They drove closer until they could see Hermes. He was sitting in front of the gaping mouth of a cave, on a lichen-covered boulder under the leafy canopy of a Fig tree.
They jumped from the cart and walked over to where he was sitting. Hermes was muttering to himself whilst writing notes on a piece of yellowing papyrus. ‘That’s it!’ he said, tapping his reed pen against his bright red lips, ‘If I multiply the quantity of lead by four and then reduce the amount of sulphur before I distil the mixture…it might just work…’
‘Er…hello’ said Willow, ‘are you Hermes, Hermes Trismegistus?’
The old man looked up, ‘Yes, Yes I am,’ he beamed, pushing his half-moon spectacles back up his crooked nose.
‘You’re Hermes?’ asked Drake, eyeing Hermes suspiciously. He took a long step backwards as the smell of Retsina floated towards him from Hermes’ direction.
‘Yes,’ said Hermes pulling his pink toga back onto his bony shoulder. ‘Can I help you? Only I’m just in the middle of something-’
‘Yeah,’ said Pyro, ‘looks like it.’ He turned to Willow and tapped the side of his head, ‘Cuckoo,’ he muttered under his breath.
‘Sorry,’ said Drake taking in the white make-up that adorned Hermes’ face and the two pink rouge circles that smothered his cheeks, ‘it’s just you don’t look-’
‘What this?’ asked Hermes gesturing to his made-up face and then to his pink toga. ‘Had a bit of an accident old boy. I was trying to discover my feminine side whilst trying to combine the Spirit of Mercury with the Spirit of Sulphur, tricky business, very smelly,’ he said grimacing, ‘had the potential from the off to be very messy but, still, one has to push the boundaries. It was something that I had read about in The Emerald Key.’
Drake’s eyes widened ‘The Emerald Key?’
Hermes coughed and continued, ‘Anyway, to marry the two elements together,’ he said, resting his pen and papyrus on his bony legs before clasping his hands together, ‘I had to do it in the presence of a man and a woman. I hadn’t a woman to hand so I tried to experiment, but it didn’t go quite to plan, the whole thing exploded.’
‘You blew yourself up whilst dressed as a woman?’ asked Willow shaking her head.
‘Well, it wasn’t the outcome that I had intended. No. But stiff upper lip and all that, you’ve just got to get on with it and make the most of it, haven’t you? A couple of the girls here have been showing me how to achieve different effects. I’m going for the Geisha look at the moment,’ he said, pointing to his face and pouting.
Willow nodded her head in approval. ‘Yeah, you’ve definitely achieved the look, it suits you.’
‘Well, thank you. Oh, how rude,’ said Hermes, hitting his bald spot with the heel of his hand, ‘I haven’t asked you your names, you must excuse me.’
‘I’m Willow, Willow Ravenwood and this,’ she said, pointing towards Drake, ‘is Drake Blackthorn and this is Pyro.’
Pyro smiled at Hermes and bowed.
Hermes smiled back and extended his hand. ‘Pleased to meet you Pyro, and you Willow.’
Willow took his cold hand and shook it carefully, not wanting to break him.
‘Oh my, what a pretty colour,’ cooed Hermes holding up Willow’s hand to his face.
‘Thanks, it’s called Purple Passion. I invented it myself.’
‘Oh, it’s beautiful, so glossy, I’ve never seen such a wonderful colour.’
Drake rolled his eyes. ‘Yeah, I’m sure it’s a very nice colour, very…purple…but we really need to ask you about the Key.’
Hermes dropped Willow’s hand. ‘The Key? No,’ he said shaking his head, ‘never heard of it, old boy.’ He turned his attention back to the papyrus, ‘Now if you’ll excuse me-’
‘But you’ve just said that you read about your experiment in The Key.’
Willow glared at Drake before turning her attention back to Hermes. ‘Sorry about Drake, he can be a bit…direct sometimes. Look, I’m not going to lie to you; we need to find that book, but-‘
Hermes shrugged, ‘I can’t help you, I haven’t got the foggiest idea what you are talking about -‘
‘But I think you do. If we don’t find it a lot of small children are going to lose their home, they’ll be thrown out onto the streets, alone…hungry…with no one-’
‘Stop! Stop!’ said Hermes, flinging his arms in the air as if he were squatting a fly. ‘I know about The Emerald Key, yes, but I still can’t tell you where it is.’
‘But think of the children-’
‘I cannot reveal the location of The Book; I have sworn to protect it with my life,’ said Hermes, pounding his chest with his hand so hard that Drake thought he was about to break.
Pyro huffed, ‘But you’re already dead so what difference does that make?’
‘All the difference, thank you.’ Hermes pretended to lock his lips and then throw away the key.
‘There’s somebody else after it, you know, and he won’t stop until he gets it. He’s the reason most of these kids haven’t got families. We have to stop him. We have to find that book first,’ said Willow.
Hermes scoffed. ‘That won’t happen; it’s very well protected.’
‘You don’t know these people, they have all kinds of Unmentionable Magick at their disposal-’
‘Fenrik Lasko, the man after The Book, he ordered his demons to murder my father. He was the one that sat smoking cigars whilst my father and his dragon were ripped to pieces.’ Drake crouched down in front of Hermes. ‘My father’s body was never found, but the rest of the stuff, the dragon’s body parts,’ Drake’s voice was now barely a whisper, ‘were sold to the highest bidder.’ He turned to look at Hermes; fire and fury blazing in his eyes, ‘Can you imagine what he could do with The Emerald Key?’
Pyro pulled a handkerchief, the size of a table cloth, out of his pocket and blew his nose. ‘Sorry,’ he blubbed, ‘I get very emotional when I hear real-life stories. I spend a fortune on those weekly magazines.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Hermes shrugged, and his toga fell off his shoulder again, ‘but I cannot help you-’
‘You can’t even give us a clue?’ pleaded Willow.
Willow sighed. She turned to look at Drake, waiting for the angry exchange.
‘What if we were to give you something in return, something unique, something that the girls in here would love?’ asked Drake, as he stood up. The fire inside him had, for the moment, gone out. They’d come too far for him to ruin it now; he could feel how close they were to getting The Key. This better work, he thought.
Willow turned to Drake, her brow riddled with creases.
‘No,’ said Hermes pushing his glasses back up his crooked nose.
‘Not even for Willow’s Purple Passion nail varnish?’ asked Drake.
‘Go on Willow show him your wonderful nail varnish,’ said Pyro stuffing his handkerchief back into his pocket, ’I told you it was amazing.’
Willow slipped off her rucksack and pulled out her pink sequined make-up bag. ‘Look,’ she said holding up the small bottle containing the shimmering purple varnish.
‘It is an amazing colour,’ said Hermes adoringly.
‘You could have all the make-up if you want.’ Drake let the suggestion dangle in the air. It was like he had always thought; everyone had their price.
‘What?’ asked Willow horrified, ‘all of it?’
Hermes’ eyes shifted from the pink make-up bag to Drake and back again.
Drake gave Willow a sharp nudge. ‘You can replace it when we get back,’ he hissed.
Willow huffed, ‘Okay.’ She opened the bag and flashed the contents at Hermes.
‘Oh, it smells so delicious…mmm…what is that smell?’
‘That’s the strawberry lip-gloss, and this,’ said Willow, finally warming to the bribery as she pulled out a long blue container, ‘is the best no-smudge eyeliner you can get. The technology used in make-up these days is amazing. Everyone here will be dying to try it out.’
Willow placed the open make-up bag into Hermes’ hands. ‘Oh…oh…I shouldn’t but…’ said Hermes, gazing lovingly at the bag. He raised his hand in the air, like a child with a bag of sweets, trying to decide where to start first. ‘The Book’s in there,’ he said, giving a sharp flick with his head whilst not taking his eyes off the make-up. ‘The cave behind me. But you still won’t be able to get it.’
‘What?’ screeched Willow, ‘I give you all my make-up and we don’t even get The Book?’
Hermes just shrugged.
‘Never mind that, Look!’ Drake pointed at the hourglass that Willow was still clutching in her hand. Only a small amount of the silver liquid remained at the top of it. ‘I think we’d better go, thanks, Hermes.’ But Hermes was too busy applying a violet lip gloss to his frail white lips.