Sunday, 22 December 2013

Chester Topping Rest In Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone was looking at Lester. The gnome scowled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hello!" cried a voice from above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Anabyl?" he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why would the gnome care?" Anabyl asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Here!" Lester said, excitedly.

The others came to join him.

"What does that mean?" the gnome asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"So?" Rachel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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