Dragon Rider – Part Eighteen

Dragon Rider

Chapter Nine

Foxes

‘Okay, so we figure that out later,’ said Drake more to himself, ‘first we need to get into the Underworld.  I don’t suppose?’

Alchymia tilted her head and flashed a brief smile at Drake.  ‘According to the Codex, the entrance to the Valley of Death lies where the names of the dead can be heard as a whisper on the wind, a place now known as New Haven.’

Drake rubbed his chin.  ‘Never heard of it, but I’m sure with Gizmo’s help we’ll find it.’

‘You have another problem.  As you and Willow are not dead, you will not have the aid of a psychopomp to help unlock and travel through the gateway between the Land of the Living and that of the Dead.  You will therefore need a key, but unearthing such a key could be a whole quest in itself.’

‘A key?’

‘Yes, but not like the ones we use to lock our doors at night.  A key, in this instance, is a magickal artefact used for unlocking the gateway between the two worlds.  There is Proserpina’s Mirror, an artefact created by Proserpina to allow her mother to travel through the Realms with ease, but the last time the Mirror was seen was over two and a half thousand years ago.  There are spells that can act as keys, but they need macabre items such as Grave Dirt and Corpse Water and would take years to perfect.  Hecate’s Torch is another option but to find it would be a near impossible task.’  Alchymia leaned back in her chair, ‘The only other option is to find a Hand of Glory, but, as only a few exist-‘

‘A Hand of Glory?’ asked Drake.

‘Yes, it’s a pickled-‘

‘Hand,’ continued Drake, ‘taken from an executed criminal with a candle stuck in between its fingers.’

Alchymia sat upright in her seat and looked at him with an alarmed expression.  ‘How do you know about such a dark object?’

‘From a Fire-djinn, a petty criminal by the name of Pyro.  I picked him up yesterday and he had one in his pocket, reckons that he was summoned and compelled to steal it for some guy who he never actually saw.’

‘Summoned by someone he did not see at all?’

‘Yeah, apparently the bloke who summoned him hid his identity from Pyro, I thought it was a bit sus,’ said Drake shrugging, ‘but Falkor didn’t react when Pyro spilled his guts to me about it so-‘

‘That does not necessarily mean that the Fire-djinn does not know who it was that compelled him; he could have been placed under a very strong spell, such as the Bind of all Binding Spell, making it impossible for this Pyro to divulge any information-‘

‘But to get it past Falkor?’ interrupted Drake.

‘He’s not completely infallible Drake, especially if the person who called Pyro knew his real name.’

‘His real name?’

‘Yes,’ said Willow, ‘a person’s, or thing’s, real name is essential for really potent magick.  If you’ve got their real name you’ve got complete power over the thing that you’ve summoned.’

‘Okay, so say they’ve got Pyro’s real name, I still can’t believe that Falkor wouldn’t pick it up.  Anyway, I know it’s Fenrik who compelled him to steal the Hand of Glory, it’s got to be.  He’s after the other part of The Book and he’s a Demonologist-‘

‘You do not know that for sure Drake,’ said Alchymia, her eyes staring straight through the flames of the roaring fire.

‘It could’ve been anyone,’ said Willow, ‘you’ve got no proof.’

‘I don’t need proof, I know it was him.  Funestus Black told me Fenrik was after The Emerald Key and there’s Pyro just wandering around with the Hand?  No, Fenrik knows he needs to find Hermes in the Underworld and that this Hand is the key to get in,’ a big smile broke across Drake’s face, ‘I’ll just have to take it off the useless piece of-’

‘Drake!’ gasped Willow.

‘What?’ said Drake, smiling even more broadly, ‘it’ll take Fenrik ages to find another key and by that time we’ll already have seen Hermes.’

‘Drake,’ said Willow, ‘I don’t think-‘

‘So how do we find Hermes?’ cut in Drake.

Alchymia run a pale finger over the lines of text that materialized on the pages of the Codex.  ‘Hermes can be found in the Iron Fortress that lies at the end of The Valley.’  She clicked her fingers and The Codex snapped shut sending a shower of dust shooting into the air.  ‘The Iron Fortress is not only protected by the Forest of Suffering, which lies between the two great Mountain Ranges of Sorrow and Regret, but also by other more gruesome things.’

Drake opened his mouth to speak but Alchymia stopped him with a quick flick of her hand.  ‘Do not ask for details Drake, I cannot say; The Fates have forbidden it.  You must be careful, for one wrong move and you will never be able to return, you will be doomed to a half-life of suffering that you will never escape.’  Alchymia looked at Drake with a stern expression.  ’You cannot leave the way you entered and whatever you do, you must ask for permission from The Overseer of The Fortress to see Hermes.  Choose your words carefully and be aware, that if your request is granted, they will seek to take your life as payment.  And if they do not, your life will be forfeit already.’

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Dragon Rider – Part Seventeen

Dragon Rider

Chapter Eight Continued

Alchymia and the Cross-eyed Cat

Alchymia tore her eyes away from the pages of the book and picked up Drake’s empty mug.  She swirled the tea residue around the bottom of the mug, studying the patterns it formed, her brow wrinkled like a newly ploughed field as she turned the mug this way and that.  She dropped the mug back onto the table before consulting the book again.

After a short time, Alchymia clapped her hands and a pack of vividly coloured tarot cards materialised before her, suspended mid-air as if some invisible hands were holding them.  With a wave of her hand, the cards began to dance.  She snatched a card from the pack; it depicted a man in bright purple robes brandishing a wand; The card of the Magician Hermes.

Alchymia leaned back in her chair and sighed heavily.  She clapped her hands once more and the cards disappeared.  ‘I trust you Drake, but I cannot say the same for this Funestus Black.  I do not know him or his motives.’

‘I know that but-’

Alchymia continued.  ‘The Emerald Key is a very powerful artefact which can be used both for works of extreme good and extreme evil.  Such a dangerous object could bring about devastation on a scale not seen in this dimension before.’

‘That’s why I can’t let Fenrik get it, you know what will happen if he finds it first.’  Drake’s stomach constricted, he could feel the bile rising up his throat.

‘Yes, indeed.’  Alchymia’s eyes flicked back to the book and she sighed again, ‘But it is out of my hands-’

‘That’s it?  You’re giving up on us?’

‘No.  I mean, it is out of my hands.  I too have no say in the matter; The Fates have decided I must tell you what I know.  Unfortunately for you, Fenrik will prove more of a problem than you had hoped.  He already possesses a portion of The Key-’

‘What?’ said Drake digging his fingers into his legs as he leaned forward in his chair.

‘The Aradian Codex,’ she gestured to the book floating before her, ‘tells me that when Hermes Trismegestus-’

‘The book’s Guardian on earth?’ asked Willow.

‘Yes.  When he was given The Emerald Key, Hermes made plans to make sure that this most dangerous text was entombed with him when he died, so that, even in death, he might protect its secrets.  However, all did not go to plan, for when his body was laid to rest someone attempted to tear The Emerald Key from him.  Fortunately, only a part of the text was stolen and this is what has been handed down through generations of what are now called Guardians, although they were not really Guardians-’

‘Because they were only looking after a stolen part of the book?’ asked Willow.

‘Exactly, but truth be told, they probably never even realized that they were Guardians of a stolen object; that information was probably lost through the sands of time.  It also explains why no one Guardian has ever been able to fully exploit the book’s enormous power, for although certain information can be accessed in its current state, if you know how to translate it, the text is only truly powerful when it is read altogether, as one.’

‘Until now,’ spat Drake.  He jumped up from his seat, his fists clenched, his jaw tight.  ’He wants to reunite the two parts, no wonder he’s trying to find it, you’ve got to help us-’

‘Sit down,’ commanded Alchymia, her anger, the hag hidden deep within, momentarily flashing across her face.

Drake did as he was told.

‘The Codex’s great wisdom cannot pinpoint the exact location of Fenrik’s stolen part of The Emerald Key.  It seems he has a very powerful protective spell placed upon it, but it can tell me where the other part is kept, but, be warned, if you continue on this quest you will face a perilous journey that will affect you in ways that you could never imagine.  You will face grave danger from things that no living being should ever have to encounter.  Do you think you are strong enough?’

‘I have to get that Book,’ said Drake.

‘I cannot stand in your way, Drake.  The Fates have made this your quest, it is up to them if you achieve your goal or not.  To find the lost part of The Emerald Key you must venture through the Valley of Death.’

‘The Valley of Death?’ spluttered Willow, her voice breaking on the last word.

‘The Underworld…’ said Drake, ‘Why?’

‘The Underworld?’ asked Willow, her face beginning to drain of colour.

‘Hermes, as its original Guardian, still holds half of The Emerald Key and until he can reunite it with the missing half, his spirit clings on to this life, not daring to pass through into the Afterlife.’

‘Isn’t there anyone…you know…alive that can help us?’ asked Willow, her face now as white as a unicorn’s horn.

‘Unfortunately not.  Hermes still has his portion of The Book,’ said Alchymia, running a pale hand over the book floating in front of her, ‘it has not been destroyed, no, for then Hermes would not be a spirit, he would have been released from his servitude.  There is no other way.  To find The Emerald Key you must travel to The Valley of Death and get him to relinquish his half of The Book.’

‘Can’t we just summon him?’ asked Willow trying to disguise the panic rising in her voice.

‘Yeah, Willow’s a witch.  I’m sure she could help summon him,’ added Drake.

Alchymia raised an eyebrow.  ‘You are a witch?’

Willow shrugged.  ‘Not trained so I don’t possess a Book of Shadows, but I can do the odd spell or two.’

Alchymia considered this new information.  ‘No.  Even if you were an excellent witch, summoning spirits is far too dangerous.’

Drake rolled his eyes.  ‘Others, the Demonologists, they do it, it can’t be any more dangerous than going to The Valley of Death, can it?’

‘There is a difference between summoning Demons and the Elementals, which are alive, and the spirits of the dead that dwell in the Underworld.  When one summons a Demon, it is only the Demon you are calling that can travel to you.  This is not so for spirits; some are malevolent creatures who can attach themselves to the dead spirit you are summoning, so, even if you only call forth the spirit of Hermes, there may be others that escape through the crack you create in the Spirit World.  Whatever escapes and whatever havoc they create would be your responsibility and hence you might end up destroying the very things you are trying to protect.  Where would the sense be in that?  No, there is no choice; to get the information you need you will have to speak to Hermes directly.  You must charm him, apply to his ego.  As the Guardian of The Emerald Key, he will not want to give it up easily.’

‘How do we do that?’

‘That, my dearest Drake, is something you have to find out for yourself.’

 

Dragon Rider – Part Fifteen

Dragon Rider

Chapter Eight

Alchymia and the Cross-eyed Cat

A cat, the size of a Labrador dog, stood on his two hind legs behind Willow, his body glowing orange as if it were made of pure fire, his two piercing green eyes studying Drake closely from under his crazy orange mane.

‘Fulcanelli, what….what did you do that for?’ spluttered Drake, his voice struggling to hide his irritation.

Fulcanelli shrugged, then began to lick his paw.  ‘Because I cannnn,’ he purred.

Drake threw his hands to his head.  ‘But Fulcanelli…we don’t have time for this-’

‘Mistress wants to see youuuu.  I will take youuuu.’  He pointed at Willow, lying like a baby on the floor, ‘She can’t seeee.’

‘Surely there were easier ways of doing that,’ said Drake, rubbing the top of his nose with his thumb and forefinger.  Things were never simple; Willow, the cat (if that’s what he was), why couldn’t they just leave him alone and let him get on with it?

‘Damn it, Fulcanelli!’ cursed Drake, as the cat leapt, without warning, out of the room like a lightning bolt.

Drake looked at Willow lying on the floor.  Why the hell hadn’t she just stayed at home?  He rolled his eyes and scooped her off the floor where she hung limply in his arms, a small trail of drool trickling from the corner of her mouth, gleaming like a slug trail.  The faint hint of a smile curled his lips; he couldn’t wait to tell her about that.

Fulcanelli moved like a firestorm tearing up a forest as he weaved his way through the dark backstreets.  Drake followed the orange afterglow with Willow still dangling in his arms.  He eventually found the cat sitting outside the door of a shabby four-storied house that looked as if it hadn’t been lived in for decades; bare pockets of brick lay exposed to the elements where the rendering had been eaten away and most of the glass was missing from the windows.

‘You took your timeeee,’ said Fulcanelli grooming his paw.

Drake scowled; of all the annoying beasts he had ever met…

It was a few moments before Fulcanelli moved, he rapped the sun-bleached door three times before pushing it open.  He bounced into the house and disappeared up the staircase at the far end of the room.

Drake scoured the area before he followed the cat into the darkness.

Damp, decay and death oozed from every surface; from the mottled wallpaper to the basement peeping through the crumbling floorboards.  With only thin slivers of moonlight to illuminate his way, Drake struggled across the rotting floor and up the stairs after Fulcanelli.  Gaping holes smiled at him as he climbed, waiting for him to fall into the rats that scuttled and scratched beneath them.

The second floor was also dark and as rotten as the floor below.  Grey net curtains flapped loosely over the glassless windows and withered leaves gently scraped across the floor with the ebb and flow of the breeze.

With no sign of Fulcanelli, just the distant sound of purring coming from somewhere above, Drake continued upwards.  He emerged into yet another room, a red door standing open at its far end, the purring, louder now, was coming from the other side of it.

Drake walked carefully through the narrow doorway and into a warm and homely room, smelling of lemon and tarragon, that clearly had an enchantment on it since it was larger than the whole house itself.  A simple wooden bed, shrouded in layers of thick patchwork blankets, lay at the centre of the far wall, surrounded by stacks of leather-bound books, jars and scrolls of parchment.

Alchymia sat in front of a roaring fire to the left of the room with Fulcanelli resting his head on her lap, purring loudly as spittle erupted from his mouth.  At the other side of her, a wooden table strained under a pile of books, a chopping board, fresh herbs and a myriad of bottles and containers filled with different coloured oils and infusions.

‘Drake,’ said Alchymia, her eyes fixed on Fulcanelli, ‘you can place Willow on the bed.’

Drake sighed with relief; Alchymia was, at least, safe.  He said nothing but stumbled over to the bed and tipped Willow on to it and let the blankets swallow her up in layers of warmth and comfort.

‘Come and sit down,’ said Alchymia softly, pointing to a chair that she had magicked beside her.

Drake slumped heavily onto it.

‘Tea?’

Drake nodded once and a small dark wooden table appeared in front of him, with a steaming mug of milky tea on top of it.  He took the mug and wrapped his cold hands gratefully around it.

‘It has been quite some time Drake, so I can only assume that you are in trouble.’

Drake nodded again, his eyes unwilling to look at her, to betray his shame.  Why was it that she was the only one who could make him feel like a little child again?

‘I also assume that it has something to do with the fact that the dwarves have ransacked my home?’

Again Drake nodded, he could feel the tiredness taking over his body.

‘What are they looking for?’

Drake looked up and sighed.  ‘I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s probably the same thing we’re looking for.’

Alchymia looked at him, eyebrow arched, waiting for his answer.

‘The Emerald Key,’  he said quickly, before gulping down a mouthful of tea.

Alchymia’s eyes widened momentarily.  ‘I see…’ she said, turning her attention back to Fulcanelli, running her fingers through his orange mane, ‘and why are you are looking for The Key?’

‘I need to find it, I have no choice,’ he said, studying the tea in his mug.  ‘Someone wants it and if I don’t find it for him, well, let’s just say that’s not an option.’  He sighed heavily.  ‘I need your help Alchymia.’

Dragon Rider – Part Fourteen

Dragon Rider

Chapter Seven Continued

The Towers of Learning

The next floor was chaotic, not at all like Drake remembered; the two burgundy sofas had been slashed, their foam innards spewed up over the dark wooden floor.  Ripped pages of spell books and ancient vellums were strewn all over the place and smashed jars of pickled scorpions, mugwort and other magickal ingredients had been swept off the shelves.  The small oak table, that Alchymia used for reading the cards and scrying, had been cleaved in two, the scrying ball discarded in its ruins.  In the corner of the room, a small Rarog was whirling around and around the jagged glass remains of what had been its home.

‘They’ve been here!’ Drake spat.  The dwarves’ grubby little hands had been rifling through Alchymia’s stuff like burglars.  He stooped down and picked up the large scrying ball lying in amongst the broken ruins of the table; a large crack spiked across its surface.  It felt cold to the touch, lifeless, like the house, like its Soul had been ripped out.

‘But we heard the dwarves saying they hadn’t seen her, so she’s got to be safe, hasn’t she?’ said Willow as she scooped the Rarog up in her hands.  She began to hum Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to it, a favourite lullaby of Wind Spirits, and immediately it began to slow down.  Once it was fully relaxed and had morphed back into its usual form of a minuscule green man with pointy green ears, she grabbed an empty jar and placed the Rarog carefully into it.  She screwed the gold top back onto the jar, made sure Drake wasn’t looking and slipped it into her rucksack.

‘I don’t know.  We don’t know where she is, or if she’s okay.’  He shook his head and dropped the ball.  It landed with a dull thud and rolled towards the corner of the room.  ‘Without her, we‘re lost.’

He turned to look through the window; The view of Nowhere had been replaced by a surreal landscape of a barren land scattered with the skeletal remains of dead trees.  Above them, a purple sky whorled menacingly and heaving clouds drenched the landscape in silver rain.  Fork lightning streaked across the sky illuminating the faint wisps of beings that glided eerily over the black mud.  These were Alchymia’s enchanted windows, designed to entrap the viewer into staying there, glued to the scene for eternity.

But Drake didn’t see anything through those windows, he could only see the thoughts that were trapped in his mind.  He clamped his fists into tight balls.  Damn it, what were they supposed to do now?

He rubbed his forehead and tried to straighten out his thoughts.  The pain was building into a brain exploding crescendo.

‘We’ve got to find her,’ said Drake sifting through the rubbish, ‘there’s got to be a clue here somewhere-’

Suddenly, and from nowhere, a bright flash of orange leapt across the room like lightning and headed towards Willow.

Drake turned quickly, just as the golden blur began to circle her, burning like fire.  ‘Don’t move!’ he hissed.

‘What the?’ asked Willow, her eyes struggling to keep up with whatever it was that was circling her.

Once, twice it circled around her and then, it stopped and for the briefest of seconds the figure of a large cat could be seen blazing at the heart of the fire.  It leapt up behind Willow and gave her a sharp slap on the top of her head with its huge padded paw.

‘No!’ shrieked Drake as Willow’s legs buckled under her and she crashed to the floor unconscious.

 

Dragon Rider – Part Thirteen

Dragon Rider

Chapter Seven Continued

The Towers of Learning

The impossibly tall timber buildings, with their magickal extensions jutting out here and there, hemmed them in on either side like a prison, a thin slice of the dark starry sky was the only thing visible overhead.

Silence hung between them, like a cloak, as they approached the top of the hill, its apex marked by an ancient stone gateway depicting The Angry Ones brandishing scales, scissors and swords as they passed their Judgement.

Drake strode under the great stone arch and almost immediately his head felt like it was going to explode; he could feel pressure building at the back of his eyes and his nose throbbed like it’d been broken.  There was a popping sound in his head and bile rose up his windpipe and into his mouth, its acrid taste burning as it travelled upwards.  He wanted to speak, to let Willow know what was happening but he couldn’t form the words.  Somehow he managed to keep putting one leg in front of the other until the feeling passed and the nausea subsided.

The Purg Atrium, as it was known, opened out before them like a flower bursting into bloom, a mind-bending, vertigo-inducing example of Nowhere’s ingenuity; how else would such a vast square fit into such a small space?  The Elders of Nowhere had wanted a large square to dispense their unique brand of justice and lack of space was not going to stop them.  They had, with the help of very strong ancient magick, the slaughter of several thousand Nature Spirits, the sacrifice of ten virgins and the death of the Master builder in mysterious but very auspicious circumstances, made sure they had got it.

And as it had cost a small fortune, bankrupting several well-off families and resulting in many lawsuits (most notably from the families of the virgins and the Master Builder), The Elders made sure it was worth every penny by using it.  A lot.  The evidence of this was plain to see; The chair, with its rusty iron shackles and chains, was covered in thick, gloopy layers of congealed blood, the rows of empty wooden stocks were still caked in the slime of rotting fruit and vegetables thrown that very morning, bodies, at various degrees of decomposition, still hung from the gnarled branches of the evil-looking Purga Tree next to fresh nooses waiting to be filled, and the bloated body of a middle-aged man, dressed in what looked like a nappy, still floated face-down in the waters of The Great Fountain of Truth.

Drake looked at Willow; she was pale and sweaty like she was going to be…

A pile of vomit catapulted from her mouth, landing in a big splat on the floor, splashing over her pumps.

‘Are you okay?’

Willow nodded weakly, cradling her stomach with her hands.

‘Sorry, should’ve warned you about that, but -’ he stopped as Willow glared in his direction.

‘It’s only a little further,’ said Drake changing tack, ‘we‘ll be there soon.’  If he was honest, he didn’t want to linger in the square too long himself; too many horrific memories stalked him here.  He waited until she had flushed her mouth out with water before putting his arm around her to help her across the square.

‘I’m fine,’ she snapped, shrugging him off.

‘It’s just through there,’ he said, pointing to a small passageway to the left of a notice board covered in Wanted posters.

They hurried across the square, not wanting to focus too much on the gory detail although the smell of rotting flesh seemed to be clawing its way inside them, forcing itself upon their senses.  As they neared the other side a yellowing poster caught Drake’s eye; it showed the face of a small boy with a black marking around his right eye who was wanted for the theft of a dragon and various counts of vandalism.  Drake smiled to himself, is that all I’m worth, five thousand Asses?

‘Does the whole of this town smell like death and urine?’ asked Willow, covering her nose and mouth with her hand.

‘Yep, this is about as good as it gets,’ said Drake, leading her quickly through the slimy passageway, the green moss squelching under their feet like a thick mouldy carpet, until finally, they stepped out into the Mystickal Plaza of All Mystickal Magick.

The Plaza was shaped like a six-sided star and was surrounded by towers and buildings of different colours, shapes and sizes.  A large blue orb rotated and undulated at its centre about eight metres from the ground, thin tendrils of blue light stretching out from it, like long spindly fingers reaching out to each of the towers.

Willow’s mouth fell open, her eyes widening as she walked, her pink hair standing on end as they passed close to the orb.  ‘The legendary Orb of All Mystickal Magick,’ she gasped, her finger tracing a virtual line from the orb to one of the towers, ‘and those, those are the Towers of Learning.  When a Mystick studies under the Mystickal School of Magick they have to travel the Seven Steps to Fulfilment.  Each time they pass a module their tower miraculously grows taller, adding another level to their knowledge.  Only when the next level reveals itself can they start to study its secrets.’

‘Yeah, all very interesting but can we just find Alchymia please?’  Bloody girls.  One minute they were having a go, the next they were off in a world of their own.

Willow stood frozen to the spot.  ‘Oh my god, look at that,’ she said pointing to a carved stone tree with a trunk as thick as an average sized house.  Its branches supported the rooms of learning that the Mystick had already studied.  At the top of the tree a small light had begun to sparkle like a diamond; the next room of learning being born, like a new star.  ‘Isn’t it beautiful?  I wish I could learn magick like that.’

Drake pretended not to hear and continued walking, hoping that Willow might get the hint and follow him.  He could hear her prancing behind him, gasping and ooh-ing like they were watching a fireworks display.  The architecture and magick of Nowhere was lost on him.  He’d seen the darker side of the town; its underbelly; the true character of the place that was nothing like the gleaming structures of wood, stone and other-worldly materials that most of the Mysticks chose as an outward demonstration of their intellect.  The same intellectuals who turned the other way as men and magickal beings were systematically tortured and butchered under their noses.

The only exception to this was Alchymia, the only being in the whole town whom Drake respected.  She had been the only one who had tried to help when Falkor had been shackled to the floor in the Purg Atrium, the only one who had protested as the Elders and the dwarves made their preparations to slaughter the last dragon in England and the only one who stopped Drake wiping this godforsaken town out of his memory for good.

Drake liked to think that Alchymia’s tower was a representation of the woman herself; it stood out in its simplicity and towered above any of the structures in the Mystickal Quarter, its apex lost in the canopy of the dark starry night.  It was the width of a small church and was made out of polished Hematite which reflected the stars from the sky, making it look as if the tower had been fashioned from the Universe itself.

A sign hung from a single nail on the wooden door.  It warned visitors to beware of the cat.

‘Be careful when we meet Alchymia,’ he warned Willow, a faint smirk on his lips, ’she isn’t all that she seems.  Oh, and beware of her cat.’

‘Her cat?’

‘Yeah, it‘s got issues and Willow-’

‘Yes?’

‘Don’t look out of the windows.’

‘Anything else?  Can I breathe?’  Willow placed her hands on her hips.

Drake rolled his eyes and turned to the door.  ‘Something’s wrong,’ he hissed; the door was lopsided, hanging off its hinges like someone had partially kicked it in.  He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck tingling, his gut reaction telling him to be very, very careful.  He raised his finger to his mouth to tell Willow to be very still and very quiet.

His eyes flicked back and forth from the door to the shadows, but he could see nothing, his eyes duller and less sensitive now he was without Falkor.  He could hear nothing unusual, just the low buzz of the orb humming gently in the background.

As sure as he could be that it was not an ambush, he lightly touched the door and it swung limply inwards revealing the dark and empty reception room beyond, dominated by a spiral staircase.  The whole room was lit only by a trail of twinkling tea lights rising up the staircase.

Tentatively they entered, their eyes scanning the shadows for movement.  In silence, they walked over to the staircase and began to climb up to the first floor.

The front door banged shut.  Drake’s heart jumped into his throat and he immediately froze where he stood.

He could feel Willow tensing behind him as she clamped her hand tightly around the bannister to steady herself.  They stood perfectly still, listening. But all Drake could hear was the pounding of the blood in his ears.

It must have been wind, thought Drake, as he began to slowly move up the stairs again.  But he felt jumpy, his heart still racing in his chest.  He was far too on edge, what the hell was wrong with him?

Dragon Rider – Part Twelve

Dragon Rider

Chapter Seven

The Towers of Learning

The dwarves?  No, he must be more tired than he thought; why the hell would they be in Nowhere?

Drake turned his head slightly, his emerald green eyes scanning the location from beneath the safety of his black hood.  Got them.  Yeah, just as he’d thought; it was the dwarves and they were standing outside the Devil’s Head Pub, laughing and joking with a group of dreadlocked boggarts.

What the hell was going on?  He turned away sharply, his body tense, the blood pounding in his ears so loudly that it was hard to think straight.

They couldn’t find him or Willow here, but if they did?  No, he couldn’t think about that now; he had to focus.  The dwarves had too many friends in Nowhere; it was, after all, the Elders of Nowhere who had invited the dwarves to join in the competition to hunt Falkor down and slaughter him in front of the baying mob.  Fortunately, with Alchymia’s help, Drake had stolen their prize and robbed them of their glory.

But why were the dwarves here now?

Was it just a coincidence that they were in the same place as Drake at exactly the same time?  Had they just come for the festivities?

No.  Not possible.  Drake knew for a fact that they rarely strayed from Devilsgate these days.

Drake’s stomach tensed, he could feel a ball of stone in his gut.  They had to be after Alchymia.  But why, and what did they want with her?  Was it to do with The Emerald Key?  And were they indeed working for Fenrik “The Spider“ Lasko as he suspected?

He looked at Willow.  Her amber eyes stared back at him, defiant and waiting for action.  But Drake couldn’t afford a showdown here, it was too dangerous.

At that moment a group of Healers, cloaked in the black robes of the order, appeared to the right of Drake and Willow, blocking Drake’s view of the dwarves as they glided past, chanting and swinging their sweet-smoking incense bowls.  Drake took his chance and pulled Willow into the group hoping that, once they were hidden by the sea of cloaks, they could safely sneak past the dwarves and onto the path that snaked up the hill to Alchymia’s tower.

But suddenly Drake stopped, the hair on the back of his neck raising like the hackles of a dog.

What was that?  What had Scarface said about Fenrik?

He looked over towards Scarface who was handing over a large wad of money to a spindly boggart with a gold ring dangling from the end of his long nose.

‘Consider it done, Scarface, consider it done,’ said the boggart, fingering the money as drool formed in pools at the corner of his lopsided mouth.

‘If you find them, you know what to do.’  Scarface grinned, revealing his yellow teeth.

The boggart stuffed the money in the back pocket of his leather trousers.  ‘Don’t worry, no one will know,’ he said, placing a large hairy hand on Scarface‘s shoulder.

‘And, while you’re at it,’ added Scarface, ’when you do find her,’ but he stopped mid-sentence, pulling a stubby finger across his throat.

The boggart nodded his dreadlocked head in agreement, a wicked smile lighting up his face, his black teeth just about visible from under his hairy lip.

The anger whipped up inside Drake with the ferocity of a tornado.  Stupid dwarves.  And Fenrik…  He curled one hand into a fist and cupped it in his other hand.  What he wouldn’t do to wipe that smile off Scarface.  If only he was in Devilsgate he’d go over and sort them out right now.

Drake’s head snapped around.  Damn it, where did Willow and the Healers go?  He was quite alone, exposed to the dwarves.  He clenched and unclenched his fists at the side of his body, unsure of what to do, his eyes scanning the crowd, searching for Willow.

Got her.  She was standing just a small way off by a stall selling animal chains and shackles, her eyes hunting for Drake.

Suddenly her eyes locked onto his.

Drake pulled his hood as far over his face as he could, dropped his gaze to the muddy floor and began the short, but very exposed, walk to her, every step feeling like it was taking a year.

‘HEY YOU!’

No.  No.  No!  Drake stopped, his heart thumping wildly in his chest like a big bass drum.

‘HEY YOU!’

Drake flexed his hands at the side of his body, preparing himself for the fight.  Slowly, he turned his head to meet Scarface’s gaze.

‘HEY YOU, FREAK!  Fetch me some beer,’ said Scarface to a small gnome, dressed in black lederhosen with knee-length grey socks, who had appeared in the crooked doorway of the pub under a mountain of beer jugs.  He jabbed at him with his leather boot and the gnome flew through the air sending the jugs and the beer smashing to the floor.  There was a roar of laughter as the gnome struggled to his feet, his grey candy floss beard now dripping wet and clinging to his chin.  Scarface waited until the gnome had managed to stand up before sending him flying again with another sharp kick to his bottom.

With Scarface’s attention clearly elsewhere, Drake hurried past them and over to Willow.  She turned away from him, her face as moody as the sky over Devilsgate.  She waited until he had passed her before she followed him up the hill and away from the fight that was now in full swing outside the pub.

Once they had reached a safe distance she spun around on her heels, her eyes blazing with fire.  ‘What happened then?’ she snapped.

‘Nothing,’ said Drake, his fists still pumping at his side.

‘Did you want them to catch us?’

‘No,’ said Drake, holding his hands in the air like he was surrendering.  ‘I overheard them talking, so I stopped to listen and when I turned around you were gone.’

Willow stared at him for a moment, the defiance still written on her face.  What the hell had happened to her since he had left?

‘Why are they even here anyway?’ she asked.

‘I think they’re after the book; they were talking about Alchymia.’

Her eyes narrowed for a brief moment, then finally, she relaxed.  ‘We need to find it first then, don’t we?’  She turned and walked off up the hill, away from the sound of smashing glass and cracking wood.

Dragon Rider – Part Eleven

Dragon Rider

Chapter Six Continued

Going Nowhere, Fast

Drake slung his guitar over his back and headed for the door.  There was no point taking anything else as it would only slow him down and he could easily find food from somewhere, even if he had to be a little creative to get it.  And anyway, he didn’t intend on being away too long.  The only trouble was going to be getting used to the lenses Gizmo had given him to keep him in contact with the warehouse.  He could feel them irritating the lining of his eyes, but he’d give anything a go at least once.

He halted at the exit to the warehouse.  He could see the Metatron with Willow sitting on top of it, bent double under a bulging rucksack.

‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ growled Drake, his hands clenched firmly at his side.

‘I’m coming with you.’

Drake’s jaw tightened.  ‘Look, thank you for letting me use the Metatron, but I said I was going alone.’

‘I know what you said Drake, but I’m just not listening,’ she said, putting her hands on her hips.  ‘I can help, I have magick, you never know when you might need me-’

‘I work alone.’

‘Not this time Drake.  This concerns all of us and I’m not prepared to just sit here and do nothing.’  Willow huffed and crossed her arms over her chest.

‘They hate human witches in Nowhere even more than here,’ spat Drake.

‘I don’t care, I’m used to it,’ replied Willow.  A few silent seconds passed before she looked at him from under thick black eye-lashes.  ‘I’ll let you control the bike.’

Drake looked at Willow sitting stubbornly on the bike.  Damn it, there was no point arguing.  ‘You do as I say, okay?  And for God’s sake what have you got in that rucksack?’

Willow began to run through the list, counting them off with her fingers, ‘I’ve packed some food, rope, my make-up-’

‘Get rid of it.’

‘But Drake, I-’

Drake cut Willow a hard stare.  ‘Get rid of it.’

She heaved herself off the bike.  ‘Okay, Okay but I get to take my make-up-’

‘Whatever, just get on with it.’

Willow returned five minutes later (a couple of tons lighter) and climbed onto the bike behind Drake.  He turned the key to power the machine up; it growled at him as the jets burst into life, the blue-orange flames exploding from the back of its silver body.  It slowly rose into the air, where it hovered until Drake hit the acceleration and they sped off in a blaze of fire.

Their journey to Nowhere was swift; within half an hour they had left the oppressive darkness and squalor of the City behind and were travelling through vast forests of leafless trees peppered with the remains of devastated towns and cities.  They saw no one; Drake deliberately avoided the other cities, choosing instead the more scenic route through the Wild Country, emerging from the mountain passes as the sun was beginning to fall beyond the horizon and into Mithra’s Realm.  In the distance, Drake could see the fortified town of Nowhere, its great timber buildings silhouetted against the setting sun.

Before they hit the main elevated mud road into Nowhere, Drake and Willow discarded the Metatron beneath a pile of dead leaves and branches, under a leafless Sycamore tree; they’d have to come back for it later.  The people of Nowhere were not into the gadgets of the modern world, so they continued the journey into town on foot.

Once they’d reached the vast moat that encircled the town they dipped behind a rocky outcrop and observed the Search and Security Team controlling the heavy flow of traffic passing through the gate.

‘How are we going to get past those?’ asked Willow, as she watched a Security Troll pick up a leprechaun by his oversized collar and toss him into the moat.  He landed with a great splash and then began swimming to the side, spluttering and panting.

Drake took in the town’s defences; the eight metre high walls with sharp wooden stakes arranged at forty-five-degree angles at their apex, the hulking goblins patrolling along the battlements and the slimy, suckered tentacles of the Kraken surfacing from the murky depths of the black moat as it attempted to devour the flailing leprechaun.

‘We’ll have to wait for a load big enough to hide in,’ he replied, ‘there’s no other way.’

Once the sun had finally said goodbye to the market town, leaving in its wake a grey-blue dusk, Drake and Willow slipped out from behind the rocks and crept closer to the road.  They lay down on the great earth embankments, waiting for a suitable load to pass in which they could hide.  The road was heaving with traffic; farmers escorting their herds through the gates, long trains of carts filled with cured meats, terracotta pots, and silverware, and brightly clothed entertainers juggling or eating fire.

A farmer with a bad limp headed along the muddy road with his three sons, shepherding a large herd of Tri-horn Hairy Fairy cattle.  These huge beasts were much sought after for the magickal properties of their horns, urine and red pelts which were used to make flying carpets in the Middle East.  They were completely placid, unless you were trying to brand them with a piece of searing hot iron on their bottoms (not a good idea, as the farmer could testify), and a perfect Trojan horse to get Drake and Willow into Nowhere as they smelt worse than horse poo.

Drake pulled on his hood and motioned for Willow to follow him up the embankment and into the herd of cattle.  They thundered along the road at a great speed, which was probably a good job as the air around them was putrid and full of large meat flies which had attached themselves to the cows’ bottoms.

Soon they were passing through the town gates and under the humungous hairy noses of the Search and Security Team and, although the farmer was questioned and his sons were not allowed to take in their broadswords, the group entered Nowhere fairly easily.  Once they were safely past the trolls and deep within the Common Marketplace Drake and Willow extricated themselves from the cattle and tried to take a breath of fresh air.

Only the air wasn’t fresh.

The Marketplace was worse than being stuck in the middle of the cattle; it was thick with the smell of rotting fruit, dung and urine.  They didn’t know about hygiene or street cleaners in Nowhere; it smelt like one giant toilet that hadn’t been flushed for over ten years.  Carts, laden with all types of produce from small milk containers that held infinite amounts of liquid to embroidered silk that kept the wearer toasty warm even in the Artic, trundled over mouldy vegetables, dung and more indescribable things.

Cloaked wizards were enchanting balls of blue light to hang in the air above the market stalls and tiny flower faeries were being strung up around the perimeter buildings.  In the background, Purple-haired Pygmy Pigs and Disappearing Dung Donkeys brayed and grunted amongst the chatter and singing of the excited townspeople.

Despite the bright light and the sheer amount of people in the Market place, Drake felt as relaxed as he ever would do in Nowhere.  He couldn’t believe their luck; they’d arrived on the Eve of Samhain, a Festival celebrating the end of Summer and the coming of the Dark Days, which entailed lots of drinking, dancing and the slaughtering of lots of animals.  Even though he was far from welcome in Nowhere (which would never change because he’d taken off with their dragon) he knew that they were far too preoccupied to notice him or Willow.  And if they did, they drunk so much before, during and after feasting, that they would probably think he was part of the entertainment, for at least a little while anyway.  All he and Willow had to do was to stay out of trouble as they crossed the market square and get up to Alchymia’s tower at the top of the hill before they sobered up.

But if he did get caught here, well, the consequences would bring more than tears to his eyes.  The whole place reeked of the Darkest Ages when humans were rounded up and eaten alive.  And if they caught Willow?  Well, let’s just say, they hated human witches more than they hated Drake and they would, no doubt, love to make a great spectacle out of killing both of them.

Drake and Willow made their way swiftly across the packed market, both of them keeping on their hoods as a precaution.  Drake knew Willow was the weak point at the moment; he could feel her prancing after him, her mind being seduced by the riotous entertainers as they practiced their fire dancing skills.  Why had he let her come?

Suddenly he stopped; he could hear a familiar gruff voice rising and falling over the general commotion.  He took a sharp intake of breath and waited for Willow to catch him up, not daring to look around or move one more step.  As soon as she’d reached his side, he grabbed her to hold her back.  He felt her body tense as his cold fingers closed around her arm.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could just see Scarface and the other two dwarves, Ozzy and Elvis.