Dragon Rider – Part 37

Dragon Rider

Chapter Sixteen

The Iron Fortress

As soon as Drake, Willow and Pyro slipped through the crack in the door they were assaulted by a riot of colour and noise.  They had entered a marketplace, like an Arabian bazaar, the air heavy with the smell of apples, cinnamon and cloves.

Around them, ramshackle houses, made from corrugated iron and cardboard, were crammed haphazardly in between stalls and carts overflowing with bright cloth, exotic spices and grave goods which could be upgraded or exchanged for gold.

In amongst the crowd, brightly cloaked hawkers peddled amulets and talismans whilst a mysterious looking man, wearing a bright red turban, charmed a Cobra out of a wicker basket.

In the distance, separated from the market by a great iron wall, the Fortress loomed like an all-seeing eye.

A small Turkish man, dressed in a cream suit with a crimson fedora perched on top of his head, sprang out in front of them.  ‘Can I interest you a soothing tea before you enter?’  Drake and Willow shook their heads.

Pyro nodded enthusiastically.  ‘Is that apple tea?’

The Turkish man nodded.  ‘Yes, it is the finest.  Come, sit down, enjoy,’ he said, beckoning to Pyro, as he produced a small glass of brown liquid on a delicately engraved silver saucer.

‘I haven’t had apple tea for, well, I think the last time was in 756 A.D.’

‘Pyro,’ snapped Drake through clenched teeth, ‘what are you doing?’

‘Can’t a djinn have a drink now?’

‘Not when we need to hurry up,’ said Drake, grabbing Pyro by the scruff of his neck, ‘now come on!’

Pyro crossed his arms over his chest and scowled as Drake dragged him through the crowd.

‘Special Scroll of Dispensation, Sir?’ asked a balding man with an English accent and horn-rimmed glasses.

‘Er, no,’ said Drake, pushing the guy aside as he searched the heaving crowd for Arthur Tinks, the man who Alchymia had told him to give the amulet to.  How he was going to do that, when he didn’t have a clue what Arthur looked like, or where he would be, was beyond Drake.  It was like looking for a dragon’s tooth in the ocean.

‘Got something for me?’ asked a grubby man in an oversized sheepskin coat.

‘What?’ asked Drake trying to push the guy off his arm as he continued to search the crowd.

‘Alchymia told me to look for you, well, a kid with a funny mark on his face anyway, said you’d got something I‘d be very interested in,’ said the man eyeing his surroundings suspiciously.

Drake looked at the man, his face askew, and crumpled with confusion.  ‘Arthur Tinks?’ he asked, unsure whether he was surprised or horrified to learn that Alchymia knew such a man.

‘That’s me; Arthur Tinks is the name, trading tat, trinkets and totally unusable objects is the game.  So?’

‘Oh yeah,’ said Drake, pulling out the amulet and removing it from his neck, ‘this.’

‘Be careful!’ said Arthur Tinks taking the amulet in his filthy hands and cradling it to his chest as he looked around, ‘you don’t know who could be watching.’  Arthur Tinks looked at the amulet in his hand and nodded his head in appreciation.  ‘A Blood of Isis amulet, very rare, only a few in existence.  It’s heavy,’ he said, as he jangled the necklace about, ‘seems genuine.’  He tested the red body of the amulet with his teeth.  ’Mmmm, like it, can swap it for two genuine Bowlex watches,’ he said, opening the left-hand side of his coat to reveal gold and silver watches, diamond necklaces and other more bizarre items such as mini skulls, bejewelled daggers and various coloured bottles lining the fluffy inside of his coat.  ’Don’t like the Bowlex?  Okay, how about this necklace?’ he said, pulling out a diamond necklace, with a small vial dangling from it that shimmered with all of the colours of the rainbow.

‘Ooh, that’s nice,’ said Pyro, the rainbow colours dancing across his brown face.

‘That’s an actual fragment of Freya’s Rainbow necklace, makes the wearer attractive to any member of the opposite sex.’

‘And that?’ asked Pyro, pointing to a jam jar containing a single black flame.

‘Can’t let you have that I’m afraid, it’s very dark, Alchymia would never forgive me if I let you have that, and it’s reserved anyway.’

‘Okay,’ shrugged Pyro.

‘What’s that?’ asked Willow, pointing a purple nail at a badly singed leather book.

‘Ah, nice item, a Book of Shadows, a member of the Venetian Inquisition swapped it for a Dispensation Scroll when he passed through here,’ he lifted his hand to his face and spoke, in a whisper, from behind it, ‘didn’t want to be seen with it when he passed to the other side, you know.’  Then he winked at Willow as if they’d shared some great secret together.

‘What was he doing with a spellbook?’ she asked.

‘It killed the poor guy, or should I say, the witch it belonged to did.  Er…what was her name?  That’s it, Laura Malipero.  If I remember correctly she’d cursed it, so when the guy opened it, it burst into flames and killed him, burnt chunks of the book in the process too, but there’s still loads of useable spells in there.’

‘And what’s that?’ asked Pyro, pulling a leather strap from Arthur Tink’s coat.  An ampoule of glistening clear liquid hung loosely from it.

‘Mermaid’s tears,’ replied Arthur Tinks.

‘Is that what they look like?  So pretty.  Did you know that one drop of this stuff can cure all kinds of wounds and maladies?’ said Pyro, dangling the ampoule in front of his eyes, mesmerised.  ’I’ve always wanted to see a mermaid,’ he said distractedly.

‘How about two tickets to the Blue Pearl?’ asked Drake.

‘The Blue Pearl, eh?’ said Arthur Tinks, with another wink of his eye.

‘Yeah, the gold ones if you have them.’

‘It just so happens that I’ve got two spare,’ he said, reaching into the other side of his coat.  He took out two golden tickets, emblazoned with the words “Free Entry to the Blue Pearl – Free beer upon entry before 10 pm” and handed them to Drake.  ’I was keeping them for someone else but -’

‘Thanks,’ said Drake, inspecting the tickets.

‘I’m guessing they’re not for you?’ cackled Arthur.

‘Er what?  No,’ said Drake, shaking his head emphatically.  He knew by the look on Arthur’s face that he didn’t know the full story about the Blue Pearl, and, to be honest, he really didn’t want to.

‘Okay, if you say so, no business of mine anyway.  Doesn’t seem like a fair swap to me though,’ said Arthur Tinks, scratching his bald head with dirty fingernails, ‘don’t know what’s happening to me.  The amulet’s worth more than two tickets so I can let you have the mermaid’s tears and-’

‘The spellbook?’ asked Willow, her one eyebrow perched high on her face, ‘Please?  I’ve never had a spellbook…’

Arthur Tinks looked at Drake who just shrugged.

‘Okay,’ replied Arthur, handing the mermaid’s tears to Pyro and then the spellbook to Willow.

‘Thanks,’ said Willow taking the book and stuffing it into her rucksack.

‘You’ll need to go over there,’ said Arthur, pointing at a large gateway guarded by two equally large trolls, ‘if you want to get into The Processing Centre.’

‘Hang on a minute,’ said Pyro, his face twisted in confusion as he looked at the mermaid’s Tears which were fizzing and bubbling, ‘these are boiling!  I can’t use them if they all boil away!’

‘You’re a fire-djinn aren’t you?’ said Arthur.  ‘Water and fire don’t mix, remember?’

‘I want an exchange!’ said Pyro stamping his foot on the floor.

‘Sorry, a deal’s a deal,’ said Arthur Tinks shrugging.  And, without another word, he disappeared off into the crowds.

‘Come on, let’s get out of here,’ said Drake.

Dragon Rider – Part 36

Dragon Rider

Chapter Fifteen Continued

Souls and Shadows

 

Drake looked at the spirit and a smirk played across his lips, ’If this works, Pyro’s right, you are a genius!’

‘So how do we do this?’ asked Willow, a wide smile on her face.

‘Yeah, I mean, if it’s a raging tornado how are we supposed to stay, you know, alive?’ asked Pyro, his face now looking panic-stricken as he began to consider what they were about to do.

‘That’s the tricky bit-’

‘We can dive under there,’ said Willow pointing to a cleft in the earth underneath the roots of a large de-robed oak tree.

‘Well, it’s better than nothing,’ shrugged Drake,

Quickly they clambered into the small hole at the foot of the tree, along with the rotting leaves, the scuttling centipedes, gigantic woodlice and the petrifying bones of the dead.

‘Are you sure about this?’ asked Willow, kicking half a skull away with her pump.

‘Not really, but what else have we got?  Just do it.’

‘Sorry,’ whispered Willow to the green spirit who was banging its fists on the inside of the glass shouting ‘Let me out!’  Holding it firmly in her hands she gave the jar a good shake.

The spirit screamed and flew into a rage, whirring around the jar and expanding in size.  The jar shook violently in Willow’s hands as the spirit turned from green to yellow, to red, to deep blue and then it settled on the colour of the stormiest sky.  Willow managed to hold it firm until she heard the glass crack then she threw it to the ground shouting at Drake and Pyro to hold on tight.

The sound of smashing glass was completely drowned out by the Rarog’s roar, it was like a giant engine beginning to power up as it transformed into a black churning wind, a terrifying monster of Vengeance.

Drake’s eyes were forced shut as dust and bone were whipped up around him.  Somewhere above him, there was a crack as a branch was wrenched away from its trunk.  Willow grabbed onto his arm just as the storm hit them fully, lashing at them like a thousand whips.  He could hear nothing but the rage of the beast as dust and debris were hurled at the prison-like structure that had so far protected them, but he could not predict how long they could withstand the power of the storm.

The Rarog expanded rapidly, gathering trees, branches and bones as it devoured the Land of the Dead.  Drake felt it bite at the roots of the oak and he could hear the cracks as it tore huge pieces of wood from around them.  It seemed like an eternity as they sat, huddled together, under the finger-like roots of the great oak as the storm raged around them.  The Rarog continued its roaring rampage of vengeance until, gradually, it moved off into the distance accompanied by a chorus of agonised screams as it gorged itself on the Souls of the Damned.

They waited anxiously in their prison until they could hear the storm no more, except for the murmurs of it remaining in the air, like memories.  Only then did they feel safe to emerge from their refuge.

‘Geez, that was windier than me!’ exclaimed Pyro dragging himself off the floor, ‘and that’s saying something.  Yez alright?’ he said, turning to Willow.

Willow nodded.  ’I think so,’ she said, removing a twig from her pink hair.

‘Drake?’ asked Pyro.

‘Yeah, nothing ripped off anyway.’

‘So I guess we should bust a move before it comes back, eh?  Don’t fancy being here when it returns,’ said Pyro grimacing.  ‘Too much wind can kill you, you know.  I used to know a guy, who knew a guy, who died from eating too many sprouts. Tragic it was, the way he went.’

Drake could see the black funnel of the tornado cutting a path through the Forest of Suffering, towards the Sorrow Mountains, its lower half surrounded by an almost translucent maelstrom of dust, debris, trees and bones.  The Iron fortress was clearly visible now, a few miles away at the end of the Valley of Death, behind a rolling expanse of grassland, The Burning Fields, peppered with bubbling and spitting pools of mud that smelt like rotten eggs.

The journey through the Burning Fields was swift and all too soon they were confronted by the great wooden doors of the Iron Fortress.  Drake knew that nothing could prepare them for what lay ahead, for now, they were to meet Death itself.

The great doors slowly creaked open.

They had made it to the Fortress.  Quickly they slipped through the crack in the doorway and into the unknown realm beyond.

 

Dragon Rider – Part 35

Dragon Rider

Chapter Fifteen Continued

Souls and Shadows

Drake had walked and walked.  All the darkness looked the same to him; deep, forbidding, hopeless.  Every tree looked like the last; twisted, warped and damaged, just like his soul.  Like the souls of the Damned that were converging upon him, a pack of wolves stalking a weak and injured animal.

He slumped to the ground, his heart like a lump of lead in his chest.  He could no longer feel his legs, they were numb and dead like the rest of him.

‘So, this is how it ends?’ he asked the darkness.

And the darkness replied; ‘Come to us.’

Drake could feel his heart gradually slowing down.  ‘No,’ he replied weakly.

‘You’ll never escape,’ sang the bitter-sweet darkness, like honey laced with a huge portion of cyanide.  ‘You belong with us.’

‘No.’ His voice was barely more than a whisper.

‘Drake!  Drake!’

Drake’s head snapped up as he heard his father’s voice.  He stared into the darkness, his eyes frantically searching for his father.  ‘Dad?’

‘Come on Drake, come and join us.’

‘I…’  His heart felt like it had been hacked in two.  What it would be like to see his father, to hold him!  Tears gushed from his eyes as he ached with longing.  How things could have been different!  A huge wave of melancholia crashed over him, consumed him, took his breath away like he was drowning in a deep black sea of sadness.

He wanted to go to that dark place, to the place where his father was; so he closed his eyes, surrendered himself, and let the darkness take him.

But in that dark he could feel a warmth pressing against his chest, pulsating like the heart pumping blood around his body.  With his eyes still closed, his trembling hands grappled at his chest and found a small angel, the Blood of Isis amulet that Alchymia had given him.  He smiled; what a waste it had been to accept such a precious gift!

‘Drake?’

Alchymia?  What a strange person to think of just before he was going to die.

‘Drake, open your eyes.’

‘I can’t,’ he whispered.  His eyes were just too heavy, broke like the rest of him.  He felt something cold grasp his hand but it was familiar and oddly comforting as it touched his skin.  Like an angel, he thought, taking him to the other side properly, not like the illegal immigrant he was now.  He smiled and tears welled in his eyes as the angel began to warm him from the inside out.  His pain was nearly over.

But it didn’t feel like death.  He could feel life filling his veins, dissolving the desolation, melting the ice.

‘Open your eyes.’

He was confused; he knew that voice well but she wasn’t an angel taking him to meet Death.  Slowly he opened his eyes; in front of him stood an old lady dressed in black, her sunken black eyes filled with pity and love.

‘You need to fight it, Drake.  The Damned are eating at you from the inside, taking your demons, your worst nightmares and using them against you.  It will be the same for Willow and Pyro if you don’t fight it!’

But he couldn’t, how could he fight it?  His heart was too heavy, like a stone drowning in a rushing river.  He let his eyes slowly shut again.

‘Drake, I will not let you die here.  Open your eyes!’

This time a spark jolted his heart into beating.  He did as he was told and stared into those dark eyes that had already saved him once when she helped him to save Falkor, and they were now saving him again.

‘Alchymia? How?’

‘I have been watching you ever since you entered The Valley.’

Drake looked at her, his eyes full of wonder and gratitude as he started to understand.  ‘The crow?’

‘Yes.  I can only visit my sister in this form,’ she said, looking away, a slight tinge of bitterness etched into her voice, ‘or as the crow.’

Drake shook his head feebly.  ‘I-’

‘I know,’ she said placing her hand on his chest, pressing the warmth of the amulet into his skin.  ‘I did not tell you because I could not.  I should not even be here now, upsetting the balance of things, but I could not send you into the bowels of Death’s lair without some sort of real protection.  If Brimo knew I was here…’ she broke off and stroked his face with the touch of a mother nursing her newborn.  ‘We have not got much time Drake, so I need you to listen.  This Amulet is filled with the Blood of Isis, it will bring those lost back to you.  Hold it out, let it shine and they will come.’

‘But-’

‘Shush, for now, just listen,’ she said holding up her wrinkled, liver-spotted hand to silence him, ‘Once you have found your two companions tell Willow to use the stowaway in her bag to set you free.’  Alchymia saw his confusion, ‘Do not worry, she will know what you mean, trust in me.  Now, once you get through the main gates of the Fortress, you must seek out Arthur Tinks, he is an old friend of mine who deals in Antiquities.  Find him and exchange the Amulet for some Golden Blue Pearl tickets.  Drake, what did I just say?’

‘Golden tickets-’

‘Good.  You must remember that, you will need them to bribe the guards to let you through the Great Gates.  It is very important that you exchange the Amulet, do you hear me?’ she asked, a tuft of silver hair escaping from under her black headscarf.

Drake nodded feebly.

‘I must go now,’ she said, pulling him up from the ground.  ’Remember everything I have told you and whatever you do, do not let Brimo see the Amulet.’  She placed her cold hands on either side of his face and kissed the top of his head.  She stepped back and then was gone, replaced by an iridescent crow which cawed once before it took off into the dead sky.

Drake took the Amulet from around his neck and held it high in the air, but he was unsure of whether he had actually seen Alchymia or whether he was just delirious.  The Amulet pulsed in his hand and began to radiate light like a distress flare, it’s red light a beacon in the darkness.  All around him the Souls of the Damned shrieked in pain like vampires exposed to daylight, and they scuttled back into the shadows and away from the Amulet’s brilliance.

‘What the hell do you think you were doing?’ screeched Willow, as she appeared out of the darkness.  She launched herself at Drake, shoving him forwards.

‘Ow!  What was that for?’ said Drake spinning around.

‘What was that for?  What was that for?  Do you have any idea what you taking off just did to me?  Do you?’  She stood there, hands on her hips, amber eyes blazing from under a sea of pink hair.

Drake shrugged.  ’I’m sorry, it’s this place, it’s just…’  He could see her scowl even through the strange red light.

‘I mean, as soon as you took off the Hand of Glory went out, couldn’t get it to light again and I’m supposed to find you in this!’ she said, flinging her hands in the air.  ’Pyro said I should leave you-’

‘Pyro was probably right.’

‘I wouldn’t say that,’ said Pyro, the red light of the Amulet picking out the fluctuations in his skin colour, ’but what I would say is that this place is giving me the willies.  It’s messing with my head.  We need to get outta here as fast as we can.  Together.’

Drake nodded, but remained silent.  He could see the sincerity in Pyro’s eyes, hear it in his voice.  But to work with a demon?  Goddammit, they assisted Fenrik in his evil and even murdered his father on the guy’s orders!

Willow put her hands on her hips and sighed loudly.  ‘So, any idea how we get out of here?’

Drake sighed and nodded at Willow’s rucksack.  ‘Use the stowaway in there-’

‘The stowaway?  Have you lost your mind?  What are you…Oh…’ said Willow, looking away and fidgeting on the spot.

‘Willow?’ said Pyro, eyeing her suspiciously.

‘Look, I’m sorry,’ she said, shrugging before she slipped the bag off her back.  She opened it and rummaged inside.  ‘I found him at Alchymia’s; he was whirring around, stressed out,’ she said, fetching out the small glass jar with the gold, screw-top lid.  Inside, a little green spirit sat cross-legged, its back up against one side of the jar, its diamond-shaped head in its hands.  ’Meet the Rarog.’

‘Willow, I don’t think I approve of keeping spirits in jars you know,’ said Pyro, moving in closer to have a better look, ‘It’s not nice, I mean, look at the poor guy-’

‘He was distressed when I found him, I didn’t mean to keep him locked up for so long.  I just…forgot about him.  Sorry!’

Drake placed the Amulet back on his neck and strode over to Willow.  ’And this is going to help us, how exactly?’ he said, pointing at the grumpy looking spirit who was sticking his tongue out at them and making rude hand gestures.

‘Well-’ said Willow.

‘You’re a genius!’ said Pyro, his red eyes beaming.  ‘He’s a wind spirit and if we get him mad enough, he’ll turn into a raging tornado!’

Dragon Rider – Part 34

Dragon Rider

Chapter Fifteen

Souls and Shadows

 

‘What if,’ said Pyro, rubbing his neck in horror, ‘we’re actually being punished like Tantalus or Ixion?  What if we’re actually dead but we just don’t know it?’

‘What?’ asked Willow, half distracted as she fought with a bramble ensnared on her hoodie.

‘Tantalus and Ixion-’

‘Don’t tell me, from Greek mythology, right?’ said Willow, inspecting the small hole that had appeared on the arm of her hoodie.

‘Yeah,’ replied Pyro, nodding his head vigorously, ‘Tantalus had to stand in water but could never drink it, so he was eternally thirsty and Ixion, well, he was tied to a huge wheel that turned around and around and around.  Maybe we’ll be just left to wander around here for eternity, always searching for something and never quite making it, not even knowing if we’re alive or-’

‘Will you just shut up!’ snapped Drake, spinning around to face Pyro, blazing anger burning in his eyes.

‘Wow!  Who rattled your cage?’

Drake stared at Pyro, he could feel the heat rising, his anger brooding in the pit of his stomach like a snake waiting to strike.  He took a deep breath, turned around and continued on through the haunted corridors of the Forest.  Something was wrong with this place.  He could feel it.  It was unnatural, like the darkness around them that ebbed and flowed like a river, almost as if it were alive.  One minute it was twilight, the next pure black with no way of seeing through it at all, but he could feel their presence; the Souls of the Damned, their eyes staring, watching him.

A cold wind suddenly chilled his bones and he pulled his coat tightly around him but he knew it wasn’t the wind that stabbed at him.  No wind existed in this dead place.  It felt more like a thousand icy hands penetrating his skin, tearing at his heart.

Who knew how long they’d been travelling through the labyrinth of wraithlike trees, their twisted branches looming over them like giant hands waiting to grab them and gobble them up.

And who knew how long they could survive in this Godless place?

‘Got the Hand of Glory?’ asked Willow, as they paused for what seemed like the hundredth time as darkness blinded them momentarily.

‘Yeah,’ said Drake pulling it from his jacket and passing it to her.

‘Lichte,’ she commanded and the Hand of Glory sprang into life.

But the light provided no comfort for Drake; on the very edges of its existence, he thought he could just see the spectral faces of the Damned fluttering to and fro, their whispers harmonizing like a swarm of meat flies around fresh meat.

Onwards they plunged through the thickets of brambles and the warped trees, with the bones of the dead crunching under their feet.  The bitter chill swelling around them, freezing their breath as it escaped in wisps, filling their desolate hearts with ice.  But then, in the pit of his stomach, Drake could still feel the anger burning away, simmering like a furnace that was about to blow.  He could hear them whispering, hear them laughing at him.

‘You could just say thank you,’ said Pyro, cutting through the silence with a chainsaw.

‘What?’ asked Drake spinning around to face him.  Why had he brought him?  It wasn’t like he did much, except fart and whinge, in that annoying squeaky drawl of his.  Drake felt sick to the stomach to think he’d nearly felt gratitude towards him for saving them on the boat.

‘You haven’t even had the common decency to say thank you,’ said Pyro, something dangerous beginning to play across his eyes.

‘Thank you?  For what?’  No, thought Drake, looking deep into Pyro’s burning eyes, Pyro hadn’t saved them out of kindness.  No.  There was something in it for him.  And for Fenrik too?  Had to be.

‘Yez joking?’

‘No,’ said Drake, his jaw tightening with every word he spoke.  ‘You only saved us back there so we’d get out and find the Key.  What are you going to do when we find it Pyro?  Take it and give it to Fenrik?  Is that the plan?’

‘Excuse me?  You dragged me here-’

‘Convenient for you, eh?’  How he wanted to get his hands around that scrawny little neck.

‘What?’

‘You’re going to steal The Key,’ said Drake, smacking the side of his head with the heels of his hands, ‘that’s it, isn’t it?  You little-’

‘Drake! Stop!  Don’t do this,’ warned Willow, diving in between Drake and Pyro, her arms outstretched, the light from the Hand of Glory streaking across the claw-like canopy of trees.

‘What exactly is yez problem?’ asked Pyro, his orange skin pulsating with rage.  ’What exactly do yez want from me?’

Drake spat at Pyro’s feet.  ‘I want nothing from you,’ he said leaning over and glaring straight into his eyes.  He hated this djinn so much that it physically hurt inside him.

‘Good, cause yez not getting anything from me.  Yez an ungrateful piece of…’  Pyro sighed and shook his head, ‘Yez really do have a problem.’

‘At last, you’re catching on!  It’s you.  You are my problem!’

‘Me?’ asked Pyro, slapping his chest with his hand.  ‘I’m not your problem Drake.  Yez need to look in the mirror.’

‘I’m not the grubby little demon working for Fenrik!’

‘Drake, you don’t know that,’ said Willow.

‘The same grubby demon who just saved your butt!’

‘We could’ve managed-’

‘If that’s the case why bring me?  Oh, I get it, so you could use me as a punching bag.  Very impressive, must make your father so proud!’

‘Pyro, that’s enough!’ shouted Willow.

‘Oh stop press!  The hero of this story has no father, well boo-hoo!’ said Pyro flinging his arms in the air, ‘I’ll give you my shrink’s number, he’s great with nut jobs-’

‘Pyro!’

Drake grabbed Pyro by the collar, hoisted him off the floor and rammed him up the nearest tree.  ‘I ought to-’

‘Well, come on big boy, let’s do it!’ shouted Pyro, his hands flapping wildly, his body sparking like a piece of tinder.

‘Stop it!’ screamed Willow.

With a jerk of his head, Drake turned to look at Willow.  ‘Why don’t you just get lost you stupid witch!’

‘What?’ asked Willow, stepping backwards.

Drake dropped Pyro and turned to face Willow.  He could see the hurt and confusion written all over her face but still, he continued.  ‘God knows why I ever agreed to this, you’re useless, can’t even do magick properly!’

‘What?’ was all Willow could manage as she slumped against a tree.  ‘Not you Drake, I can take it from anyone but you.’  Tears began to well in the corners of her big brown eyes.

Drake huffed.  ‘Don’t cry.  Don’t you dare cry!’

Willow stood up tall, the determination not to cry clear on her face.  ‘Why did you even bother coming back?  You really don’t care about anyone but yourself, do you?’

‘I don’t need to listen to you!’ snapped Drake, turning away from her.

‘Oh, here we go.  Walk away again, it’s what you do isn’t Drake?’

Pure darkness fell on him like a stone, blasting his insides apart with its evil.  He couldn’t think, his head felt like it was going to explode.  His body was shaking, he was like a bomb on the verge of exploding and those cries of utter sadness from the depths of the darkness were really starting to drive him mad.  He stuffed his hands under his armpits and tried to keep still, to count in his head, to remember what he was doing here.  Because all he wanted to do was hit something, or someone, really hard.

He lost control, swung around and punched wildly.  He felt the jolt in his arm as he hit the unyielding trunk of an oak tree, his knuckles screamed in pain as warm blood poured from the wound.

‘Damn it!’ he hissed as he cradled his hand.

He couldn’t stay here; he could feel all those hands dragging him down, pulling him into the abyss.  He had to get away.

Without a second glance, he turned and fled into the darkness of the Forest.

Dragon Rider – Part 33

Dragon Rider

Chapter Fourteen

A Drink to the Future

Fenrik reclined on the black leather couch, under the large draped window in his office, casually reading The Gate, Devilsgate’s one and only newspaper, owned entirely, of course, by himself.  It was, after all, important that the people of the City were given information about what was going on in Devilsgate and he didn’t want the truth to confuse things for them.

‘So Funestus Black is the favourite to win at the forthcoming elections.  I would never have guessed,’ said Fenrik, straining his eyes to read the small print in the paper, his bushy eyebrows knitting together like the pelmet hanging over his window.  He leaned over and clicked on the small brass lamp that sat on the oak table next to the couch.

‘Who would have thought it, eh brother?  Regina Fludd drowning in the water bowl of her pet Chihuahua,’ said Vigor, draining the last dregs of Hell’s Tempest from his tumbler.  ‘Such a tragedy.’

‘Indeed,’ said Fenrik, cracking a smile as he looked over to Vigor, ‘Just like Funestus’ interview.  Remind me, did I give him permission to speak?’

‘No.  I don’t think so, brother.  The Rat.  Would you like me to bring him in?‘ asked Vigor, leaning forward in his seat in anticipation, his long pointy tongue running along his thin lips.

Fenrik held up his hand.  ‘Not yet.’

Vigor slumped back in his chair and sighed.  ‘Would you like another?’ he asked, shaking his empty tumbler in the air, the two small ice cubes clinking together in the bottom.

Fenrik looked over to his empty tumbler on the table, next to the lamp.  ‘Yes,’ he said, looking back to the story that had grabbed his attention.  ‘It’s just a shame that when he does win the election, he won’t be in his right mind.’

‘That is quite a shame,’ said Vigor, attempting to smile, ‘What a loss it will be to Devilsgate.’  He got up from his chair and walked over to the drinks cabinet in the corner of the room, dropping his tumbler clumsily onto its highly polished surface.  ‘But such a welcome gain for me,’ he said, picking up the silver strainer and looking at his reflection on its shiny surface.

Fenrik looked up from his paper, ‘All in good time Vigor, all in good time.’

Vigor sighed and lowered the strainer.

‘Something on your mind, Vigor?’

‘It’s just that, I was speaking to Mo Green earlier-’

‘Mo Green?’ asked Fenrik, turning his attention back to the paper.

‘Yes, the owner of Greenies, the Absinium Den on Forty-third, it seems that Funestus has been at the club a lot lately,’ said Vigor, grabbing a square decanter of deep red liquid and taking it over to Fenrik’s tumbler, along with the silver strainer.

‘And you’re worried because?’

‘Well, I need him in good health, don’t I?’ asked Vigor, as he placed the silver strainer over Fenrik’s tumbler, put three lumps of sugar on top, before pouring the deep red Hell’s Tempest over it, allowing the mixture to soak through the sugar and then into the empty tumbler below.

Fenrik looked up from his paper again and laughed heartily.  ‘Soon we will have the world at our feet, our own magick provided by The Emerald Key, no longer slaves to the demons we wield and you are worried about Funestus looking good?’

Vigor placed the decanter down on the table next to Fenrik’s tumbler.  ‘No, it’s just that I have had seventeen years of looking like someone has stretched a plastic bag over my skeleton,’ he said, taking the strainer from Fenrik’s tumbler and placing it down, ‘it would be nice to look…different.’

Fenrik folded his paper and placed it on his lap.  ‘I know,’ he said looking up at Vigor and taking the tumbler full of Hell’s Tempest from him.  ‘All in good time.  Soon the whole city will be ours to command, and when we rid it of the human filth that is clogging up our streets, it will be you, my dear brother, that will be at the helm, steering the ship through the waters, purifying it’.

Vigor filled up his own tumbler with the fiery red liquid then hoisted it into the air.  ‘To the future!’

‘To the future!’ said Fenrik.

‘Are you still thinking of using the Fiery-death?’ asked Vigor, before taking a sip from his tumbler.

‘Yes,’ said Fenrik resting the hand holding the glass of Tempest on his leg, ‘from what I have read in my Grimoire, The Emerald Key is the only place to contain the beast’s real name.  Once we have the complete book, the City will be ours.’

‘It is such an evil plan!’ said Vigor, slipping back into his seat.

Fenrik smiled, ‘I try.’  Fenrik took a sip of the fiery liquid before he spoke again.  ‘We need a vessel of fire in which to receive him when we conjure him from Hell.  I was thinking that Pyro would be the perfect candidate-’

‘But brother, Pyro is with the Dragon Rider, the dwarves saw him being taken hostage as the Dragon Rider fled Nowhere.’

‘That is not a problem,’ said Fenrik shrugging, ‘We will summon him when we need him-’

‘And if he dies?’

‘Vigor, you must stop worrying.  There are always other possibilities.’

‘Indeed, brother,’ said Vigor bowing his waxy head.

‘And what of the Scroll of the Dead?  Did the dwarves manage that small task?’

Vigor tried to shake his head but the skin on his neck was too tight, so all that he could manage was small jerky movements like his neck was encased in a collar.  ‘The witch Alchymia managed to sneak it out of her tower.  It would seem that she gave it to the Dragon Rider.’

‘So the dwarves let the Dragon Rider get away with the Scroll and the Fire-djinn?’

‘Yes, brother.’

Fenrik sighed and held up his tumbler.  He twisted it in his hand so that the Hell’s Tempest swirled around its edges like a whirlpool, the ice cubes clattering against the glass.  He stared at the red liquid for a moment before he finally spoke.  ‘The dwarves are being even more incompetent than usual.  Make sure you illustrate my displeasure at this.’

Vigor nodded.  ‘But I didn’t think you were worried about them losing The Hand of Glory or  Scroll of the Dead?’

Fenrik shot Vigor a look.  ‘No, I’m not, but we cannot have them thinking that incompetence will go unpunished, can we?’ he snapped.

‘Oh, no brother!’ said Vigor shaking his head, and averting his gaze to the parquet floor.  ‘I didn’t mean to question you-’

‘Good.  We must keep our troops in line, keep them on their toes.  I was thinking maybe you could torture the little one or something.’

Vigor looked back to his brother, a small grin on his face.  ‘Elvis?’ he asked, clapping his hands with glee.

‘Yes, if you like.  Just pick one and hammer home the point.’

‘Oh yes, brother!’

‘Just don’t get any blood on the carpets, I’ve only just had them cleaned,’ said Fenrik taking another long swig of Tempest.

 

Dragon Rider – Part 32

Dragon Rider

Chapter Thirteen Continued

Fire and Water

‘Set him free.  Who knows how long he’s been imprisoned here, poor guy, no wonder he’s got anger issues.’

‘Pyro,’ said Drake, slapping the djinn on the top of the head, ’that is probably the first slightly helpful thing you’ve said since I’ve known you.  If we hold on tight when the water comes in, he can take us to the surface.’  Drake ran over to the portable control panel, grabbed it and dragged it over to the dog.  ‘Come on then,’ he said as he wound his hand through the dog’s thick collar, ‘because when that door goes-’

‘Okay, okay,’ replied Willow climbing beside him.

‘Pyro, we haven’t got all day-’

‘I’m not going; I’m too young to die.  Did I ever tell you that my uncle Abraxas lived until he was three thousand five hundred and ninety-nine?  I always thought that was a good innings and anyways, the thought of all that water is making me feel-’

‘What?’ screeched Drake and Willow together.

‘It’s not a problem, I’ll go through the other doors, keep dry and just wait it out, well, until someone summons me.’

‘No way!’ said Drake jumping from the dog and grabbing Pyro by the scruff of his neck.  ‘I brought you here, I’ll decide when you get left behind.  Now hold on!’

‘But I-’

‘Pyro,’ said Drake, through clenched teeth, ‘you can get under my coat.  I might not like you but I’m not going to let you die.  Not yet anyway.’  Drake pushed the djinn down onto the dog and jumped up beside him.  He wrapped his coat over Pyro, ‘Hold on tight.  Okay, one…two…’

‘Drake,’ squealed Pyro, ‘I don’t do water!’

‘Three!’ shouted Drake, stamping on the control panel with his foot.

Almost immediately, an alarm blasted through the cargo hold and four conical lights began to flash orange as the doors slowly ground open.  The cold dark water of the lake trickled through slowly at first and then, with an almighty boom, the doors buckled under the pressure and water thundered through the opening like a waterfall crashing through rocks.

Cerberus woke abruptly and leapt to his feet, but the sheer ferocity of the water knocked his legs from underneath him.  Drake could feel the beast’s muscles pumping as it tried to fight the force of the water, but it was too powerful and Cerberus was sucked out of the hole and into the icy-cold darkness of the lake.

It took all of Drake’s strength to hold on as the dog powered through the water, he could feel his lungs burning as he fought the desire to breathe.  Everything was black around him, he could feel the pressure of the water trying to trick him into breathing.  He could feel Cerberus’ heart pounding as the dog fought for his life in the cold desolate Lake of Forgetfulness and the faint pulsing of Pyro’s heart as his life force began to melt away.  And as every second passed it was getting weaker.

No!  Pyro seemed to suddenly fall limp and his hands loosened on the dog’s collar.  Drake tried to reach out but Cerberus broke the surface of the water and he was thrown from the dog’s body.  His burning lungs drunk in the sweet-smelling air as he thrashed about and tried to keep afloat.

Drake could see Willow thrashing around in the water but Pyro was nowhere to be seen.

‘Where is he?’ spluttered Willow, as she tried to tread water, her eyes frantically searching the choppy grey lake for Pyro.

‘There!’ shouted Drake.  Pyro was lying face down, a few metres from the shoreline.  Drake plunged back into the dark water and swam towards Pyro’s lifeless body.  He grabbed him and turned him over but Pyro looked dead; his eyes were white and glazed over, his face completely stripped of any of his colour.  Drake grasped his upper body and swam, as fast as he could, for shore.

Within minutes he was dragging Pyro’s limp body through the reed bed and onto the muddy bank.  He lay him down on the floor and felt for a pulse.  ’He’s alive,’ said Drake as Willow scrambled up beside him and grabbed Pyro’s head.  She began to blow air into Pyro’s cold crusty mouth as Drake began to pump at his chest.

Pyro gurgled as water gushed like a torrent from his lungs and into his mouth.  He rolled over and spat the black water out onto the floor, his breath rattling in his chest as he struggled to breathe.

‘Ease up will yez!,’ he coughed.  ‘I know yez want to get rid of me but give me a break will yez!’  He cradled his chest in his hands.  ’Ow, that hurt.’  He flopped back onto the ground and began to laugh hysterically.

‘Are you alright?’ asked Willow, her face turning as white as a unicorn as she watched Pyro thrashing around.  ‘Did you swallow any of the Lethe?’

‘Yeah,’ said Pyro coughing again, ’but it doesn’t have the same effect on me, so don’t worry, I’m fine.  That was just a great example of fire and water not mixing.’

Drake pulled the Zephyr from his back, drained the water from it and placed it on the ground before he collapsed next to Pyro.  ’That was way too close,’ he said looking up at the dead sky.

‘Drake.’

He raised himself up on his elbows and turned to look at Willow who was hunched over her wet backpack, the Scroll of the Dead scrunched up in her hands.  ’What?’ he asked, but he already knew the answer.

‘Look,’ she said holding out the soggy Scroll to Drake.

‘Damn it!‘ he cursed as he took the paper which now resembled a ball of muddy paper mache.  He rolled it up in his hands and threw it into the lake where it bobbed around like a ship lost at sea.

‘Come on!’ said Drake grabbing his Zephyr, ‘We need to get going.’  He leapt from the floor and slung his Zephyr over his back.  He scanned the shoreline for any signs of Cerberus, but the dog was gone from sight already.  All that was left were his huge soggy paw-prints that lead off into the Forest of Suffering.

‘What’s the plan?’ asked Willow, water dripping from her black hoodie, as she pulled Pyro up by a knobbly hand from the floor.

‘I don’t have one.  We’ll follow Cerberus’s footprints into the forest and then keep walking, making sure we keep the Fortress in sight-’

‘Sounds like a great plan to me,’ said Pyro, his voice gravelly and sore after his dip in the water, ’at this rate we might get out alive in a couple of hundred years.  That’s okay for me, I age slower than you two-’

‘Got a better one?’ snapped Drake spinning on his heels.

Pyro shrugged.

‘For God’s sake!  Where did that come from?’ asked Willow, flinging her hands in the air, ‘After everything we’ve just gone through can’t you two just get on?  I actually thought we were getting somewhere!’

‘Probably not,’ said Drake turning his back on them both.  He stomped over to the wall of trees, carefully following Cerberus’ fresh trail.  He couldn’t help it, there was something about Pyro that just rubbed him up the wrong way.

Pyro looked at Willow and smiled sheepishly, then followed after Drake.

‘I guess we’re going this way then!’ said Willow putting her hands on her hips, watching them walk off.  After a few seconds, she huffed before finally stomping after them.

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?’