Sunday, 28 July 2013

A Bad Night For Lord Mumphrey

"Give no indication that you can hear me," the voice whispered into Lord Mumphrey's left ear.

Failing to follow this instruction in the most spectacular manner Lord Mumphrey spun round, examining the masked faces of his fellow party-goers for some indication that the directive had come from them. Nobody gave any signal that they had heard him but he did spot what he believed was a rather attractive young woman standing near the ornate punchbowl set in the centre of the trestle table closest to him.

Lord Mumphrey sidled up to the slim young woman.

"I don't believe we've been introduced," he said.

The woman regarded him from behind the turquoise feathered mask she wore, she smiled gently.

"You are correct, sir," she said, smiling. "Tabitha Lumpworthy, a pleasure to make your acquaintance."

"Lord Vilpus Mumphrey," Lord Mumphrey said. "A similar pleasure to make yours."

"My Lady," interjected a third gentlemen approaching them from Mumphrey's left. "It appears that I have arrived to effect your liberation from this tedium at just the right moment."

The new speaker was a rakish young knave wearing a mask that appeared to have been fashioned from scraps of cloth sewn together hastily into a fool's motley. A spray of wiry red hair emerged above the top of the mask, a broad, unpleasantly mocking grin hung underneath it.

"Dance with me, milady," the young man said. "I will induce a feeling one may best liken to floating on air."

He offered his hand. Technically, as he had asked for a dance the only thing party protocol allowed Miss Lumpworthy to do was decline the invitation because she had already arranged to dance with someone else. If Mumphrey wanted the young lady's attention again he would have to wait until the dance was over.

"Your arrogance tells me that you had better be right, sirrah," Miss Lumpworthy said, accepting the proferred hand, the two went off together towards the dance floor.

Slightly deflated Lord Mumphrey cast his eye over the buffet.

"Shall we try that again?" whispered the voice that had hailed Lord Mumphrey a few moments previously. "Just keep looking at all the food. Don't eat any. It's cursed. Don't let on you know."

Lord Mumphrey froze. He didn't know what to do. He found himself looking over the buffet table, turning the concept of cursed food over in his mind. The prawns looked nice, he liked prawns. They looked tasty, not cursed. How could prawns that looked so tasty be cursed?

"You can't let on you can hear me," the voice continued. "So I'll tell you how to respond. If you understand, clear your throat."

Lord Mumphrey didn't know if he did understand, but he did know how to clear his throat, so he did, it made him feel like he was participating in a conspiracy rather than experiencing the onset of lunacy.

"Good," the voice said. "Now, I'm going to tell you a few things, you'll find them difficult to believe, more difficult still because of all the curse magic in this place. I'll start with something easy. That man who went off dancing with the lady, he's a djinn called Harvey Raine."

Lord Mumphrey felt a little prickle of righteous happiness, he had known that that young man was trouble.

"He is working with me, although we haven't had a chance to communicate since we got here. He's trying to rescue you," the voice explained.

Lord Mumphrey had to bite his tongue not to blurt out: 'Rescue me from what?' Cursed prawns, he supposed. Although he didn't see how poaching a dance partner could be viewed as liberation from the effects of tainted seafood.

"The fact is," the voice said, a weary note came into its cadence, "you are not who you think you are. You are a knight who has been trapped at this party and given the mask of Lord Vilpus Mumphrey. Your identity is a prison."

At this Lord Mumphrey's mind revolted. Who was saying this? Who was whispering this nonsense into his ear? What treacherous, villainous...

"You're hearing the voice, aren't you squire?" a voice asked behind Lord Mumphrey, another voice he recognised, although lower than it had been. It was the voice of the djinn who had taken away Miss Lumpworthy.

"What? No! I mean. What do you mean?" Lord Mumphrey said spinning round to face the dance partner stealing knave.

The boy's features had changed in the last few minutes, gone was the cheeky grin and air of arrogance. Actually the arrogance hadn't really gone anywhere, just transformed into a bizarre electric intensity. The grin had collapsed into a long thin scowl. The djinn's eyes were narrowed beneath the motley mask, making the cast of his features too dark and serious for a light and jolly celebration.

"You want to get rid of the voice and its lies meet me in the garden in two minutes, come alone," the djinn said. He dodged past Lord Mumphrey with a remarkable speed and agility. By the time Lord Mumphrey had turned to follow the young man's path the djinn had disappeared, leaving Lord Mumphrey in a state of distress and confusion.

"If you want rid of me," the disembodied voice whispered, "you had better do exactly as he says."

"Whuh-huh," Lord Mumphrey said. A woman in a cat mask was halfway through gesturing with a small novelty sceptre in conversation with a man wearing the ridiculous proboscis of some tropical bird, inexplicably holding a small shovel such as one might take to the beach. They both stopped to look at him. Knowing what bad manners it was to be miserable at a party Lord Mumphrey smiled at them and gave them a little wave. "The prawns are delicious!" he called over to them, he picked up a prawn from a display bedecked in small ornaments in the shape of mermaids.

The masked party-goers smiled at Lord Mumphrey before returning to their conversation. Lord Mumphrey believed the amount of perspiration caught under his mask was starting to become uncomfortable. He carefully replaced the tainted prawn onto the dish.

"You are, in fact," the disembodied voice said, adding to the giddy delirium of the moment, "a young knight by the name of Frederick Cobb."

"Please be quiet," Lord Mumphrey whispered, desperate for peace to come to his churning mind.

The crowd in front of Lord Mumphrey parted and the hostess appeared. The young Lady Scovina Crimzona, who's debut in society was the occasion for this delightful evening. Lord Mumphrey suddenly became acutely aware that he was feeling a bit ill, and this illness may have manifested in the physical appearance of something less than rapturous joy.

If there was one thing Lady Crimzona did not appreciate in the slightest it was someone having a less than wonderful time at her big night.

"Lord Mumphrey," she said. "A little bird told me that you were looking a little... lost. Is everything to your satisfaction?"

The question, everyone present knew, was rhetorical, but Lord Mumphrey's answer was required however redundant it was in reality.

"Oh, yes, milady," he said, finding a hearty smile somewhere in the back of the mental cupboard containing his emotions. It was possibly a little dusty and definitely past its best but he hoped it would serve as a confirmation of Lady Crimzona's benevolence and generosity. "The food is excellent, the music delightful, you bless me with your company."

At that last statement a hot little spark kindled in Lady Crimzona's eye. Acting out of some desperate and passionate need to be on the better side of the tyrant in charge of this shindig Lord Mumphrey's smile set hard onto his face, beaming out across the room but at Lady Crimzona in particular.

"My lady," he said. "How could you doubt that your very presence in this place is the engine, the very heart and soul of this occasion? What would this be save for a paltry gathering had we not your radiant presence to bask in? How could we truly experience joy and merriment without knowing that it is your happiness that forms the core of our assembly? What need would there be for dancing or wit if not to serve as a delight for the most beautiful woman in the room, the hostess of this dream occasion?"

There was a moment's silence in which everyone wondered if Mumphrey had overegged the pudding.

"Lord Mumphrey," Lady Crimzona said, her voice low. The world balanced upon a knife edge, the guests collectively held their breath. "Do you really think I'm the most beautiful woman in the room?"

The room exhaled at Lady Crimzona's soft, but somehow still dangerous, tone. They all breathed out, slowly, so as not to alert the wrong person to the wave of party-inappropriate relief.

"That you could ask the question," Lord Mumphrey replied, not breaking eye contact with Lady Crimzona, "just adds humility and modesty to the lengthy list of your attractive qualities."

Lady Crimzona giggled and held out a hand decorated with an enormous ruby ring.

"Dance with me, Lord Mumphrey," she commanded him. So he had to.

Lady Crimzona, it turned out, was an excellent dancer. Lord Mumphrey couldn't help but feel that possibly he was not. He didn't miss a beat, put his feet in the wrong place or any other such clumsiness but he could feel the dance in his limbs as a series of barely competent close shaves. Somewhere in Lord Mumphrey's mind he wondered how much dancing he had actually ever done, even as his memory provided a full programme of social education that told him he had been schooled in popular dancing since the age of eight.

He wondered, as the dance came to an end, whether he would have a problem with Lady Crimzona wishing to continue their encounter with a second round of sycophantic flattery. As it happened the lady made it quite plain to her dance partner that he was surplus to requirements moments after the final strains of the band had died away. The vision of terror, wrapped up in red silk, bustled away into the crowd, ever the social butterfly.

"Good job," the disembodied voice whispered. "Now, quickly go meet Harvey."

Lord Mumphrey had stopped asking questions. He couldn't remember when the party had stopped being fun but that was probably because he now understood that it had never been fun. He made his way through the crowds and out onto a patio area where more guests conversed, enjoying the fresh, cool evening air.

Mumphrey looked about for the young man who had told him to come out here, he searched for a couple of minutes before realising that he had been told to come alone. Lord Mumphrey sidled over to the edge of the patio and out into the darkened shadows of the garden. On a path in between two rows of trees the djinn waited for Lord Mumphrey.

"You came," the djinn said. "If the mask glamour wasn't even stupider than you I'd give it the credit for this display of good judgement."

Lord Mumphrey wondered for a moment if he should take offence. He decided that he was too confused for that.

"What do you want?" he hissed at the djinn. "How can I make the voices stop?"

"Very easy," the djinn replied. "Technically. Very difficult in reality. You just need to remove your mask."

"Don't be ridiculous!" Lord Mumphrey scoffed. "The unmasking is not until midnight."

"And therein lies the problem," the djinn replied. "The glamour has a safety feature built in telling you not to remove the mask."

"There's no safety feature," Lord Mumphrey complained. "It's just not in the spirit of fun to take it off before the unmasking."

"Are you having fun?" the djinn asked quickly.

"That's not the point," Lord Mumphrey shot back before he'd even decided on a reply. Almost as if something else was answering for him.

"Nothing can completely dominate true will, Frederick," the djinn said. "If you want to, you can take off the mask. Be aware, though, that if you do no one will be able to compel you to put one back on again. Lady Crimzona might get a little short tempered about that."

Lord Mumphrey's mind was at war with itself. The only thing that he could say for certain was that he was afraid. When it came to wondering what he might be afraid of things started to get a bit trickier. He was afraid of taking off the mask, but he was afraid of what might happen if he didn't. He was afraid of confronting Lady Crimzona but, again, he was also afraid of allowing her party of thralls to dance and laugh their way to some terrible fate. Everything in this place was wrong but Lord Mumphrey was not the man to put them right.

Frederick Cobb, might be though...

Frederick looked down at the mask in his hand as all of his memories sloshed about in his head like water slopping around in a falling glass of water. The glass was the personality and history of a party guest called Lord Vilpus Mumphrey, it fell onto a hard surface that was the return of Frederick's personality and smashed into a billion pieces so tiny it was almost as if it never existed at all.

Lord Mumphrey's memories were like a puddle of water sitting upon the surface of his real mind, they were cold and wet and unpleasant. Frederick knew, within an instant that they would evaporate, until he would only remember them as something that had once been done to him, not with any depth or substance.

"Ordinarily," Harvey said gently in front of him. "I would mock you a little at this point, but that kind of glamour's about as harmful as magic can get, so I'll forego my habit in favour of telling you what we have to do next."

Harvey leaned in close to Frederick.

"You can't go running in there waving your sword around," he said. "Crimzona's magic has a lot of inertia behind it. She could kill you with a smile about now. She could disperse me so thin that I might not even be able to pull myself together. If either of those two things happen this party will go on for another few centuries and all of our companions will be lost. So we need to execute a clever scheme to leverage the one person who can lend me the power to deal with this, that being Phoebe. As it has to be a clever scheme I've devised it and all I need you to do is your part, without questions. Got me?"

Like the erstwhile imaginary Lord Mumphrey Frederick bristled at the way Harvey treated him. The arrogance of the djinn was infuriating. Frederick had to remind himself that if Harvey hadn't interceded he would still believe he was Lord Mumphrey. Frederick didn't know as much about magic as Harvey, so maybe doing his part without questions was exactly the right thing to do at the moment.

"So what do you suggest?" Frederick asked.

"If Phoebe removes her mask she will, of course, be incredibly angry and probably unleash masses of plasma and other elemental magic on impulse. This is just compounded by the fact that the way Crimzona's magic works is that the mask glamour continues to operate until the wearer chooses to remove their own mask. You can't just rip them off people's faces."

"Then it's hopeless," Frederick said. "I... I mean, Mumphrey, only took the mask off because he was pretty sure he'd gone mad, that was down to a double assault from you and my talking sword."

"You're welcome," the sword said in a tone of voice that let them both know how much it disapproved of being ignored.

"Not at all, my educationally sub-normal friend," Harvey grinned, ignoring the sword. "The geis which bonds me to Phoebe doesn't distinguish between Phoebe and the fake person Crimzona has put over the top of her. If Phoebe tells me to do something and ends her directive with the words 'this I do command thee' I instantly get the magic power to make that thing happen. Normally, I don't like it but in this place I can disperse a huge amount of sour magic and get you all of your friends back. Besides, whatever happens when this party ends is bound to be a hoot. Everybody wins."

"So what do you want me to do?" Frederick asked.

"I don't know," Harvey said. "Stay out here, talk to the trees, get in touch with your inner monkey. It wasn't you I was particularly fussed about, it was your mask."

"My mask?" Frederick said with the feeling that things were moving too fast again.

"By choosing to remove it you've essentially disempowered it," Harvey said. "Going in there with my improvised cloth mask was a bit of a risk. If Crimzona had spotted me she would have known that something was off. With your mask on my face I can swan about in there like an invited guest. I've already seen Phoebe I just need to convince her to command me to do something."

"So... you did all that, with the sword and the madness and what have you to get your hands on... this?" Frederick asked holding out the mask distastefully as if it might bite him.

"Now you're getting it," Harvey said. "It took a while but I knew it would."

"Well... here," Frederick said and handed the mask to Harvey. He was now irritated that Harvey had wanted the mask more than he had wanted Frederick but this was not the time for a confrontation. The longer he spent in the djinn's company the less he liked the unpleasant sprite.

Harvey slid the mask over his face.

"Oh yes," he said. "That's much better. Okay, well, if you hear screaming and see explosions, lights, other evidence of a heavy magic battle... well, that's all as it should be. Probably means the plan's going well. Until then just, uh, don't get into trouble."

With that Harvey walked away from the grove of trees and back onto the patio, heading for the party.

Alone, the full force of Frederick's resentment of the djinn washed over him. What right had that magical nuisance to pass judgement on Frederick's education or mental agility? Admittedly Frederick had always counted standing on the side of the angels as his chief attractive quality, he was a decent fighter and he liked to think that he had a healthy notion of the difference between right and wrong. Harvey, on the other hand, was a prime contender for the title of 'smartest sprite in the room' but seemed to have no moral compass, or, at least, one that had a bizarre notion about where north lay.

Now they were in this terrible situation, trapped in this nightmare party, dominated by the wicked Lady Crimzona and Frederick's moral goodness and strong right arm were not the useful attributes for the successful resolution of the situation. Frederick wasn't sure that Harvey's disregard for safety and love for sneaking around were quite the thing either but at least the djinn had a plan. What did Frederick have? Cold ears and no sense of purpose.

What was the point of being a hero when the villain could only be defeated by acts of skulduggery?

The question would go unanswered as a voice chirped up in Frederick's right ear:

"So, the djinn's gone. Thank goodness for that. I don't like him one bit."

"No, you're quite right," Frederick said to his sword.

"Sorry, what?" the sword asked. "I wasn't listening."

"I agree, the djinn's shifty," Fredrick said.

"Agree with whom?" the sword asked. "I didn't say anything."

"No," Frederick sighed, adopting an air of martyred patience. "You did. You just said you didn't like Harvey one bit."

"I said no such thing," the sword said.

Before Frederick could start getting seriously annoyed another voice piped up behind Frederick.

"The sword's right," it said. "I was the one who was speaking."

Now that Frederick heard the two voices one after the other he could tell they were separate. He still didn't understand what was going on, even now he remembered who he was. These strange voices were determined to convince him of his descent into insanity.

"Who's that?" Frederick asked.

"My name," said the disembodied voice, "is Tabarnas Riseandshine, I am a goblin merchant and I am protecting a scared little girl by the name of Rachel."

Before Frederick could come up with a sensible response to that there was a scream from inside the House of Mirth followed by a fork of lightning that flitted across the sky and a deep rumble of thunder. In the brief flash of light that preceded the thunder Frederick could now see an old and weathered goblin face standing nearby to Frederick's right.

Tabarnas's eyes met Frederick's. The young knight started back at the sight of the goblin merchant, who looked down at himself. Patting his clothes in surprise.

"It would seem," he said, turning his attention back to Frederick. "That midnight has come at last. This is not good, we shall have to hurry and make sure that Rachel remains safe."

So they did, and she was, but the particulars of their escape will make a story for another day.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Avan Weatherstrong, The Storm and the Owl of Wisdom

When the time of the Vanishing swallowed the whole of the Terra Draconis the castle at Turbae had, built into its base upon the eastern side, a whole section of foundations that showed clear signs that they had been rebuilt from underneath, in a hurry. The beginning of this story details how it was that such rapid and essential repair work had become necessary.

It had all started when the ward of the travelling prince Avan Weatherstrong, a girl known only as Anna, or, more often, Hell Child, stole a cart and attempted to drive it at some speed across the limits of the Kingdom to evade the justice of the guard. The ins and outs of that particular situation were subsequently lost in a nest of contradictory data and half-remembered anecdotes, none of which settle down until the point at which Prince Weatherstrong was cast into the dungeons beneath the castle for fraternising with a suspected Hell Beast.

News of the prince's impending execution spread rapidly. Many were of the opinion that Lord Turbae had been rash in his summary judgement over the visiting prince. There were some who were concerned about Prince Weatherstrong's abilities as a worker of powerful magic, still more were concerned about the possibility of inciting a diplomatic incident.

As it turns out nobody needed to worry on either score because the night before the execution the aforementioned Hell Beast engineered a jail break as lacking in subtlety as it was efficacious. Not long past midnight bell the night before the execution the sound of a mighty explosion rocked the castle on its foundations. A potion of elemental destruction had disintegrated a large portion of the foundations on the eastern side of the castle whilst leaving everything not made of stone entirely unharmed.

The prince emerged, choking on the remaining clouds of dust, to find Anna sitting upon a broom that she had flown in on to pick up the prince. The account of the incident that resides in the main archive at Sommerslip does not include dialogue. To find the actual words that passed between the Prince and his ward at the point directly following the explosion one would have to travel deep into the dark and perilous stacks in one of the archive's sub-basements. In the region where the leatherbound scrolls scratch themselves into a dense and dangerous existence you could read, if you were brave or foolish enough:

"What is going on?" asked Prince Weatherstrong, his ears still ringing from the sound of the explosion.

"I'm not having any stinky lord execute you because of me," Anabyl replied. "Besides, rescuing you meant I got to play with your alchemy book. I think I did quite well."

"I thought I told you to leave my alchemical journal alone," Avan thundered, his temper getting lost easily in the drifting cloud of powdered rock that surrounded them.

"As I have explained," Anabyl replied calmly, "you are my travelling companion, you don't tell me what to do, if you fight me you will lose."

"In all of my travels..." Avan began, but his tirade was swiftly cut off by the sound of keys opening the jail cell door behind him.

"So, are you going to stay here and get decapitated?" Anabyl asked. "Or are you going to take your seat on this broom I made using the notes in your Druidic Journal?"

"I told you..." Avan began but it was no use. He did not relish the idea of killing Turbae guards, his name in these regions was already black enough. At the same time he did not want to be executed.

When he had presented himself before Lord Turbae asking for the mercy of his court, only to have that mercy declined, he had been angry and afraid. Maybe not angry and afraid enough to cause severe structural damage to Lord Turbae's castle in retaliation but this appeared to be the consequence of defying Princess Anabyl.

"We are going to have a very serious conversation about this," Avan assured Anabyl as he took his seat upon the broom. Anabyl coaxed their wooden steed into life, soaring up into the air, putting some distance between them and the scene of chaos below, speeding towards the edge of Turbae, away from immediate, painful and drastic retribution.

"Boring," Anabyl replied as the broom sped through the dark night sky. "Why don't we just put this behind us and try to have some fun?"

"Anabyl," Avan said, he used her real name now that they were flying through the night sky, well out of earshot of anyone who might record the girl's real name and enter inconvenient paradoxes into any subsequent record. "This can't continue."

"What can't?" Anabyl said. "Me rescuing you? Don't worry, it's fun. You get into trouble you can count on me to get you out."

"You've nearly destroyed that castle!" Avan objected.

"They nearly decapitated you," Anabyl pointed out.

"Because you stole a cart, set fire to a village and turned a flock of chickens into..." Avan found himself out of concrete descriptions. "Well, a herd of some kind of carnivorous lizard. It was only purest chance that no one got hurt."

"I didn't think that you would actually turn yourself in over it. Didn't you get my note?" Anabyl asked crossly.

"The one advising me to run for the border because you believed Lord Turbae to have shifty eyes?" Avan asked.

"He likes to throw his weight about that one. I know the type," Anabyl said darkly. "If we didn't have to leave I have something I'd love to put in his bed, that would teach him."

"Anabyl!" Avan shouted. "This is no way to live your life. One day all of this... this... chaos it will catch up with you."

"Catch up with me?" Anabyl asked. "I thought you'd have noticed, it's all about me, right now. I live in it. Oh and in case I didn't mention it earlier: boring."

"You can't evade the consequences forever," Avan said. "It's a basic principle of the Wheel. The longer it takes to turn the worse it will be for you in the end."

"It's a wheel, right?" Anabyl said. "I guess I will just have to find the brake."

"The... brake?" Avan echoed, his voice faint. "Anabyl, I don't want to have to fight you."

"Why?" Anabyl said. "Are you a bad loser?"

"You're going to make me, aren't you?" Avan asked. "You're going to force me to fight a little girl."

"I'm not forcing you to do anything, the same way you're not forcing me to do anything, even if you try."

"Very well," Avan replied. "If the one thing I can accomplish in the universe is to give you purpose and discipline then I imagine that mine will be a life well-lived."

"We can put that on your gravestone if you like," Anabyl said merrily. She turned around to flash him a grin.

Avan Weatherstrong did not smile back at his small companion. His face grave and serious he muttered a single word under his breath. The name of an elemental, a gift given in return for a service once rendered.

"What was that?" Anabyl said. "I didn't quite catch- oh."

The princess stopped talking, noting that the sky around them had gone from clear and cold to cloudy and charged with brooding electricity.

"You might want to land the broom," Avan said.

"What did you do?" Anabyl demanded.

"Something that means you should land the broom," Avan replied.

Avan's face lit up for a fraction of a second all pale white skin and deep shadow. Following the light came a dangerous rumble that appeared to shake the very air surrounding the broom.

"Alright," Anabyl grumbled. "There was no need to be such a grump about it."

By the time the broom had reached the ground the storm clouds had started to loose a downpour that was more like a deluge. Anabyl and Avan ran for cover in a cave that Avan had spotted from the air.

"So you can make it rain?" Anabyl said, looking out from under the sheltering rocks, wet and a little miserable.

"One way or another all things are possible," Avan replied. He muttered a minor cantrip he had devised for occasions when there was no wood to make a fire. A ball of heated white-orange plasma formed in the palm of his hand and then floated downwards towards the floor. About six inches away from the dusty rock at the mouth of the cave the ball stopped moving. Heat filtered up and out from the ball, filling the cave mouth.

"Fire too," Anabyl said. "You're a much better at magic than daddy's alchemist, and his warlock."

"I have a repertoire suitable for travel," Avan said. "I'm sure that your father's magicians have their own specialisms."

"One snores so loud the entire castle can hear him and the other is so deaf that many swear supernatural intervention," Anabyl shrugged. "Aside from that I couldn't tell you."

The pair sat either side of the plasma ball and looked out at the rain.

"This storm is awful," Anabyl said. "Can't you make it stop? I've landed now."

Avan shook his head.

"I had the power to call down a storm quickly," he said. "I have no power to make one stop."

"That's a bit rubbish," Anabyl said. "Why would you do something you can't undo?"

"Why do you?" Avan asked.

Anabyl shot Avan a peevish look and said nothing.

The prince and princess sat for a long time, staring out of the cave mouth. They sat so long that it began to appear as if dawn should be breaking. The whole sky was so filled with dark clouds that no light was allowed through.

Out of the dark woods west of the cave there came the flutter of wings. A shape darker than the dark clouds, as shadowed as the tree trunks but in motion. became visible. Eventually an owl came into view, its flecked brown feathers picked out in the light of the plasma ball.

The owl swooped in towards the cave and landed at the cave mouth. It stepped back and forth a few times dripping onto the stone at the cave entrance. Then it swivelled its head to look at Anabyl, after a moment seeming to dismiss her and turning his attention to Avan.

"You did this?" the owl asked.

"I'm sorry if the storm has inconvenienced you, I can only apologise," Avan said.

"I was soaring in the sky, following my thread," the owl said. "Then the clouds came down, and the pattern changed."

"The pattern?" Avan said. "Do you mean the Weave?"

"What other pattern could an owl of wisdom see?" the owl asked. "You changed the pattern, I don't think you intended to."

"I certainly didn't," Avan said. "A storm should not have the power to alter fate."

"And you complain that I break things," Anabyl said. "I've never broken destiny."

The owl spun its head again, studying Anabyl once more.

"No, indeed you don't," the owl said. "You are tightly woven, this is exactly where you are supposed to be."

Anabyl instantly looked uncomfortable. Avan had come to know his ward well enough to understand that if the princess found out that she was anywhere near where she was supposed to be she would want to be somewhere else as soon as possible.

"Strange for you to say," Avan said. "For my companion is a very long way from home, lost, trying to find a way to return."

"Well, I can't tell you anything about that," the owl said. "All I can see is that her road leads from here to the Academy at Dracopolis, after that I cannot see further."

"The Academy?" Avan asked. "That is where they train Dragon Warriors."

"What's a Dragon Warrior?" Anabyl asked in a tone of voice that said she was guessing what it was and hoped she wasn't wrong.

"Dragon Warriors are the elite armies of the Dragon Empire," Avan answered. "Some are draco, some folk, there are even goblins, sprites and trolls among their ranks. They have a fearsome reputation. It was the first Dragon Warriors that turned the tide of the Great Conflict in the opening verses of the Dragon Song."

"Indeed," the owl of wisdom chipped in, "Some say that the banishment of the Dragon Lord Decaroleth to his castle of eternal slumber was the completion point of the Weave's first pattern. Since that time the Dragon Warriors have pledged vigilance in the face of all evil for the growth and prosperity of the Terra Draconis."

"Well," Anabyl muttered. "They obviously didn't do a very good job."

"Anabyl!" Avan said. "We have talked about you keeping your knowledge of the shape of the Weave that we do not know to yourself."

"Besides," the owl said. "You are wrong about that. The Dragon Warriors play a vital role in some of the Weave's most intricate patterns. No great catastrophe or turn of the Wheel can dilute or fragment them, they are the most tenacious fighters in the entire land of Faerie."

"Well that doesn't sound so rubbish then," Anabyl said.

"Not rubbish at all," Avan agreed. "The Dragon Warriors, as I understand it, have martial powers allied to both the Weave and the Wheel. According to this owl we are supposed to travel to their Academy at Dracopolis. You have some business there, something destined to be."

"You mean I'm going to be a Dragon Warrior?" Anabyl asked. "Is that why fate brought me here?"

"I can't answer that," Avan said, he looked down at the owl.

"All I know," the owl said. "Is that your path leads to the Academy. My path leads the other way. Oh look, the rain is stopping."

As Avan and Anabyl had conversed with the owl of wisdom some grey light had started to filter through the clouds and the rains were abating.

"I must be on my way," the owl said. "And so must you."

The owl flapped its wings and made its way up into the cold morning air. As the moment of dawn ended the night Avan's plasma ball faded and died with a small pop.

"I'm going to be a Dragon Warrior," Anabyl said, a grin plastered across her face.

"The ranks of the Dragon Warriors are known for their unwavering discipline," Avan said. "That might be something of a stumbling block to your ambitions."

Anabyl stuck her tongue out at Avan: "You're just a grump," she said. "We'll see who becomes a Dragon Warrior and who doesn't."

Indeed they did, but that is a story for another time.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

In Which Saeed Comes To The Brink Of Forever

Saeed travelled alone across the Turnaround Bridge, through the rainbow mist, on to destinations unknown. The one thing he was reasonably clear on was that he was travelling on toward his final destination, a reconciliation with his mother, a chance to apologise for the wrong that he had done.

Obtaining the price the Keeper of the Way had demanded, the seal of Kalico, master of the Patchwork Market at Bridgetown, had been hard enough. Saeed had seen many things in the execution of his tasks, experiences he was storing away carefully within his head in preparation for the time when he would once again see his mother.

He hoped that this time would now be close at hand for, overall, Saeed felt that his mind was becoming very full indeed. If much more happened to him on the road there was a chance that he might forget things that had happened to him and that would not be a good thing at all.

The way across the Turnaround Bridge was long, the bridge itself was narrow at the start. As it continued out through the strange coloured mists that surrounded him the bridge changed in shape, until it was clear that this way was not a single bridge but, apparently, many bridges strung together through a vast, indistinct void.

The bridge continued on for such a distance that Saeed began to feel a little concerned. There was no indication whether the other side of the bridge was close at hand, or whether he'd even got halfway across. There was just the narrow path through nothingness, no end in sight.

Eventually the bridge broadened, a ramp carried Saeed up onto a wide suspension bridge. He still had not reached the opposite side and he began to detect other people wandering through the mist.

The people were dressed in a variety of outfits. Some Saeed recognised, some he did not. All were walking parallel to Saeed, across the bridge and on to the other side. Saeed did not see one person attempting to cross the other way.

Before long the number of people had grown quite large. Saeed could not identify himself as a lone traveller, instead finding himself enfolded within a shuffling throng, all walking in one direction, all looking about at their fellow travellers in some confusion.

"I was not expecting to meet so many people on this path," Saeed said to the closest person to him, an old man, a gnome sat upon his shoulders.

"Many seek Luminis," the man replied. "Few gain entrance."

"I know you will think this to be a strange admission," Saeed said. "But I did not know this path lead to a place called Luminis. All I know is that it is a place I must be."

The older man smiled.

"That is probably not uncommon," he said. "I am just acting as a guide for my friend here," he indicated the gnome. "He has lost his purpose. He must find a new one or return to the source."

"I think it's been time enough for Splinterflame," the gnome said cheerily. "I imagine that it is my time to return whence I came, beyond the Central City, into the heart of creation itself."

"I'm afraid I am not very educated," Saeed said. "I do not really follow what it is you are saying."

"Education does not matter," the older man said. "All that matters is what the gatekeepers decide."

"I see," Saeed said. "Well, I hope that they decide in my favour."

"All do," the man said. "There's really no way to tell until you get to the walls."

"Look!" came a cry from the front of the crowd. "There it is!"

The crowd instantly hushed, all conversation dying upon every tongue. Every one looked up and out towards the distant horizon, still wreathed in the indistinct lightly-hued mists.

Then, the mists broke, far in the sky the black shapes of tall spires became visible, the colour overhead went from a varied patchwork of different shades to a clear and brilliant blue. The heat of a bright sun washed over the crowd.

A few steps further on and tall walls of large dark brick became visible, a few steps further again and the party crossed the far side of the bridge, stepping from a wooden floor to a white brick path winding through an expansive green valley towards an enormous structure built into the dark wall up ahead. The spires that had been the first visible sign of Luminis were the only part of the enormous city beyond the dark walls that could be seen from the path.

A ramshackle settlement had been erected at the foot of the wall. None of the structures that made up this encampment looked permanent or particularly safe for the inhabitants. There were a few proper tents and permanent caravans but alongside this were poorly built shacks constructed out of loosely piled rocks or pieces of discarded wood.

As the crowd passed by, walking on towards the gigantic archway at the foot of the enormous gatehouse of Luminis Saeed looked about himself trying to assess what kinds of people lived in the settlement at the base of the walls. There were many people from the bridge crowding in all about him but Saeed caught glimpses of goblin traders and many people who looked like the beggars from the streets of Afsana where he had grown up.

As the archway loomed closer Saeed began to worry that he had not questioned where the Turnaround Bridge would send him, just that it would bring him closer to his mother. Of course, his mother had been taken by death. Was this a place of the dead?

Luminis did not look like any paradise that Saeed had ever imagined, and if it was, who were all those dwelling in the shanty town? Were they the sinful? Was that the judgement that was to follow? Would Saeed's own guilt at his thievery prevent him from gaining access to this celestial city?

Saeed found it hard to believe that he was standing before the entrance to paradise. Much aside from anything else why would the righteous have to walk past the wicked to cross the threshold to their reward? If they saw others suffering and did nothing then how righteous were they anyway?

Much apart from these challenging concepts Saeed could feel sun on his face, a slight breeze blowing in from the mountains to his left. He did not feel dead, he did not remember dying, so this could not be a land for the dead or a place of ultimate judgement.

Maybe Saeed was wrong but he believed that whatever Luminis was, it wasn't a land of the dead. He would have an opportunity to find out shortly, because he was about to pass through the arch into the gatehouse and out of the sun-filled valley.

On the other side of the arch was a huge courtyard with a gigantic polished marble floor. It reminded Saeed of the Caliph's Palace at Afsana but colder, the structure had a feeling of officiousness that he associated with the Patchwork Market more than any part of his home city.

All around the courtyard were a number of narrow doorways, standing at each doorway was a strangely dressed usher in a little round hat, a blue jacket, a white shirt and straight blue trousers. Saeed had never seen such an outfit before. The closest thing he had seen was Joshua's clothing but that had been more dark and serious. The bright blue and white of these uniforms made the ushers look a little like clowns.

Even so they motioned for members of the throng to come forward and step through the doorways, and people were going. As the crowd kept moving forward and out to the side so Saeed drifted closer to a doorway. As he reached the threshold the usher looked Saeed in the eye and said.

"Go along until you reach an open doorway, then go right inside, first one you see."

The usher reached out a white-gloved hand and guided Saeed into the passageway before he had time to object or ask any questions.

For the first time on his journey Saeed began to feel afraid. He had embarked upon his journey without fear, he now realised, because he had thought of his eventual goal as being fairly straightforward and obvious. He had seen his mother die, the angel of death had told him where to begin his journey, that step had lead to the next, had lead to the next, had lead... here.

This strange, long, cool, dark stone corridor, like so many he had already seen, with closed doors ranged against the right hand wall. In the distance he could make out the triangle of yellow light demarcating the first open door upon the route.

There were people already gathering behind him. Saeed stepped forward before he had the time to consider whether he wanted to keep walking forward or not. It occurred to him that the time to turn away had already happened at a time when he would never have considered it. He hadn't been allowed to back away for some time now.

Given no choice, his stomach yawning with a hollow dread he could not name, Saeed walked along the corridor towards the square of light. He reached the door quickly and peered over the threshold. Sat inside the room beyond the door was a young woman dressed like some of the more monied residents of the Patchwork Market, in a plain but elegant dress that came down towards the mid point of her calves, her feet wrapped in pointy soft leather boots.

The young woman's fair hair was gathered in a precise knot on the crown of her skull. She wore jewelled earrings and a single ring on her left hand. She did not appear to be wearing make up.

"Saeed Ibn Abihi?" the young woman asked. "Please, come in, sit down."

The woman motioned to a chair opposite her position. In between them, slightly off to one side was a tea set that reminded Saeed of Joshua's house.

Saeed stepped inside and sat down. The woman went over and gently closed the door, then she returned to her seat.

"Really, there's no need to look so frightened. This is just a little chat about why you've come to Luminis. If I decide entering the city would be in your best interests then there won't be a problem."

"I must say," Saeed said. "I did not really know that I was coming to Luminis. I did not even know such a place existed. I merely knew that this was a step upon my journey to be reunited with my mother."

"You believe your mother is here?" The woman asked. She picked up the tea pot. "Tea?"

"No, thank you," Saeed said. "I really don't know if my mother is here, the Keeper of the Turnaround Bridge took a price from me and when I crossed the bridge this is where I found myself."

"Have some tea, dear," the woman said. "It will relax you. You look like you need to relax."

She poured Saeed a cup of tea, then she picked up her own cup and sipped from it.

"So your mother might not be in Luminis?" the woman said.

"I think the Turnaround Bridge uses magic to determine the destination of the traveller," Saeed said. "I don't think it would have sent me here if I didn't need to be here."

"Ah but it's old magic," the woman said. "Deep magic. This whole place is the product of some of the oldest and deepest magic that exists. I think it is without doubt that you do need to enter the city. The question then becomes whether you should enter now, today."

"I am really just looking to apologise for a lie I told to my mother," Saeed said. "That is all I want in the world."

"And if you get all that you want in the world," the woman said. "What then?"

"I... don't know," Saeed said. As he sat, sipping at the tea he didn't want, considering questions he hadn't wanted to consider a great sadness reawakened in Saeed. He had diverted the pain, looking ahead to his goal but the woman's questions had brought to him a great realisation. When Saeed met his mother again it would be an apology and a farewell. Things would never be as they once had been.

"Then maybe you need to know," the woman said. "This is a place people come to learn, Saeed. A place they come to become what they must be to do the things they must do. Nobody has come here to deliver an apology. I am afraid I cannot approve your entry into the city. It has been lovely to talk with you though. When you're ready go through the door in the back corner."

She indicated a door visible over her left shoulder before sipping, silently, at her tea. She did not speak again.

Saeed didn't know what to do or say. Should he argue back? The woman's logic did not appear sound, what if his mother was in Luminis? What if this was the end of Saeed's journey and he was being turned away?

On the other hand, what if she was right? What if this was yet another step along the road, a road that may not include a stop in Luminis? The only problem with that was the thought of what to do next. Saeed did not know another way onwards.

"So," he said carefully, "when it is my time to enter Luminis I should come back to this place?"

"There are many ways to enter Luminis," the woman said. "Today this was the route chosen for you."

"Chosen by whom?" Saeed asked.

"By the source, the powers of the weave, the aspect of fate," the woman said. "That is how the Hall of Entrance works."

"Well," Saeed said, standing up. "Thank you for your time. I am sorry that my case failed to meet your expectation for entry to the city."

"There will be other days," the woman said. "You must understand that it is nothing personal."

"I do," Saeed said. "Thank you."

Saeed moved around the table with the tea set and out through the door at the back. The door lead into a corridor that stretched on for a long while before making a couple of sharp left turns and eventually depositing Saeed back outside the walls of Luminis to the rear of the shanty town.

"A thief I am," Saeed muttered to himself, looking about the shacks and mud paths that defined the shanty town. "So like a thief I must enter this city."

Saeed did not know if the young woman in the Hall of Entrance had intended to imply that Saeed could just walk outside and try to gain entrance to the city of Luminis by other means but this was what he had taken from her explanations. Saeed walked through the shanty town, instantly feeling more comfortable about his surroundings.

Looking about himself Saeed determined that, despite the modesty of the encampment, this was not as miserable a place as such dwellings tended to be. The wood and metal of the shack construction was usually quite clean, free from evidence of erosion by the elements. The doors to many of the shacks stood open and homey little spaces were visible within. These accomodations were sparse but not spartan.

Some residents had book shelves, others shrines, others displayed works of art or musical instruments. This did not appear to be a place of desperation, merely a stopping point, something like a travelling market or a festival encampment.

The people of the shanty town moved back and forth around Saeed, about their business. Eavesdropping upon their conversations Saeed determined that, rather than discussing hunger, poverty or hardship, their minds were occupied with matters of philosophy, aesthetics and mysticism.

This was a place more curious than the enigmatic city within the mighty walls beyond. A hastily erected community of intellectuals that sat below the mighty dark stone walls of Luminis. Presumably these were others who had come through the Hall of Entrance and been turned away.

Saeed was perplexed. He was a thief, he was reasonably confident that he could find an opportunity to steal into Luminis if he looked hard enough. These men and women were scholars, what was the purpose of their encampment? The young woman had told Saeed that all who were ready could enter Luminis via the Hall of Entrance. If you were not ready, according to the administrators, you had to seek another way in. Sitting in shacks discussing the nature of reality did not appear to be in anyone's best interests.

Before he could think further upon this matter the opportunity he had searched for presented itself. Saeed had learned long ago how to spot an opportunity. He had also learned that if you didn't take an opportunity as it came up the door could often close.

He could see a small fringe of the encampment was packing itself up. A man in uniform was shouting orders to a number of other men in uniform, of various shapes and sizes. They were packing up their dwellings and pulling sacks of clothes and supplies onto their back.

"The prince is waiting, he can't wait forever," the man was shouting. "His advisors have worked long and hard to lift the blockade and now he must enter the city with his guard protecting him. Hurry! Hurry!"

The men in uniform were too busy to pay much attention to Saeed as he moved through their encampment. They failed to question him when he located a trunk filled with parts of the guards' uniforms. No one cared when Saeed donned a uniform and then, dressed in black breeches and tunic, a fine mail tabard and a pointy metal helmet, began to assist in the packing of the encampment.

Before long pallets were loaded and packs were worn upon the soldier's backs. Saeed himself was carrying a heavy pack containing some kind of ground meal. The guards formed a column and marched towards the entrance hall, Saeed in their midst.

The process of taking the opportunity had occupied all of Saeed's mind for the time until the column of soldiers he had joined began their march into the city of Luminis. As the army marched to the right of the entrance hall and through a large opening that had not been there a few hours before Saeed had an opportunity for his own doubts and fears to catch up with him.

Before they quite could he spent some time scanning the rest of the shanty town for signs of others trying to breach the gap in the walls of Luminis. A few intellectual types stood by, watching the prince's guard enter the city, but no one seemed ready to cheat the system the way that Saeed was.

Of course, if anyone was cheating exactly the way that Saeed was Saeed would probably not know about it, that was the core of his plan. He had one final opportunity to wonder whether what he was now doing was for the best or not. He was a thief, his existence revolved around obtaining his desires by stealth, not always entirely in sympathy with the wishes of others.

Was this really how he should continue his life? What was he to do otherwise? At the moment his conscience was clear because his skills were in the service of a loftier goal, and his own personal code meant that, should he be asked, he could not help but be honest. As the young woman had said to him in the Hall of Entrance: what would come after?

Maybe going into Luminis was a mistake, he had been refused entry already. All he knew was that he had no where else to go and nothing else to do right now, so this was what would have to be. Maybe, he considered as he marched on through the breach to enter Luminis, he would have to think about some ways to change that.

This he did, among many other things that happened to him within the walls of Luminis, but all those are stories for another time.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The House of Masks Revealed

"I suppose," said the owl, "that I should tell you to be careful. Not that it will do much good."

"Why won't it do much good?" Frederick asked.

"I told Lester and James to be careful," the owl said, "they are still missing, unlike the rest of them they haven't been gone long. Maybe they'll come back."

"I don't like this," Phoebe said. "Not one little bit."

"Six people disappear and you're concerned that there may be some kind of a problem?" Frederick said. "Full marks for observation."

"I was expressing my concern," Phoebe snapped. "It was a heartfelt comment, not a clever one."

"Are you going to look for them?" the owl asked. "Because there's really no one else left to, Felix has to guard the wagon, he's been told and I can't leave the castle."

"Castle?" Frederick asked, looking around and up for the usual tall, grey structure sprouting from a nearby hill. There wasn't one that he could see.

"It's a replica," the owl said. "A ghost can haunt anything domestic, scale isn't really an issue."

"You're a ghost?" Phoebe asked. "Fascinating."

"Usually I'd agree," the owl replied. "At the moment it's no more than an inconvenience. I can stay and I can watch, otherwise I am powerless to intervene."

"So where did they go?" Frederick asked looking about the nearby streets. It was near enough dead centre in the period between noon bell and the day bell, the streets of Steephill Fell were bustling.

"They went into the first small alley arcade on the left hand side of the street to the West," the owl said. "Actually they combed the area poking around everywhere. That arcade is the last place that they went. They investigated but then they never came back."

"I guess we'll have to be careful then," Frederick said.

"I'll swear I just made a comment to that effect not thirty seconds ago," the owl said but Phoebe and Frederick were already halfway down the street. "Oh, yes, and goodbye. Hope you find them. Not least because this street corner is really rather tedious."

Frederick was doing a little better now. There was a sense of menace and mystery, nobody had tried to beat him up in just over an hour and he had plenty to think about besides the way Phoebe's hair fell when she tilted her head over to the right in thought. He was most definitely too busy with the disappearances and what-have-you to think about the latter item much at all, and that was definitely a good thing.

"You don't need to stamp about the place looking so serious," Phoebe said from about half a step behind him. "It's not like you're in charge or anything."

The sudden tweak of annoyance in Frederick's gut cleared almost all other thoughts out of his head in an instant.

"I'm just worried," he said. "I don't want to get disappeared like the others."

"Do you not?" Phoebe asked. "Then how do you propose that we find them all?"

"Fine," Frederick said. "We can follow them, but we don't want to get lost like them."

"How do you know?" Phoebe asked. "They might have all gone somewhere so nice they just don't want to come back."

Frederick had to stop and think about that for a second and in that time Phoebe swanned past him and into the arcade. The small ginger tom cat, Harvey, plodded along behind. As they disappeared into the covered passageway Harvey looked back to give Frederick a narrow-eyed grin.

Now it was Frederick's turn to come bustling up the small cobbled passageway behind Phoebe, striding past fishmongers' stalls. The arcade smelled of fish that was on the point of turning ripe, most of the merchants were adjusting their prices downwards, trying to move on whatever it was they had left to get rid of.

"What about these people?" Frederick said as Phoebe studiously ignored the fish traders. Harvey was paying more attention, at least to the merchandise, but he looked as if he hated himself for it.

"They don't know anything," Phoebe announced airily.

"How do you know?" Frederick asked.

"If people disappear the last thing they will have done before they vanished is talk to your common or garden fishmonger or trader in seafood," Phoebe said with the ring of certainty evident in her voice.

"So what will they have done?" Frederick asked.

"Talked to the unusual, shady, creepy or otherwise darkly mysterious purveyor of briny goods, like him," Phoebe said pointing out a dark stall displaying jars of pickled seafood at the very end of the arcade.

"So they talked to him," Frederick said. "What about?"

"Let's find out," Phoebe said and marched over to the stall. "Where are they?" she asked without preamble.

The merchant gave Phoebe a look that indicated that he had seen it all before, even if 'it' was abrupt witches bluntly assuming that you would know what they were talking about, and pointed at the wall opposite his stall.

"You play patty cake with the bricks," he said. "Door opens. Will take you where you need to go."

"Where we need to go?" Phoebe said, looking at the wall. "So it's a different destination for everyone?"

"Don't know," the merchant said. "I just sell pickled seaweed, and other refinements."

"So, what?" Frederick asked, looking at the rather grimy looking wall of dark stone bricks that had been indicated. "We play patty cake? We don't play patty cake?"

"I think we need more information," Phoebe said. "Harvey dear?"

The ginger tom looked up from its activity, sniffing around an unpleasantly wet looking sack to one side of a stall further down the arcade. Harvey came slinking up to Phoebe before transforming back into a rakish red-haired youth.

"What's up, feebs?" Harvey asked.

"There's a portal, in that wall," she said. "What can you tell me about it?"

Harvey went over to the wall and sniffed about.

"Pure mischief," he said. "Not one of the boss's little side doors. This one's from the source. Nobody can control it, not even the boss."

"So if we go through it we won't follow the last people to go through it?" Phoebe asked.

"Can't tell," Harvey said. "sometimes these things won't even take two people who follow one another to the same place, sometimes they switch destinations in the tween, sometimes they just randomly do whatever they feel like doing. They tunnel through time and space, they could send you to the moon in the future, or to the mortal world in the past."

"You're not being very helpful," Phoebe said. "Is there any way we could get more details?"

"If you open it," Harvey said, "I could probably pick up a scent from the other side. While it's closed I can smell the door, and the scent of the people who recently went through, even over the fish, but I can't tell you whether those scents continue on the other side."

"If we open it," Frederick asked. "How do we close it again?"

"Almost all of these things close after about ten minutes, or, in the worst case, in the tween," Harvey said, he spoke a little slower as if telling something to someone slightly backwards.

"What's a tween?" Frederick asked, not caring how dumb people thought he was.

"Magical concept," Phoebe said. "A tween is any place inbetween one thing and another. Doorways in and of themselves are tweens. Crossways are tweens. There are also well established major tweens in time such as midnight, the space between one day and the next. If midnight happens where you are then it tends to reset any non-persistent magical effects in the area."

"So the door will definitely close by itself at midnight?" Frederick asked.

"Nothing will definitely ever happen when it comes to magic, dimbo," Harvey said. "Particularly not when that magical something involves pure magic, straight from the source."

"But it would be highly unusual if it didn't," Phoebe cut in. "Right, Harvey?"

"Hey, he asked a big boy question," Harvey said. "Excuse me for giving him the big boy answer."

"There's a lot of chaos in magic, isn't there?" Frederick said.

"We call it mischief," Harvey said. "Chaos has too many negative connotations."

"This isn't a magical theory lecture," Phoebe said. "We need to find out what's on the other side of that door, and if it's our friends."

With that she stepped up to the wall and slapped out a quick game of patty cake. On the last hand slap her hand penetrated the wall appearing to disappear into the solid stone of the bricks.

"Open," she said. "Harvey, get sniffing."

"Um," Frederick said to the pickle seller. "You might want to make a sign or something, in case we don't go through." The pickle seller looked at Frederick like he was some sort of odd insect that he'd discovered under a rock in his garden. "You know," Frederick said. "Caution... advisory... of caution... no. Okay."

Frederick turned away to see Harvey sniffing around the doorway, in his cat form. The djinn transformed back into his other shape.

"We're in luck, sort of," Harvey said. "The way through still has a scent of the last couple of people to go through."

"Are you sure?" Phoebe asked.

"One of the things that went through this door," Harvey said. "Was very, very tasty, small, grey, furry, likes cheese, you follow my drift? I can't get the smell out of my nostrils."

"What about the others?" Frederick asked. "The little girl? The mermaid?"

"Too long ago," Harvey said. "So, are we going on a mouse hunt."

"Do I have to put you under an injunction, Harvey?" Phoebe asked sternly. The red-headed youth flinched.

"You are about as much fun as, well, you," Harvey complained. "And that is no fun at all. I wish nobody had ever touched that magic shovel. I was having a nice holiday."

"I can only imagine," Phoebe said. "But I won't because it will only make me cross. Come on Frederick, let's get on with it."

"Sir Cobb," Frederick said as Phoebe swished through the magic door. Now he was alone Frederick could not help the urge to further qualify himself. "My name is Sir Cobb, I'm a knight," he said to the pickle merchant.

"You might want to hurry," the merchant said, unimpressed. "Door don't open long."

Frederick gave up on trying to impress upon people his chivalric qualifications and walked through the door behind the others.

"You really need to be more assertive," said the sword at his waist. "As your manager I am concerned that you don't have a strong enough brand."

"A what now?" Frederick asked.

"I'm resident in metal," the sword said. "As such I occasionally receive transmissions of mortal information streams. They, the mortals, have this kind of magic called a brand. You put a brand on something, like a shoe, and its magic makes people want to buy it, well, to own it. They haven't ironed that exact distinction out, causes some problems, anyway...."

"Are you talking to your sword?" Harvey asked.

Frederick realised that Phoebe and Harvey were looking at him. They were stood in a small, bare stone cell on the other side of the door. Phoebe looked as if she was running out of patience. Harvey looked amused, but not in a good way.

"I wondered how you found a conversational companion to be your intellectual equal," Harvey said. "Now I know."

"If everybody's quite finished messing about," Phoebe said. "Harvey, follow the scent."

"I'm just a nose to you," Harvey said. "It's really quite insulting."

With that he turned into a cat and sniffed away along the floor, following the scent he had detected. Phoebe and Frederick followed along behind. They walked down a few musty corridors and up a set of steps to a hallway with many doors leading off it. Harvey sniffed around the edges for a bit before turning back into a boy.

"They walked back and forth here a few times," he said. "I can't tell where they went last, I'm not a dog."

After a short examination of the surrounding rooms all they could find was a broken window in one room and an hourglass on a shelf. Above the hourglass, engraved in a metal plate, was the legend:

Come, spend an hour and visit with us.

"This is it then?" Phoebe said. "We turn the glass?"

"What do you think will happen?" Frederick asked.

"It's an area effect magic, low level, druidic," Harvey said. "Anyone in the room will be caught within the field when it's turned."

"So what will it do?" Frederick asked.

"It's not a door, dimbo," Harvey said. "So I have no idea, something magic."

"Maybe they didn't turn it over," Frederick said.

"Their scent trail says otherwise," Harvey replied. "They went across the hall a couple of times, upstairs for a bit and outside but there's no sign of them further than the sun dial in the back garden."

"Maybe you just can't smell it," Frederick suggested. "After all you're not a dog."

"Hey, whatever makes you comfy, Sir Clueless," Harvey said. "I personally don't really care what you do. I'm just behaving so I don't get any major mojo slapped on me by my burden."

Phoebe glared at Harvey who grinned and then turned back into a cat.

"We've got to go on," Phoebe said. "We don't have a choice, we've come too far."

Frederick shrugged.

"Alright then," he said. "Turn the glass."

Phoebe picked up the hourglass on its little shelf, reversed it and put it back down. The sand began to run through the pinch in the centre. Instantly Frederick felt like the bottom had fallen out of his stomach. His head felt dizzy and his breath caught in his throat.

"Oh wow!" said an excited voice behind him. "Even more visitors!"

Things had changed. The sound of jaunty folk music stuttered through the air forming a bed to a murmur of conversation, the odd shout or scream of delight and the occasional eruption of laughter, or applause, or both. As Frederick inhaled he caught the scent of roasted meats in competition with the sharp sweetness of sugary things, probably cakes.

Frederick had not eaten a proper meal in a long time. Being a travelling knight and an incompetent cook he had neither the money nor the skill to find good food for himself. He subsisted on energy-providing stodge with a side order of telling yourself that it was all for the greater good.

Suddenly finding himself at a party, the air itself changed from cool and still to warm and vibrant, Frederick didn't really know what to do next. A small, bearded man wearing a long nosed mask and with a brightly coloured conical cardboard hat perched upon his head came round to study Frederick. Cheerful eyes twinkled as they looked him up and down.

"A beautiful girl, a handsome knight and..." the little man looked at Harvey sat on the floor and surveying the scene half-hungry, half-suspicious, "...and an animal, all guests at the party now!"

"What party?" Phoebe asked, cutting to the heart of the matter.

"You've arrived at the House of Mirth, my dear," the little man said. "Where the party continues through the day and the night."

"What's the party for?" Phoebe asked.

"For?" the little man said. "Who said a party had to be 'for' something? At the House of Mirth laughter and levity are more than occasional, they are the very stuff of life. Come, let me show you the buffet, let me show you the musicians, the dancing, the entertainment. At midnight will be the great unmasking and then the festivities will be over for today. You can stay until then? Of course you can! Oh, but you will need masks."

"Uh," Frederick said. The smell of the food was making his belly growl, the evident jollity was enticing, at the same time Frederick could tell that something was off here.

"Excuse my silly friend," Phoebe cut across Frederick before he could rouse himself to a sensible response. "He has few wits and even fewer manners. I will certainly need to give him a firm talking to prior to entering the party. Particularly if he is to be masked. Who knows what he will get up to otherwise?"

"I am sure that he will get into the swing of things," the little man said. "Now is not the time for blame or recriminations. Fear and sadness have no place in the House of Mirth."

"I understand," Phoebe said, an edge to her voice. "However we must confess that we did not know that we would be coming to a party, so we are ill prepared for the party mood. A few moments and we will be ready to pull on our masks and join in the fun."

"Ah, but fun flows like a river throughout the House..."


The little man keeled over and fell to the floor unconscious. Harvey stood behind him holding a piece of wood with a jewel at one end, possibly a magic wand.

"That," he said. "Is how you deal with trouble like that."

"Trouble?" Frederick said. "I don't understand."

"Why am I not surprised?" Harvey said.

"This isn't a party, Frederick," Phoebe said. "It's a trap."

"A trap?" Frederick asked. "A trap with a buffet, dancing, entertainment and masks?"

"The worst kind," Harvey said. "I can smell the mischief in this place, and it's curdled. Mischief turned this bad is like poison."

"Party poopers!" declared a voice at the door to the room. "New arrivals! And they're party poopers!"

Frederick turned around to see the owner of this new voice, high-pitched and ringing, the kind of voice that was used to obedience. The voice came from a tall, slim woman in a sparkling party frock, on her finger she wore an enormous ruby set into a ring and the rest of her outfit appeared to follow on from that key feature. Currently she was pointing the ring in the direction of Phoebe, Harvey and Frederick. The ruby was glowing with a dangerous red light.

"Party poopers must become the life and soul, because this is my day, my sweet sixteen and nobody is going to ruin it for me," the young woman said.

The last thing that Frederick remembered before being swallowed by the bright red light was Harvey, shifting to cat form and dodging past the woman. Then Frederick stopped worrying and wondered whether there were any prawns on the buffet. He liked prawns.

Frederick and Phoebe were in trouble, but they escaped from the House of Mirth and with them they brought James, Lester, the gnome and all their other friends. How they did it is a story for another time.