"Owls," James said, a word that seemed, to Lester, to be pretty much apropos of nothing.
"Where?" Lester said, making a guess that Lester was referring to some owls that might be somewhere nearby.
"Here," James said. "Or at least they used to be. I recognise this place from pictures. It's the First Eyrie."
"Oh," Lester said. "Good. So how far until we get somewhere less... remote? Ideally a place that is less imbued with feelings of lurking menace."
"James!" Rachel cried out running over to join the pair standing among the perches on the enormous stone slab. "You're safe."
"Yes, uh, yes Rachel, I am safe and well," James said. Lester believed that he detected a note of awkwardness in James's voice.
Without even saying 'hello' or 'how do you do' Rachel dipped her hand into Lester's pocket and fished the mouse out. She held James up to her face, wreathed in smiles.
"Well," she said. "This has been a fine adventure, but I think, perhaps, it is time we found our way home."
"I couldn't agree more," James said.
"Well, we'll wait for the gnome to wake up and I'll get him to take us home, or we can just get some directions," Rachel said.
"You meant the Skull Garden, didn't you?" James asked.
"Well, that's home," Rachel said. "I think we've been wandering around for too long now, although, to be fair, I mostly stayed in Bridgetown Market, it was you that travelled."
"Yes, I did," James said. "And I discovered a few things."
"Oh yes," Rachel said. "Like what?"
"Like..." James gave the sentence a short run up but it appeared to be a particularly tall sentence so it wasn't enough. The words sank back down into his throat as soon as they'd emerged.
Lester swapped a glance with Eos, who looked back at him with a cold gaze. He had to remind himself that he'd been the one who had played along with keeping her in captivity, if only for about three hours. Three hours was plenty to liberate an imprisoned mermaid. No one felt the sting of that more than Lester, well, possibly Eos did.
Right at this moment, however, there was one more pressing emotional concern. James had remembered, during his time with Lester, that he was Rachel's father, transformed into this rodent form, memory wiped and dumped into the Skull Garden. This was bound to be a charged moment, Lester could feel the air of anticipation like a low charge of plasma squirming across his skin.
"Well," James said, Lester recognised the music of that syllable, it was the lost, confused and helpless tone that Lester found so irritating in himself. "I remembered that... I don't come from the Skull Garden..."
"You don't?" Rachel said. "So where do you come from? Can we go and live there? Is there a giant bat where you come from?"
"Um, I don't think so," James said. "I just remembered that, and also, I used to be a man, not a mouse."
"A man? So how did you become a mouse?" Rachel asked.
"I don't really know, I don't remember everything yet," James said. Lester could now hear a sort of forlorn relief in James's voice and Lester imagined that he might know what that meant, although he couldn't quite believe it.
"Well we should definitely try to get you turned back," Rachel decided. "Then you could be like my big brother or something. Maybe you could take care of me, instead of the other way round."
"Yes," James said quietly. "Maybe."
And then he said nothing else, and neither did any of the others.
"Well," Eos said eventually. "I guess that we'd better have a look around this place, see if we can find an exit or something."
"Definitely," James said.
"What about the gnome?" Rachel asked. "He doesn't look very well."
Everyone turned their attention in the direction of the gnome who was laid out, unconscious under a perch about fifteen feet away from where they had gathered. They all moved over to examine the sprite.
"Is he breathing?" Lester asked Eos who was the first to reach the prone figure.
"I don't think sprites breathe," James said from Rachel's left shoulder. Lester found it both less annoying and a little sad not to hear the correction directly from his own left shoulder. Now that he had his daughter back Lester imagined James wouldn't want to hang out in Lester's pockets any more. That shouldn't have really meant anything to Lester, but he was confused to note that it did.
"How should we tell if he's alive then?" Eos asked, looking down at the gnome's bearded face.
"He exists," James said. "Technically I don't think you're supposed to be able to render them unconscious."
"So he's pretending then?" Lester asked.
"No," James said. "Magic: pure, coalesced, intelligent magic is a complex. What we're seeing is not an unconscious living being, we're seeing a translation of the state of the magic into our terms. So in our terms the thing that is the gnome is unconscious, unable to interact with us but still present and whole."
"So how do we wake him up?" Eos asked.
"That, unfortunately, I don't know," James said.
"You seem to know a lot more about everything than you did when I left you, though," Rachel said. "So that's a good thing."
"Is it?" James asked Rachel. "Sometimes I'm not so sure."
"Sometimes," Lester said, although even he couldn't quite figure out why. "What you remember is that you have, oh, I don't know, a huge secret or something."
Lester then got the opportunity to add 'pointed glare' to the number of facial expressions he had now seen first hand that probably had never been observed previously on a mouse.
"Yes, well," James said loudly before anyone could respond to Lester's comment with anything awkward or troubling. "We could have a look around for some smelling salts or something. That might help."
"I thought you said it couldn't breathe," Eos said. "How would smelling salts help it?"
"Like I said, it's magic translated into a physical being, sometimes the translation works both ways, it's a kind of interaction of archetypal metaphors."
James paused long enough to realise that no one had any idea what it was he had just said.
"Trust me," James said. "We can try smelling salts, they may work."
"You're much smarter than you used to be," Rachel said. "That's cute."
With that they all made a move away from the gnome to look for smelling salts.
"Wait!" Eos said before they could go four paces. "We really can't just wander off and leave the gnome by himself. I'll stay."
"You shouldn't stay alone," Lester said. "I'll just go and have a look for something, you all stay here."
"I should go with you," James said. "I might be able to spot useful things."
"I'm not leaving you," Rachel said. "I'll have to go too."
"But I already said," Lester said. "We shouldn't leave Eos to watch the gnome by herself."
"Then you stay," Rachel said. "I'll take James to look for the smelly things."
Although the logic appeared sound Lester didn't exactly relish being left alone with Eos at the moment.
"This is a strange place," Lester said. "A little girl and a mouse can't walk about it by themselves."
"We're adventurers," Rachel said, sticking out her bottom lip. "We can do what we like."
"Well, if you like to get eaten by monsters in strange castles that's certainly true," Lester said.
"Lester!" James said. "There's no need to be unpleasant. Okay, look, Rachel, I promise we are not going to be split up. I'll go with Lester and have a look around for some smelling salts, or anything else that might help the gnome wake up. Once we've revived the gnome we'll get out of here, together. I promise."
"But..." Rachel said, her bottom lip was now quivering, and her eyes shone with tears. "We've... we've only just found one another. What if there's another broom?"
"Lester," James said, "despite appearances to the contrary, is a smart cookie, he'd never been caught on a flying broom before but he never ever makes the same mistake twice. You're just going to have to trust us."
Rachel miserably acquiesced to this and passed James over to Lester. The two of them skirted the edge of the stone slab and, before too long, found a set of steps down on one side. The view around the other four edges of the slab told them that this perch was built high up near the top of a mountain on a small shelf of rock.
Underneath the slab was a single layer of domestic type rooms, a dormitory, a living area and a kitchen. Most of it was abandoned and bare but the kitchen still had some bits and pieces left in the cupboards and shelves.
"So," Lester said, as he gathered together all the items they had discovered onto a small table. "You didn't tell her."
"I don't want to talk about it," James said.
"Well, I do," Lester said. For some reason James's cowardice, as he saw it, had really upset him. Lester was not a man given to deep moods but in this instance he was certainly approaching something like anger on the topic. "Until now we've been in a very similar position, you lost your daughter, I lost my brother. Now you have your daughter and you begin the reunion by lying to her. I just... don't think it's the right thing to do, that's all."
"Well, what if I don't care about your opinion one way or another?" James asked.
"That's not the point," Lester said. "You can't agree or disagree with the right thing to do. In the end telling lies to someone you love is always the wrong thing to do."
"I'm not sure that's true," James said. "I think sometimes things are more complicated than they might first appear."
"Oh what nonsense!" Lester replied. "You think it's the best thing to lie to people? I don't. When Chester left on his great adventure he promised me that he would write to me every week. He promised me he would be home soon. He promised me that he knew what he was doing. All lies. I'm sure he would probably have said he was doing the right thing but it wasn't was it? Now he's disappeared and all I have left of my brother is this stupid bottle of - oh!"
As Lester fumbled in his breast pocket the vial of liquid flew from his grasp, spinning end over end through the air.
"Wurgh!" Lester cried out stepping forward, stretching out his arm to attempt a mid-air catch.
The first step turned into a second wobbling grasp as the vial remained enticingly out of reach. With the second step Lester's hand brushed the vial altering its trajectory. Trying to adjust course as he went Lester tangled his ankles and dove down at full strength, determined not to lose the only clue he had to his brother's whereabouts.
Lester heard James squeaking and felt the mouse's claws digging into his neck. The little mouse was clinging on for dear life as Lester crashed into the floor. The vial of liquid fell into Lester's outstretched palm and he curled his fingers, attempting to grasp the vial firmly. All he succeeded in doing was providing a ramp for the vial, powered by inertia, to run up before it flew a few more inches through the air to tap delicately against the stone floor of the kitchen.
The vial didn't shatter but a spider web of cracks spread out through its bottom half. The, now delicate, vial rolled to a stop, whole but not to be trusted, a few inches further on from Lester's position.
"Oh dear," James said.
"Not good," Lester said. "Really not good."
"Well, there is a small up side," James replied. "We are in a kitchen, however abandoned that kitchen may be. We should be able to locate some alternative vessel for the potion, if we're careful."
"Careful," Lester said, like the word tasted bad, "Right, careful."
Lester picked up the vial with a suitable amount of care and attention. He placed it, and James onto the nearby countertop.
"Hold on to this, very gently," Lester said. "I'm just going to find something to decant the potion into."
"Okay," James said, placing his paws onto the cracked surface of the vial. The cracks were so fine that even James could not really detect them by touch, only by looking at their gossamer white threads promising that, at any moment, the vial could shatter soaking its valuable contents into the wooden surface below.
"You know," James said, as Lester rooted through a cupboard filled with junk, "this could be the moment your brother referred to in his note, the one where you're supposed to drink the contents of the vial."
"You reckon?" Lester asked.
"Well, it would be one way to ensure that the contents would end up in their ultimate destination, i.e. your stomach," James pointed out.
"Don't you think that's a bit... arbitary?" Lester asked.
"To be honest," James said. "I find the whole business of gnomic prophecy to be a bit... eep."
"A bit eep?" Lester said. "I don't know that word. Is that another one of those terms from your place of origin, like interweb?"
James did not reply because James was looking into the shining, yellow, hungry eyes of the thing that had made him go eep. The shining, yellow, hungry eyes of a rugged looking tabby tom cat.
"Lester," James said, his voice low and urgent. "You might want to come and get the vial."
"Why?" Lester said standing up and seeing the unfolding drama of survival taking place on the nearby counter top.
"Because..." James said, as Lester hurried forward anticipating the probable impending second disaster, "I... think... I'm... about... to... have... to..."
Lester, showing a reflexive dexterity wholly absent from his last encounter with the forces of inertia and gravity, snatched the flying vial out of the air as James tossed it and scampered off toward the edge of the counter. Lester swiped out with his spare hand but it was just a little too slow to catch the, now energised, tom cat.
The stocky feline form exhibited surprising speed as it loped after James who was pelting hell for leather towards the end of the counter with no seeming plan for what to do when he reached his destination. Lester watched on in awe as James leapt from the end of the counter to dig his little rodent claws into the trailing edge of a dishrag which swung once forward and then once back before James hurled himself from the zenith of the rag's forward journey once more to land on the counter at the far end of the kitchen and lose himself in the pile of broken kitchen utensils someone had left there.
Undeterred the tomcat followed, keeping its eyes down and plodding amongst the twisted metal remains of pots, pans and various large utensils on its quest for fresh mouse.
"Keep moving, James," Lester said, trying to sneak up on the tom from behind. "Keep moving."
Lester could not see James, but then neither could the cat, as Lester came up behind the predatory beast. Lester attempted to pick the tom up by the scruff of the neck, but the cat was too fast for him. It wheeled around, eyes wide, mouth open, hissing and spitting at Lester. Lester, startled, recoiled from the creature's flashing white claws.
"Well," James cried, "here goes nothing."
Lester tore his attention away from the growling tom cat to see that James had reached an area near the wash basin. Stringing some dirty elastic between the exposed prongs of a ricer that had lost its head James had quickly improvised a kind of slingshot by wedging the ricer's handle into a slightly open drawer adjacent to the sink.
James pulled back on the elastic as far as he could before quickly spinning around in his 'seat' and being hurled from the counter all the way over to the opposite side of the room. He landed on top of a handle placed next to the hatch for some sort of dumb-waiter type device.
Despite the evident acrobatic impressiveness of this move the tom had since lost interest in James, continuing, as it did, to growl at Lester. James is safe, I guess, Lester thought, I'm not sure I am. No sooner had the thought formed than the aggressive feline launched itself at Lester's head, hissing and spitting. Lester braced himself for a face full of angry cat and was amazed when the animal failed to make contact.
"Oh," Lester heard James's voice filled with surprise. "Well, I guess that's okay then."
Lester opened his eyes, the tom was nowhere to be seen.
"Did it vanish?" Lester asked, somewhat befuddled.
"No, it's behind you," James said. "Just passed straight through your head."
"Passed straight..." Lester turned to see the cat sitting behind him, regarding him with naked, impotent hatred. "I don't understand," Lester said.
"I think it's dead," James said. "I think that's a ghost cat."
"A ghost cat?" Lester sounded shocked. "Can cats have ghosts?"
"Apparently they can here," James replied. "Oh, well, no harm, no foul, come get me and we'll... oh."
"No," Lester said. "Not, oh, we've had enough oh for today and I'm putting on an oh embargo. An embarg-oh, if you... oh."
"With a creaking, clanking slow inevitablity the lever next to the dumb waiter that Lester had landed on began to descend. Lester hurried over and scooped the mouse up before he could tumble off the end of the lever onto the floor. The lever, once it had started its journey, continued to move downwards until it had locked in the downward position.
"I guess that just brings the dumbwaiter up," Lester said. Examining the area around the device. "Probably nothing to... ah."
"Ah?" James said. "'Ah' is worse than 'oh', any man who says otherwise is a liar. What's the matter?"
Lester crossed to the dumb waiter and pressed a button next to the hatch immediately to the left of the lever that had just been activated. There was the slow and grinding noise of machinery operating behind the hatch. Eventually a broken bell sounded an off-key ping behind the hatch.
"I think that's the dumb waiter control," Lester said
"So what does that lever control then?" James asked.
Any answer was cut off by the sound of a low and eerie moan echoing up into the eyrie from some place far below thier feet.
"You had to ask, didn't you?" Lester said.
"I think, maybe," James answered. "It might be time for us to leave."
And so they did, but what happened after, and the tale of Saeed and Prince Weatherstrong catching the dastardly Miranda Felix, and the story of Phoebe September ridding herself of her burden and the answer to the question of how story books can change by themselves will all be told in another time and place, for the candle is low and it is, most assuredly, now time for bed.
END OF BOOK TWO