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.’

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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?