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He turned to look through the window; The view of Nowhere had been replaced by a surreal landscape of a barren land scattered with the skeletal remains of dead trees.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.

 

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Death’s Apprentice – Part Thirty-One

Joe didn’t stop running until he’d put as much distance as he could between him and Charon. He hadn’t run since he’d done P.E. at school in year eleven, not that he’d done very much physical exercise even then because, well, he didn’t really go to school.

He stopped as he neared the tree line, bent over and held his chest as he tried to get control of his breathing. He was really unfit.

Finally, he stood up and looked at the towering trees of the Forest of Suffering. What had Charon said about it? All Joe could remember was some comment about something called Cerberus that would tear him apart. Joe thought he’d heard of Cerberus before but he couldn’t place where. He opened the Book of the Dead that Mrs Crow had given him.

He flicked to the chapter called “The Underworld Guardians,” then found the entry for Cerberus:

“Cerberus guards the entrance to the Forest of Suffering. Beware of the monstrous Cerberus for he has three heads and the tail of a snake. Beware all ye that enter for ye shall not be allowed leave. Soothe the monster with the honey cake given to you by your psychopomp. It will subdue the beast long enough for you and your psychopomp to enter. Do not look back.

If you are unlucky to be alive when you face him, you will find death soon enough.”

Joe didn’t understand any of it. He looked up and scanned the perimeter of the forest. He couldn’t see any dog, let alone one with three heads and a snake for a tail. He let his gaze fall back to the book. What on earth was a psychopomp? Where did he find one and where did he get the honey cakes?

He flicked through the book and found the section for psychopomp:

“Before you enter the underworld, Death will assign you a psychopomp, or a Guide of the Souls. The psychopomp will help you make a smooth transition from your old world through the land of the dead. They will guide you. Giving you the tools and the advice you need to get you to your destination.”

So, Death had been no help whatsoever. She’d really prepared him well, hadn’t she?

Joe’s heart leapt from his chest into his throat as he felt something move behind him. There was a thump on the grass and a meaty growl that rumbled around his chest.

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?

Death’s Apprentice – Part Thirty

The boat began to glide effortlessly through the water. Charon lowered his hand and flicked the camera on the phone back. He held it up and began taking pictures of the landscape and Joe. Snap, snap, snap.

‘You can take a selfie too,’ said Joe.

‘What is a selfie?’

‘Pass it here and I’ll show you,’ said Joe holding out his hand. Charon reluctantly passed the phone back to him. After a few adjustments, Joe held the phone up and said, ‘look.’ Charon looked at the image on the screen of himself and Joe.

‘Ohhhh, I see. I like that. Let me try.’

Joe passed him the phone back. It was at fifteen percent.

‘Come here,’ said Charon, throwing his skeletal arm around Joe’s shoulders. Joe cringed inside but managed to make a smile. Charon clicked the icon and the flash went off. ‘I like this,’ he said, pushing Joe to one side. Charon took another selfie, moved around the boat a bit and took another one. He combed his hair back with one hand, then took another photo. And another. And another.

Then they were nearing the bank.

‘Er…Charon,’ said Joe, ‘I think we might be about to crash.’

‘Oh..what? Oh, oh dear,’ said Charon as the boat ground to a halt, caught on the sand and silt of the bank.

Joe jumped out. ‘Thank you,’ he said. He turned and began to walk off towards the tree-line.

Charon wasn’t listening. Instead, he’d turned his attention back to taking photos. The phone camera was click-click-clicking at a rapid rate. Joe knew the battery would be dead within minutes.

‘What the…?’ he heard Charon shout. Joe ignored him, put his head down and ran.

Book Review – Inferno by Dan Brown

Inferno by Dan Brown (Doubleday Books, 2013)

As a huge Dan Brown fan (love The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons) I was really excited to get my copy of Inferno.

However, for me, Inferno was a big disappointment, and reading it, at times, felt like I was descending into the bowels of Hell myself.

I get the impression that whoever edited the book was just too much in awe of him to say “Dan, very pretty prose but you really need to cut it”. I get his passion for architecture and history – I love it myself and find his passion contagious – but there is just too much description which only serves to jar the flow of the narrative. For example, Langdon is racing to find the place that the virus is stashed before its too late and we are given a page and a half description of the Hagia Sophia before the chase resumes.

The architecture is stunning, Dan’s description is beautiful but this is the wrong place for so much description – it’s not a travel guide! Dan get back to basics, put the pace back into your novels and remember, sometimes, less is more.

2 out of 5 stars

Not sure it’s a great book for anyone (sorry Dan :() but if I had to push myself, it’s great if you like beautiful descriptions of places and architecture and don’t mind it slowing the pace of the novel down to the point where it practically stops. Not so great for those who like pacy novels.

 

Death’s Apprentice – Part Twenty-Nine

Charon beckoned for Joe to follow him, the phone clutched tightly in his hand.

‘This way, sir.’

When Joe looked up he was caught off guard by the landscape that had somehow appeared out of the darkness. A lump caught in his throat at the stark beauty of the place. He shook his head. He was becoming pathetic.

Charon’s small wooden boat was tied up at the side of a wide river that swept from left to right as far as the eye could see. Behind that, Joe could see a vast forest with trees reaching up into an eternal twilight, their gnarled branches reaching out like giant claws.

‘What’s that?’ asked Joe, pointing to the forest.

‘That’s the Forest of Suffering.’

‘The Forest of Suffering? And I’ve got to go through there?’

‘Yeah but I wouldn’t worry too much, you’ll never make it that far. Cerberus will tear you up first.’ Charon gave a little chuckle as he climbed into the boat. He placed the lamp on the floor of the small boat and held his hand out for Joe. Joe took it and climbed in.

The boat rocked gently from side to side and he climbed in. Joe noticed that there was no oar or motor. The water of the river was still and full of weeds and…

‘No! Don’t look in the water!’ screamed Charon.

Joe thought he could see faces floating beneath the surface of the water. Pale, skeletal face with huge mouths and…

There was a sharp slap on the side of his face. It broke his concentration. He looked at Charon, holding the side of his face which was stinging.

‘What was that for?’

‘No looking! You’re not going to die on my watch. What happens after, well, that’s not my problem.’ He gave another little chuckle.

Joe felt unsteady on his feet as the boat moved from side to side. He went to sit down.

‘No! No! No sitting on this journey. We’ll be there in a minute.’

‘Oh okay.’

Charon turned to face the front of the boat. ‘And off we go,’ he said, holding his left hand in the air, his crooked finger pointing to the other side of the river. In his other hand, he still had the phone. Joe could see it said seventeen percent battery. Joe hoped the crossing wasn’t going to take too long because he didn’t want to think what would happen if the phone ran out.

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.