Chapter Eleven Continued
They’d been travelling for a while when Drake heard a small high-pitched bleep and the map flashed up spontaneously before his eyes. He checked the time. It was 11.05 am and they were very close. A small green dot began to grow and pulsate on the map, corresponding with a small mound of earth and bricks that lay due south of them, around one mile away; the entrance to the Valley of Death.
Drake switched the map off with a quick tap on his wristwatch and then wrapped his hand into Falkor’s thick turquoise crest fur, pulling it gently to the right. Falkor reacted instantly, banking right and slowly losing speed and altitude as he glided in a circle down to the ground. Just before landing, about three metres above the grass, he dropped Pyro’s stiff body and then touched down a short distance away.
Willow leapt from Falkor’s back and raced over to Pyro’s body. ‘I think we’ve killed him!’ she said, crouching over his motionless body.
‘Maybe you should give him mouth-to-mouth,’ said Drake, strolling over to them, a broad grin on his face.
‘Do I have to?’ she replied, looking at the djinns flaky blue lips.
‘Well, maybe you should see if he’s got a heartbeat first.’
She touched the base of Pyro’s neck with her fingertips and recoiled in horror as the djinn flared up. ‘OW!’ she shrieked, jumping up and blowing on the tips of her fingers to stem the burning pain.
Pyro began rolling around on the floor, laughing hysterically, small beads of petrol running from the corners of his eyes and embers of black and orange sparking from his arms and face, like bits of burnt paper. ‘HA HA HA!’ he laughed, ‘If you could see your face, “I think we’ve killed him,”‘ mimicked Pyro. ‘Priceless. Like Macaroni cheese with extra cheese sauce,’ he said, wiping the black tears away with his crooked fingers.
‘Serves you right,’ said Drake, looking at the horror on Willow’s face. ‘Looks like the Protective Spell is wearing off, I’ve always told you never to trust a djinn, they’d rob their granny for a few quid.’
Pyro jumped up from the floor, shoving his hands on his hips. ‘How dare you!’ he said puffing his chest out, ‘I would never rob my granny, not for a few quid. Macaroni cheese, maybe, but not a few quid.’
Drake rolled his eyes and turned to look at the mound, its prickly surface peppered with the dying remnants of wild grass, cornflowers and poppies. A thick screen of emerald-green yew trees surrounded it on three sides like a veil of mourning, obscuring it from vision, except on the open side where a narrow pebble pathway led to the stone-lined entrance.
Thunder exploded in the distance and silver lightning forked across the blackening sky. A black crow swooped from the gathering storm clouds and came to rest on the great stone lintel that jutted out at the top of the doorway.
‘This place is giving me the creeps,’ said Willow, wrapping her black hoodie tightly around her.
Drake could feel it too. It was like they had been transported to another time, another place totally removed from their own normal world. For a fleeting moment, he thought he could feel the souls of those that had gone before close to the surface and hear their voices whispering, calling to him, on the breeze.
The sky, pregnant with rain, exploded above them, dispersing the murmurs of the dead as it spewed out its heavy load.
The crow cawed once before it launched itself off the lintel and disappeared into the Stygian mouth of the mound.
‘Falkor can’t fit through there, you’re going to have to stay here and keep an eye on him,’ ordered Drake, tendrils of rain running down his face like fat fingers, ‘I’ll take Pyro with me.’
Willow shook her head violently. ‘No way!’ she said holding her rucksack over her head like an umbrella. ‘You need a witch for the spells, remember? Falkor can look after himself.’
‘I’m with her,’ agreed Pyro, the rain hissing and spitting as it bounced off his skin, ‘dragons can usually look after themselves. I don’t know, could be wrong. But if you want me to stay here-’
Drake turned and grabbed Pyro’s collar, ‘You want me to get Falkor to look after you, Pyro?’
Pyro raised his knotty hands in the air, ‘No, no, I’m fine. I’d rather come with you. Anyways, I don’t fancy being turned into dragon toast today, thank you,’ he said, as Drake began to push him roughly towards the entrance.
‘Who’s gonna watch your back?’ asked Willow, chasing after Drake and Pyro.
Drake snorted. ‘I think I can look after myself, thanks.’
‘I think he can,’ said Pyro, as Drake dropped him unceremoniously by the entrance.
‘Will you shut up!’ snapped Drake.
‘Only trying to help,’ said Pyro, trying to peel his wet shirt from his skin.
Drake studied the entrance of the mound; it looked strange, unlike anything he had ever seen before. It was darkness, but thicker, as though you could grab it in your hands. He reached out to touch it, but his hands couldn’t penetrate the black. It was as if the dark were like a concrete wall, an invisible barrier to the other realm which couldn’t be touched.
‘How’re we going to get through that?’ asked Willow, her bag still over her head as torrents of water spilt over its edges like a waterfall.
Drake spun around. ‘I’ll work it out,’ he snapped, wiping his wet black hair from his face with the sleeve of his black coat.
‘What about Pyro?’ she asked, ‘maybe he can light the way in?’
‘Who me?’ shrugged Pyro, ‘I can’t get through Stygian darkness-‘
‘Stygian what?’ asked Drake, shouting over the roar of the sheeting rain.
‘Stygian darkness. It’s a protective shield which can be used as a gateway to another realm.’
‘And you’ve known this for how long?’ asked Drake, his face turning crimson, his fists curling and uncurling into tight balls at his side.
‘So why the hell,’ spat Drake through clenched teeth, the water cascading over his body, ‘didn’t you say?’
‘Well, you told me to shut up.’
Drake huffed violently and hit his forehead with the heel of his palm.
‘Okay,’ said Willow, ‘everyone just take a deep breath. Right, Pyro, how do we get past it?’
‘The Hand of Glory.’
Drake took a deep breath and held out his hand. Without another word, Pyro reached into his pocket, took out the Hand of Glory and gave it to Drake.
‘So, how do we light it?’
‘So I can speak now?’ asked the djinn.
Drake paused and put on a fake smile. ‘Yes. So?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘It’s okay,’ said Willow, ‘I bet there’s a spell on that parchment Alchymia gave me.’ She grabbed the scroll from her bag then handed the rucksack to Drake to hold over her whilst she unfurled it. ’Would you just look at that,’ she said, her eyes full of wonder as she took in the perfect illustration of Drake, Pyro and herself stood outside the entrance to the Underworld. ’Show us the way,’ she whispered to the scroll and black symbols began to burn upon the parchment.
‘Ah-ha,’ she said, rolling the parchment up and stuffing it under her arm. She grabbed the Hand of Glory from Drake’s other hand. ‘Okay,’ she muttered to herself, ‘You can do this.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Lichte!’ she commanded, concentrating the spell’s energy on the tiny wick at the top of the candle.
At once the candle burst into life bathing them in a gentle golden glow.
‘Impressive,’ said Pyro.
‘Now you’ve got to let me go with you. You’ll need my magick again.’
‘She’s right you know,’ said Pyro.
Drake scowled at him then grabbed the Hand of Glory from Willow. ‘Whatever,’ he said shrugging, before turning his attention to the entrance. He held the Hand of Glory up and peered into the darkness. ‘We’re going to have to crawl, the roof slopes down.’
The three of them crawled into the narrow passageway, Drake making sure that Pyro was safely sandwiched between himself and Willow to avoid any chance of him escaping. They crawled along the roughly carved slabs of rock that lined the passage. An icy breeze drifted up from within the mound, carrying with it the smell of damp earth and rotting leaves.
‘Can you see anything?’ asked Willow, her voice echoing through the tunnel.
‘Not much,’ replied Drake, ‘It seems to be going on forever. I can’t even see the end yet.’ He was grateful for the light that the Hand of Glory was providing but it was nowhere near enough to light the way ahead and the Fire Djinn was less than useless in these conditions. ‘Just keep close.’
‘Are we there yet?’ asked Pyro, his face growing paler and paler as the oxygen became thinner the farther they crawled into the tunnel.
Drake’s anger was beginning to bubble near the surface again, the urge to throttle the djinn was becoming stronger and stronger as the minutes passed. His knees were sore from the jagged stone, his hands numb from the cold. Water droplets trickled from the ground above, drip, drop, like an eerie drum and all the while the djinn was nagging him, asking him when they’d get there.
It was impossible to tell how long they had been incarcerated within its walls when Drake came to the end of the tunnel, its ragged edges coated in the golden light of the Hand of Glory; time flowed differently here, neither forwards or backwards but undulating somewhere between the two in an obscure place, neither light nor dark, dead or alive.
Drake held up the Hand of Glory, his eyes straining to make out anything beyond the end of the tunnel, but he could only make out the sea of blackness hanging there like a cloak.
Slowly he pulled his legs around so that they were in front of him, his boots scraping against the wet muddy walls of the tunnel as he did so. His head almost touched the dripping roof as he sat up and shuffled forwards, easing his legs off the edge, the light from the Hand of Glory dancing upon the wet surface of the cave but still unable to illuminate what lay ahead. Not that it mattered to Drake; this was the path he had chosen, and there was no going back now. He lowered himself gently off the edge until he felt something solid beneath his feet, a staircase of some kind, roughly hewn out of the earth.
His heart seemed to stop for a second as the call of a crow pierced through the darkness. For some reason, he found the sound oddly comforting, like a beacon in the darkness, a call waking him from the dead as his heart started beating again.
Drake moved towards the direction of the crow, stumbling slightly as his feet tried to find the edge of the steps. He descended further into the blackness, willing something, anything to appear.
‘What’s happening Drake?’ asked Willow from somewhere behind him, her voice muffled and distorted. He turned to look at her, to tell her not to worry but she’d been lost to the darkness too.
The crow called to him again and he turned to look for it, but everywhere he looked was black. He lifted his hands to his face. He could feel the waxy Hand of Glory but he couldn’t see it or his hands anymore. He looked down at his body, but that too had disappeared, gobbled up by the darkness. His mind was all that was left, but he could feel that that too was becoming weak and disorientated as the darkness played with him. For the first time, in a very long time, fear was creeping over him like a thick black fog.
It was then he saw the light. He tilted his head, his eyes narrowing as he studied the small golden nugget of light in front of him, about the size of a fire-fly. It was swaying from left to right, like a light on a ship, and it seemed to be getting bigger like it was travelling towards them at great speed. He could hear the gentle tingling of a bell in the distance and then, that was gone, swamped by the sound of an earthquake as the ground beneath them began to shake.
Suddenly the whole of the landscape opened up before them, like someone had simply pulled the cover off, allowing them to see, for the first time, the haunting beauty of the Valley of Death in all its terrifying glory: The two vast Mountain Ranges of Sorrow and Regret ran along either side of the valley, their summits shrouded in veils of thick black cloud, the Forest of Suffering lay in front of them, its gnarled trees knitted together in a dance of death and then, at the end, the great Fortress itself, black and bold against the cobalt sky.
Suddenly a movement at the bottom of the granite steps caught Drake’s eye. He spread his arms out defensively, his body poised for attack if need be.