Sunday, 29 September 2013

In The Undone

Surrounded by white mist, melting away, Lester realised just how complicated he, in fact, wasn't. He imagined that some people, Phoebe September for example, might take a long time to be undone. Lester got the impression that Phoebe was a very complicated person. Not nearly as complicated as Chester, of course, Lester's brother was an extremely complicated man.

For a moment it seemed totally appropriate that Lester's last thoughts should be of his missing brother. After all Lester didn't have much motivation beyond that. Lester could comfort himself with the thought that, even though he would no longer exist to be reunited with Chester, Chester would continue to exist elsewhere, finding remarkable things, doing remarkable deeds.

Then the moment passed and Lester remembered Chester had left Lester a small vial of potion with instructions that Lester should consume it when the time was right. Well, soon there would be no more time to be right, and what was a righter time than that?

Lester picked the vial, wrapped in a handkerchief, from his left jacket pocket. He took the stopper out and swallowed all the liquid that he could. It tasted of nothing but had an electric texture that poked and prodded at his tongue as it passed over. The strange, jangling, spiky sensation continued down his throat and proceeded to spread through his limbs.

Lester began to feel less like he was drifting and more like he was standing in a huge white hall on a white floor, lit in white from all directions. Lester was lost in the fog of the undone, alone, saved temporarily by his brother's potion. Lester held the vial up for inspection, there was still about half a teaspoonful of the liquid left in the bottle.

His thoughts beginning to circulate more rapidly Lester scooped the wispy form of James from his pocket.

"Quick, drink this," Lester said holding the rim of the vial up to James.

James appeared to be incapable of drinking unaided so Lester forced the lip of the vial into James's mouth and upended it. The drops of potion slid out of the vessel. Lester hoped fervently that James could still swallow them. Drowning the mouse with the potion that might otherwise save him seemed a very cheap and unsophisticated irony.

As it turned out James could swallow and within a few seconds he sat up on Lester's palm and looked about himself. The mouse's eyes had regained their usual sharpness, much to Lester's relief.

"Well, here we are," James said.

"Yes," Lester said. "We're definitely here."

"In the undone," James said.

"In the undone," Lester agreed.

"So, I guess the question is," James said. "How do we get out of the undone?"

"I don't know," Lester said. "There's no indication where the exit might be."

"It would be handy," James said. "If we could have some sort of map."

"A map?" Lester asked. "What, of the undone?"

"Well, I guess, just a plan of where the edge is. The undone must have an edge, we were on the other side of it about an hour ago."

"That's true," Lester said. "I think to find the edge we would have to know where we were and the problem is it doesn't matter where you stand everywhere else looks just the same."

To demonstrate his point Lester took a few steps away from where they started out, there was no sound to indicate movement and the atmosphere remained undisturbed.

"See," Lester said. "Everything in every direction just remains white."

He spun round on the spot showing James the complete lack of detail or reference points. Lester's demonstration was slightly undermined by the presence of a small square of paper lying on what, for want of a better phrase, could be called the floor back where Lester and James had come from.

Lester walked back over to the paper, bent down and picked it up. Holding it out in front of him he read the four words across the top: "Map of the Undone"

To the right of the title was a small compass rose indicating that North was towards the top of the map. This might have been helpful were it not for the fact that the rest of the paper was entirely blank.

"Very amusing," James said. "Not even a 'You Are Here' marker."

"But, this wasn't here a few minutes ago," Lester said.

"How do you know. It looks like you might have been standing on it and not even known."

"Until I took the potion," Lester said. "I don't even think there was anywhere to stand. I felt like I was just drifting apart, there was no up, no down, nothing but undone. I don't believe the potion both pulled me together and provided a novelty map."

"So where did it come from?" James said.

"You were talking about it," Lester said. "You were talking about it and then we found it."

"Well, that does look like my kind of punchline," James conceded. "So, you think that if we can conceive of something out here it comes into being."

"Maybe that's how the undone becomes the done," Lester said.

"So if we think about it hard enough then we'll find a way out?" James asked.

"Excuse me," said a third voice from behind them. "I don't suppose you've seen a jungle around here anywhere?"

Lester turned around. Standing a few feet away from him and James was a slim woman wearing a light green dress that matched with her long, shiny hair. Lester could see a pair of translucent wings fluttering at the woman's back showing that she was some species of sprite, possibly an elemental.

"Uh, no," Lester said. There were many other things that he would have liked to say but he found the sheer number of questions available to him so bewildering that he couldn't focus on any one in particular. "I don't think there's one nearby. But then, I didn't think there was, strictly speaking, anything nearby at all and in the last few moments I've found a map and, uh, well, you found us but you see where I'm going..." the fairy did not respond immediately, just stared at the curious, gabbling man holding a mouse in his left palm. "I mean... I'm... we're... not possibly the best people to tell you what is, or isn't, nearby."

"Oh, dear," the fairy seemed disconsolate. "I was looking for my husband and my daughter, for a long time. I heard that Okulas had put them into a jungle he had made, with a rock at the centre, shaped like a skull. It's not really a jungle, it's a prison. I wanted to find them and then I got lost, something happened... I don't know. Oh. I don't think I shall ever find them."

The fairy looked about for something to sit down on, but there was nothing about except for her and James and Lester. A silence fell between them. Lester's question count had escalated even further, his head was starting to spin. The fairy appeared to have lost all will to do anything.

For the second time in the last day Lester believed, having talked with James about his past, that this woman had been searching for James and Rachel, the only question was: would James be overwhelmed by the situation a second time?

The words "Well, are you?" found their way out of Lester's mouth aimed at the rodent sitting in the palm of Lester's hand.

"Put me down!" James said. "Put me down on the floor! Right away!"

At the sound of James's voice the fairy's gaze suddenly snapped in the direction of the mouse's small grey-furred body. A look of incredulity came upon her face.

Lester knew when James was using his urgent voice and complied with his companion's instructions. James scampered across Lester's fingers but by the time he had reached the empty white pseudo-ground of the Undone he had taken a step with an actual foot, a human foot. Lester, who had been watching this, couldn't quite remember how it was that he had been looking at a mouse and now he was looking at the blue of a pair of coarse-cloth trousers but that was what had happened.

"Am I the only one who doesn't understand any of this?" Lester asked, stepping back to look at the man James had turned into.

"James!" the fairy cried out. "It's you!"

"Rebecca!" James replied as the two embraced, holding onto each other tightly.

It was clear that the two were overjoyed to be reunited, especially as one hadn't remembered the other until a few seconds ago and the other one hadn't recognised the first until the same time. Lester felt it was probably high on the list of things not to do to interrupt immediately.

Touching as the scene was it didn't change anything else around them so Lester felt he had to interrupt.

"Um," he said. "Glad you two have found each other and everything but, well, I can't help but point out that we are still lost in the undone. I'm not positive how long the potion's effects will last so, jungle or not, we do need to get out of here, quickly as possible."

James broke the embrace with his wife and stood back. Now that he had been de-moused Lester could see he was a tall, thin man with a mop of floppy dark hair. He was wearing a long-sleeved grey tunic cut in a manner Lester had not encountered before, blue trousers and a pair of very strange looking shoes.

"You're right," James said. Lester was already finding it strange to see the mouse's voice coming from this non-mouse form. "I think that finding Becky here demonstrates that we are affecting the undone with our thoughts, even the ones we're not aware that we're having. Somewhere, when we were understanding the map a part of my brain thought about Becky and then... well... here she is."

"I'm not entirely sure that I understand that in its entirety," Lester said. "Still, it seems the best explanation we have, however not very good it is. So, what? I just try to picture the forest around the house and we return back to Eos?"

James shrugged.

"Worth a try," he said.

There followed a few moments of odd facial expressions and furrowed brows.

"Apparently not that simple," James said with a sigh. "We must be missing something."

"Well," Lester said. "We'd better stop missing it pretty soon, because I don't think our magic will protect us forever."

"James, what's happening?" Rebecca asked.

"We're lost in the undone," James said. "Lester here had some potion that stopped us floating away and also appears to make the undone respond to our thoughts. We need to get out of here before the potion wears off. So far, not as simple a task as we might have wished for."

"Where's Rachel?" Rebecca asked. "What happened to her?"

"Well, that's the thing," James said. "She was with a friend of ours, a mermaid called Eos, when Lester and I wandered into the undone. I'm sure she's safe. It would appear, however, that we can't just will ourselves back to the point where we got lost."

"I had wondered whether this was one of Okulas's torments," Verda said. "Then I realised that if it was then there would surely be glass monkeys about. Of course, there might be, it's always so hard to tell."

"Becky," James said. "I'm afraid that I've suffered some memory loss. Since Rachel and I left the Skull Garden things have been coming back to me, but not many and not all in order. I don't know who Okulas is, or what a glass monkey is."

"Okulas is the man who put you in the garden," Rebecca said. "Although why a Count would care about you and your work I don't honestly know. Something about it made him unhappy. One of his glass monkeys was spying on you. We didn't know it at the time because they're invisible. Wherever we went they would find us. If we get out of here then there's a chance they will find us again, then what will you do? How will you stop yourself being imprisoned again?"

James didn't say anything, Lester guessed that was because the former mouse, having half his memories missing, had no real answer to Rebecca's question. One thing, however, was totally plain.

"It doesn't matter if glass monkeys or wooden tigers or even copper badgers will catch us out in the world," Lester said. "If we stay here eventually we will definitely be undone and then we won't be any kind of animal made out of any kind of non-traditional material. So could we please focus?"

"Absolutely," James said, the most wholehearted agreement that the sarcastic mouse had ever shown for anything Lester had said. Lester didn't flatter himself that his own sarcastic comment had carried any more weight than anything else that he had said so far. Lester imagined that James had seized on the need to get out of the undone as a distraction from the ever-present fact that what he didn't know (or at least couldn't remember) could get him in very deep trouble indeed.

Lester watched James look up and about, pondering the current predicament. Lester flattered himself to believe he could still detect traces of the mouse that had been about the lanky, long-faced individual he had become.

"Reference points!" James said suddenly.

"What?" Lester and Rebecca said, almost simultaneously.

"Imagine somewhere," James said to Lester, "anywhere, imagine it."

"Okay," Lester said, thinking of the Patchwork Market.

"What colour cravate is the tall gentleman with the green eyes standing behind your left shoulder wearing?"

"I hadn't been thinking about a tall gentleman with green eyes," Lester said.

"That's the problem," James said. "Although we could all imagine the same location we would all imagine it differently. Only if there is a singular image in our minds will the undone respond properly. I imagine that we both thought of the map the same because we both understand my sense of humour. Becky came straight from my subconscious without interference from you. I think that's because someone dispersed her into the undone and I forgot her: so you didn't even know she existed. I could re-imagine her because she was here to be re-imagined."

"Okay so, what do we do?" Rebecca asked.

"To make an exit," James said, "we all need to think of something that we can agree on, something that's pretty much the same for all of us whenever we interact with it."

"Like the moon?" Lester asked.

"That'll do," James said. "Everyone, concentrate on the moon, then look for it."

Lester concentrated and looked up and around to where he expected to see the moon. Amazingly it was exactly where he thought it would be. The undone made it look a little indistinct but it was definitely the moon.

"Over there," he said, pointing.

Following the moon Lester, James and Rebecca emerged from the cloudy expanse of the undone onto a road cloaked in night leading towards the cheery lights of a small town in the distance. What they did when they got there is a tale for another day.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

In Which Avan and Saeed Encounter The Prince Lanchoni Problem

Saeed had reconciled in himself the knowledge that fighting alongside the most renowned warrior-mage in the history of Faerie would place him in some dangerous situations. Since they had first encountered one another they had fought orcs, lizard men and vampires, all in one evening. In addition they had uncovered the mechanisms of a conspiracy that may serve to plunge the Terra Draconis into some very deep trouble.

As Saeed knew that the time of the Vanishing was surely close at hand, the incident in which all traces of living dragons were removed from Faerie, possibly forever, the youthful thief had to wonder if this plan was the first echo of that momentous cataclysm. Saeed knew that time, chronology and history were somewhat malleable but riddled with what could best be understood as 'hard bits', bits you could not change, the structure of the world relied on certain events conforming to a certain shape. The Vanishing appeared to be one such event, so, really, if Miranda Felix and her employer were intent on unleashing such powerful magic upon the world then there was probably very little that Saeed could do about it.

Saeed enjoyed a self-image that included a healthy dose of humility. If he was facing the Vanishing then he was happy to admit that it would happen regardless of what he tried to do about it. He was, after all, a skilled thief who had begun his life as an Afsan street-urchin. How was he to save the world?

Prince Avan Weatherstrong, on the other hand, was the most heroic cultural hero in all the lands of Faerie. Of course, the Prince didn't know much about that, he was living his life, it was only those who came after him who would get the opportunity to turn him into a retrospective demi-god.

Prince Weatherstrong had a kind of humility himself. He was not particularly interested in being a celebrity. However, if you told him that a force of magic so powerful it could wipe an entire continent and species from the face of the world was about to be unleashed he would always attempt to put a stop to it. He would say that even if he couldn't succeed the knowledge he held meant he had to try. To Saeed that just sounded like a different way of believing that you could not fail.

But you could. Just because the consequences of failure would be dire did not make the prospect of success any more likely. Saeed had stayed alive for nearly a quarter of a century safe in that knowledge. Prince Weatherstrong had lived over ten times that his way, but then, well, when all was said and done he was Avan Weatherstrong with all the advantages that this identity implied.

In his life Avan Weatherstrong had fought wicked sorcerers, giant monsters and bloodthirsty warlords. Avan Weatherstrong was more than a man, he was a legend.

So when it came to the task of tracking and retrieving a small running animal it seemed obvious that of the two the humble thief should take the task. Running through the undergrowth outside the house on the edge of Dracopolis Saeed was aware that, although his life was not in danger, the prospect of losing his quarry was cutting cleanly into his sense of self-worth.

He was partnered up with a man who had bloodied the nose of tyrants and written the pages of history in his own hand, if Saeed could not fetch a small animal for this man what was it all for? They had gone to the house looking for one Prince Ystaban Lanchoni, a roguish ne'er do well who had been observed in a square adjacent to the Dracopolis jail house a couple of hours before an explosion opened a hole in the jail's western wall.

When they arrived at the house it had appeared abandoned and unoccupied until they had opened a door into a cellar room to find a small animal, probably a dog, as the sole occupant. The animal gave every indication that it had been waiting for someone to open the door, it dashed past the pair before they had much of an opportunity to see what was happening.

Saeed hadn't even bothered to say anything, he just took off in pursuit and hence the potentially embarrassing current situation. He had followed the bouncing white bundle of muscle and fur out into the forest and noted the disturbance of nesting birds and undergrowth. Saeed had attended closely to the almost indiscernable pounding of tiny paws along the forest floor.

Then it had all stopped. Saeed guessed that the little beast was somewhere close to Saeed's present location, hidden from view. Perhaps it was even waiting for Saeed to stop looking. That was strange behaviour for a small animal in panic. They didn't usually stop running until they knew they were safe. Saeed wasn't that slow.

A thin, depressed whine came from a bush to Saeed's left. Saeed went over to part the branches and observe the small, white dog doing one of the things well-trained small, white dogs do in bushes with a look of surprise, concern and indignation on its face.

It finished up and then looked up at Saeed, testing his pursuer for some hole in his resolve. Finding none the dog tried to dodge past Saeed but reckoned without Saeed's reflexes. The dog gave another, more panicked yelp as he was hauled into the air by the scruff of the neck. A short struggle followed but Saeed kept a tight hold on the little animal.

Before long the white dog was brought back into the presence of Prince Weatherstrong back at the house.

"I think your associate in the Eastgate Inn may have overstated their case," Saeed said holding up the yapping, grumpy beast for Avan's inspection.

The dog did its best to bark in a threatening manner at Avan, but the high pitched squeaks were more ridiculous than anything else. Seeming to be unhappy at the effect of barking the dog switched to a growl that sounded like the operation of a stable but broken clockwork motor.

"I'm going to have to guess that the Prince is not home," Avan said. "That's a setback I hadn't expected. I have to ask what the point of a safe house is if it isn't to keep someone safe after performing some heinous act of wrongdoing?"

"It is always a possibility that Miranda betrayed Prince Lanchoni the same way that she betrayed me," Saeed pointed out. "Without you to look out for him the prince may well be dead."

The dog craned its neck round to stare at Saeed. Saeed had never encountered a look from a dog that implied he was stupid before.

"I'm just talking about the possibility," Saeed said to the dog. "I'm sorry if it betrays your mental image of your master."

The dog just looked downcast, hanging limply over Saeed's right forearm.

"I don't think that's it," Avan said. "Please, could I?"

Avan held out his hand towards the dog. Saeed passed the miserable little beast over to his companion. Avan held the dog up to his face and looked into the dog's eyes.

"Mischief," Avan said. "a lot, hastily applied. The dog's soaked in it. He almost smells of mischief."

"So the dog is magic?" Saeed asked.

"No, I don't think so," Avan answered. "I think it's the result of magic, crudely applied, the kind of thing a wish fairy or similar might do."

"Someone made the dog out of magic?" Saeed asked. He still wasn't used to talking so much with an expert on magical things. Magic felt like its own world to Saeed, he always felt stupid for not understanding it right away.

"I think this animal isn't supposed to be this way," Avan said. "I think that this dog was something else and then the wish fairy, or other sprite, transformed it into a small dog."

"So..." Saeed looked at the dog's floppy ears and little paws. "You think this might be-?"

"If I were a sprite and a muscular royal wolf tried to threaten me," Avan said. "I think this might appear to be a suitable response, a reflexive defence, if you like."

"Oh, I see," Saeed said. "So, should we try to turn him back?"

"That's not the difficult part," Avan replied. "The difficult part is containing him when we do."

"Good point," Saeed agreed. "How do we do that?"

"I have just the thing in my saddlepack," Avan said. "Come on, let's get moving."

Avan took the dog and went outside to where they'd tethered their horses. Avan rummaged through the pack attached to the horse's saddle and pulled out a small metallic ball about the size of a fist. It appeared to have been made by tightly binding together twists of silver-black wire by twisting and looping. From the top of the ball emerged a thin strand of cord that Saeed recognised, spider silk.

Avan hung the ball off the stout branch of a nearby tree and fiddled with a catch in the ball's base. The ball suddenly sprang outward, twisting, unfolding and dropping until it was about nine feet long, no longer a tightly wound ball, now a long cigar-shaped mass of metallic twists reaching from the tree branch to the ground.

"That'll do," Avan said. He held the dog out towards the cage and the twists parted to allow the dog to be placed inside. When Avan withdrew his arm the dog skidded down inside the cage with a small yelp and the wire closed back over the gap. "Now, dispelling mischief, that's not a problem, I think I have a spray." He rummaged in a pocket in his belt and brought out a misting bottle. He sprayed a fine sparkling mist into the cage. A couple more squirts of the mister bulb and Avan took a step back.

Saeed had never seen mischief magic dispelled before, the experience was an unusual one that made him feel a little giddy. The dog in the cage didn't appear to expand or bulk out at all, rather it just seemed to shift around in the confines of the cage to find that there was simply more of it than could have been expected a few seconds before. This slow growth by discovery continued until the small dog was gone and in its place stood a wolf on it hind legs considerably bigger than the talking desert wolves Saeed had seen at home in Afsana.

Prince Lanchoni was similar in stature to the wolves of Sorrowblade, he guessed that they must share a common ancestor at least. This wolf was, if anything, even bigger than that. Its hateful eyes glittered dangerously in the low light of the forest. It regarded both Saeed and Avan with naked contempt.

"Let me out," Prince Lanchoni demanded. "You have no right to keep me here."

"I don't think you're particularly in a position to be making demands," Avan told the captive. "You cooperate and we might think about releasing you."

"What do you want?" Lanchoni growled, staring into Avan's eyes with an expression on his face that Saeed could read easily. If the wolf got out of the cage it would mean trouble for everybody, not least of all Avan.

"You were supposed to meet with Miranda Felix," Avan said. "Then, somehow, you appear to have become sidetracked."

The wolf snorted.

"I made the meeting," Lanchoni said. "Turns out I shouldn't have trusted Felix, she sent lizard men to kill me. She should have sent more."

"You set off the explosion that broke open the Dracopolis Jailhouse," Avan said not waiting for any denials, Lanchoni didn't bother objecting, he just shrugged. "So, what was in it for you? What did Felix promise you?"

"The Sword of Zanczasza," the wolf said. "She promised me she would take it from the Amethyst Treasure House and deliver it to me at the Castle in Serpenside in return for my assistance."

"What did you want that for?" Avan asked. "You realise the blade is cursed?"

"It shortens the life of the one who weilds it, yes," Lanchoni said. "In return it would have given me the power to take Onapica away from my brother."

"A magical coup," Avan nodded. "Not the world's noblest cause."

"What do I care what you think?" Lanchoni said. "My business is mine alone."

"What can you tell me about the lizard men who attacked you?" Avan asked. "Were they alone?"

"No," Lanchoni said. "They were being controlled by a draco, stocky dragon, one eye missing, covered with a patch. He was using some kind of crystal orb that made the lizard men obey his commands."

"A coldblood orb," Avan said. "Not common but available on the black market for a price. Well, thank you very much for your help, Prince Lanchoni, it will aid us in our efforts to track down Felix. I'll be sure to send her your regards."

"If you find her before I do," Lanchoni snarled. "Let me out of here."

"Oh, you'll be released," Avan said to the wolf. "When you're safe in a cell in the Dracopolis jailhouse."

"You said you would release me!" the wolf complained straining to break free of the wire metal prison.

"To be fair I said I'd think about it," Avan replied. "I have and I've come to the conclusion that it would be best to free you only once you're incarcerated for the crime that you have committed."

"So you're just going to leave me here?" Lanchoni complained. "If I get out of here before you arrive with help to get me to the prison I'll make sure you regret it."

"Who said we needed help?" Avan asked. "You might want to brace yourself this next bit can pinch a little."

As soon as those words left Avan's mouth he jumped up to grab a hold of the branch from which the cage-pod was suspended. He swung himself towards the top of the pod and wrapped his hand round the blunt cylinder attached to all of the pod's wires. Avan shifted his fingers across some sort of button or catch and the pod shrunk upwards swiftly.

Lanchoni cried out but as the wires spiralled in tight the cry was cut off. Avan picked the wire ball back off the tree. It was a little larger than it had been when it was empty but otherwise there were no signs that it contained a large, angry wolf.

Avan dropped down from the tree and hung the cage-ball from his belt.

"Is this how you deal with everyone who gets on the wrong side of you?" Saeed asked.

"No," Avan replied. "You I teamed up with, Felix.... well, I don't really know what I'm going to do with Felix when we catch her."

"I thought you intended to kill her," Saeed said.

"Is that what you would do?" Avan asked.

"I... am not sure," Saeed said, although he was sure that when he was a boy he would have revolted at the notion of murder. Somewhere along the line he had come to think of killing someone bad as an unpleasant necessity. Now, strangely, he found himself uncertain again.

"Then we shall both discover what we should do, when we get where we're going," Avan said.

"And where is that?" Saeed asked.

"First," Avan replied. "We are going to find Vasky Jantnor."

"Who's that?" Saeed asked.

"A Draco mercenary, last time we met I took one of his eyes."

And that is where they went, but what happened when they met him is a story for another day.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Anabyl's Choice

Princess Anabyl Spireshine was not always as dedicated to the cause of the Dragon Warriors as she became in later life. The dragon epitomises the polarity between chaos and order encapsulated in a single entity. Dragons formed mischief into majesty, this transformation was accomplished through understanding, clarity and wisdom.

The Dracopolis Academy was never that concerned about taking on students in possession of large amounts of understanding, clarity or wisdom from the start. Chaos is hard to cultivate, like a fire burned out of control it tends to eat itself eventually. Natural chaos, on the other hand, can, potentially be moulded into the stuff of a great Dragon Warrior. It was on this basis that Warden Razath first accepted Anabyl into the Academy under the patronage of Prince Avan Weatherstrong.

Anabyl would tell anyone who asked that when she stepped into the Academy she was attracted by the availability of many martial devices essential to the creation of serious amounts of chaos. The concept of training, discipline and achievement were the furthest thing from her mind. It took Anabyl about seven hours to become thoroughly bored of the Dracopolis Academy and wishing she could go home to Spireshine. Nine hours after her arrival someone let all the criminals out of the Dracopolis Jailhouse.

Never one to miss an opportunity Anabyl took advantage of the skeleton staff left to look after academy attendees, stole a sword from the armoury and found a way into the Dracopolis Sewer System. Twenty minutes into her new subterranean adventure thoughts about what she might do if actually confronted by a perilous situation began to occur to her.

The Princess did not, as many young people alone in the dark, wet tunnels of a major metropolitan sewer system, surrounded by potential hazards, feel any fear. For Anabyl fear was a thing to be inspired in others, not to be experienced by oneself. Wariness and caution were not things that Anabyl had previously had much use for but with fear off the table she decided that these would do in their place.

As it turned out watchfulness and sneaking, two vital components in any worthwhile and serious mischief-making enterprise, were also handy when trying to navigate through an unfamiliar underground environment without bumping into troublesome escaped convicts. She got into the swing of this so quickly that it came to a point where the business of skulking through the shadows not making any noise was only occupying a tiny part of her attention.

She made her way in the direction of the city walls (Anabyl had never questioned her uncanny sense of direction, it was always a given and, hence, taken for granted); as she did Anabyl thought about the sword.

The sword was a training sword, being an ideal size and weight for a smaller person. It wasn't a short sword, or an elaborate dagger, it also wasn't one of the fine balanced fencing swords that Anabyl had seen in grand cities like Bellespire. The weapon would have appeared a little odd in the hands of an adult because it wasn't built to an adult scale. For someone Anabyl's size it was just about perfect.

Anabyl had never used a sword for much before, mischief was one thing, violence was something else altogether. Anabyl was no stranger to fire, concussion, humiliation, itching or other types of general unpleasantness associated with bringing self-important people down a peg or seven.

When she had been a very young child Anabyl had never needed anything more than pig-jousting, rotten vegetables and an unlimited supply of mud. Swords were fascinating, of course, anything that could destroy other things was interesting. Anabyl came to realise that she had honed the art of inflicting pain and discomfort on people she considered boring to such a fine point that real weapons had just naturally never figured into her schemes.

Anabyl knew that if you picked up a weapon then you were either an idiot or you intended to really hurt someone, and not in a fun way, or both. So why had she picked up the sword on her way into the sewers?

A few months ago she would never have done that, no matter what the circumstance. It didn't matter that she was in a fabled land in a far off time, cut off from everything she knew with no way home. It didn't matter that she was moving through a series of dark tunnels and could hear the screams and hoots of a riot going on above her head as she stepped under the grating covers for street level. Not so long ago Anabyl wouldn't have cared about any of that, she would have naturally assumed it had nothing to do with her.

Then an owl of wisdom had told her about dragon warriors, shortly after Peregrine Pagebinder had made it plain there was one person in the universe that she couldn't get the better of. The facts of these things had combined in her head to form the potential that one day Anabyl could be...

Anabyl had always assumed that she could just dodge the business of growing up. The world didn't work like that. She had met sprites who never grew up and she liked to humiliate those foolish creatures as much as any other idiot she met in the course of daily life. She remembered distinctly the feeling of not wanting to be like some idiot adult-child. She had been to the world of humans once and seen one of their picture box shows about old women (to Anabyl anyone over 20 years of age was old) who tried to act in a childish manner.

The whole concept brought Anabyl as close to fear as she had ever been.

No. Anabyl was determined not to be that. The only way to avoid it, unfortunately, was to grow up. That was unpalatable for a number of other reasons, chief among which was the idea of being married to some boy-prince and living out your life in a castle coping with the fallout from the actions of her children. Sons, she could probably handly discipline for a bunch of snot nosed little boys, no problem. What put a little ice into Anabyl's heart was the concept of the kind of daughter she might produce.

No. Altogether not something to be countenanced. She had decided to grow up in her own way, on her own terms. She had never known what they were. Then she had heard about dragon warriors.

A woman could be a soldier, or a knight, she had read the stories. Surely the dragon warrior was the best kind of knight. That had to be a contender for one of the best ways to grow up.

The discipline did not appeal, there was the problem.

Still, even in her escape she had taken a sword. This meant there was a new seriousness in Anabyl's heart, one that could not be denied.

This rather troubling notion was the last thing to play through Anabyl's mind as she exited from a drainage pipe outside of Dracopolis's city walls. Close to the drainage opening were a few small stone huts, locked up with rust-tinged metal doors, along the path away from the sewer tunnels was an old house. The house appeared as if it was abandoned, probably for some time. The question was: had the house been left empty long enough to attract ghosts?

Anabyl had a keen interest in ghosts, it was almost a hobby of hers. Her fascination with the spirits of the dead was unique in her personality as being the only thing she could be preoccupied with that didn't ultimately lead to someone ending up covered in some kind of wet slime. She had enquired of one spirit she had met about the possibility of obtaining some ectoplasm but found that the ghostly substance was a myth.

Still, she found the dead had a simple view of the world that she appreciated. They tended not to be judgemental and they didn't often have any agenda with which she might disagree. When she was a little older Anbyl would articulate that she appreciated the clarity that death appeared to bring to people (most people). At that moment all she knew was that if there were ghosts in the house she wanted to say hello.

Anabyl climbed the steps and crossed the porch area to find the front door locked, or at least jammed shut by something. A little further investigation revealed an open window that she wriggled through without any problems.

Before the final occupants of this house had moved on they had done a pretty thorough job of emptying it of anything that they might have formed a sentimental attachment to. There wasn't a stick of furniture, a picture hook or a scrap of textiles anywhere on the ground floor.

Of course, Anabyl wasn't really interested in those things, she was more interested in the possible inhabitants of the house.  If there were ghosts here they were shy ghosts. The trick with a shy ghost was to not look directly at where they might be, because they could hide more easily if they knew you were looking. You had to catch a glimpse of them out of the corner of your eye.

The ghost of one of her great uncles had told her that, with a little concentration and effort, dimming a ghost's natural glow was an easy thing to achieve. However it did take some concentration and effort, and it became hellishly uncomfortable after a while, a bit like a live person holding their breath. What a ghost needed to do if it didn't want to be seen was move out of the way and then relax their concentration when they believed they were out of view.

So the way to get a glimpse of a shy ghost was to enter rooms suddenly, turn around unexpectedly and other wise try to look in places you hadn't been looking moments previously. Somewhere in the remains of the kitchen Anabyl believed she had got a glimpse of something, but the ghost in question was extremely shy because she couldn't catch it out a second time.

On the upper floor of the house Anabyl noticed a new smell accompanying the damp odour that permeated the lower floor, a smell of burned dry hair. Anabyl knew the aroma from somewhere but she couldn't quite place the exact memory. Irritated by this small mystery Anabyl stopped trying to catch out the local ghosts and searched the upstairs for the source of the smell.

In one of the upstairs rooms Anabyl found a small locker chest and a basic cot bed. Someone was using this place as a home.

This prospect made Anabyl feel a little awkward about being here. If there was someone alive using this property Anabyl felt it was her duty to soak them in something as soon as possible. She hadn't seen a well, or a mud patch or any other source of the necessary sogginess nearby. The prospect of not springing an unpleasant and hilarious surprise on a stranger due to a lack of materials made Anabyl uncomfortable.

She didn't want to stay in the mouldy house with the reclusive ghosts anyway. She reasoned she had best be on her way directly. She went down the stairs and through the front room to the door. She opened the door to find herself looking into the softly glowing orange-yellow eyes of an enormous wolf dressed in a fine crimson jacket, a light-yellow silk tunic and breeches of the same crimson as the jacket.

Anabyl knew a bit about wolves, it being the kind of distressing subject that her parents believed she should be shielded from. There were, of course, a full range of completely normal wolves ranging from smaller dog-like varieties to enormous dire-wolves. Then there were the spectrum of talking wolves. Unlike cats, dogs, mice and sundry other animals there were no talking wolves that appeared to be normal every day wolves until they asked you if you might not mind getting them some food.

Every variety of talking wolf wore clothes of some fashion. Previous to this Anabyl had only ever encountered the slim and erudite kind of wolf that was common in the Hundred Kingdoms. There were legends of vastly powerful talking dire wolves, or Royal Wolves, a war-like, aggressive species; Anabyl had only ever encountered them in stories because they had died out long ago.

Of course, now Anabyl was long ago, so the presence of  a Royal Wolf shouldn't have been as much of a surprise as it was. The problem with slipping through a hole in time was that sometimes you forgot that you had done so. For this reason Anabyl found herself surprised and without a response to the enraged predator whose dwelling place Anabyl had disturbed.

"What are you doing in my house?" the wolf demanded reaching out to push Anabyl backwards. Anabyl's long developed instinct for avoiding any grabbing hand kept her out of the reach of the gigantic creature.

"I was just passing through," Anabyl said. "I was a bit lost and I just wanted to ask for directions."

"Well, I'd say you'd taken a wrong turn," the wolf snarled. He flailed forward meaning to grab at Anabyl a second time. "Because when I catch you then you won't live long enough to regret coming here."

Anabyl considered ducking past the wolf at this point and running back towards the sewers. The only problem was that she wasn't terribly sure of her way and she was pretty confident that the wolf would turn out to be faster than her.

For the first time in her young life Anabyl realised that something was actually trying to seriously kill her. This annoyed her intensely, she considered it doubly rude seeing as she hadn't done so much as let a stink bomb off near this wolf and here he was acting like she'd left him for three days in a tree-snare. When she'd left one of the groundskeepers in such a precarious position all she'd got was gruel and a grounding. On that scale the wolf's unjustified anger seemed a bit of an overreaction.

More out of practicality than any intention to strike back Anabyl pulled out her sword and waved it at the wolf.

"You think a little girl would come out to such a scary part of the woods and walk around a creepy house if she didn't know how to stab a monster with a sword?" she asked. As bluffs went it relied heavily on the passion of the delivery, thankfully this wasn't a problem to Anabyl.

"I don't know," the wolf sneered. "Let's find out!"

It lunged for her again and she dodged away, swinging the sword in a manner that clearly owed more to enthusiasm than skill. Anabyl reminded herself that she had either better think of a good plan or get instantly a lot better with her sword if she wanted to see sunrise.

Anabyl backed away from the wolf trying to spot an escape route and babbling on about how jolly sorry the wolf would be if he came any closer. Spotting a doorway to her left Anabyl ducked through it and found herself at the top of a set of steps leading into a cellar. The growling noise behind her indicated that if she was in for this particular groat then she was most certainly in for the whole bronze mark. So she hurried down the steps three at a time.

It was at about this moment that Anabyl had a momentary pang of regret regarding her disdain for plans and strategising. She knew she was belting down stone steps into a dark basement. She knew she was being pursued by a seriously angry, powerful and inherently nasty royal wolf. Somehow the thoughts in her brain wouldn't allow her to do anything else.

She wasn't under any illusion that she was being manipulated or controlled. She was just acting, like she always did, the only difference being that this time her stream-of-consciousness approach to life might very well get her killed.

She found the basement to be a long corridor giving access to three rooms. She hadn't seen a ground level exit from beneath out at the front of the house so she vaulted over the bannister and headed for the room at the back. As she approached the door at the end of the passage she made great efforts not to think about what might happen if the door was locked or if it just lead into another boxy room with no exits.

Her relief at seeing a ground level window in the ceiling of the basement room was immense and all consuming. She lost no time in running towards the opening, scrambling up the wall, grabbing and pulling at the latch. The latch sprung and the window opened inwards. Surprised Anabyl fell back to the floor, stumbled but remained upright. She could only have bare seconds before the wolf was on top of her. She scrambled once more at the wall.

"Help me," said an unexpected voice behind her.

Anabyl didn't have much time to react, she turned her head to see a bird that looked very much like an owl of wisdom sitting in a cage. Next to the cage was a writing desk and a chair, the only proper furniture she'd seen in the whole house.

She didn't even think about it. She took the writing chair across the room and jammed it under the door handle just as the wolf tried to open the door. The door swung about an inch open on its hinges before jamming as the chair legs scraped against the bare stone floor. The royal wolf bellowed in rage and began rattling the door. Anabyl had only bought herself a few seconds.

She didn't waste those seconds. She worked the lock on the cage eventually prising it open with a letter opener she spotted on the writing desk. The owl thanked Anabyl and had just flapped out of the window when the door burst inward and the royal wolf charged into the room.

"My owwwwwwl!" it screamed, its already boiling fury seeming to kick up another few notches. "You will pay."

Anabyl realised that there was really nowhere else to run. She could try to get through the window but then she would just be dragged back into the room. If she was going to die then she decided that she had pretty much better look it in the eye and see if she could distract it into a staring contest.

"You!" she shouted at the wolf, "are about the meanest and most awful creature I have ever met in my entire life! How dare you keep an owl of wisdom in a stinky cage? I'm glad I let it out, I hope they come back and poop all over you!"

The tirade momentarily caused the wolf to pause, wondering why this strange little girl was not crying and screaming and pleading for her life and, further, why she felt she had the right to tell him off. After a moment he plainly concluded that it was all bravado and bluff so he snarled at her preparatory to eating her right up.

But by then it was too late.

The enormous royal wolf that had been ready to swallow Anabyl whole a second before now found itself in the body of an embarrassingly small and rat-like dog. It's snarl sounded like a large rat trying to clear its throat. The wolf brought itself up short, throwing a second confused and awestruck look in the direction of Princess Anabyl.

"Don't look at me," she shrugged. "It wasn't my doing."

"Not directly, anyway," said another voice emerging from the darkest corner of the basement room. "I can't very well have the children in my care getting eaten by royal wolves on a field excursion now, can I?"

Peregrine Pagebinder emerged from the shadows and picked up the little dog from the floor. The former royal wolf now looked irritated beyond all reason not to mention absolutely disconsolate.

"I did wonder where you were hiding," Anabyl said peevishly, determined not to show Peregrine any gratitude whatsoever. If the annoying sprite hadn't sent her on this field trip then she would never have ended up in this situation anyway, that was her reasoning.

"I have not been hiding," Peregrine said. "I have been looking at the possibilities for the continued unfolding of your educational curriculum. It's time for options, young lady."

"Options?" Anabyl asked. "What are they? No. Don't answer. Anything to do with you has to be stupid and boring."

"Not so antagonistic please, Anabyl," Peregrine said. "The path we are engaged upon is for the betterment of us all. Now, the question of how much better is entirely in your hands. You must choose your next step carefully. That is the option you will be given, how to proceed with your education, understood?"

"Unless going home and having you move out permanently is one of the choices I don't think I'm going to be interested," Anabyl said.

"I'm afraid not," Peregrine replied coolly. The calmer he was about Anabyl's volley of vitriolic insults the more obnoxious she was determined to become. "There are two options, option one is that we now return to Caer Spireshine and you embark upon a programme of extensive social education with the aim of turning you into a master stateswoman."

Anabyl felt the only response to that was to stick her tongue out and make puking noises.

"Option two," Peregrine continued, ever unruffled, "is to combine the advanced discplinary, tactical and spiritual educative methods of the Dracopolis Academy with some more focused sessions on history, natural science and other useful academics with the aim of turning you into the finest dragon warrior the lands of Faerie has ever or will ever know. I should tell you that this latter option is the more difficult of the two, however it does give you the potential to fulfil one of the grandest destinies that the world has ever known, if you can stick to it."

Anabyl tried to muster up some enthusiasm for puking at that option too. She was surprised to find that she couldn't. After today's near miss she reasoned that if someone could teach her not to fight her way into a corner that would be a very good thing indeed. The Dracopolis Academy appeared to be a place of rules and discipline, neither of which were Anabyl's favourite things. In a contest between martial discipline and political protocol though the discipline won every day.

Then there was the thing about the destiny.

"What do you mean 'the grandest destiny the world has ever known'?" she asked.

"One of the grandest destinies the world has ever known," Peregrine said. "Choose that path and you will come to find out in time."

So she did, and she did, but all of that will be told at another time, in another place, for the hour is too late now.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

The House on the Edge of the Undone

Lester did not remember what turn of events had drawn him to the point where he was running down a hill with a mouse in his pocket and an unconscious gnome slung over his shoulder. He had come a long way since entering the Patchwork Market looking for information about his brother. Had any of his journey been in a direction that could be described as 'correct'?

The mysterious man in the top hat appeared to have confidence that every crazy step that Lester took was a step closer to Chester. This was borne out by the discovery of a letter and a small bottle of potion in the House of Mirth, both apparently left behind by Lester's missing twin. Now there was this diversion with the unconscious gnome, the little girl and the mermaid with legs.

Life hadn't been boring for quite some time. Lester missed boring, a lot.

Behind the fleeing party there was the sound of cracking stone, followed by an unearthly howl that seemed to rattle the very living rock of the mountains around them. Receiving an additional boost of adrenaline, Lester pumped his legs harder trying to sprint even faster to catch up with Eos carrying Rachel in front of him.

"Careful!" James cried out from Lester's pocket. "I'm trying to keep this potion bottle in one piece for you. You need to be less hasty and more steady!"

"You want the monster to catch us?" Lester replied. "I'm trying to keep us alive."

"We haven't even seen this monster," James said. "It could be a rabbit with a sore throat and overdeveloped vocal cords."

"And the noise of cracking rock?" Lester asked.

"Just keep running, gently," James said.

So Lester kept running. He could hear the thudding sound of enormous footsteps start up the track behind him. Rachel, clinging on round Eos's neck as the mermaid sprinted down the path ahead, took a moment to look up at what was following them. From his position Lester could see her face drain of colour as her gaze took in the full horror of what was bearing down on them.

"Note to self," Lester muttered, "don't look back."

"Life was so much simpler when I had my pumpkin," James wailed. "Then I only had a giant bat to deal with, not memories, or mysterious monsters, or random quests to find lost brothers of people I don't even know."

"This way!" Eos called from the path up ahead. She suddenly broke to the left and started down a thinner trail in between two shelves of rock. Lester followed and saw what Eos was running towards, the narrow mouth of a split in the mountain side a short distance ahead.

"We can't go there!" he shouted. "We'll get trapped."

"We can't stay on the mountainside," Eos threw back. "We'll get eaten."

Without pausing to discuss the matter further Eos put Rachel down on the floor and urged her to clamber in between the two jagged walls of rock into the darkness beyond. After Rachel had slipped through Eos followed. Lester unshouldered the, still unconscious, gnome and passed him through to Eos. Finally Lester himself turned sideways to slip between the two edges of the split.

He had to concede that beyond this threshold they would be safe from any monster larger than Lester himself. As he tried to push his chest into the tiny sliver of empty space his ribs jammed, even when Lester inhaled he found he could not move any further.

"I'm stuck!" he cried out. The thudding of their pursuer's footsteps was getting louder and louder down the mountain path. Lester was having to try very hard not to turn his head to assess how bad a situation he was in. All he knew was that this was one piece of information he could definitely do with out.

"Push harder," Eos told him. Lester couldn't help but note a frosty edge to her tone, she was probably still sore about the whole keeping her enslaved in the tank thing. He was really going to have to find a way to apologise for that.

Lester kept pushing and straining but his shoulders were just a little too wide to step through the rock, he couldn't fit. The footsteps of the monster pursuing them closed the distance even further. As the last few feet of space between Lester and the pursuer disappeared, not even really thinking any more, Lester turned to look up into two bright crimson eyes with slitted pupils staring out of a dark leathery face. Long, taloned fingers reaching out to grab at him.

And then the mountain rock, and everything else, melted.

For just a fraction of a second it was as if Lester was caught up in giant cloud, in an endless sky, then everything came back to normal except that Lester had popped through the slim crag and fell in a heap on the other side of the cave entrance.

The monster that Lester and James had inadvertently freed from its imprisonment some way below the structure where they had arrived in this shadow realm waved its forearm through the gap. Really not much more of itself would fit through, however. The small party retreated back into the cave passage away from the frustrated snarling of the thwarted monster.

The light from the crack filtered down into the upper reaches of the cave but it didn't last for long. The cave did broaden but they had no light to find their way around in the dark.

"We'll just have to feel our way along one wall," Eos said.

"Um, I think I may have a better suggestion," said James from Lester's pocket.

Lester reached into his pocket and withdrew the vial of potion from the House of Mirth. It glowed with an intense white-yellow light.

"Well," he said. "That's unexpected."

"But useful," Eos said. "Come on, let's see if we can find a path through this place."

Eos lead the way down through the caves, after a while they could hear the sound of running water and the walls began to run with moisture.

"I can feel the flow of water, just by touching it," Eos explained, "come on, I think I can find us a way out of here."

So they continued to pick their way through narrow dark passages, the atmosphere was both oppressive and claustrophobic. Along the way Rachel became quite upset.

"I should never have made that wish back in the Skull Garden," she complained. "Then we wouldn't be lost wandering around in caves under a mountain."

"Hey, no," James replied. "Don't be upset. If you hadn't got us out of the garden I would never have remembered anything about who I used to be, and you wouldn't know anything about the world beyond the great Skull Rock."

Lester waited for James to say something about the family connection but it appeared as if James had nothing further to say on the matter. After setting a monster loose last time they had argued on the point Lester decided to let the matter slide this time.

The trek through the dark, wet caves was laborious and tiring but it was, at least, uneventful. A few hours later on they emerged from the caves by a small brook. The daylight was fading, the magnificent panorama of the eyrie was replaced with the murky expanse of a marshy forest made up of slim, twisted trees placed sparsely throughout a green-yellow floor saturated with water. Visible in the distance, no more than quarter of a mile away, were stone walls surrounding a tall house.

"I suppose we'd better see if anyone is at home," Lester said and the party began to make their way towards the structure.

The walk through the caves had been arduous and all of those party members who were on foot were hungry and tired. The dark shape of the lonely forest house was not particularly reassuring. The view into the distance was obscured by a light mist that grew thicker as they walked. By the time they reached the gate before the path leading up to the house the light was very poor indeed.

"I hope that whoever lives here is in an understanding mood," Eos said.

"It doesn't look, to me, as if anyone does live here, not any more," Lester said as he opened the gate, it stuck, squealing and complaining as he pushed it on its hinges, the noise supported his argument.

"Look," Rachel said, pointing over to the right side of the house. "Is that a ghost?"

They all looked at where Rachel was pointing. There was something, a slow moving blob of white light drifting across the grounds floating about a foot over the sodden turf.

"I don't know what that is," Lester said. "James? Any memories regarding odd, floating balls in swamps?"

"Ignis Fatuus?" James said. "From the Latin 'foolish lights' also known as Jack o' Lanterns or Will o' the wisps. Although usually they look more like lantern flames, and they tend to appear as if they're a lot further away."

"I met a Jack o'Lantern once," Lester said. "I was walking through a forest and I bumped into one coming in the opposite direction. I shared some soup with him. Turns out that they use their lanterns to light sparks in the eyes of baby animals, that's why they travel so far off the path, and why they appear to move so erratically. That's not a Jack o' Lantern."

"So what lit the spark in my eyes?" Rachel asked. "Was it one of those things?"

"Folk have their own fire," Lester said. "At least that's what the Jack o' Lantern said when I asked him. He seemed to think that this was a political compromise of some sort. He didn't go into it."

"But that isn't one?" Eos asked.

"Not like the one I saw," Lester said. "The light of a Jack o' Lantern is like a lantern flame because, well, it is."

"It's getting dark," James said. "We'd better check to see if anyone is home."

Lester knocked on the door of the house, and pulled at a bell cord hanging to the right of the door. Nothing appeared to happen. Lester tried the handle on the door. The door was unlocked and it swung slowly and silently inwards revealing the house beyond.

"I don't like this," Lester said. "Remember the last time we found ourselves in an apparently abandoned house? I spent a long time believing I was a duke at a masked ball. Don't want to go through that again."

"There are worse things," Eos said, making her way past him and into the house. "At least there was a buffet there."

"She has a point," James said. "Free food is always a bonus."

"Well, alright then," Lester said, following Eos into the house. "As long as we're throwing caution to the winds."

Inside the house was dark and smelled faintly of damp, not damp enough for it to appear unsafe for an overnight stay but definitely enough to put concern into the mind of an owner about the possibility of their residence eventually falling over into a swamp.

The floor was mostly bare boards covered over by the occasional rug. It was evident that no one had set foot inside the house for quite some time. Downstairs there was a large drawing room, a dining room and an expansive kitchen. Upstairs were three bedrooms and a bathroom.

Lester lost no time putting the gnome down gently on a bed in one of the bedrooms, a twin room that he imagined he would share with James over night. The beds all had bare mattresses, no blankets or pillows but they seemed sturdy enough and were better than the floor.

The gnome allowed to rest Lester returned to the kitchen where he quickly found a glass flask in which to decant his mysterious potion.

"Well, that's one thing taken care of, anyway," Lester pronounced happily.

"Why are so many dwelling places we visit apparently abandoned?" James asked. "I'm detecting a theme."

Before Lester could think of a plausible answer to the question the glowing blob from the garden came drifting through the wall, slowly moving through the kitchen apparently unaware of its surroundings. When the blob was a couple of feet past the wall and floating over the kitchen counter about seven inches from the surface a second blob joined it from a slightly different angle and began a lazy journey from one corner of the kitchen to the other.

"What do you think those things are?" Lester asked. "I've never seen or heard of anything like it in my life."

"I don't know," James said. "And I think that troubles me. Part of me seems to think that I had read about almost every known thing in the Faerie realm. It's not just that I don't remember this, it's that I've never heard of it."

"Should we be worried?" asked Eos, standing at the door.

"I'm not sure," James replied. "Where's Rachel?"

"I put her to bed," Eos said. "She was very tired. I found a small quilt slung over a chair in the drawing room. She'll be nice and warm."

"Good," James said. "I think we should all sleep, not for too long, then we should try to find our way back onto a more civilized path. The sooner we can get back to Bridgetown the better."

"Why are we going to Bridgetown?" Lester asked. "We spent enough time leaving it."

"Bridgetown is a market where you can buy anything, Lester," James said. "If we want answers to our questions then, well, maybe they won't be there in the market, but something that will help us to buy an answer most certainly will be."

"Seems logical," Lester said. "Well, then, I suppose we had better all get some sleep."

Lester, James and Eos climbed the stairs. Eos went into the bedroom where Rachel was, she said goodnight to Lester, although Lester got the impression that she mostly did it because she wanted to say goodnight to James and couldn't ignore the owner of the pocket James travelled in. Still, things had seemed to thaw out a little between them. Maybe there was a hope for friendship yet.

With that small candle of hope burning in his chest Lester lay down on the second bed in his own room and closed his eyes. He wasn't even aware that he had fallen asleep when he felt himself jerked awake again. Eos was shaking at his shoulder.

"Lester!" she said. "Wake up! Lester! Something is very wrong here."

Not entirely awake Lester tried to remember where he was and what he was doing.

"Eos," he said. "You have legs, no tail, neat trick."

"It's not a trick, it's an enchantment, I have a ring," Eos said. "Look, listen, that's not important, what's important is that I found a small chest, a jewellery box, in my room. I was just looking through it, there were some pretty things inside.

"Oh," Lester said. "That's nice. Anything saleable?"

"No, Lester," Eos was irritable, this was not unusual. "We can't sell any of it. Even if it was worth anything, it disappeared, while I was looking at it, it turned to mist, sparkly mist and just... it was like it was evaporating."

"Oh dear," Lester said, still not quite with it. "That's not good, unless it was a dream, could you have been dreaming?"

"I don't think I was, I mean, I don't remember closing my eyes," Eos said. It was clear that Lester's question had forced her to re-examine her own thoughts.

"The Undone!" cried the gnome, sitting bolt upright in his bed. "We're close to the Undone! We have to leave! I have to leave!"

Lester and Eos looked over at the suddenly mobile gnome.

"What's the Undone?" Lester asked. He had hoped for the longest time that at some point he would feel comfortable that he could handle the pace at which things progressed, he still hadn't got there even though it often appeared as if the moment that he should know everything he needed to know was just a little further away.

"No time!" the gnome shouted. "We have to run, right now!"

"What's all the noise?" mumbled a bleary eyed Rachel, coming through the door into the room.

"We have to go!" the gnome said, scrambling off the bed and grasping Rachel's hand. "We have to go before the Undone gets us."

Not waiting for his ranting to sink in he pulled Rachel after him, racing out of the room and down the house's main stairs.

"Hold on!" Lester said, swinging his own legs out of bed to give chase. "I think we need a little more to go on."

The gnome wasn't listening he was down the stairs and over to the front door of the little house. He flung the door open and plunged out into the grey mist that surrounded the house.

"Oh this is bad," he was muttering as he pulled Rachel after him down the garden path, "this is very, very bad."

Lester and Eos came running after the gnome in the garden they nearly caught him but as Lester's hand brushed the fabric of the little sprite's tunic he registered what was now surrounding him. Night had never fallen in the garden of the little house. Instead it was enveloped in a permanent misty twilight through which drifted the lazily undulating forms of the luminescent blobs, not just a couple now, more like thirty or forty.

"What's happening?" Eos asked, her voice as awed as Lester felt.

"This is it," the gnome said. "The precursor to the Undone. We have to leave before we fall into it. If we fall into the Undone we'll never come out again."

The gnome resumed his journey back to the garden gate. Lester could see trees in the distance, where the forest resumed. The house now appeared to be part of a different world, a world of mist and glowing blobs, trapped in permanent twilight.

"Come on," Lester said to Eos, "we can't afford to wait around."

The mermaid didn't argue, the four of them half-walked, half-ran from the misty area towards the more solid shape of the twisted, shadowy tree trunks.

"It looks like we've had a narrow escape," Lester said. "What do you think James?"

Lester looked down to his right pocket but it was empty.

"James?" Lester said. "Oh."

He stopped dead. Eos took a couple more steps after the gnome before stopping and turning.

"What is it?" she asked.

"I think James crawled out of my pocket to get some sleep," Lester said. "He's not here. He must still be in the house."

Lester turned back to look at the house, it didn't really look like a real house any more, it looked like a sketch done in light pencil, an impression rather than an actual thing.

"I have to get him," Lester said. "You go on, I'll get him and catch you up."

Eos opened her mouth as if to object but Lester wasn't going to give her a chance. He ran back towards the house and in through the front door, not stopping till he was back at the bedroom.

He found James in the furthest corner of a shelf in the bedside table. Lester reached in and picked the sleeping mouse up.

"Huh," James said, waking up, "whassamatter."

"The gnome woke up," Lester said, carrying James carefully as he jogged down the stairs. "We have to move, we're in trouble."

"Oh, no," James complained. "What kind of trouble?"

"Well..." Lester said but the sentence got no further. Lester stopped at the threshold of the house, foot waving above an empty bright white space where the ground had been only a minute before. "Ah," Lester said, looking up and about him.

Beyond the edge of the house was nothing but white in all directions. The house itself appeared to be melting away at the corners. Lester began to understand what it was the gnome had been worried about, but was the realisation too late?

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Sir Cobb's Problem or So What Now?

"That was a lot of work for only half as much as I earned yesterday," Frederick complained.

"Look on the bright side," the tavern keeper said. "You only look half as battered for your troubles."

Frederick was dismayed to note that cage-fighting had now settled into his conscious mind as an everyday occurrence. In Frederick's mind earning money from fighting was the kind of thing a scoundrel would do, and he didn't like to think of himself as a scoundrel. Unfortunately saving maidens from dragons was work as badly paying as it was rare in the days following the Great Vanishing.

"I have to be quite glad that you are too clumsy to actually be able to hit me," said a voice behind Frederick. Frederick turned to take in the ever-present lopsided smirk on the morally ambiguous face of Harvey Raine.

"You were watching?" Frederick asked.

"When you said you were going to spend the evening in a cage with a number of large gentlemen who would like nothing better than to hit you in the face until your teeth rattled I just had to come along," Harvey said. "Phoebe was glad to see the back of me for a few hours. I have to say that although the random violence was entertaining I wasn't expecting you to come out of it quite so... unscathed."

"It's not supposed to be entertaining," Frederick said, in brave but pointless opposition to the actual process of fighting on a stage under bright lights and having each bout announced.. "Come on, we'd better get back to the Inn."

"I think you might be misunderstanding where the six crowns you're currently holding came from," Harvey taunted Frederick but Frederick was already halfway towards the main entrance.

If Frederick had hoped that Harvey might shut the hell up as they made their way out into the street he was to be disappointed. In a corner of his mind that he had never used much growing up Frederick knew that Harvey wouldn't shut his mouth until he'd elicited some sort of angry response from Frederick. This was one of Harvey's favourite games.

"Still, that last chap, he did get a couple of solid head blows in," Harvey continued as they walked down the street towards the market square. "Good job he didn't get you anywhere important, eh, Freddie?"

The words 'don't call me Freddie' were so eager to escape from Frederick's tongue that he actually had to bite down to stop them from coming out. The pain of biting into soft parts of his own anatomy wasn't as sharp as a few of the strikes he'd suffered during the evening's bouts.

The stony silence, unfortunately, had seemingly no effect on Harvey. The djinn was long lived and used to tormenting people, he was pretty much an expert at going at someone until they collapsed into a ball of fury.

"I have to say, Freddie," Harvey continued, how the irritating sprite knew to continue with the hated contraction of Frederick's name probably came down to an almost imperceptible reflex twitch in one of Frederick's facial muscles. "I was impressed by exactly how much damage you avoided taking. I just thought you were some hopeless wannabe. Turns out you're actually a second-rate practitioner. I don't know many people for whom mediocrity would be a step up but to a certain degree I think you should be proud."

Frederick had never previously met anyone like Harvey. The only hope Frederick had of not being taunted by the djinn was if there was some novel opportunity for Harvey to annoy someone else entirely. When no such opportunity presented itself Harvey's taunting of Frederick was merciless.

"Harvey," Frederick said, trying to remain calm but not doing terribly well at the job, "why do you have to insult me all the time?"

The same corner of the mind that had known what Harvey was up to all along threw its hands up in horror at that open invitation, but it was too late, it had been issued.

"Insult you?" Harvey asked, as if that had been the last thing on his little mischief fuelled mind. "Freddie I was just pontificating out loud, sharing my inner thoughts. I don't know what it is you could possibly find to get insulted about in that."

The rest of Frederick's mind gave up on trying to make any sense out of the situation at that point. Frederick turned on his heel to put Harvey behind him and strode off in the direction of the Gryphon's Wing.

Harvey followed along and continued to insult Frederick's name and his competence at knightly activities while, at the same time, conceding that it surprised Harvey that Frederick could even muster the ability to beat people to a pulp in a cage fight. Frederick seemed to have plateaued in a condition of not really paying much attention to this babble and he did notice a distinct drop off in the viciousness and originality of Harvey's barbs.

It was with some satisfaction that Frederick gave Harvey a pointed glare when they reached the threshold of the inn. Harvey grudgingly turned into cat form and allowed himself to be picked up by Frederick. Normally there was no way that Harvey would endure such an imposition but he was under an injunction from Phoebe that could not be resisted.

Phoebe was sitting in the lounge of the inn doing something witchy with a number of pebble sized cut crystals and a cloth with a diagram on it. As soon as she was in sight Harvey hopped out of Frederick's arms and went to sit next to her. Frederick put his coin purse on the table.

"That should see us right for a couple of days," he said, sitting opposite her.

"Then what?" Phoebe asked.

"Well, I guess I'll have to find some more work to do wherever we are," Frederick replied.

"No," Phoebe said, wearing the face that she always wore when Frederick had singularly failed to grasp the thrust of her point. "I mean, what are we going to do? And where are we going to do it?"

"Um," Frederick said. He had made the breakthrough of realising that he wasn't following Phoebe's train of thought but he had no idea what to ask her to get her to make sense. "I, uh, don't exactly know what you, uh..."

"Frederick," Phoebe said. "I think we have to face facts. We joined forces to reunite a little girl and her, uh, mouse, father... mouse-father. That mission has been accomplished, as far as we can tell. Now we each have our own things to be getting on with and... well, don't you think you'd be better off without us hanging around, slowing you down," she looked down at Harvey, "annoying you?"

Frederick could only muster a blink in response to this query. He hadn't really devoted much thought to the matter. He remembered being on his own, miserable, walking around from place to place, earning some scraps of money cage fighting or killing vermin, then he had fallen through a hole in reality and found himself the sidekick to the most celebrated hero in the long history of Faerie.

After that he had taken a long journey alone through a very strange place that ended with his opportunity to prove his knightly credentials by killing an evil sorcerer. Finally he experienced a brief stint in a jail cell in Hamsamperburg where he was arrested for vagrancy and then condemned to burn at the stake as a witch when he explained his situation to the locals. It was during this incarceration that he came to the conclusion that spending too much time on your own made you go a bit funny.

Thankfully, at that point, he had been rescued by Lester, James, Phoebe and the delightful Princess Anabyl. His magic sword, now imbued with the power of speech, was returned to him and from that point on he had been part of the team.

If you'd asked him what he thought the team's overall mission and direction should be, or would be in the future, he wouldn't know. All that he did know was that is was his team and he was happy to be a part of it. He was, in fact, so happy to be a part of it that he hadn't noticed its shrinkage to the point where it could no longer really be called a team any more.

In its current state 'the team' was him, Phoebe and Harvey, which made for two and a half team members, because Harvey was compelled to be present and did his best to sabotage them wherever possible. Also, Frederick had to concede, the idea that a team should have a mission, purpose and direction was a good one.

Frederick had set out to be a wandering knight for hire but, at this stage, he had so done that it wasn't even funny. The next thing that he ought to do was seek a place at the round table of the nearest royal personage who was in the hiring mood. The only problem with that was that most monarchs currently engaged in war were of the evil variety and Frederick was very much looking for a position as a white knight.

So his options were to resume wandering, or to stay with Phoebe and Harvey. The only issue being that Phoebe and Harvey wanted to go their own way. Frederick could not, off the top of his head, think of a knightly reason why he should stay with Phoebe and Harvey. He could think of plenty of personal ones, but knights did not do things for personal reasons, they did things because of their code.

What did Frederick's code have to say on the matter?

That was yet another awkward question. Frederick had never been much for scribing, or any other type of academics. His code boiled down to: 'Try to be nice and make yourself useful'. As filled with benevolent good intention as this was it did not compel him to remain in the company of a powerful newly not-dead witch and her djinn. They didn't even need his help to protect them from anything, having, as they did, a scary abundance of magical power between the two of them.

In wandering through this tangled maze of desire and motivation Frederick did manage to come up with a half-hearted attempt at a response:

"So, what are you going to do next?" he asked. This did not actually commit to the new 'go our separate ways' plan while also being an attempt to discover whether they had any plans which could be considered mutual.

Phoebe sighed.

"Well, I imagine I will have to go back to Vikor's castle... the remains of Vikor's castle, and get the amulet from about the skeleton's neck," Phoebe said. "Until that's broken Harvey and I are bonded together and, well, I don't think that's best for anyone."

"I... see..." Frederick said. "Well, that should be... I mean... I hope that all goes well for you."

"I'm sure you have some knightly things to be getting on with," Phoebe said. "So we shouldn't really delay you, should we?"

Frederick's answer to this question was interrupted by the sudden and unexpected arrival at their table of a worried looking goblin trader. The one who had been with the little girl, the one Harvey had whisked away from the House of Mirth back to Steephill Fell: Tabarnas.

"You two are still here," Tabarnas said. "That's excellent news."

"It is?" Phoebe asked. "Why?"

"Something's happening, to my books," Tabarnas said. "It's making me very worried."

"Your books?" Frederick asked.

"I didn't know you worked any magic," Phoebe said.

"Oh, I don't," Tabarnas replied. "Other than the magic of storytelling. I have a weakness for written tales, you see. So I have, along life's journey, furnished the shelves of a small library, mostly chronicles, mostly Avan Weatherstrong stories."

"So what's the problem?" Frederick asked.

"I have three new books, books I have never read, books that are not about Avan Weatherstrong," Tabarnas said.

"And?" Frederick asked, he was trying not to sound impatient but his hope that this interruption would provide reason for the party to stay together was fading fast.

"These books are a four volume work that describe the heroic ascendance, adventures and tragic demise of a female Dragon Warrior," Tabarnas said. "I only mention it because some of us feature in the prologue."

"Some of us?" Phoebe interrupted. "As in some of us here at the table?"

"Specifically yourself," Tabarnas said, nodding his head and making eye contact with Phoebe, he transferred his gaze to Frederick. "And you. The cat doesn't come into it, neither do I. I just thought you ought to know."

"So in this story, at some point in the future," Frederick said. "We are destined to encounter this dragon warrior?"

"No, that's not it," Tabarnas said. "The implication of this summary of the warrior's early life is that she met you both whilst she was very young."

Phoebe and Frederick exchanged a glance.

"You don't mean-" Phoebe began.

"See, the warrior used a magic spade, so it's said, to liberate you, Miss September," Tabarnas said. "And she provided some assistance in freeing you from a jail cell, so it says, following a journey through a magic mirror, following a regrettable instance with a bow and arrow, so the story goes, anyway."

Tabarnas reached into his overcoat and struggled to pull out a bound pile of books from an enormous interior pocket. He placed the volumes on the table and Frederick and Phoebe read the title of the topmost tome:

The Life and Death of Anabyl, Fiercest of the Dragon Warriors, Volume I

It appeared that Frederick had found some small reason why they might want to remain a team. The Life of Anabyl wasn't so much of a problem, but the death... They would have to study further, and see if such a death was preventable, and, if it was, they would have to prevent it. The how and the where of it were details that would come again, upon another day.