Dragon Rider – Part 31

Dragon Rider

Chapter Thirteen Continued

Fire and Water

Drake turned his attention to the map.  He could clearly see the exit Gizmo had been talking about; it was located two floors below, on the opposite side of the boat and, luckily for them, an elevator shaft, situated just above it, would lead them straight down to it.  He spun around, the map still superimposed on his vision and headed back to Willow and Pyro.

Willow looked even worse than he felt; her eyes were heavy and she was still cradling her head in her hands.  ‘Come on,’ said Drake pulling her to her feet, ’you’ll feel better once we get outta here.’

They left the steam room and entered the gym where the man in the Bermuda shorts had another towel in his hands to put in the dirty laundry.  His eyes were black, unseeing, so they left him to it and exited into the corridor.

‘We just need to get to an elevator shaft on the opposite side of the boat,’ said Drake leading them off down the corridor.  The elevator shaft was positioned exactly as the map had shown; in a hallway by one of the ship’s many kitchens.  It looked as if the shaft was used to transport food deliveries as it was small and had a single door that dropped from the ceiling.

They all piled in and Drake pressed the large green button on the wall.  The door clattered shut behind them, enclosing them in a small steel box lit only by one sickly yellow light on the ceiling.  The elevator ground down the two floors and spewed them out into a large storage area filled with stacks of wooden boxes stamped with the cargo’s contents and origins; there were fine wines from the New World and expensive champagnes from what used to be known as France.  In the corner, puffs of smoke escaped from the chugging machine which extracted the Lethe from the Lake of Forgetfulness.  The room smelled like Pyro; petrol and gas with the hint of sweat alongside the addition of wet dog and musty cardboard.

The large service exit was located straight opposite.  Drake scanned the shadows for the operating panel, still trying to work out exactly how he was going to get them all out of the cargo hold alive.  If only there was some kind of breathing apparatus or…

Brilliant white light flooded the cargo hold as the steel doors at the side of the room were thrown open.

‘Leaving so soon?’ came the voice of a man silhouetted against the light.

‘Morpheus?’ said Drake, unable to keep the bitter sound of frustration from his voice.  Once his eyes had adjusted to the brightness he could see Morpheus was flanked by a whole army of personal guards dressed from head-to-toe in black, holding AK-47s pumped for action.

‘Did you really think you could get away that easy?  And you,’ he said turning to face Willow, ‘are a sore disappointment.  Trying to leave without saying goodbye, where are your manners?’

‘I-’

Morpheus raised his hand, dripping in platinum, to his mouth to silence her.  ‘It is too late for apologies, my dear.’  Morpheus sighed.  ‘It gives me no great pleasure to do what I must but, as you have tried to leave without payment, I must take what is owed by force.  Your dreams are what is required, alive or dead, we can extract them either way.’  He shrugged and turned to one of his guards, ‘Let him lose, come back and check on them in half an hour.’  And with that, Morpheus was gone.

‘Shit!’ exclaimed Drake, as a guard was hauled in by a three-headed black dog on a thick iron chain, his tattooed arm bulging from beneath his short-sleeved tee-shirt.  Drake was vaguely aware of Willow letting out a little squeal beside him and the sound of Pyro hyperventilating.

‘Say hello to my little friend; Cerberus,’ said the guard with a toothy grin as he unhooked the iron chain from the dog’s studded leather collar and backed quickly out of the room, the steel doors clanging shut behind him.

The dog’s black hackles were raised, his black eyes bulging with excitement as he eyeballed Drake, Pyro and Willow.  The dog’s three heads snarled, great pools of drool dribbling from the corners of curled lips.

Drake stood his ground, his fists clenching and unclenching at the side of his body.  ‘Willow, Pyro,’ he whispered through clenched teeth, ‘back up slowly, get up high, on a stack of boxes, be quick!’

Willow and Pyro scrambled up the nearest pile of boxes just as the dog lunged forward.  ‘Come on you oversized mutt!’ yelled Drake, as he darted to the left, away from Willow and Pyro.  The snarling dog followed, its black eyes locked onto him.

Drake dived over an empty crate and headed for the Lethe extractor in the corner of the room.  Cerberus bounded after him; Drake could hear it advancing upon him, its claws scratching at the wooden floor, its tail smacking into the rows of wooden boxes.  When Drake could feel the warm acrid breath of the beast, he suddenly dived to the right.  Cerberus tried to follow but its body skidded as he tried to turn, its claws failing to find grip, and it collided with a wall of boxes, which exploded, sending bottles of wine crashing to the floor.

Concentrating on a thick steel chain hanging from the ceiling, Drake ran at the port-side wall and bounced off it, throwing himself backwards and upwards to grab the chain.  He caught it and clung on tight as he flew over Cerberus’ great black heads.  As soon as his feet touched the machine he forced himself back over Cerberus’ snapping jaws until he had enough momentum to land like a cat on top of the Lethe extractor.  He let the chain go and it smashed into the side of the boat with a loud clunk.

Cerberus lunged at the extractor, his middle head just about reaching the top of the machine, his six eyes blazing with madness and fury as it kept lunging at the extractor.  Its terrifying bark ripped through the hold like thunder echoing through a mountain pass and with every attack the machine crumpled further in on itself.

Drake steadied himself on top of the swaying and creaking extractor.  He couldn’t reach the chain from where he was perched and the only other way off the machine was down, and into the jaws of Cerberus.  He looked over to Willow and Pyro, and held out his hands in supplication, hoping that for once they’d come up with the goods and get him out of this.

He could see from Willow’s expression and the movement of her lips that she was trying to cast a spell, trouble was, she didn’t have a spellbook and whatever spell she was trying from memory didn’t seem to be working.  Pyro stood at the top of his pile of boxes looking as gormless as usual, his arms outstretched in a half-hearted attempt at a shrug.  He really was going to strangle the djinn with his bare hands, if they ever got out of here alive.

Think! shrieked the voice inside Drake’s head.  I would, if I could, he shouted back.  If only that stupid dog would stop barking for one millisecond.

He banged the heel of his hand on forehead.  Damn it!  Dragons, djinns, demons; no problem.  Oversized dogs?  The Zephyr was out; it would knock everyone out and he couldn’t drag everyone to safety.  He had to get down, he had to face Cerberus somehow, he had to defeat him.

The machine groaned as it scrunched even further into itself.  And then the answer flew at him.  Three bars of purple-covered chocolate floated in front of him.  He looked over to Willow who just shrugged at him and smiled weakly.

Without a second thought, he grabbed one of the bars, ripped the foil off it and threw it to the floor.  The middle head snarled as it laid its head protectively over the bar, the other two heads snarling back in reply.  Drake unwrapped the other bars and threw them down on the floor where they were devoured by the other two heads.

Once the chocolate had been devoured the dog sat down, his thick black tail sweeping excitedly along the dusty wooden floor.  He sniffed up at Drake, its huge mouths panting excitedly.

‘Got any more?’ asked Drake.

Pyro and Willow both shrugged in reply.

Drake took a deep breath and leapt from the top of the machine, landing lightly at the side of Cerberus.  The dog collapsed onto the floor and sighed happily before rolling over, each of its long, pink, slimy tongues lolling out from the corner of his mouths.  Drake shook his head; this couldn’t be happening, right?  Things were never that easy, were they?  He leaned forward and ran his hand over the dog’s tan coarse belly fur.  He could feel the thrum of the dog’s heart in his chest and hear the contented purr as Cerberus’s eyelids drooped shut.

‘I think you can come down now,’ whispered Drake, as Cerberus began to snore like a freight train.

‘I can’t believe it ate all the chocolate,’ sighed Willow, ‘oh, it smelt so good.’

Drake stared at her with a look of disbelief.

‘What?’ she asked, shrugging, ‘I eat when I’m stressed.’

‘Don’t worry,’ said Pyro, ‘I’ll get you some tasty chocolate when we get out of here, great mounds of the best stuff you’ve ever tasted.  I know a guy, a shyster called Jack the Eye, he works for a guy, who knows a guy that drives for a guy who owns a chocolate factory.  He owes me-’

‘Pyro,’ snapped Drake, ‘not now, eh?’

‘Okay, okay.  I was just saying.’

‘We’re going to have to move him-’

‘Move him?’ asked Willow with disbelief.  ‘He probably weighs a ton, how‘re we going to do that?

‘Well, we can’t leave him to drown can we?’ snapped Drake back at her.

‘You don’t have to,’ said Pyro, grimacing as he lifted up one of the dog’s lips to reveal its yellowing, plaque encrusted teeth, ‘take him with you, set him free.’

‘What?’

Dragon Rider – Part 30

Dragon Rider

Chapter Thirteen

Fire and Water

Pyro propped Drake up as they staggered through the bar.  It was Pyro’s idea; they had to make people believe that Drake was still under the influence of Lethe, it was the only way, he argued, to get past Morpheus and all the swaying bodies.  Trouble was Drake wasn’t pretending, his head throbbed worse than usual, he was struggling to focus properly and he couldn’t contain the tremors that were erupting all over his body.

The only thing that he could hear above the thump, thump of the music, was that little voice in his head which he tried so hard to keep hidden.  It was nagging at him, asking him how he could’ve been so stupid as to believe that taking a ride on the Arcadia was going to be easy.  Look, it said, at the people, they were nothing but shadows, zombies whose eyes stared at fading memories on the edge of their consciousness, too far out of reach, lost to the Lethe.  Their features were distorted and twisted, like the Gods that kept them enslaved on the boat for all eternity.

Drake thought he could hear their cries, their pleas for mercy, for peace, mingling in with that annoying nagging voice.  How could you have fallen for it?  Free us.  Please?  Are you so consumed by the need for vengeance that you would lead Willow into a trap rather than listen to Pyro?

He felt like screaming as the voices became louder, drowning out even the sound of the music.  Faces leered at him, strangers mocked him.  Stupid boy!  Come and join us, be one of us, forget your troubles.  Drink the Lethe!

A girl in a long black dress and heavy eye make-up grabbed him and he stumbled.  ’Dance!’ she giggled as Pyro fought to keep hold of him.

‘Out of the way!’ screamed Pyro.  ‘He’s going to be sick!’

The girl didn’t seem to register what Pyro had said, her eyes were dead like nothing existed behind them, but she continued whirling across the dance floor in a Bacchanalian trance, asking people to dance.

Drake shuddered.  He could feel zombified hands grasping at his clothes, pleading with him to save them.  But he knew it was no good; they were already dead.  He closed his eyes and let Pyro lead him across the room.

As soon as they’d exited the bar area, Pyro let Drake go.  ’It’s just back there,’ he said pointing down the corridor to the back of the boat.

Drake leant his head against the wall, allowing the cold to penetrate through his skull, to dissipate the mayhem there.  He stood up and rubbed his forehead like he was trying to iron out the creases.

‘Come on!’ snapped Pyro.

‘Okay, okay,’ said Drake.  He took a deep breath and followed Pyro down the corridor, through the gym and to the steam room.

‘In here!’ hissed Pyro as a man in Bermuda shorts strolled past them with a rolled-up towel in his hands.  Drake didn’t fear being seen by the man; he was as dead as the rest of them.

Willow was slumped on a slatted wooden bench, her head squashed up against the wall, her pink hair stuck to her face.  Luckily the steam had been turned off else her make-up would’ve been running down her face with the slug trail.

Pyro sat next to her and, tilting her head back, tipped the contents of the can of pop into her mouth.  As soon as the first sip of the fizzy brown liquid had been swallowed, she opened her eyes and groaned.

‘Where am I?’ she said, slurring her words.

‘Safe,’ whispered Pyro as he stroked her back.  ‘Have some more of this,’ he said, making sure she drained every last drop from the can.

‘My head feels like it’s been used as a football.’

‘Eat this,’ said Pyro stuffing chunks of chocolate into her mouth.

‘You alright?’ asked Drake, propping himself up the wall.  He had to get a grip.

‘Yeah,’ nodded Willow, cradling her head with her hand, ‘I think so.’

Drake took a deep breath and forced himself to stand up.  ’Sit there, eat some more chocolate.  We need to you to be as alert as possible if we’re going to get off this boat alive.’  He turned and closed his eyes momentarily, allowing the dizziness to subside.  He pressed the button on the side of his watch and waited for Gizmo to answer.

‘Gizmo?’  There was no reply, just a dull buzzing of a dead line.  ‘Must be the room, I’ll go out and try, give me a mo.’  Drake stepped outside, steadied himself up the wall, and tried again.

‘Gizmo?’

After a brief pause Gizmo’s smiling face appeared before him.  ‘Hi Drake, how’s it…’ said Gizmo, pushing his glasses back up his nose and squinting, ‘oh, you look a bit rough.’

‘I’m okay,’ replied Drake, his voice calm but slightly betraying his lack of control.  But, even with his Lethe hangover, he could sense that Gizmo was more relaxed with him.  Maybe Gizmo losing Falkor had thawed him out a bit.  ’I need you to do something for me.  We’re stuck on a boat called the Arcadia, got any info on how to get off it?’

‘Can‘t you just get off the deck by the gangway?’ asked Gizmo, his usually smooth brow creased with lots of wrinkles.

‘It’s a bit more complicated than that.  Is there another way?’

‘Just a sec.’  There was silence on the line as Gizmo disappeared.  ‘Okay,’ he said reappearing a few seconds later, ‘according to this, the Arcadia was a mega-yacht owned by the Russian Billionaire Vladimir Berezovsky, hang on, no, that doesn’t make sense.  Drake?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Berezovsky drowned along with over two-hundred partygoers when it vanished in Bermuda in 2011.’  Gizmo looked up at Drake, his face draining of colour as this information slowly sunk in.  ‘Drake, where are you…exactly?’

‘Like I said, it’s complicated.  Can you find any plans?  Any info on how to get off it?’

‘Yeah, the plans are floating in cyberspace.  Hang on.  Okay, here you are; there’s a service exit on the third level below deck, at the back of the ship, port side,’ he said, as the plans of the Arcadia appeared, before Drake’s eyes, superimposed in blue upon his vision.

‘Okay, thanks,’ said Drake, cutting Gizmo off.

Dragon Rider – Part Twenty-Nine

Dragon Rider

Chapter Twelve Continued

Dreams

‘I’ said Pyro weakly as he closed his eyes and took a deep breath to try and stem the feeling of nausea, ‘am a djinn and NOT a demon!’

‘If you say so,’ said Morpheus, his arm still protectively around Willow.  ‘It doesn’t matter.  If you don’t want to ride with us that is your prerogative but I suggest you look at what you’ll have to contend with down there before you decide.  Shall we go and sort the music out?’ he said, turning to Willow.

Willow nodded and giggled like a little girl.

‘Oh, help yourself to a drink from the bar below deck,’ shouted Morpheus over his shoulder as he walked away with Willow.

‘Blackthorn, I don’t think-’

‘When are you going to get it into your thick skull that we don’t want you to think, eh Pyro?’ said Drake, tapping Pyro on the side of his head.

‘Blackthorn, think about this!’ pleaded Pyro, ‘Willow is acting bizarre, why would she just walk off with a stranger?’

‘I don’t know,’ shrugged Drake, as he strode over to the side of the boat.  ‘Maybe she’s also fed up of hanging around you.  Besides, this boat will get us to the Fortress quicker than fighting through that lot,’ he said, pointing to the ground below them.

Pyro gulped loudly as he glanced fleetingly over the side of the boat.  From this vantage point, he could see a whole menagerie of monsters lurking in the labyrinthine Forest, from a Nemean Lion and a Chimera, to a flock of Stymphalian birds feasting on the flesh of a man.  ‘I think I need to sit down,’ said Pyro, ’this is just turning into the worst day ever.’

‘Well, I’m going for a drink,’ said Drake.  He turned and walked away, leaving Pyro curled up at the side of the boat.

Drake wound his way through the mass of dancing bodies and down the short staircase at the front of the ship just as the music changed.  He smiled in approval as Skulls of Destiny’s “Trash-time Valentine” blasted from the upper deck just as he grabbed a tall glass of clear liquid from the bar.

He took a huge gulp of the soothing drink, which tasted like cotton candy, and slumped into the nearest comfy chair.  He was so damn tired.  Why couldn’t he just go to sleep, forget everything, just be normal for once?  He took another gulp of his drink.  God, it was good, but he was so sleepy.

But something didn’t feel quite right.  It was if he could feel all of his worst fears, his nightmares, closing in around him, dancing at the very edge of his consciousness.  He could almost taste Fenrik’s cigars, could hear Vigor rasping, could taste Willow’s tears, feel the pain as Falkor was ripped to pieces.  He didn’t want to close his eyes, to see the phantoms plaguing his dreams.

‘It’s okay.’

Drake’s eyes shot open.  Had he already fallen to sleep?  He looked at the pretty girl sat next to him, dressed in black with long purple hair.  He was sure she was the girl that had winked at him before, but it couldn‘t be.  He shook his head and tried to dispel the mist that was beginning to cloud his mind.

‘It’s okay,’ she repeated, ‘everyone feels like that at first.  Take another sip, it will make it better and it will all go away.’  She smiled sweetly and lifted Drake’s glass to his mouth.  ‘Go on,’ she soothed, ‘take a sip.’

Drake took another swig.  He was so sleepy…

*****

‘Blackthorn, Blackthorn!’

‘Go away!’ snapped Drake.  He didn’t want to wake up, not yet, sleeping was just too good.  It was bliss not having to think.

‘Hey Blackthorn, get up!’

‘What do you want Pyro?’ groaned Drake, not wanting to open his eyes, ‘Can’t you just leave me alone?’

‘Blackthorn, we’re in danger,’ said Pyro, shaking Drake, the sharp edge of urgency in his voice, ‘I need you to snap out of it now!’

‘Where’s the fire Pyro?  Ha!’ grinned Drake stupidly, ‘You should know, you probably started it!’

‘You’ve been drugged!  Come on!  If you stay here much longer you will forget everything.  That drink you’ve got is Lethe-’

‘Lethe?  I don’t care what it is, it’s like ambrosia for the Gods.’  Drake hiccupped, ‘I think I need another one!’

‘Blackthorn, you idiot, Lethe is the water from the lake the boat came from, the Lake of Forgetfulness-’

‘Forget about it, Pyro, chill man!’ said Drake trying to tap Pyro on the shoulder but missing.

‘DRAKE BLACKTHORN!’ screeched Pyro, ’wake up now!’  He grabbed a silver bucket of ice from the wooden bar and threw it at Drake.

‘Wow! What was that for?’ asked Drake looking down at the water dripping from his head onto his black tee-shirt and coat.

‘And you think I’m stupid.  Look, I know you don’t like me but I really need you to listen to me now, AND FOCUS!’ said Pyro, slapping Drake across the cheek.

‘Hey!’ said Drake feeling the side of his face.  He looked up at Pyro in a sulk, ‘What was that for?’

‘I‘ve been knocking around for a good few millennia, and you need to trust me when I say that, in my time, I’ve met a few shysters-’

‘Like me?’ asked Drake, thumping his chest with his hand and slumping back on his velvet-backed chair, grinning.

‘No, not like you.  I mean guys that would pull your eyes out just for the pleasure of it.  Don’t you think it was funny Willow just walking off like that?’

Drake shrugged.

‘Or that all the monsters we saw in the Forest of Suffering were all from Greek and Roman mythology?’

‘So?’

‘So, when I said I knew that guy when we came aboard, you know, Morpheus?’

‘Morpheus,’ repeated Drake, nodding.

‘Well, I do, and that DJ guy, Hypno, they’re Greek Gods, brothers from like way back in time.  They prey on abandoned souls and steal their dreams, that’s what keeps them immortal.’

Drake guffawed.  ‘What?  No!’

‘Yeah, so you can imagine how they felt when we came aboard.  Two live ones to feed off.  Your dreams would keep them going for a very long time.’

‘What about your dreams Pyro?  Do you dream in fire?’

‘Can’t feed off a djinn, we don’t dream in the same way you do.  Lucky for you too, else you’d be gone.’

‘Gone?’

Pyro nodded and run a finger across his throat.

‘Why are you dressed like a pot plant?’ asked Drake, his face screwed up in confusion as he stared at Pyro.

‘Because,’ said Pyro, closing his eyes with a sigh, ’I am trying to go incognito, so they don‘t recognise me.’

‘I don’t think it suits you, green just isn‘t your colour.’

‘Come on,’ said Pyro, grabbing Drake’s Zephyr from the floor in one hand and Drake with the other.  He propped Drake up, managed to get the Zephyr onto Drake’s back, and then dragged him across the bar and into a hallway behind it.

‘You’ve got to get a grip!’ said Pyro, looking anxiously up and down the hallway, ’If Morpheus finds us-’

Drake smiled gormlessly at Pyro and slid down onto his bottom with a thump, his Zephyr squealing in pain as it scraped off the wall.  ’I love you Pyro.’

Pyro shook his head and tutted.  ’Stay here,’ he ordered, ’and don’t move.  I need to find some Dandelion and Burdock, and chocolate, that’ll sort you out.’  Pyro took one last look at Drake, shook his head again and disappeared off down the hall.

Drake remained seated on the patterned carpet, which looked as if someone had been sick all over it, and smiled.  He felt really sleepy and really happy as he stared at the white walls.  It was like heaven; he could stay here forever, no problems.

‘Hello again!’ he said, as Pyro reappeared ten minutes later, minus the greenery, glowing slightly orange and looking rather harassed.  ‘Did you miss me?’  Drake winked and gave Pyro a toothy grin.

‘Get this down you,’ said Pyro, tipping the contents of a brown can into Drake’s mouth.

Drake took a big gulp.  ‘Pyro, what are you doing?’ snapped Drake, shoving Pyro’s arm away before clambering up from the floor.  ’God’s sake,’ he said cradling his head in his hand, ’What the hell has happened to me?’

‘Good to see you’re back to your normal “happy” self, eat this,’ replied Pyro, unwrapping the purple foil off a chocolate bar and handing it to Drake, ’Don’t thank me for saving your butt!’

Drake shrugged.  ‘Okay,’ he said.

‘Next time maybe you’ll give me a little more respect and listen.’

Drake stared at Pyro but said nothing.

‘I did warn you not to come on this boat.’

Whatever.  ‘Where’s Willow?’

‘I locked her in the steam room for safety.  It’s on this floor, at the back.’

‘Let’s go, got any more of that stuff ?’

Pyro tapped his trouser pocket.  ’Yeah, only one can and four chocolate bars so don’t take anymore Lethe.  Come on,’ he said, leading Drake down the corridor.

‘Do you know how to get off the boat?  If it’s in the air we’ve got serious problems-’

‘It’s not in the air,’ said Pyro sheepishly.

‘Good, it’ll be easier to sneak off-’

‘Or maybe not.’

‘What do you mean?’ said Drake grabbing Pyro by the collar and pulling him around to face him.  ’Pyro?’

‘Blackthorn, you’ve been out for ages.  The Arcadia is submerged in the Lake of Forgetfulness.’

‘What?’

‘We’re totally submerged,’ said Pyro, holding out his knobbly arms, big sweat patches under his armpits on either side of his blue shirt.

‘What?  We can’t be!  How the hell are we going get off?’

‘I don’t know,’ replied Pyro shrugging.  ‘And Anyways, I don’t think we’re supposed to.’

‘We’ll see about that,’ said Drake, ‘take me to Willow.’

 

 

Dragon Rider – Part Twenty-Eight

Dragon Rider

Chapter Twelve Continued

Dreams

Drake glared at Pyro and grabbed his Zephyr before he climbed out of the carriage.  Pyro and Willow followed.

‘The Fortress is that way,’ said Charon pointing across the valley, ‘Goodbye.’

‘I’m going to complain, I am, only doing half a job, ‘shouted Pyro as Charon dashed around to the front of his carriage, ‘I ask you, what is the world coming to when even the ferryman of the Underworld won’t do his job!’

‘Good day,’ said Charon already seated at the front of his carriage.  He turned to his kelpies, shouted ‘YAH!’ and they were off, thundering back to where they had just come from, ready to collect more fresh souls.

Drake slung his guitar over his back and looked down the disintegrating bridge, a thin crooked finger pointing the way to the Fortress, its iron bulk veiled by the tangled wall of miles and miles of brambles and trees.  He inwardly sighed; they hadn’t even travelled half-way to the Fortress and they’d got so many more miles to travel.  The road before them looked never-ending.  How the hell were they going to get to the Fortress now?

‘Come on,’ he said, his voice a strange mixture of anger and misery, ‘be careful where you tread, I don’t fancy going for a swim-’

‘I need a break,’ said Pyro, plonking himself down, his stubby legs hanging off the side of the bridge.

‘Pyro!’ hissed Drake through clenched teeth.

‘What?’ asked Pyro, turning to look back at Drake, ‘I need some fresh air.  If you don’t mind me saying, it was getting a little smelly in there.’

Drake glared back at him, trying to count to a hundred in his head, quickly, before he exploded.

‘Hey,’ said Willow, placing her hand gently on Drake’s arm, ‘Let’s take a few minutes and we can check out the Scroll.’

‘Okay,’ replied Drake, his hands pumping at his side as he tried not to put his hands around Pyro’s neck.

‘Show me the way,’ asked Willow, holding the Scroll of the Dead up for Drake to see.  Black symbols began to burn brightly on the brown parchment in front of them.

PLOP!

‘What does it say?’ asked Drake.

PLOP!

‘It’s saying that-’

Drake spun on his heels.  ‘Pyro?’ he screeched, as Pyro threw another fragment of the crumbling bridge into the lake.

‘Yes?’

‘What do you think you are doing?’

‘Trying to see if I can skim the water with these bits of rubble,’ said Pyro, holding up a handful of jagged pieces of the bridge in his hand.  ‘It’s supposed to be good for relieving stress,’ he said, lobbing another bit of bridge into the water.  The large fragment disappeared into the grey water with a loud plop.  ‘Doesn’t seem to be working though.  Maybe it’s my technique. I should’ve listened to my Great Aunt Gazit, she was Champion Skimmer in our village for five years in a row when I was growing up.  Mind you, that could’ve had something to do with the fact that everyone was scared of her, she had-’

‘Pyro?’

‘Yes?’

‘Shut up!’ screamed Drake.

‘Huh.  You asked me a question-’

Drake turned his back on Pyro.  ‘So what’ve you come up with?’ he asked Willow.

‘Well-’

‘Can you hear that?’ asked Pyro, his knobbly hand cupped to his ear.

‘Pyro, we’re a little busy at the moment,’ said Drake trying, for Willow’s sake, to keep his anger under control.

‘I can hear it,’ said Willow, looking up from the scroll, ‘it sounds like dance music.’

They all stood still, listening to the dull thump, thump of music coming from somewhere in front of them.

‘That can’t be right,’ said Drake, unsure of what he was hearing, ‘there’s nothing here, just the lake.’

‘Well, that’s definitely dance music,’ said Willow.

Drake looked out over the grey waters of the lake; something was stirring in its depths sending great bubbles of white water up to the surface and waves were beginning to lap against the bridge.

‘What’s going on?’ asked Pyro, jumping up from his perch on the edge of the bridge, the bottom of his brown chinos wet.

There was a huge explosion of water, about thirty metres in front of them, and a great white yacht emerged from the depths of the lake like a shark.  The vessel was enormous, probably around 100 metres in length, and great torrents of water gushed from its wooden decks as it surfaced.  Dance music blasted from the vessel as it sailed towards them.

‘Wow!  That is some boat,’ said Drake, as, within a matter of minutes, the yacht had drawn in alongside them.

‘Come aboard!’ shouted a man in a cream suit, peering from the deck as the gangway extended onto the bridge.

‘Blackthorn,’ said Pyro, tugging at Drake’s sleeve, ‘I don’t think we should.  I’ve got a bad feeling-’

Drake pulled his arm away from Pyro.  What was it with this guy?  ’Thanks, but we need to go to the Fortress,’ he shouted back to the man.

‘That’s okay, we’re heading that way.’

‘But you’re in a boat,’ said Willow, pointing from the boat to the Fortress, ‘and the Fortress is over there.  Behind a Forest.’

‘This is a special boat,’ replied the man with a huge flashy grin, beckoning for them to board, ’What harm can it do?’

‘Blackthorn, come on, let’s walk,’ said Pyro.

Pretend Pyro isn’t there before you explode, thought Drake.  He turned to Willow.  ‘Does it say anything on the Scroll?’

‘No,’ said Willow, taking a quick peek at the scroll.

‘Well then, it can’t be anything bad.  Let’s give it a go.’

‘I don’t know, maybe Pyro‘s right.’

‘Come on, surely it’s better than walking for miles across this bridge and then having to fight through that lot,’ said Drake, pointing to the Forest.  ‘It’ll be quicker.’

‘It’s a bad idea,’ said Pyro, stepping slowly backwards, away from the boat.

‘I could always knock you out with my music and drag you across,’ said Drake through clenched teeth.

‘No thanks.’

‘Come on,’ said Drake, grabbing Pyro by the collar and pushing him up the gangway, ‘you first. Oh, and Pyro, if you do one, I will personally kill you!’

‘Welcome aboard the Arcadia,’ said the man in the cream suit, as Pyro, Drake and Willow climbed aboard.

‘What is this?’ asked Willow, her mouth wide open as she marvelled at the heaving crowd, all dancing to the music being played by a DJ in baggy t-shirt and low-slung jeans, mixing it up on the decks behind the swimming pool.

‘This little thing,’ replied the man, pulling his Ray-Ban’s down his nose so that he could look over them with his pale blues eyes, that sparkled like sapphires next to his tanned skin, ‘is something I dreamt up as an alternative to that dreadful man, Charon.  So unrefined.’  He winked at Willow, ‘Just think of it as your last little bit of hedonism before you pass to the other side.’

‘Oh, we’re not dead,’ said Drake.

‘Really?’ said the man, flashing a gold tooth as a wide smile spread across his face.  ‘Let me introduce myself, I’m Morpheus’ he said, pointing to his smooth bare chest peeping out from under his suit, a chunky platinum chain sparkling against his orange-looking skin, ‘and that’s Hypno, our resident DJ.’  Morpheus looked at the platinum Daniel Roth watch on his wrist, ‘We will be ascending in a minute as we begin our journey to The Fortress, so why don’t you relax and enjoy the ride.’

‘Ascend?’ asked Pyro, holding his stomach with one hand, his mouth in the other.

‘Yes, how else did you think we were going to get there?’

Pyro turned to Drake.  ‘Did I ever mention that I’m not good with heights?’ he asked, his face had drained of colour, his skin taking on a green hue.

‘There’s everything you could desire aboard this vessel.  What’s mine is yours; the swimming pool, beauty salon for the lady, or you could try the sundeck or Jacuzzi on the upper floor,’ said Morpheus, gesturing at the deck with his jewel-encrusted hand, as the boat began to rise gently into the air like a Hover-copter.  The engine roared somewhere below deck before the boat turned smoothly in the air and began its journey south.

‘I really don’t like heights,’ said Pyro, grabbing tightly onto the nearest railing, his knuckles white.

‘We should be at our destination in about an hour, so enjoy yourselves.’

‘This is amazing,’ said Drake, smiling at a pretty dancer, dressed in a small pink top and white shorts, who had winked at him, ‘when I die I want to go like this.’

‘For sure,’ said Morpheus, grabbing a glass of clear liquid from a silver tray as a waiter, dressed head to toe in white, passed by.  ‘Madame.’ he said giving the glass to Willow.  He turned to Drake.  ‘Is this music to your liking?’

‘We’re more into alternative stuff, that kind of thing,’ said Drake.

‘No problem,’ said Morpheus.  ’Why don’t you come with me,’ he said, putting his long arm around Willow‘s shoulders, ’and we’ll sort that out.’

‘Okay,’ said Willow, after she had finished taking a sip of the clear liquid.

‘Don’t I know you?’ asked Pyro, still clinging tightly to the railing, before Morpheus could walk away.

‘I don’t think so, I don’t generally tend to hang around with demons,’ said Morpheus with a smirk.

Dragon Rider – Part Twenty-Seven

Dragon Rider

Chapter Twelve Continued

Dreams

The journey continued in silence as they passed through the Forest of Suffering with its thickets of sword-like brambles that writhed across the path like slimy wyrms and the gnarled fingers of the trees that reached up to the sun-less sky like snakes on the head of the Medusa.  Every now and again, a terrifying scream would rip through the silence of the forest, interrupting, for the briefest second, the elephant-like snores of Pyro and the intermittent rumble of his farts.

Drake’s mood was worsening with every second that passed as the coach rocked to and fro wafting the vile smell around.  How he would like to play his Zephyr and knock them all unconscious, maybe then he could finally get some peace.  But then, Pyro would still smell, he always did.

Light flooded the carriage as they emerged from the pulsating shadows of the forest.  A vast lake lay in front of them, its deep and un-naturally still water surrounded by weeping willows, their elegant branches drooping sorrowfully onto its glass-like surface.

Charon directed the coach over the long crumbling stone bridge that ran over the lake, its surface scarred with a spider’s web of deep cracks and crevices.  The wheels bounced up and down over the bumpy surface, jolting Pyro awake.

‘So,’ yawned Pyro loudly, ‘What have I missed?’  The djinn let out another blast of smelly wind.  ‘Oh, sorry,’ he said, slapping his chops and scratching at his belly.

Drake remained silent but his green eyes bored into Pyro.

‘How long have we been travelling?’ exhaled Willow, her face looking pale from holding her breath.

‘I don’t think-’

‘No, you don’t think, do you?  That’s the problem!’ snapped Drake.

‘You know Blackthorn, I’m not really feeling the love at the moment,’ replied Pyro, ‘I think you’re a bit tense, need to chill a bit.  If you don’t you’ll only end up having indigestion or worse.  Trust me, I know what I’m talking about-‘

‘Tense?’ said Drake, his hands clamped onto his legs as he tried to stop himself from exploding.  ‘Tense?  Maybe that’s because you wind me up Pyro.  I don’t like you!’

‘Oh,’ said the djinn, his bottom lip curling under, ‘if you’re going to be like that.’

‘Drake!’ said Willow, ‘You’ve hurt his feelings.’

‘It’s okay,’ said Pyro.  He turned to Drake, pulling his shoulders back.  ‘Why bring me here then?  I never asked to come.’

‘Because,’ hissed Drake, ‘you’re working for the man I hate, the man who ordered the death of my father-‘

‘Drake, you don’t know that,’ interrupted Willow, ‘not even Pyro knows who got him to steal the Hand of Glory-’

‘You’re working for him Pyro, and I want to know the minute he summons you again.’  Drake looked out of the window, ‘I hate him,’ he spat, ‘and I hate you.’

Suddenly the carriage ground to a halt, smacking Willow’s and Pyro’s head off the back of their seats.

Drake bolted upright in his seat, all hostilities momentarily forgotten.  For the moment anyway.  ‘Are we at the Fortress?’

‘No, I don’t think so,’ said Willow wiping the sleeve of her hoodie over the wet glass, ‘The Fortress is still miles away, we haven’t even crossed the bridge yet but…oh-’

Charon appeared at the carriage door, his white face screwed up in disgust.  He took out the handkerchief from his top pocket with a flourish and placed it on the silver handle of the door before slowly opening it.

‘Problem?’ asked Drake.

Charon took a deep breath and tried not to retch as he spoke.  ‘Yes, a very big problem.  I am sick of hearing you three arguing.  It’s worse than listening to the Harpies’ screeching!  And what,’ he said, his voice so high now that it was more of a whisper, ‘is that smell?’

Pyro smiled meekly and shrugged.

‘I’m warning you, I will abandon you,’ said Charon, close to hyperventilating as he heard Pyro release even more wind, ‘in the Forest.’  He paused to retch again as the smell wafted towards him before he slammed the door shut and then spun around and returned to the front of the carriage.

‘You can’t do that!’ shouted Willow, ‘the Underworld Act, remember?’

Charon gave a warning hiss.

‘What’s his problem?’ asked Pyro.  There was a long silence and then Pyro let rip again.  ‘Oops, sorry, don’t know what’s wrong with me.’

Drake took a deep breath and counted to ten.  ‘For Heaven’s sake Pyro, do you have to?’ he said through gritted teeth, ‘Can’t you control yourself for just two minutes?’

‘Oh, excuse me for breathing, have a go at the djinn why don’t you.  I’m not feeling myself at the moment, I think I’m coming down with Low Altitude sickness or something-‘

‘What?’

‘Well, it’s being underground, it’s not natural for a djinn to be so constricted and I bet there’s iron down here, no wonder my digestive system is all to pot!’

‘Pyro,’ said Drake, his teeth still tightly clamped together, ‘You’re a demon, demons are used to being underground -‘

‘I AM NOT A DEMON!’ screeched Pyro, his face blazing orange.

‘Actually Pyro, I think you’ll find djinns are a type of demon,’ interjected Willow.

‘Oh, what is this?  Gang up on Pyro day?  Are you trying to tell me what I am?  Do you think I have a personality disorder?’

‘No, but-’

‘I’m not a demon, end of,’ said Pyro folding his arms across his chest.

The coach screeched to a stop again.  Charon sprinted to the side of the carriage and wrenched the door open.  ‘OUT!’  he screeched.  ‘I’ve had enough,’ he said flinging his arms in the air, ‘of you arguing and I cannot stand that smell any longer!  Get out!’

Drake, Willow and Pyro just stared at Charon.

‘GET OUT, GET OUT!’ shouted Charon.  ‘I am not paid enough for this!  GET OUT!’

‘But you can’t,’ said Willow, ‘The-’

‘Underworld Act,’ interrupted Charon, ’I know, I’m sick of you telling me.  But, if I may draw your attention to Section 10, sub-section 5 c, Exclusions and Exceptions, it clearly states that I can throw you out of the carriage if my life is endangered or threatened.’

Willow laughed, ’Threatened?’

‘That smell,’ said Charon, his hand clamped over his nose, ’is in danger of suffocating me.  Now, GET OUT!’

Willow took the scroll out of her bag and unfurled it.  ’Game over.  He’s right.’

Charon stepped aside and motioned for them to get out quickly.

Dragon Rider – Part Twenty-Six

Dragon Rider

Chapter Twelve

Dreams

Drake rubbed his aching forehead; he felt confused and so very tired, a tiredness that was seeping into his bones.  He just wanted to be alone, to go to sleep.  ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying,’ he said.

The hooded figure stepped out from the shadows, his black cloak barely making a sound as it brushed against the cobbled floor.  ‘You must do it, you must finish it,’ he said,  pointing straight at Drake with his gloved hand, a finality in his voice that made Drake nervous.

‘Why me?’ asked Drake, wrapping his arms around his chest to protect himself from the cold, but the cold was already biting into his flesh, making his body tremble.

‘Because you are my son and you WILL avenge my death.’

‘How do I do that?’ asked Drake, the sense of foreboding seizing his heart in its icy grip making it feel like a lump of ice, cold and unmoving inside of him.

‘You know what you must do,’ said the figure coldly, as he pulled back his hood letting his shaggy black hair loose around his muscular shoulders.  ’I cannot rest until my death is avenged, Drake, and you are the only one left who can do it.’

‘I can’t…I’m not strong enough-’

‘Don’t ever say that!’ said Erick Blackthorn, his green eyes blazing with fury, ’You are a Dragon Rider,‘ he said pointing at the tattoo around his right eye and then pointing at Drake’s.

Drake could feel the swirling black of his mark burning into his skin like a scalding hot brand, the Devil’s Mark, tainting him for life.

‘You must avenge my death or I will never rest.  And neither will you: I promise you that!’

‘But-‘

‘It was Fenrik Lasko who ordered my death, son.  He stood there, smoking his putrid cigars, as his demons pulled my dragon apart, limb from limb.  He was there as the dagger was plunged through my heart, as my last breath was taken.  He is the one who took me away from you.  He is the one with blood on his hands.’  Erick Blackthorn pulled the black hood over his head and stepped backwards, disappearing into the darkness.  ’Of this, you can be sure!’

Anger ripped through Drake like a fiery tornado, shattering the ice that had crippled his heart.  ’I will, I’ll do it!’ he roared after his father.  ’I promise you I will finish it, even if it’s with my last breath!’

Drake could hear other voices emerging from the darkness, intruding whispers pulling him back from the shadows.  He could make out Willow and Pyro’s voices clearly now as he was yanked from his dreams.  He groaned silently inwards as everything came flooding back to him…Funestus, The Emerald Key, The Valley of Death…Willow…Pyro.  The enormity of it all choked him, rendered him silent, so he kept his eyes clamped shut and listened instead, as he tried to push it away and make-believe, if only for a while, that none of it was happening.

But, as they travelled onwards, the anger, re-ignited in his dreams, burned brightly inside him.  He only wanted to avenge his father’s death, how the hell had he managed to end up here?

Drake shifted in his seat; he’d got a pain in his bottom from the stiff, spring-less, seats and a throbbing head from the incessant prattling of Willow and Pyro.  ‘When are you two going to shut up?’  he snapped, as Pyro asked Willow, for what seemed like the millionth time, to show him the spell to change her nail varnish colour.  What he wouldn’t do for two minutes of quiet.

‘You awake?’ asked Willow, sarcastically.

‘Yep.’  Unfortunately.

‘Your attitudes stinks,’ said Pyro, ‘I think you should be encouraging your friend in her experiments with magick, it‘s not her fault she hasn‘t been trained.’

‘What?’  Oh, he couldn’t be bothered with them.  He slumped back into his chair, the red leather squeaking beneath him as his bottom slipped down the seat.  He huffed and stared out of the misted window.

Willow jumped around in her seat to face Drake.  She held out her hands to show him her bright purple nails.  ‘What do you think?’ she said, wiggling her fingers at him, ‘I think it’s the most delicious shade of purple I’ve ever seen.  In fact, it’s so good that I’ve turned a whole bottle of my old stuff into it.  I’ve called it Purple Passion.’

Drake shrugged, still gazing out of the window.  ‘That’ll really help us find The Emerald Key, won’t it?’ he snapped, ‘You could do that before.’

‘You really don’t know how to play nicely do you?’ said Pyro.

‘What is it with you two?  How come you’ve become best friends all of a sudden?’

‘I like to make the best out of a bad situation,’ said Pyro, ‘I mean, you dragged me here but-’

‘You’re a djinn, Pyro, you get dragged around all the time-’

‘Oh, it’s like that is it?’

‘Like what?’ asked Drake looking at Willow.

Willow shrugged, ‘Don’t get me involved, I happen to like him-’

She liked him?  A djinn that was into setting fire to things?  A djinn that worked for Fenrik?  Drake opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again.  He really couldn’t deal with them now; he was too tired, his whole body felt heavy, like it was shutting down.  He slumped back into his seat and covered his eyes with his hand.

Dragon Rider – Part Twenty-five

Dragon Rider

Chapter Eleven Continued

Escape

A pale figure stepped forward.  Drake could see his nostrils flaring as he sniffed the air like a wolf.  Behind the figure stood a white coach, the light he had seen in the darkness had been from the single gas lamp that hung from its helm.  Six pure white kelpies, horse-like creatures who could ride as fast as the wind, waited nervously at the front of the coach, their hooves clawing at the mossy floor.

‘It would appear that you are not dead,’ growled the figure, his steel coloured eyes locked onto Drake, his body stiff and unwelcoming.

Drake regarded the figure with wary eyes.  ‘No, we are very much alive,’ he replied.

The figure’s lip curled in distaste.  ‘Quite irregular, I usually only ferry dead people-‘

‘It’s okay,’ said Pyro, ‘I think I would rather walk, get a little travel sick.’  He made a vomiting gesture to underline the point.

The figure recoiled in disgust, his pale skeletal hands clutching at his chest.  ‘You have such a foul creature as a djinn with you?’

‘Yes, unfortunately,’ replied Drake as Pyro shrugged, a weak smile glancing upon his face.

The figure turned back to face Drake and bowed his head slightly, ‘I am Charon the Ferryman.  I assume you want to get to the Iron Fortress?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, I’m afraid I cannot help.  The clue is in my Job Description.’ said Charon, a slight curl on his lips.  ’I ferry DEAD people,’ he continued, speaking as if to a two-year-old.  He spun on his heels, the tails of his white coat splaying around him, and made to leave.

‘Excuse me!’ said Willow, flapping the scroll in the air to get Charon’s attention, ‘Excuse me!’

Charon turned to look back over his shoulder at Willow.  ‘Yes?’

‘Sorry, hi,’ said Willow offering her hand, ‘my name’s Willow-’

‘Get on with it!’  hissed Charon, ‘I’m very busy, you know.’  He spun around.  ‘Do you know how many wars are on at the moment?’

‘No,’ Willow shook her head, ‘sorry.  But erm, that doesn’t matter because actually, if you read Section 7, sub-section 1 a, of the Underworld Act, 1200 B.C, you can ferry people who are alive through the Valley of Death, as long as they satisfy certain requirements.’

‘What?’ screeched Charon.

‘What are you talking about?’ asked Drake.

‘Look it says here,’ said Willow, pointing at the Scroll of the Dead, ’You need a Totenpasse, such as The Scroll of the Dead-’

‘A what?’ asked Drake, unable to read any of the strange black symbols which had appeared on the scroll.

‘A Totenpasse, a Passport to be shown in the Underworld,’ she turned back to Charon flapping the Scroll of the Dead in his face before beginning to read from it again, ‘a valid reason for visiting-’

‘A valid reason?’ said Charon, his face screwed up like he was chewing a wasp, ’What valid reason could you possibly have?’

‘Our lives are in Mortal Peril,’ replied Willow, pointing at the words “Mortal Peril” in the text of the Underworld Act which had magickally appeared upon the scroll, ’back in the Land of the Living.  Oh, and you need to have a witch present.  That would be me.’

‘You, a witch?’ snorted Charon.

‘Yes,’ said Willow putting her hands on her hips, her face lifted slightly in a “come on then, let’s argue” kind of way.

Charon looked as if the anger in his body was about to explode, and, despite how pale he was, his face was beginning to glow red.  He turned and walked over to his carriage.  ‘Get in!’ he hissed.

The three of them ran down the granite steps not wanting to wait a minute longer in case Charon found a way to change his mind.  At the bottom the earth was spongy, its surface peppered with a dazzling array of precious stones and minerals.  Huge diamonds, the size of footballs, sat alongside boulders of vivid blue azurite and chunks of violet amethysts.

Drake tapped Pyro on the head as the djinn bent down to pluck a diamond, the size of a tennis ball, from the floor.  ‘Leave it,’ he snapped.

‘You can’t blame a djinn for trying,’ said Pyro.

‘Exactly why did I bring you?’ asked Drake more to himself than Pyro.

‘I don’t know, you didn’t say,’ shrugged Pyro, ‘but I would take a guess that you find me scintillating company and probably would miss me if I wasn’t here.’  A huge smile spread across the djinn’s face.

‘Yeah, whatever,’ said Drake opening the coach door.  He grabbed the djinn by the collar and threw him roughly into the coach.

‘He’s a bit lacking in personality isn’t he?’ said Pyro, as he jumped up and down on one of the red leather seats to check out the springs before he made himself comfortable.

‘Who?’ asked Willow turning around to face Pyro, her leg tucked under her other one.

‘Charon,’ whispered Pyro, pointing to the front of the carriage.

‘Well, he is the bloke that ferries dead people to the Iron Fortress,’ said Willow.

‘Willow, will you stop encouraging him,’ said Drake looking out of the carriage windows at the forest of yew, willow and oak trees looming in front of them, their branches twisted in a macabre embrace, an impenetrable barrier, like soldiers guarding the Fortress, where no branches moved and no leaves stirred.

As the carriage neared the Forest the trees closest to them were pulling their ancient roots out from the earth and were shuffling aside to create a small space just wide enough for the carriage and horses.

‘YAH!’ shouted Charon and the kelpies began their long trek through the Forest of Suffering.