Sunday, 30 June 2013

Avan Weatherstrong and the Riders in Little Hill

Before the time of the Vanishing, when all the dragons went away, there were a number of realms that were ruled by, or living in symbiosis with, the Draconic races. These realms were governed by a treaty between the dragons and the folk known as the Ninefold Covenant.

In that dim and distant past Faerie had a greater geography than it does today, with three vast continents separated by two enormous oceans. The continents of Araby and Axis were connected by a thin spit of land marking a dividing point between the Trader's Ocean and the dark waters of the Ocean Incognita. The last continent, Terra Draconis, lay at the far end of the Crystal Ocean, its vast trenches and extensive underwater kingdoms make up most of the sub-oceanic shadows, even today.

The riches to be found in the Terra Draconis were many, the routes to cross the oceans few and fraught with dangers. One of the most detailed accounts left across the former continent of Axis (now home to the Hundred Kingdoms and the Crossway Realms) is the account of the adventures of Prince Avan Weatherstrong set down in the tenth volume of his adventures.

If one were to look at a standard edition of 'The Tales of Avan Weatherstronge Vol. X' purchased, for example, from a stall at the Patchwork Market of Bridgetown one would probably find the following tale set down there. However, if one were to visit some of the deeper stacks of the Faerie Archive of Levercastle one may find the events transpired a little differently in the 'Fully Annotated' edition of the same volume written in a special expanding binding with intelligent ink. Such refinements are only to be located in Faerie's only real library, probably because of the testing effect they tend to have on the surrounding reality.

In this tale Avan Weatherstrong emerged from the sea road through the undersea kingdom of Redkale to cross the border into the coastal kingdom of Bromo. This would be his first days in the Terra Draconis and he was excited to see the last of the lands of Faerie first hand.

The first sign of trouble in Bromo came when he climbed up the stairs cut into the rock of the Bromo Cliffs to find that his entry onto land was barred by a tall gate, a tower to one side provided enough room to house a few guards. Avan knocked upon the door and saw a face appear at the top of the tower.

"Who goes there?" challenged the Broman guard from above.

"My name is Prince Avan Weatherstrong," Avan explained. "I bear a Seal of the Hundred Kingdoms, I seek no more than to travel through your lands upon my great journey among the lands of Faerie."

Avan held up the golden circle, the seal of the Hundred Kingdoms but from the top of the tower it must have looked like no more than a small golden saucer.

"Wait there," the guard told him, "I'm coming down."

There was the scuffle of a number of boots against stone and a small hatch opened in the gate.

"Hold up your seal," the guard demanded, Avan complied.

There was the sound of a number of bolts and latches being undone before the gate finally opened. Across the threshold of the kingdom of Bromo was a small stone room and two nervous looking guards holding spears, regarding Avan with suspicion.

"I take it you were expecting something more troublesome than a travelling prince?" Avan asked.

"Kalers," one of the guards mumbled in response.

"They don't usually come in the day time, they've not been coming at night so often. They're probably up to something," the other one said. He scanned the stairway behind Avan, as if expecting to find an attack force that he had not previously noted, skulking among the jagged walls of rock to either side.

"You are at war with your neighbours?" Avan asked. "That is a great shame. Men like you should be building a kingdom, not waiting in fear in a damp gatehouse."

"You'd best come through," one of the guards said. "Not safe to have the gate open for too long."

Avan entered the gatehouse and one of the guards closed and locked the door behind him. The chamber beyond the gate was small and bare, there was a set of steps off to Avan's left and a larger wooden double door about eight feet further on.

"I'm really just passing through," Avan said to the guards. "I have come to see the wonders of the Terra Draconis. Maybe, if I talk with your ruler, then I could offer some insight into whatever is troubling this realm."

"You'll have to take the Caer Road," the guard said. "You'd be better on a horse, not long now until sundown."

"What's the problem with sundown?" Avan asked. There were often, in his experience, problems with sundown, the question was more an assessment of what kind of problem this might be.

"The riders come out, usually after night fall, sometimes at dusk," the guard said. "Take the road to Little Hill, that's not so far away, you can stay at the Inn."

Avan was curious about what a rider might be but he could tell that the guards were keen to send him on his way during the last few hours of daylight so he held his tongue. One of the guards went up the stairs, back into the watch tower, the other lead Avan through the double doors at the opposite end of the antechamber and out onto a broad courtyard. A simple four stall stable was set up to one side of the courtyard, there were a few wooden stakes to the opposite side that were probably used for combat practice. At the far end of the courtyard was a high wall and, in the centre, two tall wooden gates topped with spikes.

Without talking, or even looking at Avan, the guard lead the prince to the gates. He opened a wicket in the gate on the right.

"Little Hill road goes that way," he said pointing to a cobbled road that split north from the junction just beyond the gates. Avan noticed that the guard was stood away from the open wicket, his nervousness had increased with the little door open. "Town's just over the hill in the valley beyond," the guard said. "Don't stop, get to the inn as quick as you can, when evening bell rings close the shutters on your room. They'll tell you what to do."

Avan's curiosity was now raging but he did not think that this guard would appreciate a barrage of questions. Avan would have to find someone more talkative in this town, Little Hill. He thanked the guard for the advice before setting foot on the Little Hill road.

The walk into the town did not take long, he reached the town limits while the sun still had quite a distance to sink upon its travels. Avan had travelled a long way on his journey and so he was neither surprised nor disappointed that his first experience of the Terra Draconis was indistinguishable, in many ways, from his experience of anywhere else he had been.

The air was a little chilly, the sky was a light grey, Avan imagined that some rain could not be too far away. The local vegetation in Bromo was verdant but not exotic, all in line with a temperate autumnal season. The only unusual thing about Bromo was how quiet the roads were and how scared the guards had been.

Little Hill was no more reassuring. People rushed back and forth with a sense of urgency, most ignored Avan, those that didn't regarded him wide-eyed, appearing to assess him as they would a stray dog that may turn out to be rabid. Avan heard many people make remarks about wanting to get things done before curfew.

In the early days of his adventures Avan's curiosity at this odd behaviour would surely have got the better of him. When he had begun his journey his patience had not been tempered by so many brushes with death. He was confident that he could get some information from someone at the Inn, these establishments were always the hub of all the most interesting information to be gleaned in a particular place at a particular time.

Little Hill Inn was adjacent to the town's market square. By the time Avan arrived the stalls had all been removed or locked up, even though the evening bell was still a little time away. As Avan approached the inn he observed townsfolk heading indoors with some haste. Many of the houses that surrounded the square were shut up tight, blank faced shutters hiding the interior from view. To one side of the square there were three houses that had been burned out, a sign advised passers by to stay away from the ruins.

Whatever Avan's expectations had been of the inn they did not include the desolate tavern area that he stepped into. There were no more than ten patrons in the whole place, a bored looking draco stood behind the bar occupying his time with a bar-room skittles set. The green skinned inn keeper was the first draco Avan had ever seen so he tried his hardest not to feel underwhelmed.

Avan had experienced some difficulty separating out the draco, a race of dragon-people who walked on two legs like the folk, from lizard men. Now that he could see one to compare he understood that you could not mistake one for another. Lizard men were related to goblins, as such they tended to be wiry of frame, their heads were far more lizard than folk, their skin was scaled, their eyes had yellow irises and black slitted pupils.

The draco were smoother skinned, if anything their complexion looked as if it were made of some kind of soft fabric, tinted not just green but rather in a wash of colours including yellow, blue, purple and green. Their eyes were an odd china blue at the edges with large dark pupils that sometimes shone as they caught the light. Instead of having a steady iris the pupil gave the appearance of being on fire.

The draco also carried a natural bulk, even this small bar man appeared stocky, robust with health. Black hair sprouted from his head in a stripe that gave his pointed ears plenty of breathing room either side. At the back the barman's hair was gathered into a clip.

Avan approached the draco who was intent on knocking down the four badly spaced pins still standing on the board. The bar man made Avan wait until the ball had swung through its arc, narrowly missing two of the pins, clipping one so that it fell and going nowhere near the fourth. The bar man tutted at his failure and readjusted his focus to point in Avan's direction.

"The guards at the cliff stair gatehouse told me that I should come here and book a room for the night," Avan said.

"They must have liked you," the bar man replied. "Room's four florins."

Avan put down a crown.

"People round here appear to be frightened," Avan said. "Maybe while you show me my room we could talk about that."

"Your money," the barman shrugged, pocketing the crown. "Follow me."

The bar man lead Avan out of the main tavern area up a set of steps that wound round up to a second floor. He showed Avan to a small, functional guest room. Avan noted, upon entering the room, that the shutters were already closed and locked.

"Don't open them," the bar man said, following the direction of Avan's gaze. "I don't want any trouble."

"What's so troubling?" Avan asked. "I think you'll find I've paid for an answer."

"Wolf riders," the bar man said. "Mercenaries hired by Redkale. They have beseiged the whole of Bromo,"

"Why?" Avan asked. "Such a campaign must be ruinous for both kingdoms. Only the mercenaries would make any profit."

"Redkale's daughter, Princess Auriga and Bromo's son, Prince Lachlan, they are married," the barman said. "Redkale has never supported the mingling of land dwellers and merfolk. He was less than understanding on the matter."

"It's unusual for a Lord to jeopardise his people supporting his child's love match," Avan said. It was a remark that Avan hoped the barman would recognise as a diplomatically phrased question.

"There's enchantment involved," the barman said. "That's all you need to know for now. That and, don't open the shutters, until you hear morning bell. We'll bring you your supper after evening bell, there isn't a night bell."

With that the bar man withdrew, leaving Avan to get as comfortable as he could in his cell-like room. He took his heeding stone from its pouch in a boot pocket and set it up on the small dresser. He took his binding scarf from around his neck and laid it over the surface of the small mirror attached to the dresser. Only then did he remove some of his armoured travelling clothes and stretch out the tiredness in his muscles.

After a short time Avan heard the muted sound of the evening bell through the shutters. A draco woman, possibly the inn keeper's wife or sister, brought Avan a bowl of hearty broth and some unusual dense bread. Avan ate slowly and then talked with his heeding stone for a little while before retiring into the bed in his room. The complete dark and silence felt like a cocoon so the prince fell swiftly to sleep.

Avan had been travelling for too long to be a deep sleeper, so when the scream made its way through the muffle of the stout wooden shutters it awoke him. There wasn't much else in the way of sound and the scream had already died by the time he was conscious, to the point where most people would have been uncertain whether or not they had dreamed the noise.

In his travels Avan had cause to deal with the forces of the dream world, he had cause to know better than most what was real and what was not. The scream had been muffled but already Avan had recalled it to mind, it had been female, probably young, so close to the bleat of an animal in distress but that was another distinction that Avan had learned to pick apart.

Still, he couldn't be certain but where there was doubt there was also possibility. He crept to the shutters, unlocked them and opened them just a crack to peer out into the dark night.

The streets of Little Hill by night were not well lit. There was evidence that there were some lights here and there, low down to street level, mostly the view out of the window was dark, then there was the rainbow corona. A column of whirling rainbow light picked out the tiles of rooftops in narrow streets, approaching the market square. Every so often the column would collapse and the view would darken, before, once more blooming upwards shooting towards the sky.

With the shutters open a crack Avan could detect the sounds of snarling and shouting, no doubt the noise of the riders stalking whatever it was that formed the centre of the corona. Avan had to act, someone could be in danger and he had no confidence that anyone from Little Hill would risk involvement.

He quickly pulled on his armoured clothes and picked up his short sword and channeling staff. He wanted to be stealthy but had no time for a serious enchantment, he spoke a darkening charm that merely dimmed his form, making it less distinct and muting the noises he made. Then he stole out of his room and down into the tavern.

The door to the inn was locked up tight with a mortice lock, Avan muttered the words of a minor thieves' cantrip and touched his channelling staff to the lock and it sprung open. He was careful to close the door again behind him, he didn't want to think of the riders finding a house that wasn't secured. Once the door was locked Avan ran into the dark streets trying to locate the rainbow corona once more.

It didn't take long to spot it, the column of light was still blooming upwards, fading and blooming again, clear against the night sky. Avan's eyes were becoming used to the darkness now and he picked his way quickly across the market square avoiding the locked up permanent stalls, water butts and other obstacles that could have slowed him down.

As he drew closer to the corona it became apparent that its source was mobile, it was moving toward the market square, only a few streets distant. As Avan reached the western edge of the square he heard a sound from his left. He turned his eyes to see a shadowy figure emerge from between two buildings about forty feet distant from his position.

The figure was a giant wolf, it looked to be a large cousin of the dire wolf found in Axis, mounted on its back was a soldier in armour, one of the riders. Behind it came two more. Avan darted forward to gain cover at the corner of the street he was headed toward. Once he was behind the wall he carefully surveyed the approaching riders from his cover, trying to assess whether they had targetted him specifically or just happened to be headed in his direction.

From a quick glance it did not appear that Avan had been spotted. It was likely they were moving around to hem in the source of the rainbow corona. That meant that he had to head in towards the source quickly, before it was too late.

The source was only one street over now, around a corner about sixty feet ahead. It appeared to be travelling in his direction. Avan picked up his heels and ran towards it, determined to beat the riders to the prize.

The source and the prince reached the junction at the same time. Avan found himself looking into the furious face of a little girl wearing an almost comical lemon-yellow party frock under which could be seen the ominous black leather of a pair of stout boots. The corona centred on her illuminating her form and providing a glowing spear of light that pierced the night sky, betraying her location.

For a moment Avan and the little girl just stared at one another, neither certain which would move first. The little girl broke the deadlock, darting forward and kicking Avan soundly in the right shin.

She was three feet away from him, dodging around to his right, before he had recovered from the unexpected pain enough to move after her. He didn't want to draw attention to himself by calling out. Avan started after her, back up the street he'd come down originally, but neither of them got very far before the riders came down ahead of them. The three wolves spread out across the road to cut off their retreat.

The little girl spun on her heel and dodged back round Avan without even acknowledging his presence to run west further along the street. Avan quickly checked the southern approach where the girl had emerged from, there were more riders coming up that way. It was almost certain that there would be a third band of riders up the other street. The rainbow corona was too easy to pinpoint.

There was no time for questions, and equally little for subtlety. Avan had problems with works of sorcery, particularly in circumstances such as this, but the price of a one-off effect would be minor. He held out his hand and recited the summoning charm for his familiar. The tiny figure of an imp appeared in the palm of his hand.

"Long time no see, Princey," the little man said. "You must be desperate."

"The power of flight, until sunrise, how much?" Avan asked. He could hear the heavy lope of the wolves coming closer.

"One hundred hairs from your head, they will never grow back," the imp said.

"One hundred?" Avan asked, he was in a poor position to bargain but one hundred hairs was the potential for one hundred curses to be worked attached to him, one hundred death kisses, one hundred doppelshades, one hundred custom built mirror prisons. "Twenty, maybe."

"I'll do seventy," the imp replied. "Doesn't look like we can haggle any further if you want to keep the head those hairs grow from."

"Done," Avan responded and felt a smattering of prickles on his scalp as the hairs were extracted.

"A pleasure doing business, princey, don't be a stranger," the imp said before exploding in a puff of acrid purple smoke.

"I hate sorcery," Avan muttered as his feet lifted from the ground. He swooped forward just as the axe wielded by one of the riders swung through the space he had occupied until the very moment before.

The flight wasn't smooth, the power had been given with too much inertia, Avan would have to be careful about stopping and turning. Right now he had to aim for the rainbow corona and get the little girl out of harm's way.

The corona was still obvious, it had slowed to a stop about twenty feet further on, no doubt the girl had seen the other riders and was now looking for some avenue of escape. There was no time for anything clever. Avan soared down the street, gripped the little girl round the waist, eliciting another huge scream that rattled his eardrums, before finally shooting up into the sky.

Once he was far enough over the roof tops he flew towards the coast, where he knew the courtyard outside the cliff gatehouse would be open to the sky and locked down tight.

"Get off me!" the little girl shouted, squirming to get out of Avan's grasp.

"Stop struggling," Avan said. "I don't want you to fall. I'm not going to hurt you."

"Good for you," the little girl said. "I'm most definitely going to hurt you, as soon as I get the chance."

Avan was so surprised by the comment he nearly fell out of the air.

"I just saved your life," Avan said.

"How do I know that?" the little girl asked. "You're flying, that means you're a sorcerer, and sorcerers are mean."

"I might be an alchemist," Avan responded.

"Alchemists can't make people fly," the girl scoffed. "They just make things smell, or explode, sometimes both."

"Alchemists can work any magic, if they're skilled enough. I could be a druid, they fly," Avan said.

"I don't know anything about druids, if you mean witches they need a broomstick, you've got no broomstick, you're definitely a sorcerer."

"Well, currently," Avan said. "I'm a sorcerer who rescued you from soldiers on wolf back," Avan said. "So I think I deserve the benefit of the doubt. You can hurt me later, if I try to hurt you, deal?"

"I suppose," the little girl said.

Avan couldn't help but notice that when she made her last remark the halo of rainbow light faded a little.

"Where are we going?" the little girl asked.

"Guard house, on the coast," Avan said. "We can get you inside until morning, then you might not stand out so much."

"Will there be guards?" the girl asked.

"There usually are in guardhouses," Avan answered. The light instantly blossomed brighter. "Why are you glowing?" Avan asked.

"It's a punishment," the girl said. "From my stupid personal tutor. He makes me glow whenever I'm thinking of mischief. I've been glowing for three weeks now, almost constantly. He said it was so he could find me easily when I was up to no good."

"I take it your personal tutor is a trickster, then?" Avan said. He had heard of such sprites, they were attached to people the powers that be had deemed to be in need of a drastic lesson.

"He's a stupid, that's all I know," the little girl said.

Avan saw the light of the gatehouse tower, he curved round to make a landing.

"So how did you end up in Little Hill, after dark, alone?" Avan asked.

"It's a 'field trip', whatever that means," the little girl replied. "I told him I would do anything to get rid of the light, he said 'really, anything?' and I said 'anything' and he said 'even go on a field trip?', and I told him that if it would help me get rid of the light I would do anything at all. So he tapped me on the head with his stick and then I was in that town.

"I wasn't glowing at first, I was too amazed. Then I saw the wolf people and I couldn't help but wonder if I could steal one of the wolves, I mean, they're amazing. Then they spotted me, they were angry, that's a usual sort of reaction in anyone who's met me before, I didn't think they had. Anyway I ran, they came after me and you took me away to here."

The little girl finished speaking just as Avan touched down in the courtyard. The two guards from the tower, who were a different pair from the ones who had lead Avan through earlier, came running out, waving their spears.

"Which," the little girl concluded. "Looks really dull, apart from the spears." She turned to address one of the guards. "Hey, mister, that's a really good spear, can I have a go?"

The rainbow corona was still shining brightly. Avan held up his seal of the Hundred Kingdoms.

"Gentlemen," he said. "I will explain, inside, I think we need to contain this little girl before her light brings the riders down on this place."

The guards were confused but they weren't idiots, they hurried Avan and the little girl into the guard tower where Avan explained the situation to them. The little girl turned out to be called Anabyl Spireshine (which seemed odd as Spireshine was one of the hundred kingdoms that neighboured Avan's own home of Weatherstrong) and she identified herself as a princess. She found it hard to believe that Avan was who he claimed to be because she said he was 'from a storybook'.

Avan found out a bit more about Anabyl and how she had come to the Terra Draconis, why she was there and how he could return her to her home. All of this is a story for another time.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Phoebe's Burden

Phoebe September had been born far away from the Crossway Realms, outside of the Hundred Kingdoms in a small Shadow Realm called Overwyrd. There are not many happy Shadow Realms, the number of benevolent ones ruled by a powerful council of magicians numbers in the single figures. If we wanted to be particular about it the single figure in question was one.

Overwyrd contained with in its borders five cities, one for each of the main magical disciplines and the City of Celestia, known by many in Faerie as the Capital City of Magic. Although the Celestian Council of Twelve (the ruling body of Overwyrd) had no objection to this assignation they all knew it was a lie.

Magic did not, in fact have a capital city, it couldn't, magic was everywhere, permeating everything. It is a joke often told in The Hermetic Academy of the neighbouring city of Ergus that they had wanted, as their coat of arms, a circle whose limit was nowhere and whose centre was everywhere but they couldn't get it on the flag. Alchemists have an odd sense of humour, by and large.

Phoebe was born in the times of the old heroes, before Avan Weatherstrong had fought his final battle, during a period of time dubbed the Thaumaturge War in Volume XI of "The Tales Of Avan Weatherstronge". She was born in the city of Neiros the child of two witches, although in those days they were referred to more properly as druids or priests, until they went bad.

This was before the convention of the Celestian Council, when the land was ruled over by the Overwyrd itself. The Overwyrd was a sprite that had grown to significant power, an elemental of magic itself. Using a variety of geis it had set itself up as a powerful force for all magic, a controversial role in and of itself. The more powerful the Overwyrd became the more aloof it became, even as magicians of all disciplines came together to study at its feet so the political turmoil inevitably rose to the boil.

By the time the child of Cyrus and Megara September was named Phoebe the city of Neiros had already been at war with the neighbouring city of Ytha for a generation and no end to the conflict was in sight. Those in the sight of the Overwyrd had expressed concern about the motivations of an entire city of sorcerers, this gossip had done little but fuel the growing unrest and quicken the Ythan's thirst for conquest and domination.

Although Ytha had begun attacking both Neiros and Ergus the druids and alchemists were finding their own peace process difficult. Both cities had signed peace treaties with Oph, the city of bards, Oph themselves had taken a position of neutrality in the conflict that raged around them.

Ythan forces had attempted to march on Oph, of course, but the concerted effort of the Ophans has resulted in the bloodthirsty Ythan warband settling down for a coffee around the many excellent cafes of Oph. During their short, placid stay the hardened mage-warriors discussed the ultimate nature of reality and the power of music to unlock powerful sensory experiences, before leaving peacefully having bought a large number of 'I Heart Oph' tourist trinkets such as mugs, tunics and novelty belt buckles. The one thing all three warring cities could agree on was that Ophans were not to be trusted and far too rich for their own good.

Phoebe learned quickly of the follies of her elders and learned first hand of the constant dread that played companion to those living in the heart of a mage war. As far as Phoebe could tell you took charge or you got flattened along the way. War, she decided, was for idiots, peaceful resolution to any situation was by far the preferred option.

This was a shame for Phoebe who, temperamentally, had a short fuse and, magically, had a talent for the manipulation of various forms of plasma. Against her better judgement she pledged to the Circle of Elements at the Hallowed House (the Neiran equivalent of the Hermetic Academy) and learned to be one with the primal spirit of energy; specifically Ouro, the serpentine embodiment of the energetic principle.

Being one of those whose natural gifts tended towards both healing and harming Phoebe was groomed for a life of military service. It was during this time that the first peace pacts were signed between Neiros and Ergus. Phoebe lived in hope that her temper would not be unleashed upon the Ythans because she was, at heart, a peaceful person and wanted nothing to do with killing or death.

All that had been several lifetimes ago, even to one of the elder folk. Now Phoebe was cut adrift from her past by the hand of an Ythan sorcerer by the name of Vikas Moorshade. Moorshade had been killed as Phoebe had lain entombed within a crystal coffin at the foot of Moorshade's throne. Phoebe's former life could not have found itself more effectively erased with the most powerful entreaties to Chronos, the spirit of time.

Phoebe September found herself without family, without home, without much of a purpose in a world she barely recognised. She was helping a mouse find a little girl because she didn't know what else to do. Right at this moment she was moving this greater goal on by applying an unguent to relieve pain in an old woman's spine for which she would receive the princely sum of two shillings.

So far this morning she had earned two crowns in various health treatments, she was still a good way off the Bronze Mark she had set as a target. Still, there was time enough until the day bell, noon bell hadn't sounded yet although it couldn't be far off. There were plenty of ill people in the magic enclosure of Steephill Fell's market square, all Phoebe had to do was show some efficiency.

It wasn't even too much of a chore. Dispensing head poultices, potions, tinctures, balms and unguents, all juiced with various types of raw magical plasma, was by far the most mundane and peaceful activity Phoebe could remember engaging in for years.

No wonder, she considered, that she was remembering the Hallowed House. Her college days would have been the last time before the Battle of the Gates of Bone that she had enjoyed a period of calm reflection.

"Ooh, that's a relief," the old woman said, shifting her shoulders and smiling a wide and toothless smile. "You're ever so good, what herbs are in that stuff?"

"It's a little white fire," Phoebe said. "Not herbal, direct from the source."

"Oh I don't understand all that alchemy stuff," the old woman said, apparently she didn't know about alchemy seeing as the manipulation of raw plasma was something only witches did. "All I know is that I can walk comfortable. There you go dearie."

The old woman dropped some coins into Phoebe's outstretched hand. Phoebe placed the coins into her purse and by the time she'd looked up the old woman had wandered off. Phoebe wiped the last of the unguent from her hands with a rag.

"Who's next?" Phoebe called out to the crowd. "Relief from pain, cessation of minor ailments, all natural, all straight from the source." If there was one thing they taught you in the Circle of Elements it was how to sell your services. Druids had to earn a living.

"I heard that someone dug you up, Phoebe September," said a voice Phoebe recognised. After all that melancholy regarding her lost history the sound of a voice she had hoped never to hear again was another cruel stitch in the pattern of the weave. The noon bell began to strike in the background, providing a sombre note to accompany this sudden irritation.

Standing at the corner of the small pitch she had hired all day for a shilling was a short, rakish gentleman whose bright green eyes were the first thing that anyone would notice. He had odd, wiry red hair, a freckly complexion and the general demeanour of one you couldn't help but like, even though you knew you could not afford to trust them under any circumstances.

"Really, Harvey Raine?" Phoebe stared back at the youth, refusing to show how upsetting his presence had made her. "And who did you hear that from? I'd love to know seeing as everyone else who would care is presumably dead."

Harvey Raine raised his chin a little, as if proud to be caught out in a lie, he laughed, a smooth sound that somehow managed to be dangerous.

"Well observed, Feebs," he said. "Indeed, I believe you are right about that. There's only one person in all of the realms of Faerie I am bound to by my geis, that person is you. I knew when someone had freed you from the crystal coffin, I knew when you visited the patchwork market, it didn't matter how fast you flew to Steephill Fell I came, once more, to stand by your side."

"I'm touched," Phoebe replied, her tone flat. "You need not have troubled yourself."

"Don't be like that Feebs," Harvey said. "You know the ins and outs of geis when it comes to sprites. I could not stay away. You think I want to be tied to a grumpy lump like you? Not likely. I came because I was compelled. So we might as well make the best of things."

"I didn't think the bond would last beyond the point of the sorcerer's death," Phoebe said. "I thought if he died with the ring on his finger that his death would dissolve the geis."

"Apparently not," Harvey said. He appeared to be bored by the conversation, he pulled an apple from his pocket and took a bite out of it. "Vegetation," he said with some disgust. "I still can't get the hang of it."

"Well, now you're here you can sit at my feet and wait patiently until I conclude my business," Phoebe said. "This I-"

"Now wait!" Harvey cried out, shocked out of his langour. "There's no need to use force. I remember how this works. Here." He threw her the apple, which she caught on instinct. Then Harvey Raine collapsed, deflating, melting, changing form, until there was no rakish young man just a ginger tom cat that looked as if it had seen too many cat fights. The cat padded over to Phoebe and sat at her feet, managing to look offended that it was even present.

"Good boy," Phoebe said. "Now, let's get back to business."

Before Phoebe could call out for any more business a large man wearing a stained leather apron forced his way out of the crowd.

"Oi," he said to Phoebe, "where'd that fellow go, the one with sneaky eyes."

Phoebe knew that the man must have been referring to Harvey, but she wanted to move on from her encounter with her burden's human face as quickly as possible. Besides she didn't know what he'd been up to without her there to control him.

"I'm sorry," she said. "He went off into the crowd, I didn't ask him where he was going."

The man scanned the crowd, trying to look over the heads of the people in the market to find out Harvey. Phoebe felt a little guilty, knowing that the mischief maker he sought was at her feet, currently licking at his paws like he didn't have a care in the world. That was the problem, of course, he didn't.

"He was hanging around my stall," the merchant said. "I don't get many people stupid enough to thieve, I'm an alchemical apothecary. You steal an unmarked bottle off my stall the contents could kill you, or worse."

Phoebe began to feel the murmur of a deep and terrible concern. Harvey wasn't above thieving, that she knew, but if he was hanging about next to the pitch of an alchemical apothecary there were worse things he could do than steal.

"I think that maybe-" Phoebe began but it was too late.

There was the sound of a terrible explosion from a few stalls back. The merchant spun on the spot, aghast.

"My stall!" he cried out and hurried back into the crowd.

"We'd better go and help," Phoebe said to the ginger tom. "We'd both better be as helpful as we possibly can be, a full and honest confession might not go amiss." The tom's face darkened. "This," Phoebe said and felt a little thrill of moral satisfaction as the tom's face turned to a comical mask of panic at the syllable. "I do command thee."

As the final 'e' left Phoebe's lips the ginger tom transformed back into Harvey's human form. Face like thunder he found his way mutely into the crowd. Feeling a bit better about the current state of affairs Phoebe followed on behind.

As she reached the ruins of the Alchemical Apothecary's stall Harvey was just explaining that he had set a vial of one chemical he knew would combine with explosive effect with another to the merchant. The merchant was clearly both furious and bewildered at the unexpected resolution to the destruction of his livelihood.

"What I don't understand," the merchant said, bunching and unbunching his fist. "Is why you have decided to own up."

"I wouldn't have," Harvey said miserably, "save that I have been compelled to do so."

"Compelled?" the alchemist asked. "By whom?"

"Hey," a voice said behind Phoebe, she turned to see Frederick's honest but slightly damaged face behind her. "What's going on? Are you okay?"

"Currently," Phoebe said, "but watch this space." With that she turned back to the unfolding scene of unwilling contrition and called out: "Compelled by me, sir." She stepped forward. "I must apologise for my burden, we have spent some time apart and it seems that he has forgotten who it is he answers to."

"You?" the alchemical apothecary said, "but I don't understand, you were just... you said he'd gone..."

"That was before he blew up your stall," Phoebe said. "I promise he will answer for what he has done, as will I. Here," she held out her coin purse. "This is all the money that I have in the world. It cannot make up for what you have lost but it is all I have."

The merchant looked at the meagre collection of coinage, it did not appear as if this was going to mollify him much. He had every right to object, Phoebe just hoped she could avoid a street fight, more for the merchant's sake than for her own, although things could get even uglier if some plasma ended up burning the wrong backside. Places like Steephill Fell were less prone to get so burn-at-the-stake crazy than shadow towns like Hamsamperburg but every burgher had their limits.

"I think, I may be able to offer something a little more substantial," Frederick chipped in from Phoebe's side. He held out a sovereign that Phoebe had not expected to see.

This went a little further towards cooling the merchant's ire. He shot a poisonous glance at Harvey.

"You just keep him well away from me, that's all," he said and tramped off into the back of his stall to assess the damage.

"Harvey," Phoebe said. "Heel."

"I'm not a dog," Harvey complained, but not too loud. "I'd forgotten what a kill joy you can be, I wish I'd not come back to you."

"You know as well as I do," Phoebe said. "Neither of us has a choice in that while Moorshade still has that ring on his finger."

"Um, excuse me," Frederick said behind them. "I don't believe I've had the pleasure of an introduction. I paid quite a lot to that merchant, I think, well, I, um, deserve one."

"Oh, yes," Phoebe said. "Frederick, this is Harvey Raine, my burden..."

"I'm a djinn," Harvey said, his tone cold. "Calling me a burden is so... so... negative."

"You just cost me all of my money and Frederick all of his," Phoebe said. "You're a burden."

Harvey tutted and collapsed back into cat form.

"Where the hell did you get that from since the trader's bell?" Frederick asked.

"Oh, he's from way before that, he's from before Vikas Moorshade put me in that box," Phoebe explained.

"Why?" Frederick asked. "I've met evil sorcerers, they don't tend to get annoying sprites to irritate you into submission, they pretty much tend to just kill you."

"I don't want to talk about it," Phoebe said. "Come on, we'd better find the others and get ready to move on. I think we've burned our bridges here."

"Um, yes, I suppose," Frederick said as Phoebe pressed into the crowd making her way towards the stone arch holding the market bell.

Phoebe's stomach had turned to water. She felt a warm flush of anger, embarassment, shame, sadness all of her least favourite emotions, fighting for attention in her gut. Since she had been freed not one good thing about her past had come back, only the very worst things had returned to haunt her.

She decided it was probably best not to think about such things, it might lead to accidental plasma leakage and that was never a good thing. As she came within sight of the market bell she nearly unleashed a torrent of electric fire in a random direction when she saw that Lester was not there.

"This is not acceptable," she grated, stomping across the cobbles to the now redundant meeting place. "How dare they disobey me."

"Phoebe," Frederick said, his tone carefully modulated. "We're not in charge of them. Besides, maybe they didn't want to leave. Maybe something happened to them."

That brought her up short. Shame won the battle for the dominant emotion. She stopped stomping and sighed.

"Oh," she said. "Yes, I hadn't thought of that. We should look for them then, I suppose."

"Nothing else we can do," Frederick shrugged. "Maybe they aren't too far away."

So the two of them, followed by a sullen looking ginger tom cat, searched the nearby streets of Steephill Fell, it didn't take them long to find the trader's wagon, an owl sat upon the edge of its roof. They talked with the owl and found out where their friends had gone but what they did next is a story for another time.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

In Which Saeed Encounters A Masque In Jeopardy

Saeed was a young man who did not really look at the world in terms of security versus danger. Anyone outside of Saeed's life would have pointed out that by the time the young thief was old enough to appreciate security he was already living in a state of constant danger. This probably helped him to view dangerous situations with a cool and rational mind. To Saeed life was danger and vice versa. Not that he would say something so grandiose because only those people for whom life might not be danger would say them.

Saeed's phlegmatic attitude to sneaking around a cave network tracking a man in a dark cloak leading two muscular talking wolves carrying a pallet bearing a chest of dragon crystals was probably born of these life circumstances. Certainly Saeed did not resent Kalico for sending him on this mission, nor did he fear that he would be unable to return to the Patchwork Market with the intelligence that he had gained.

Did this make Saeed a hero? Or more of a fool? How large is the gap between these two states of being anyway? Saeed didn't bother himself too much with pontification on any of these topics. So you can if you want. In the meanwhile, however, Saeed continued to ease through the shadows following the man in the dark cloak and his consignment of mysterious Dragon Crystals.

After walking along a number of passageways, up various ramps carved into the rock and along winding extensive tunnel sections, Saeed decided that the party he was following were headed in roughly one direction and climbing upwards as they did so. They moved from the cold of the tunnels where they had arrived throughh the magic portal into an area that appeared to have more architecture.

They had not been walking too long before the man in the black cloak stopped outside a large wooden door. He opened the door with a key he retrieved from his belt and lead the wolves inside with the crystals. After a few minutes the man in the black cloak emerged alone, closed the door and locked it behind him. He continued on his way through the tunnel complex without the wolves or the dragon crystals.

Saeed had to make a split second decision, try to break into the cellar storage room to follow the crystals, or follow the man in the black cloak. He decided on the latter course of action because there was always a chance Saeed might be given the opportunity to steal the key from the man. Besides, Saeed knew the man had a wand that could open magic portals. Maybe he had just opened a portal back to Sorrowblade for the wolves inside that room.

What would Saeed do with a room full of dragon crystals? He didn't even know what dragon crystals were. The choice was really no choice. He must follow the man in the black cloak to find any further information on the situation.

The man soon came to a set of steps leading up out of the tunnel network. Saeed had to be careful now as the stairwell doubled back on itself every ten steps. Saeed could not allow himself to be seen but he didn't want to lose the man either. He had to stay two staircases behind and follow the footsteps.

At the top of the stairs there was a metal gate, the man unlocked it, passed through and locked it behind him. This was a disaster. Saeed had to stay out of sight one staircase down to evade detection. He heard the man lock the gate and walk away before he could hurry after. The gate was of the barred variety with three cross bars dividing the gate into fifteen narrow barred slits arranged in five colums of three gaps each.

Saeed could probably ease himself through, except for his head. His ears would probably cause a problem. He was sure he could best the slits eventually but what if he was discovered in the meanwhile? Saeed did not relish the thought of being captured. He would only come back here if he could not find another way out.

He returned down the stairwell to the bottom, where the cellar area was laid out. The passage stretched off for about three hundred paces in both directions. The way Saeed had come the passage terminated a ramp that curved away into the cave network, at the other in a blank wall. Doors were placed along the corridor at odd intervals. To the cave network end the doors were all blank stout wood. Towards the other end some had hatches at the height of an adult head.

Saeed recognised a prison cell when he saw one. He wondered if there were any prisoners down here. There was only one way to find out.

Saeed started with the cells at the far end of the passage and worked his way back towards the cell, knocking on each door as he went. After seven doors there had been no answer to his muted knocking. At the eighth he found what he had been looking for.

"Who's there?" came a voice.

"You are a prisoner of the man in the black cloak?" Saeed asked.

"Who are you?" the voice replied.

"My name is Saeed," Saeed said. "I am a thief from the streets of Old Araby. I have taken a vow to never again tell a lie and am seeking to reconcile the last untruth that crossed my lips with the spirit of my dead mother."

"Are you making some sort of a joke?" asked the voice. "Is this some sort of trap?"

"You are already in a trap my friend," Saeed replied. "Think seriously, would the man in the black cloak really try to play a trick on you concerning an honest thief addressing you through your cell door?"

"Cankerthorn is an odd duck, for certain," the voice responded. "Although he does not appear to have any whimsy about him. So, what are you doing here honest thief from a long vanished land?"

"This Cankerthorn," Saeed explained. "He is involved in business dealings with a certain knight at the Patchwork Market, I have been asked to find out the nature of these deals and report back to the Master of the Market."

"Sounds like the slimy toad who threw me in this room to die," the voice answered. "So why have you come here to disturb my long, silent captivity?"

"Cankerthorn has left this underground area via a staircase about two hundred paces hence. There is a locked gate at the head of the stairs and I am reluctant to attempt to bypass it without first assessing my options. You are my first option."

"What kind of an option is that, boy?" the voice asked. "I am no more than an old prisoner in a dank cell, lost and forgotten for centuries, in danger of coming undone at any moment and subliming into ether."

"Are you a djinn?" Saeed asked. He knew a little about beings of ether, djinn as they were called in Afsana.

"Ha, well, yes and no," the voice said. "I am of the primary order of sprite. I am a servant to my master, an agent of the great Wheel, as such my sub-species is actually referred to as a masque. Djinn are cousins of mine though."

"Well, as I understand it djinn have some power. Maybe we could assist one another. If I were to set you free, what could you do for me?"

"I do not think you will be able to set me free," the masque replied. "If you could then I would be able to return to my master's hands, he would be very grateful for my safe deliverance. I think this is a task that is too difficult for you."

"I am willing to try," Saeed said. "What is the harm."

"Ah, well, for that you will have to see my prison," the masque said. "Open the door to the cell, it is not locked. Have the utmost care as you do so, however, my life depends upon your stealth and dexterity."

Saeed smiled. "I flatter myself to believe that your health and well being could not be better entrusted to the stealth and dexterity of any other person," he said. "I shall open the door."

Taking heed of the masque's words Saeed carefully turned the handle of the door, lifting the latch and easing the door open on its heavy metal hinges. It complained and stuck a little but Saeed took care to open the door only as far as was necessary to slip inside.

Once he got into the cell, and his eyes adjusted to the gloomy interior of the chamber, Saeed understood the masque's concerns. A mirror was placed upon the floor of the cell and above it hung a sword suspended by a gossamer thread. Inside the body of the mirror Saeed could make out the sad face of the masque peering upwards at the sword hanging before it.

"Careful," the masque said. "The slightest disturbance and the thread may break, this isn't a mirror prison that can be opened by breaking the glass. In fact, if the glass is cracked I will be instantly constricted into the ether. It will take a great deal of magical energy to retrieve me then and, to be honest, I know of no magic worker that would ever bother."

"So how can I get you out?" Saeed asked, trying not to breathe in the direction of the sword.

"You need to turn the mirror upside down, that opens a portal into the tiny world inside the mirror. Do not try to pick up the mirror without first uncrewing it, it is held down. Do not attempt to pull down the sword, it is too heavy and has been enchanted to fall straight into the surface of the mirror at the slightest hint of interference."

"So I need to unscrew the mirror and slide it out from under the sword?" Saeed asked.

"You must remove all six screws that hold the mirror to the floor," the masque said. "Without the vibrations of the screws causing the sword to fall. It's an impossible task."

"Things that are tricky are not impossible," Saeed said. "That's why they call them tricky."

"I don't know," the masque said. "I think this is probably impossible."

"When I asked my mother," Saeed said, "what stopped the sorcerers from taking over Afsana and ruling the kingdoms of Araby with magic, she told me that magic was delicate and required a particular balance to work. Whenever an enchantment is cast there must always be some kind of an exception or loophole by which the enchantment may be undone. The powers that be do not permit the unchecked manipulation of magical forces."

"You talk of etheric philosophy with a sprite?" the masque complained. "I know this as well as anyone but I do not know the secret of Cankerthorn's enchantment."

"Maybe we do not need to," Saeed said. "I shall survey further the resources available and return with a solution."

"I'm glad you're so confident," the masque said, his lack of faith in Saeed showed through in every word.

Saeed didn't allow the misery to affect him. In Saeed's world you could either get something done or it was impossible, there was no sense in worrying about whether a task fell into one category or the other. He slipped out of the cell door again to make his way down the corridor, past the stairway and into the side of the passage lined with storage rooms rather than prison cells.

It didn't take him long to find an unlocked door. It appeared that the storage nearest the stairs was used to store the things that were most common. He found a maintenance room filled with mops, small towels, bottles of chemicals, rags, buckets and other ephemera associated with running a clean castle and dungeon. In here Saeed found a tool suitable for unscrewing the mirror from the floor. The only question was whether he could do all six without the sword falling and dispersing the masque.

Saeed did not think that he could specifically achieve this without some further assistance. So he continued to search the storage rooms. Four rooms further on he found an armory. He immediately took note when he saw that the items in the room all glowed with a soft blue-white light indicating that they were imbued with some sort of magic.

Saeed looked over a rack of buckler shields all of which shared the luminous property. Logically it did not seem that one would enchant a shield to weaken it. An idea began to form in Saeed's mind. Saeed took the screwdriver he had pulled out of the box in the maintenance room and tried to gouge or scuff the surface of one of the bucklers. The tip of the screwdriver could not even make the smallest scratch upon the shield's surface.

"I think that this will be an excellent solution," Saeed muttered under his breath, lifting the buckler from the rack.

He made his way back down the corridor to the masque's cell. He had to slide the buckler carefully through the door to rest against the wall before entering the room himself. As Saeed squeezed himself round the door he could hear the masque tutting and fretting to itself.

Once he was in Saeed crept forward to the edge of the mirror.

"I have a solution," he said to the masque in the hushed tone he had become used to when crouching near to the sword.

"What is it?" the masque asked, it did not sound happy but maybe there was an edge of hope in its voice.

"I have a magic buckler," Saeed explained. "It repels damage. I also have a screwdriver," he held up the tool so the masque could see it, "I will slide the magic buckler under the sword and attempt to unscrew the mirror. If the sword falls it will not strike the surface of the mirror. If you are not sure that this is adequate then I am afraid my only other option is to leave."

The masque thought this over for a moment, then it said:

"I have been trapped behind this glass for far too long, if I am dispersed then there is always some hope that a magician will pull me out of the ether one day. While I wait in here I have no such hope. Put the shield over my mirror and proceed with your plan."

Saeed did as he was told. He put the buckler carefully under the point of the sword before beginning to work out the screws that held the mirror down on the stone floor of the cell. He managed to unscrew four of the six without incident, the fifth he attempted turned out to have been caught on its thread. Swiftly he switched to the other remaining screw, undoing that one before returning to the one that had stuck.

He tried to bear down on the screw, pressing his weight onto the screwdriver head to give it more purchase. The screw slowly began to turn but as it did there was the merest vibration as part of the thread ground against the stone of the screwhole. The tiny quiver seemed to expand out through the stone walls of the cell and eventually reached the thread that suspended the sword over the buckler.

The blade of the sword sang the lightest, quietest high note you can imagine and then the thread snapped.

Saeed rolled back out of the way of the blade, hoping the buckler's magic would hold. It did hold, just but the point of the magic sword pierced the protective energy surrounding the shield resulting in a bright white flash as the magical energy dispelled. The sword fell to the floor, no longer a threat but the force of the magical discharge was sufficient to blow the shield into the air to spin above the mirror.

If the shield caught the glass the wrong way when it fell the glass would shatter. The sword had been enchanted to fall towards the mirror but the shield was not. Saeed leaped forward plucking the shield out of the air before it could strike the mirror's surface to land against the cell wall, breathing heavily, his heart hammering in his throat.

"So, have you finished?" came the voice of the masque.

Saeed nearly burst out laughing as the tension gripping his insides dispelled. He scrambled back to the last screw and quickly removed it.

"All done!" he announced. "Are you ready?"

"I can't believe that I am about to be freed," the masque rejoiced. "Please, quickly."

Saeed picked up the mirror and held it out in front of him. He flipped it round so that the surface was facing downwards. There was a feeling of movement from the bottom of the mirror and the masque dislodged itself from its prison.

The masque, that resembled a tiny goblin dressed in a fool's motley, jumped down onto the floor of the cell. It worked any kinks out of its muscles by doing a little jig.

"Oh yes!" it crowed. "Free! Free! Free at last! I can feel my powers returning." It turned to look up at Saeed as the young thief rested the mirror prison carefully against one wall. "I have been so long in that mirror that I will need a little time to rest and recharge," it said. "So I will leave you to receive appropriate thanks from my master. For my own part I can only assure you that you have rendered myself, and hence the forces of the wheel a great service on this day Saeed. I bid you farewell."

With that the little sprite reached up to fiddle with something behind his left ear. He unhooked something and pulled at the corner of his face. Saeed was amazed to see the spirit's face come away in his hand. The little sprite gripped at the freshly exposed edge and pulled his face right off.

Saeed didn't know by what mechanism a tiny little goblin in motley became the curled up figure of a tall, thin man dressed in a great coat, a tall hat proud upon his head, but the transformation happened. The man held a mask, moulded into the shape of the little sprite's face, in his left hand. This new figure filled the room with a great deal more presence than his servant.

Saeed did not know much about the nature of gods, or the difference between gods and powerful djinn, but he knew magical power when he saw it, ever since he had seen the shade of death standing over the body of his mother.

"Saeed ibn Abihi, an honour to make your direct acquaintance," the man in the tall hat said. He grinned a white and perfect grin that made Saeed want to go and pick a pocket, just to prove he could.

"You have the advantage of me, sir," Saeed said politely. "I am afraid that I do not know your name."

"Some days," the man in the tall hat said, "I can hardly remember my own name, so there's no shame in it escaping someone else. I must thank you for returning this little masque to me. Every one of my missing children is like a small shard of glass in my tender heart. Every one returned a blessed relief."

"I am happy to be of service, sir," Saeed said. "Your servant was of the opinion that you may wish to render me some assistance in return. If you could that would lighten the load on my heart, for I am far from home and a little lost."

"Indeed you are," the man in the tall hat said as if he knew every move that Saeed had ever made, and who was to say that he didn't? "So, where would you like to go? The souk?"

"Oh no, sir," Saeed said. "When I lost my mother in the souk it ceased to be my home. In truth I would like to be nowhere better than by her side again, so that I could apologise for the lie that I told her when she was alive."

"If I could send you straight there I would," the man in the tall hat said. "You have some more to do before that day comes."

"Then I should return to Kalico, the Master of the Patchwork Market," Saeed said. "It is for his sake that I have made my present journey and I have much to report to him."

"Kalico," the man in the tall hat said. "Like the Master of every Market I have had some occasion to cut a deal with that individual. He has a heart of stone but it burns in the centre like a furnace. I can take you back to the Master's Tower in the blink of an eye, if you're sure that's where you want to go."

"I made him a promise," Saeed said. "If I do not honour it then I will have gone against the vow I made to always be honest."

"I love a paradox!" the man in the tall hat crowed. "And you my little honest thief are one of life's golden nuggets in that regard. Now, I left a door round here somewhere. I tend to leave them wherever I go and Cankerthorn has certainly earned my attention in the past."

The man in the tall hat opened the door of the cell and, Saeed following along behind, walked down to the blank wall at the end of the passage. He reached out into the blank stone of the wall and undid a latch hidden, seemingly, inside the rock. He pulled open a wooden door that emerged from the dead end in a similar manner to the one in which a tiny goblin had turned into a thin man in a tall hat.

Saeed peered through the open doorway and was amazed to see Kalico, sat at his desk, his back to the door. The Master of the Market was mere feet away, working, oblivious to the man in the tall hat or Saeed.

"He won't hear you until you step through," the man explained. "It's the way my connecting doors work."

"Thank you, sir," Saeed said happily. "I am honoured to receive your assistance."

"Think nothing of it," the man in the tall hat replied. "If you were stuck here then how would it come that the weave would deliver you back to me at the appointed hour?"

"Am I to understand that we should meet again?" Saeed asked, choosing his words carefully.

Careful or not the man in the tall hat said nothing, just motioned for Saeed to step forward as the wide, white smile shone out of wide, thin-lipped mouth.

Saeed stepped forward without receiving an answer to his question, in the fullness of time he did meet with the man in the tall hat again, but that is a story for another time.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Lester and James In The House of Secrets

"How long is it until noon bell?"

James sighed. He had never realised before how impatient Lester could be. He had no way of knowing the precise time but it couldn't be more than half an hour after mid-morning bell. Lester had already asked his question five times.

"What's the problem?" James asked him refusing to say 'five minutes less than the last time you asked' again. "Yes, we have to stay still, but it's not the most tedious environment in the world. There's hustle and bustle, the various colours and shades of a dynamic market town. It could be much worse."

"That's your opinion," Lester said. "We have to wait here for ages and do nothing. That's not right."

"Well, what else could we be doing?" James asked. "Neither of us can do magic and neither of us are really cut out for cage fighting. Even if they had a rodent league. I don't think I'd be very good. I don't like the thought of hurting anyone, even a mouse."

Lester took a look about, at the market in the square, at the archway that housed the market bell, at the streets of Steephill Fell laid out beyond the market.

"We could spend a little more time looking for the trader's wagon," Lester said. "After all no one will be making a bronze mark within the next twenty minutes, probably."

"Phoebe told us to stay here," James said.

"Well, so?" Lester said. "She doesn't own us. We're free agents."

"That's a bit of a change in attitude," James said. "A couple of days ago it was yes Phoebe, no Phoebe, three bags full Phoebe."

"Three bags full of what?" Lester demanded, his annoyance somewhat undermined by the random thing he had chosen to identify as the source of his annoyance.

"Wool," James said. "Like in the nursery rhyme, you know, yes sir, yes sir, three bags full... one for the master... one for the dame... and one for... the little boy... down the... you don't have any idea what I'm talking about, do you?"

"Don't worry," Lester said. "I've met a lot of strange people, you're not the strangest. You're just a bit crazy and you make up new words and it's like you talk in a completely foreign language sometimes. It's really kind of endearing, in a way."

"Well, anyway," James said. "I had received the impression that you had a bit of a fancy for the irritable witch, what's changed?"

"I don't know," Lester said. "Well, I do, I think Cobb likes her too and I can't compete with that. Besides, when we met Princess Butterstone I realised, well, I just like pretty girls, any pretty girls without any sort of discrimination; particularly the ones armed with dangerous weapons... is that weird?"

"A thousand teenage boys with internet connections would tell you no," James sighed. "As for the rest of us..."

"There you go again," Lester said, "talking complete gibberish, what's an 'into net'? And what does one 'connect' it with?"

"The internet," James said. "You know, the computer network, with all the pictures of naked ladies, and people arguing about Star Wars, and the emails filled with spam and malware?"

"I was with you right up to 'the'," realising that needed qualifying, Lester qualified it: "the first one.".

"Now that you come to mention it," James said. "I had noticed a distinct lack of technology in these parts. I think I'm quite angry. I'm the wrong species, I'm lost in the wrong world and I've lost my daughter." James stopped. There was a period of heavy silence. "Oh," James said. "My."

"You're talking about Rachel, aren't you?" Lester asked. "Rachel is your daughter."

"I don't like this," James complained. "My head's like a house full of stuff, but it's all in the wrong rooms, the settee is in the bathroom and the oven is in the garage. Every so often something suddenly goes back where it's supposed to be but all that does is make the rest of it seem even more confused." James felt the hideously heartbreaking cute of tiny mouse tears at the corner of his tiny mouse eyes. He couldn't give into the terrible sentiment of the mental image. "Hang it!" he said loudly. "You're right Lester, Phoebe's not the boss of us, let's go look for that wagon."

"Okay," Lester said, a smile spreading across his face. "Let's do it."

They started the rebellion small wandering in a broken circle around the fringes of the market and poking their head down a few of the streets always keeping the archway in sight. They'd already taken a look around the market when it was opening up so they opted, instead to have a quick walk about Steephill Fell proper.

It didn't take them long to find the high street where a number of more permanent shops were set up selling all the things the modern resident of the Crossway Realms could wish to buy. There was everything here from gentleman's outfitters to suppliers of magical trinkets, to shops crammed full of curios from far off Kingdoms.

Further along the main thoroughfare were a number of smaller shops and the road splintered into a number of specialist arcades, one for cobblers and tanners, one for dealers in fresh vegetables, one for fishmongers and one for tradesmen specialising in the repair of various items.

A little further along still and the road changed its nature to become more residential, interrupted by the presence of the odd tavern. It was while taking a cursory glance around these streets that James noticed the trader's wagon.

At least, he presumed it was a trader's wagon. It was a tall covered wagon painted in bright colours and bearing the legend 'Riseandshine & Titsadaisy - Goblin Merchants'. Beside the wagon was a nine foot tall metal statue of a man. That feature seemed a bit out of place, stood, as it was, in the gutter. James decided he had better things to worry about, such as catching up with his freshly remembered daughter.

"Lester," he said. "I think we may have found what we're looking for."

Lester turned to look at the wagon.

"Well, technically I'm looking for my brother," he said. "And I only have the word of a strange man in a tall hat that this is the way to find him. That does look like what you are looking for, though, yes."

"Well, come on then," James said, refusing to feel guilty about Lester's brother for the time being, "let's get over there."

Lester crossed the street and walked up to the wagon. As he approached the statue it surprised James by turning out not to be a statue but, in fact, a man made out of metal. Another piece of furniture dislodged itself in James's mind and slotted into a space that allowed James to understand its nature. This metal monster was an iron golem.

Golems were rare now, although once there had been an age when golems were widespread, many had since been smashed or melted down. There were many stories about golems and the problems they could cause because of their nature.

"Not so fast," the golem said, appropriately enough in quite a deep, slow voice. "This wagon is private property."

"Oh," Lester said. "I'm sorry, it's just it... well, we're looking for the owner is he about?"

"Mr Riseandshine is currently out on business," the golem replied.

"Oh, okay," Lester said. The trail end of the remark left James in no doubt that his companion was rapidly running out of conversational road.

"It's not really Mr. Riseandshine we wish to speak with," James said. "It's Rachel, the little girl he's travelling with."

"There's nobody here," the golem said. "Just Felix. Felix just watches the cart. Says 'Not so fast' if people come near. That's Felix job. Security."

There was a motion from the direction of the wagon, James looked over to see what had moved. The flapping wings and giant golden eyes set every rodent nerve in James's little mouse body alight with a keen instinctive pain. Without even thinking James scrambled forward and dove into Lester's top pocket, where he crouched in the darkness waiting for the vision of the death's head to fade from his retina.

"You can tell the mouse not to worry," said a voice that James didn't know. "I haven't been hungry ever since I died."

"Who are you?" Lester's voice asked.

"I am Micras Whitney," the other voice replied. "I live in the model castle in the back of the wagon. I am travelling with Tabarnas and Rachel."

His tiny rodent heart still thumping like a drum James risked poking his head out of the pocket to look at the monstrous form of the white owl perched on the edge of the wagon. Even knowing that this was a spirit form the creature was still terrifying to James's eyes.

There was a part of James that knew he was not a mouse, or at least was not meant to be a mouse. Right now, however, he was scampering about in a mouse body, with a mouse nervous system. This meant that his only thoughts regarding owls were running and hiding and desperate prayers about avoiding death.

"You know where they are?" James asked, sticking to the point, trying to control the quaver in his voice.

"Eos, she's a mermaid, she told me that they were going to the fishmonger's alley," Micras said. "Some kind of trouble."

That gave James something else to worry about. His daughter was in danger from fishmongers, something he didn't even really have a frame of reference for. This was the problem when parts of your identity were both old and new at the same time and then new information came in concerning the things that you hadn't even sorted out in your own head yet.

"When was this?" James's mouth said ignoring the sleet of nonsense that was happening in the rest of his mind.

"It was just after evening bell, yesterday," Micras said.

"That's over twelve hours ago!" James said. "You haven't seen any sign of her since then?"

"Tabarnas, Eos and Gerda, he's the other Iron Golem, they went off together, nobody's been back since," Micras said.

"Lester, you've got to take me to the fishmonger's alley, right now," James said.

"Yes, I will," Lester said. James got the impression that things were moving a bit too fast for Lester but that couldn't be helped, every tiny ounce of James's little mouse body was desperate to find his daughter and make sure she was safe. Vagueness and confusion would not be tolerated.

"Um, bye," Lester said to the golem and to Micras as he hurried back out onto the main street and up towards the entrance of the fishmonger's alley. They headed up the alley with the strongest briny smell emerging from it and found it lead into a quaint covered arcade that contained a number of fish stalls all offering a variety of seafood for sale.

"Now what?" Lester said.

"Ask someone," James said desperately. "I would but this isn't the time for 'oh, a talking mouse' and all that rubbish, please, Lester."

To be fair to him Lester finally got over James's panic and methodically went from stall to stall asking if anyone had seen a little girl, a goblin merchant, a mermaid or an iron golem. Right at the back of the alley there was a final stall that appeared to be offering a wide variety of pickled seafood in various glass jars. The stink from this stall was particularly strong and, as such, it was alone at the end of the alley opposite a dead blank wall of stout stone bricks.

Lester approached the old man tending the pickle stall.

"Excuse me," he said. "I don't suppose that you've seen a little girl come this way? Or possibly a goblin-"

The old man held up his hand for silence. Lester stopped talking.

"I'll tell you as I told the rest," he said. "She went through the magic door yonder." He pointed at the wall opposite the store front. "I said to her, be careful, you'll slip through the door if you mess about there, she didn't listen."

Lester looked at the wall and then back to the pickled fish merchant.

"Magic door?" he said.

"How do we get through?" James cut in no longer caring about the inevitable talking mouse comment that was bound to follow.

"You play patty cake with the bricks," the merchant said, fixing James with a serious stare. "The door opens, as I understand the thing it will take you where you need to go."

"Well, that's handy," James said. "Because I need to find my daughter."

"I didn't see no mice go through there, but then mice are small," the merchant said.

James couldn't be bothered to explain.

"Lester, let's move," he said to his companion.

"But," Lester said. "Magic door, does it work both ways?"

"I've seen people come out from time to time," the merchant said. "Never the same as went in."

"Lester," James said, trying his utmost to make his tone of voice dangerous, this continued not to work.

"Phoebe said..." Lester began.

"Phoebe said what she said because she assumed we would have to travel further to catch up with the trader's wagon," James replied quickly, hearing the impatient grate to his tone of voice. "We've found the wagon and the only thing standing between me and my daughter now is you and a game of patty cake with a wall. Don't argue with me Lester."

At this point Lester could very well have said: 'Or you'll do what? Poop in my shirt pocket?', but he didn't. It was one of the few occasions that James was glad that Lester constantly appeared to be about three moves behind everyone else.

He dutifully stood and patted the wall whilst reciting some rhyme about bakers. Upon completion of the first couplet the next slap turned into a swish as Lester's hand passed straight through the apparently solid brickwork of the stone wall.

"Door's open," said the merchant behind them.

"Go on," James said. "Walk through."

Lester paused for just a moment but then he stepped towards the wall and on through the stone bricks. James didn't know how the experience might have affected Lester but his ears popped and his paws went numb. The temperature of the atmosphere suddenly dropped from comfortable to cold. The light levels sunk dramatically.

For a few moments it was impossible to see anything in the gloom but eventually James's eyes adjusted. They were in some sort of cellar, lit only through thin slits cut into the top of the walls below the ceiling.

"I'm getting a sense of deja dungeon," James said. "How about you?"

Lester instantly turned one hundred and eighty degrees and pressed his hand up to the wall at his back. He played patty cake with the wall. It stubbornly remained a wall.

"Well," Lester said. "We're stuck here now, I hope you're happy with yourself."

"Lester," James said. "My daughter could be here, wherever we are. We are travelling towards my daughter. I don't really care about the operating methods of magic one-way doors."

"I'm just saying," Lester grumbled, "I don't like places like this."

"It's a dungeon," James said. "We've survived worse. Come on, you're on your way to being a seasoned adventurer. This is your second dingy castle in a week. Let's check the rest of the place out, see what kind of evil doer buried grumpy witches in this place. Your next crush might only be six feet of loosely packed earth away."

"You're not funny," Lester said. "Not at all."

"So shut me up by taking in the sights," James insisted.

Reluctantly Lester wandered out of the bare stone room they'd arrived in and down a number of even murkier corridors until he found a set of steps leading up. The ground level was less damp than the cellar, but that just meant it reeked of age and dust. Lester walked from empty room to empty room, occasionally discovering the remains of some forlorn item of furniture but no evidence of anything alive.

"What is it with the empty places?" Lester asked. "Mountain strongholds, weird stone houses, why can't we ever go anywhere nice?"

"The town was quite nice," James pointed out. "The one we just left, not the witch burny one. The Patchwork Market's a fun place to be, very vibrant."

"And then we leave," Lester said. "And come to a place like this. Oh, what's that?"

In a small room behind the remains of a kitchen Lester had spotted an hourglass resting on a shelf. There was a small metal plaque screwed into the wall above it. Lester approached the artifact to read the plate. Engraved into the metal was a short message:

Come, spend an hour and visit with us.

"What do you suppose that means?" Lester said.

"You've clearly never played a point and click adventure," James replied. "It means turn over the hourglass."

"I think I understood half of that," Lester said, reaching out for one of the wooden rods that formed the hourglass housing.

Before his fingers made contact there was the sound of breaking glass from a room behind them. Lester withdrew his hand as if his fingers had been burned.

"It wasn't me!" he protested.

"No, and it wasn't me either," James said. "So that begs the question, who was it?"

"So, what?" Lester asked. "Am I turning the hourglass or not?"

"Not before we find out what that noise was," James said. "Come on let's go back."

Sighing, Lester turned away from the hourglass and went back into the body of the house. Crossing the kitchen and a corridor they found the source of the glass breakage. Lying on the floor, surrounded by broken glass and tangled up with the snapped shaft of a broomstick was a figure James recognised instantly.

"You!" James said to the gnome. "What are you doing here?"

The gnome looked a little confused, he turned his head to the left and to the right trying to get his bearings.

"Oh," it said. "It's you, the nervous mouse."

"Yes," James said. "The nervous mouse. So how come you're here in this mysterious house."

"Well," the gnome said. "I'm always only allowed to travel within a certain range of either you or the little girl who made the wish," the gnome said. "For a while there you were separated by a vast distance, but now you're not. I think this broomstick has brought me back to within an acceptable proximity of both of you."

"You mean," James said breathlessly, "that Rachel is nearby?"

"Must be," the gnome said. "About as close as I was brought to you. I think this broomstick was from The Office. I don't like those guys. They're bossy."

"She's here!" James rejoiced, "she's within about thirty feet of where the gnome landed. Lester, we've got to find her, now."

"I got the message," Lester said.

The three of them ran around the house and out into the grounds surrounding it calling out Rachel's name. There was still no sign of her. They stood in the garden of the house, beside a neatly tended garden, outside the window the gnome's broom had crashed through and looked around hopelessly.

"I don't understand," James complained. "Your magic is broken," he addressed the gnome.

"Impossible," the gnome said. "There are few things in the world which are properly impossible but for my magic to be broken in this instance is one of them."

"Then where is she?" James asked.

"Hey," Lester said. "What's this?"

"Is it another hourglass?" James asked.

Lester wandered away from the house down onto the lawn and across to a simple stone sundial mounted on a column. A parcel was sitting on the dial face, wrapped in brown paper, tied up with red string.

"That's funny," Lester said. "This looks like one of the packages that... oh."

Lester picked up the parcel. Printed on it in neat block capitals was:


"This is identical to the packages my brother used to send home," Lester said. "Absolutely identical."

"Well, but-" James was about to object to Lester enthusiastically untying the package but having just had a brush with fresh hope himself he checked his skepticism for the moment.

Inside the package was a small bottle of yellow liquid and a note. Lester opened the note and read it out:

"'Dearest Brother'." He paused and smiled. "That's me, oh wow, this is incredible," Lester paused again before continuing to read. "'I'm afraid I am short on time so must be brief. Keep the potion safe, you will know when you need to use it. Turn the hourglass in the pantry and continue on your journey. I will make contact again when the weave permits. Your Loving Brother, Chester Topping Esquire.'"

James looked up into Lester's face, the young man's eyes shining with tears.

"Well," James said. "Are we going to do it? Turn the hourglass?"

"Of course," Lester said. "If Chester said to do it then we have to."

So they did, but what happened next is a story for another time.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Avan Weatherstrong and the Impostor Prince

This is a tale of the days that followed Avan Weatherstrong's loss of the shapeshifter maid Kal'Hath. Prince Weatherstrong had never previously been given to strong moods, particularly not to sadness. In the case where one has just lost first love such tempestuous emotions are unavoidable.

Avan and Kal'Hath had journied together, fought evil together and had cultivated a love born out of mutual respect and absolute trust. Such a combination of emotions, promises and actions is rare in the world and the loss of such a love would possibly have overwhelmed a lesser man.

Prince Weatherstrong determined, even as he left behind the ragblossom tree marking the grave of Kal'Hath, that he must immediately work again in his continuing efforts to vanquish evil wherever he found it. By doing what is right he would honour the memory of Kal'Hath and remind himself of his destiny in life.

His opportunity to make a difference came up even before he left the Wylde Wood. A storm was blowing its way through the tall trees of the forest as Avan came upon a tree kingdom populated by a variety of sylphs and nymphs. As a prince, bearing a seal of the Hundred Kingdoms, Avan was received by the ruler of the kingdom, Lord Barkspry.

Avan had fully intended to take shelter from the storm with the Lord, thank him for his hospitality and be along his way when the weather had cleared. As Avan was shown to his room within the Lord's grand treedwelling he observed that preparations were being made for a celebration. It so happened that Lord Barkspry's daughter was to be married the very next day to the prince of a neighbouring kingdom.

Prince Weatherstrong was in entirely the wrong mood for a wedding celebration and hoped that the storm would be clear by morning. He retired to his room in order to rest. No sooner had he got his bearings in the large state room he had been allocated, within the bole of the major dwelling, than there was a knock upon the door.

Avan opened the door to see a young female nymph, an expression of troubled concern upon her face.

"You are the wandering prince to whom my father has offered his hospitality?" the nymph asked.

"Prince Avan of Weatherstrong, youngest of the nine, traveller upon the fringes, mage of the four winds," Avan replied, giving his full title, as was proper in formal situations.

"Princess Aurea Barkspry, first and only, faithful to the realm, most glorified bud upon the branches," the princess responded with her own title. "Prince Weatherstrong, I am in trouble, I believe you may be the only one who can help."

Upon hearing that sentence spoken Avan had a startling realisation. The weariness that he had felt bone-deep dissolved and he understood, in that instant, that it was not rest he required. The thought of helping another person instantly reinvigorated him, making him keen to know more.

Avan closed the door to his quarters and indicated that the princess should sit down.

"Please, Princess Barkspry," Avan said. "Tell me what you need."

"I do not believe that I will marry my betrothed tomorrow," Princess Barkspry said. "I believe that the man pretending to be my love is, in fact, a frog."

To many people the notion that a handsome prince could be a frog in disguise might stretch credulity. Of course, Avan Weatherstrong knew that for every thing that was there was the opposite thing also. A prince could be transformed into a frog, the common knowledge of the enchantment actually made it a fairly easy piece of mischief to work. For the reverse to be achieved would be no more difficult, the same communal notion that eased the transition of monarchy into amphibian would actually assist in the achievement of the reverse enchantment.

"Why do you think this to be the case?" Avan asked, his voice gentle.

"The realm of Barkspry has, for the longest time had problems with attacks from a particularly nasty witch Lilith Snakescale. She wants to harness the power in the roots of the major dwelling for her own dark purposes. We have managed to repel three separate attacks from lizard men, trolls and other creatures Lilith has bent to her will. I do not think she is content to try the direct approach again. I believe she intends to usurp the throne by marrying me to a puppet under her control."

"I understand your concerns," Avan said carefully. "But without any actual evidence is it not possible this is just a particularly bad manifestation of wedding nerves?"

"I know one thing," Princess Barkspry said. "My beloved Prince Azureleaf is a keen bowman, he never misses a day's archery practice, until about three weeks ago, he came back from the shooting range and hasn't returned to it since."

"He might be too busy preparing for the wedding," Avan pointed out.

"It could be, but he has also completely avoided contact with me in that time, we used to speak every day," the princess said. "It is a rare thing in a royal match for there to be genuine love and affection but this is what had grown between my prince and I. I do not believe this change in character has an innocent explanation."

"Maybe not," Avan said. "Your wedding day is tomorrow, why did you wait until I arrived to tell anyone of your concerns? Now you have, why did you choose me?"

"You are not the first person I chose," the princess said. "When I first became worried, just over a week ago, when I had not seen Larix for nearly five whole days, I went and confided in Petunia, my Lady's Maid. Petunia has been with me since I was born, she used to be my nanny, there is no one in the world I trust more than her. She said she would speak with Larix, find out what was happening. She went to see him that afternoon, that is the last anyone here in Barkspry has seen of her to this day.

"When Petunia went missing I went to the chief knight here at the major dwelling, he sent a soldier to look for Petunia. After three days he was found in the woods, savaged by a bear."

"So, you believe that the people of the realm are being watched, prevented from interfering?" Avan asked.

"I hope that, as you are just passing by, whatever enchantment may have cursed my fellow Sprys has not similarly afflicted you," the princess replied. "Otherwise I may, unfortunately, have doomed you as well."

"Death and I have an understanding," Avan said. "I do not believe that here is where we are next appointed to meet."

"So," Princess Barkspry said. "Will you help?"

"I am here taking advantage of your father's hospitality," Avan said. "I can hardly refuse. Besides, I have experienced too much sadness recently. I need occupation for my mind. If I can assist in the resolution of a matter involving true love then so much the better."

Thus, the princess pleased and Avan informed of the situation the pair went their separate ways. As Lilith Snakescale, if the prince's strange humour was her responsibility, had shifted her tactics from open hostility to silent coup Avan determined to meet her tactics appropriately.

Avan was not used to working an invisibility spell, he preferred to be direct in his dealings with friend and enemy alike. In this case the working would be a matter of discretion and good manners, in addition to being a battle strategy. Even so, Avan was dismayed to note that his working was not subtle enough to completely conceal him, he, rather appeared as a faint ghostly image before a looking glass. A further enchantment that coloured all the visible parts of his body, those that were caught in the strongest light, a dark grey and he was ready to begin his investigation.

Walking around the dwelling grounds Avan took the opportunity to familiarise himself with his new aspect, to minimise the chances of being spotted later on. He found that if he simply tried to stay out of people's way and was attentive to changes in the focus of those nearby he was as near to invisible as made no difference.

Once he was confident that he could move swiftly and silently about the major dwelling he proceeded to the guest branches of the tree and sought out Prince Azureleaf's quarters. The investigation was temporarily thwarted when Avan found the rooms empty upon his arrival. Avan took the opportunity to examine the prince's rooms and noted, with some interest, the large bathing pool, filled even whilst the room was empty. Several lily pads floated on the surface of the pool's water. Unusual decoration, unless it was intended to invoke a less domestic environment.

While Prince Weatherstrong was considering the pool the idea occurred to him that, if the prince really were a frog in disguise, the transformative element would possibly leave some kind of detectable residue behind. For a frog to be completely transformed into a copy of the prince would probably require the use of some heavily enchanted item. A spell such as Avan's cloaking enchantment could wear off at the wrong moment, ruining the plan.

Avan worked a subtle vision cantrip allowing him to spot patterns of heavy enchantment and, sure enough, a web of gold appeared in the room at around waist height, the trail of the item as it followed the prince back and forth about his business.

Avan followed the golden thread out of the room. Unfortunately, given three weeks, the impostor had gone in several directions out of the room about his business in the major dwelling. Avan followed the thread that seemed the brightest, hoping it would lead him to the impostor's location.

The thread wound through several passages away from the main throughfares of the major dwelling. It appeared that the impostor was about stealthy business himself. Eventually the trail led down to a staircase leading below the roots of the major dwelling deep under the earth.

The thread continued on its path through an underground drainage network built to help irrigate the dwellings of Leafspry. A door in one wall stood open and the thread continued on into a natural fissure in the earth and down in to a dark cave.

It was here that Avan found the impostor, and also the prince, chained up in a cage suspended from the vaulted ceiling of the cave. A complex witch's altar was set up to one side of the cave, the impostor stood before it conversing with a woman with light blue-purple skin, presumably Lilith Snakescale.

"I did not summon you here to complain about dry skin," the witch complained to her servant. "I summoned you here to receive the working that I have laboured hard to complete this last month."

"I am sorry mother," the impostor said. "It has just been so long since I have immersed my self in water and sung the brook's refrain."

Lilith thrust her face towards the impostor, her yellow eyes flashing with barely contained anger.

"Find the part of this face that cares about your folk tunes," she said. "Oh, that's right, you can't because there isn't any such part. Now, pay attention."

Lilith drew her self up to her full height and reached into a cauldron bubbling away to the side of the altar. From it she withdrew a silver short sword. Light rflecting off the blade's surface was tinted an odd green.

"This is a perfect replica of the Azureleaf blade, the ceremonial sword used by the prince's family. The only difference is that this carries with it the curse of blackest night."

Avan knew the curse of blackest night. If someone were killed with a weapon steeped in this darkest magic the withering power of the curse would reach out into the branches of the victim's family tree erasing not just the living members of the family but also cutting the ancestors out of time entirely.

"You marry the princess," Lilith explained to the impostor. "Then, on the wedding night plunge this sword into her heart. You will still be the regent of this place in the absence of Lord Leafspry, but as no one will  remember Lord Leafspry or any of his kin even existed you will be not only the sole ruler of Leafspry but also the heir to the kingdom of Azureleaf. Then all you have to do is kill Lord Azureleaf and one-fifth of the Wylde Wood belongs to me."

It was a plan as ambitious as it was cruel, Avan had heard enough.

"I'm afraid," he said, casting off the shadow enchantment, "that I cannot allow that to happen."

"Who is this?" Lilith screeched. "I told you to make sure you were not followed, imbecile."

"Wherever such evil is being worked," Avan said, drawing his own sword, "the weave has a way of ensuring it is uncovered, before too much damage can be done."

"You seek to skewer me on that pathetic blade?" the witch demanded haughtily. "You clearly do not know the nature of Lilith Snakescale."

With that the witch appeared to blow out her cheeks. Her head broadened and flattened, her skin's strange hue deepened, scales became evident across her smooth blue-white skin. Before long the witch had entirely transformed into a gigantic serpent, at least forty feet in length, her body filling the cave. The gigantic flat head of the snake sunk down to look into Avan's eyes.

"Go ahead," said the serpent, her voice high with hysteria. "Give it your best shot."

Having dealt with creatures on a similar scale before Avan knew that he had to pick his moves carefully. He swung the sword at the serpent's eye as Lilith opened her jaws wide to swallow the prince whole. Knowing that this was the serpent-witch's likely opening strike Avan revealed that his swing had been a feint. He twisted his wrist and jumped up into the open jaw intending to thrust his own sword through the roof of Lilith's mouth and into her serpent brain.

The plan suffered a setback when Avan's sword skidded off the serpent's skull, the blade ringing with the impact so hard it shattered. Avan leaped quickly out of the mouth as the jaws clamped shut, now completely without a weapon of his own.

"Didn't I mention?" Lilith screeched. "My bones are made of hardest steel, no sword can cut or shatter them. Now, stay still, showing my true face always makes me hungry."

Avan had no choice but to run as the giant serpent's head ploughed forward through the cave intent on catching him in its giant mouth. The snake was swift and Avan was being forced to react, he was being given no time to turn the tide of battle to his favour.

In desperation he cut to his right heading for the lever that kept the real Prince Azureleaf's cage suspended near the ceiling. He pulled it down before reversing direction and running for the centre of the cave past the open, venom dripping, jaws of the serpent to its left hand side. The snake's body flexed and the head was bearing down on Avan once again.

Avan dove forward underneath the falling cage and prayed to whichever gods might currently be both listening and in a benevolent mood that the last thing he did would not be to skid along the floor before being swallowed by a gigantic snake.

In fact, it wasn't. As the snake's head ploughed forward, intent upon its regal snack, it completely failed to note the falling lump of heavy metalwork above it. The cage bounced off Lilith's head, stunning her and bringing her charge to a halt.

Now was Avan's only chance to turn the tide of battle. He surveyed the scene around him, mostly filled with the shining blue purple scales of the giant snake that was trying to turn him into a late evening supper. The only exceptional feature in this landscape of sinuous serpentine muscle was the forlorn and confused figure of the impostor prince, still clutching on to the sword of blackest night.

The severity of the blade's curse was not one that Avan wished to be involved with, but at that moment he had little choice. He ran over to the imposter and wrestled the sword from his flimsy grasp. Without even thinking Avan spun and sent the sword flying in the direction of Lilith's head.

There was no point trying to penetrate the skull, he knew that now. His only option was to do what it had looked like he was going to in the first place. As the sword of blackest night left his hand Avan pushed it straight, swift and true with a little inertial charm and the sword plunged through the serpent's eye and on into the centre of Lilith's head.

The result was immediate and dramatic. Lilith Snakescale, and the blade she had enchanted, were instantly enveloped in oily shadows, the shadows shrunk to nothing in an instant leaving the cave empty of everything that had been present save for the two princes, Weatherstrong and Azureleaf, and a very confused looking frog.

The princess was united with her love and the wedding went off without a hitch. In fact, the kingdom Avan emerged into was a little wealthier than the one he had first arrived at as the money spent defending the kingdom from Lilith Snakescale had now, retrospectively, been put to better uses.

Avan was concerned that there would be some consequence to his use of the cursed blade, but as that had presented itself as the only option in his desperate fight he had to trust that the forces of the weave and wheel would see fit not to burden him with too heavy a price. Indeed there was a price for Avan to pay for his actions, how high the price is something you will have to judge for yourself another time for this tale is at its end.