Monday, 20 July 2015

Sir Cobb and the Teddy Monster

As ever the full story will be released here on Sunday but can be read in full now on my Patreon page. If you enjoy the Bridgetown Tales subscribing from as little as $1 a month is the very best way to show your support. Subscribing is a little way to spread joy and happiness in the Faerie Kingdoms. Subscribers also have access to loads of other cool stuff like exclusive stories and puzzles.

There was a loud cracking sound in the distance, followed by the heavy thumps of an enormous beast lurching forward. Greg yelped in terror. Phoebe bounced up onto the top of the nearest shelf to get a look at what was going on.

"Um... Frederick," she said. "Have you had much experience fighting monsters?"

"Some," Frederick said.

"Big monsters?"

"A few were sizeable."

"How about ferocious?"

"Monsters do tend to be."

"What about monsters based on children's cuddly toys?"

Before Frederick had time to come up with a response to that one the shelves in front of him were swept aside. An enormous clawed paw shredded the books and splintered the shelves. Greg ran to hide behind Frederick, Phoebe leaped for a nearby undamaged shelf.

Frederick pulled his sword from his scabbard.

"At last!" the sword cried out. "Some action!"

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Subscribers Only: In Which Saeed Returns To The Land Of His Birth

"I thought I heard a cry for help," Saeed said. "Are you in distress sir?"

"No, son," the man said, grinning up at Saeed. The sun caught a flash of gold on the man's eyeteeth. "Probably just the parrot. Useless bird."

"Very well then," Saeed said. "I thought I had best check. If all is well I shall be on my way."

Saeed backed away from the lip of the pit. When he was out of view of the giant man he turned and walked back towards the wall surrounding the temple gardens. If all was fine then the giant would have no reason to follow. Saeed hoped that he had enough wit to outsmart the monster, if such wits were necessary.

As Saeed reached the edge of the garden he angled his body slightly so he disappeared from view amongst a small copse of trees. As soon as he knew he was out of view he turned on his heel and scrambled up into the branches of the nearest tree.

Just in time too. The giant man, sword drawn, came around the corner as Saeed settled his body across the branches. The giant was confounded at Saeed's apparent disappearance. Saeed knew that the time to wait had passed. Now he had to act.

He threw himself from the tree onto the giant's shoulders, wrapping his arms tight around the monster's neck. This done Saeed braced himself. He knew that the next couple of minutes were going to be intensely unpleasant.

The rest of this story can be found on my Patreon and is for subscribers only. There will be another story for non-subscribers in two weeks. If you want access to more stories and puzzling adventures subscribe on my Patreon for as little as $1 a month.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

The Princess Comes Home

This week's tale comes via the interaction of the claimant of the first-subscriber treat Seri. He chose to roll (with the assistance of yours truly) the Fairy Tale dice and opted to re-roll the full allotment of four dice to make the images referred to in this tale. The images were: Moon, Jail, Storm, Hourglass (time), Bow and arrow, Witch, Forest, Castle

If you want to have opportunities to participate in shaping the fate of the Faerie realm then you can subscribe on my Patreon page from as little as $1 a month.

Wish Forbetter was a little disappointed. The far future appeared to be, in most respects, identical to the present. If anything there was less in the future than there was in the past.

As a street thief brought up in the City of the Seven Spires Wish didn't know all that much about Faerie time and space. He knew that tomorrow never came and yesterday had a nasty habit of catching up with you. Other than that time was a way of telling whether it was before lunch, during lunch or after lunch. Space was a way of telling whether the Watch had caught up with you or not.

Even given this limited understanding of these big concepts Wish was underwhelmed. Only the Twenty Kingdoms had grown bigger in the thousands of years since he and Anabyl had trapped themselves in a magic crystal. Even then apparently there were only a hundred kingdoms now.

Add to this the things that were lost and it appeared that Faerie had actually shrunk. The stories had it that Araby had fallen to dust. Of course the Terra Draconis had vanished but that had been a year or so before Wish was even born.

The basic properties of Faerie had not altered, not in all that time. The Patchwork Market had a new master, but it was still there. There was a giant forest that connected all places. The shadow kingdoms were still full of magic and mayhem. The Undone still chewed its implacable way through the soft places. All fishermen were miserable and lunatic.

What was the point of travelling through time, Wish wondered, if all the places you could go were exactly the same?

Right now Anabyl and Wish were riding on Anabyl's horse through the Forest of Grymm. They were heading towards Anabyl's home kingdom of Spireshine. She had promised that Wish would be welcome there and that he would be safe. Anabyl, meanwhile, would not be able to stay. She had her small wooden box to deliver. Until she had completed her task she was in great danger.

Wish understood that the Dragon Guardians had held a meeting, they had put the Quintessence Crystal in a box. Then they had put two similar looking dragon crystals in two more identical boxes. Then each party had taken one box somewhere safe. They hoped that they might, this way, keep the real crystal safe. Safe enough for someone to have some time to work out how to extract the continent contained within its lattice safely.

So right now maybe Anabyl was carrying the crystal that had been a prison cell for her and Wish for millennia untold. Or maybe Frederick and Phoebe were taking it to the place that Phoebe had nominated. Or maybe Eos held it in her underwater kingdom. The only ones that knew for sure were the Dragon Guardians.

None of them liked the name, bestowed upon them by the little girl Rachel Rummage, nevertheless it had stuck. The thing about having an important name was that it made you look silly if what you did wasn't as important as the name. In this case what they were doing was so important it kind of made the name look silly. That was probably even worse.

Phoebe had told Wish a little about the Princess when she was young. These were stories Wish had some trouble believing. Stories about mechanical dragons and chicken tsunamis and general havoc. The Anabyl Spireshine that Wish Forbetter knew was quiet, intense and determined. He could not picture the Last of the Dragon Warriors jousting from the back of a pig.

As evening drew on the wind picked up a little through the trees. Anabyl took a path signposted for a nearby town.

"We can't be out on the road in bad weather during the night," she said. "We'll have to stop at an inn."

"Is it too far to get to Spireshine now?" Wish asked.

"It's still at least half a day. We'll carry on tomorrow," Anabyl replied. "Tonight we'll stay in Lesser Barlow, that's right on the borders with my kingdom."

"Have you been there before?" Wish was curious to see somewhere near to where the princess had been born.

"I think they instituted a lifetime ban against my return in the year of the stuttering phoenix," Anabyl replied. "I have to hope that will have been lifted, even though, technically, it was only three years ago at this point."

"What did you do to get a life time ban?" asked Wish.

"Was that the sheep and the flying potion or the frogs and the peanut butter?" the princess mused. "It was something anti-social."

"Were you really like that?" Wish asked. "A little terror? That's what I was told."

"I lacked purpose and direction," Anabyl replied. "I had to learn to focus my energy productively."

"Harness your energy," Wish said. "Like a horse or something?"

"Something like that," Anabyl smiled.

The sound of rain could be heard in the tree canopy above. As they came into Lesser Barlow the rain began to fall in earnest. In the distance a fork of lightning split the sky, soon after a rumble of thunder followed.

Lesser Barlow was no more than five streets and a tiny market square that would host no more than twenty stalls at a push. The local inn 'The Tasty Squirrel' was one of the largest buildings in the whole place.

The princess tied up her horse by the stables and looked about for the ostler.

"Come on, Wish," she said. "I bet he's inside, hiding from the storm."

Anabyl and Wish made their way into the bar of the Squirrel. Only then did it occur to them that there might be more to the quiet streets of Lesser Barlow than an instinct to hide from bad weather. The Squirrel's bar was empty aside from the barman and a couple of men slumped in the corner, neither of them drinking.

Wish didn't even see the other man. The one that Anabyl reached out and grabbed by the collar. She flung the shifty individual against the bar. He struck the edge of the counter with a worryingly loud crunching thump. There was a knife to his throat before anyone could even react.

"What's going on?" she asked the man conversationally, as if she wasn't threatening his life. "Where is everybody?"

"Curfew," the man replied. "Everyone's home after curfew."

"So why aren't you at home?" the princess asked. "It being after curfew and all."

"I live here," the man said.

Anabyl didn't shift her eyes away from where they locked the man in place like an insect caught on a pin.

"No you don't," she said. "So why are you here. Last chance before I'm having to mop your blood off the floor of this inn and apologising for the upset."

"Evlin Shadowcrook," the man said, gabbling the words out now. "She told me to sit here every night, look out for strangers headed toward Spireshine."

"Who is this woman? A sorceress?" Anabyl asked.

"Witch," the man said. "Wicked witch."

"Last question, why does this witch care who goes to Spireshine?" Anabyl eased her feet apart slightly, bracing herself in case her captive chose to fight back. He didn't.

"She owns Caer Spireshine now, the shadows have come in, three deep, this is the shadow's edge now," the man said.

"What about Lord and Lady Spireshine?" Anabyl demanded forgetting she'd promised that previous question as the last.

"In the dungeon is what I heard," the man said. "Only been a few days, we were waiting for a response, from the other kingdoms."

Anabyl eased back on her heels. She brought her knife down.

"You'd best get home," she said to the man. "It's after curfew."

The man made his way past Anabyl and Wish. He ran through the door as if the devil was at his heels. The atmosphere at the bar of the inn did not get any lighter.

"I don't want any trouble," the innkeeper said. He stood at the far end of the bar. The innkeeper preserved the greatest possible distance from Anabyl. Anabyl did not make any move closer to the man from her position near the entrance.

"It's a little late for that, don't you think?" Anabyl asked. "Or was it this quiet in here before an evil witch set up home in my kingdom?"

"Your kingdom?" the innkeeper asked. "Who are you? Elspyth? Marjyram?"

"No, they're both happily married and living the lives of ladies in kingdoms far away," Anabyl said.

"Surely not Sophya!" the innkeeper said. "Word was that your marriage is imminent."

"Oh, yes," Anabyl said. A chime of recollection rang in her voice. "Now that I'm of age I will have to remember to send a gift, thank you. No. Sophya is, no doubt, preparing for her own nuptials in far away Sommerslip."

"Then... but that means... oh no..." The tremor that shook the innkeeper's voice only deepened as the understanding dawned in his mind. "Anabyl?" he asked. The three syllables were wreathed in dread.

The man had shown less concern to have a woman threaten a man with a knife over his bar a few moments earlier. Now he knew the identity of his mystery patron it appeared that he could wish for nothing more than the ground to open and swallow him whole.

"You remember me!" Anabyl said, her voice light with joy. "Glad to see I am not easily swept aside by the passage of time."

"But how?" the innkeeper said. "You were small... so small... and you looked so sweet and... Ohhhh... How?"

"I think it had something to do with the Master of Mischief," Anabyl said. "But you know how dreadfully hard he can be to pin down."

The question of Evlin Shadowcrook and her assault on Spireshine was forgotten for the moment. Wish marvelled at the effect the princess was having on those near to her family home. The stories of pig jousting were no less fantastic but he couldn't argue with the evidence.

Evlin Shadowcrook was evidently not keen on being upstaged. An almighty thunderclap shook the inn building. The vibration so hard that all the oil lamps extinguished, plunging the inn into shadowy darkness. The only light illuminating the scene came from the moon.

"Moonlight?" Anabyl said. "That's not... I hate wicked witches."

With that she spun on her heel and stormed over to the door. Wish, receiving no instruction to stay put, followed her out into the inn yard.

Outside the storm was raging. Dark clouds swirled in the sky and the source of Anabyl's exasperation was now clearly visible. A fat, yellow moon hung in front of the storm clouds in bald defiance of the way things usually worked.

As if on cue the shadow of a broomstick bearing a single passenger swooped in front of the strange glowing sky circle. The broomstick wheeled round and soared down towards the inn yard. As it approached the sound of evil cackling became louder and louder.

"Always with the aerial attacks," Anabyl muttered. She pulled her bow from her back and thumbed the catch to make it full size. "They never learn."

With that she pulled an arrow from a pouch in her boot, put it to the bow string and fired the shaft directly at Evlin Shadowcrook. The arrow scored its target, the cackling ceased as the witch tumbled from her perch with an undignified squawk.

"Don't mess with Spireshines," Anabyl said, pouting. Her jaw set with pugnacious determination.

At last Wish saw it. The whole time he had known Anabyl she had appeared quiet, intense and a little sad. Now he understood that the princess had not coped well with being lost and homesick. The fire that burned in her heart was fierce indeed.

Even in the long ago days and trapped within the crystal it had burned so all could see it. Now she was home, near to her family and someone was interfering in her return. That fire had become an inferno and Evlin Shadowcrook should probably be very, very frightened indeed.

"I'm going to get her," Anabyl said to Wish as she mounted her horse. "You stay here at the inn. I'll be back soon."

"I want to stay with you!" Wish objected.

"We don't always get what we want," Anabyl said. "Mind you, when I was your age and I didn't I used to burn things. Are you going to burn things?"

"No," Wish said before he could think of a better answer.

"Then stay here, I'll be back soon," Anabyl said.

So Wish did, and Anabyl returned with the wicked witch in tow, but what happened next is a story for another day.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Subscribers Only: Phoebe September, the Rainbow Bridge and the Ghost Cat

Phoebe September wished that she could tickle the ghost cat behind the ears but ectoplasmic fur could not be tickled. It really was a beautiful creature, milk white, softly glowing. It languished on the sill of the window as if considering an evening's prowl, maybe one with a few dead mice at the end.

Like most ghosts the cat was tied to the structure that it haunted. Phoebe felt sad for the cat. It was stuck in an abandoned shadow mansion all alone. All alone most of the time. All alone except for tonight.

"Come on, light, fiddlesticks!" Frederick said. He was hunched over a pile of wood intended to serve as that evening's fire. It appeared that he wasn't having much luck with his tinderbox.

"There's no need to get uptight," Phoebe said, fully aware of the irony of her encouraging someone else to calm down.

"What?" Frederick said, looking up at her from his task. "No. I was actually telling the fiddlesticks to light. I think a musician may once have lived here. That's where I got this wood."

Phoebe examined the wood pile closer. Now that she was paying attention she could make out the tangled wisps of horsehair curled up on the ends of some of the sticks.

"Oh," she said. With a flick of her wrist she released a small ball of orange plasma. The wood pile burst into flames. "There."

"Why didn't you just do that ten minutes ago?" Frederick asked.

"I felt like a little sit down and some quiet," Phoebe replied. "Sorry."

The rest of this story can be found on my Patreon and is for subscribers only. There will be another story for non-subscribers in two weeks. If you want access to more stories and puzzling adventures subscribe on my Patreon for as little as $1 a month.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Levercastle Puzzle Adventure

This first part of the Levercastle Puzzle Adventure is free to everyone. Following this subscribers at $1+ will get a new puzzle in the series every fortnight $5+ subscribers will get a puzzle every week in an alternating pattern with an exclusive $5 puzzle adventure "The Unwilling Servant".

Try the puzzle here.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Pale God In The Barrel

There exists a stretch of ocean waters off the coast of the Faerie Lands known as the Shark Seas. The area reaches from the tip of the Pheban Peninsula, to the northernmost shores of the Dreamtime Lands. Then from the Island of Avaiki, to the wastes of the Bear Tundra.

Sharks swim these waters, of course they do, but they are just one of the many dangers that await the unwary sailor. Not that there are many sailors. The oceans of Faerie are not well travelled.

Many times has it been noted that the lands of Faerie are not the closest companions of sensible geography. With all the bridges and forests and caves and crossways maps are more of a suggestion than a statement of fact.

This is, if anything, more true of the oceans of Faerie than anywhere else. The situation has worsened since the time of the Vanishing. It used to be that if you sailed out from the western Shadow kingdoms you would eventually land upon the shores of the Terra Draconis. When the land of the dragons disappeared within the folds of dark magic that route was closed forever.

There is the odd vessel that sets out from Phebe, or the Bear Tundra. Fishermen use tethered boats to ply their trade. Faerie fishermen are a nervous bunch. Many are given to fits of twitching.

Then there are adventurers and explorers. All hoping to find something of profit on the numerous islands scattered across the Shark Seas. Such voyages tend to be undertaken by sailors with nothing to tie them to land. No one with a family to leave behind would ever take their chances on a journey from which they would almost certainly never return.

For this reason most of the manned vessels that sail upon the Shark Seas are peopled with mortal men. A single bad storm, a whirlpool crossway or an encounter with a grumpy undine can lead to mortal vessels becoming lost this way. Those that make it to the Shark Seas are fortunate indeed. Many begin their circuitous journey in the Ocean of Mists where no faerie sailor would ever go.

The situations that lead to mortal men washing up on the palm-fringed beaches of a Shark Sea island are calamitous indeed. Many who survive these circumstances do so at the expense of their original vessels. It is not too remarkable a thing to discover a couple of sad mortal souls marooned with no more than a row boat upon the soft white sands.

The natives of the Shark Islands tell stories of stranded sailors. Usually these stories are passed down for several generations until the next incident occurs.

Rona-Iki was a young woman who once lived upon the island of Jas-Nwi (translated from the local tongue 'Our Home'). She possessed a vast imagination, which many would count as a gift. In an island community a broad mind was often seen more as a nuisance. If the other members of the tribe were in a particularly bad mood they might even call it a curse.

Rona saw pictures in clouds, heard voices in the curl of the waves and imagined monsters made of rock living deep within the earth. She had heard all the stories of the sky god and the sea god and the god who lived under the mountain. She had made up her own stories about these gods.

She liked to think that her stories gave the gods more rounded characters. She borrowed without hesitation from the stories the grandparents told. She was the kind of person who would wonder how a strange, red-skinned god might come to Jas-Nwi in a row boat and what sort of god that would be.

The god in a row boat theme was one that Rona thought about often. The story of three red-skinned gods wearing white wigs was one she heard often. They came to the island in the time of her great grand-father. She had considered the details of the tale so often that sometimes it appeared real.

One of the gods had left behind a gift, a coat and a triangular hat. None of the children were allowed to touch the coat or hat, they did get to see it displayed on feast days.

When Rona found the barrel that was yelling for help on the sunset beach it had nearly pulled her mind inside out. Whenever she imagined finding gods on the beach they came in a row-boat, not in a barrel. A barrel was barely enough space to contain one god, let alone three or four. Unless they were small.

Rona's imagination ran riot, a dozen tiny gods, arriving in a barrel. Maybe they would mistake her, four sticks tall in her seventeenth year, for a different type of god. She may have to explain to these tiny gods that she was just a person. She might have to stop them from worshipping at her feet.

As she approached the barrel it appeared to her that there was only one voice calling for help from within. That tended to suggest that there was only one person in the barrel. That tended to suggest that no one would be worshipping her any time soon.

Rona squashed down the possibility of disappointment as she came near to the barrel. After all one god was one more than anyone had discovered in four generations. Not only that but it was the only god ever to be discovered in a barrel in living memory.

"Ca nennyb ordy heeermeeee?" came the voice from with in the barrel. Strange words that Rona did not recognise. It seems that gods spoke in their own tongue. Rona wondered that a random stream of noise like that could be understood by anyone. Why didn't the gods just speak like everyone else?

"Duh liddiz tuk," came a pleading tone from the barrel. "Ih zennybore dee neeer?"

The barrel was quite unlike any that Rona had seen before. Uncle Dev made barrels out of hollowed out gourds that one found on the mush-fruit tree on the lower slopes of the great mountain. All he did was make sure the insides were clean, paint them up to look nice and stick a lid over the hole.

This barrel was a construction using many sticks of wood. It was bound at both ends by metal hoops so smooth and regular that Rona did not know how they could even be. Unless they were the skin from some strange metal fruit that grew in the land of the gods. Maybe the gods cut the skin into strips and bent it to make hoops.

The land of the gods was already far more interesting than Jas-Nwi. All Rona knew was that they must have giant metal fruit there. Apparently they had no gourds. Still, nobody could have everything.

The god had fallen silent. Rona did not want anything bad to have happened. She reached out her hand and rapped on the hard skin of wood that made up the body of the barrel.

"Hello," she said. "Strange god, are you in there?"

"Hoozat?" said the god. "Ih zummun dehhr?"

"I'm sorry, I don't speak like a god," Rona said. "I am Rona-Iki of the Tribe, welcome to Jas-Nwi god in a barrel."

"Lodehr," the god continued. "Canoo elpmee? Ayams duk."

"I'll try to get you out," said Rona. "Wait here."

Rona ran back up the sunset beach and found a sizeable rock. She came back to the barrel and started to hit the lid with the rock trying to break it open.

"Ayah!" came the voice from within. "Cairph ool. Myed isdehr."

After a couple of blows the lid split in two. Rona dug her fingers in and picked the remains of the lid from the lip of the barrel.

As soon as he was able the god came tumbling out of his wooden shell. He was everything Rona could have hoped for and more. He was not red like the last gods but rather a pale white, almost blue. He was dressed in white clothes, aside from strange black skins on his feet. A crumpled black hat was stuck to his head. The god was quite wet, the barrel  clearly not waterproof like a gourd.

"O, thah ts bettah," the god said, huffing and panting. "Thah nkyu yung lay dee."

"I'm sorry," Rona said. "I still don't speak the tongue of gods."

The god looked put out at this. Rona wasn't clear as to whether he could understand her or not.

"Ode eer," the god muttered to himself. He looked pensive for a moment. Then he sat up on his haunches and touched his chest with his hands.

"Chess Turr," he said slowly, carefully.

"Your name is Chess Turr?" Rona asked. "Is that what you mean?"

The god looked puzzled. Rona understood that she was as garbled to him as he was to her. She mimicked his stance. Putting her hands on her own chest she said:


The god pointed at her: "Rona-Iki"

Rona smiled. "Chess Turr," she pointed at him. He smiled too.

Well, it wasn't a lot, but it was a start, she thought.

"Ayam lur kingfor dagoled skin poor pise," Chess Turr said slowly. In an instant they were back to not being able to understand one another. "Wayd!" he said then and held up his hand.

Chess Turr reached into his shirt and pulled out a scrap of thick skin. He laid it out on the sand to show that it was daubed with paint in a curious design.

At first Rona could not understand the jumble of black lines surrounding a yellow central area. There were other daubs of black and deeper yellow but Rona could not understand the pattern.

"Goald poor pise," Chess Turr repeated. He pointed out to sea. "Goald poor pise."

Was this supposed to be a picture of a fish, Rona wondered.

As if the thought itself was magic the jumble of lines and colours resolved in Rona's head. The gods had painted this skin in such a way that if you looked at it and thought 'fish' one would appear on the skin as if it was really there.

She could see now the shadow of the fish belly and the curve of the fish spine, the tail behind it smaller than the nose poking forward. It was as if the fish, a golden dolphin, was leaping out of water right towards Rona.

Rona gasped. She touched the skin, already it was drying in the afternoon sun. She recognised this creature. This was the golden dolphin that swam in the undersea forest of the sea gods. This was a sacred animal, one that the fishermen did their best to avoid.

"It's the gold dolphin!" Rona said. "Why are you looking for that? Have you business with the sea god?"

"Yoo nohdiss?" Chess Turr asked. "Whair isdiss?"

"It's no good," Rona said. "I can't make any sense of you. Maybe one of the elders will be able to."

It was clear that Chess Turr was not understanding her. Their brief, pointless conversation had made him slump back, defeated.

"Chess Turr," Rona said, slow and loud. Chess Turr responded to his name, looking up at Rona. She pointed over to the treeline, to the edge of the trail back to the tribe. "Come with me."

Rona stood up and started back over to the trail. Chess Turr stood and followed her, hesitant. She nodded and beckoned encouraging him. He followed with more confidence.

Let us hope that one of the elders knows something of the god's tongue. Someone has to know more than me, Rona thought.

Rona lead Chess Turr through the trees, back to the tribe, the walk did not take long but it took longer than it should have. Chess Turr seemed remarkably nervous for a god. He kept looking back the way he had come. He jumped at the sounds of the everyday birds and beasts.

When they reached the tribe the reaction was all that Rona could have guessed it would be. The other islanders stared at Chess Turr as he walked along the trail towards the grand fire. It was getting towards late afternoon now and the elder women were stoking the fire, making ready to light it.

"What have you brought us, Rona-Iki?" one of the elder women asked. "It's an odd fish, for certain. Pale enough but too many limbs."

"I'll bet it's bony and tastes of salt," said another one, joining in the joke.

"I found this god, in a barrel on the sunset beach," Rona-Iki replied. "I cannot understand his words. I wondered if any of the elders might understand him better. Maybe someone picked up a word or two from the red-skinned gods."

"This god has pale skin," the elder woman replied. "Maybe his words are not red god words."

"Then how are we to understand him?" Rona asked. It would be disastrous if she had found a god in a barrel only to have no way to understand what he was saying.

The elder woman shrugged, it was clear that she didn't care what the pale god was saying.

"Mak-Ava," she instructed another of the elder women. "Get some of those useless men down here. See if any of them can speak with the pale god."

Mak-ava ambled off to find the elder men. After a few minutes there came a noise of general discontent. Fragments of grumbling and short-tempered questions floated down the trail.

The noise of elder men disturbed before the fire was lit resolved into a procession. The elders came down the hill towards the great fire. Their grumbling did not cease even when they came within sight of the pale god.

"What's all this about? Who disturbs us with talk of a pale god?" Jama-Ray, the leader of the elders, asked.

"I found him on the beach," Rona said. "He is pale and I cannot understand his words. His name seems to be Chess Turr."

The remaining murmurs from the elders came to a swift halt. They turned to examine Chess Turr.

"Uhm. Hair low," Chess Turr said, smiling awkwardly. "Dohnt surpohss ennyovyu spee kinglesh?"

"Ayes peeka lihttle," said Kam-Oddy the oldest member of the tribe. "Ayes pohkit wenayewazah lihtl bwoy."

Chess Turr's eyes lit up. He gabbled a bunch of sounds that Rona had no way of following. Kam-Oddy waved his hands, signalling for Chess Turr to slow.

It appeared that the oldest member of the tribe would be of some use but he was not fluent in the tongue of the gods by any means.

Rona was quickly shoved to one side after these introductions. During the great fire she was expected to look after the young ones, like always. By the time for bed it was as if nothing remarkable had come to pass that day at all.

The disappointment grew over the next couple of days. Chess Turr spent all his time in the company of the elders. Rona had to carry on as normal.

Eventually, she found it impossible to ignore the pale skinned god she had brought to the tribe. She tried to ask questions about him of the elders. All they did was frown and tell her to mind her own affairs.

On the fourth day Chess Turr came to find Rona.

"Hello, Rona," he said. "I wanted to come and thank you for bringing me to the tribe."

"You speak like a person!" Rona cried out in delight. "How did you learn our words so fast?"

"I made a preparation that assists with learning such things," Chess Turr said. "It comes in handy when you need to speak with a lot of different people."

"Could you use it to teach me the tongue of the gods?" Rona asked.

"Uh, well, um, I suppose that there's no reason why it couldn't be used that way," Chess Turr said. "But it's quite difficult to make, and there's not much use for the tongue of the, um, gods around here."

"No, I suppose not," Rona said. "I imagine you must go back to your home. Either under the waves or up in the clouds. So I will probably never see a god again once you have left."

"No, probably not," Chess Turr said. "But I want you to know how grateful that I am that you rescued me. The barrel hit a rock when I washed ashore and that tightened the lid. If it hadn't been for you I might have starved to death inside the barrel."

"That's no problem," Rona said. "I have always wanted to see a god, and now I have. I fear the rest of my life will not be able to compare with the afternoon of four days ago."

"I'm sure you will find some way to make your life worthwhile, Rona," Chess Turr said. "Adventure can hide in the most unlikely of places."

"I'm not sure it does on Jas-Nwi," Rona said. "But thank you for trying to give me hope."

With that they parted. After a few days more Chess Turr had crafted some clothes with the help of the elders. He made his way down to the sunset beach to resume his own journey.

He and the village men made a small vessel, a raft. The raft carried food and water, it had a large white sail. It looked very grand, far sturdier than a fishing raft, it would have to carry Chess Turr back to the land of the gods.

Some of the tribe had come to the sunset beach to wave Chess Turr off. Some wanted to see that he made it out to sea safely because they wished him well. Some wanted to see that he made it out to sea safely because they did not trust pale gods.

The sadness that Rona felt seeing the stranger continue on his way weighed on her heart. She felt it like a gourd filled with sand, heavy in her chest. Rona knew that nothing as exciting as Chess Turr's visit would ever happen on Jas-Nwi again.

As the raft floated over the breakers out onto the ocean Rona split from the small crowd. She began her slow trudge back towards the trail to the tribe. She hadn't gone three paces before a very stupid and dangerous thought had entered her mind.

Rona wanted to ignore the thought, but, at the same time, it was the most amazing thought she had ever had. For that reason she didn't want to let go of it. For the first time in her life Rona tried not to think any new thoughts at all as she hurried into the water and swam out into the sea.

Once she was out far enough, hidden by the rolling swell of the waves she cut back towards Chess Turr's raft. The way out of the sunset bay was difficult under full sail and Chess Turr was piloting his raft slowly out to sea.

Rona swum up behind Chess Turr's raft. She grabbed hold of a long branch that held the back of the craft together. Taking off her belt she strapped it round the branch and twisted it to form a loop. She slipped her wrist tight into the loop and sat herself low in the water.

She had to ensure that Chess Turr had gone too far to turn back before he discovered her presence. That way he would not be willing to take time to return her to the island. It was not that she disliked her family or the rest of the tribe. She knew that Jas-Nwi only offered her a life of boredom and frustration.

Rona had determined, on the sands of the sunset beach, to have an adventure. Maybe, if she went with the pale skinned god, she would never return to Jas-Nwi. At this moment that didn't appear too terrible a fate. Certainly not as terrible as never seeing anything different or interesting for the rest of her life.

Eventually, of course, Chess Turr discovered Rona. As she had predicted he was not happy at all. By that time she had managed to hold on for long enough that he couldn't afford to turn back. So Rona and Chess Turr set forth on an adventure. What happened on that adventure is definitely a tale for another time.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Long Road Home

The little girl in the green pyjamas watched the snow fall out of the upstairs window. She had, to her own certain knowledge, never seen snow before because she had lived almost her entire life in a jungle, living in a tree hollow under the shadow of the Great Skull Rock. The little girl, whose name as we should realise by now was Rachel Rummage, had lived a peaceful life, never wanting for anything, never cold, never hungry but a prisoner all the same, sleeping nights in terror of the giant bat that lived in the hollowed out cave at the summit of the Great Skull Rock.

Rebecca's father, James, assured her that in Levercastle snow fell every Christmas, after which he had kindly explained Christmas to her. Rachel imagined that being cold was always unpleasant, that long nights would make her feel sad and that having to wear wellington boots to avoid wet feet in snow would be a tiresome chore. She was surprised to find that all these things were bearable if you could live in a warm, cosy house called Rainbow Reach with your mother and your father. She had also imagined that living in the world of men, far away from Faerie, would mean she missed all the friends she had made after she had left the Skull Garden.

Happily she did not have to get used to a life where she never saw the brave Sir Cobb, the powerful Phoebe September or the mighty Princess Anabyl Spireshine. Levercastle was a town unlike many others where the little holes in reality that allow the world of men and the world of folk to interact are many. The residents of Levercastle are generally happy with the arrangement because many of them have stories like Rachel's and know that there is more to the world than might, at first, meet the eye.

"Hey you, time for bed means time to get into bed, not time to loll around on the window seat in your pyjamas," said dad, James, coming in to Rachel's bedroom.

"I was just looking at the snow," Rachel said. "Remember I've never seen snow before."

"So which would you rather?" James asked. "Look at snow or hear a bedtime story."

"How about hear a story while watching the snow?" Rachel asked.

James sighed and sat down next to his daughter on the window seat. He watched the snow flakes with her for a minute. Then he asked:

"What story do you want to hear?"

"Tell me a story about when we came here, when Lester opened his brother's grave," Rachel said.

"That only happened in September, honey," James said. "Don't you want a story about Avan Weatherstrong, or one of the stories about Anabyl when she escaped the Terra Draconis after the Vanishing, I just got a parcel from the Archive chronicling Sir Cobb's journey through the Upside Out."

"No, I want to enjoy remembering what happened three months ago," Rachel said. "I just want to hear it like it's a story, but to know I was there."

"Okay," James said. "I guess that would be fun, in a weird kind of a way."

And so James recounted the events of three months previously, as if it was a story, but both of them knew that all of this had really happened:

So the story goes there was once a man who lost his brother and could not find him no matter where he looked. In the end, out of desperation, the man tracked down the Master of Mischief to ask for help with his quest.

"Are you quite sure you want to find your brother?" the Master of Mischief asked. "You may not like what you find."

"All I want in this world is to see my brother's face once more," the man said. "Please help me, or if you will not then send me on my way, for I know that you are prone to play games. I know that not all of your games are kind."

"Do you understand the threads I would have to pull? The patterns I would have to break? The mischief I would have to do to give you your heart's desire?" the Master of Mischief asked.

"If I knew what needed to be done to find my brother," the man replied. "Then I would not bother you. Please, will you help me?"

The Master of Mischief smiled his smile, the only part of the Master of Mischief that remains the same no matter which particular face he has chosen to wear that day. The Master of Mischief knows more than he ought to, for which reason the Master of Mischief lies to people, but always for the betterment of all worlds, or so he tells us.

"I am in a good mood today," the Master of Mischief said. "So I will help you. Go to death's garden and dig with a spade. You will find your brother under the earth."

And that is where the story ends. Well, most versions of the story, for stories are lies, and stories are mischief of the purest kind in all places but one. The one place where all stories are reflections, or chronicles, or accounts is the Faerie Archive at Sommerslip. The story is told there almost as rendered above, but there is one major difference. After the Master of Mischief says 'So I will help you' the sentence ends. Underneath is printed, in neat block capitals:


Of course Lester Topping didn't know any of that. As far as Lester Topping was concerned he had received a letter from his twin brother Chester recounting that Chester had stopped off in Bridgetown to pick up some supplies and was heading on in three days to a distant shadow.

Having become quite lonely without the companionship of his brother Lester had raced to Bridgetown, got himself lost, missed the window to meet up with his brother and been asked by a curious man in a tall hat to watch a mermaid in a tank. None of that resembled the story of the man who had sought the assistance of the Master of Mischief for help with looking for his brother, for that reason no one who knew the story and travelled with Lester put the two things together, not even Lester himself.

This is how the Master of Mischief works. He lies. For the betterment of all worlds, or so he tells us.

So when Lester Topping found himself in death's garden, looking down at a small wooden box revealed within the tomb that, allegedly, marked the remains of his twin brother, his confusion was, perhaps, understandable.

He was glad that the tomb did not appear to contain Chester's remains, Lester could only imagine how upsetting that would be. Still, that did not completely rule out the possibility that within the small wooden box was an urn containing Chester's ashes. There was no note or inscription to explain the tomb's contents, Chester had proven himself an avid communicator, the content of his communications was gnomic at best.

"You should probably open it," Phoebe said, standing with the others, respectfully, at the edge of the grave site. "You have looked for this place for a long time. Whatever is in there will be your answer."

Would it? Lester wondered as he approached the box and lifted it out of its hollow by the two brass handles hanging from the sides. He knew that it should but now that he was, in theory, at the end of his journey he couldn't convince his brain that the moment was at hand.

The box was not heavy. It had, rather, a reassuring solidity that strongly implied the container's importance. The wood of the box was a nice golden brown, not too dark, not too light, like the burnished surface of a fiddle. Brass corners had been fitted to prevent the wood finish from scuffing or splintering. The handles in the side held firm, appearing as if they were part of the wooden body of the box itself. The craftsmanship of the item could not be second guessed, it was impressive in its simplicity.

There was no lock on the box, just a simple latch, a switch that moved from right to left, embossed with the symbol of the hourglass. With a smooth click the lid was open, Lester lifted the lid on well-oiled hinges to reveal the contents.

The box did not contain an urn filled with ashes. It contained a brass hand mirror, its reflecting surface turned down to rest on a cushion of red velvet. Without even thinking about it Lester picked up the mirror to look at his face.

"What is it?" someone asked, he thought it was Eos.

"I don't know, exactly," Lester said, studying his face in the mirror. "Oh, this mirror is broken."

"What do you mean?" Frederick asked. "Is it cracked? It must have cracked before someone put it in there, no shock would reach it through the earth and the rock and the box and the padding."

"No," Lester said. "It's not cracked. It's just when I talk my lips don't move. My whole face is stuck, like a photograph. I can't even... ah, no. I can wink. I can see my eye it looks like its inside something, like I'm wearing glasses or..."

"Your face," Phoebe said. "It shows you that your face is a mask."

"It does," Lester said. "I've worn a mask, all this time. I didn't even know it." He stopped for a second, he could feel his face smirk although the image in the mirror remained completely still. "That means that when I was at Lady Crimzona's party I was wearing two masks, one on top of the other. How silly."

"Well," Rachel asked. "Aren't you going to take the mask off?"

"I had better," Lester said. "It's been far more fun than I thought it would be to wear a mask for all these days, but now I think, somehow, that it is far more important that I take the mask off. So, here goes."

Lester reached up under his chin and caught the edge of his Lester mask. He felt his false face lift off the surface of his real one. It came away easily, not even fixed to his head by a length of cord. Magic had kept Lester's mask in place, in the mirror it was easy to remove for it was all part of the same spell.

Before Lester could see his real face he turned away from the hand mirror to look at the blank white object in his hands. He looked up at the faces of his friends and smiled.

"How do I look?" he said, playing a game for he already knew.

"Honestly?" James said. "Exactly the same."

Chester's grin broadened, for now Lester knew that he was Chester, his own missing twin brother. The absurdity of disguising oneself as one's own identical twin brother was delicious to both of them. Chester realised that it was he who had felt a small twinge of regret at the need to remember all the things that made up Chester Topping, eccentric, traveller and alchemist. Lester wasn't good for much, that was all part of the mask, what Chester had discovered through Lester was a constant and abiding sense of innocent wonder at the world and all it contained. Sometimes, Chester knew, he was far too clever by half.

"I don't get it," Frederick said. "I don't mind being the first to say it but I am willing to bet I'm not the only one. I don't understand what's happening."

"It's all part of the plan, dear boy," Chester said to Frederick. "All part of my plan to get the Quintessence Crystal into the hands of people better suited to its guardianship than myself and poor Professor Rummage there."

"Professor Rummage?" the gnome asked looking up at James. "And here was I just thought he was a common or garden talking mouse when first we met."

James coloured red.

"I didn't, I don't... remember," he said. "I'm a professor? What of?"

"Well, mostly, folklore," Chester said. "It's a little more complicated than that. As far as the world we come from knows, Jimbo, you are an anthropologist and expert on the mythical beasts of world cultures. Anyone inside our social circle knows that you are the foremost expert on the natural history and evolutionary biology of such creatures, that's a key part to how we ended up in this pickle."

"Dragons," Anabyl chimed in. "James found out about the Vanishing, what had happened, where the crystal was."

"Indeed, brave knight," Chester said. "Most unfortunate for he was not the only party interested in the acquisition of such knowledge. As a consulting alchemist to the Grand Order of the Covenenant of Lies I was sent to Levercastle, Professor Rummage's place of residence, to ensure his safety, and the safety of his beautiful family.

"Alas, I was too late, by the time I arrived the wicked agents of Count Bartolomeo Okulas had already turned James into a mouse, saying that they would give him twenty-four hours to see sense and that they would return on the morrow when they expected he would share his secret. I had to think fast, I came up with a plan that was the child of expedience more than prudence.

"I am, in fact, rather glad that things have played out as they have. I cannot claim any particular good judgement on my own part in that, I rather think that I provided an opportunity for several wrongs to be righted in the great tapestry. Our stopgap measure was, therefore, exploited by the Master of Mischief rather than expedited by him."

"Oh, my dear Monsieur Topping," said a new voice that everyone recognised but nobody could place. "How desperately cynical of you. Why could I not merely have found myself in a giving humour?"

The curious man in the tall hat emerged from shadows that no one could remember being there a moment before.

"Apologies," Chester said to the Master of Mischief. "I did not intend my invocation to carry such strength."

"No apologies necessary, alchemist," the Master replied. "I came of my own volition. Mostly because I like to see those who do not wish to deal with me squirm. Partly because I am tired of this business and would like to see it done."

"What is there left?" asked Chester. "I think I have explained everything."

"Well," Frederick said. "There you and I are going to have to differ. I still don't really understand what's going on. You're not Lester, you're an alchemist who looks like himself and James the mouse is really a professor of dragons and there's something to do with Count Okulas, aside from that... I don't really know what we're all doing here."

"Allow me to fill in the gaps," the Master of Mischief said as his famous grin slowly painted itself from one of his ears to the other. "Chester and James were sought after for James's forbidden knowledge by Count Okulas. The one place Chester knew that James could be hidden that Okulas would not find was the same place that the Quintessence Crystal was hidden. James, his family and Chester came here, to the Skull Garden.

"When they all began to forget things Chester understood what was happening. He forged the Lester mask using the garden's own magic to make the enchantment more powerful," the Master shot a sidelong glance in Chester's direction. "That was very cunning by the way," he said, and then returned to his story. "Knowing nothing but the story Chester had told the mask Chester sent himself away to Bridgetown, Lester arrived. Such a bizarre and powerful magic suddenly manifesting in the Patchwork Market attracted my eye. I settled to study it immediately.

"When I understood what was happening I saw the potential to undo one of the most heinous acts that has ever been committed in all the lands of Faerie. The Vanishing of the Terra Draconis was a work of sorcery and witchcraft that, although literally diabolical, was outside my direct influence. Nobody said that I wasn't able to assist those who wished to put things right.

"My only problem is that, as Master of Mischief, I am one of the most powerful figures in the whole of creation. I have to be subtle if I want to weild my powers, hard as it is to believe I am not invincible. In short, I must be perceived to be neutral.

"So, I nipped reality, I tucked it, tipping people on particular paths down little back alleys of my own devising, ensuring that the great mechanism of mischief brought things out as they have become. Frederick, Phoebe, Anabyl, Eos, you are, between you, quite capable of guarding the Quintessence Crystal from the hands of evil doers. James, Chester, Rebecca and dear little Rachel, you are to be freed from a burden too great for you to bear."

"And what about me boss?" the gnome said. "When does the little girl's wish end?"

"It's not your place to ask such questions," the Master snapped at the gnome. "You'll live as I wish and be grateful for the opportunity."

"Yes boss," the gnome said miserably.

"Don't you talk to my friend like that!" Rachel cried out, outraged.

"Darling," Rebecca said. "That's the Master of Mischief, he's very important."

"I don't care how important he thinks he is," Rachel insisted. "The gnome's given me and James our wish, and helped out with all the other stuff too. I think he deserves to be free now and nobody should be rude to him, not even a scary man in a big hat."

"Dear Rachel," the Master said, kneeling down to bring their heights closer together. "You misunderstand. This gnome is not your friend. He is with you because he is bound to you. He is just an accidental random conglomeration of mischief that calls itself a gnome. I doubt he can feel emotions. He's nothing, really, beneath your notice."

"He's my friend," Rachel said. "And he's never done anything mean or horrible. I don't know what you're talking about but it sounds mean and horrible to me. Mean and horrible people are nothing. The gnome is the gnome."

The grin disappeared from the Master's face. Most were silent, the gnome and Rebecca drew in breath sharply.

"Sometimes," the Master said sadly. "It seems even I can forget my place. Very well Cholmondeley, you shall have your own garden, but first we should see to the end of the wish."

"And how do we do that, exactly?" Rachel asked. "If you know so much then you can help us. We haven't done very well at the job ourselves."

"Why, all the answers your poor father ever needed are behind this door," the Master said pointing to a simple wooden door in the base of the Skull Rock that had certainly not been there a moment before.

The Master opened the door and it was as if they were looking out of a house onto a street. Opposite their position was a small wooden fence, painted blue, that surrounded a two storey detached house completely surrounded by well defined, but slightly overgrown flower beds.

"Rainbow's Reach awaits Professor Rummage," the Master said. "And all the stories that you hold within your head will return within its walls. Once that is done so will Cholmondeley's work."

Saying goodbye to all the friends they had made on the long road home James, Rebecca, Rachel and Chester went through the Master's door and back to James's home where their long adventure had begun so many years before, or so it seemed.

When James remembered exactly who he was, and where he had been, and the nature of those things, he understood that life in the Skull Garden unfolded at a vastly different rate to time in his own world and he had, in fact, been gone only a single night as far as his world was concerned.

Unfortunately this meant that, unless Rachel wanted to squash into a crib, which she did not, she had to sleep that night in her parent's bed. None of them minded that arrangement at all and the next day a brand new bed was bought for the little girl who had grown up in the Skull Garden not knowing anything of who she was or where she came from.

The Guardians of the Quintessence Crystal took their responsibilities very seriously indeed, and their stories are even now depicted, along with all the rest, within the deep, dark stacks of the Faerie Archive. That would probably be the best place to read them for, although the Master of Mischief will claim that he can tell you what came next everyone knows that the Master lies to people. Although, you can be assured, he only does so for the betterment of all worlds. Or so he says himself.