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?

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