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.

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Death’s Apprentice – Part 43

‘Mmmm, let me think,’ said Hel, her right hand stroking her chin.

‘It’s okay,’ said Joe, ‘I can wait.’ He almost added, I’m used to being hungry, but didn’t because what was the point? No one cared.

And, he was used to it if he was really honest. It was part of the package when you lived in the Bones’ household.

Not that they were dirt poor, not like his mate Limey. Limey’s parents were both chronically ill and on benefits and when they got put on to Universal Credit there were a few times that their benefit money was stopped. No benefits meant no money. No money meant no food and no heating. It sucked.

No, Joe’s mom worked and although they weren’t rolling in money, they weren’t on Limey’s scale either. Problem was, Joe’s shitdad prefered beer and weed and the bookies to feeding his stepkid. But hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

Right?

Wrong.

It had just given Joe a load of rather unhealthy coping skills.

Hades rubbed his head against Joe’s leg making him jump. His heart twanged again as he thought of Lola.

‘Good boy,’ he said, running his hands through the dog’s rough fur. The dog began to purr loudly and started to lean on Joe nearly making him fall over.

‘Careful Hades,’ said Hel and the dog shifted its position. ‘Okay, I’ve got it. There’s a witch that lives in these woods -‘

‘A witch?’ Even Joe could hear the scepticism in his own voice. ‘Really? Come on now. Stop pulling my leg!’

Hel stared at him, her face contorted with confusion. ‘I’m not touching your leg.’

‘I know. It’s just a saying…’ Nope, he could see from the look on her face that she wasn’t getting it. ‘It doesn’t matter. So, this witch…how far is it? Is she dead?’

‘No, she’s very much alive,’ said Hel.

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.

 

Death’s Apprentice – Part 42

Joe had no idea how long they’d been walking through the forest. Walking? What he actually meant was stumbling through because even though the trees seemed to strangely move apart when Hel skipped through them, their gnarly roots seemed to try and trip him up whenever possible. He’d fallen over that many times that he was now considering crawling.

There was no telling what time it was down here in the underworld. There was no sun to mark the passing of the day, and no moon to show the passing of the night. Instead, there was a murky, unforgiving twilight that hung over them, a light that was completely useless for walking through a forest.

Joe’s stomach gave a long hard groan.

Great.

He hadn’t even considered how he would feed himself down here. In this…shit hole.

Yes. The further he stumbled, the more he realised this place was a shit hole. Not like his house (not home, for was the place he went to bed really a home?). No, that was a shit hole, shit hole. This dark, forbidding place was a shit hole because it stunk like a toilet that hadn’t been flushed for a month and the funny light seemed to be sucking the very life from him. His legs were burning, his eyes were burning, his lungs were burning and he felt like shit.

Joe thought that he probably used the word shit far too much but that word seemed to sum up so much of his life.

His stomach groaned again. So loud that it echoed through the trees. Or that’s how it felt to Joe.

Hel stopped stone still in front of him. Her hounds did the same. It was almost like they were connected on some telepathic level.

‘What was that?’ she whispered, slowly turning to face Joe.

Joe’s stomach roared again.

‘It’s me. Sorry,’ he said, with a small shrug.

‘Ahhhh,’ she said, as comprehension dawned on her. ‘You’re hungry?’

‘Yes.’

‘One of the problems of being alive, I suppose?’

‘Well, I wouldn’t class eating as being a problem,’ said Joe.

‘It kind of is down here,’ she replied.

‘Dead people don’t eat,’ said Joe, realising this could be a major problem. Was he going to die of hunger down here? Was he going to shrivel up like a prune, his body left to the creepy crawlies that probably lurked in the undergrowth?

Dragon Rider – Part Twenty-Four

Dragon Rider

Chapter Eleven Continued

Escape

They’d been travelling for a while when Drake heard a small high-pitched bleep and the map flashed up spontaneously before his eyes.  He checked the time.  It was 11.05 am and they were very close.  A small green dot began to grow and pulsate on the map, corresponding with a small mound of earth and bricks that lay due south of them, around one mile away; the entrance to the Valley of Death.

Drake switched the map off with a quick tap on his wristwatch and then wrapped his hand into Falkor’s thick turquoise crest fur, pulling it gently to the right.  Falkor reacted instantly, banking right and slowly losing speed and altitude as he glided in a circle down to the ground.  Just before landing, about three metres above the grass, he dropped Pyro’s stiff body and then touched down a short distance away.

Willow leapt from Falkor’s back and raced over to Pyro’s body.  ‘I think we’ve killed him!’ she said, crouching over his motionless body.

‘Maybe you should give him mouth-to-mouth,’ said Drake, strolling over to them, a broad grin on his face.

‘Do I have to?’ she replied, looking at the djinns flaky blue lips.

‘Well, maybe you should see if he’s got a heartbeat first.’

She touched the base of Pyro’s neck with her fingertips and recoiled in horror as the djinn flared up.  ‘OW!’ she shrieked, jumping up and blowing on the tips of her fingers to stem the burning pain.

Pyro began rolling around on the floor, laughing hysterically, small beads of petrol running from the corners of his eyes and embers of black and orange sparking from his arms and face, like bits of burnt paper.  ‘HA HA HA!’ he laughed, ‘If you could see your face, “I think we’ve killed him,”‘ mimicked Pyro.  ‘Priceless.  Like Macaroni cheese with extra cheese sauce,’ he said, wiping the black tears away with his crooked fingers.

‘Serves you right,’ said Drake, looking at the horror on Willow’s face.  ‘Looks like the Protective Spell is wearing off, I’ve always told you never to trust a djinn, they’d rob their granny for a few quid.’

Pyro jumped up from the floor, shoving his hands on his hips.  ‘How dare you!’ he said puffing his chest out, ‘I would never rob my granny, not for a few quid.  Macaroni cheese, maybe, but not a few quid.’

Drake rolled his eyes and turned to look at the mound, its prickly surface peppered with the dying remnants of wild grass, cornflowers and poppies.  A thick screen of emerald-green yew trees surrounded it on three sides like a veil of mourning, obscuring it from vision, except on the open side where a narrow pebble pathway led to the stone-lined entrance.

Thunder exploded in the distance and silver lightning forked across the blackening sky.  A black crow swooped from the gathering storm clouds and came to rest on the great stone lintel that jutted out at the top of the doorway.

‘This place is giving me the creeps,’ said Willow, wrapping her black hoodie tightly around her.

Drake could feel it too.  It was like they had been transported to another time, another place totally removed from their own normal world.  For a fleeting moment, he thought he could feel the souls of those that had gone before close to the surface and hear their voices whispering, calling to him, on the breeze.

The sky, pregnant with rain, exploded above them, dispersing the murmurs of the dead as it spewed out its heavy load.

The crow cawed once before it launched itself off the lintel and disappeared into the Stygian mouth of the mound.

‘Falkor can’t fit through there, you’re going to have to stay here and keep an eye on him,’ ordered Drake, tendrils of rain running down his face like fat fingers, ‘I’ll take Pyro with me.’

Willow shook her head violently.  ‘No way!’ she said holding her rucksack over her head like an umbrella.  ‘You need a witch for the spells, remember?  Falkor can look after himself.’

‘I’m with her,’ agreed Pyro, the rain hissing and spitting as it bounced off his skin, ‘dragons can usually look after themselves.  I don’t know, could be wrong.  But if you want me to stay here-’

Drake turned and grabbed Pyro’s collar, ‘You want me to get Falkor to look after you, Pyro?’

Pyro raised his knotty hands in the air, ‘No, no, I’m fine.  I’d rather come with you.  Anyways, I don’t fancy being turned into dragon toast today, thank you,’ he said, as Drake began to push him roughly towards the entrance.

‘Who’s gonna watch your back?’ asked Willow, chasing after Drake and Pyro.

Drake snorted.  ‘I think I can look after myself, thanks.’

‘I think he can,’ said Pyro, as Drake dropped him unceremoniously by the entrance.

‘Will you shut up!’ snapped Drake.

‘Only trying to help,’ said Pyro, trying to peel his wet shirt from his skin.

Drake studied the entrance of the mound; it looked strange, unlike anything he had ever seen before.  It was darkness, but thicker, as though you could grab it in your hands.  He reached out to touch it, but his hands couldn’t penetrate the black.  It was as if the dark were like a concrete wall, an invisible barrier to the other realm which couldn’t be touched.

‘How’re we going to get through that?’ asked Willow, her bag still over her head as torrents of water spilt over its edges like a waterfall.

Drake spun around.  ‘I’ll work it out,’ he snapped, wiping his wet black hair from his face with the sleeve of his black coat.

‘What about Pyro?’ she asked, ‘maybe he can light the way in?’

‘Who me?’ shrugged Pyro, ‘I can’t get through Stygian darkness-‘

‘Stygian what?’ asked Drake, shouting over the roar of the sheeting rain.

‘Stygian darkness.  It’s a protective shield which can be used as a gateway to another realm.’

‘And you’ve known this for how long?’ asked Drake, his face turning crimson, his fists curling and uncurling into tight balls at his side.

‘Forever.’

‘So why the hell,’ spat Drake through clenched teeth, the water cascading over his body, ‘didn’t you say?’

‘Well, you told me to shut up.’

Drake huffed violently and hit his forehead with the heel of his palm.

‘Okay,’ said Willow, ‘everyone just take a deep breath.  Right, Pyro, how do we get past it?’

‘The Hand of Glory.’

Drake took a deep breath and held out his hand.  Without another word, Pyro reached into his pocket, took out the Hand of Glory and gave it to Drake.

‘So, how do we light it?’

‘So I can speak now?’ asked the djinn.

Drake paused and put on a fake smile.  ‘Yes. So?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘It’s okay,’ said Willow, ‘I bet there’s a spell on that parchment Alchymia gave me.’  She grabbed the scroll from her bag then handed the rucksack to Drake to hold over her whilst she unfurled it.  ’Would you just look at that,’ she said, her eyes full of wonder as she took in the perfect illustration of Drake, Pyro and herself stood outside the entrance to the Underworld.  ’Show us the way,’ she whispered to the scroll and black symbols began to burn upon the parchment.

‘Ah-ha,’ she said, rolling the parchment up and stuffing it under her arm.  She grabbed the Hand of Glory from Drake’s other hand.  ‘Okay,’ she muttered to herself, ‘You can do this.’  She took a deep breath.  ‘Lichte!’ she commanded, concentrating the spell’s energy on the tiny wick at the top of the candle.

At once the candle burst into life bathing them in a gentle golden glow.

‘Impressive,’ said Pyro.

‘Now you’ve got to let me go with you.  You’ll need my magick again.’

‘She’s right you know,’ said Pyro.

Drake scowled at him then grabbed the Hand of Glory from Willow.  ‘Whatever,’ he said shrugging, before turning his attention to the entrance.  He held the Hand of Glory up and peered into the darkness.  ‘We’re going to have to crawl, the roof slopes down.’

The three of them crawled into the narrow passageway, Drake making sure that Pyro was safely sandwiched between himself and Willow to avoid any chance of him escaping.  They crawled along the roughly carved slabs of rock that lined the passage.  An icy breeze drifted up from within the mound, carrying with it the smell of damp earth and rotting leaves.

‘Can you see anything?’ asked Willow, her voice echoing through the tunnel.

‘Not much,’ replied Drake, ‘It seems to be going on forever.  I can’t even see the end yet.’  He was grateful for the light that the Hand of Glory was providing but it was nowhere near enough to light the way ahead and the Fire Djinn was less than useless in these conditions.  ‘Just keep close.’

‘Are we there yet?’ asked Pyro, his face growing paler and paler as the oxygen became thinner the farther they crawled into the tunnel.

Drake’s anger was beginning to bubble near the surface again, the urge to throttle the djinn was becoming stronger and stronger as the minutes passed.  His knees were sore from the jagged stone, his hands numb from the cold.  Water droplets trickled from the ground above, drip, drop, like an eerie drum and all the while the djinn was nagging him, asking him when they’d get there.

It was impossible to tell how long they had been incarcerated within its walls when Drake came to the end of the tunnel, its ragged edges coated in the golden light of the Hand of Glory; time flowed differently here, neither forwards or backwards but undulating somewhere between the two in an obscure place, neither light nor dark, dead or alive.

Drake held up the Hand of Glory, his eyes straining to make out anything beyond the end of the tunnel, but he could only make out the sea of blackness hanging there like a cloak.

Slowly he pulled his legs around so that they were in front of him, his boots scraping against the wet muddy walls of the tunnel as he did so.  His head almost touched the dripping roof as he sat up and shuffled forwards, easing his legs off the edge, the light from the Hand of Glory dancing upon the wet surface of the cave but still unable to illuminate what lay ahead.  Not that it mattered to Drake; this was the path he had chosen, and there was no going back now.  He lowered himself gently off the edge until he felt something solid beneath his feet, a staircase of some kind, roughly hewn out of the earth.

His heart seemed to stop for a second as the call of a crow pierced through the darkness.  For some reason, he found the sound oddly comforting, like a beacon in the darkness, a call waking him from the dead as his heart started beating again.

Drake moved towards the direction of the crow, stumbling slightly as his feet tried to find the edge of the steps.  He descended further into the blackness, willing something, anything to appear.

‘What’s happening Drake?’ asked Willow from somewhere behind him, her voice muffled and distorted.  He turned to look at her, to tell her not to worry but she’d been lost to the darkness too.

The crow called to him again and he turned to look for it, but everywhere he looked was black.  He lifted his hands to his face.  He could feel the waxy Hand of Glory but he couldn’t see it or his hands anymore.  He looked down at his body, but that too had disappeared, gobbled up by the darkness.  His mind was all that was left, but he could feel that that too was becoming weak and disorientated as the darkness played with him.  For the first time, in a very long time, fear was creeping over him like a thick black fog.

It was then he saw the light.  He tilted his head, his eyes narrowing as he studied the small golden nugget of light in front of him, about the size of a fire-fly.  It was swaying from left to right, like a light on a ship, and it seemed to be getting bigger like it was travelling towards them at great speed.  He could hear the gentle tingling of a bell in the distance and then, that was gone, swamped by the sound of an earthquake as the ground beneath them began to shake.

Suddenly the whole of the landscape opened up before them, like someone had simply pulled the cover off, allowing them to see, for the first time, the haunting beauty of the Valley of Death in all its terrifying glory: The two vast Mountain Ranges of Sorrow and Regret ran along either side of the valley, their summits shrouded in veils of thick black cloud, the Forest of Suffering lay in front of them, its gnarled trees knitted together in a dance of death and then, at the end, the great Fortress itself, black and bold against the  cobalt sky.

Suddenly a movement at the bottom of the granite steps caught Drake’s eye.  He spread his arms out defensively, his body poised for attack if need be.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 41

‘What are you doing?’

The sound of the sweet little voice made Joe’s heart jump in his chest. He flung his hand up to his pounding heart and ended up dropping the branch in the mud.

‘What the?! Don’t make me jump like that!’ he screeched spinning around to see Hel standing there as sweet as anything. Where had she appeared from? She was like an annoying little sister he couldn’t get rid of.

‘I’m trying to help this man. He’s trapped -‘

‘Hello!’ said the man in the bog, ‘I’m still here…and I’m sinking!’

‘You don’t want to do that,’ she said, arms folded behind her back as she swayed from side to side.

‘What do you mean? The guy’s going to die -‘

‘No, he’s not.’

‘Hel,’ said Joe, flinging his hand in the air in exasperation, ‘he’s sinking in the mud.’

‘So?’

‘So, I can’t just leave him to die, can I?’

‘Why not? He’ll be back again tomorrow.’

‘Of course, I can’t…what do you mean he’ll be back again tomorrow?’

‘Oh that’s Lord Valdis and you’ve no need to worry, he’s already dead.’

‘What?!’ spluttered Joe. ‘What do you mean he’s dead?’

‘Do you want to tell him?’ Hel asked the man. ‘Or shall I?’

The man mumbled something but Joe couldn’t quite make out what he said.

‘I guess I’ll tell him then,’ shrugged Hel. ‘Where are we, Joe?’

Joe looked confused and didn’t answer.

‘What you need to remember is that not everyone is like you. People are usually dead here.’ She shrugged. ‘This is the Forest of Suffering. Lord Valdis is suffering. That’s what’s supposed to happen.’

‘Ohhh…’ said Joe, pretending that he understood perfectly, when, in fact, he didn’t.’

‘Lord Valdis hoarded all the food in his castle when his people starved. He ate and drank and became fat when his people died of malnutrition. He deserves to be stuck in the mud like the pig he was.’

Well, when she put it like that, Joe thought she had a very convincing argument.

‘So, what is this place then? Is it like purgatory then?’

‘Oh no,’ said Hel, ‘purgatory is for temporary punishment. The punishments here go on forever!’ She smiled as she said these last words.

‘Forever, forever?’

‘Is there any other kind?’

Joe thought about it for a second then gave up. His brain hurt too much.

‘Come on then, she said, spinning around, ‘that’s if you want to get where you’re going.’

‘And what about me?’ asked the fat man.

‘What about you?’ replied Hel.

Dragon Rider – Part Twenty-Three

Dragon Rider

Chapter Eleven

Escape

Willow grabbed Drake’s arm, ‘Look, Look!’ she cried, pointing at the sky.

Falkor hovered above them, like some primordial guardian angel, his lustrous azure body, almost invisible against the sky, sparkling in the mid-morning sun.  He roared defiantly, pinned back his wings and plummeted to the ground, his enormous jaws gaping open.  The air was thick with the smell of gas as blue-hot flames jettisoned from the back of his throat.  The sound was terrifying, like ten jet engines starting up.

The crowd scrambled for cover, screaming, as Falkor swooped in front of them, unfolding his azure wings and flashing his sabre-like fangs.  Scarface pulled Elvis in front of him to shield himself from the onslaught of fire.

Unfazed by the screaming crowd, Falkor gently landed on the cobbles, and stretched out his wings, allowing Drake and Willow to haul themselves onto his bare back.  Before the crowd could react, Falkor kicked back and propelled himself into the sparkling sky.

‘DON’T LET THEM GET AWAY!’ came the shouts from the crowd, as the Elders tried to put order to the chaos.

‘Pyro!’ hissed Drake.  He could just see the djinn’s bald head bobbing up and down as he made a run for it, as fast as his short legs would carry him, through the chaos of the crowds, to a dark alleyway and his freedom.

‘Leave him,’ pleaded Willow.

But it was no good, Drake was damned if they were going to lose Pyro and the Hand of Glory.  He didn’t have to say anything; Falkor was on to it before Drake had even finished thinking about capturing the djinn.

‘No!  Not again!’ screamed Pyro, running as fast as he could, but that wasn’t very fast as his legs had seemed to have stopped working the second he had seen the dragon heading for him.  ’AAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!’ he screamed, as Falkor swooped over and scooped him up from the crowd, like an eagle grabbing a salmon from a stream, his muscular feet clamped around the top of each of the djinn’s arms.  In a beat of a wing they were once again ascending into the air and over the crowd which was now resembling more of a riot.

Once Falkor had reached a safe distance, Scarface threw Elvis to one side and clambered to his feet.  ‘Shoot that dragon!  Come on, what you waiting for?  Take him down!’ he ordered.  The boggarts immediately started shooting and the sky was suddenly alive with electricity, large bolts of lightning streaking from their stun guns, the blue tendrils crackling and fizzing millimetres from Pyro’s dangling body.

‘NO!  DON’T SHOOT AT THE DRAGON!’ screamed Pyro, ’I DON’T WANT TO LOOK LIKE A PASTA SIEVE!’

Luckily for Falkor, the boggart’s aim was abysmal.  It was just a shame, thought Drake, that they hadn’t managed to hit the djinn because that scream was starting to do his head in.

Drake peered down.  He could see the dwarves and other members of the crowd scrambling around, throwing whatever they could find into the air; shoes, stones and bits of rotting fruit, but they all missed Falkor and, instead, rained back down upon them.  He chuckled as a boggart grabbed Elvis by one of his ankles in desperation and threw him at the disappearing dragon.  The chubby dwarf failed to gain much height and instead plummeted back to earth, landing straight on top of the boggart’s head, knocking him out cold.

Within a few wing beats, Falkor had risen above the bizarre buildings of Nowhere and had cleared the town walls where the Security Goblins were trying, unsuccessfully, to load their cannons.  The Kraken was emerging from the moat, its slimy suckered tentacles slithering up the walls as it opened its gargantuan fang-filled mouth to catch the falling dragon, but Falkor was miles away before the first shot was even fired.

Drake waited until Falkor had cleared the Wild Mountains before he contacted Gizmo.

‘Gizmo, are you there?’ he said, pressing the button on the side of his watch.

There was a brief silence before Gizmo’s holographic form appeared before him, flickering like a ghost.  ‘Hiya.  See you’ve found Falkor then?’ said Gizmo, pushing his glasses back up his nose, the slight sound of frostiness in his voice.

‘Er…yeah,’ said Drake, ‘any more trouble back there?’

‘No,’ said Gizmo, shaking his head, ‘all’s quiet at the mo.  Is everything alright?’

‘Yeah, everything’s fine.  We need your help.  We need to get to New Haven, can you help me out and send a map?’

‘Okay, no problem; the map will be with you in a mo.’

‘Cheers Gizmo  Has Ailsa managed to find anything in Fenrik’s systems yet?’

‘No.  She’s been munching away but they’ve got it protected by one serous fire-wall, she came back an hour ago quite frazzled.  Didn’t take much to repair her though.  Oh, I nearly forgot, she managed to intercept some chatter before she got fried; it seems that that guy you picked up, er, Pyro wasn’t it?  Well, he’s been released already.’

‘Yeah, I know,’ said Drake looking at the petrified body of Pyro clamped tight in Falkor’s claws, ‘I’ve seen him hanging around.  Keep working on the computer Gizmo, and stay safe, we’ll be back as soon as we can.’

Gizmo’s image evaporated, revealing a rotating 3-D map.  Drake scanned the map, correlated Falkor’s trajectory and then pushed it into the corner of his vision with a flick of his eyes.

He could feel the pressure in his head again, he could feel the adrenaline surging through his body, plumping up his veins in his arms and on the back of his hands, and he could feel his hatred boiling in the pit of his stomach.  This was Fenrik Lasko’s fault.  It always was and always would be.

Until Drake finished it.