A Short Story about a Big Quest
And it began with these words.....
These were Nora's first mutterings every morning when she woke up under the subway bridge, huddled in a smelly old sleeping bag with newspapers spread over her for extra warmth. She looked round bleary-eyed, checking her old pram was still there, carrying her meager possessions. She knew her money was safe - the few coins she had were hidden in her knickers. And it would take someone of extraordinary courage to look in there.
Nora dragged herself out of the sleeping bag, rolled it up, and stuffed it under the hood of the pram. The newspapers she used as a makeshift toilet, although thankfully there was barely anything to dispose of. She was nearly always dehydrated and hungry.
Nora looked seventy-five; she was 40. She hadn't always been a homeless tramp. Once she'd had a house and a husband. But three years ago her husband had died, there was no life insurance, the bank took her home, she couldn't get a job, and voilà! One instant tramp, thank you very much. From housewife to bum in six short months.
She grabbed her pram and shuffled off to see if she could score some small change off the tourists near the museum. The police normally didn't patrol there until later in the afternoon, she should be safe for a while.
She plodded slowly along the street, her hip protesting loudly that it was stiff and cold and could do with a sit down and a cup of tea if possible. Fat chance. She had a quick look in any bin that she passed; sometimes people threw away half-eaten kebabs or unfinished chips after a night out. So oblivious that their unwanted leftovers could be someone else's feast the next day. But today she was out of luck. Greedy bastards.
turned into the main avenue, joining the crowds rushing to work. She took the opportunity to lift a wallet from a back pocket, the crush of people making it
child's play. Pick-pocketing was one of the new skills she'd learned on the streets. A few yards down the road she emptied the wallet of cash - two five pound
notes and a travel card - but left the credit cards. Card theft wasn't worth
the risk. She shoved the cards and the wallet into a bin. And continued on her
She only became aware she was being followed when she turned into the main avenue. All homeless people who survive more than a few months on the street develop a sixth sense. They need it, to stop being robbed of their crappy possessions every five seconds. Or set on fire by young thugs looking for a laugh. Or groped by randy old winos who think homeless women will do anything for money. Nora cast a quick look behind her. There he was, a dapper looking gentleman in a long cashmere coat with a neatly trimmed beard and a little trilby perched on his head. Nora frowned to herself. He looked like he'd stepped out of a nineteen sixties movie. People didn't wear trilbies anymore did they? She glanced around again, but he'd gone.
The next time she saw him was when she was sitting outside the museum with her placard. She was proud of her placard; it was an old piece of cardboard on which she'd inscribed "War veteran; I helped my country now please help me". It was bollocks of course. The closest she'd come to military service was giving a few old clothes to the Salvation Army every now and again. But people seemed to prefer giving to the deserving, so she'd created the illusion of a former soldier down on her luck. A young couple had just tossed a few pennies into her cup when she caught sight of the man in the trilby again. He was sitting in the window of the café across the road from her, looking directly at her. He lifted his hat to her and smiled courteously. Nora growled. She didn't like being followed. Then she hoisted herself to her feet, slammed her placard and collecting cup into the pram, and lumbered off up the street.
She vaguely wondered who the man was, and why he'd smiled at her, but mainly she wanted him to leave her alone. She decided to head up to the drop-in centre next to Victoria Station. It was usually full of druggies there, but you could get a half-way decent cup of tea. And if that didn't shake off the bugger following her, nothing would.
But when she went in through the door of the charity shelter, the first person she saw was the man in the trilby. He was behind the counter, serving tea to the homeless. He'd taken his coat off and rolled up his sleeves, but the hat was very firmly on his head.
Nora was very nearly speechless. Very nearly. She marched over to the counter and leaned in so he got the full benefit of her rancid breath and the body odour she'd been cultivating for several days now.
"Wha'thfu'arufollownmefer?" she snarled. The man looked puzzled.
"I do beg your pardon, dear lady, but I'm not sure I understand your dialect," he said, in tones of pure mellow honey. Nora stared at him. She hadn't spoken to anyone in so long, she could barely understand herself. She tried again.
"What are you following me for? Do you fancy me or something?"
"Do I.....?" The man looked horrified. As well he might. "My dear lady, I assure you I am not here for some nefarious or carnal reason, my intentions are purely altruistic. A situation has arisen which forces me to inquire as to whether I can engage your services, for a suitable remuneration, of course."
"Huh?" Even as a housewife, Nora had not been particularly well educated. Which is why she had struggled to get a job. The man sighed. He enunciated very carefully, as if speaking to a child.
"I need your help. I can pay you."
"Oh." A crafty look came into Nora's eyes. "How much?"
He came out from behind the counter with two cups of tea.
"Let's sit down," he said, threading his way through the crack users and alcoholics swaying in the middle of the floor. The table in the corner was free. Nora dithered for a moment, then followed him, barging her pram through the other down-and-outs like a battering ram. When she sat down, she noticed he had his coat on again, though she hadn't seen where he got it from.
She looked at him expectantly, promising herself that if he wanted anything weird, she would simply get up and go. He took a breath and looked at her.
"I need your soul," he said.
She got up.
"No, no, please...I know that sounds very strange and frightening but please let me explain." Nora was about to stomp off when he pulled out a secret weapon from his coat pocket. "I have biscuits!"
Nora stopped in her tracks.
"What type?" she asked cautiously.
"What type do you like?"
"Garibaldis. I've always been partial to garibaldis!"
"Well then," the man shook the packet invitingly, "these are definitely garibaldis."
Grudgingly, Nora sat down and opened the packet. They were indeed garibaldis. She took one and, in a completely un-dainty and un-ladylike way, crammed it into her mouth. She waved at him to carry on.
"Let me introduce myself. I am a soul man. By that, I don't mean I enjoy Luther Vandross or Aretha Franklin, though in actual fact their music is rather pleasing. I mean that I usher souls into the right bodies, and when the bodies are done I usher the souls into their next life. It's a very fulfilling job."
Nora was barely listening. For all she cared, he could claim to be Santa Claus, just as long as she could finish the garibaldis.
"My name in my own tongue is rather complicated. But you can call me Bob." He paused, as if unsure how to continue. "Now the problem is, one of my souls has been..er....plucked out of a body before its time. It's been hijacked. By a very bad man. And technically I can't get it back because I'm not meant to interfere. But you can."
Nora had never heard such rubbish in her life. The man was a loony. But she decided to play along. Who knows, there might be a bit of cash in it, she thought to herself.
"'Ow am I supposed to get a soul back then, Bob?" she asked, spraying crumbs over him.
"It's simple. You've heard the expression 'soul-mates'? People often mistake it to mean the love of their life, but they are wrong. A soul-mate is someone who has exactly the same soul as you, no matter what body or what world they live in."
"What world they live in?"
"Oh yes. This isn't the only world I operate in. I operate in quite a large area. And soul-mates can occupy any twin body anywhere in the universe without being kicked out. Oh, twin souls may react to things a little differently depending on their environment. But at their core, they are identical. However, a soul that's NOT in its proper body cannot stay there very long. That's why I need you. Your soul, and the one that has been hijacked, are soul-mates."
Nora had had enough. The biscuits were gone. She'd listened to this lunatic long enough.She heaved herself to her feet, gave the man in the trilby a cold stare, and grabbed her pram.
"Bugger off," she said. And stomped outside. Where she bumped into Bob. She backed away slowly.
"Nora, I really do need your help. I am willing to prove what I say. And I can offer you a reward in return."
"Prove it? 'Ow you going to prove you collect souls? Are you suddenly gonna sprout horns and pitchfork?" she asked, still moving away. Bob gestured impatiently.
"Look over there." He pointed. Despite herself, Nora turned to look. A young man was chatting to a girl at a bus-stop about a hundred yards away. She turned back to Bob.
"I don't underst...." she began. And found herself facing the girl at the bus-stop.
She realized several things simultaneously. One, she really fancied the girl. Two, she - he - had forgotten his bus fare. And three, he had a willy. Well of course he had a willy, this was the body of the young man Nora had seen just seconds ago. He looked around wildly and saw Bob standing outside the shelter, with a very dirty and dishevelled homeless vagrant who was standing motionless. Bob waved cheerily. The young girl asked him what was wrong.
"Colin? Are you listening? Colin, what's the matter?"
"The... that woman over there..." he managed. What was happening? How had he turned into a man? The girl turned to look, just as the homeless woman toppled over and crumpled to the floor. Colin felt something pulling at his very core.... and then he was lying on the floor gazing up at the sky with Bob kneeling beside him.
"So? Did you enjoy your little trip?" he enquired.
"What the hell just happened?" Nora struggled to her feet. She saw the young man and woman at the bus-stop giving her a concerned glance, before boarding the number 10 that had just pulled up.
"I was that bloke! I felt what he felt! I saw me standing over here! How....?" Nora turned suddenly and grabbed Bob by the throat. She was skinny but she was strong and before Bob knew it he was slammed against the wall and turning purple.
"You'd better explain what's going on, mister," she growled, "or this hat will need a new 'ead to sit on."
Bob struggled to speak. "I told you!" He gasped. "You aren't that man's soul-mate so when I put your soul in his body it bounced right back! Please madam, unhand me!"
Nora loosened her grip.
"So what exactly do you want from me?" she asked. Bob took a few deep breaths and straightened his tie. This was not going at all as he'd planned.
"I want to borrow your soul, just for a very short time, and put it into the body of your soul-mate. All you have to do is find the other soul, and you can come home. That's it."
"Oh, that's it, is it? Well you make it sound so simple! But do I find a soul?"
"Well, I know exactly where it is!" beamed Bob. "And your soul-mate has lots of friends! It will be a simple task and you'll be home before you know it. It will be like a holiday!"
"How much like a holiday?" Nora asked suspiciously.
"Oh, the place your soul-mate lives in is beautiful! Glorious! Waterfalls and trees and glades and mountains....it's a different world. A really different world. It's called Rathe."
"I don't care what it's called. I care about the reward. You mentioned a reward." Bob sighed. Humans were always so venal.
"What do you want?" he asked. He wondered why he bothered. It was money. It was always money. But Nora surprised him. She looked down, suddenly a little flushed.
"A home," she said, shyly."I'd like my home back."
Bob looked at her, then took her grubby hand in his.
"A home you shall have, my lady," he said. "Now, I will look after your body at this end, don't you worry about that. Your soul-mate is called Lyssa. She's in a bit of trouble...but she's very capable and strong. Her soul is trapped in the Castle Dread. The Evil Warlock has it. He's not very nice. Watch out for him. And you'll have to win over Zephyra, she'll be able to tell you're not really Lyssa. But dragons are a pushover for polo mints so take these." He pushed a small tube into Nora's hands. She looked confused.
"Sorry, the Evil Warlock? He's actually called the Evil Warlock?" Nora was having second thoughts. "Castle Dread? Dragons? Look, I'm not sure about...."
The next time Nora opened her eyes, it was to see an enormous scaly red and orange head hovering above her, vaguely horse-like but with an important difference. The teeth were definitely not horse-like. Nora moaned in fear. The teeth were huge and pointed, and were hanging directly over her, ready to plunge down if she made the wrong move. Above the teeth, a pair of golden amber eyes whirled anxiously. Nora had never seen a creature like this - no human had - but the synapses in her brain were urgently trying to tell her what she was looking at.
"D...dragon?" she breathed. "Dragon! DRAGON!" This came out as a scream.
The dragon jerked back in surprise, plumes of smoke coming from its cavern-like nostrils. Nora scrambled to her feet, screaming. She looked round wildly. She was in a clearing, on some kind of bed made of wooden branches and leaves. Around her, tall trees reared up towards the sky. Except...no, it couldn't be....except the leaves were blue and the sky was green. But it was kind of hard to take it all in, when her immediate vision was filled with a dragon the size of a double-decker bus. It narrowed its eyes as it looked at her with what seemed to be pure malevolence.
"Help! Help me!" she screamed. Several things happened. Three children burst out of the trees and ran towards her. The dragon roared and unfurled a pair of leathery wings that almost filled the clearing. And a man with a sword jumped in front of her.
"What are you doing?" he screamed at the dragon. "It's Lyssa! Stand down, Zephyra!" The dragon lowered its head so it was on a level with the man.
"Nottttt.....Lyssssssssaa...." it said. If a snake could talk, it would sound like this. Except a thousand times louder. It lifted a paw and gently, but firmly, moved the man out of the way. Then it looked at Nora.
"Impossssssster...." it breathed, and in the twin jets of its nostrils, Nora could see a glow starting. "Buuuuuurrrrrrn, impossssster..." snarled the dragon. Smoke curled from its mouth. In terror, Nora fell to her knees, looking for a weapon, a stick, a stone, anything....but the only thing she had was the packet of polo mints given to her by Bob. She screwed her eyes shut and brandished the small tube feebly. The dragon blinked. Daintily, it extended two enormous claws towards her and plucked the mints out of her hand. Nora opened one eye cautiously. The dragon tossed the whole packet into its giant maw and started sucking, its eyes half-closed in pleasure.
"Refreshhhhing...." it murmured. Nora stood up shakily. The well-built young man turned to face her, and inexplicably clapped his hands over his eyes.
"Lyssa?" he said, without looking at her.
"Er....maybe?" She hazarded. She looked round for the children she'd seen running out of the woods a short moment ago. They were all knelt on the ground, heads pressed into the earth, as if praying.
"Er, hello? Kids? You ok?" she ventured. One of the 'kids' looked up. He had a massive curly beard and was looking confused and angry at the same time.
"There you go again, taking the piss because of our heights....oh, sorry." He too clapped his hands over his eyes, then went back down to the kneeling position.
"Oo ahnt any othes on..." he said, muffled, into the grass.
"He said, you haven't any clothes on." The young man spoke up, and Nora couldn't help noticing what large muscles he had. "We covered you in a shroud for the cremation, but it, er, it seems to have fallen off."
"Cremation?" Nora finally saw the bed of leaves and branches she was standing on was actually a make-shift funeral pyre. "You were going to cremate me?" She looked down at herself and realized she didn't have a stitch on. Her face grew thoughtful. It was always hard to assess your own body when you were looking down on it from above, as it were, without the benefit of a mirror. But from what she could see, she was very womanly. Very. Womanly.
There was also something soft on her head which spilled over her shoulders. After a moment's consideration, she recognized it as hair. It was a lovely red colour, and far removed from the graying, matted strands on her real head which hadn't been washed for several months.
She saw a white sheet next to the pyre and grabbed it, wrapping it round herself. The dragon stirred, having finally finished the polo mints.
"You can loooookkk nowww....." it announced. "The imposssster is covered." In an instant the young man had a sword at her throat, and the three children....midgets....people of short stature were surrounding her with a variety of blades. She gulped.
"Who are you?" said the young man. "Why are you in Lyssa's body? Did the Evil Warlock send you?" There was real venom in his words, and steel in his eyes. He looked quite intimidating and for a moment Nora's bottom lip quivered. But she hadn't lived on the streets all that time without developing a steel core of her own.
"How dare you?" she snapped, drawing herself up to her impressive new height. "I am Nora and I was sent here to help you get your friend back. And this is the thanks I get? I've a good mind to leave right now."
"What do you mean, get our friend back? We thought Lyssa was dead...."
"According to the little soul man, she's alive but that Evil Thingummy has her soul. I'm her soul-mate and as soon as we get her back, I'm out of here."
"You've seen Bob?" asked the large young man dubiously.
"Yes, I have. Now lower your swords."
"Likely story," sniffed one of the little people. "This is a Warlock trick, I'd bet my last dollar on it."
The young man regarded her for a moment, then cocked an eyebrow at the dragon.
"Is she telling the truth, Zephyra?" Nora looked at the dragon anxiously. It seemed her fate depended on an overgrown lizard. The dragon lowered his head and sniffed at her cautiously. Its amber eyes held hers, gazing into her very depths. Into her, hah, into her soul. Finally it withdrew.
"Yessssss. She isss here to help Lyssssaaa."
The young man stood back and let his sword arm drop, but his three companions stayed where they were.
"I still don't trust her," said one.
"I think it's a trick," said the second.
"Let's set her on fire anyway, see if she changes her story," added the third.
Nora had had enough.
"Lower your swords....or I shall unleash my secret weapons!"
"What secret weapons?"
Nora dropped her sheet. Immediately four arms slapped over four pairs of eyes.
"Gah! My blood pressure can't take this!" said one of the little men. "Get 'er some bleedin' clothes!"
A short while later Nora was dressed in leather trousers, a leather singlet, and leather boots. Obviously leather was de rigueur for the woman of taste in Rathe. She found the trousers a bit snug, but the boots were lovely - comfortable, flexible, soft yet tough. Perfect for walking the streets back home, she thought.
"So what are you called?" she asked the motley crew.
"I," intoned the young man gravely, "am a Clod."
There was a small pause.
"You're a what?" Nora asked cautiously. He drew himself up importantly, and Nora watched the muscles chasing round in his arms.
"I am Clod of the clan Clod, a great warrior and Lyssa's right hand man."
"Let me get this straight; your surname is Clod and your parents called you Clod?"
"It is a great honour," he said gravely.
"Ah. Ok. And you three?" she said, turning to the shorter members of the group. "I mean, it's obvious you're all dwar...." Clod slapped a hand over her mouth.
"Don't say it!" he said urgently.
"Mmmffhh?" she said against his hand. He put his mouth close to her ear.
"The 'D' word," he whispered. "Don't say it! It makes them mad. Just call them little people!"
"What are you saying?" asked one of the little people suspiciously. "She didn't just call us that word did she?" He spat at the ground. Clod waggled his eyebrows at Nora conspiratorially and removed his hand.
"Er, I was just going to say what a fine body of men you all are," she said weakly. "And what are your names?"
"I am Eeny," said Eeny.
"I am Meeny," said Meeny.
"And I am Miney," said Miney.
Nora burst out laughing. "You're joking aren't you? So where's Mo?" Her giggles trailed off as a stony silence descended. Clod shook his head at her. Eeny - or was it Meeny - wiped a tear from his eye.
"He got eaten! By a baldergash!"
Nora recovered quickly.
"Oh, my, that's....well that's awful...bloody baldergashes, always eating people...I'm, er, I'm really sorry." She let a respectful pause pass. "So how do we get to the Castle dread then?" she asked brightly.
They had been trekking for three days now. Eeny, Meeny and Miney complained constantly but Nora loved it. The weather was a lot nicer than London for one thing, so sleeping outside wasn't as much of a chore as it used to be. And it gave her time to find out more about this world. She got used to the green sky pretty quickly - after all, she wasn't even sure why the sky back home was blue so why shouldn't it be green here? But the blue leaves and purple grass gave her pause. Some things were similar. Water looked and tasted the same as on Earth. The people were obviously a little different, though not hugely so. But there were clearly creatures she'd never heard of in this world. And magic.
"So what is it I... I mean, Lyssa does?" she asked Clod as they plodded along. He glanced at her.
"You don't know?" he asked curiously.
"No. Is she a warrior? I mean, all this leather...."
"No," Clod said dismissively. "She doesn't wield weapons. She can't fight in that way."
"Oh." Nora was disappointed. She quite like the idea of being a fighter.
"She has other gifts. More...personal gifts. Gifts of a physical nature. She's very effective at deploying them."
"Oh." Nora went red. She hadn't realized Lyssa was a...a..... was there a nice term for it? Oh well, at least she looked better fed and healthier than the poor girls on the street-corners at home. "So why did this Evil whatsit steal her soul then?"
"The Evil Warlock. Because Lyssa is the only one who can unlock the Crystal Cage and retrieve the Golden Crown. The Golden Crown has great power. The Evil Warlock uses it for evil. He stole it from the Good Sorceress, who only used it for...well.."
"Good?" Nora hazarded a guess. Clod looked at her in amazement.
"You've heard of the Good Sorceress then?"
"Let's just I'm getting the hang of names around here," Nora said drily.
"Well, we were on our way to get the Crown back when the Evil Warlock performed a dark spell and took Lyssa's soul. So now we have two things to find...and you don't know how to use her gift, so you?"
"Er, well, I'm not really sure what exactly you expect me to do to the Evil bloke," Nora stammered, as her mind played out the possibilities. She hadn't had much practice since her husband died.
Clod looked at her in consternation.
"Well I expect you to sing to him, of course!"
They were interrupted by a large headless sheep thumping down in front of them. At least, it looked like a headless sheep. Zephyra often went hunting and gave them her leftovers, which to be fair was a big step up from rooting around in bins for old kebabs, Nora reflected. The midgets carried with them a bag of herbs and spices, and were surprisingly good at knocking up roasted meats, stews, and soups.
That night they made a sort of goulash with thick, tasty gravy, and everyone ate companionably around the fire.
my aching feet," said Miney. Nora had finally begun to tell them apart.
Eeny had the big black beard, Meeny had the big red beard, and Miney had no
beard at all. But apparently he was the oldest.
Nora looked at the dragon, curled up a short distance away.
"So why don't we just ride the dragon?" she asked. "Surely flying is quicker than walking. And she's big enough for all.....what?"
Everyone was looking at her aghast.
"Ride the dragon?" cried Meeny in horror. "You can't ride dragons! They're sacred creatures!"
"But...I thought Zephyra was Lyssa's dragon! Doesn't she let Lyssa ride her?"
Clod was shaking his head vehemently.
"Zephyra is Lyssa's friend. Not even Lyssa would presume to ride a dragon. No-one would ever suggest such a thing...it is only because you are an outsider that we will forgive the crassness of your remarks."
Nora felt crushed.
"I was only asking... no need to get the hump."
"Hump? I do not have a hump!" Clod was perplexed.
"Oh shut up. Eat your dinner"
They ate heartily, and slept deeply. Which was just as well, because the next day was a bit rough.
The meadow looked perfectly innocuous. It was beautifully purple and covered about a mile between them and the start of the mountains. It was much wider than it was long, stretching from side to side as far as the eye could see, following the line of the mountains for miles. But whereas the fields behind them had been dotted with flowers and shrubs and trees, this one was empty.
Clod halted at the edge of the meadow and motioned the others to stop. He gazed out at it for a while, his brow creased. Behind them, Zephyra glided to the ground. The dragon stretched out and took advantage of the unexpected break.
"I don't like it." He said. "Notice the birds?"
"What birds?" asked Nora.
Nora realized there weren't any birds flying over the field, though there were plenty behind them.
"What does it mean?" she asked.
"Trouble," Clod answered shortly. "I'll check it out." He made to step onto the meadow but Eeny stood in front of him.
"Uh uh, nope," said the little man, shaking his head. "You're our sword arm, too valuable. And Lyssa would kill us if anything happened to you. I'll go."
He was pushed out of the way by the others.
"No, I'll go."
"No, I'm older. I'll go." Meeny and Miney started slapping at each other while Clod tried to pull them apart. It was a while before anyone noticed Eeny had already walked fifty yards into the meadow.
"Er...guys?" said Nora, drawing their attention to him. Everyone immediately fell silent, and it seemed to Nora as if they were holding their breath. For a while nothing happened. A butterfly fluttered by, merrily looking for nectar to feed on. Eeny let his shoulders drop and turned to them with a relieved smile.
"It's ok, it's not what we thought. It's just an empty...."
A green tentacle shot out of a hole two feet in front of him and snapped the butterfly out of the air. It pulled it down into the ground. Eeny froze. Then very carefully, he knelt down and picked up a stone, and threw it as hard as he could across the meadow. It got maybe five yards when a green tentacle shot upwards and pulled it down.
Nora realized her jaw was hanging open unattractively.
"What the hell was that?" she shrieked.
Clod rubbed his eyes. "It's a Terra Anemone," he said. "Very rare. Carnivorous. It's a huge creature with lots of tentacles. It finds a nice bit of open land and burrows underneath, but it can sense movement above it. It follows the vibrations from underground and when you least expect it.....snap!"
Now that Nora came to look more carefully, she could see the meadow was dotted with holes everywhere, some bigger than others.
"Can we go round?" asked Nora.
"Look at it. It's massive. It would add days to our journey."
"So what then? Can we kill it?" Nora believed in animal rights in principle, but not when they included the right to eat her.
"How? It's underground. We can't get to it. And if we step on that meadow, it has the advantage. Speaking of which...."
Eeny was still frozen on the spot. Clod took out his bow and fitted three arrows to it.
"When I say 'go', Eeny, get back here." He shot the arrows over the meadow. Three tentacles came shooting out of the ground, as Eeny legged it back to the edge of the field.
"Phew, thanks boss. Thought you'd forgotten about me there."
Clod turned to Lyssa.
The creature can only be in one place at a time, and it is possible to distract it. But obviously we can't do that for the whole journey...what? Why are you looking like that?"
Clod's arrows had given her an idea.
"There's a game the homeless used to play with the coppers on my world," she said thoughtfully.
"Coppers?" asked Meeny
"Think of them as, er soldiers. Not bad people but jobsworths, you know? Always trying to stop street beggars from making an honest...well, making a living. So every now and then these coppers would try to round up people who were busking or running card tricks on the tourists." She saw Clod's confusion. "In my world, you need a license to entertain on the streets, and if you don't have a license you get into trouble with the law."
"You need a license to entertain?" Clod looked aghast. "That's terrible!"
"Yes it is. But we had this thing where if we saw the coppers making a sweep, two of us would put on an act. One would chase the other yelling 'Stop! Thief!' and pretend they'd just had their bag stolen. Of course the coppers would give chase, they'd soon lose the so-called thief and by the time they got back to their sweep, all the street performers had packed up and left."
Clod was nodding.
"So, you distracted them. A bit like I distracted the Terra Anemone with my arrows."
"But I can't keep firing arrows all the way across the meadow. I haven't got enough, and besides, once the Anemone realises they're not worth eating, it'll turn towards us."
"We don't need arrows." Nora's eyes were gleaming. "We have a great big hunk of flying meat to keep it distracted." She turned and looked straight at Zephyra. "We might not be able to ride you, old girl, but we can use you as bait."
They could hear Zephyra complaining as they plodded behind her. She was flying low over the meadow, circling ahead of them to distract the Terra Anemone, and every time a tentacle shot upwards and tried to latch on, they could hear her irritation.
"Ssssoooo undignified.......bait indeed.......wait till I tell Lyssssaaaa..."
Nora had been worried that with enough tentacles the Terra Anemone might actually be able to snare Zephyra, but Clod assured her very few things were capable of stopping a full grown dragon.
Sadly, the Terra Anemone came to the same conclusion before they'd reached the other side.
They were about two hundred yards short of safety when Nora noticed Zephyra was no longer being bothered by the tentacles.
"Er, Clod?" she began nervously.
A tentacle shot out of the ground in front of her and wrapped round Eeny. It began dragging him towards the hole it had come out of. He screamed and kicked his legs, but it wouldn't let go. Meeny and Miney rushed towards him but they were promptly trapped too. Eeny reached the hole but was too big to go down. Another tentacle emerged out of a much bigger hole a few feet away, grabbed Eeny's leg and started pulling him towards it. Nora grabbed Meeny's hand as he was dragged along the ground. He had his blade in the other hand and was trying to saw through the tentacle but to no avail. Clod managed to fire off four arrows, hitting the feelers holding Meeny and Miney. They let go, and immediately launched themselves at Clod, wrapping themselves round his head and waist so he couldn't fire arrows any more. Meeny and Miney threw themselves at Eeny who was now half-way inside the hole, still struggling grimly. Nora looked in horror at everyone struggling around her, then shrieked at Zephyra.
"Do something! Anything! Use your fire!"
"Hoooowwww? I cannot ssssseeeeee the enemy....." the dragon asked mournfully as it circled above.
"You bloody useless lizard!" Nora screamed. "The holes! The holes in the ground! Flame ON!"
Zephyra drew a deep breath and ignited her nostrils. Two jets of what looked pure oxyacetylene fuel were directed straight into one of the bigger holes in the ground. Immediately blue fire shot upwards out of several other holes nearby. It was like being surrounded by mini erupting geysers, but spewing flames instead of water. Nora yelped as one nearly took off her eyebrows. There was a scream of pure rage and pain from under her feet. Then all the tentacles slammed back into the ground, and Eeny hurtled free with his pants on fire.
Meeny and Miney jumped on him and smothered the flames. Clod picked up an arrow and poked it cautiously into one of the holes.
"I think it's dead," he ventured. "Or at least, badly injured. I can smellburning."
"That could be my butt," said Eeny, rubbing his backside." Everyone looked at Zephyra.
"You were amazing!" said Clod
"Not bad for a flying snake," said Eeny grudgingly. Zephyra bowed her head modestly.
"It wassss the Imposssster's idea," she said gracefully.
"You can call me Nora," said Nora. "Gor, I could certainly use you back on Earth. You'd definitely keep the thugs at bay."
"What's Earth like?" asked Clod curiously.
"A lot like that meadow," said Nora darkly. "You think everything's alright, and then you get snared and dragged down and you can't get back up."
They ate Terra Anemone that night. It tasted like squid.
The next day they got jumped by bandits. They were travelling through mountainous country, and Zephyra had flown ahead to scout the path. Castle Dread was just a day's walk away, and everyone had become quieter and more circumspect as they grew closer. Even so, they hadn't heard the band of thieves following them among the rocks until it was too late.
Five beefy men wearing black bandannas with eye-holes suddenly leapt on to the path in front of them. Five more landed behind them. They were surrounded. Clod and the little people immediately drew their swords. By unspoken agreement they formed a circle around Nora. The battle was fierce; Clod disarmed two of them almost immediately and ran a third through with his blade. But they were badly outnumbered, and eventually one of the bandits grabbed Nora by the hair and held a dagger to her throat. Her four companions immediately dropped their swords.
The bandit chief, a grinning thug of a man, approached Nora.
"A good day's haul, eh?" he said to his men, running his fingers through her hair. "She will fetch a good price at market." Nora turned and sank her teeth into his hand. He yelled and jumped back. Clod and the little people sniggered.
"You won't be so smug when our dragon comes back," warned Nora.
"You mean, the dragon I trapped an hour ago?" the bandit snarled, nursing his bloodied hand. "It was a simple matter to lure it into a cage with a couple of dead sheep. Dragon-hide is worth a king's ransom. And if you weren't worth more to me alive than dead, I would gut you right now for this!" He waved his hand at her, then turned to his men.
"Kill the big one. He is of no use to us. But the other three, they can be put to work down the mines."
Clod lifted his head.
"Why the mines?" he said innocently.
"What do you mean, why the mines?" the bandit leader snapped. "People like these have a knack for finding gold in mines." He turned and winked at his men. "And they're certainly built for it." The bandits burst into raucous laughter.
"Is he 'aving a go at our size?" said Miney suspiciously.
"What do you mean, they're built for it?" said Clod over the laughter. Nora thought he was laboring the point a little, but kept quiet.
"Are you stupid or what?" The bandit leader leaned down till he was eye to eye with Eeny, Meeny and Miney, "It's obvious, innit? They're dwarves!"
There was a moment's silence. Clod closed his eyes. Then all hell broke loose. As one, Eeny, Meeny and Miney roared in anger and swept up their weapons. In a blur of arms and legs they attacked anyone and anything. Nora counted at least two heads rolling down the path before she, too, closed her eyes. She heard screams and yells and the sound of feet running away very, very hard. After a while, it grew quiet.
Cautiously, she opened her eyes. Eeny, Meeny and Miney were sitting on top of a pile of about eight bandits. Two were headless. One had no arms. Two others had obviously run away, including the bandit leader.
"Bloody hell"" she breathed. "That was amazing! Wow, you three go totally loony when anyone calls you dwa...." she stopped herself just in time. "Well, when they talk down to you," she finished. She caught sight of Clod, as he picked up his sword and re-sheathed it. His arm had a big gash in it.
"Clod, you're bleeding!" she said. She grabbed one of the backpacks and found the sheet she'd first used when she'd arrived on Rathe. She tore off a strip and tied it round his bicep, noticing belatedly he was bright red with embarrassment. He's in love with me, she thought. Then, no, not me. He's in love with Lyssa.
They found Zephyra looking shame-faced in a cage a few miles up the path.
"Oldest trick in the book, you stupid lizard," said Meeny disgustedly, cutting her free. "Hope the free meal was worth it."
"I amm sssooorrry. I wassss hungry, I didn't sssseeee the cage," the dragon said dolefully. Nora rubbed the giant reptile on its neck.
"Don't worry Zephyra. We all got taken by surprise," she said.
"And it mustn't happen again," said Clod grimly. "We are too close to the Castle Dread now to be careless."
looked at the Castle Dread, a dark brooding hulk perched on top of a rocky
eyrie, all towers and turrets and menace.
"Gordon Bennet, it looks like the Disney logo gone bad," Nora muttered to herself. The Castle was well protected. On three sides there were almost vertical mountain walls leading to it. The fourth side had a path leading to the castle gates, in clear view of anyone looking out from above. On either side of the path was a ravine so deep, they couldn't see the bottom.
"He'll see us coming a bleedin' mile off," said Eeny. "Then he'll either pick us off with arrows or blow the path up when we're halfway across."
"We need another way in," said Miney.
"Could we climb up to it?" asked Clod dubiously. They all looked at the sheer walls of rock.
"Not unless we develop an immunity to gravity pretty quickly," said Meeny.
Nora looked round at all the men, then at Zephyra, dozing behind them.
"Oh, if only we could fly," she said meaningfully. "If only there were some way to reach the castle by magically speeding through the air and landing right on top of it!"
"Hah, yes, that would be good," said Clod sadly.
"I mean, if only we had some means of transportation that could fly right up to the castle," Nora tried again.
"Yes, yes, we heard you," said Eeny irritably. "What are you suggesting, we should buy a magic carpet?"
"My cousin has a pair of ten-league boots, maybe we could borrow them?" said Clod.
"Oh for..... you're a great bunch of idiots! You're all missing the point!" Nora jerked her thumb over her shoulder at Zephyra. "We have the perfect way of getting up to the castle without being seen!"
"What do you mean?" asked Clod, genuinely puzzled.
"The dragon!" Nora shouted, hopping up and down in frustration. Zephyra opened one eye curiously. "The bloody dragon! We ride the dragon up to the castle, no-one will expect that!"
"We told you, nobody rides dragons!" said Clod in horror.
"Which is why no-one would expect it, you numpty!" Nora rolled her eyes. "It's our only choice!" She saw four pairs of eyes staring at her in shock. Zephyra, she noted, only had a look of intense interest on her face. "Look, is riding dragons against the law?" she asked reasonably.
"No, it's just....it isn't done! It's like....well there's no law against eating slermpoo but nobody does!"
"What the hell is....never mind. So it's not illegal as such. So the only one who should be bothered is Zephyra." Nora turned to the dragon. "What do you say old pal?" The dragon moved a complicated set of bones beneath her wings, and Nora realized she was shrugging.
"It issss okay by meeeee. To sssssavvee Lyssssaa. Assss long assss you don't make a habbbbbitttt of it...."
It was actually more complicated than it looked. To begin with, there was nothing to hang onto. Zephyra's neck ridges ended where her wings began, and her back was made up of smooth scales, like a snakes. Far too slippery for anyone considering sitting there for a near-vertical ride up a mountain face.
And secondly, there was no way of knowing how much weight Zephyra could carry, as there wouldn't be any chance of a test-run without blowing the element of surprise. Zephyra assured them she would be able to carry all five of them, but it was a long way up to the castle, and no-one wanted to find out half way up that she wasn't going to make it.
Clod solved the first problem by making a complicated harness out of their belts, back-pack straps, plaited grass, and the sheet Nora had been carrying around. Arranged around Zephyra's neck and torso, it gave him something to hang onto, and everyone else was tied to him. Now no-one could fall off.....unless Clod let go. Not a very comforting thought, but the best they could do in the circumstances.
As for the second problem....everyone crossed their fingers.
"So the plan," said Clod. "Once we reach the castle, we split up. We have to find Lyssa's soul. Once she's back in Nora's body she'll know what to do. And we also have to find the Golden Crown at all costs. Zephyra - your job is to flame anything that moves. Everyone clear?"
"How will I know where Lyssa's soul is?" Nora asked. Clod looked uncertain.
"Er...didn't the soul man tell you?" he asked. She shook her head. Clod looked questioningly at the little people. Meeny and Miney shrugged.
"It'll be in a soul-catcher. A sort of net with nasty things hanging off it," supplied Eeny authoritatively. Everyone looked at him. "What? I went out with a girl once, her step-mother was a witch. A witch queen, actually. I could've been royalty, if she hadn't gone and met that prince. Fickle cow."
"Ok then. So we're looking for a scary net, and the Crystal Cage. Let's go."
For anyone who's ever dreamed of riding a dragon, it's not all it's cracked up to be. It's cold, uncomfortable, and frightening. Everyone was relying on Clod to hang on, and Clod was relying on his biceps not to give out under the weight of one full grown woman and three short but sturdy men. With her cargo on her back, Zephyra waddled to the edge of the ravine. She'd explained to them that she wouldn't be able to lift off with all of them sitting on her; she would have to dive first, to get up the necessary speed. Nora had gone very white at this idea - it sounded like the worst fairground ride, ever.
For an endless second Zephyra stood poised at the edge of the drop.
"Readddddyyyy......." she hissed. And jumped.
Everybody screamed as they dropped at terminal velocity for what seemed an age, the walls of the ravine shooting past them in a blur. As the g-force increased, they lost contact with Zephyra's broad back. Grimly, Clod hung on with all his strength, his muscles bunching like basket-balls in his arms, the others flying out behind him like some bizarre flag. And then, miraculously, the dragon leveled out, wings flapping almost silently as she sculled along on the air currents. There was a whoop from one of the little people, and Nora, her heart beating wildly in her chest, told herself to breathe.
As they approached the base of the mountain beneath the castle, everyone grew quiet again. Zephyra turned upwards, not vertically but at an angle, zigzagging rather than making one straight run for it. Clod found the weight he had to hold was bearable, and he hissed a sigh of relief through his teeth. If everyone had plummeted to their deaths because he wasn't strong enough, he would have died of embarrassment.
It took several minutes to reach the top. They were counting on the back of the castle being unguarded; after all, who would believe anyone would risk climbing the mountain? Zephyra glided over the perimeter wall, and dropped lightly onto the flagstones. All was quiet.
It was clear at once Zephyra wouldn't be able to follow them into the castle. The doors and windows weren't built for a dragon. Clod motioned her to wait, and Zephyra sank into her usual resting position.
"Eeny, you go with Nora. Check out the Evil Warlock's main chambers. Meeny, Miney, you're with me. We'll head to the treasure vaults. Everyone rendezvous back here in an hour." Clod kept his voice low.
"Er, do I get a sword or a weapon of some sort?" Nora whispered. "I'm feeling kind of vulnerable here." Everyone looked at her in astonishment.
"You don't need a weapon!" said Meeny. "You've got Lyssa's voice!"
"Yes, and her hair and her eyes, I don't see how that helps!" she hissed savagely. They heard voices from around the corner.
"Quick, get going," said Clod, pushing her in the opposite direction. "Good luck!" He and the other two disappeared through one of the arches. Nora followed Eeny to one of the doors. They found themselves in a long corridor, with lit torches along the walls casting flickering shadows.
"I think we should head upwards," said Eeny. "If I had master chambers in a castle, I'd want to be high up, wouldn't you?"
Nora shrugged. The closest she'd ever come to a castle was bumming money off tourists outside Buckingham Palace. They found a narrow staircase, and started up.
"What did Meeny mean, I have Lyssa's voice?" Nora asked. "And a while ago, Clod said I had to sing for the Evil Warlock. Has Lyssa got a nice voice?"
"You could say that, you could say that...." he murmured. "Although sometimes she has a terrible voice. As in, a voice that brings terror."
"What do you mean?"
"Lyssa's voice can be the most beautiful thing you ever heard, or the most terrifying. It can calm you, scare you, put you to sleep.....or kill you. Lyssa is a siren."
"A...siren?" Nora doubted he meant the woo-woos in police cars. "You mean, like out of the legends?"
Eeny glanced at her.
"You've heard of them? They exist in your world too?"
"Not exactly. They're myths, like unicorns and dragons and ......oh. So I guess sirens are real on Rathe then, huh?"
"Real, but very rare. And they're the only thing that can break the Crystal Cage where the Golden Crown is being held. Lyssa's voice can shatter the Crystal into a million pieces. But only she knows the frequency she'll need to use, and that's why the Evil Warlock took her soul. No soul, no voice. At least, that's what he thought."
They stepped out into a huge hallway. There were paintings on the wall, and a huge oak door at the far end. Unfortunately, there were also two massive animals guarding it.
"Oh bugger. Gnarlwolves," said Eeny, going very, very still. The huge animals got slowly to their feet, snarling, their muzzles drawn back over their sharp teeth, drool dripping to the floor. They had the look of German Shepherds, thought Nora, but were far larger than any German Shepherd had the right to be. The growling got louder, and the gnarlwolves slowly paced forward, their ears flattened against their heads.
Clod and his two companions were heading downwards, reasoning that any self respecting
castle would keep its treasures in its basement. So far they hadn't encountered any guards, but
they knew it was only a matter of time. And they were having trouble finding
"Why don't they put bloody signs up?" muttered Miney in disgust, as they hit yet another dead end. "This bloody castle is like a bloody maze!"
"Shh, someone's coming," whispered Meeny. They flattened themselves into an alcove as two guards walked past. A thought struck Miney. He raised his eyebrows and gesticulated to the others. They looked at him, puzzled. Miney rolled his eyes, then jumped out of hiding, waving his sword.
"Halt!" he said to the guards. They turned, quickly, swords already part-drawn, but relaxed when they saw the little man in front of them.
"Shouldn't you be in school, shorty?" one of them joked. They both guffawed. Miney stepped forward and kicked him smartly in the kneecap. As he went down, he slammed the hilt of his sword onto the guard's helmet. The man went down without a sound. The other guard drew his sword.
"I'm going to skewer you like a kebab, for that, you puny little bastard."
"I don't think so. Not while I've got my friends here." Meeny stepped out of the alcove, grinning. The guard gave a snort, clearly unimpressed.
"Are all your friends as tiny and insignificant as you?"
"Well some are, yes, I'll concede that. But he isn't." Miney grinned as Clod stepped out of the shadows like a large bear, gripping his blade with a look of menace. The guard dropped his sword and raised his hands.
"Now what?" said Meeny.
"Now we get him to take us to the vault."
gnarlwolves prowled forward, their eyes fixed hungrily on Eeny and Nora. The
growling was getting on Nora's nerves. The deep frequency was jarring her
delicate ear-bones and setting her teeth on edge. She frowned. Frequency...what had Eeny said about
"Eeny, are you saying with the right sound I can knock these wolves out?" she asked.
"Well yeah...but if you get it wrong you'll make them into bloodthirsty killers." He paused. "More bloodthirsty killers. Or bring the walls down. Don't try it if you don't know what you're doing!"
"Can you handle them both?" she asked pointedly. "Only they look bloody big to me!"
Eeny hefted his sword. "I can keep 'em busy while you get through the door," he more confidently than he felt.
The first gnarlwolf pounced. Eeny slashed at it with his sword and the beast fell back, its muzzle streaked with blood. The second gnarlwolf started barking manically, then both animals launched themselves at Nora and Eeny. In a panic, Nora tried to run backwards and tripped over her own feet. One snapping jaw sank into her leg; luckily her boot bore the brunt of it. Eeny wasn't so lucky; the gnarlwolf had his sword arm in its jaw and blood was streaming from his wrist. With a grunt he switched the sword to his other arm and stabbed the wolf in the side. It yelped and let go, circling round for a better angle. Again and again it tried to sink its teeth into Eeny's throat; Eeny managed to fend it off with his good arm. His other hung uselessly at his side, dripping blood.
The wolf attacking Nora was shaking her leg viciously. She raised her other foot and booted it in the head. It let go and lunged again. Time slowed down as she saw the open jaw and those dripping teeth heading for her face. She screamed.
She put everything into it. Her body and soul. And, unknowingly, a few harmonics that only existed in the scream of a siren. And it hit the wolf at a distance of a few inches.
The skin peeled from its skull like an overripe mango. Its teeth were blown out of its mouth, and its eyeballs melted. The wolf fell, a hairy carcass with a bloodied mess where its head used to be.
Eeny and the other wolf stared in disbelief. The wolf whined, and sniffed at its companion. Then it sat, looked up at the ceiling, and howled.
Eeny grabbed Nora's hand and pulled her to her feet.
"Bloody 'ell woman, that was amazing! Glad you weren't facing my way when you did that!"
Nora felt shaky.
"I didn't mean to kill it...I'm not sure how I....I was just scared!"
"Weren't we all! C'mon, that bloody racket will bring people soon enough. Let's get into the chamber and see what we find."
They skirted round the grief-stricken gnarlwolf, now lying dolefully next to its dead brother, and went into the Evil Warlock's chambers.
guard, a sword prodding his back, led them down one dark corridor after another. Finally they reached a small
black door in the very bowels of the castle. It was locked, but after a few
dire threats and a couple of sharp digs with the sword, the guard admitted the key
was on the lintel.
"Seriously?" said Clod. He felt above the door. Sure enough, there was a big brass key balanced there. The door opened.
Inside the vault glittered with diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, jewels of all kinds, gold, silver, tiaras, medallions, mysterious swords stuck into stones and oriental-looking lamps begging to be rubbed. It was a veritable treasure trove. But real prize was in the middle of the room. On a raised plinth, casting rainbows everywhere the light hit it, was a sparkling box made of crystal. The Crystal Cage.
Clod picked his way to the plinth and picked it up. It was heavy, with no hinge or lock, or indeed any definable way of opening it. It was just a cube made of crystal. In its translucent depths, he saw a glimpse of gold. He stared at it, mesmerized. The Golden Crown! At last! There was a shout behind him.
"Bugger," said Meeny. Clod turned around.
"Where's the guard gone?"
"Sorry boss," Miney said, looking sheepish. "All this gold...somehow it sings to me!"
"And me," said Meeny. "I turned my back for one second and the bastard had it away on 'is toes."
"Then we'd better prepare for company," Clod said grimly.
Evil Warlock's bedroom was a meticulously tidy. Not one thing out of place.
Books arranged alphabetically. Candles all burned to exactly the same length.
The curtain pleats all equal in width. Definitely
the sign of an insane mind, Nora
Dotted around the room were various things of an occult nature; a sheep skull, a jar full of eyeballs, a large hairy spider in a cage. All neatly arranged and labelled. But no sign of the soul-net.
"You check the cupboards, I'll take the shelves," said Eeny. His face was white with pain and Nora noticed he still wasn't moving his arm.
"Are you okay?" she asked in concern.
"I'll be better when we get out of here," he said shortly. They hunted in silence for a few minutes.
"There's nothing here," said Nora wearily. "Wherever he's got Lyssa's soul, it's not in his chambers."
Eeny nodded reluctantly. He didn't want to admit it, but she was right.
"Let's get back to the rendezvous point."
"What? Shouldn't we help the others?" Nora said.
"We have no idea where they are, and we could jeopardize their mission if we get caught," Eeny answered. "Come on."
They opened the door. On the other side stood a tall man dressed in black who seemed to be aiming for the Bela Lugosi look. And he wasn't happy.
"What the hell have you done to my gnarlwolf?" he snarled. "Do you know how rare those things are?"
"Er.... the Evil Warlock, I presume?" said Eeny. And without missing a beat, he ran him through with his sword.
fight between Clod, Meeny, Miney, and the guards of Castle Dread later became
the stuff of legends. People wrote songs about it; how the mighty heroes were
outnumbered fifteen to one. How guard after guard fell to their swords. How the
warriors large and small seemed invulnerable. How their sword arms never
faltered. But the truth was simpler.
The door to the vault was very narrow. So it didn't matter how many soldiers there were, and there were a lot, they had to come in one by one. They were picked off easily by Clod on one side of the door, and his companions on the other. And fortunately for our heroes, not one of those soldiers thought of the obvious solution; shut the door, seal the intruders in, and let time take care of the rest. So twenty minutes later, the fight ended with a pile of bodies inside the vault, and the three men walking casually back the way they came, Crystal Cage stashed in a backpack. They found Zephyra where they'd left her, lightly dozing on the top ramparts of the castle. Of Nora and Eeny, there was no sign.
Evil Warlock looked down at the sword sticking out of his chest and sighed.
"Now look what you've done!" he said conversationally. "This was my favourite vest!" To Eeny's horror, he grasped the sword hilt with both hands, and, grimacing, he pulled it out of him.
"That's....that's....didn't that even hurt?" he asked.
"A bit," Evil Warlock admitted. "But the point is, I can't die, so you can save your energy. You and your friend are going to need it." He turned, grinning, to Nora and truly noticed her for the first time. The blood drained from his face.
"You! I thought I'd...how did you get your soul back?" He scrabbled desperately at the inside pockets of his dark cloak, finally bringing out an old piece of netting which had, as far as Nora could see, dead flies and spiders and scorpions woven into it.
"The net!" She lunged for it, but he waved his hand and she flew backwards as if pushed by a giant invisible hand. Eeny grabbed the sword off the floor and made to stab him again, but another wave of the hand and suddenly he couldn't move. He was frozen in front of the Warlock, one foot off the floor.
"Hmm, now what should I do with him? I've always wanted a dwarf statue," mused his captor. Nora held her breath at the 'd' word, but although Eeny went slightly redder, he didn't move an inch.
"No, I've a better idea." The Warlock plucked Eeny's sword out of his hand, and stabbed him in the chest. Then he giggled and clapped his hands. "Now you can move." Immediately Eeny groaned and fell to the floor, blood pouring from his chest wound.
"Eeny!" Nora screamed. She felt hot tears trailing down her face. She ran to Eeny's side, trying to stem the blood, crying as his eyes closed and he gradually became still.
"You monster!" she screamed at the Evil Warlock.
"The clue's in the name, darling. The Evil Warlock, remember?" His lips curled in a mocking smile. "Who are you anyway? You're not Lyssa, though you have some of her talents. Not to worry - you can join her in this soul-prison." He shook the net at her. "And then I can get on with ruling the world."
"I'll stop you," Nora promised him coldly.
"How?" he sneered. "If you knew how to do that, you would have done it already." He raised his hands, and she flinched. But before he could do anything, a guard came running up to the door. The Warlock listened as the guard mumbled something, then turned back to Nora.
"It seems you brought some friends. Let us go and say hallo to them." He turned to the soldier and gesticulated at Eeny's body.
"You, bring the dwarf. I don't like leaving little things around on my floor."
The Evil Warlock gripped Nora by the arm and dragged her out so her friends could see her. A dozen soldiers followed behind, swords drawn. Clod, Meeny and Miney went very still when Eeny's body was tossed at their feet. Zephyra roared mournfully. Nora stumbled against the Warlock, crying in her grief; with irritation he shoved her away. She fell to her knees.
The Evil Warlock gave an evil laugh.
"You did well to come this far. I salute you. But you have failed! Give me back the Crystal Cage, and maybe I will let you live. Well, let you live a bit. Probably not very long." He cackled again.
Clod and his companions raised their swords defiantly. They knew they were probably about to die; but they weren't going down without a fight.
Behind him, her loud snivels masking her actions, Nora looked down at the item she'd managed to pick-pocket from the Warlock. The net. Somewhere in there was Lyssa's soul. But how did she get it out? She looked up and her eyes met Clod's. He was looking straight at her.
"You're wrong, Warlock!" He said. "Nothing will tear us from our task!" He waggled his eyebrows meaningfully. "We are going to rip you apart! Your plan is useless, we're going to pull it to pieces!"
Nora looked at him in confusion. Was he talking to her? The Warlock was also looking bemused.
"Strong words, warrior. But without Lyssa you haven't a hope of opening the box..."
Clod's voice rose in frustration. "No, you're wrong! We're going to shred it! Slash it to bits! Oh for pity's sake Nora....." Confused, the Warlock turned to look behind him, but Nora had finally understood. Grasping the net in both hands, she pulled it apart.
Evil Warlock lunged at her as he realized what was happening. But it was too
late. A silver bolt of light came streaking out of the ruined soul-net, and
straight into Nora's opened mouth. Immediately she felt something settling into
her, another consciousness, another voice. Her own...but not her own.
"Where the hell am I? Who are you? Hey, is someone else in here? Ooh there's Clod and the little guys! What the...is that the Evil Warlock? That slimy bastard, I owe him...."
Looking straight at the Warlock, she opened her mouth. And began to sing.
It was beautiful. A soaring aria that made Nora feel as if her heart would burst. It rose and fell like a wave of light - a purity of sound that could spur heroes on their quest. Lure sailors to their doom. And turn Warlocks into stone. Which is what happened.
cremated Eeny that night. The Castle Dread and all its soldiers now belonged to
them, so the funeral pyre was lit in the main courtyard. They toasted his
memory, and told tales of his bravery until dawn.
Then Lyssa took the Crystal Cage and sang one, long, pure note which resonated with the crystalline molecules until they shattered. The Golden Crown came tumbling out, none the worse for wear.
It was a strange time for Nora. She was still inside Lyssa's body, only this time Lyssa was there too. Talking to her was like talking to herself. Which, admittedly, she'd done a lot since she'd been living on the streets. But this was different. Now she was answering herself back.
"So not to be rude or anything, human, but when are you leaving?"
"Well that's not very grateful. I just helped you get your soul back!"
"I know, and I thank you. But I'd quite like to be alone with Clod, and it's a bit awkward. If you know what I mean. Two's company, and all that...."
"Don't mind me. I'll shut my eyes."
"So that thing you did with the sleight of hand...that was clever. That stupid Warlock didn't even feel you take the net."
"It's called pick-pocketing. A very handy skill on my world."
"On your world you must be a great magician then?"
"Er, well, yes, I can make a few things disappear, given half a chance."
"So you'll be eager to return then?"
"Alright, alright, I get the message....."
And so it was fortuitous that Bob the soul-man appeared shortly afterwards. Nora made her goodbyes to Meeny, Miney, and Clod, who surprised her with a long, languid kiss. Nora could feel Lyssa folding her arms and tapping her toe somewhere behind her. And then....... she was home.
woke up in a huge bed with big fluffy pillows and soft cotton sheets, the type
where the words "luxury" and "thread-count" feature
prominently on the packaging. She looked round the room, seeing that it was
large yet comfortable, with a casual sofa under the window and Persian rugs on
the floor. She spotted Bob's trilby on the dresser. Wow, he certainly had a
There were fresh clothes on her bed, and somehow during her sleep she'd had a wash. She got up and got dressed, pausing for a moment in front of the full length mirror. She looked like she had when she'd been married. Actually, she looked better than when she'd been married. She stood taller, and there was a glint in her eye.
She turned as Bob came in. He gave her a smile.
"I trust you are well rested?" he said.
"I am, thank you. How long have I been asleep?"
"Four weeks, give or take." Nora gasped.
"But I was only on Rathe for a few days!" she said.
"Time moves differently between different worlds. You all did splendidly, my dear. The Good Sorceress was most pleased."
"You know, you lot are going to have to work on those names," Nora said. "Well I'm glad she got her Crown back....but poor Eeny!" Her eyes welled with tears as she remembered.
"I can assure you, my dear, Eeny's soul has gone on to a better place. I made sure of it myself." Bob smiled gently at her, then picked up his trilby and put it on. "And now I have to go. Places to go, people to see, souls to save, you know the kind of thing."
Nora looked at him in desperation.
"But....wait! You promised! You said I'd have a home! Where shall I go? What shall I do?"
Bob looked puzzled.
"But you ARE home! THIS is your home! Don't you like it?" He looked at her quizzically. Nora reminded herself to keep breathing. She slowly turned full circle in the centre of the room. Then she ran outside and drank in the wide landing, the spare room, the huge bathroom with its bath AND shower. She ran down the staircase with the oak banister, into the lavish hallway, and the living room with its expensive sofas and wooden bookcase, and finally into the kitchen.
"This is mine?" she asked without turning round. She knew Bob was behind her, and she was afraid if she turned around he might change his mind.
"All yours," he said mildly. "A home, as agreed."
"But...I can't afford this! The mortgage alone...."
"What is a mortgage?" Bob asked.
"Who pays for it?"
"No-one. It's yours. The deed is on the dining table. Oh, and there's a full-time job at the homeless centre if you want to earn a bit extra. I spoke to the council. They need a manager, and I, er, persuaded them you were ideal for the job. You start next week."
Finally, Nora turned around. With shining eyes she hugged Bob so hard his trilby fell off.
"Thank you," she whispered. Bob picked his hat up and tipped it to her.
"You're welcome," he said politely, and vanished.
And Nora, for the first time in three years, did what she'd dreamed of doing since she'd watched her home being repossessed.
She went into her kitchen, and made herself a cup of tea.
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