," Rona said. "I am Rona-Iki of the Tribe, welcome to Jas-Nwi god in a barrel."

"Lodehr," the god continued. "Canoo elpmee? Ayams duk."

"I'll try to get you out," said Rona. "Wait here."

Rona ran back up the sunset beach and found a sizeable rock. She came back to the barrel and started to hit the lid with the rock trying to break it open.

"Ayah!" came the voice from within. "Cairph ool. Myed isdehr."

After a couple of blows the lid split in two. Rona dug her fingers in and picked the remains of the lid from the lip of the barrel.

As soon as he was able the god came tumbling out of his wooden shell. He was everything Rona could have hoped for and more. He was not red like the last gods but rather a pale white, almost blue. He was dressed in white clothes, aside from strange black skins on his feet. A crumpled black hat was stuck to his head. The god was quite wet, the barrel  clearly not waterproof like a gourd.

"O, thah ts bettah," the god said, huffing and panting. "Thah nkyu yung lay dee."

"I'm sorry," Rona said. "I still don't speak the tongue of gods."

The god looked put out at this. Rona wasn't clear as to whether he could understand her or not.

"Ode eer," the god muttered to himself. He looked pensive for a moment. Then he sat up on his haunches and touched his chest with his hands.

"Chess Turr," he said slowly, carefully.

"Your name is Chess Turr?" Rona asked. "Is that what you mean?"

The god looked puzzled. Rona understood that she was as garbled to him as he was to her. She mimicked his stance. Putting her hands on her own chest she said:

"Rona-Iki."

The god pointed at her: "Rona-Iki"

Rona smiled. "Chess Turr," she pointed at him. He smiled too.

Well, it wasn't a lot, but it was a start, she thought.

"Ayam lur kingfor dagoled skin poor pise," Chess Turr said slowly. In an instant they were back to not being able to understand one another. "Wayd!" he said then and held up his hand.

Chess Turr reached into his shirt and pulled out a scrap of thick skin. He laid it out on the sand to show that it was daubed with paint in a curious design.

At first Rona could not understand the jumble of black lines surrounding a yellow central area. There were other daubs of black and deeper yellow but Rona could not understand the pattern.

"Goald poor pise," Chess Turr repeated. He pointed out to sea. "Goald poor pise."

Was this supposed to be a picture of a fish, Rona wondered.

As if the thought itself was magic the jumble of lines and colours resolved in Rona's head. The gods had painted this skin in such a way that if you looked at it and thought 'fish' one would appear on the skin as if it was really there.

She could see now the shadow of the fish belly and the curve of the fish spine, the tail behind it smaller than the nose poking forward. It was as if the fish, a golden dolphin, was leaping out of water right towards Rona.

Rona gasped. She touched the skin, already it was drying in the afternoon sun. She recognised this creature. This was the golden dolphin that swam in the undersea forest of the sea gods. This was a sacred animal, one that the fishermen did their best to avoid.

"It's the gold dolphin!" Rona said. "Why are you looking for that? Have you business with the sea god?"

"Yoo nohdiss?" Chess Turr asked. "Whair isdiss?"

"It's no good," Rona said. "I can't make any sense of you. Maybe one of the elders will be able to."

It was clear that Chess Turr was not understanding her. Their brief, pointless conversation had made him slump back, defeated.

"Chess Turr," Rona said, slow and loud. Chess Turr responded to his name, looking up at Rona. She pointed over to the treeline, to the edge of the trail back to the tribe. "Come with me."

Rona stood up and started back over to the trail. Chess Turr stood and followed her, hesitant. She nodded and beckoned encouraging him. He followed with more confidence.

Let us hope that one of the elders knows something of the god's tongue. Someone has to know more than me, Rona thought.

Rona lead Chess Turr through the trees, back to the tribe, the walk did not take long but it took longer than it should have. Chess Turr seemed remarkably nervous for a god. He kept looking back the way he had come. He jumped at the sounds of the everyday birds and beasts.

When they reached the tribe the reaction was all that Rona could have guessed it would be. The other islanders stared at Chess Turr as he walked along the trail towards the grand fire. It was getting towards late afternoon now and the elder women were stoking the fire, making ready to light it.

"What have you brought us, Rona-Iki?" one of the elder women asked. "It's an odd fish, for certain. Pale enough but too many limbs."

"I'll bet it's bony and tastes of salt," said another one, joining in the joke.

"I found this god, in a barrel on the sunset beach," Rona-Iki replied. "I cannot understand his words. I wondered if any of the elders might understand him better. Maybe someone picked up a word or two from the red-skinned gods."

"This god has pale skin," the elder woman replied. "Maybe his words are not red god words."

"Then how are we to understand him?" Rona asked. It would be disastrous if she had found a god in a barrel only to have no way to understand what he was saying.

The elder woman shrugged, it was clear that she didn't care what the pale god was saying.

"Mak-Ava," she instructed another of the elder women. "Get some of those useless men down here. See if any of them can speak with the pale god."

Mak-ava ambled off to find the elder men. After a few minutes there came a noise of general discontent. Fragments of grumbling and short-tempered questions floated down the trail.

The noise of elder men disturbed before the fire was lit resolved into a procession. The elders came down the hill towards the great fire. Their grumbling did not cease even when they came within sight of the pale god.

"What's all this about? Who disturbs us with talk of a pale god?" Jama-Ray, the leader of the elders, asked.

"I found him on the beach," Rona said. "He is pale and I cannot understand his words. His name seems to be Chess Turr."

The remaining murmurs from the elders came to a swift halt. They turned to examine Chess Turr.

"Uhm. Hair low," Chess Turr said, smiling awkwardly. "Dohnt surpohss ennyovyu spee kinglesh?"

"Ayes peeka lihttle," said Kam-Oddy the oldest member of the tribe. "Ayes pohkit wenayewazah lihtl bwoy."

Chess Turr's eyes lit up. He gabbled a bunch of sounds that Rona had no way of following. Kam-Oddy waved his hands, signalling for Chess Turr to slow.

It appeared that the oldest member of the tribe would be of some use but he was not fluent in the tongue of the gods by any means.

Rona was quickly shoved to one side after these introductions. During the great fire she was expected to look after the young ones, like always. By the time for bed it was as if nothing remarkable had come to pass that day at all.

The disappointment grew over the next couple of days. Chess Turr spent all his time in the company of the elders. Rona had to carry on as normal.

Eventually, she found it impossible to ignore the pale skinned god she had brought to the tribe. She tried to ask questions about him of the elders. All they did was frown and tell her to mind her own affairs.

On the fourth day Chess Turr came to find Rona.

"Hello, Rona," he said. "I wanted to come and thank you for bringing me to the tribe."

"You speak like a person!" Rona cried out in delight. "How did you learn our words so fast?"

"I made a preparation that assists with learning such things," Chess Turr said. "It comes in handy when you need to speak with a lot of different people."

"Could you use it to teach me the tongue of the gods?" Rona asked.

"Uh, well, um, I suppose that there's no reason why it couldn't be used that way," Chess Turr said. "But it's quite difficult to make, and there's not much use for the tongue of the, um, gods around here."

"No, I suppose not," Rona said. "I imagine you must go back to your home. Either under the waves or up in the clouds. So I will probably never see a god again once you have left."

"No, probably not," Chess Turr said. "But I want you to know how grateful that I am that you rescued me. The barrel hit a rock when I washed ashore and that tightened the lid. If it hadn't been for you I might have starved to death inside the barrel."

"That's no problem," Rona said. "I have always wanted to see a god, and now I have. I fear the rest of my life will not be able to compare with the afternoon of four days ago."

"I'm sure you will find some way to make your life worthwhile, Rona," Chess Turr said. "Adventure can hide in the most unlikely of places."

"I'm not sure it does on Jas-Nwi," Rona said. "But thank you for trying to give me hope."

With that they parted. After a few days more Chess Turr had crafted some clothes with the help of the elders. He made his way down to the sunset beach to resume his own journey.

He and the village men made a small vessel, a raft. The raft carried food and water, it had a large white sail. It looked very grand, far sturdier than a fishing raft, it would have to carry Chess Turr back to the land of the gods.

Some of the tribe had come to the sunset beach to wave Chess Turr off. Some wanted to see that he made it out to sea safely because they wished him well. Some wanted to see that he made it out to sea safely because they did not trust pale gods.

The sadness that Rona felt seeing the stranger continue on his way weighed on her heart. She felt it like a gourd filled with sand, heavy in her chest. Rona knew that nothing as exciting as Chess Turr's visit would ever happen on Jas-Nwi again.

As the raft floated over the breakers out onto the ocean Rona split from the small crowd. She began her slow trudge back towards the trail to the tribe. She hadn't gone three paces before a very stupid and dangerous thought had entered her mind.

Rona wanted to ignore the thought, but, at the same time, it was the most amazing thought she had ever had. For that reason she didn't want to let go of it. For the first time in her life Rona tried not to think any new thoughts at all as she hurried into the water and swam out into the sea.

Once she was out far enough, hidden by the rolling swell of the waves she cut back towards Chess Turr's raft. The way out of the sunset bay was difficult under full sail and Chess Turr was piloting his raft slowly out to sea.

Rona swum up behind Chess Turr's raft. She grabbed hold of a long branch that held the back of the craft together. Taking off her belt she strapped it round the branch and twisted it to form a loop. She slipped her wrist tight into the loop and sat herself low in the water.

She had to ensure that Chess Turr had gone too far to turn back before he discovered her presence. That way he would not be willing to take time to return her to the island. It was not that she disliked her family or the rest of the tribe. She knew that Jas-Nwi only offered her a life of boredom and frustration.

Rona had determined, on the sands of the sunset beach, to have an adventure. Maybe, if she went with the pale skinned god, she would never return to Jas-Nwi. At this moment that didn't appear too terrible a fate. Certainly not as terrible as never seeing anything different or interesting for the rest of her life.

Eventually, of course, Chess Turr discovered Rona. As she had predicted he was not happy at all. By that time she had managed to hold on for long enough that he couldn't afford to turn back. So Rona and Chess Turr set forth on an adventure. What happened on that adventure is definitely a tale for another time.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Long Road Home

The little girl in the green pyjamas watched the snow fall out of the upstairs window. She had, to her own certain knowledge, never seen snow before because she had lived almost her entire life in a jungle, living in a tree hollow under the shadow of the Great Skull Rock. The little girl, whose name as we should realise by now was Rachel Rummage, had lived a peaceful life, never wanting for anything, never cold, never hungry but a prisoner all the same, sleeping nights in terror of the giant bat that lived in the hollowed out cave at the summit of the Great Skull Rock.

Rebecca's father, James, assured her that in Levercastle snow fell every Christmas, after which he had kindly explained Christmas to her. Rachel imagined that being cold was always unpleasant, that long nights would make her feel sad and that having to wear wellington boots to avoid wet feet in snow would be a tiresome chore. She was surprised to find that all these things were bearable if you could live in a warm, cosy house called Rainbow Reach with your mother and your father. She had also imagined that living in the world of men, far away from Faerie, would mean she missed all the friends she had made after she had left the Skull Garden.

Happily she did not have to get used to a life where she never saw the brave Sir Cobb, the powerful Phoebe September or the mighty Princess Anabyl Spireshine. Levercastle was a town unlike many others where the little holes in reality that allow the world of men and the world of folk to interact are many. The residents of Levercastle are generally happy with the arrangement because many of them have stories like Rachel's and know that there is more to the world than might, at first, meet the eye.

"Hey you, time for bed means time to get into bed, not time to loll around on the window seat in your pyjamas," said dad, James, coming in to Rachel's bedroom.

"I was just looking at the snow," Rachel said. "Remember I've never seen snow before."

"So which would you rather?" James asked. "Look at snow or hear a bedtime story."

"How about hear a story while watching the snow?" Rachel asked.

James sighed and sat down next to his daughter on the window seat. He watched the snow flakes with her for a minute. Then he asked:

"What story do you want to hear?"

"Tell me a story about when we came here, when Lester opened his brother's grave," Rachel said.

"That only happened in September, honey," James said. "Don't you want a story about Avan Weatherstrong, or one of the stories about Anabyl when she escaped the Terra Draconis after the Vanishing, I just got a parcel from the Archive chronicling Sir Cobb's journey through the Upside Out."

"No, I want to enjoy remembering what happened three months ago," Rachel said. "I just want to hear it like it's a story, but to know I was there."

"Okay," James said. "I guess that would be fun, in a weird kind of a way."

And so James recounted the events of three months previously, as if it was a story, but both of them knew that all of this had really happened:

So the story goes there was once a man who lost his brother and could not find him no matter where he looked. In the end, out of desperation, the man tracked down the Master of Mischief to ask for help with his quest.

"Are you quite sure you want to find your brother?" the Master of Mischief asked. "You may not like what you find."

"All I want in this world is to see my brother's face once more," the man said. "Please help me, or if you will not then send me on my way, for I know that you are prone to play games. I know that not all of your games are kind."

"Do you understand the threads I would have to pull? The patterns I would have to break? The mischief I would have to do to give you your heart's desire?" the Master of Mischief asked.

"If I knew what needed to be done to find my brother," the man replied. "Then I would not bother you. Please, will you help me?"

The Master of Mischief smiled his smile, the only part of the Master of Mischief that remains the same no matter which particular face he has chosen to wear that day. The Master of Mischief knows more than he ought to, for which reason the Master of Mischief lies to people, but always for the betterment of all worlds, or so he tells us.

"I am in a good mood today," the Master of Mischief said. "So I will help you. Go to death's garden and dig with a spade. You will find your brother under the earth."

And that is where the story ends. Well, most versions of the story, for stories are lies, and stories are mischief of the purest kind in all places but one. The one place where all stories are reflections, or chronicles, or accounts is the Faerie Archive at Sommerslip. The story is told there almost as rendered above, but there is one major difference. After the Master of Mischief says 'So I will help you' the sentence ends. Underneath is printed, in neat block capitals:

CONTINUED IN 'THE TALES FROM BRIDGETOWN - BOOK ONE'

Of course Lester Topping didn't know any of that. As far as Lester Topping was concerned he had received a letter from his twin brother Chester recounting that Chester had stopped off in Bridgetown to pick up some supplies and was heading on in three days to a distant shadow.

Having become quite lonely without the companionship of his brother Lester had raced to Bridgetown, got himself lost, missed the window to meet up with his brother and been asked by a curious man in a tall hat to watch a mermaid in a tank. None of that resembled the story of the man who had sought the assistance of the Master of Mischief for help with looking for his brother, for that reason no one who knew the story and travelled with Lester put the two things together, not even Lester himself.

This is how the Master of Mischief works. He lies. For the betterment of all worlds, or so he tells us.

So when Lester Topping found himself in death's garden, looking down at a small wooden box revealed within the tomb that, allegedly, marked the remains of his twin brother, his confusion was, perhaps, understandable.

He was glad that the tomb did not appear to contain Chester's remains, Lester could only imagine how upsetting that would be. Still, that did not completely rule out the possibility that within the small wooden box was an urn containing Chester's ashes. There was no note or inscription to explain the tomb's contents, Chester had proven himself an avid communicator, the content of his communications was gnomic at best.

"You should probably open it," Phoebe said, standing with the others, respectfully, at the edge of the grave site. "You have looked for this place for a long time. Whatever is in there will be your answer."

Would it? Lester wondered as he approached the box and lifted it out of its hollow by the two brass handles hanging from the sides. He knew that it should but now that he was, in theory, at the end of his journey he couldn't convince his brain that the moment was at hand.

The box was not heavy. It had, rather, a reassuring solidity that strongly implied the container's importance. The wood of the box was a nice golden brown, not too dark, not too light, like the burnished surface of a fiddle. Brass corners had been fitted to prevent the wood finish from scuffing or splintering. The handles in the side held firm, appearing as if they were part of the wooden body of the box itself. The craftsmanship of the item could not be second guessed, it was impressive in its simplicity.

There was no lock on the box, just a simple latch, a switch that moved from right to left, embossed with the symbol of the hourglass. With a smooth click the lid was open, Lester lifted the lid on well-oiled hinges to reveal the contents.

The box did not contain an urn filled with ashes. It contained a brass hand mirror, its reflecting surface turned down to rest on a cushion of red velvet. Without even thinking about it Lester picked up the mirror to look at his face.

"What is it?" someone asked, he thought it was Eos.

"I don't know, exactly," Lester said, studying his face in the mirror. "Oh, this mirror is broken."

"What do you mean?" Frederick asked. "Is it cracked? It must have cracked before someone put it in there, no shock would reach it through the earth and the rock and the box and the padding."

"No," Lester said. "It's not cracked. It's just when I talk my lips don't move. My whole face is stuck, like a photograph. I can't even... ah, no. I can wink. I can see my eye it looks like its inside something, like I'm wearing glasses or..."

"Your face," Phoebe said. "It shows you that your face is a mask."

"It does," Lester said. "I've worn a mask, all this time. I didn't even know it." He stopped for a second, he could feel his face smirk although the image in the mirror remained completely still. "That means that when I was at Lady Crimzona's party I was wearing two masks, one on top of the other. How silly."

"Well," Rachel asked. "Aren't you going to take the mask off?"

"I had better," Lester said. "It's been far more fun than I thought it would be to wear a mask for all these days, but now I think, somehow, that it is far more important that I take the mask off. So, here goes."

Lester reached up under his chin and caught the edge of his Lester mask. He felt his false face lift off the surface of his real one. It came away easily, not even fixed to his head by a length of cord. Magic had kept Lester's mask in place, in the mirror it was easy to remove for it was all part of the same spell.

Before Lester could see his real face he turned away from the hand mirror to look at the blank white object in his hands. He looked up at the faces of his friends and smiled.

"How do I look?" he said, playing a game for he already knew.

"Honestly?" James said. "Exactly the same."

Chester's grin broadened, for now Lester knew that he was Chester, his own missing twin brother. The absurdity of disguising oneself as one's own identical twin brother was delicious to both of them. Chester realised that it was he who had felt a small twinge of regret at the need to remember all the things that made up Chester Topping, eccentric, traveller and alchemist. Lester wasn't good for much, that was all part of the mask, what Chester had discovered through Lester was a constant and abiding sense of innocent wonder at the world and all it contained. Sometimes, Chester knew, he was far too clever by half.

"I don't get it," Frederick said. "I don't mind being the first to say it but I am willing to bet I'm not the only one. I don't understand what's happening."

"It's all part of the plan, dear boy," Chester said to Frederick. "All part of my plan to get the Quintessence Crystal into the hands of people better suited to its guardianship than myself and poor Professor Rummage there."

"Professor Rummage?" the gnome asked looking up at James. "And here was I just thought he was a common or garden talking mouse when first we met."

James coloured red.

"I didn't, I don't... remember," he said. "I'm a professor? What of?"

"Well, mostly, folklore," Chester said. "It's a little more complicated than that. As far as the world we come from knows, Jimbo, you are an anthropologist and expert on the mythical beasts of world cultures. Anyone inside our social circle knows that you are the foremost expert on the natural history and evolutionary biology of such creatures, that's a key part to how we ended up in this pickle."

"Dragons," Anabyl chimed in. "James found out about the Vanishing, what had happened, where the crystal was."

"Indeed, brave knight," Chester said. "Most unfortunate for he was not the only party interested in the acquisition of such knowledge. As a consulting alchemist to the Grand Order of the Covenenant of Lies I was sent to Levercastle, Professor Rummage's place of residence, to ensure his safety, and the safety of his beautiful family.

"Alas, I was too late, by the time I arrived the wicked agents of Count Bartolomeo Okulas had already turned James into a mouse, saying that they would give him twenty-four hours to see sense and that they would return on the morrow when they expected he would share his secret. I had to think fast, I came up with a plan that was the child of expedience more than prudence.

"I am, in fact, rather glad that things have played out as they have. I cannot claim any particular good judgement on my own part in that, I rather think that I provided an opportunity for several wrongs to be righted in the great tapestry. Our stopgap measure was, therefore, exploited by the Master of Mischief rather than expedited by him."

"Oh, my dear Monsieur Topping," said a new voice that everyone recognised but nobody could place. "How desperately cynical of you. Why could I not merely have found myself in a giving humour?"

The curious man in the tall hat emerged from shadows that no one could remember being there a moment before.

"Apologies," Chester said to the Master of Mischief. "I did not intend my invocation to carry such strength."

"No apologies necessary, alchemist," the Master replied. "I came of my own volition. Mostly because I like to see those who do not wish to deal with me squirm. Partly because I am tired of this business and would like to see it done."

"What is there left?" asked Chester. "I think I have explained everything."

"Well," Frederick said. "There you and I are going to have to differ. I still don't really understand what's going on. You're not Lester, you're an alchemist who looks like himself and James the mouse is really a professor of dragons and there's something to do with Count Okulas, aside from that... I don't really know what we're all doing here."

"Allow me to fill in the gaps," the Master of Mischief said as his famous grin slowly painted itself from one of his ears to the other. "Chester and James were sought after for James's forbidden knowledge by Count Okulas. The one place Chester knew that James could be hidden that Okulas would not find was the same place that the Quintessence Crystal was hidden. James, his family and Chester came here, to the Skull Garden.

"When they all began to forget things Chester understood what was happening. He forged the Lester mask using the garden's own magic to make the enchantment more powerful," the Master shot a sidelong glance in Chester's direction. "That was very cunning by the way," he said, and then returned to his story. "Knowing nothing but the story Chester had told the mask Chester sent himself away to Bridgetown, Lester arrived. Such a bizarre and powerful magic suddenly manifesting in the Patchwork Market attracted my eye. I settled to study it immediately.

"When I understood what was happening I saw the potential to undo one of the most heinous acts that has ever been committed in all the lands of Faerie. The Vanishing of the Terra Draconis was a work of sorcery and witchcraft that, although literally diabolical, was outside my direct influence. Nobody said that I wasn't able to assist those who wished to put things right.

"My only problem is that, as Master of Mischief, I am one of the most powerful figures in the whole of creation. I have to be subtle if I want to weild my powers, hard as it is to believe I am not invincible. In short, I must be perceived to be neutral.

"So, I nipped reality, I tucked it, tipping people on particular paths down little back alleys of my own devising, ensuring that the great mechanism of mischief brought things out as they have become. Frederick, Phoebe, Anabyl, Eos, you are, between you, quite capable of guarding the Quintessence Crystal from the hands of evil doers. James, Chester, Rebecca and dear little Rachel, you are to be freed from a burden too great for you to bear."

"And what about me boss?" the gnome said. "When does the little girl's wish end?"

"It's not your place to ask such questions," the Master snapped at the gnome. "You'll live as I wish and be grateful for the opportunity."

"Yes boss," the gnome said miserably.

"Don't you talk to my friend like that!" Rachel cried out, outraged.

"Darling," Rebecca said. "That's the Master of Mischief, he's very important."

"I don't care how important he thinks he is," Rachel insisted. "The gnome's given me and James our wish, and helped out with all the other stuff too. I think he deserves to be free now and nobody should be rude to him, not even a scary man in a big hat."

"Dear Rachel," the Master said, kneeling down to bring their heights closer together. "You misunderstand. This gnome is not your friend. He is with you because he is bound to you. He is just an accidental random conglomeration of mischief that calls itself a gnome. I doubt he can feel emotions. He's nothing, really, beneath your notice."

"He's my friend," Rachel said. "And he's never done anything mean or horrible. I don't know what you're talking about but it sounds mean and horrible to me. Mean and horrible people are nothing. The gnome is the gnome."

The grin disappeared from the Master's face. Most were silent, the gnome and Rebecca drew in breath sharply.

"Sometimes," the Master said sadly. "It seems even I can forget my place. Very well Cholmondeley, you shall have your own garden, but first we should see to the end of the wish."

"And how do we do that, exactly?" Rachel asked. "If you know so much then you can help us. We haven't done very well at the job ourselves."

"Why, all the answers your poor father ever needed are behind this door," the Master said pointing to a simple wooden door in the base of the Skull Rock that had certainly not been there a moment before.

The Master opened the door and it was as if they were looking out of a house onto a street. Opposite their position was a small wooden fence, painted blue, that surrounded a two storey detached house completely surrounded by well defined, but slightly overgrown flower beds.

"Rainbow's Reach awaits Professor Rummage," the Master said. "And all the stories that you hold within your head will return within its walls. Once that is done so will Cholmondeley's work."

Saying goodbye to all the friends they had made on the long road home James, Rebecca, Rachel and Chester went through the Master's door and back to James's home where their long adventure had begun so many years before, or so it seemed.

When James remembered exactly who he was, and where he had been, and the nature of those things, he understood that life in the Skull Garden unfolded at a vastly different rate to time in his own world and he had, in fact, been gone only a single night as far as his world was concerned.

Unfortunately this meant that, unless Rachel wanted to squash into a crib, which she did not, she had to sleep that night in her parent's bed. None of them minded that arrangement at all and the next day a brand new bed was bought for the little girl who had grown up in the Skull Garden not knowing anything of who she was or where she came from.

The Guardians of the Quintessence Crystal took their responsibilities very seriously indeed, and their stories are even now depicted, along with all the rest, within the deep, dark stacks of the Faerie Archive. That would probably be the best place to read them for, although the Master of Mischief will claim that he can tell you what came next everyone knows that the Master lies to people. Although, you can be assured, he only does so for the betterment of all worlds. Or so he says himself.

THE END

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Chester Topping Rest In Peace

Before the gnome lost his temper completely everyone had a moment in which they all believed that the wish would end. Lester, in fact, was pulling for this to happen almost as much as he imagined the gnome was. Once the gnome was free then he could spend the rest of the afternoon trying to find his brother's grave.

The idea of being keen to find the grave of his beloved sibling was not sitting well in Lester's head. It was almost impossible to separate the notion of someone having a grave from the notion of someone being, well, dead. Whenever that particularly unpleasant idea came around on the carousel of Lester's thoughts he reminded himself of what a remarkable and tricksy individual Chester Topping was. Lester wouldn't show much surprise if this whole thing hadn't been cooked up by Chester and Loki working in tandem.

Still, a gravestone. Surely even having a gravestone was an ill-omen. It might not be alchemy but it was certainly witchcraft.

"Oh... bother it!" the gnome cried eventually. The little sprite ran up to the base of the skull rock and gave it a hearty kick. "Owww!" the gnome cried. "That hurt."

"Kicking a gigantic rock generally hurts," Eos said. "That's why it never took off as a pastime."

"I should be free!" the gnome shouted. "This is it, the loop is closed, the journey is ended, the adventure has concluded, so why can I still feel the wish? Why am I flopping around, bound to the people who freed me? Why am I not allowed to make my own way in the world?"

"It would seem," said Rebecca gently, "that we may have misread the small print, so to speak."

"No!" the gnome replied. "No! I reject that completely, utterly, the terms of the wish were quite plain. Rachel wanted to leave the Skull Garden so that they could go on an adventure and he could see all that the world could be. That's what she said. Now I am aware that the phrase 'see all that the world could be' does leave some room for interpretation but the powers of mischief are not usually that particular."

"Not usually," said Rebecca, "but sometimes, sometimes there is something that they are waiting for, something that will just cross the last 't' or dot the last 'i'."

"Maybe," Lester said, without really knowing which part of his mind was providing the words, "the term used is tied to something James should see. Maybe when James feels that he knows all that he needs to know then he will have seen all that the world can see."

Everyone was looking at Lester. The gnome scowled.

"That," he said, "sounds exactly like the kind of stunt the forces of mischief like to pull." The gnome swivelled his eyes to fix on James, quiet now, still not as steady on his feet as he should be. "So what is it that you feel you're missing out on?" it asked. "Come on now, out with it, let's show you what you need to see so I can clock off."

"I... I don't know," James said.

"You have to know!" the gnome wailed. "Folk. Honestly, I am going off the lot of you. Born as babies, dying arbitrarily, don't know what you want, or where you're going, or how you feel. Why is the world filled with folk?

"Sprites are nice and simple. Pop into existence, do what you do, go where you have to, and then just fade away once your time is done. Why can't folk be more like sprites."

The gnome tramped over to the foot of the Skull Rock and sat down, defeated.

"I'm sorry," James called after him. "I just don't know."

"It's okay," Rebecca said, putting her hand on her husband's shoulder. "You're still confused. Take a moment, take a breath, let the thing you want come to your mind naturally."

James closed his eyes and took a breath. Another few moments passed.

Maybe James wants to know what happened to my brother, Lester thought. He banished the thought immediately as being inherently selfish.

"Maybe," Rachel said. "Dad just wants to know what happened to Lester's brother. I know I do, and dad's been travelling with Lester since we first popped into the market."

Lester held his breath while the others weighed up this suggestion in their minds.

"It can't hurt to find out, can it?" Eos asked.

Lester felt a sudden flip in his guts, like his stomach was trying to pop out of his mouth and run away. They were going to search, it was finally time to search.

"There's only one problem with that plan," James said. "The area we refer to as the Skull Garden is all of the jungle as far as we can walk by day and still be back here by night. If you expand that line so it becomes the radius of a circle and then plot out the area of that circle... I mean, we could be months searching for this grave, if it's even here."

This pessimistic, but unfortunately rational, appraisal of the situation was interrupted by the flopping noise of a rope hitting the side of the Skull Rock.

"Hello!" cried a voice from above.

The unhappy party at the foot turned their gaze upwards to see who had hailed them.

"Frederick!" James called out. "What are you doing here?"

"Oh you know," Frederick replied. "The usual kind of thing, killing giant bats, rescuing princesses trapped inside a crystal along with an entire lost continent, taking in the afternoon air."

Following Frederick down the rope was Phoebe, and above her a young boy that Lester didn't recognise. Above the boy was another young woman that Lester thought he didn't recognise, then from other angles he thought he did.

The four adventurers reached the ground and a general round of greetings and introductions was carried out. Lester was introduced, firstly, to the small boy whose name was Wish Forbetter and then to the mysterious young woman.

"Hello Lester," the young woman said. "How are things?"

Not being the kind of opening one might expect from someone you had never met before Lester was rendered momentarily speechless.

"Found yourself lost in any sorcerer's dungeons recently?" the young woman asked. "James is looking well, distinctly less mousey than the last time we met."

She followed the comment up with a cheeky grin that Lester couldn't help but recognise. He went instantly from speechless to gaping. Eventually he found his tongue:

"Anabyl?" he asked.

"Took you long enough," she said. "Although I have to concede that some water has passed under the bridge since last time I saw you."

"But... you're here, in the Skull Garden and, I mean, what happened?" Lester asked.

"It's a long story, I travelled with Avan Weatherstrong, escaped the Vanishing, trained as a dragon warrior and helped protect the quintessence crystal from evil-doers who wanted to possess its power," Anabyl said. "It was an interesting time. What have you been up to?"

"Um, went to an evil masked ball, then I was chased down a mountain by a troll, got lost in the Undone, helped rescue a mermaid from a witch and now I'm looking for my twin's grave, here in the garden.... my twin's grave... is," Lester managed to recount his recent history, just about.

He couldn't help but note that the full catalogue of events sounded, maybe, more impressive than he'd imagined. This was a thing about adventure, at the time you were just scrambling desperately to survive, only afterwards did you realise that, having survived, your exploits had graduated from terrifying to exciting.

"Sounds like you've kept busy," Anabyl said. "How are you planning to find your brother's grave?"

"Well," Lester sighed. "That's kind of the thing. You see we have no idea where it is, and James was just pointing out how large the garden actually is. If we stay here too long then we will start to forget who we are, or why we came here in the first place. So we need to find the grave before that happens obviously. It could take a long while. Maybe we could think about shift work or something, but I bet the gnome won't be too happy about that."

"Why would the gnome care?" Anabyl asked.

"We think he might not be able to become a full gnome until James sees Chester's grave. It's a wish magic thing," Lester explained.

"Well," Anabyl said, "If I remember correctly you and Chester are twins, are you not?"

"Yes," Lester said. "We are."

"Well, then, maybe in the matter of choosing a grave-site you both think alike, it's worth a try," Anabyl said. "I've got lucky like that on more than one occasion."

This suggestion appeared to Lester to be far too sensible a one to actually work but, because it was so sensible, it was also mandatory to give it a go.

"Okay," Lester said. "Let's have a think. Well, first of all, if I were Chester the whole point of this grave is to hide it so that only I can find it."

That didn't immediately make Lester think of a location. After all, Lester had to admit, he wasn't the most imaginative of people. If he'd have come to this place alone, seeing the gigantic stone column with a skull on the top at the centre, he probably would have headed straight for that. Here they were, for other reasons, there was no grave.

Of course, the idea of putting the grave here did not exactly make it hidden. Unless, of course, the grave was unmarked. If that were the case then it would probably be somewhere here, under the column. In which case, there would probably be some sort of indicator that only Lester would understand, probably on the column, at the bottom.

Lester stalked around the base of the column, searching for something, anything. It didn't take him long to find it. There was an arrow carved into the stone, it pointed North, you could tell because it said 'N' at the top of it. Underneath was the number '58'.

"Here!" Lester said, excitedly.

The others came to join him.

"What does that mean?" the gnome asked.

"It's the orientation course," Rachel said. "I followed it a few times, started really early in the morning. I don't know how far I got. You walk in the direction of the line for that many paces and you reach another rock with another arrow and another number. I got about forty of them before I had to come back, because of the bat."

"But now the bat is dead," Frederick said. "So we can just follow the arrows to the end."

Everyone seemed very excited at this prospect and preparations immediately got underway to start the course. Lester was happy with the explanation but something still seemed off to him. After all, Chester could not know that the bat would be dead when Lester got there.

Chester had to have thought this through. Why would Chester send Lester off running around in the woods like that? For a start Chester and Lester both had one leg longer than the other. They couldn't easily walk in straight lines, they always veered off to the right. Something was wrong with this.

It was only as the party got ready to stamp off north for fifty-eight paces that Lester thought he understood what it was Chester had done.

"Stop!" he cried out before anyone had taken more than two paces north.

Everyone stopped. Lester's heart was beating in his throat at the idea that for once he had worked something out. He was the one with the answer, he was not just some oddball standing on the edges. For the first time since he had started his quest Lester felt like he might have the makings of a hero.

"We shouldn't go," he said. "It's a trap."

"What do you mean?" Rebecca asked. "What kind of a trap?"

"We lived in the garden for years and years," James said. "We never found a trap."

"No," Lester said. "But you did completely forget who you were, or why you were here."

"So?" Rachel asked.

"Think about it," Lester explained. "Someone evil comes here, they find the course, they kill the bat. The bat killing, in particular, is something I don't think I could do. But the evil person they have no problem with it. So they follow the path. Eventually the path is so long they have to rest. So they rest. Then they keep following the path.

"At first they accept the difficulty of the task, after all if Chester's grave was easy to find then it wouldn't be a challenge. Eventually they get annoyed, maybe they give up. If they don't, one day they wake up and, maybe, they can't remember exactly why, but they know they're following the arrows. So they go further.

"Now remembering things gets harder, they can't remember if they've seen arrows before. Eventually they either forget who they are give up and wander away or they keep mindlessly walking in circles lost in a labyrinth of arrows and pacing until they die.

"The whole task is a trap. Chester knew I would know that because the apparent simple task is one that both he and I would be singularly awful at if we were on our own."

"So, what does that mean?" James asked. "That we don't know where the grave is after all?"

"No," Lester said. "It means we know exactly where the grave is, because we're standing on it. The other thing Chester and I have in common is that we're very very lazy. The marker doesn't tell me to go tramping about in the forgetful forest. No, what it says to me is, Chester made a mark, so there must be something here worth marking."

Frederick ruffled in his pack and brought out a small collapsible spade.

"Only one way we're going to see if he's right," Frederick said. "I'll get digging."

Nobody said much as Frederick found a piece of earth that was soft enough and dug straight down. The hole went deeper than a regular grave but after about forty minutes he hit something solid.

"Oh, wow," Frederick said. "That's deep. We could be here until nightfall."

"Oh, no, Frederick," Phoebe said. "Come out of that hole. I think I can help."

"No offence," Lester said. "But I've seen how you help, I don't want to cremate my brother's remains in a massive plasma explosion, I just want to uncover the grave."

"I think I might be of assistance here," the gnome said, rather unexpectedly. He looked about at everyone regarding him, surprised expressions on their faces, and his brow knitted in annoyance. "I'm a gnome people, a gnome? Earth elemental? Really, and I thought you were an educated woman Miss September."

Phobe looked a bit awkward, she had spent many years in Faerie's premier magical academy.

"I just didn't really think about it," she said by way of explanation.

"Why didn't you mention this half an hour ago?" Frederick asked, still sweating from his own exertions.

"I didn't know whether you would find anything," the gnome grumbled. "Not going to put my back out blasting away a big hole in the earth for no reason, now, am I?"

The logic, irritating as it might have been, was irrefutable. The others all stood back and gave the gnome room to work. With very little effort the sprite shifted all of the earth from Chester's grave and even landscaped the surroundings into a sweeping natural curve.

The grave stone was about eight feet long and three feet wide. In the centre of the slab was carved an ornate embossed hourglass, the carving, elegantly swirled around this central motif outwards to a geometric frame about half an inch in around the edge of the stone.

"That doesn't look like it's going to be fun to move," Anabyl said.

"Ah," Lester said. "But you're failing to take into account that this place was designed to be uncovered by a single lazy man with a spade and a couple of days to spare. By the time I'd got down to this on my own I imagine I would be so tired I'd probably just take my spade and have a good old lean, like this."

Lester grabbed Frederick's spade, walked into the middle of the slab and placed it point down on the hour glass. He leaned on the handle and there was a deep and audible click as some hidden mechanism was pressed into service.

The two halves of the grave stone separated along invisible seams and lifted gently upwards to reveal the contents of Chester's tomb. But what was beneath the gravestone and how it brought our friend's adventures to a satisfactory, if not permanent, conclusion, is most definitely a story that I will tell you. Just, not right now is all.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Princess Liberated

Frederick hadn't acted in his capacity as pest-controller for a while now. He had heard that, in the age of dragons, a jobbing knight would start small with giant rodents and work their way up through lizard men and vampires as a way of scaling their monster killing abilities to the level of dragon.

As the giant bat expired on the blade of Frederick's sword he found himself doubting this theory. Of course, to the layman the idea of working your way up the food chain to dragon slaying appeared reasonable. Frederick did not know for certain that it was not. However, if what he had heard about dragons, and their smaller, sentient cousins the draco, was to be believed the king of all mythical beasts was in a different league to the rest.

You could hack your way through armies of trolls, gryphons and giant snakes but it probably wouldn't serve you well when it came to facing the old, wise and wily dragons of yore. It was as desperate a comparison as saying that taking out a goblin horde was any sort of preparation for taking out an Ogre Champion. The two games were fundamentally different.

It didn't really matter, as far as Frederick could tell, how many foot soldiers you carved up, when you faced the lich in command those experiences counted for nothing.

Even taking on a giant bat was a different game to besting a minotaur, for example. The two monsters had completely different temperaments, strengths, weaknesses and common strategies. The one lesson taking on a bestiary of hostile creatures taught you was that no two were alike enough to be the same fight. There was enough variety within a single species to fox those who did not exercise the proper caution.

That said, sometimes you got lucky. The transformed Lady Crimzona had proven a much weaker foe than this similarly sized giant bat. Frederick imagined that this was due in no small part to the fact that Lady Crimzona was not used to being a giant bat, this fella had got very used to his capabilities. He had even landed a couple of nasty swipes on Frederick's chest and thigh.

So, possibly, there had been some variety in the capability and threat presented by dragons of various types. Maybe some dragons went down easier than others. If there was one comforting thought a knight could take into such a confrontation it was that maybe this dragon would be having an off day.

"Are you alright?" Phoebe asked from behind Frederick as he stood, instinctively holding his left hand over the scratches on his chest and hanging his weight so that it favoured his right leg.

"I'll be okay," he panted. "He was... feisty, is all."

"If I wasn't filled with magical potency," Harvey said. "I would have to get someone to remind me never to annoy you."

"You annoy me all the time," Frederick said. After a battle etiquette choices frayed and crumbled. Frederick allowed himself to be more blunt.

"Yes," Harvey said. "Because I am filled with magical potency. You might be good at monster slaying but you can't follow a simple logical through-line, can you?"

"Not the time, Harvey," Phoebe said absently, pulling a jar of unguent from her knapsack. "Then, it never is, is it?"

Harvey shrugged and subsided as Phoebe approached Frederick and started smearing the greasy paste onto his wounded leg.

Frederick had listened to lurid bardic accounts of fighting men and the women who tended to their wounds. The poetic temperament would have you believe there was some sort of romance, or passion, about a nurse tending a wounded soldier. In some instances maybe there was. However the undoubted, undiscussed presence of unsavoury ingredients in most of these pastes presented large challenges to the development of such a heady emotional atmosphere.

The unguent was enhanced with enchantments but that didn't stop it smelling of vinegar, fat and bad milk mixed together. Neither did it abate the deep burn it put into the wounds upon its application. The burn quickly faded, the odour of the healing medium lingered, in some cases for days.

"Well, now that we have that over, we should probably find that tricky crystal," Harvey said, standing by the entrance as if he were inspecting the hold of the arrow trailing rope embedded in the rock. The head of the arrow was a clockwork device powered by an alchemical crystal that burrowed into rock to form a tight bond.

As the mouth of the cave was where the party had entered the chances that the Quintessence Crystal was lying there, unremarked upon and undiscovered, was vitually nil. Everyone could tell that Harvey was mooching about adjacent to the nearest source of fresh air to avoid the smell.

"Good idea," Phoebe commended him. "Why don't you start somewhere other than where we came in?"

A look of disgust evident on his face Harvey complied with Phoebe's request. Frederick had learned that the djinn often did things voluntarily, rather than wait to be bound by Phoebe. Frederick believed he could understand the sprite's motivation. In a way it was a cruel trick of the binding that the one bound would often prefer to do something because they were obedient, not because magic was compelling them to do it against their will.

That left a question though: Was Harvey really doing what he wanted? Was he truly acting on his own agency? Just because he chose to obey did that mean that he had somehow 'beaten' the binding, or did it just serve to enslave him at an even deeper level?

Frederick's tricky philosophical puzzles would not be answered now as Phoebe cried out. She didn't say 'aha' but it was a noise that meant 'aha' so more or less the same thing. Phoebe carried a small wooden chest out from a dark corner in the back of the bat's lair. The front was closed and bolted but not locked. Frederick reasoned that the person who had left the chest here had believed that anyone who would slay that bat to get to the chest probably deserved the contents.

That bat itself had not been a terrible problem, any mediocre knight should have found it within themselves to dispose of it effectively. The chest's real security was that it was in one of the most distant shadows, right at the limits of organised reality, cloaked in deep magic that would hide the garden's existence from seekers and interfere with the memories of those who had visited. The bat was just a further inconvenience for one who had beaten the heavy duty barriers to entry.

Phoebe opened the chest to reveal the quintessence crystal. Frederick had hoped for something more than your basic glowing crystal, in this he found a small note of disappointment. The quintessence crystal was certainly a bit larger than other magic crystals Frederick had seen but it was, otherwise pretty much identical in every other respect. It glowed a soft yellow-white that filled the cave, there was a high, clear note, resonating from the crystal at a low volume.

"Let's see if this ring that the story-gatherers gave us does the trick then," Phoebe said, donning the small piece of silver jewellery. As it sat on Phoebe's finger the crystal in the ring began to resonate in sympathy with the quintessence crystal. "Oh," Phoebe said, alarmed. "It does work! Quick, grab my hands!"

She held out her hands, Frederick took hold of the left and Harvey of the right, there was a moment of uncertainty, an odd see-sawing feeling in Frederick's gut and then they weren't in the Skull Cave any more.

They were in a long stone corridor that stretched on for as far as the eye could see in either direction. Stone arches divided the corridor into sections at regular intervals. Frederick's ever-present knight paranoia noted that there was just enough space for an attacker to hide in the small recesses in the corners of each section. Doorways, tipped with pointed arches, were visible in some of the sections.

The corridor was lit from above with a soft, flat, grey light. Frederick looked up to see that the light was cast from a roiling layer of luminous clouds above their heads. The shapes of dragons heads, and the forms of people and buildings were occasionally visible in the ever-shifting cloud bank. As soon as you saw a shape, so clear that you could make out the pattern of a dragon's scales, the windows in a tall building or the lines on a person's face, it disappeared back into the mass, invisible once more.

"Well, this is in no way sinister," Harvey said.

"So, what now?" Frederick asked. "We've got into the crystal, what do we do now?"

"I don't know," Phoebe said. "I guess we just have a look about, see if we can pick up Anabyl's trail."

They took a few steps along the corridor, their footsteps making flat clamping sounds against the stone. Frederick found the noises quite disconcerting. He had been expecting a confident ringing echo, not this barely audible slapping noise. He imagined it was something to do with magic, these things usually were.

"Wait," Harvey said after they had gone about twenty paces. "I think..." he paused, closed his eyes and lowered his head. "I think I can feel the... her. I think I can feel Anabyl."

"What do you mean?" Frederick asked. "Feel her how?"

"This," Harvey motioned at the ceiling and the floor with some airy hand waves. "All of this is our minds interpreting the crystal lattice and the energies contained within. We're not part of the qualic stream, the, uh, essence of the Terra Draconis, locked into the crystal lattice. I think the energies are represented by the clouds up there. I don't think that Anabyl is part of that either. She's locked out of the stream, so she's somewhere else in the lattice. I'm made of pure magic so I can feel the resonance of her presence, it's not even that far away."

"Okay then," Phoebe said. "Well, let's get moving."

Harvey lead the other two down a number of corridors that looked, at least to Frederick's eye, exactly the same as the first one they had arrived in. The corridors were all identical and appeared to cross back and forth at random. The corridor intersections were not at the traditional ninety degree angles from one another but often at more a forty-five degree slant, some sloped up, or down, the passages themselves appeared straight but Frederick began to believe that they were subtly curved. Each segment was straight but connected to the next at an almost imperceptible angle.

After walking through this labyrinth for about ten minutes a figure became visible in the distance, standing at an intersection.

"Come on," Phoebe said. "That must be her."

As they drew closer they realised that rather than being a properly defined person the figure was like a three dimensional opaque black shadow. It was roughly person shaped but a little blobby on the right hand side.

"This isn't her," Frederick said.

"No," Harvey responded. "It is, but it's just... I think she's out of phase with us. The crystal resonates with a particular tone, when we're inside its lattice we are riding the waves of that tone, experiencing the crystal's reality as a series of tonal moments at the same part of a repeating wavelength. Anabyl's just experiencing the same thing on a different part of the same wavelength."

"I was with you right up until you said 'resonates'," Frederick said. "Look, I don't need to know what's happening. I just need to know that we can fix it."

"I can fix it," Harvey said. "Although it may bind us more tightly to the lattice. Getting out of here might be trickier than we thought."

"We can't worry about that," said Phoebe. "You'll have to do... whatever it is you need to do, Harvey."

"Very well," Harvey said. "Could we all, possibly, link hands again?"

They all did and Harvey closed his eyes again, concentrating. Frederick began to feel very giddy, the vertigo was sudden and he was forced to drop onto one knee.

"What's going on?" he asked.

"Quiet," Harvey said. "Need to focus."

Frederick's senses were beginning to see-saw, the corridor bending and shifting about him. There was a moment when he believed he could see a stone plaza in a great city beyond one of the stone arches then the image was gone and there was just the voice.

"...be long now Wish, you'll see, these shadows probably mean that..."

There was the sound of a sword being drawn.

"Who are you?" the voice demanded, its tone had switched from soothing to harsh in the time it had taken to draw the sword.

"Princess Anabyl Spireshine?" Harvey's voice asked. "I believe you know my companions. Give them a moment to recover."

"It's us, Anabyl," Phoebe said, her voice sounded shaky, Frederick's vision was still blurred and he felt very much as if he'd like to be sick. Frederick blinked a couple of times and tried to take a steady breath.

"Phoebe?" the woman with the sword asked. "And... Sir Cobb."

"Yes," Frederick managed to bite back the nausea and speak. "It's us. We've come to get you out of the crystal."

"Hear that, princess?" said a voice Frederick didn't recognise. "We're getting out of here."

Frederick's vision finally settled down enough that he could see who he was looking at now. Anabyl certainly looked a lot different than the last time they'd crossed paths. For a start she appeared to have ditched the penchant for frilly dresses for a quieter gender-neutral look in breeches and a thin wool jacket. She wore a long dark cloak bound on the left shoulder by a large metal brooch.

As Anabyl had grown her face had lengthened and become leaner, the light of chaotic mischief in her eyes had not burned out but now came with a kind of controlled danger. Her long dark hair was wrapped up in a bun on top of her head.

Standing to Anabyl's right was a young boy in more ragged clothing, the other speaker. Putting things together from the story they had read in the Archive Frederick realised that this must be Wish Forbetter.

"How long have we been in here?" Anabyl asked. "A while, I imagine, if you're the ones to come rescue me."

"We saw you off from the market after facing down Sir Vaskorn about a month ago," Frederick told her. "We understand that you found a way to visit the Terra Draconis in the meanwhile."

Harvey cleared his throat.

"As much as I hate to break up the reunion it's time I dispelled my own magic to get you all out of here," he said.

"Yes, probably a good idea," Phoebe said. "So how will that work?"

"You just all need to place your hands on me, preferably about the shoulders from my point of view and we'll soon have you all back to the cave."

"What about you?" Wish asked. "Aren't you coming with us?"

"I'm afraid not," Harvey said. "I have... other things to devote my energies to."

"What?" Phoebe's question sounded like some sort of reprimand, this wasn't unusual.

"Sorry, Feebs," Harvey said. "Guess I lied to you again. A while back, just before I found you, I was actually floating in the Undone. Didn't even know myself, to be honest, I was just stuff. I annoyed the wrong person, ended up dispersed. So the boss comes to me and offers me an out, not just out of the Undone, out of service to you, a chance to be something else, more than just Harvey Raine, the chaos sprite.

"He told me that if I took the out I would be bound to you again, the way Ma Moorshade always wanted it but the boss explained that if I sacrificed myself for a wish that I would be allowed to move on. The boss is like that, always talks in riddles. Guess it runs in the family. Anyhow, when I saw that the young lad here was called Wish I knew what was coming. If I'd told you about it earlier you might have argued or delayed and, honestly, I don't think you have time.

"If I expend every iota of magic I have I can probably get the four of you out of the Quintessence Crystal lattice, but there won't be enough of me left for me to exit. I guess I will just have to trust the boss to come get me."

"But we can't just leave you behind," Frederick said, he wasn't sure either why he said it or why he meant it but both were true.

"You can, and you have to, your journey's not over by a long chalk," Harvey said. "Come on folks, time's a-wasting."

Frederick could tell that Phoebe was itching to start a row about this. At the same time he could see the realisation on her face that Harvey intended to do this. Plus it was possibly the first selfless thing he would do in his existence. How could she argue with that?

So she didn't. Along with the others she put her hand on Harvey's shoulder. Once they were all in place Harvey looked around them all as if to say goodbye and then he began to glow. Harvey's glow, set against the flat grey-white from the ceiling of the lattice, was a warm and comforting orange-pink. It shone from his eyes and from the lines on his face. The light caught the djinn in a bright halo until Frederick thought that the sprite was no longer present in person, he looked, rather, like a painting of himself. Then the glow from his halo became too bright and Frederick's nostrils were suddenly filled with the scent of bat droppings.

Now there were four of them, stood in the skull cave staring at the Quintessence Crystal. For a moment they could not speak.

A voice from outside broke across the silence.

"If you expand that line so that it becomes the radius of a circle," said a voice that Anabyl, Phoebe and Frederick all recognised. "I mean, we could be months searching for this grave, if it's even here."

The three adventurers exchanged a glance.

"James?" came from Frederick's mouth before he had even really understood the concept fully.

And indeed it was James although no longer a mouse, and Lester, and Rachel, along with James's wife, Rachel's mother, Rebecca. But what they did when they all met once more in the Skull Garden I shall tell you next time.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Meet The Rummages

"Delighted for you," said the gnome. "Couldn't be more so. Absolutely. Delighted. However, I do feel that the full spectrum of experience associated with the word 'adventure' has now been thoroughly fulfilled. I don't want to appear rude but I have a whole existence to be getting on with. There's a meadow in a quaint little shadow not too far away by bridge and I would very much like to live my life there starting, oh, well, as soon as possible."

"I don't think now is the time, honestly," Eos said. "Can't you see that James is unwell?"

"Unwell?" the gnome said as if he honestly hadn't noticed. The little sprite turned his attention to the former mouse, now a tall man hunched over and sitting on a tea chest being fussed over by Rachel and Rebecca. Lester watched on, not really certain what to think.

"Then there was a morning in winter, my mother had a cold," James said. His words floated up from his chest through the arms he had folded on his knees. His head was buried in this little cocoon, his words having the lilt of delirium. "Porridge on the hob, good boy, helpful boy, porridge is easy. Burned so badly to the bottom of the pan mum had to throw it out. Scrap metal for the scrap metal man. Lots you can do with scrap. Got to be able to melt it, to shape it. Not my department. Call an engineer!"

"He'll be fine," the gnome said. "I have a good ear for mischief. Whatever's happening I think it's temporary."

"You know what's wrong with him?" Rachel asked, turning her full attention in his direction.

Although the gnome had wanted Rachel's whole attention, and everyone else's, not moments ago, now it looked extremely uncomfortable. No doubt it would have been fine to have everyone looking in the gnome's direction to discuss the gnome's requirements and demands. The probem here was that now the gnome had cast himself in the role of advisor, such a role stood in the way of attention to requirements and demands.

Lester had to admit that he could understand that feeling completely. He was awash with unsuitable emotions at the moment. Fear of abandonment, sadness at the meandering aimlessness of his journey, irritation that he had spent so long on a road that provided no more than a diversion from Lester's own concerns, guilt that he felt anything other than concern about James's well-being.

Maybe if he could work his way up to a good session of delirious ranting he would be okay afterwards, Lester reflected. There didn't appear to be any other appropriate way of communicating his own feelings of loss that didn't seem self-indulgent and whiny.

Not that he would have had a problem with being self-indulgent and whiny if that had been a layer in a complex personality, but it wasn't. Lester was beginning to realise that when it came to personality self-indulgent and whiny pretty much summed him up. Oh, and meek, and directionless, and not much use.

Look at the gnome. On the one hand it was here demanding stuff when another person was in dire straits not five feet away. The sprite somehow managed to act as if it was oblivious to this while stamping its foot and carrying on like it was the only being that mattered in the whole of Faerie. On the other hand at least the gnome had some sort of motivational through-line. At least it was a force to be reckoned with.

Lester stood in the corner and didn't know what to think and tried not to be any bother. At least he wasn't any bother. At the same time he was becoming extremely tired of not being any use, either. His head was actually starting to throb at the concept of his own complete irrelevance to everything. On his travels he had met knights and magicians, merchants and royalty, what had he ever been through any of it? He had been Lester who could lend a hand with anything not too difficult.

Lester promised himself that as soon as equilbrium was restored he would rock the boat a bit, he would upset the apple cart. He would make his presence felt. Not so felt that people lost their tempers or anything, just felt enough to make Lester feel less on the edges of everything.

"Uh, well," the gnome said. Lester marvelled that he'd managed to fit all that thinking into the space between the gnome becoming awkward and deciding what to say next. "I can see that a lot of what's happened to James... ah, your father, is as a result of mischief casually melting away some deeper enchantments."

"What do you mean 'deeper enchantments'?" Rachel asked.

"Anything mischievous, I can detect," the gnome said. Although it was plain that there would be a time to talk further on the gnome's wish list, for now he was relishing the role of 'expert'. "But I couldn't tell that your dad was enchanted, not when we first met, he just looked like a mouse. A normal mouse. Oh, yes, he could talk, but that isn't such a big deal, you know."

"So what does that mean?" Rachel asked.

"It means that the magic that transformed James into the mouse was very complex and meant to bind. I'm not entirely sure that he was supposed to forget that he was a man, or your dad, or whatever, but I think that's a separate enchantment, after all, you don't remember much about before being in the Skull Garden either, do you?"

"No," Rachel said. "Honestly, I still don't."

"When we took you there," Rebecca said. "You were very young, I wouldn't be at all surprised if you didn't remember what happened before. I forgot everything while I was in the garden too. I only began to remember when I left, and then, well, I got dispersed."

"So you see," the gnome said, inserting himself back into the conversation, determined to monopolise everyone's attention. "The effects of the garden are slow and deep, but not permanent. I wouldn't advise anyone to remain there for too long, could get tricky."

"So how long before Ja- my dad, is back to normal?" Rachel asked.

The gnome got half way into a shrug before James himself broke into the conversation:

"They were all in the castle when the storm came!" he said. "There was the dragon and the frog. They weren't alone. They thought they were. But the mouse was careful. It stayed out of sight. Mice can hide, best hide, best way to stay out of the way. Not like the man who went to see the master of mischief, no. Desperate man, clever man, but desperate, confused. Needed to find his brother, needed to find a way to his brother, not just a disguise you see... really. Because you can't have two mice. Don't you see? Two mice are always bad. Two bad mice."

James looked around at the assembled group, who were all still trying to unravel this stilted dialogue. All except for Lester.

In the couple of seconds it usually took him to lose the initiative Lester realised that no-one had said anything, further, he realised that he had something to say.

"Are you telling me that I went to the master of mischief?" he asked James.

James's glowing, beatific expression dropped into one of deep disappointment.

"That's what you took from that?" he asked.

"It's me, isn't it? You're not the only one who's had their memory messed with," Lester said. "I am looking for my brother and... the man in the tall hat, he is the master of mischief."

"Oh, yes," the gnome chipped in. "That's the boss, Loki, everyone knows that."

Everyone looked at the gnome.

"Well," the gnome corrected himself, gruffly. "I thought everyone knew that."

"It has to be said," Eos said. "I'm sure there are lots of people who have looked for a missing brother through history. I heard a story myself about a man who went to Loki asking for help with a missing brother. I heard it when I was a girl. That story obviously isn't about you, Lester."

"And in the story," Lester asked Eos, feeling more purpose than he could ever remember having felt before. "What did the master of mischief tell the man to do?"

"Loki sent the man to death's garden with a spade. When he dug the ground he found all of his brother's secrets. I always thought it was a metaphor."

"Are you saying you think my brother is dead?" Lester asked.

"I'm saying that I think the brother of the man in the story was dead," Eos said. "We've already established that it wasn't you."

Lester's scalp had started to tingle as all the elements came together: frequent encounters with the master of Mischief, adventuring with escapees from the garden of death, stories about secrets buried in that garden. It didn't really matter what Eos said, Lester knew what he felt about his recent experiences. Everything was just beginning to make sense and Lester wasn't going to let that stop.

"We need to go to the Skull Garden, right now," Lester said.

"Oh, at last, thank you!" the gnome cried in agreement.

"Lester..." Eos said, the first chiming note of dissent.

"No, Eos," Lester said. "I know what I feel, for once, and what I feel is that my brother is in the Skull Garden."

"If he is then, surely, he's dead," Eos said. "Do you believe that Lester?"

"If he's dead then that's what he is," Lester said. "But if I've learned one thing about Chester these last few months it's that he is a man who is rarely where you thought he was and seldom what he seems."

"I know a way," Rebecca said. "But... should we all go?"

"You have to all go," the gnome said. "I need you there, so I can be free."

"Well, technically that's just me and dad," Rachel said, the little pause where she changed 'James' to 'dad' still noticeable but less so than it had been.

"You don't understand," Rebecca said. "We might forget who we are, that's what the Skull Garden does."

"It's a powerful magic," the gnome said. "But it is built to endure. It would take weeks, maybe months to forget everything completely. You can go long enough to set me free, then you can leave."

"But we never could," Rachel said. "You could not reach the edge before the bat would leave the Skull Cave, it would get us all."

"We can fend off a single bat," Lester said.

"It's a giant bat," Rachel pointed out.

"We've done it before," Lester insisted.

"I think you'll find that was Frederick," Eos said.

"So. What?" Lester asked. "We're going to all just give up? The gnome is enslaved to this wish forever? I never find out what happened to my brother?"

"Now hang on just a minute!" the gnome cried out, anxious at the possibility of never being the master of his own destiny.

"I can get us out," Rebecca said. "I got out before, but I'm worried about James. He hasn't recovered from leaving the garden yet. I think it's the mouse enchantment, he's so confused."

"I think," Eos said. "That we shall have to wait until James is maybe a little better, but at that point we shall ask Rebecca to take us to the garden and then we shall see what is what."

And that is exactly what they did, but what they found when they returned to the Skull Garden for the very last time is a story for another day.