GAVIN PAUL CARTER - FANTASY CHILD I - THE KEY TO THE KINGDOM
This story has not yet been rated.
There are some experiences in a child's life that change you forever and on a beautiful Summer's day a lonely young girl was about to begin just such a journey...
It was the 17th of August when Cora Pearl, a frail twelve year old girl in a light green dress stood silently as she watched her beloved horse being led through the stable door for the very last time. Sparks had been her friend and playmate for nine years, such a beautiful creature, skin like sunlit moon dust and eyes of dark fire. The horse had been a gift from her dead Father, it was Cora’s closest link with the man who had died when she was only seven. Now, as she watched the stable boy crossing the cobbled forecourt with her horse trotting closely behind, she realised that the link would be broken forever. A large window set into the walls of a huge white manor house overlooked the stables and cobbled forecourt below.
Raising a glass of brandy to his pale lips Samuel Blackthorn a tall thin man dressed in a dark red suit and tie gazed down at the forlorn figure standing alone on the cobblestones. His dark grey eyes narrowing as he watched his stepdaughter closely for any reaction, Blackthorn shook his head and ran his long manicured fingernails through his thick white hair. 'Nothing’. He said 'Nothing to say, as usual’...
Cora somehow managed to lift her feet and walk. Her legs were heavier now, the shock had made her body feel solid like ice. At the end of the long driveway which led to the manor house, Cora could only watch as Sparks was led up the ramp into the back of a horsebox and driven away. The silence around her and inside her grew, and the bird song faded from her ears. Cora watched the van moving slowly into the distance, the horsebox becoming smaller and smaller until the lush green landscape and the sea of tall trees swallowed the vehicle completely. Once out of sight Cora fell to her knees and sobbed. Although she cried and the tears flooded freely from her eyes, she made no sound. The only sound that Cora could hear were the footsteps of her concerned Mother running along the cobblestones towards her.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Cora’s bedroom was a large room on the top floor of the mansion. It seemed a little old fashioned, lacking the normal pictures of pop stars and pinups that most young girls adorn their walls with. Instead the blandly painted grey walls favoured a wide collection of dead butterflies in glass cases, not Cora’s choice but rather the influence of her stepfather, who, over many years had hunted down and killed these rare specimens, Cora's contribution to the decor was somewhat more impressive than those poor dead insects. Cora had become a keen artist and she had produced a wonderful collection of drawings and paintings, each of these were hanging on the wall opposite the glass cases. The stencilled banner pinned above them read 'The Land of Grimney' The inscription encircled the hundreds of fantastical, mythical creatures that Cora had drawn from her vivid and magical imagination.
A very distinctive creature called the Bugwug was particularly impressive, it had the yellow and black body of a bee, large purple wings and a blue feathered head of a parrot, its green beak was hanging wide open, with its yellow tongue sticking out as if drawn in mid squawk. This strange creature stared out from the canvas through big orange eyes that were wide, cross- eyed and vacant in expression.
Even stranger still the creature had two short black furry hoofed legs and two little arms tucked up inside its furry body, on the end of each arm the Bugwug had human hands, tiny and baby like, the fingers on each were no longer than fat little matchsticks. Although the Bugwug appeared to be the centrepiece of the display, there were many more extraordinary creatures parading across the walls, strange winged, stick like humanoid hairless red skinned Mogrins.
Tall sinister skeletal Zoorbans dressed in red rags and carrying candlelit lanterns.
Small fat bodied red haired blue skinned Drumlins, their eyes as large as saucers and mouths, noses and ears to match. These funny little creatures dressed in red suits and sandals sat around a large wooden table tucking into a huge blueberry pie.
There were drawings of warriors and knights too, Calaman Kade a gold and silver armour plated man with a grey beard and white hair sat upon a large jewel encrusted throne. He stared from the canvas passively, his deep blue eyes had a gentleness about them.
There were also paintings of several female warriors hanging amongst the pictures of monsters, knights, dragons and wizards. One painting in particular stood out from amongst the others. The sword wielding Eliza Jade, a beautiful girl aged about nineteen, stood beneath two blazing red suns, her dark tanned body adorned with jewellery. Jade appeared to be walking through a sea of sand and beams of sunlight shone down behind the young warrior and lit her long golden hair. Jade carried a small triangular golden shield with the inscription 'Servant of Light' carved into it.
Cora loved to draw and write poetry and over the years since her father's tragic death she had retreated into her own imagination. Grimney was Cora's hiding place from reality and she loved the world she had created. The Land of Grimney was hers and no one could take that away. Blackthorn would never control her thoughts and dreams. Sparks could be sent to the slaughterhouse, but she would still have the men, women and the creatures of Grimney to keep her company and all it took was a pen and paper for her to find her way there.
Grimney was an escape from the silent world she had chosen to live in. Cora Pearl would not speak. She had not spoken a word since her father had been killed. She had only been seven years old when the man she adored died in a car crash. Cora had been in the rear passenger seat with her mother, although neither of them had been physically injured both Cora and Elizabeth changed that day. Cora lost her voice and retreated into her mind and spent the next five years communicating her thoughts by writing them down, because of this her writing skills had surpassed that of most children her age and her grammar was far better than that of the average sixteen year old.
Cora's mother however was a broken woman, she was only young herself but by the age of thirty, five years after the accident, she had the look of someone much older. Robert Pearl had been the Love of her life. Tragically for Elizabeth she had never told Robert how much she loved him and now he was gone and it was far too late. The Pearl's had been a happy family before the accident but the years had not been kind and their fate now lay in the hands of a man who had little patience or care for either of them. Samuel Blackthorn had been a family friend, a man of great ambition, but little emotion, he worked hard and always got what he wanted. He possessed people and treated them Like objects, to him Elizabeth who had once been a beautiful woman, was a great prize and knowing how weak she had become after her husband's death he sought her hand in marriage and without objection she had become his third wife. Blackthorn disliked Cora, he saw her as a threat, he wanted her gone, but she had her place in his life and although he wished her from existence she could not be displaced from Elizabeth's affections. Cora had her pillows upon her bed to hold, they gave no love but they were always there and once more she held them in her grip, hugging them to her tiny body hoping that somehow they would bring her the comfort that her family could never give. Elizabeth sat by her daughter's side, she looked sad, but somehow she was beyond tears as the numbness once more set in.
'Cora' Elizabeth spoke gently and reached down a trembling hand to stroke her child's unruly hair, but stopped with her hand hovering just above her daughter's head. 'Sparks was old, he’ll go to a better place'...
Elizabeth did not touch her Daughter, she held back like she always did, as if gripped by Blackthorn who was now standing in dark silhouette in the archway of the bedroom door. Cora squeezed the pillows tightly against her face and the tears continued to flow in endless silence.
Blackthorn shrugged his shoulders 'Don't pander to the child'. he said, his voice cold and unemotional. Blackthorn lit a match and raised it to his lips. He gazed down into the flame, his mad staring eyes dancing with yellow fire. 'You can live like a match if you like Cora. Just remember this, although they burn bright, they don't burn bright very long'... The matchstick blackened and Blackthorn rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger and watched with delight as the ash flaked to the floor. Blackthorn’s face fell back into shadow 'You can try and be a match for me if you wish. Or you can do as you are told and learn the right way to live. You simply have to learn that under my roof you belong to me. If you continue to refuse to speak, then I will speak for you. You need to grow up and look at the bigger picture'.
Cora curled into a ball, she hated those words. ‘The bigger picture' Blackthorn always said that, but the little girl never understood what that saying meant, all Cora could do was wipe her eyes a little and look across at her paintings, for Cora ‘The Land of Grimney’ was the biggest picture of all.
SPARKS COMES HOME
Cora slept restlessly that night, the darkness wrapped around her unsettled her and gave her strange dreams. She found herself standing on the cobblestones outside the stable doors. The night was dark and moonless and the stars had hidden themselves behind dark grey clouds. She heard the clip clop of horse’s hooves and watched nervously as a luminous light shone from within the stable walls. She could hear her own breathing, it was slow and uneasy. Why had her dreams returned her to this place? Whilst she waited the light grew brighter and through the stable doors the ghostly glowing form of Sparks came trotting silently and eerily towards her. Cora remained calm as the ghostly horse approached. The animal had been saddled and was ready to be ridden and without hesitation Cora lifted her body onto the animal's back. She stroked Sparks' soft glowing mane and sighed, for although it had only been a day since he had left, she already missed him dreadfully. Suddenly the horse reared up on his back legs and without further delay galloped forwards into the darkness. Sparks jumped over a wooden fence whilst Cora held tightly to his reins. The magnificent animal charged through a vast field towards a huge oak tree that stood towering at its centre.
The tree looked sinister in the dark, perhaps a thousand years old with branches that stretched out like black rods of iron. A breeze seemed to gather around them and the great oak's wooden appendages swayed back, and forth as if beckoning horse and rider to its mighty roots.
Cora had seen this tree before, it grew in a field on her stepfather's land. It was new to her dreams and as Sparks carried her towards it, she wondered about its significance. Sparks gathered more speed and as they reached the base of the tree one of the horse's metal shoes came loose from Sparks' hoof. The glowing metal shoe spun through the air and embedded itself in the soil just below the great oak's overhanging branches. Once more Sparks' front legs reared up and Cora found herself dislodged from the horse's saddle. The little girl tumbled backwards from the animal's back and began to fall through the air. The ground moved quickly towards her. Cora closed her eyes, bracing herself for the sickening thud that would follow, but she felt no pain, merely the soft material of her mattress as she woke to find herself back in her own bed once again. Cora sat up and gazed across the moonlit room. The bedroom door was ajar and she could hear the voices of her mother and stepfather talking downstairs. Placing her bare feet down on the wooden floorboards she walked slowly and silently across the room, stuck her head out from behind the door and listened.
‘She has to go Elizabeth, she needs a firm hand and I’m at the end of my tether with your child' Blackthorn was stern, his tone frightened Cora and the young girl placed her thumb in her mouth for comfort.
‘She's just a child’... Elizabeth responded feebly and Cora’s eyes began to fill with tears again, Cora knew that whatever her stepfather demanded he would be given.
‘I've found the perfect boarding school for her'... he continued. 'The decision needs discussing, but I have already decided that this is the best way for her'...
'Oh no’. Elizabeth responded ‘I don't think that would be good for Cora'...
‘This is not just about Cora'. Blackthorn began to bully his wife 'It's about our happiness. Stonehaven is a special school for children with behavioural difficulties. It's strict but they will be able to help her with her problems. I think'... Blackthorn did not finish his sentence. The one sided conversation was interrupted by the loud slamming of the front door as Cora made a swift exit from the mansion.
The young girl ran through the cobbled yard, chasing her shadow. The sky above was black and red and a luminous silvered moon shone down like a beacon of light that lit her way through the night. In a vast green field in the distance stood the huge oak tree backlit in silhouette by glowing moonbeams. Cora's bare feet bounced over the grass, each footfall drew her nearer and nearer to the great oak. Tired and out of breath she slumped down at the foot of the tree’s ancient and powerful roots. It was then that something familiar caught her eye. Partially embedded in the loose soil in front of her was Sparks' horseshoe. Cora clambered to her feet and walked cautiously towards the gleaming metal object. She had no idea why she needed to be cautious, but Cora had always been afraid of the dark even if the moon was bright and glowing, it was the midnight hour that scared her. The young girl knelt down and reaching out her trembling hand she grabbed hold of the horseshoe and began to pull it upwards from the crumbled soil.
The metal appeared to be lodged in the ground. Cora grabbed the horseshoe with both hands and yanked as hard as she could. It was like pulling the sword from the stone. With one almighty tug the horseshoe separated from the soil. Cora was thrown backwards and fell flat on her back in the long grass. She did not see the long shaft of blue light that shot from beneath the soil, it moved with intelligence as if released for a purpose. The beam danced on the wind and spiralled around the tree, coiling itself around the overhanging branches before finally launching itself heaven bound towards the moon. Cora sat up and brushed a leaf from her hair, it drifted downwards and landed in the small hole that had formed by her feet, she raised her right hand and gazed at the horseshoe gripped within her closed fist. The young girl gently brushed the dirt from the metal and with each light stroke of her fingers the dry soil fell away. Each tumbling flake revealed a letter inscribed into the horseshoe, each letter caused a tear to fall. One by one they rolled down her cheek and dripped from her chin. Six tears, six letters.
The name 'SPARKS' was the inscription engraved into the metal. Cora bent down over the small hole covered by the leaf and she began to dig frantically with the horseshoe. The hole became deeper and deeper until it was deep enough for her to stick her face inside. Cora gazed down into the darkness, her eyes adjusting to the pitch black surroundings. The girl found within herself a new freedom in isolation and with that freedom, came a deep drawing in of air and a gasp from her dried throat. With trembling lips she released a scream from the depths of her soul that could shatter a wall of solid glass.
Elizabeth crossed the field and moved slowly towards her daughter. She could see the small figure bent over the hole, but the pit had drowned Cora's scream and to that end the little girl was satisfied. Cora felt a soft hand on her shoulder and heard the voice of her mother echoing in the darkness, 'Cora please come home’. Her mother sounded desperate.
Cora laid the horseshoe in the long grass, and it sunk from sight. She stood unsteadily on her feet and Elizabeth took Cora's arm to support the child. Together they walked back to the dimly lit mansion and for a brief moment that lasted as long as the walk, they seemed like mother and daughter again. Cora could see the pain etched in her mother's eyes, it was an emotion that could not be hidden. Although Elizabeth was past the tears, the years of loveless marriage had drained her mentally. If only Cora’s father had not died, if only it had been a storybook romance, one for the happily ever after ...
Some fairy tales however are not meant to be and even Cora at the age of twelve was old enough and wise enough to accept that life was as grey as the mansion walls and behind those towering slabs of old, decaying granite lay the extent of her world. The vast grey mansion door stood open and Blackthorn appeared in the archway drinking a glass of brandy. As always he was dressed in an immaculate suit, unruffled. The suits defined his character, his personality was too shallow for anything other than expensive clothes to define him. He watched as Elizabeth and Cora crossed the cobblestones towards him. The man's expression was deathly cold, the pallor of his skin greyer than usual. His dark eyes, although his stare was upon them, seemed distant, as if this was not the whole of what the man was seeing. Blackthorn's thin lips curled into a brief, quickly forgotten smile. He watched as mother and daughter drew closer, clinging to each other like lost orphans. Blackthorn's mouth curled in disgust, 'How pathetic' He thought. ‘How truly pathetic’.
That night was the longest night of Cora's short life. As she lay in bed she sought comfort from an old faded photograph taken before she was born. The picture showed Robert Pearl, her late father, he was dressed in silver armour and sat astride a large grey stallion. He was a handsome man, square jawed beneath his white plumed metal helmet. Cora turned the photograph around and read the ink writing printed on the back. 'The Carnival' August 17th 1987. She looked at his picture once again, kissed the tip of her finger and placed it over her father's face. Cora missed him. She always would. If only she could see him just one more time, if only she could tell him how much she still loved him, if only... Cora's wistful daydreams were interrupted. A plume of grey smoke rolled through the room. Blackthorn was standing in the darkness against the wall in front of the dead butterflies. How long had he been there? She did not know, he never knocked, after all this was his house and he did as he pleased.
'You have to grow up Cora. He won't come back and raise you’ He took a slow thoughtful drag on his cigarette, and exhaled. 'I'm not here to hurt you. Why don’t you just say something, speak for yourself?' Cora tucked the picture under her pillow and slid herself down beneath the bed covers. She felt like screaming again, but she preferred to stay silent, especially in the company of this man, 'I know what you were looking at. You don't need to hide him from me'. Blackthorn turned his body to the wall and gazed at the insects inside the glass case. 'Life for you could be so much easier if you did things my way. Believe me Cora, it's the best way.' Cora went deeper now, trying to escape further down beneath the sheets.
'I'm not without feeling, I do understand the child in you. He took another puff on his cigarette. 'But if you won't change, I will be forced to change you. Blackthorn turned and gazed at the bed in which Cora had hidden herself. 'We are born to work, not live on some artistic whim'. He raised the cigarette to his pencil thin lips once more. 'I know you see me as the bad man. That's all too easy. I put the clothes on your back and the paint on your paintbrush. Without me, there would be no Grimney and believe me, I can take Grimney away just as easily as I took that horse from your life’...
Even though Cora lay concealed beneath the bedclothes she could feel his eyes burning into her body. She squeezed her eyelids tightly shut and wished upon the brightest star that she could shut her ears too. Blackthorn continued, his tone slow and studied 'You have to learn child, that there’s no future in that place. Cora heard the floorboards creak as Blackthorn's footsteps moved away from her bed. She breathed nervously and listened as the bedroom door closed. The room became still and quiet, until all she could hear were the frantic beats of her pounding heart. The silence seemed to continue forever. Cora had not heard that man's voice for what seemed like an eternity now. That was never long enough. Slowly the girl rolled back the bedclothes and stared out into the room. A blue light shone around her and a strange cloud gathered above her head just below the ceiling. It pulsated gently and Cora was transfixed. Suddenly a jet of blue fire shot from the cloud's core. She tried to raise the bedclothes over her head, but the light reached her eyes before she could hide herself away. Cora's face became bathed in a strange energy force. The girl’s eyes began to glow with a blue luminous sheen. The child sank back into her pillow and closed her eyes, the blue Light glowing beneath her eyelids. Cora entered a deep sleep and she found herself once more walking barefooted through the moonlit field towards the giant oak tree. The journey was different this time, the moon was not the only source of guiding light. In front of the Great Oak there was a blue glow emanating from the hole beneath the tree. Cora made her way towards the pit, crouched down on her knees and looked inside. The blue Light shone upwards lighting her face, bathing her pale skin in an eerie blue glow. She reached down into the hole and pulled at the loose soil that had gathered at the bottom. As she scraped back the earth the light seemed to dissipate. Once more it gathered above her head and hung like a cloud in mid-air. The cloud lit Cora's surroundings like a torch and helped the young girl see what she was digging. Her fingernails came into contact with something smooth. The buried object appeared wedged beneath the soil and once more it took every ounce of her strength to pull it upwards from below the ground. It was a bulky bound book, with a blank cover, maybe a hundred pages in thickness. The pages were crisp and white and felt like paper, but that could not have been the case, for paper would rot beneath the earth. Cora sat with the book upon her lap. The blue light pulsated gently just above her head. She turned the first page and discovered the written inscription inside. Daubed in red italic letters, it stated 'Imagination is the only limit’. Cora mimed the words, but did not speak them. She closed her eyes and the blue cloud descended upon her. She entered a trance like state, which gave way to sleep and falling backwards into the long grass Cora entered her dreams. Those dreams returned the child to her bedroom, where she awoke to find herself back in her bed. It was morning and the sun shone in through the bedroom window. She sat up and yawned, stretching out her body, her toes touched something solid. Throwing back the covers she discovered that her feet were thick with dirt and resting at the foot of the bed lay the bound book waiting to be opened...
THE LAST BREAKFAST
Breakfast was always a formal occasion at Blackthorn manor. It did not matter that Cora never spoke, because nobody did. Although the family sat together around a large circular oak table, each sharing the same neatly prepared poached eggs and toast. It was as if each member of the family existed in their own isolated transparent bubble. Blackthorn as usual sat with his glasses perched on the end of his nose reading the financial papers. His meal eaten, his plate wiped clean, the man leant back in his chair, occasionally glancing up at Elizabeth who sat opposite. Elizabeth rarely ate what she cooked and this morning was no different. She stared down at her plate and prodded her egg with a fork. She watched with vacant eyes as the yolk seeped out. Cora sat head bowed between her mother and stepfather, she had not even touched her food. Cora just stared at the poached egg, watching, as it grew colder in front of her. Blackthorn folded his newspaper and placed it down upon the table. Leaning forward on his chair, the man fixed Cora with a frosty stare.
‘Cora, we're sending you to a new school, hopefully it'll help you grow up'. Blackthorn waited for her reaction. The young girl as always disappointed him.
Cora did not make eye contact, she remained motionless as if chiselled from stone.
Blackthorn became irritated, 'Look at me when I'm speaking to you, or are you deaf as well as dumb?'
Elizabeth shook her head and bit into her bottom lip. 'Samuel, please'.
Cora raised her head and glared at Blackthorn.
The man smiled, the contempt in the young girl's eyes clear for all to see.
Elizabeth began to stack the dishes, accidentally dropping a fork onto the floor. Hands shaking she bent down beneath the table to pick it up.
'Now you're communicating with me Cora. That's good' Blackthorn stood up and straightened his black tie. Reaching down, he picked up the newspaper and placed it under the arm of his immaculately tailored suit jacket.
Elizabeth lifted the fork from the floor and placed it on top of the stacked dishes. She remained crouched beneath the table and began to brush an egg stain from the carpet. Her behaviour was a mere displacement activity, a means of avoiding the confrontation above her.
Blackthorn gazed down at Cora and grinned 'Term starts in September. Gives you plenty of time to pack. A new world awaits you. It'll do you good to get away’ Blackthorn sighed 'I wish I could come with you, I'd like a little adventure in my life'. He gave Cora a little wink and then walked cheerfully from the breakfast room. He had said enough and ignored the little girl's tearful expression as he left.
Cora stared at her stepfather's empty seat. Blackthorn was gone from sight. Perhaps leaving home would be a blessing after all she thought, because Cora never wanted to see that man again. Never, ever again...
The sun seemed dead in the sky. Cora preferred the night. Gazing out of her bedroom window she wondered what would happen to her. She did not want to leave home. Cora watched as the clouds gathered, broken by the golden sunlight. She used to believe in Heaven, now Cora doubted that there was such a place. Her father was dead and nothing would ever change that. Cora lay down on her bed and picked up the bound blank book. She turned the page and ran her fingers over the inscription, What did it mean? Imagination is the only limit? Cora slipped off her bed, walked over to the far wall and stared proudly at her paintings. 'The Land of Grimney' was an inspirational creation for a child of such tender years, but Cora was no ordinary child, this girl was special, she just did not know that yet. The young girl was struck by an exciting idea. She carefully unclipped the paintings from the wall and carried them over to her bed. Separating the picture of the Bugwug, her favourite drawing from the others, she stuck the painting inside the first page of the bound book.
Cora smiled and brushed the palm of her hand over the illustration, smoothing out the creases until the picture fell flat upon the page. Sunbeams were streaming in through the window, it was a glorious summer's day outside. Cora felt nothing but the cold winter in her heart, a chill was in her blood and a frost had touched her soul. She wanted to shut out the light and walking slowly to the window, Cora pulled the curtains together and blocked out the sun. The old fashioned clock on her bedside cabinet showed the time as midday. The young girl appeared to be asleep. Lying in bed beneath her bedclothes she was lost in her dreams. The blue cloud had formed at the end of her bed and a ray of light began to unfurl from its core. The beam arced upwards towards the ceiling and descended down towards the girl's forehead, making contact with her skin. The light flooded into her face and rolled down her body like water, until her entire body had been enveloped from top to toe in the shimmering, glowing light. Drifting in her subconscious thoughts Cora found herself standing in a never-ending barren white landscape.
Cora opened her eyes, they glowed with a static blue sheen. She watched in wide-eyed amazement as a strange creature began to form in front of her against the white background. The Bugwug appeared by magic as if painted by brush stroke, first its purple wings appeared and then its yellow and black body until with a final sweep of the invisible paintbrush the complete image of the creature hung motionless in mid-air before her. Cora strolled forward and walked around the weird bird. The picture was just as she had painted him, even down to the cross eyes that gazed benevolently down upon her. Cora blinked her glowing blue eyes and a beam of light shot from her irises and wrapped itself around the Bugwuq. Slowly as if woken from a long sleep the Bugwug started to flap its wings and shake its peculiar hoofed legs. The creature's eyes began to roll in its head and in the blink of an eye the Bugwug was staring straight at Cora. Its green beak opened and its yellow tongue rolled back and forth, the creature was alive and breathing.
A strange, squawky voice bounced up from its blue feathery throat. 'I'm The Bugwug'. His orange eyes flickered and rolled as he spoke. 'You have found the first Book Of The Guardians'.
Cora continued to walk slowly around the strange floating creature. She was unsure of what to do, she wanted to speak but she had forgotten that she had a voice. 'You have a Mind Spirit inside you and it has given me life. The bird gazed down to the tip of his beak ‘You’ve also given me cross eyes, which I must say I'm not that happy about, but no matter'.
Cora remained silent and just stared upwards at her creation. 'It's rude to stare you know, even ruder not to speak’. The Bugwug flew around Cora’s head and looked her up and down excitedly 'You can speak you know. This is your world. You can do anything here’.
Cora opened her mouth and tried to make a noise. Gradually the strangled sounds began to form words as the blue light bathed her tongue in its healing glow. 'I... Can speak'... She whispered carefully.
The bird flapped its wings with further excitement 'Yes! Yes! You can!'
'I can speak!' Her voice was growing in volume now, as her lost confidence began to flood back.
‘What is your name?' The Bugwug asked eagerly.
'My name is Cora Pearl!' A smile formed upon the girl's face. Cora felt elated, as if the invisible thread that had held her mouth together had at last been cut painlessly away ...
The Bugwug danced clumsily on the air. 'You have a journey to make young Cora, a whole world awaits you!' The bird soared upwards into the white sky above and disappeared from view. Cora was alone again, except this time she felt happy for the first time in so many years. Cora had made a friend...
BUILDING THE LAND
It was one o'clock in the afternoon when Cora returned to her bedroom. She sat at her writing desk and turned over to the third blank page of The Book Of The Guardians. Opening a metal pencil case she removed a black italic pen and slid off the lid. Cora started to write her first poem onto the blank paper..
In this magic land of Grimney
Smoke curls out of every chimney
For with Grimney Marsh and Grimney Mire
Folks like the comfort of a fire
Even in their beds at night
They will leave their fires alight
To fend off all those nasty things
With their sharp teeth, sharp claws and stings
Although you should feel safe at home
There are such things which like to roam
Around peoples’ houses in the night
Things which scratch and claw and bite
So even though you may insist
Such nasty creatures don’t exist
I really think that you should
Stock up with lots of fire wood.
The writing continued throughout the day and poem after poem was printed onto the blank pages of the book. The time was six in the evening when Cora started to paste the paintings beneath the text. She began to yawn, caught in the thrall of some unnatural tiredness. Finally, once the last picture was fixed into position, she placed the bulging book down upon the floor. Cora laid her head back against the soft material of her pillow and slipped back into a deep sleep... Cora did not sleep long. She awoke to hear a gentle tapping on her bedroom window. The young girl climbed out of bed and crossed the floor. Nervously she drew back the curtains. It was night outside and in the distance across the fields she could see three or four small orange and yellow flickering lights. She could not define what these were, but they looked like flaming torches...
Cora jumped back in fright as the Bugwug flew head first into the glass pane. He squashed himself against the glass and slid down out of sight. Cora flung open the window and gazed down. Everything looked different, the ground below was overgrown with long grass and dotted with tall trees, the cobblestone yard had vanished beneath a sea of green.
'What's going on?' Cora was talking to herself. She had to remember that she could do that now, after so many years of silence it would take some getting used to.
A purple wing draped itself over the windowsill followed by another, as the dazed, cross-eyed Bugwug dragged himself inside. Cora lifted the bird into her arms and cradled him like a little baby. 'Cora, I thought I'd find you here.’ the bird said, breathlessly.
The girl stroked the Bugwug under the chin and he squawked with sheer delight. 'Where am I?' She asked, tickling the bird again. The Bugwug wriggled and giggled girlishly. 'Now stop it Cora' He said. 'I’m a very sensitive creature you know' Cora lowered the bird down and placed him upon the foot of her bed.
He paraded up and down ruffling his tail feathers.
'Well' Cora asked again. The bird crossed his hoofed legs and leant against the bedpost, promptly falling off. Cora peered down at the odd creature as it stumbled back onto its hoofed feet and paced along the bedroom floor. 'You’re in the land of Grimney'. the bird said, all very matter of fact. ‘That's where you are'...
Cora was dumbstruck 'How is that possible?'
The Bugwug flapped its wings and raised itself off the ground. He flew clumsily across the room and collided with a wardrobe in the corner. Cora shook her head and sighed 'You should try to look where you're going'. The bird flapped its wings and soared upwards towards the ceiling.
Cora smiled, glad that the Bugwug had not hurt himself. 'You didn't answer my question'.
The bird glided down towards Cora and settled on her left shoulder. 'The Book Of The Guardians. Everything you wrote. All that you drew, is now true life’.
She stared into the strange orange cross-eyes of the Bugwug. 'Am I trapped here?'
'Oh no’. The bird chirped. ‘If you fall asleep in Grimney, it will bring you back to your room and when you sleep here, it will return you to Grimney'.
Cora’s face lit up with excitement 'What can I do here?’
The Bugwug patted the back of Cora’s head with its wing 'Anything you want, but take care, I've flown outside, this place you've created has its own identity'
'All my characters are alive?' Her voice was filled with disbelief. The bird shook its tail feathers nervously 'Yes, for good or ill, they're all here'.
Near the ghostly Grimney Mire
Sat five soldiers around a blazing camp fire
Each one spoke, had a story to tell
Of fights with sprites and demons from hell.
Each of them were human in form
And wore black uniforms that were tattered and torn
One was a major in the queens Elite
The type of man who would not retreat
Looking to the other four
I realised they had seen a great deal of war
One had a patch across his left eye
Taken away when an arrow did fly
The other three were covered in mud
Faces scarred and laced with blood
And as they sat telling their stories
Of so many of their former glories
I began to wonder just how long
These men would sing their victory song.
Cora had changed her clothes. The young girl had slipped out of her green dress and was now wearing something more suitable to the rough terrain she was crossing. Dressed in green boots, blue jeans, a dark blue tee-shirt and quilted grey jacket, Cora moved slowly across the open countryside towards four torch lights that burned brightly in the distance.
The Bugwug zigzagged in front of her, its huge wings at full stretch as it glided haphazardly through the cold night air. In the strange, dark green night sky above there were two red moons, although they were both full, neither of them gave out much light. Four soldiers dressed in black uniforms were stacking wood to make a campfire. Another man with a goatee beard and an eye patch fastened tightly over his left eye stood guard between four flaming torches that stuck out of the ground on long iron poles.
The warrior leant forward on the hilt of his large broadsword, his one eye alert for any dangers that might come from the dark. The man could see the shadows moving, someone or something was approaching the campsite. The man remained calm. He was a member of the Queen's Elite the finest and most fearless fighting force in the whole of Grimney. His one good eye became narrower and narrower as he squinted into the shrouding darkness. Gradually the night gave up the identity of the secret traveller. Cora Pearl emerged from the veil of shadows and stood before the one eyed warrior.
‘What say you young traveller?' The one eyed man spoke gruffly revealing two rows of silver teeth. Although shaken by the man’s sinister appearance, Cora stood her ground. 'I'm new here. What can you tell me?’
The Bugwug swooped down from above and settled upon Cora’s shoulder. The bird stared at the one eyed man, who remained unmoved by this new arrival.
'You’re brave youngster ... Or foolhardy ... This is no place for a child' The one eyed man shook his head solemnly 'We came from the north. We were three hundred strong. Now we're five'.
Cora observed a battered, blood stained Coat of Arms stitched to the torn shoulder of the man's black tunic. She instantly recognised the two crisscrossing flaming red and blue swords printed onto a white and yellow background.
Cora whispered to the Bugwug. 'This is the camp I wrote about'. She smiled knowingly at the one eyed man 'You're a member of the Queen’s Elite'
‘Yes’ The man nodded and sighed 'We're the last of our battalion... We ran into the barbarian hoards of Draygon The Scar’.
The other four men, although aware of Cora's presence, sat, huddled together around the fire. Occasionally they gazed over their shoulders to look at the girl and her strange companion. Cora could tell by their low voices and their guarded smiles that they were talking about her. She returned her gaze to the battle worn soldier 'So what happened?' The man bowed his head ‘We were massacred’. He bared his silver teeth once more and attempted to smile, but it quickly faded into a look of anger and despair.
Cora took a deep breath and swallowed hard 'I'm sorry’. The one eyed man regained his composure, soldiers in the Queen’s Elite rarely allowed their emotions to influence them. ‘We can offer you a place to sleep tonight.' He continued 'Travel further in this dark and you're bound to run into Zoorban ... Grimlocks... Or worse'...
Cora had written about these creatures and she shuddered. The Zoorban were undead, tall skeletal beings, dressed in red rags. They inhabited Slattern moor and carried candle lanterns to hunt down their prey. They lived on a diet of fresh, raw meat in the hope that its consumption would make them flesh again. If a sword wielding warrior managed to chop off a Zoorban’s left arm, they would simply attack with their right. Slicing their skull from their neck bone and the Zoorban would be more easily defeated, blind and deaf the torso would however continue to fight without its severed head. The Bugwug flapped its wings in distress ‘I think the man's right Cora’ He whispered.
‘We should sleep here tonight'. Cora's thoughts passed to the Grimlocks and her face turned ashen. Shutting her eyes and biting into her bottom lip, she quickly put all memory of those hideous creatures out of her mind.
'Yes’ Cora agreed 'We should stay here tonight’. She settled down in front of the blazing campfire, the heat of the flames making her drowsy. She watched the soldiers through half closed eyes. Although the men were not particularly friendly Cora felt safe with them watching over her. She believed that these soldiers were noble in heart and would protect her if the camp came under attack. The soldiers were cooking a large plucked dead bird in the flames, she wondered what kind of bird it was. For the briefest of moments Cora was overcome by a sickening fear. Where was the Bugwug? The child sat up and looked around, frantically she turned her head from side to side trying to establish his whereabouts. The bird was fine, it was perched on the shoulder of the one eyed warrior who was still standing guard. The bird was whispering in the man's ear and making him laugh out loud. Cora breathed a sigh of relief and settled back down to sleep again.
THE SEED IS PLANTED
Cora awoke back in her bedroom. She was still dressed in her outdoor clothes. According to the clock on her bedside cabinet it was half past eight in the evening. She threw back the bed covers and found that her white bed sheets had become caked in thick mud from her boots. Cora jumped out of bed and pulled the sheets from her mattress. She rolled them into a ball and slid them beneath her bed. She bent down and picked up 'The Book Of The Guardians’ from the floor then sat down on the mattress with the book closed upon her lap. She was about to open the pages when there was a gentle knocking on her bedroom door. ‘Cora’ Her mother spoke softly 'Can I come in?' Cora placed the book beneath her bed, slid off her dirty boots and crossed the room to open the door. Mother and daughter sat side by side on the unmade bed.
'I'm worried about you Cora’ She stroked the child’s hair gently. 'I don't want to lose you' Cora opened her mouth. She wanted to tell her mother that she loved her and that Blackthorn was ruining their lives. But once more she found herself mute, unable to say a single word. Elizabeth looked down at the bare mattress 'What happened to the bedclothes darling?'
Cora shrugged, and looked worried. It doesn't matter’ Her mother said sadly. Cora knew it did, if Blackthorn found the mud stained sheets there would be hell to pay. Blackthorn was more frightening than any fantasy monster Cora had created. Although it was hard for her to accept that the monsters in her mind were now as real as he was. 'Cora I know I should leave him, but where could we go? I have no money of my own' Elizabeth began to cry 'If only your father was alive' Cora wrapped her arms around her Mother's shoulder and hugged her. Yes. Robert Pearl would save them from Blackthorn. Perhaps there could be a way to bring him back from the dead ...
DREAMS COME TRUE
Cora’s mother did not stay with her daughter long. She had an evening meal to prepare. Cora had declined her supper. She had other plans for the evening and she had no wish to sit with her stepfather. Cora reached beneath the pillows on her bed and pulled out the photograph of her father taken at the Carnival. Applying glue to the back of the picture, she stuck the photograph carefully onto a blank page inside the book. Cora slid her feet into her boots and closing her eyes she lay back down upon the mattress and prepared her mind for sleep. The child drifted in the blue light and felt her soul depart her earthbound identity. Slowly she became as one with the surroundings of Grimney. She opened her eyes, the blue static glow shone gently within her irises and vanished as quickly as it appeared. The one eyed warrior was standing over her, the Bugwug still on his shoulder. He was looking into the girl's face 'You're a mystic aren’t you?'
Cora sat up and yawned. It was the middle of the night and the clouds had gathered more tightly together blocking out the two moons. Cora smiled 'I'm just a little girl’ She stared at the man. 'What's your name?'
'Morgan Drake, I’m a Captain in the Queen's Elite'. He raised his torn left sleeve 'I had insignia here once, ripped off in combat'.
Cora had never named the campsite characters, it seemed that Grimney dwellers truly had lives of their own. Cora looked at Morgan’s colleagues. The men were fast asleep, sprawled out in front of the low burning fire 'Can I ask you a question?'...
'Sure you can' He responded casually, as he fed the Bugwug some seeds he was holding in the palm of his scarred and dirty right hand.
'Do you know the name Robert Pearl?' She asked zipping up her quilted grey jacket.
He nodded thoughtfully. ‘I know of him'
'You do?' Cora could not hide the excitement that flashed in her eyes.
‘Yes, he's got quite a reputation. Never met him mind. He’s always on quests'.
Cora was wrapped in magical thoughts of her father ‘Do you know where he lives?'
Morgan shook his head 'No, they say he came from another land. Not from Grimney'... He looked intrigued 'What's he to you?'
Cora smiled 'He's my father'... Saying those three words made speaking ever more precious to her.
Morgan smiled 'Your father is he?' he chuckled 'I'd heard stories that he'd lost his family through some great tragedy and he’s been looking for them ever since’..
Cora’s eyes welled with tears and the Bugwug flew to her side and settled gently upon her shoulder in an attempt to comfort the child.
Cora cleared her throat ‘Was he looking for me?'
Morgan shrugged ‘He’s always Looking for something. I'm sure finding you would be a quest to end all others'
'He doesn't know I'm here'. She sounded distressed and the Bugwug licked her ear with his yellow tongue to relax her.
Morgan sighed and looked downcast 'You should travel north to Urat Holme's Tavern. Passage isn’t easy mind. You have to cross through Grimney Mire and that swamp could drown a giant’.
Cora had written about the mire and the Tavern. The thought of such a journey filled her with dread.
‘Holme is a man who knows where people are, speak to him.' Morgan gritted his silver teeth together 'My best advice is to go back from where you came. If I didn't have my duty to perform, I'd do the same'...
Cora ignored the warning. Nothing would stop her finding her father. She had not come this far just to lose him again ...
Morgan started to sniff the air and drew his sword from his scabbard. Cora could hear a strange clicking that echoed around the campsite. 'Grimlocks’. Morgan whispered through gritted teeth 'Keep silent girl’. The noise was growing in volume, it sounded like the chattering of sharp teeth.
Cora knew what the Grimlocks did before they attacked, after all she had created them. They lived in the shadows, Cora had never drawn them, never fully defined their appearance. All she could remember about them was what she had written in her poems, that any encounter ended in violence and bloodshed. The grinding and clicking of teeth was the first sign of an impending attack. The only chance of survival was to run, but she knew that out in the dark the creatures were circling and only Morgan and his men could protect her now. Morgan waved his sword through the air. Cora could hear the wind being sliced. The four knights woke quickly and stumbled to their feet, although half asleep they were soon wide eyed with fear. They drew their weapons and stood side by side around the dying campfire. The men adopted their positions for battle, pointing the blades of their swords outwards in the direction of the enemy. Morgan moved in and stood close to Cora, who remained crouched upon her knees.
The one eyed man glanced at her briefly 'You have to run Cora'... He whispered 'We'll hold them here, but you have to flee'...
The Bugwug placed its wings across its face, praying that the creatures would pass by without issue. That was not to be. Suddenly the darkness came alive and grotesque dark creatures coated in long black greasy hair leapt forward. There was a flash of steel and the sounds of panic as the creatures moved in on mass. Morgan weaved in and out of the clawing hoards. His blade flashing from Left to right. The sweat weeping from his forehead as wave upon wave of Grimlocks closed in.
Cora scrambled to her feet and ran forward with her head down. She could hear the gnashing of jaws in front of her and felt a furry, spiky body brush against her face, pushing with all her might she broke away from the clawing, spindly grey fingers that pulled at her hair. The Bugwug flew above her head and dived towards the huge dark creatures. He flapped his wings frantically in the faces of the white-eyed beasts that blocked her escape. Behind her she heard Morgan screaming "Run Cora run ! "and she did. She ran for her life, until the chattering of teeth and the howl of the Grimlock victory was but a distant sound in her ears...
At the break of dawn you would hear it cry
From many miles up in the sky
Amongst the clouds near rising sun
A beast that is feared by everyone
Soaring now by wings of steel
Eyes alert for a passing meal
Down below people do not see
If they did they would surely flee
For the terror now that lurks above
Has no feelings and shares no love
Where it is from is hard to place
As it fits no other Grimney race
The creature is one of a kind
With only murder on its mind
For it kills for food and kills for pleasure
Selecting victims at its leisure
With blood drenched teeth and gaping maw
Razor talons, snatching claw
Its targets have but little chance
When upon them it does swiftly prance
Because of this they have no time to fight
As they are dragged into a helpless flight
Which ends in death in a giant nest
God hear our plea, destroy this pest!
The two moons descended behind a vast mountain range and in their wake the bright red suns began to soar into the heavens. The sky was a silky shade of green and yellow threads of light weaved in and out of dark blue clouds. The distant sounds of eerie high pitched wailing echoed on the wind, only to be swallowed by the vast open canopy of sky that swept overhead.
Cora sat in a vast meadow, her head bowed beneath an isolated tree, it was plush with red leaves and silver blossoms. The Bugwug sat upon her knee and gazed up at the girl. His orange eyes filled with concern. Cora wanted to go home, she hated her childhood now. How could she have created creatures that were so cruel, so evil? ... The Bugwug wrinkled its forehead and just stared at Cora.
'Why don’t you say something?' She demanded; her voice filled with annoyance.
The Bugwug scratched its beak with the tip of its wing 'They saved us you know? The bird tried desperately to say the right thing 'They were very noble warriors Cora'...
Cora looked daggers at the poor bird ‘They shouldn't have died. Why do people have to die?'
The Bugwug twitched his beak and rolled his eyes, he was unsure of what to say 'They died to save us’... he replied.
Cora shook her leg harshly and the bird flew into the air 'Then they were silly!' She snapped.
The Bugwug settled on an overhanging branch and started to nibble on the silver berries that grew there. ‘Well' he said rolling a mouth full of juice over his yellow tongue 'We all have a purpose in life. Perhaps that was their purpose... saving you'
Cora looked glum 'You're so simple. Some purpose... Saving me? what am I worth?’...
The bird glided down from the branch and settled on the ground in front of her ‘Whatever they were worth to you?’
Cora sighed and looked upset 'I should go to sleep, go home and burn that wretched book’.
The Bugwug flapped his wings again and flew towards Cora, hovering just in front of her face. Cora gazed unsmiling into the bird’s cross-eyes.
'You know for a girl with so much imagination, you're not very thoughtful'... The Bugwug settled on top of her head.
'I don’t know what you mean'... she replied gazing upwards as the bird paced up and down ruffling Cora’s hair with his hooves.
'Your father's in Grimney and he wants to find you and already you’re giving up... I thought you loved the man?' The Bugwug nibbled on her hair.
'Don't do that!' She brushed him off and the bird flew away. 'Of course I love him’... She continued.
The Bugwug settled back down on Cora’s knee and pointed a purple wing at her. 'Then Cora, we must find him. If not, Morgan's death was totally without meaning'.
Cora nodded. She had to agree that the Bugwug was right on this occasion. Even though he was a bird brain and could not fly in a straight line, she actually began to believe that he was, in truth, fairly clever...
Walking was not Cora’s favourite pastime, she preferred sitting at her writing desk in her bedroom. Strolling through the open fields that surrounded Blackthorn Manor had never appealed to her. Things were different now and armed with the knowledge that her father was alive, Cora believed that she could walk to the edge of the world and beyond. Travelling across Grimney allowed her plenty of time to sight see. She watched flocks of red skinned Mogrins hovering in the green sky. They were curious creatures that hung in midair, their thin red feathered bodies drifting upon the breeze. Whilst Cora stood watching the Mogrins, the Bugwug seated himself upon her shoulder and began to gently nibble her ear with his beak.
Cora giggled 'That tickles’.
The Bugwug gazed up at the floating creatures 'Strange things those’ His cross eyes rolling like marbles in his head 'What can you say about such things?'
Cora smiled, reached her arm upwards across her chest and stroked the Buqwug under the chin. 'Only what I've written down'.
The Bugwug chirped excitedly 'Tell me the poem! Tell me the poem!' Flapping his wings so frantically that he nearly fell backwards off Cora’s shoulder. Cora smiled and taking a deep breath recited a poem to the bird.
The mogrins are such funny things
Flying around with their huge red wings
Darting here and racing there
Zooming all day through the misty air
Sometimes they stop in mid flight
And float quite gently like a kite
Then they gibber in a very odd way
So nobody knows quite what they say
Brodwig the Mogrin is the most gamed of his kind
A terrible pilot but with a superior mind
Flying up high then diving below
But how to land will he ever know?
For when he tries to land he falls in a heap
As from the sky he tries to leap
In every attempt he ends up in the dirt
I am quite surprised he never gets hurt
Then he is back on his feet with a smile and a sigh
Then into the air back up to the sky
Soaring once more in heavenly space
What a strange creature, what an odd race
The Bugwug chirped his approval and patted Cora on the back of her neck with his wing 'You are a talented creator young Cora'...
It was at the end of this sentence when dawn descended into blackness and a terrifying shadow fell over the little girl and her winged companion. Two huge bat like wings flapped downwards towards them, a gust of breeze caught Cora and flung her backwards, she would have fallen to the ground if it were not for the pair of mighty silver talons that grabbed her by the shoulders and hoisted her roughly into the sky. In seconds Cora was walking on air as Felonus dragged her upwards. The Bugwug lost his footing and tumbled, he maintained his balance and hooked his beak onto the sky demon's back. Cora looked up, dazed by the suddenness of the attack, her eyes watering in the cold morning sunshine. She gazed into the reptilian face of her captor, its white icy eyes rolling back and forth, its huge elongated jaws dripping with saliva. The Bugwug released himself from Felonus’ back, bolted forward like an arrow and attached himself to the top of the beast’s head, he pecked ferociously at the assailant. The sky demon swooped towards the earth and rolled its huge body in an attempt to shake the bird away. The Bugwug would not give up and sank his beak deeply into the creature's back, causing its skin to split and droplets of yellow blood to spill out over the body of the beast.
Such was the ferocity of the Bugwug's bites, Felonus had little choice but to release his prey and Cora fell, landing heavily in a sea of blue and red mushrooms. The child scrambled to her feet and rolled beneath the largest mushroom she could find, the overhanging canopy proved to be the perfect hiding place. She could hear the sky demon's hideous wailing above her, but the fear for the Bugwug's safety outweighed her own, yet she was too afraid to crawl out to see if he was alive. All she could do was wait and wait she did, until the wailing was but a distant echo in the sky.
Cora took several deep breaths and counted to three, summoning every ounce of courage she slid out from beneath the mushroom. All was quiet, nothing moved amongst the vast expanse of brightly coloured fungus that swept out before her and the Bugwug was nowhere in sight ...
Cora sat upon the mushroom and tried to call out the Bugwug's name, but an overwhelming sadness began to gently choke her and once more Cora lost her voice. How could she go on without him? The Bugwug was not just her friend, he was her soul mate and without his guidance she would be lost. The thought of loss made her think about her father and how special be had been and with each thought, the pain grew in her eyes, until her cheeks were awash with falling tears. Waiting was not the answer, perhaps he had fallen unconscious somewhere, if that was the case then she had to find him and with a new determination etched into her heart she slid off the mushroom and began to search for him. Cora walked amongst the giant mushrooms and looked around herself, desperately hoping to catch sight of the missing bird. It was not long before Cora discovered several large, circular holes bored into the ground.
'Glub worms'... Cora thought, crouching down over the deepest tunnel she could find and gazing into the dark. It seemed logical to Cora that the Bugwug would have looked for somewhere to hide too and a deep dark tunnel where Felonus could not enter would have been ideal, so, without hesitation Cora slid herself inside. The journey along the spiralling circular passage was an arduous one, as Cora navigated her way through the drilled earth upon her hands and knees. Eventually a shaft of white light from an underground cavern shone in upon her face and she heaved herself from the tunnel, lowering her body down she landed feet first upon an uneven stone floor. The new world that surrounded her was a subterranean wasteland. The fertile landscape above had been lost inside the dank depths of the gigantic arched cavern. However there were dwindling signs of life. A vast shrivelled field of mushrooms spread out across the decaying soil that covered the floor and in the distance a towering white marble fortress stood precariously upon an uneven surface of broken stone and crumbling slate. Cora knew of this place, it was the ancient Citadel of Trall the home of the Thadonites. Two headed mushroom eaters, cave dwelling dwarfs, who, by the look of their dying crops would now need Cora's help. Treading carefully through the rotting vegetation, Cora made her way to the huge stone gates that marked the entrance to the fortress. Raising her hand she pulled at the long metal chain that hung beside the door. A huge bell tolled above her, its knell muffled by the high walls and ceiling that arced above.
Cora took several steps back and gazed upwards into the fading light. Standing in an arched window of a high tower stood King Locki, the two headed master of the Thadonite realm. Locki was an unusual creature, his broad shoulders carried the weight of two heads, one male and the other female. Dressed in red robes and the silver chain of High Council, Locki was an impressive figure, even though he stood a mere four feet in height, he had an aura of superiority. A fact intensified when he spoke. 'Up world adventurers are unwelcome here'... he said, his voice deep and studied, the female head nodding in agreement, her green eyes narrowing with deep mistrust.
Cora cleared her throat and spoke without fear. I am looking for a lost friend, a talking bird who may have passed this way'...
The two heads whispered to each other and nodded in silent agreement 'No such creature has been seen here. You best be on your way. This is a place of misery, not a kingdom one would wish to visit'...
Cora gazed back over her shoulder at the dead mushrooms and once more returned her eyes to the two faces that looked down upon her 'Your mushroom crops are dying, I know that this is all you eat, I may be able to help you'...
The female head spoke out defiantly 'We need no help from the likes of you, we have all the guidance we need'...
Cora placed her hands on her hips and shrugged her shoulders 'If you are being guided it's down a path of starvation’.
The female head laughed 'We are on a path to renewal. Our kind is changing. We need no other voice from outside to shape our future. Now go before we send out the guards’...
Cora stood her ground. She would not be told what to do. If you must insist on refusing my help, then all I ask is to be given the opportunity to search for my companion’.
The two heads appeared dumbstruck by the child’s defiance and began to debate what had been said to them. Once a decision had been reached the female head spoke coldly to the trespasser. 'We have concluded that you may enter. Perhaps you do have wisdom that you could impart to us’...
Dust began to fall from a deep crack in the fortress walls, as the huge stone door began to rise from its secure foundations. Cora ducked down and walked beneath the archway and entered a long passage lit by torchlight.
A two-headed Thadonite guard dressed in red armour and carrying a sword and shield approached her. The creature's skin was pale and sickly and his eyes were swollen with infection. 'This way stranger, you must follow me'... He coughed as he spoke and his hand shook as he pointed the way down the corridor.
Cora followed the Thadonite’s weary footsteps as he led her to a large wooden door. 'My King awaits you'... The guard summoned all his strength and breathing unsteadily he pushed against the panels.
The throne room was filled with fading tapestries. They adorned the crumbling walls and were testament to the grandeur of a once great kingdom reduced to a mere shadow of itself. At the far end of the great hall seated upon a stone throne sat King Locki, resplendent in two gold crowns and wrapped inside a flowing crimson robe.
Cora crossed the room and went down upon one knee, her head bowed in homage to the King. The two headed Thadonite smiled 'You seek an audience with us? You believe that you can help my people with their regeneration?'
Cora raised her head and spoke as softly as she could 'I cannot restore your mushroom crops, but I will try to help you, if you will help me'...
The female head remained contemptuous of the child 'We have an advisor already, what makes you think that your guidance would be any better?'
‘I cannot say it would be'... Cora replied humbly 'All I can offer is my service to your kingdom' ...
The two heads considered her words carefully and King Locki's response was one of caution... 'Our world has changed and even we cannot be sure that our future is a bright one. You must speak with the Grand Council and share your thoughts with our new friend. As for your missing companion, I will assemble a search party to search for the missing bird’.
Vortigern sat at a long stone table in the empty Council Chamber. He was a big man, dressed in black and red leather armour with a silver chain mail coat draped tightly over his shoulders and torso. The man had white hair and a short, grey goatee beard, his eyes were small and dark and he had the pale complexion of an underworld dweller. He was not alone in the rundown surroundings, however the Thadonite companions who were seated around the table alongside him were not pleasant company, on account of the fact that they were all dead and in various stages of decomposition. In fact several of his council companions had been reduced to little more than brittle skeletons.
Vortigern raised a goblet to his lips and took very little notice as Cora entered the room and stood gazing down at him from the top of the long table. Although he had not been the subject of a picture or poem, Cora recognised the man immediately. She had written about him, and knew exactly the type of man he was, he had once been a member of the Chaos Engine, but even they had found his methods unsavoury.
Vortigern gulped, his Adam’s apple rolling back and forth as he swallowed the contents of the goblet. Gazing at Cora suspiciously he wiped his mouth on his sleeve. 'You lost your way?' His voice was deep but not unfriendly. 'I'm Vortigern Zax, the King's Protector'...
Cora approached the table and pulled a chair from beneath, scraping the stone legs upon the floor, she sat down between two dead councillors. 'I didn't think that was your trade'... She said frostily, her nose twitching as the stench of decay tickled her nostrils.
Vortigern placed his goblet down upon the table and leant forward. 'I didn't catch your name'...
Cora shrugged 'I didn't give it, but I know all about you Vortigern'.
Vortigern’s eyes narrowed and a smile crept upon his lips, it was not a friendly expression and his manner made Cora shudder. 'The Thadonite's are hibernating, as you can see they shed their skin, not a pretty sight, but in time they will regenerate themselves'.
Cora looked stern 'Shed their skin?' She said in disbelief, gazing at the skeletons 'No living creature sheds their skin to the bone' ...
Vortigern chuckled, his top lip curling into a sneer 'And what do you know about the Thadonite species?'
Cora smiled knowingly... 'Only what I've written down. These creatures are dead, even you know that, so why lie?'
Vortigern drew a knife from his leather boot and embedded the blade in the table 'I've cut out the tongues of those who have insulted me before, today however, I'm in a good mood’.
Cora remained composed, she was not about to let this man threaten her 'What's your game Vortigern, something worse than the Chaos Engine I’d imagine?'
Somewhat stunned by the young girl’s statement and before the man could think of an answer, the far door swung open and a Thadonite chef, dressed in white robes walked down the whole length of the table. The Thadonite placed a silver tray in front of Vortigern and lifted the lid. A huge roasted Glub worm cooked in its own rich juices rested beneath, rolling steam curled upwards from its succulent body. The Thadonite bowed, turned on his heels, retraced his steps and left Vortigern with his supper, closing the door behind him, Cora and Vortigern were once more alone together.
Cora watched the man carefully, she was curious to see if Vortigern would eat the food that had been prepared for him. She was not surprised when the man pushed the plate away ... 'Not hungry Vortigern?' She said already knowing why he had declined the meal.
The man looked nervous 'It's a Thadonite delicacy, not fit for human consumption'... He placed the silver lid back over the dish. 'Thadonite's are mainly vegetarians, since the failure of their mushroom crops I assume they have taken to eating meat’.
The young girl scowled at Vortigern, 'Which is very unfortunate, considering the fact that the Glub worm is poisonous if you eat too many'...
Vortigern looked very uncomfortable and he shuffled in his chair, his face twitching. 'Is that so?' He said, pretending not to know.
‘Now why would you not tell them that?’ she asked, expecting another lie.
Vortigern could see how transparent his words had become and her knowledge that he was once a member of Seth Kestrig’s Chaos Engine, a loathsome gang of cutthroats and pyschopaths, he decided to try a new approach. 'You’re a smart girl. I must confess that I did know. I have good reason'...
Cora looked sickened... 'I can't believe that there is a good reason' to sit back and watch a civilization poison itself, but I’m willing to hear what you've got to say'...
Vortigern smiled and took a deep breath. Reaching into his pocket he produced a small leather pouch and poured the contents over the table. Cora gazed down at the small sparkling gemstones that lay before her. 'These are my reasons'... He said proudly, his mouth salivating as he held each stone up to the light, 'The Thadonite's are very wealthy and very protective over their possessions. I couldn’t take any of this from them, if they were alive. Now if you’re smart you won't tell them that the Glub worm is poisonous and when the last Thadonite is dead, we can be rich'.
Cora sighed and looked very sad 'No Vortigern. I won’t help you’...
The man looked disappointed 'You know that the Glub worms are needed to fertilise the mushrooms, but because these stupid Thadonites are eating them they're dying out, if a creature is so stupid, it has no value and doesn’t deserve to live'.
Cora stood up, leant across the table and glared at Vortigern. 'You’re wrong, just as you always were. they need to be told to stop eating them’.
The man shook his head, gathered the gemstones in the palm of his hand and poured them back into the small bag 'You’re a fool' he said, sliding the treasure back into his pocket. ‘You'll die a poor one'...
‘You plan to kill me?' Cora asked firmly, trying to hide her fear.
'No’ Vortigern said despondently 'Violence here is punishable by death'...
Cora could see that she had the upper hand 'Then I suggest you Leave. Pack your bags and go. Take the jewels you have and never return to this place' ...
Vortigern looked broken and lowered his head in self-pity. 'I'm a poor man, Grimwood Scribes put a price on my head. I’m just trying to survive in life’ He looked at Cora with tears glistening in his eyes. 'You send me from here, I’ll go back to the life of a beggar, or end up hanging from a rope' ...
Cora was not sympathetic and her words reinforced that fact 'Better a beggar than a murderer. Be thankful that I will not tell them what I know about you, be thankful, because if they did, I am sure they would kill you'...
Cora left Vortigern with his broken dreams. She could feel no sympathy for such a man, he would lose the great fortune that he had greedily pursued, but at least he could keep what was left of his soul, as shabby as it was.
Cora returned to the king and informed him of all she knew. He was so pleased with the knowledge she imparted that he offered her 'Vortigern’s position of Protector', Cora declined, because all she really wanted was to see the Bugwug again. She returned to the surface, happy in the knowledge that she had saved the Thadonite Kingdom, but heavy in heart that she still had not been reunited with her feathered friend.
It was late in the day when Cora dragged herself out of the Glub wormhole. She climbed back upon the mushroom and sat quietly staring up into the green sky, hoping that the Bugwug would fly by and settle down upon her shoulder, she missed him dreadfully, without his guidance, she knew she would not complete her quest. The Bugwug had to be alive. If he had died surely she would have sensed it, for he was as much a part of her, as her own eyes. Cora stood upon the mushroom, cupped her hands in front of her mouth and shouted as loud as she could 'Bugwug! Bugwug! Where are you?!' The world was silent, but she would not accept that he was lost. Suddenly a hand grabbed Cora’s ankle and pulled her backwards. The girl lost her footing and fell forward, as she was dragged off the mushroom and down onto the floor.
Cora rolled over and gazed into the splintering sunlight at the silhouetted figure of Vortigern standing over her with his hunting knife. 'I'm going to kill you!'... he bellowed slicing at the air with his blade 'I'm going to feed your bones to the Glub worms!'.
Cora screamed in fear and scrambled through the vegetation on her hands and knees. Vortigern grabbed the child by the hair and pulled her back, he was just about to cut her throat when a flutter of wings startled him. Vortigern gazed into the sunlight as the Bugwug swooped down and tore out the man's Left eye with his beak.
Vortigern staggered backwards, releasing Cora and dropping his knife. The man held his hands over his face as the blood seeped through his fingers. Cora jumped to her feet and ran as fast as she could. The Bugwug flew swiftly behind her and left Vortigern alone in the mushroom field staggering blindly back and forth, his face covered in a mask of his own blood.
Cora and the Bugwug took shelter under a huge mushroom. They were safe now and their assailant would not follow. The bird settled on Cora’s shoulder and licked her face affectionately with his yellow tongue 'Sorry I lost you Cora, I was chased by Felonus and could not find my way back'...
Cora stroked his feathers gently and giggled like a little baby, tears of joy falling from her eyes ‘It's OK, I was just so worried. I'd be lost without you Bugwug, I'm so happy we're together again'...
THE LONG WALK
If you enter Grimney Wood
Care should be taken lest you should
Find something dreadful to behold
Which would make your blood run icy cold
Tread softly in this awful place
Or you could find you are face to face
With something you would prefer to see
From behind the comfort of a tree
Cora and the Bugwug travelled north. The two red suns blazed above them, lighting their way towards a vast forest of towering trees that stood in the distance. The young girl stood on the fringes of the forest where the sunlight dared not enter. Cora knew about Grimney wood, it was no place for children. The creatures that lived beneath the vast canopies of dark red leaves and overhanging branches were savage and cruel, The lesser beasts scavenged for food and took their fill from the many species of Coche beetle and other insects that scurried upon the forest floor. They were harmless to humans and not to be feared. However their presence was overshadowed by far more terrifying monsters. This forest was the hunting ground of the Drednorks, fearless and powerful red skinned warriors, with eyes as black as pitch. The Bugwug settled on Cora’s shoulder and twitched its feathers nervously 'Do we have to go in there?' He asked nervously.
Cora knew that the only way to reach the mire was through the woods. Although she had never written a poem or painted a picture of the Drednorks, she had thought of them often when describing the monstrous inhabitants of the forest.
Cora reached up with trembling fingers and stroked the Bugwug’s feathers 'We have to go in'... She took a deep breath and with the warmth of the two suns blazing down upon her pale white face, she walked slowly forward and ventured into the dark forest. Night followed day in seconds and the temperature dropped rapidly. No sunbeams penetrated through the treetops and Cora walked in shadow.
A cold breeze blew through the forest and rustled Cora’s hair. The Bugwug flew in front of her, scouting ahead for any signs of danger, but these signs were everywhere. Dark undefined shapes moved through the woods and there were eyes in the dark. Red burning eyes that watched Cora and her companion as they made their way cautiously through the maze of grey trees that surrounded them. Cora sensed that something or someone was following her, the Bugwug felt that too.
The bird tilted his wings and turned around and flew back to Cora's side. He settled once more upon her shoulder. ‘Cora’ The bird whispered in her ear ‘Someone’s following’.
The young girl knew that at any moment she could be attacked. Her only chance was to keep walking, but the further into the forest she walked the darker her surroundings became. The tall grey trees were becoming more tightly packed and the forest floor was now teeming with nightlife. Huge beetles scurried through the blackness and Cora walked carefully trying to avoid treading on the bugs. The little girl heard movement in the branches above and gazing upwards, her vision adjusting to the dim light Cora could see several dark red shapes moving through the treetops.
The Bugwug flapped his wings in panic Drednorks!' the bird screeched.
The red skinned creatures leapt down from the branches and landed upon their hands and knees. The Drednorks were humanoid and covered from top to toe in short red hair. The creatures licked their black lips, revealing huge mouths that contained four rows of sharp decaying yellowed fangs that dripped with green saliva. Huge black eyes focused on their prey and the Drednorks bounded forward towards Cora. There was no time for hesitation and turning on her heels Cora ran in the opposite direction.
The Bugwug bounced upon her shoulder, as The Drednorks pursued them relentlessly through the darkness. The creatures were hungry for flesh and Cora knew that if they caught her she would be killed. Cora wished that she could wake up back in her bedroom, perhaps boarding school would have been a wiser path than the route she was taking through Grimney and if this was to be the end for her, at least she would die comforted by the fact that she had returned her father to life. Cora felt the stench of their breath on her back and she closed her eyes and prayed. There was a loud cracking sound as Cora's feet landed on loose earth. The Bugwug separated from Cora's shoulder and flapped frantically through the air. Cora tumbled forward her arms outstretched. The ground had vanished from beneath her feet and she fell head first into a deep pit. She tumbled downwards into the dark and landed heavily at the bottom of the hole, the impact of the fall knocking her unconscious.
Cora awoke back in her bed and opened her eyes. The blazing blue light danced in her irises, she sat up slowly and reached her hand to her forehead. She was in some pain. Cora attempted to stand and she wobbled in her mud stained boots. The girl's vision was blurred and her balance failed her. Cora's legs turned to jelly and she fell to the floor, knocking over the bedside cabinet. She heard footsteps running down the passageway outside her room. She hoped that her mother was coming to help her. Cora closed her glowing blue eyes and prayed that Blackthorn would not be the one who came through her bedroom door.
Her prayers were answered. Elizabeth crouched by her daughter's side, reached down her hand and shook the little girl's shoulder. 'Cora what's wrong?' Her mother’s voice sounded far away and as Cora lay between this world and Grimney, the youngster's mind once more began to drift.
Elizabeth grabbed her daughter’s hand and called for help 'Samuel!' She shouted more loudly, hoping that Blackthorn was near "Samuel!"... Elizabeth attempted to call his name for a third time, but something very strange was happening. Elizabeth looked down at her daughter’s body. It was glowing with a peculiar blue light. She was still holding her daughter's hand when the blue light swept along Cora’s arm and wrapped itself around her. Mother and daughter were held within a swirling blue web. Elizabeth opened her mouth and attempted to scream but already she was fading from the bedroom and within seconds both she and her daughter had disappeared from sight.
The Bugwug had settled in the high branches of a tall tree. He gazed down at the dark hole and watched nervously as the Drednorks prowled around the rim of the deep pit. The creatures themselves had no desire to follow Cora into the dark depths. The Drednorks were simply waiting for Cora to climb out and then they would eat her. A blue light emanated from the inside of the hole. The Drednocks stopped prowling and stood transfixed, peering over the edge into the illuminated darkness. Their hideous red haired faces became lit by the eerie blue glow that shone from within. The Drednorks whispered amongst themselves, their dark eyes narrowing as they tried to discover the source of the light.
The Bugwug hid its cross eyes behind its purple wings, the bird shook his head 'What am I to do?' He said.
Cora and her mother materialised at the bottom of the pit. Elizabeth was still holding her daughter's hand as the blue static cloud separated from their bodies and launched itself upwards through the mouth of the hole. The sudden burst of bright light dancing around them caused the Drednorks to panic and screeching in fear the gathering creatures fled into the night. The Bugwug knew it would not be long before hunger would bring them back for Cora. The bird acted quickly and swooped down from the branches. He flew as fast as an arrow and descended into the pit.
Elizabeth scrambled to her feet and looked around in disbelief. 'What's going on?' She was bewildered and afraid of the situation she now found herself in.
Cora sat up and brushed the dirt from her shoulders. The Bugwug hit the ground with a thud, although he had accurately judged his descent into the pit, his poor eyesight had caused him to miscalculate the depth. The inevitable result caused the bird to plummet beak first into the mud. The bird rolled over coughing dust from his lungs. Cora stood on her feet, walked over to the Bugwug and picked him up in her arms.
The Bugwug coughed again and spat dirt on Cora’s jacket 'I beg my pardon’ The bird said apologetically.
‘Apology accepted' the girl replied. Cora was more interested in her mother than the Bugwug's lack of manners.
'You can talk?'... Elizabeth’s expression was one of total astonishment.
Cora smiled affectionately at her mother 'Of course I can talk mummy, it's just that I was never allowed to before'.
Elizabeth looked faint and she fell back against a mud wall. A big black beetle crawled onto her shoulder and Elizabeth began to scream, she feebly brushed the bug away and jumped up and down on the spot in panic.
The Bugwug had regained his composure and was now sat on Cora's shoulder preening itself. The bird had chosen to ignore the hysterical woman.
Cora placed her hands on her hips and shook her head 'It’s only a Coche beetle, it’s quite harmless"
Elizabeth shuddered and hugged herself 'Quite harmless, is not harmless enough for me'. Elizabeth could see that the ground was moving in front of her and that other insects were crawling about in the darkness ... 'Oooh’. .. Her voice was shaking and hysterical. 'What's going on Cora?!' Elizabeth stared at the strange bird on Cora's shoulder 'What is that thing?’...
The Bugwug looked up, he was offended 'I am not a thing’... He said disapprovingly 'I am the Bugwug’.
Elizabeth placed her head in her hands and dragged her clenched fingers through her hair. She looked at Cora and the bird in total disbelief 'You're talking and that bird is talking. I’m having a nightmare, too many gin and tonics’... She nodded frantically 'Or worse I’m having a breakdown again, yes, in a minute I’ll wake up, it’s simply just an odd dream, I’ve got a hairdresser's appointment at eleven!’.
The Bugwug rolled his eyes 'The nightmare's up there'... The bird shook his wings 'We need to get out before the Drednorks come back’...
'Drednorks?' Elizabeth was shivering. 'What is happening?'
Cora gazed up through the mouth of the hole. The girl could see that if they were to escape it would be quite a climb.
Elizabeth folded her arms and drummed her foot nervously on the ground 'I'm not going anywhere'...
Cora touched the sidewalls of the pit and the dry soil came away in her fingers. 'Well we can't climb out that's for sure'... The Bugwug had a thought 'Well Cora, why don't you use your imagination?'
A black beetle walked over Elizabeth's shoe and she screamed again. Cora's mother began to run around in circles, waving her arms in the air in panic. 'Bugs! Bugs!' she screamed 'The place is full of bugs!'
Cora remained focused on the job in hand 'What do you mean?' The Bugwug gazed into Cora's eyes. 'Use the book of the Guardians. Change your shape'. Cora's eyes sparkled 'Can I do that?'
The Bugwug nodded 'You can do anything, when you try'.
DREAMS TAKE FLIGHT
Cora sat down on the dirt floor, the Bugwug flew down and settled on her stomach. Cora laid her body flat upon the ground and put her head back, closing her eyes she waited for sleep.
Elizabeth shook her head and grumbled under her breath 'Some dream this is'... She sat down on a mound of earth in the corner, bugs crawled all around her and she hugged her knees to her chest 'Some people have dreams about sunlit beaches'... She kicked at the dirt with her shoes 'I get this, typical'.
Cora tilted her head forward and looked across at her mother 'Mummy I am trying to sleep. Please will you be quiet'...
Elizabeth crossed her arms again. Her forehead folded into a dismissive frown. 'This isn't really the time to go to sleep is it?'
'I thought you'd be happy that I can talk again?'... Cora sounded a little sad.
Elizabeth gave a deep sigh 'It would be if this was real life'...
Cora gazed at the Bugwug perched upon her stomach and shook her head.
The bird responded by shrugging his feathers. 'Adults’ He twittered 'They never listen to their children’...
Cora nodded, tears glistening in her eyes. She laid her head back down upon the soft soil and waited for the mind spirit to take her home...
Cora was asleep when the strange blue light descended through the hole above. Elizabeth stared, transfixed by the swirling mist. In a matter of moments the glowing cloud had laid itself over Cora's body like a shimmering blue electric blanket.
The Bugwug was caught within the glowing cloak of light. The bird opened his left wing and began to wave at Elizabeth. The young woman raised her hand slowly and waved uneasily back. Within a matter of seconds the physical forms of Cora and the Bugwug had dissolved into a cloud of blue swirling particles.
Once the cloud had dissipated, only Elizabeth remained behind. She sat alone and frightened upon the mound of earth. Chewing her fingernails nervously, an unusual thing for her to do as she often had them manicured. Elizabeth hoped that this nightmare would soon come to an end.
The mind spirit once more reappeared inside Cora's bedroom and the young child's body began to reform inside the blue cloud. The young girl became solid again. The blue mist swirled upwards and vanished rapidly through the ceiling. The mind spirit left Cora lying on her mattress with the Bugwug standing on her stomach. The bird opened his wings and flew across the room, then settled on the windowsill. Cora sat up and looked around for the Book of The Guardians. She soon found the book. It was lying next to her overturned bedside cabinet. She picked it up and turned to a blank page.
Cora looked across at the Bugwug, she needed some advice 'I'm going to change my shape, but how will the book know that's what I want to do?'.
The Bugwug scratched the top of his head with his wing. 'Good question'.. His cross-eyes flashed with inspiration 'Do you have any recent pictures of yourself?'
Cora reached under her bed and drew out a photograph album ‘I have lots'... She opened the book and gazed down at the photographs inside. 'What can I do with them?'...
‘Simple' said the Bugwug 'You draw the creature you want to be on the back of one and stick it loosely into the book'.
Cora pulled back the protective transparent film covering a page of photographs and slid a picture from the album, 'Why loosely?' she inquired.
The Bugwug scratched his beak with the tip of his wing 'When you want to change back you simply pull the picture from the book'...
Cora nodded and gazed at the blank canvas on the back of her photograph. She began to think about the most logical creature to transform into. A giant snake could slither up the mud walls, but it would not evade the unwanted attentions of the Drednorks. She had to choose wisely, she had no wish to fight. Therefore it would be sensible to become a creature that would frighten them away. Cora smiled at the Bugwug. 'I have the answer’ She said 'We'll be out of that hole in no time at all'...
THE WATER DRAGON
Elizabeth had not moved from the mound of earth on which she was seated. The young woman sat with her head bowed and looked down at the dirt floor. She lifted her shoes from the ground as a huge brown centipede moved past her feet. Its long fat segmented body slid down a small hole in the pit floor and Elizabeth sighed with relief that the hideous insect had gone from sight.
The glowing mind spirit once more lit the interior of the pit. Elizabeth looked up and the skin of her face became bathed in blue light. The Bugwug materialised in the midst of the swirling, static cloud, it flew towards Elizabeth and settled on the woman's shoulder. Elizabeth ignored the bird; her attention was focused on a large scaly winged creature that had begun to take shape before her. Her mouth dropped open in astonishment, she could not believe her eyes. Because once the cloud faded and the darkness returned, she sat face to face opposite a large blue scaly skinned dragon. The creature stretched her huge webbed wings, curled her lips and yawned.
'I don't believe this’ Elizabeth whispered to herself. The dragon smiled, revealing two rows of sharp gleaming white teeth. 'I don't taste very nice you know, I have fatty thighs'. Elizabeth climbed to her feet and stepping slowly backwards, she moved to the far corner of the pit, the Bugwug remained standing on the woman's shoulder 'And a very fatty bottom'... She pinned her back against the wall.
The Bugwug shook his head and hid his face behind his wings. The dragon fluttered her long eyelashes at the terrified lady.
‘I don't want to eat you Mummy’...
Elizabeth recognised the dragon’s voice 'Cora?' She shook her head and squeezed her eyes tightly shut 'No that’s not possible’.
‘It is me Mummy' the dragon continued 'We have to get out of here before the Drednorks come back’
Elizabeth ran her shaking fingers through her hair 'Anywhere is better than here. How do we get out?'
The dragon looked thoughtful and smiled 'You sit on my back mummy and we fly out'...
The dragon crouched down upon her clawed feet and lowered her spiky back. Elizabeth stood in front of the beast and folded her arms. 'You want me to climb on your back, I’m not sitting on a spike!’ She shook her head 'You must think I'm mad?'...
The dragon inhaled heavily, sucking dust into her nostrils. The huge spiny head of the creature began to rise slowly, causing Elizabeth to back away again.
The Bugwug could see that the dragon's nose was twitching and flapping his wings he separated from Elizabeth's shoulder and flew out of harm’s way. ‘Cora?’ he whispered nervously ‘What’s wrong?’
The dragon's mouth opened and the huge creature sneezed. Two twinjets of water shot out through her nostrils, drenching her mother in liquid slime. The dragon sniffed and looked sheepishly at her mother 'Sorry mummy, it's the dust'...
Elizabeth stood motionless, water dripping from her clothes, her hair matted to her face. ‘Oh’ She muttered ‘This really is too much’. She looked up at the entrance to the pit and sighed 'Just get me out of here Cora and someone please find me a towel!'...
The dragon smiled 'Then climb on my back, and we’ll be away'.
Outside the pit the Drednorks were gathering again. The creatures' fear overcome by hunger, as they waited at the rim of the deep hole to take their fill of the fresh meat below. The Drednorks however would not be eating this day. The prey had changed and how quickly the hunter can become the hunted. The Drednorks fled back into the dark woods as Cora the dragon lifted by her huge wings, ascended through the entrance of the hole.
Elizabeth clung onto the dragon's back. The Bugwug sat upon her head and the three companions soared upwards into the treetops. Bursting through the canopies of red leaves and escaping the unnatural night of the dank forest dwelling, Cora and her friends were showered by golden sunlight. The two red suns were high in the sky and Cora the dragon flew towards them. The warm air lifting her wings as she gently glided through the light green sky. Elizabeth held tightly to her daughter's back, the summer breeze rippling through her clothes and drying the material.
Cora gazed down at the sea of red berries, leaves and blossom that provided the cooling shade in the forest. 'So much beauty on the outside, but so much ugliness within' Cora thought, and it was thoughts like these that would shape Cara Pearl's destiny, for good and ill.
Blackthorn sat astride Nightfire, a huge black stallion with a flowing white mane. The horse trotted through the cobbled yard towards the stables. Slipping his black booted feet from the stirrups, the man slid down the side of the horse’s silky body and placed his heels down upon the stones. He led the Stallion through the wooden gates and closed the doors. Nightfire stuck his head over the wooden barrier and Blackthorn stroked the animal’s face. 'If only every creature was as beautiful as you' Blackthorn sighed then turned away and walked slowly back across the cobblestones.
Inside the mansion Blackthorn climbed a long winding oak staircase to the landing above. He looked at his watch, it was half past nine in the evening and time for supper. The house was unnaturally quiet. 'Where was everyone?' He wondered.
Blackthorn pushed open Cora’s bedroom door and walked inside. The sight of the overturned cabinet made him feel uneasy and the bare mattress coated in mud switched his emotion almost immediately to anger. The man crossed the floor quickly, lifted the cabinet and slid it back against the wall. He turned his attention to the dirt covered mattress and bending down he used his black leather gloved hands to brush the flakes onto the wooden floorboards. He looked down beneath the bed and found ‘The Book of The Guardians’. He dragged it from its hiding place and sitting down upon the mattress, turned each page slowly. He had seen the pictures and the poetry before. Cora's immense talent impressed Blackthorn, but he could never offer any praise. After all what use would 'The Land of Grimney' have in the real world? Blackthorn was a practical man, successful in business. Cora was the complete opposite and in his eyes, she was a failure.
Blackthorn turned over to the next page and his face dropped. He gazed down with irritation at the picture of Robert Pearl. He gritted his teeth and shook his head. 'All this love for a dead man'... he moaned. He flicked further through the book and found the photograph of Cora Pearl. He could see that the picture was only stuck loosely to the page and he carefully unclipped her image and held it up in front of his face. The man's cold judging eyes examined Cora's photograph closely ‘You should listen to me Cora, I'm reality.’ He sneered at her image, baring his nicotine stained teeth, ‘Not some dead man'.
Blackthorn turned the photograph around and was astonished by the painting that had been concealed upon the back. The Water Dragon was a fantastic drawing and even Blackthorn seemed impressed. ‘You have talent Cora, if only you’d show it at school’. He closed 'The Book Of The Guardians and placed it upon the mattress. The man stood up and brushed a few flakes of dirt from his black trousers. He turned around and lay the photograph down upon the cabinet and with his head bowed he walked slowly from Cora's bedroom.
Deep within the Grimney Bog
Where there swirl banks of chilling fog
Lurks a creature of muddy birth
Something evil not of this earth
It swims in slime and lives on meat
When walking there do watch your feet
But it blends in with all around
So wherever you look it will not be found
But if you see it don’t go too near
For you will be overcome with horror and fear
Its eyes are so black and would pierce your soul
Before its huge maw would pull you down the swamp
The daylight in Grimney was beginning to fade and grey marsh clouds were gathering in the misty green sky, draping a veil of shadow over the twin red suns. Cora the dragon, Elizabeth and the Bugwug were nearing their destination.
The dragon drew in her wings and the trio began to descend towards the marshland. Cora and her companions were completely unaware that the blue mind spirit was surging towards them from a distance. The dragon’s talons extended from its powerful scaly feet and the mighty creature landed gently in the shallows of the mire.
Elizabeth looked down from the safety of the dragon's back. The ground below was soft, green and fertile and covered by a thick layer of murky water that crawled with snakes and other grotesque creatures.
Occasionally large bubble eyed Kellrogs broke through the water’s surface, their yellow eyes rolling from side to side in search of prey. These weird scaly, froglike creatures dwelled in the shallows of the mire. Kellrogs lived an untroubled existence, because their skin excreted a deadly poison, a Kellrog's diet consisted of small flying insects that they consumed with the unfurling of a long purple tongue. As a species they were harmless to larger swamp creatures, unless, of course you had the misfortune to eat one.
Elizabeth took in a deep breath, the air smelt rancid. She patted the dragon hard upon the head ‘This place smells of sick, for God’s sake Cora why are you stopping here?'
'Oh mummy please don’t be so revolting. We are just having a rest'... the dragon replied ‘You're heavy you know!'
The Bugwug settled on the dragon’s head and pecked his beak against Cora's armour plated skull. 'Wake up in there dear’ the bird said politely 'We need to move to dryer land'. The dragon looked out over the vast swamp. Night was descending rapidly and banks of chilling fog had begun to roll across the water's surface. Cora did not want to fly through the dark. She decided to follow the Bugwug's advice. Flapping her giant wings, with her mother still clinging tightly to her back, she lifted herself into the air.
The Bugwug's plan to fly to dry land was stopped in mid take off. Within seconds both mother and daughter had once more become enveloped in the blue light. On contact with the mind spirit the dragon's body began to shrink and her physical appearance gradually returned to a more familiar form, that of Cora Pearl. With this change came the inevitable loss of flight and Cora and her mother tumbled downwards into the green slimy bog.
Elizabeth was quickly on her feet, jumping around in horror, splashing water in all directions 'It's disgusting!' A long green water snake brushed past her ankle and Elizabeth screamed. ‘Cora, I want to go home now!'
Cora sat up in the water with the Bugwug perched upon her shoulder. She gazed at her mother, the woman was panicking 'What do we do? What do we do?' she repeated balancing on one leg like a petrified stork.
Cora reached her hands to her face and felt her soft skin, human again, she did not like being human. The mind spirit had already gone, taking her dragon identity with it, Cora looked downcast.
The dragon had made her feel powerful and now she was Cora Pearl again, the silly little girl that her stepfather loathed. Yes, her stepfather.
Cora looked worried ‘Someone must have removed the picture from the book’.
The Bugwug placed his beak against her ear and whispered gently 'It's Blackthorn, God knows what he might do next'...
The real world was only a dream away for Cora, but for Blackthorn it was the only reality. The man was already indulging his passion for brandy. Seated in a large brown leather armchair in his study, he consumed glass after glass of the golden intoxicating liquid. Blackthorn climbed to his feet, the man's face was ashen, his grey skin, greyer than ever. His dark eyes stared at the far wall. A framed picture hung there, a recent photograph of Samuel Blackthorn, dressed in a black riding jacket, white trousers and knee length leather boots. His horse Nightfire stood behind him against the backdrop of fertile open moorland and fading sunlight. Blackthorn walked unsteadily to the picture and unclipped it from the wall. Raising the photograph above his head, he hurled the portrait to the floor, breaking the frame and spraying pieces of broken glass across the wooden panels. He returned to his Stepdaughter's room and opened 'The Book Of The Guardians.' He found a blank page and glued his photograph against the white background. 'I am real life Cora'.
Blackthorn's voice was slurred 'It's time you learned that. One day you'll be too old to dream, one day that will happen and you’ll be somebody, somebody like me. A pillar of society'... Blackthorn slammed the book shut and allowed it to slip from his lap. He stood up and walked to the door. 'You two can't leave me. I won't let that happen ever'... Blackthorn walked across the cobbled yard. His eyes were half closed as the brandy took effect. The sky above was dark and foreboding and ghostly white cotton clouds carried on a howling wind, unravelled across the moon. Blackthorn led his horse from the stable and climbed unsteadily onto the animal's back. He dug in his heels and the animal reared up on its back legs and galloped into the night.
On Slattern Moor don’t ever walk
For in this place the Zoorban stalk…
Tall and thin
Living skeletons lacking skin
They live on blood when they take their fill
Don’t let them catch you or you’ll be their kill
So never walk alone at night
For the zoorban are a hideous sight
Walking with their candle lanterns
These sinister living phantoms
Terrorise all who walk their way
So take heed of what I say
Never step into this lonely place
Or the monstrous zoorban you will surely face.
The Bugwug carried twigs in his beak and placed them gently one on top of the other. The bird was building a campfire. Elizabeth and Cora sat opposite each other, watching the Bugwug stockpiling the firewood. Cora’s eyes made contact with her mother's and the two just stared at each other, both seemed unable to speak.
The Bugwug settled down upon the heap of sticks and twigs 'I think you should talk'... He said, shaking his tail feathers with irritation.
Cora smiled, but behind that smile was a growing anger for her mother. 'Mummy, you never loved Me!'
Elizabeth looked pained by her daughter's remark. 'That’s just not true'.
'Daddy loved me. That's why I'm here’. Cora’s tone was abrupt and Elizabeth felt uneasy with such bluntness. 'Daddy is alive and I'm going to find him'.
Elizabeth shook her head and frowned 'You've got your voice back, but you're not talking sense'.
Cora stood up and waved an accusing finger at her mother ‘You don't know anything about me!' She shouted.
The Bugwug looked startled and hid behind his wings and cowered.
'I'm just a child who couldn’t speak’. Cora sobbed 'I'm just a child you wouldn't listen to and I hate you for it’.
Elizabeth sat motionless, it was like losing her soul, she felt all she was, empty from her heart. She loved Cora and would always love her, but beneath a heavy dark sky she became silent and lost. Unable to express her thoughts she lay down on the damp soil and curling into a ball she began to sob.
The Bugwug looked solemn and bowed his head. Cora sat and stared at her mother. She felt black inside, she blinked briefly and tears rolled down from beneath her eyelids. She did not wipe them away, they were tears for her father and her mother and too precious to be smeared clumsily across her face. Cora needed to go home and lying flat upon the ground she gazed up at the night sky, turned her head to one side and fell into painful sleep.
The blue light gathered around the child, but it was not as bright as before, the sparkle had gone. Wrapping around her body, the light carried her home and before the tearful eyes of the Bugwug, the young girl faded from sight and returned to the safety of her bedroom. It seemed like an eternity before Cora returned to Grimney. Something was different this time. The mind spirit that departed from Cora's body had separated into two distinct shades, one blue and the other black. The Bugwug watched them as they flew skyward in completely different directions. Cora sat up slowly and rubbed her bloodshot eyes.
The Bugwug suspected that the little girl had been crying. Cora Looked over at her mother who appeared to be fast asleep and then gazed at the Bugwug who was still perched upon a stick that protruded from the unlit campfire.
'I couldn’t find Blackthorn, but he'd found my book’... She bit into her lip 'He stuck in his own picture, I couldn’t remove it!.. Her voice was trembling. 'What will happen now?'... She asked drawing in a deep breath that she exhaled as a sigh.
The Bugwug shook his head slowly ‘Oh dear'... He wrapped his wings around his furry body and rocked himself gently 'Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear'...
Blackthorn sat beneath the great oak tree. The man was half asleep and drifting in a drunken haze. His eyes began to close. He did not see the dark swirling cloud descending from the sky, or hear his horse neighing in fear. The swirling mass of dark, rolling light entered through Blackthorn's forehead and swept down into his body. The man waved his hands clumsily in front of his face as he tried to brush the entity away. In his drunken thoughts he believed he was merely encountering the presence of an annoying fly. Unbeknown to the drunken man this was not the case and gradually the successful businessman who had his feet firmly placed in the security of the real world, lost his footing and drifted helplessly in the vortex of dark Light, until he and his horse, Nightfire came to rest upon Slattern Moor, the domain of the dreaded Zoorban, skeletal lantern carrying creatures that were feared by all who lived in. 'The Land Of Grimney'...
It was at this time, in the furthest, darkest reaches of Grimney that the Fortress Of Fire appeared. A huge earthquake tore open the parched landscape and three flame covered mighty towers ripped through the splitting dried earth and surged upwards into the moonless sky. Although its walls were high and impenetrable, a volcanic mountainside that bubbled with red fire and noxious green gasses dwarfed the fortress. A dark electrical storm rolled around the building's blazing foundations and from an arched window at the top of the highest, most secret tower, a swarm of red skinned reptilian creatures, bathed in flame spread their wings and took flight. They flew in an arrowhead formation, their blazing bodies lighting the darkness. Vortanna Zague, their Queen led from the front, she was different from the others, her skin was snow white and she wore a red dress that rippled with flame. A trail of multi coloured fire cascaded from the shimmering material and her hair glowed with all the colours of the rainbow.
Inside an empty room in the highest tower stood Darcus Ryalls, a being of extreme malevolence. Dressed in long red robes and a hood that obscured its face, the being gazed into a red crystal pyramid that stood upon a stone altar. Behind the glass, balls of blue fire rolled back and forth. Ryalls waved its red gloved hand over the pyramid and images began to form. The being could see Cora, Elizabeth and the Bugwug at the campsite and raising its arms into the air, Ryalls conjured the dark light mind spirit into the room. The black swirling mist rolled across the stone floor and swept through Ryalls’ body and the two became one within a maelstrom of swirling light.
Back on Slattern Moor, Blackthorn woke with a terrible hangover. His horse, Nightfire standing loyally over him. The man pulled himself to his feet and wiped the sleep from his eyes. He looked around and tried to get his bearings. The sky was overcast and the moon was out of sight behind thick black clouds. He looked across the open moor and no matter how much he squinted he could not see Blackthorn mansion on the horizon. He grabbed the reins of his trusty horse and stroked its silky mane, 'Where have I ridden to?' He pondered, his voice quiet due to the severe headache.
Blackthorn shook his head and climbed back onto the horse. He gently squeezed his heels into the animal's body and the horse trotted forward over Slattern Moor. In the distance Blackthorn could see a single lantern light and unsure of his whereabouts he pulled at the horse's reins and directed the animal towards it. Blackthorn hoped that the night traveller would be able to give him directions home ... He was not to know that the night traveller's only desire would be to eat him...
Blackthorn's horse sensed the danger and reared up on his hind legs, forcing his rider to hold tightly to the reins. Blackthorn took the strain and the horse settled down. 'Steady boy, I'11 get you home’... Blackthorn said reassuringly, patting the animal's side gently.
The lantern bearer attracted by the sound of Blackthorn's voice, changed direction and walked slowly through the dark towards the horse and his rider. Nightfire trotted across the isolated moor and Blackthorn squinted through the dark, trying to define the appearance of the being that was approaching him. The glass candle lantern threw an eerie light upon the windswept grass. Blackthorn could now see the being quite clearly. The Zoorban stood about seven foot tall and cast a huge dark shadow behind it. The creature's clothes were red and ragged. Tall and thin, it was how Cora described it 'A living skeleton, lacking skin'. The Zoorban held the lamp in its long sharp bony fingers, casting a yellow light over its white skull like face. Blackthorn looked again, the Zoorban did not have a face. Its eye sockets were deep, dark and empty, its teeth were long and fixed in a permanent grin and where the nose should have been, there were two deep, black, empty holes. Nightfire panicked again, reared on its hind legs once more and threw Blackthorn from his saddle. He fell to the ground in a heap and watched helplessly as Nightfire galloped into the night, leaving the man alone with the approaching creature. Blackthorn scrambled to his feet and ran after the horse, but Nightfire had already disappeared into the dark.
The Zoorban’s teeth began to chatter and its bony fingers began to click together. The man stood his ground. He had lost the will to move, fear had rooted him to the spot. The Zoorban was very close to him now and the sweat began to roll down the man's forehead. ‘My God, help me'... He muttered under his breath, his tongue drying in his mouth. The Zoorban towered over him. Attracted by the smell of fresh meat, the creature began to outstretch a Long bony arm and unfurling the skinless digits of its left hand, the creature reached slowly towards Blackthorn's throat. It was in this moment that Nightfire galloped forward through the dark. The Zoorban was taken completely by surprise and spun around on its black booted heels, screeching like a banshee. The horse raised its mighty hooves and brought them crashing down into the Zoorban's thin spindly body. The creature dropped its lantern and on contact with the dewy grass, the glass broke and the candle sizzled and went out. The Zoorban’s bones cracked and its skeletal frame crumbled to the floor. Blakthorn saw his opportunity to escape and ran to the horse's side then leapt upon its back. Grabbing at the animal's reins and digging in his heels, horse and rider galloped to safety across the moor, before the Zoorban could regain its composure and continue its attack.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
THE RED KNIGHT
The new dawn in Grimney was not met with brilliant sunshine, for the green marsh clouds blocked out the two rising suns. Cora awoke from an uneasy sleep and looked across at Elizabeth who was still deep in slumber. The Bugwug had made a nest of the unlit twigs and rested gently inside the campfire. Cora stood on her feet, stretched out her arms and yawned. Lost in the moment she was unaware of light footsteps approaching stealthily behind her. She did however hear the sound of iron scraping against iron as a sword was drawn from its scabbard. Cora turned around and came face to face with a young handsome knight dressed in red body armour. The warrior that stood before her was an impressive figure. He had thick black hair, deep red eyes, high cheekbones and a jaw line chiselled from stone. He carried a red shield at his side, with the Coat Of Arms of two golden intertwining serpents emblazoned upon it. On seeing Cora’s face he slid his sword back into his scabbard and smiled. 'I thought you were a dwarf trollop' He chuckled ‘You don’t appear to be’..
Cora placed her hands on her hips 'What a cheek'. she said scathingly 'I’m certainly not one of those!'.
The Red Knight chuckled 'What I’d like to know is... What's a young girl like you doing in a place like this?' he asked beaming from ear to ear.
Cora studied the man's handsome face ‘I know you, you're Vin Reddell’. She said with an inquisitive look in her eyes.
The man nodded 'How do you know that?’ He looked across at the bird resting on top of the unlit campfire.
The Bugwug began to wake. Stretching out his wings, the bird opened his beak, rolled back his yellow tongue and yawned.
Vin gazed across at Elizabeth, still curled into a ball and fast asleep. Cora's eyes did not leave the young man for a moment. 'They're my companions'...
Vin raised his eyebrows and smiled ‘I’ve been following you since the forest’.
‘Really?' She sounded unimpressed 'The red eyes in the dark?' Cora scowled 'I saw them, back in the woods’... Her tone became harsh, 'Why didn't you help us?'
Vin looked down at his feet and holding his hands behind his back he swayed from side to side. If he had not been wearing a suit of armour he would have looked like a naughty schoolboy. Vin gazed sheepishly at Cora, who crossed her arms and drummed one foot impatiently on the soft moist ground.
'Well?'. Cora continued, her tone as frosty as a bossy headmistress.
Vin seemed somewhat intimidated by the small child 'Drednorks are dangerous'... He stuttered 'In any case you can shape shift'...
‘Yes, but that’s no excuse for cowardice ... Still’ Cora nodded proudly throwing her long hair back over her shoulders and sticking out her chin. 'I can can't I’...
The Bugwug rolled over and fell off the top of the campfire. He bounced from one twig to the next until he tumbled onto the grass. The bird sat up, feathers sticking out all over the place. His eyes rolling, a vacant expression spread over his face. 'What's going on?'... The Bugwug looked half asleep. ‘Are we there yet?'.
Cora ignored the bird, 'How do you intend to cross the mire?’ She asked.
Vin smiled 'I have a raft, perhaps I can row you across?'...
Cora gazed out over the swamp. Thick green clouds had gathered, blocking out the sky, if she chose to transform into the Water Dragon and fly over the mire, she had to accept the possibility that she could easily become lost.
Vin's raft would be a more practical method of navigating the swamp, but she knew about this young man's past. He was not entirely reliable. Like most cowards when faced with a fight, they would more often than not choose to run away. Cora sighed heavily and frowned ‘Are you a brave man?' she asked, already knowing the answer.
Vin’s smile faded. He had not expected such a question, 'I'm afraid of many things... There’s much to be frightened of in Grimney'. He swallowed hard and licked his dried lips with the tip of his tongue ‘But there’s better safety in numbers’...
Cora smiled, she liked his answer 'Then we'll travel with you'.
Vin’s huge smile returned 'You won’t regret your decision, I promise you'... He sounded sincere and Cora knew he probably was. 'May I know your name? Common courtesy, as you know mine'...
Vin watched as the Bugwug flapped his purple wings, raised his hoofed feet from the floor and glided clumsily through the air. The bird settled gently on Cora’s right shoulder. Cora spoke slowly and clearly 'My name is Cora Pearl. Daughter of Robert Pearl’.
Vin's eyes nearly popped from his head and a look of complete surprise changed to one of utter admiration. The knight stepped forward, bent down upon one knee, bowed his head and grabbed hold of Cora's right hand. 'I am your humble servant Miss Pearl'. The emotion in his voice came from the depths of the man's heart.
The Bugwug ruffled his feathered forehead and whispered into Cora's ear 'Who is this nut?'...
Cora ignored the bird and placed her other hand upon the knights left shoulder’ She tapped her knuckles on his armour plated pauldron. 'You know about my father?’ She said excitedly.
Vin looked up, tears glistening in his red eyes. The man's lips trembled 'He’s a legend in this land, ‘I always wanted to meet him'...
Cora's eyes began to glisten. She nodded gently, trying to contain the feelings inside. ‘Me too'... she said her voice quivering with emotion ‘Me too’...
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
A PECULIAR PICNIC
The twin red suns of Grimney shone down from the light green sky. Blackthorn sat astride his horse and squinted into the sunbeams. He shook his head in bewilderment. Blackthorn had survived his encounter with the Zoorban, only to find that he was now lost on an open moor that seemed to stretch for miles. Nightfire continued to trot onwards, the animal seemed completely at ease with the situation. Blackthorn patted the animal's side.
'I don’t understand this at all'... He said hoping that somehow the horse would have the answers. 'Why not?' he thought, after all a talking horse would not be that strange in view of his new surroundings. Blackthorn tried to remember the night before. He had drunk a little brandy and fallen asleep beneath the oak tree. 'Of course!' He said excitedly 'I haven't woken up'... He laughed out loud. Accepting this to be the case, Blackthorn decided that he should make the most of the experience and enjoy this dream world he had created. 'What will my mind conjure up next?’ He thought. Blackthorn did not have to wait long for an answer. In the distance he could see a familiar outline, a giant tree stood towering into the sky. Blackthorn became convinced that this was the tree he had fallen asleep beneath. He dug his boots into Nightfire's side and directed the horse towards it.
At a stone table beneath the leafy tree
Sipping slowly from a cup of hot tea
Sat a funny looking fellow
With hair of orange and skin of yellow
His eyes were of the lightest green
A pointy long nose stuck out between
Blackthorn dismounted his horse and approached this strange little man dressed in a purple silk suit. The name 'Cyrus Gold’ had been weaved in silver braid on his left breast pocket.
Below the shade of the towering oak
The fellow stood and smiled and quietly spoke
‘Please join me at my picnic table
I will feed you well for I am able
To provide you with the finest tea
Please share my food come sit with me’
Blackthorn sat down upon a stone throne opposite the strange little man. He was in awe of this peculiar fellow and could not think of any words to say in response. Gold however seemed completely oblivious to his new companion’s lack of manners.
He gave Blackthorn cake and strawberry flan
But who was this funny little man?
His clothes were cut from the finest silk
And in his tea he would take no milk
Blackthorn sat and drank one cup of tea
Gold spun in his chair and smiled with such glee.
Blackthorn opened his mouth and Gold raised a long yellow finger high into the air. This action was swiftly followed by the little man ducking down beneath the stone table. A frantic search ensued as spoons, knives plates and various culinary equipment were thrown upon the grass behind him, Gold eventually found what he had been searching for. The little fellow produced a Large silver box from underneath the table and placed it proudly down in front of his guest. Gold licked his lips excitedly and began to chatter and chuckle under his breath. Blackthorn concluded that his host was more than just a little eccentric.
Gold opened the box containing four pies
And gazed at the contents a feast for the eyes
‘There is blueberry, blackberry apple and such!’
But he waved a long finger and said “Do not touch!”
Gold slammed the lid shut and placed the box back underneath the table, all the time the little man twittered and chuckled. Blackthorn seemed bemused. He concluded that Cyrus Gold was no mere eccentric, no, Cyrus Gold was quite clearly a complete and utter lunatic.
Gold's fingers were long and his nose was sharp
He entertained blackthorn by playing the harp
He asked for him to make a request
A special treat for an honoured guest
Blackthorn thought for a moment and then named his
But when Gold sang he had such a terrible voice
The birds in the trees would not join in
They fled their nests from the terrible din
Blackthorn was glad when he finished
And gave him a clap
Oh what an amusing little chap?
Gold sat down in his own stone chair and bowed his head. Within seconds the little man was fast asleep, whistling as he snored. Blackthorn waited to see if Cyrus Gold would wake up. He sat for well over an hour, listening as Gold’s snoring became louder and louder. Blackthorn placed the palms of his hands over his ears, The noise of the little fellow grunting and snorting became unbearable. He decided that it would be best to leave. He would learn nothing from this peculiar individual.
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
THE MIRE CROSSING
Dark eyes are watching from the water
Welcoming stranger to the slaughter
A deadly hunter swift to eat
Travellers who walk on careless feet
In the swamp and slime beneath
Lurks a beast with sharpened teeth
Sharper than a butcher’s knife
With a lust for death to give it life
Its scales are shiny thick and course
It will pull you in with all its force
And in the silence so far down
It will hold you tight until you drown.
The raft seemed a very simple construction and consisted of six shaved wooden logs bound together with rope. It bobbed gently on the surface of the dark swamp. Vin had tethered the raft to a wooden post that stuck haphazardly out of the murky mire. Elizabeth stood at the water's edge she had no wish to get her feet wet. The young woman shivered and wrapped her arms around her torso. 'You expect me to get on that?' She chuckled with disbelief 'You must be joking, certainly not'...
Vin Reddell drew his sword and Elizabeth backed further away. The knight waded into the mire and sank down to his knees in mud and slime. He cut through the rope and gripped the frayed end tightly in his gauntlet, preventing the raft from drifting away.
Cora shook her head and glared at her mother 'Do you want us to leave you here Mummy?'
The Bugwug flew down from the murky green sky and crashed landed onto the logs. The bird staggered onto his hooves, stepped forward, and fell over the side of the raft, Cora waded into the swamp, splashing water in all directions. The bird flapped helplessly, his wings becoming waterlogged. Cora picked him up and placed him gently back on the raft. 'Thank you Cora’ the bird said rolling his eyes and shaking the moisture from his purple wings.
'You're welcome'. Cora Lifted herself onto the raft and climbed on board.
Vin gazed at Elizabeth ‘I really think you should come with us'.
She shook her head defiantly 'I want to go home, not go sailing in some filthy bog!' she snapped.
The sounds of splashing had attracted unwanted attention and from the depths of the swamp a large black scaly head broke through the surface of the murky water. Six dark soulless eyes watched Cora and her colleagues.
'Mummy please climb on board'... Cora hugged her knees to her chest and the Bugwug flew down and settled reassuringly upon her shoulder.
Vin gripped the hilt of his sword tightly and pointed the blade at Elizabeth. 'What if I carry you across?' He said, containing his obvious frustration.
Elizabeth thought for a moment and nodded in agreement 'OK, but you'd better not drop me, I wouldn’t be amused'...
Vin waded back through the mud and grabbing Elizabeth behind the knees he swept her off her feet.
The young women wrapped her arms tightly around his neck and linked her hands together for further support, she rather liked being carried by a knight!
Vin and Elizabeth crossed the mire and he placed her gently onto the bound logs.
Elizabeth stood up and brushed her clothes with the palms of her hands ‘I always travel first class you know’ she said proudly. ‘But I quite enjoyed that!’
Vin slid his sword back into its scabbard and attempted to lift himself from the water. Unfortunately his armoured boots were caked in thick mud and he had become stuck in the sucking clay.
The dark eyes of the beast stared coldly at the struggling man. Slowly the creature moved its long black reptilian body and snaked silently towards the raft. Vin drew his sword and pushed the blade down into the water. He began to scrape away the mud that held him rooted to the spot. The man looked up at Cora and Elizabeth. 'I'm stuck. Can you help me out please?'... In the distance Vin could see the water parting. The man's face bleached whiter than chalk 'You'll have to hurry, the swamps dangerous'... He said, trying to remain calm, not wishing to cause alarm.
The beast's long black snakelike body twisted through the mire towards him, trailing water behind its sinewy body. Cora and Elizabeth knelt down and began to pull at Vin’s armour. Cora gritted her teeth and pulled with all her might, the strain on her face turning her skin bright red.
Elizabeth gripped Vin beneath his other arm and she too found it impossible to move him. 'It's no good'.. Elizabeth said slackening her grip.
Cora continued to pull at the man's armour 'Maybe I could change my shape?'. She was desperate for ideas 'Make myself into something stronger?'
Vin could feel the mud loosening and he looked elated ‘No... Keep pulling... It’s working!’ Summoning every ounce of strength, they wrenched the knight from the squelching mud and dragged him onto the raft.
Vin, Cora and Elizabeth rolled over onto their backs, exhausted by their efforts. The Bugwug flew around the raft. The bird watched as the long scaly reptilian creature circled its prey. He squawked in terror as the beast lifted itself from the water and began to slide its slimy, jelly like, spiny black transparent body onto the raft. The beast had a large spider like head with six blank, black, shiny eyes and a huge mouth that seemed more human than arachnid. Long grey rubbery tentacles reached out towards Elizabeth. The woman screamed as the beast grabbed her by the ankles and began to drag her across the logs towards the water. Cora grabbed her Mother’s outstretched hands and tried to hold onto her. But the creature's strength was far greater and both Cora and Elizabeth were pulled into the mire. The water seemed alive with a sea of curling snakes and Cora and Elizabeth became trapped in the beast's wrapping tentacles. The monster's mouth opened wide, revealing two rows of sharp black razor like teeth. Cora swallowed water as the beast dragged her under. The Bugwug swooped down trying to peck at the creature's dark round eyes. The beast ignored the bird and concentrated his efforts on drowning its prey. Swept up in its desire for fresh meat, the beast was unaware of Vin Reddell approaching stealthily from behind. Vin held his sword in both hands and raised the blade above his head. Before the beast could react, the sword splintered the animal’s skull. The creature sank back down beneath the water. Bubbles surged from the fatal wound and dark blue blood flowed from the crack in its head. In death, the creature slackened its grip. Elizabeth and Cora dragged themselves gasping for breath back to the water's surface. Vin moved forward and hacked away at the tentacles that entwined around them, bending forward he pulled the two girls to safety. Vin lifted a huge wooden oar and sliding it down into the swamp he propelled the raft through the water. The Bugwug sat on the Red Knight's shoulder and appeared to be asleep. The bird's beak twitched and his feathered body swayed gently from side to side. Cora lay on her back gazing up into the green mist rolling over the mire. She was exhausted by her experience and began to fall asleep. The blue mind spirit swirled through the green fog and draped its shimmering light over her body. Elizabeth sat in the centre of the raft and watched as her daughter faded from sight. She looked across at Vin who seemed oblivious to the event.
'Vin!' ... she called out to him. Vin turned around and Looked across at Elizabeth.
'What is it Elizabeth?' He asked holding the oar steady in both hands.
'She’s gone again' She grumbled, 'Probably back home now... Next time I'll hold on to her'...
Vin smiled 'Is she one of the Zoriats?’ He asked pushing down hard with the oar and stirring up a whirlpool of dark sludge.
Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders 'She's my daughter'... She said dismissively 'I don’t know what a Zoriat is'...
Vin pushed the raft onwards through the mist 'The Zoriat tribe are mystical explorers, they travel between worlds'.
Elizabeth shook her head 'She made this place up. You... That bog beast ... It's all in her mind’..
Vin laughed 'Then she’s not just a mystic, she's a God' ...
Elizabeth became irritated 'Little point in talking to you Reddell. You’re a figment of her imagination. Nothing more'...
The Bugwug opened his eyes and stared frostily at Elizabeth who remained seated upon the floor of the raft.
Vin smiled again and continued ‘A11 the more reason to protect her... If that's the truth’.
Elizabeth examined her red varnished fingernails ‘This wretched place’ She complained, on discovering that two of her nails were broken.
Vin continued to push the raft onwards through the swamp 'So you have no wish to see your Husband again?’.
Elizabeth shut her eyes and sighed ‘Robert is dead’.. She tried to be strong. Elizabeth never liked saying those words 'Nothing can change that'.
Vin and the Bugwug could see the pain etched into every line and crease upon the young woman's face. The Bugwug flew from Vin's shoulder and settled on Elizabeth's knee. She opened her eyes and gazed sadly at the strange bird. The Bugwug rolled his cross-eyes at her. 'Elizabeth, your daughter believes he's alive and she wants you to believe in her'. The bird twiddled its little matchstick fingers, an action the Bugwug only did when he felt strongly about an issue, 'Just this once have faith in the child and put her feelings first'.
Elizabeth's lips trembled and she sniffed in the stale air around her. She nodded slowly, holding back her tears. 'I want what’s best for her, you know, I always did’... Suddenly there was a bump and Elizabeth fell backwards with her legs in the air. The Bugwug flapped his wings and flew into the thick green misty sky.
Vin remained standing, his heavy amour had maintained his balance and weighted him down. The Knight pulled his oar from the muddy water and raising it over his huge shoulders, he lowered it down in front of the raft. The wood bounced against solid ground.
Vin looked immensely pleased with himself. 'We've crossed the mire’...
Elizabeth closed her eyes and muttered a silent prayer. She inhaled the air once more and licked her lips. The scent around her had changed. The stagnant smell of putrid marshland had been replaced by something sweeter and deeply enticing.
The Bugwug could smell it too and settling on Elizabeth's shoulder, the bird's tongue rolled in his mouth and he began to salivate. Elizabeth’ s face became pink and rosy. The smell was growing stronger by the second. 'Mmmmmm'... She moaned pleasurably 'What is that gorgeous smell?' ...
Vin Reddell drew his sword ‘Apple pie’... He said as if such a food could be the most sinister in the land.
Elizabeth closed her eyes and raised her nose. The smell was so utterly seductive. 'God I want some apple pie'...
The Bugwug seemed equally entranced. Standing on Elizabeth’s shoulder all he suddenly wanted was a mouthful of sweet, delicious apple pie... If he could have just a taste he would die happy...
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
THE APPLE PIE EFFECT
Beware the disgusting warty toad
Who sits by his lair and tries to goad
Unsuspecting passers by
With promises of apple pie
Once inside that dank dark place
You disappear without a trace
Eaten with a pinch of spice
You would not be this toad’s guest twice
Vin Reddell had not fallen under the influence of apple pie addiction. He was lucky that Cora had created him allergic to this sweet smelling fruit.
Elizabeth and the Bugwug were not so blessed. The aroma of freshly baked apple pie drew a hunger from inside them that they had never been fully aware of before. Elizabeth tried to shove past Vin.
The knight held her shoulders and kept her back. ‘Let me through Vin!’... Elizabeth shouted 'I want apple pie!'
The Bugwug sat on the raft and tried to bury his face in his wings. The bird knew what was calling them and he tried desperately to fight against his irrational hunger.
Elizabeth continued to push against Vin's breastplate, she battered his armour with her clenched fists. 'I want apple pie!' She screamed.
Vin looked worried, he was losing control of the situation. He hated being screamed at and wanted to run away. The more she surged forward, the further he stepped back. Vin teetered on the edge of the raft and with two more blows from Elizabeth's fists the knight lost his footing and fell backwards onto the grass. Elizabeth stood over him. The smell of apple pie had overcome every rational thought.
Vin lay flat upon the ground. He tried to get up, but the weight of his armour made it impossible. The young woman stepped over the prostrate man and ran through the fog. Vin could only watch as Elizabeth disappeared into the green mist. The knight yelled for help.
The Bugwug reacted swiftly and flew after Elizabeth, leaving Vin trapped in his armour and lying helpless upon the grass. Elizabeth walked blindly through the fog. She held her hands in front of her face to feel her way forward. The mist began to clear, wisps of green vapour rolled past her face, the smell of apple pie began to grow stronger. In the distance she could see a small green hill, thick with bramble bushes and huge blue toadstools. Her nostrils twitched, as the aroma of sweet succulent apples wafted towards her, carved into the hillside there was a small cave. Vines and moss hung around the entrance. Elizabeth stumbled towards it and leaning against the arcing vines she stuck her head inside. The walls were thick with cobwebs and rows of glass jars containing all manner of spices were stacked upon wooden shelves. Candle lanterns hung from the high damp ceiling, the moisture dripping into spreading pools upon the stone floor. At the centre of the dwelling stood a huge stone cauldron, black with soot and grease. Steam arose from within, generated by the heat of the firewood that burned brightly beneath the huge pot.
Elizabeth called out nervously ‘Is anyone home?' She waited for a moment, there was no reply, she called out again 'I couldn’t help smelling your apple pie. I couldn't have a slice could I?"
Another voice broke the silence. 'Why of course you may, my apple pies are the finest in all of Grimney’.
Elizabeth turned around and looked up. Seated cross-legged on a toadstool sat a huge blue toad. He had the biggest eyes and the widest grin she had ever seen. He puffed up his bulbous cheeks and spoke again..
‘I’m the Warty Toad. I need no other name’... He said in a voice that was deep, but ultimately cheerful. He grinned broadly, his yellow eyes flicking back and forth beneath his dark blue protruding eyelids.
‘I'm very hungry’.. Elizabeth replied rubbing her empty stomach.
The Warty Toad leant forward and leered at her licking his own lips 'So am I my flower’. He hopped down from the toadstool and stood upon his short fat bandy legs. “Come inside my cave’ He said with a spreading grin 'Come inside my flower and I will fatten you up’...
Elizabeth followed the Warty Toad into his cave. The creature hopped across the floor and picked up an apron in his huge fat warty fingers. The toad fastened it around his overhanging, bloated blue freckled belly. The Warty Toad looked Elizabeth up and down and licked his lips with a long green tongue.
The creature began to drawl. 'I like my food with a pinch of spice'... The toad said. 'How would you like your apple pie my flower?'
Elizabeth sat down upon a stone chair in the corner. 'I don't care'. She said impatiently ‘Just give me a slice'...
The toad hopped across to a small cupboard standing beneath one of the jar stacked shelves. He opened the wooden doors and slid out a large plate on which rested a delicious apple pie. He hopped forward eagerly and placed the plate upon Elizabeth's lap.
The young woman picked it up and bit into the pastry, a droplet of apple juice dripped onto her chin. Elizabeth's eyes rolled in sheer delight ‘This is delicious’... She said taking another bite.
The Warty Toad sat cross-legged on the cave floor, his huge yellow eyes growing bigger than his belly. He watched in delight as the young woman crammed the soft pastry and delicious apple into her mouth. Within the space of a minute Elizabeth had eaten the pie.. She leant back in her chair and rubbed her already swelling belly. She hiccupped and let out a huge belch, the Warty Toad laughed. The creature's grin began to change. His mouth opened slowly and the grin became a large toothy smile.
‘You liked that my flower?' The toad said, his tone already changing to something more malevolent.
Elizabeth closed her eyes and sighed contentedly, the pie had made her feel very sleepy, very sleepy indeed.
The Warty Toad's huge sharp teeth began to separate. The smile had gone. Slowly his long green tongue began to roll from his mouth. Elizabeth had fallen asleep. She did not feel the Warty Toad's tongue licking her face, nor did she notice the appendage wrapping itself tightly around her throat. The creature summoned all his strength and began to squeeze. The Warty Toad heard the flapping of wings and momentarily distracted he slackened his grip. He rolled his eyes upwards and saw the Bugwug swooping down to attack him, the bird pecked at the toad's face and almost instantly the toad released Elizabeth from his stranglehold and curled his tongue back into his mouth. The Toad hopped away to find cover from further attack as the Bugwug swooped down upon him again.
'Don't hurt me' The toad cried 'I meant her no harm!'.
The Bugwug pecked the Warty Toad on the head and chased the creature from the cave. The toad waved its stubby fat arms above its head, trying desperately to swat the vicious bird. The Bugwug pecked at him again and again until the toad hopped up the hillside and disappeared over the top. Vin Reddell rode through the fog on a huge white unicorn. The horse had a mane of flowing silver and hooves of shimmering gold. Her eyes sparkled like sapphires and her horn glowed with a blue light. Vin leaped from the unicorn and ran towards the cave. He found the Bugwug standing on top of Elizabeth's head, the young woman was still unconscious.
The Bugwug waved his wings at Vin. 'She's been drugged'... He said ‘but she’ll be fine when she wakes up'...
Vin bent down in front of her 'I heard rumours about such a creature'... He said sternly, examining the red marks on Elizabeth's neck 'I never thought he existed’...
The Bugwug ruffled his feathers in disgust 'That's because nobody has survived an encounter with him’... The Bugwug spat out a feather in disgust 'Disgusting creature' ... The Bugwug looked over Vin's shoulder ‘Where’s Cora?' ...
Vin cradled Elizabeth in his arms and carried her from the cave. The Unicorn looked concerned as Vin placed the unconscious woman on the animal’s back. The Bugwug settled on the unicorn’s horn, flapping his wings frantically, attempting to maintain his balance.
The Unicorn looked up at the bird 'Is Mummy going to be OK?'... She asked in a voice that was unmistakeably Cora’s.
The Bugwug hovered in front of the Unicorn's face. 'Don't worry Cora, the danger has passed, she'll be fine'...
Vin stroked the Unicorn's soft silver mane. 'Do you think you can carry us both Cora?' the Red Knight asked.
Cora nodded her head ‘She's my Mother and you’re my friend. Don't worry I can carry you both anywhere’...
Galloping swiftly through the night
Four ghostly figures dressed in white
Where are these horsemen heading for?
Yes you’re right to Grimney Moor
Other creatures of the night
Cower in terror at the sight
Of these spectres rushing by
Glowing white against darkened sky
Their hoofs' beats give a muffled sound
As the horses race across the ground
Bodies caked in mud and sweat
As they are ridden faster yet
What can their dreadful mission be?
To drive them on so purposely
Of one thing you can be sure
Something nasty is in store
So if you venture out tonight
Make sure that you do not lose sight
Of somewhere safe to hide away
In case these strangers come your way…
Blackthorn and Nightfire continued their journey over Slattern Moor. He looked at his watch. The time was half past eight in the evening and night had already fallen. Blackthorn could not understand how it was possible to register the passage of time in a dream. He was beginning to accept that his imagination could not be responsible for the creation of such a place. The problem Blackthorn had with the situation he found himself in was one of logic. The two previous encounters were very real. No dream could be that vivid. If this was some alternative reality how did he happen to become a part of it? More importantly how could he escape back to the real world? In the distance he could see a long winding dirt track road, an obvious sign of civilisation. Digging in his heels, Nightfire broke into a gallop and horse and rider soon found that they were looking up at a wooden signpost that pointed in a variety of directions. One pointed north to 'TORAZ' another eastward to 'KANZIRA' and the final sign pointed south to 'GOLLEMA'.
Blackthorn looked from left to right, holding tightly to Nightfire’s reins. 'Which way?' He sighed 'I guess it makes very little difference'... Nightfire's ears pricked back, the sounds of wooden wheels rolling over the uneven road had alerted the animal. Blackthorn turned the horse around and waited pensively for the approaching vehicle. Over the ridge of a small hill to the north, a donkey towing a small battered wooden cart filled with fruit and vegetables began to emerge. Blackthorn trotted his horse into the middle of the road and blocked the way. Garalous Glave the driver of the cart was a young man dressed in cheap, dirty green robes. He had a bald head and a large nose. The man's skin was dark and he wore a small goatee beard, cut neatly against his thin and rather pointy chin. The man yanked at the reins tethered to his rather tired looking, dishevelled, grey haired donkey and pulled the cart to an abrupt halt.
Blackthorn turned his horse towards the man and smiled 'Afternoon'... He said in a voice uncharacteristically friendly for a man of Blackthorn's nature.
Glave stared at Blackthorn, his piercing green eyes studying the horse rider's cold, grey features. The man reached into a torn pocket, took out a large red onion and bit into the skin. Rolling a large piece in his mouth he began to crunch contentedly upon the vegetable. Blackthorn tried again to make conversation 'My name is Samuel Blackthorn. Could you tell me where I am?'
Glave spat out a bit of skin and took another bite of the onion. 'If you're planning to rob me, I’1l breath on you’... He said in a dry voice.
Blackthorn shook his head. 'No certainly not’... He said ‘Do I look like a thief to you?'..
Glave looked bored already ‘God knows what you look like dressed like that'... He spat again. 'You're not from around here are you?'
Blackthorn shook his head 'Never been here in my life'... He replied. 'Can you tell me where, here is?'
Glave’s eyes lit up 'Are you one of the tribe?!’ He stuck the half eaten onion back in his pocket.
Blackthorn could see that being one of the tribe might loosen the man's tongue 'Yes’.. He responded 'I am one of the tribe’.
Glave’s mouth dropped open and a piece of onion fell out. 'You're one of the Zoriat?' He could not hide his astonishment.
'Yes’. Blackthorn replied firmly 'Now where am I?'
Glave threw back his head and began to laugh ‘Well, would you believe it!’ He slapped his own face hard with the palm of his right hand. 'Slap me I'm dreaming!' he said in total amazement.
Blackthorn became impatient 'Well that makes two of us. Now where am I?'
Glave chuckled and giggled to himself 'You're in Grimney, where else would a Zoriat be?'
‘Grimney?’.. Blackthorn's face went from grey to white in a split second. 'How is that possible?'
Glave smiled 'The Book Of The Guardians, that's what brought you here'...
Blackthorn sank deep into his thoughts. 'It was Cora's book that must be the key'. Somehow that book had transported him to Grimney. What had happened to make the impossible possible? Blackthorn remembered. 'It was the photograph, he had stuck his picture into the book. That had to be the answer’. Blackthorn needed convincing. This whole experience could still be a dream. He desperately wanted that to be the case. He had the question that would decide the truth already forming in his mind. He knew the book contained his picture, Cora’s and Robert Pearl's. With that in mind he asked the question that would give him the truth. Staring directly at Glave, Blackthorn spoke slowly and clearly 'Do you know the name Robert Pearl?'
Glave clapped his hands with glee and threw his head back once more 'Yes!' He replied, barely able to contain his enthusiasm 'I write poetry about him, the man is a legend in Grimney!'
Blackthorn bowed his head and looked down at the uneven road surface. 'Do you know where he is?'
Glave put his hands together in prayer and leant his bald head against his thumbs 'Holme’s Tavern. He’s well known there'... Glave looked up, tears of joy glistening in his eyes 'He's a wanderer really, a pilgrim'.
'Really?'. Blackthorn sounded unimpressed. ‘Which way is Holme’s Tavern?' Glave clapped his palms together once more 'You're in luck, I happen to be going in that direction myself’.
Blackthorn frowned 'Why?'
'Why?' Glave answered excitedly 'I've written poems about him, I want to serve him. After all he is a great man!'.
Blackthorn sighed 'So you say, but if you lead the way, I’11 do everything I can to make your journey safer'.
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
The two red moons generated very little light. The sky quickly became overcast, bathed in the deepest shade of green that Cora had ever seen. The unicorn and her colleagues had crossed the mire safely, but one more obstacle lay in their path. The dreaded Grimney Moor had to be crossed if they wished to reach Urat Holme's Tavern. This barren piece of land was one of the most feared places in Grimney. The sun never shone over the plains, the landscape that once blossomed with all manner of foliage, had dried and turned into a wasteland of decaying bramble bushes and rotting vegetation. Cora had not transformed herself back, she enjoyed being a unicorn. She remembered when, as a very small child, the fun she used to have with her horse Sparks. She had once tried to make a horn for the animal, using silver foil and folded cardboard. She fastened the makeshift horn to the horse's head with elastic. It looked rather silly but Sparks did not seem to mind, he was such a gentle animal and Cora loved him so very much. Vin dismounted the unicorn and helped Elizabeth down from the animal's back, Cora's Mother seemed a little groggy and looked a bit green around the gills. 'You look a bit green Mummy, you're not turning into a frog are you? Cora the unicorn shook her silver mane.
Elizabeth did not seem amused by her daughter's sense of humour. ‘Funny'... She said sarcastically, too tired to say anything else. Elizabeth sat on the grass and gazed out over the moor that lay in darkness before them. 'So what is this place?’
The Bugwug settled on Elizabeth’s shoulder. The small bird shuddered from cold and fear. 'Grimney Moor'... He said slowly, his voice a whisper, just in case one of the moor's many horrible inhabitants just happened to be listening.
'So?' Elizabeth said dismissively "So what?' She felt too sick to care.
Vin drew his sword 'There are many places in Grimney I dislike. But this is one place I truly hate' ...
'What’s the big deal?' ... Elizabeth yawned, too tired to feel anything but exhaustion.
Cora the unicorn neighed several times to clear her throat, she spoke slowly and solemnly, so her companions could take in every word.
The most dreadful place I ever saw
Must surely be the Grimney Moor
Cold and dank on a summer’s day
A place no one would care to stray
Even when the day is bright
Grimney Moor is black as night
No living creature ventures near
They hurry by in abject fear
Monstrous creatures it is said
Roam within this land of dread
Unearthly things not of this time
Covered in a sickly slime
Slither about in a hideous way
Forever searching for their prey
The night is shattered by the groans
And the crunching of the victims' bones
Other creatures hide and wait
Not knowing what will be their fate
What dreadful monster will pass by
Or whether it is their turn to die
But life and death go hand in hand
In this cruel and brutal land
I know you have been told before
So please don’t walk on Grimney Moor
Who rules this deadly place of dread
Where the Devil himself would fear to tread
No one knows but one things for sure
There’s no place worse than Grimney Moor!
For a moment the Bugwug, Vin and Elizabeth were completely silent. The trio were lost in their thoughts, as they contemplated the horrors they had been told. It was the sound of Cora’s mother belching loudly and deeply that shattered the solemn silence.
Elizabeth placed her hand over her mouth ‘Excuse me, it's that wretched pie again’.. She shook her head and yawned, stifling another belch with the back of her hand 'When we get home Cora’ she hiccupped 'I'm seriously going to take you to see a psychiatrist'..
Cora the unicorn shook her head. 'Oh Mother'.
Elizabeth chuckled uneasily ‘I’m hardly sane. I mean look at me I'm talking to a horse, worse still the horse is talking back’. She shook her long blonde hair and felt the temperature of her forehead with the palm of her hand. 'I'm sure I'm delirious'...
Vin stroked Cora’s mane. 'This is the only way we’ll find your Father. We have to make the crossing’ ...
Elizabeth bowed her head and frowned. 'Stop filling the child's head with nonsense'...
The Bugwug pecked Elizabeth on the ear and the woman yelled out in pain, 'Wretched bird, I’ll have you stuffed and put on the mantlepiece!’ She brushed her hand across her shoulder and the creature flew away. He glided downwards and settled gently upon Cora's back.
Vin looked downcast and stared at the seated young woman. 'Don't you miss him Elizabeth?'
Elizabeth held back her tears 'Every day. Every minute of every day I miss him'...
Cora the unicorn trotted across and stood by her mother's side. She brushed her head against the young woman's side.
Elizabeth patted the unicorn's long face. 'Help us find him again Mummy, So we can be a family once more'...
There were tears in the unicorn’s deep blue eyes and one by one they fell down to the dead grass below. A small blue Forget-Me-Not sprouted from the dampened soil. Elizabeth plucked it from the earth. She held the seedling in the palm of her hand and took a deep breath. The flower had grown from her daughter’s tears.
Elizabeth nodded. Cora was indeed a very special and magical child. Cora’s mother stroked the unicorn's soft white skin and spoke gently and reassuringly to her daughter 'Yes Cora, let's go and find him’..
The four travellers crossed the moor beneath a veil of darkness. Hideous wiry bramble bushes covered the dead and lifeless soil. Pools of stagnant water splashed beneath the unicorn's golden hooves. Creatures moved in shadow, watching closely as Vin steered Cora and her companions across the moor. The sounds of night beasts groaned and howled around them. The Bugwug covered his eyes, too afraid to adjust his vision to the dark. Vin watched for movement ahead, beads of sweat trickling from his forehead. He was glad that the others could not see the fear flickering in his wide, staring eyes.
The sound of horses' hooves echoed in the distance, maybe three or four horse riders were travelling over the moor this night. Cora shook her mane nervously.
'Something is coming’... Elizabeth felt sick to her stomach. ‘I need a glass of water’. It was more than mere apple pie that was affecting her this time, it was a sense dread.
The Bugwug separated his feathers and stared through the gaps in his wings. He could see four ghostly white robed and hooded horsemen emerging from the shadows.
Vin drew his sword from his scabbard and held it tightly in his gauntlet. ‘I don’t like the look of this'... He said nervously 'We should run away'...
Cora the unicorn shook her head 'No, we must cross the moor. We must. Hold on tight’. The unicorn leapt forward and charged towards the four horsemen. Golden flames began to gather around the horse's hooves and she carried the riders at great speed into the path of the four hooded horsemen. The Unicorn galloped past and the sinister robed figures drew blades of white fire from their saddles. Pulling on the reins of their armoured horses, they turned their animals towards the fleeing unicorn and rode after Cora and her companions. They pursued their prey relentlessly, galloping faster and faster, but Cora could not be caught.
The pursuers had only one method left to prevent the unicorn's escape. One of the hooded men reached into his glowing white robe and wrapped a skeletal gauntlet around the handle of a small silver crossbow, holding firmly to the reins of his galloping horse. The hooded man took aim down the crossbow's sight and fired a sharp silver bolt. The projectile sliced through the stale air, Cora could not outrun it. Metal splintered against metal as the bolt impeded itself into Vin Reddell's armoured shoulder. The Red Knight gritted his teeth. Extreme pain etched upon his face.
The unicorn’s reins slipped from Vin’s gauntlets and he fell heavily from the saddle. Elizabeth who had been holding Vin around the waist tumbled with him and the fallen companions splashed into a stagnant pool of slimy water. Elizabeth scrambled to her feet and screamed for help. Cora galloped back for her. Vin remained lying in the shallow pool, he groaned and tried to reach for his sword. He was too weak to wield his blade and even if he could, Vin knew he would not be able to stand on his feet. One of the hooded horsemen charged forward and reaching down he grabbed Elizabeth around the waist and dragged her from the ground. He galloped away into the night with Elizabeth held captive upon the hooded man's horse.
Vin shouted at the unicorn 'Go after her... Leave me'.
The Bugwug swooped down and placed his hooves precariously upon Vin’s battered breastplate. The stagnant pool around the fallen knight’s body darkened by the second, as the man's blood merged with the slimy green water. Vin grimaced and leant his head forward. He gazed down at his battered body.
'Bugwug'... He said weakly, blood trickling from a cut in his forehead 'Tell Cora to go after her Mother’...
Cora the unicorn had decided against such action. She knew about the four horsemen. They were phantom warriors who worked for Grimwood Scribes the Lord of Grimney Mire. Had she pursued the deadly riders, they would surely have killed her. The Unicorn watched helplessly as the riders disappeared into the night. She bowed her head and trotted solemnly back to where Vin lay wounded and bleeding. Cora gazed down into Vin’s watering eyes and the unicorn began to cry.
'I'm sorry'... Vin said biting into his bottom lip in an attempt to ease the pain, 'I didn’t pay Grimwood's wretched tax’.
Cora nodded her head. She understood exactly what Vin was saying. The toll to cross the mire was four Tobran, the standard currency in Grimney. Vin not being the richest knight in the land had tried and failed to navigate the mire without paying. Unfortunately those that violated Grimwood's Law faced dire consequences. His most unpopular response was always kidnapping and ransom.
'We can buy my Mother back’. Cora said.
The Bugwug shook his head 'We have no money Cora' He twiddled his tiny matchstick fingers, even he was stuck for a solution.
Cora shook her silver mane with anger and frustration. The tears dried and a flash of steely determination glinted in her deep blue eyes.
‘My Daddy will rescue her'. She stared out across the barren moor 'I have to ride like never before’...
The Bugwug looked down at Vin. The man looked dazed and he seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness. There was no way that he could stand on two feet and ride the unicorn to safety. 'Cora, you have to change into something big and strong'... he said wisely. We need to help Vin stand’...
Cora nodded 'I'11 go to sleep, you watch over him until I return'.
With those words echoing in Vin’s dizzy thoughts, Cora lay down by the wounded man's side, closed her eyes and began to drift away. The dark green sky began to glow and the blue mind spirit began to emerge from the shadows. Drifting downwards the light enclosed around the unicorn and the animal began to fade into the ball of swirling light.
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
THE TAVERN REUNION
One of the most interesting places to go
Is where the beer and spirits flow
At Holmes’ Tavern near Grimney Mire
Where the nightlife will never tire
The Bugwug pecked at anything threatening that crawled in Vin’s direction. Centipedes, snakes and moor beetles were the least of the bird's worries.
The Red Knight lay quietly sleeping, his body partially submerged in the pool of slime, the weight of his armour dragging him down. The Bugwug fluttered through the air, flapping his wings frantically attempting to distract the crawling insects. 'Where are you Cora?'
The feeling of danger raised his squawky voice to a much higher pitch. In the dark sky above the green clouds parted and the blue light spiralled downwards and danced like a sea of glowing snakes upon the moor. Sparkling stars burst from within and a new form began to take shape. Rising through the maelstrom of pulsating light, a huge powerful figure began to emerge. Cora had transformed herself into a female giant. Gathering predators who had been watching the Bugwug and the wounded warrior turned on tail and claw and fled across the moor. The huge giant that was rising up before them was a terrifying sight. Cora the giant stood well over twenty feet tall. She had dressed her powerful physique in huge black boots and green leather body armour. Her face looked like Cora’s, chubby red cheeks and big blue eyes, and her hair hung down over her huge muscular shoulders.
The giant stepped forward and the ground shook. Cora reached down and gently scooped the wounded man into her arms. She cradled his tiny body in her powerful biceps. The Bugwug soared upwards and settled upon Cora's head. He was glad to be out of harm’s way and under the protection of a creature that the monstrous moorland dwellers would not, under any circumstance provoke. Cora the giant took several mighty steps forward. The length of each footfall would make their passage across the moor safer and far swifter. With each mighty stride Cora made, the lighter the sky became and by dawn and the rising of the two red suns Cora stood on the outskirts of the moor. In the distance, beneath rolling hills of green swaying trees and long grass, Cora could see the outline of a large white and black building with a thatched roof. A huge stone chimney belched black smoke into the sky and a fenced wooden stable filled with many horses had been constructed next to its high wattle and daub walls. Cora continued to stride forward, pounding the soles of her huge feet against the ground, as she placed each heavy footstep down upon the shaking soil. Inside the building glasses and bottles rattled. Urat Holme a huge man with a big smile, a bald head, and a bushy beard stood behind a large circular wooden bar, he was dressed in a puffy white tunic, huge baggy grey trousers and a leather apron. He held tightly to a pile of stacked glasses, attempting to prevent them from bouncing from his grip and falling to the sawdust covered floor. The tavern was filled with other like-minded individuals a11 holding tightly onto their pints of ale.
Three young women, Philomena Aquitaine, Gwenllian and Meadow Goblinglitter were seated together at the bar. The noise from outside was no cause for concern, they had heard and seen much worse and the beautiful maidens were too engrossed in their own conversations to care about the firewater spilling from their glasses.
Clavat Drynek a Grodling who was seated in the corner had five drinks that it was protecting, difficult for a creature that had four arms and eight sausage fingers. The bug eyed yellow skinned hooded creature extended a pink proboscis and began to quickly suck the shaking glass dry of its golden contents. The tavern's guests were a motley collection of human, Drumlins, Trolls, and Skeraks. Arachney Stry and his Goblin cohorts sat in the far corner of the room. They were strange looking creatures with chalk white faces and cone shaped heads, jutting chins, long fat noses and terrible table manners.
Nearby, normally stuffing themselves with pie
Sit the goblins of Arachny Stry
Bloodthirsty cutthroats of the keep
Ghastly beasts that never sleep
Arachny Stry and his goblins were not the most gruesome creatures that drank at Holmes Tavern. On the contrary, the worst of all was Gradlan Grime.
On their right, another beast of the night
Slouched upon a wooden stool
Its green scaled back to the wall
Sits the monster Gradlan Grime
Its body dripping with revolting slime
And in this bar he does not care
How many people he will scare
For he is feared in every place
He and his dreaded lizard race
A sinister man, dressed in black leather, his skin a dark red and his head smooth shaved watched the bar from the back of the room. He sipped his ale cautiously, his other hand not far from the hilt of his sword. Korben Drake was a regular at Holme’s Tavern, but he had a high price on his head and was wary of every patron. He had friends, but they mostly avoided him, for he had fallen foul of the Chaos Engine and they had marked him for death. Korben Drake smiled, as he always did and he planned to die with a grin upon his face.
Three other warriors and a mystic represented the rest of the human contingent in the tavern and they gathered around another table at the centre of the room. The first was Max Drexler a forty-one year old warrior dressed in shiny black body armour. This pale skinned, white haired, handsome outlaw with a light blue scorpion emblazoned upon his breastplate sat gazing into his empty glass. He held it tightly in his black steel gauntleted glove trying to stop it from shaking. Drexler was a member of 'The White Scorpions' a notorious band of criminals led by the infamous outlaw, artist, and poet Vance Scarab. Drexler Looked up at the warrior opposite. 'Giants are coming?' He said in a deep, dry voice.
The unsavoury looking man opposite looked drunk and bleary eyed. He had black, scruffy cropped hair and he needed a shave. This brute's name was Tobias Tave, a man famous for his quests with Cass Crellwin the Elf, and Calaman Kade, the one time High Commander of the Queen's Elite. Tave's clothes were a dirty combination of shabby leather armour and furs. After years of fighting and street brawling, the man's face had become lined with deep battle scars. He looked like a very tough warrior.
Zale Corban a Fremman Mystic from the Mountains of the Moon far east of Grimney, sat next to Tave. Zale was unusual in appearance. Although human in nature, his skin was dusky and yellow. He had long sharp fingers that he hid beneath black velvet gloves. His clothes were red and silky and they hung loosely to his small frame. He bowed forward and the brown cloth hood that covered his bald head and jet black eyes concealed his face further. The final individual at the table was a female. Joanna Simm had long dark hair draped over her slender shoulders and she was dressed in tight fitting, dark, red leather armour and knee length black boots. Simm was young, her age in the mid to late twenties, Her looks were pretty yet understated. Notorious female outlaws were not the kind of people that wore makeup.
Sat not far from Gradlan Grime
A notorious outlaw the mistress of crime
A legendry thief who is clever and brave
A lady of cunning who’s avoided the grave
This outlaw has earned a large price on her head
The bounty is written the law wants her dead
She lives on her wits and stays out of sight
Lurking in shadows and avoiding the light
She steals from the rich but keeps all for herself
Her ambition in life is to gain enough wealth
To start a new life and escape from this place
To be free of her history and not live in disgrace
Simm listened. The footfalls grew heavier, shaking the very foundations of the tavern. The wooden beams that supported the thatched roof shook and dust and all manner of insects fell on to the sawdust floor.
Drexler brushed a large spider from his armoured shoulder 'Are we ready to slay a troublesome giant?' he said without the slightest hint of fear in his voice.
Tave responded by collapsing on the table, he had consumed far too much ale and was not up to doing anything.
Zale gazed out from beneath his hood 'I think we should talk with it first' he rasped, the Fremman spoke with a strangled voice.
Drexler smiled at Simm. The young outlaw remained as calm as her colleague. She did not smile back however, Simm was not the kind of girl who smiled...
'Why not’. she replied coolly, picking up her half drunk pint of ale and knocking it back. I dislike my drink being spilled by clumsy giants who cannot control their feet’.
Outside Cora the giant sat cross-legged upon the ground. Vin lay upon her lap and she stroked his hair with her giant fingers. The Bugwug sat upon Cora's knee and squawked loudly as Drexler, Simm and Zale strolled calmly out through the tavern door.
Simm stood in front of her two colleagues, Drexler and Zale flanking her on either side. She placed her hands on her hips and stared up at Cora's huge face.
Cora smiled at Simm, she recognised the young woman from her drawing. 'Joanna Simm’... she said excitedly I know you’...
Simm remained composed, but her eyes narrowed coldly as she stared at the giant 'Be careful when telling me what you know giant’ she said threateningly 'I try to keep my identity secret’.
Cora lowered Vin onto the grass and her sad eyes blinked from one face to the next 'I mean no harm. My friend’s been hurt, please help him'...
Much to Simm’s irritation, Zale broke ranks and stepped past his leader. He walked forward and bent down in front of the wounded knight. Vin Reddell looked very pale.
'He’s lost a lot of blood’... Zale said, placing his gloved hand on the unconscious knight’s forehead. He looked back at Simm and Drexler. ‘We need to get him inside’..
'What’s he to us?' Simm replied glaring at Zale ‘People die in Grimney everyday'...
Drexler tapped Simm on the shoulder and she turned around. 'Lend me your ear a second' He said quietly.
Simm leant forward and Drexler whispered in her ear 'Joanna, pardon me for disagreeing with you, but I don't think it wise to annoy a giant'.
Simm shook her head and looked defiant 'Why not?' She replied gazing back at Cora's sad face and scowling.
‘Well’.. Drexler replied softly She might decide to step on us'...
Simm nodded, but quickly dismissed the point 'It would take more than one step to kill me Max' ...
Drexler sighed 'Maybe so, but is it worth taking the chance? I mean, let’s be reasonable, she may have a few friends of equal size’.
Simm turned away from Drexler and gazed up at the giant. 'I have decided to help you'... She said magnanimously.
Drexler called out to Cora 'What happened to him?'
Cora looked downcast and watched as Zale applied his healing hands to Vin’s shattered, blood stained armour, 'We were attacked by Grimwood's four horsemen, they took my mother hostage'...
Vin's breastplate began to glow with a yellow light as Zale released a healing energy force from his palms.
Drexler responded in a gentlemanly fashion 'If there is anything I can do, please tell me’.
Simm seemed unimpressed with her friend's offer of help 'Oh Max... Don’t be such a fool'... She said scornfully 'You're hardly likely to able to rescue a giant. I mean if this girl's Mother can be taken what chance do you have, being your size?'...
Cora shook her head 'No'.. She said 'My Mother is no bigger than you’...
Simm laughed 'No bigger? And she gave birth to you?!’ She shook her head and chuckled 'Boy, that must’ve been one hell of a painful pregnancy'...
'No' Cora responded, not seeing the funny side of the situation at all 'I'm a shape shifter. I'm a small girl of twelve'.
'Really?' Simm was completely unimpressed 'Then turn yourself into something more powerful and go rescue her yourself’..
Cora sighed 'I might, but I do need help'.
Drexler interrupted 'We might be able to help you, just ask'.
Cora looked down at Drexler, she had decided to ignore Joanna Simm. The outlaw was rude and ignorant.
‘I am Cora Pearl my father is Robert Pearl. I was told by Marcus Drake that he might live somewhere around here'...
Drexler looked stunned.
Simm shook her head 'I don’t believe this... If you're his daughter, then I'm the Queen of Grimney' she said sarcastically. Simm waved her hand dismissively, turned away and walked back through the tavern door.
Drexler scratched his chin with his gauntlet and pointed an armoured finger towards the hills a short distance away. 'Robert Pearl lives just over those hills'. He smiled 'If you are who you say you are he will be very thrilled to see you'...
The Bugwug clapped his wings together and squawked with delight ‘We've found him'... He screeched 'We've found him at last'...
Outside a fortress citadel
Hangs an iron chain that rings a bell
All those that slowly pull the chain
Will enter Grimwood Scribes’ domain…
A giant fortress fashioned from grey stone stood upon a high hilltop overlooking the small walled city of Kayfar. The four horsemen dismounted and approached an iron portcullis that secured the archway entrance. Elizabeth's hands were tied in front of her and one of the hooded men shoved her forward. 'Do you mind!’. She said 'There’s no need to shove!'...
A long metal chain hung down from an iron bell bolted into the wall. One of the horsemen shook the cord and the bell tolled loudly. The portcullis began to rise and the four hooded men led Elizabeth and their horses inside. Behind them the portcullis slammed shut.
At a desk by candle fire
Sat the lord of Grimney Mire
He has a mighty intellect
But that won’t earn him our respect
Upstairs in a small room at the top of the highest tower sat Grimwood Scribes. He was a short, grotesquely fat man with a bulbous nose a bald head and a warty white face.
Scribes is a man of hefty bulk
And behind his desk he likes to skulk
Encased in armour with a flowing cape
That will never ever conceal his shape
He leant forward on his big wooden throne and began to empty several large sackcloth bags. Each one contained a fortune in gold coin. The sovereigns spilled out across the wooden candle lit desk in front of him.
He is a man who loathes the poor
And tortures them through wicked law
Counting coins from a callous tax
Whilst the fire melts the candle wax
Now and then his mouth will drip
From his drooling bottom lip
As yellow dances in his eyes
He forgets the suffering poor man’s cries
A small Dorky, a red skinned dog like creature sat by his side and perched upon the back of his chair, there was a green skinned Gaggat, a small reptilian bird with compound eyes and antennae.
Now and then his voice will bellow
As he curses a servant or some other fellow
Grimwood yelled at the top of his voice. 'I want some wine!' He slammed his fist on the armrest of his chair.
The Gaggat flapped its wings and flew into the corner. A black robed man called Foss ducked through the archway door and walked through into Grimwood's study. Foss was a tall thin skeletal man, with a neck like a stork and a huge Adam's apple. He carried a silver tray on which stood a jewelled goblet and a bottle of expensive red wine. Foss placed the tray carefully upon Grimwood's desk. Grimwood looked up at the sullen faced servant 'Get out you stick insect' he said gruffly 'I can pour my own wine'...
All who know him live in fear
Of this twisted man so insincere
Foss's shoulders dropped and the man shuffled slowly forward. Stooping down, he disappeared through the doorway. Grimwood poured the wine and gulped the liquid down. The layers of fat around his neck wobbled as he swallowed. The four horsemen appeared in front of him. Grimwood looked startled, he had not heard them come in. The four hooded men stood in silence waiting for Grimwood to speak.
'Good day gentlemen’ He said with a smile. 'What prize have you bought me?'
One of the four horsemen grabbed hold of Elizabeth's arm and dragged her forward. She slapped her palms against the horseman's robes until he relinquished his grip. Elizabeth stood defiantly in front of Grimwood's desk.
She looked very angry. 'So'... Grimwood said slimily "What have we here? A pretty maiden, so full of cheer?'... He smiled sickly and fluttered his grey eyelashes in an attempt to look appealing.
Elizabeth scowled at the man, waved her finger at him, and engaged her tongue at one hundred miles an hour 'Spare me the poetry fatso, I've had enough of that from my daughter’ she ranted, barely pausing for breath. 'If you think you can push me around you've got another thing coming, I've been spat on by a dragon, nearly strangled by a bog monster and now this’.
Grimwood looked aghast, nobody had ever spoken to him like that before. 'Silence!'... The Lord of the Mire slammed his fists heavily down on the desktop, causing a pile of gold coins to fall onto the floor, 'You have no rights whatsoever!'
Elizabeth stepped back and bit into her bottom lip, attempting to restrain her tongue.
'Who are you?' Grimwood demanded.
Elizabeth opened her mouth and was about to speak when Grimwood raised the palm of his hand in front of his face. 'Short answers if you please’.
Elizabeth spoke slowly 'I’m Elizabeth Pearl’...
Grimwood's eyes lit up 'Really? How interesting'... He picked up a gold sovereign and rolled it back and forth in his fingers. 'Are you related to Robert Pearl?’
Elizabeth smiled 'Yes, I was his Wife... I mean... I am his Wife... If he’s alive'...
Grimwood spun the coin upon the desktop. ‘Oh he’s alive alright'.. He squashed the spinning coin beneath his palm and smiled. ‘I think we have a large ransom to collect'... Grimwood's beaming smile lasted all too briefly.
The sounds of flapping wings echoed in through a large arched, stained glass window on the far side of the study. The four horsemen drew their shimmering white blades and edged cautiously towards it. Grimwood gathered up his coins and wrapped his arms around them. His only concern was his gold. Elizabeth watched as black clouds lit with fire gathered behind the glass. Cracks began to appear as jets of fire burned their way through.
‘What devilry is this?' Grimwood asked meekly.
Elizabeth shook her head nervously. 'I don't know’ She replied placing her back against the wall. Suddenly the window exploded and shards of glass flew through the air. Elizabeth fell to her knees and covered her eyes. A ball of flame engulfed the four horsemen and they floundered through the fire and fel1 to the floor in ashen heaps.
Grimwood hid under his desk and hugged the sacks of gold coin concealed beneath. The heat in the room became unbearable and a carpet of black smoke rolled across the floor.
Elizabeth lowered her hands from her face and gasped in fear.
In front of her, standing in dancing flames stood the Fire Queen Vortanna Zague. 'Elizabeth Pearl, I've come for you’. Zague’s tongue sizzled in her mouth as she spoke.
'What do you want with me?' Elizabeth asked, her whole body trembling.
Zague hissed and looked down at Grimwood Scribes cowering beneath his desk. 'Scribes... Robert Pearl will come looking for her. When he comes here you tell him to journey to The Fortress of Fire'...
Grimwood’s voice was that of a frightened mouse 'Where?... Where is that?".. He squeaked.
Zague replied menacingly 'In the north, beneath the mountains of gas and fire'... Two huge red skinned demons flew through the shattered window and before Elizabeth could even contemplate escape, they grabbed her arms and dragged her kicking and screaming through the archway...
Zague hissed once more 'Remember my words Scribes!' The Fire Queen turned away and carried on a sea of black and yellow smoke, she flapped her huge, red, scaly wings and leapt from the tower. Zague soared upwards through the dark red sky and vanished into the rolling clouds of flame...
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
My father died when I was young
I lost him before life near begun
A noble man with a heart so kind
I seek for him and I shall find
The key to dreams I need to fill
Drawn to his side by iron will
I crossed the mire deep and dark
Just to light the loving spark
That remains within and never dies
And guides my way beneath troubled skies
Vin had been given his own room upstairs in Holmes’ Tavern. It was not much, just a straw bed and a wicker chair in the corner, but it was comfortable. Max Drexler and Zale Corban had paid the six Tobran required to rent a bed for the night. Cora had transformed herself back to normal and she and the Bugwug knelt down by the side of Vin's bed and smiled at the wounded man. Vin looked better, although he was still very weak. Zale had done a very good job of bandaging the man's injured shoulder and Cora was just so very glad that she had made two new friends who seemed quite eager to help her. 'I wish I could help you rescue your Mother'... Vin sounded sad and tired and his eyes watered as he spoke.
Cora held out her hand and stroked the man's hair. She smiled softly 'You've done so much already Vin. I can't thank you enough’...
Vin smiled "I wish you luck'... He said winking at her, 'Please be very careful'...
The Bugwug flew across the room and settled on Cora’s shoulder ‘She does not need luck’ He said proudly 'She has the Bugwug'.
Cora giggled and raised her finger and tickled the bird beneath the chin. The Bugwug squirmed with delight. 'Yes, I'd be lost without you dear Bugwug'. she said gently 'I always wanted friends like you, I've been so lucky to find you both'...
It was still daylight when Cora and the Bugwug climbed upon the broad back of Drexler’s black, armour plated, grey stallion. The Black Knight had agreed to ride them over the hillside to Robert Pearl’s house. Drexler had enlisted the help of a bald headed warrior called Dhumass Shrester, a man of few words, but well known for his sword fighting skills and the art of Urgo Meditation.
Shrester wore the loose fitting light battle armour of a war mage, dark red and black in colour, Vorganian contradictory visual symbols of war and peace. He had light green eyes and a small tattoo of a golden moon carved into his forehead. Shrester sat astride Bedight his red and black horse and waited patiently for instructions to ride out. Drexler climbed into the saddle, waved his hand forward and galloped towards the hillside. A small, thatched, white stone cottage stood in a sunlit meadow filled with a rolling sea of blue Forget-me-nots.
Butterflies fluttered amongst them, like falling blossoms fractured from a never-ending rainbow. They settled on the petals and drew nectar from inside. Robert Pearl sat upon a wooden stool outside his cottage. He was a handsome man with long blond hair and eyes of the deepest blue. His skin was soft, pale and unblemished, he wore a white shirt unbuttoned to the waist and a pair of tight fitting, green trousers tucked into shiny black leather boots. The man was painting a picture of his beautiful surroundings. Raising his paintbrush he drew broad brushstrokes against the white canvas that stood before him supported by an easel. In the distance he could see two horses galloping across the blue meadowland. Pearl sighed. He liked his isolation and had little desire to communicate with the approaching travellers. The horses slowed to a trot and one of the riders dismounted. Pearl narrowed his eyes and gazed at the small, diminutive figure silhouetted by the sunlight. He thought it might be a dwarf. He watched closely as the tiny figure approached through the swaying Forget-me-nots. Cora could see the man seated on the stool and broke into a run.
'Daddy'... She whispered, tears of joy already filling her eyes. "It's my Daddy!'... She shouted now, hoping that the whole world could hear her. Pearl stood up.
He could not believe his own eyes. After five years without his beloved child, it was like a fairy tale come true. Pearl ran towards her knocking over the easel in his haste. He opened his arms and Cora leapt forward and jumped into them. She squeezed him with all her might and closed her weeping eyes. Daddy ...
‘Daddy ... Daddy'... she cried 'Is it really you?’.
Pearl spun her around and kissed her on the forehead. 'It’s me Cora!'... He shouted joyfully, ruffling her hair with his paint stained fingers 'It's me and you've found me again!’ He was crying now and the tears fell freely into the sea of Forget-me-nots. Father and daughter sank down onto their knees and sobbed. It had been so long and now the wait was over, they were nearly a family again ...
An explosion of fire filled the sky
And thick red clouds came rolling by
Like the sunrise of a glorious dawn
But from the sun this heats no born
For flying high above like a locust plague
Soar the demons of Vortanna Zague
Garalous Glave had bored Blackthorn to death with his endlessly bad poetry about the great exploits of Robert Pearl.
The two men sat side by side upon the wooden seat in the cart. Glave's donkey towed them towards Holme’s Tavern and Nightfire, Blackthorn’s horse trotted loyally alongside. Glave bit into another red onion and spoke excitedly to his bored looking companion. 'You’ll like this one'... He said spitting onion everywhere 'Robert Pearl is big and brave, much braver than Tobias Tave'...
Blackthorn rolled his eyes and looked irritated 'Who is Tobias Tave?'...
Glave began to explain 'Oh, he’s a well known warrior, unfortunately he's drunk most of the time’... He bit into the onion again. 'Not important really’. He said with his mouth full 'Shall I continue?'.
Before Blackthorn could say something scathing, he felt an intense heat upon the back of his neck. Glave felt it too and pulled at his robe, loosening the material around his throat. ‘The Suns are getting hot'...
Glave and Blackthorn gazed up into the sky. The two red suns were in front of them, not behind. Glave looked at Blackthorn uneasily, 'I think the cart is on fire’.
Blackthorn stared over his shoulder and ducked down when he saw the huge red fire demon swooping towards him. Blackthorn managed only a brief scream before the creature's talons extended from its red scaly body. It gripped Blackthorn by his shoulders and snatched him from the cart. Garalous Glave watched helplessly as the fire demon glided upwards and vanished into the red clouds.
CHAPTER THIRTY ONE
The Bugwug flew haphazardly through the air. The bird amused himself by chasing butterflies. He eventually gave up the chase and settled on the ground where he rolled playfully in the flowers. Dhumass Shrester sat crossed legged in the meadow. The man's eyes were closed and he was deep in meditation. His horse Bedight had his mouth buried in the flowers, the animal had a taste for Forget-Me-Not.
Drexler fed his own horse from a bag of oats. He Looked down at his friend and shook his head and sighed. 'You know Dhumass, if someone attacked you now you'd be dead'.
Shrester’s reflexes were like lightning. Without opening his eyes he reached for a dagger in his shoulder holster and hurled it through the air. The blade embedded itself in the bag of oats Drexler was holding.
The material split and the seeds began to spill out into the flowers. Shrester said nothing and returned to his position of meditation. 'OK, perhaps you're not as vulnerable as I thought'... Drexler looked down at the bag ‘I hope you intend to replace this?'
Shrester’s face twitched slightly and a small grin formed upon his face. Apart from that, he had no other reaction.
The interior of the cottage was quite bare. A bed a table, a writing desk covered in maps, were some of the more noticeable objects on display. Cora's attention focused mainly upon the many watercolour pictures that hung upon the walls. Nearly all of these were portrait paintings of Cora Pearl when she was a very little girl. Cora gazed in awe at the work. She could not believe her eyes.
Robert Pearl stood behind his daughter, wrapped his arms around Cora’s shoulders and kissed the soft hair on her head, 'I painted from memory'... He said poignantly 'In the last five years that’s all I’ve had’.
Cora closed her eyes and the tears began to flow again 'Do you remember how we lost each other?'...
Pearl shook his head 'I remember a journey'... He sounded vague ‘You and your mother were with me?’... He closed his eyes, the pain etched upon his face as he tried to piece together the past 'Somehow I lost you in the dark'... He opened his eyes and the tears rolled down his cheeks 'And when the light came again I woke in this place’.
Cora began to sob 'I've missed you so much daddy'.
Pearl hugged her more tightly 'I won't leave you again Cora'.
Cora stroked her father's arm 'What about mummy?'
Pearl smiled 'We will rescue her'. He nodded confidently kissing Cora's head again 'There will be a happy ever after’.
Drexler knocked on the open door and stuck his head around the corner. He smiled at Robert and Cora. 'Just want you to know that Dhumass and I have decided to help you'...
Cora smiled back at the knight 'Thank you Max... I liked you the moment I saw you, you know'.
Drexler grinned 'To be honest, I'm bored with drinking in the tavern. 1 just want to get some fresh air in my lungs'... He scratched his chin with his gauntlet. 'So Robert when do we leave?'
Cora looked up at her father. He gazed down and smiled warmly into his daughter's beautiful face. ‘As soon as we can’.
‘I know the way to Grimwood's fortress' Cora responded eagerly ‘If you let me sleep for an hour or two, I can make our journey so much easier'...
Pearl looked across at Drexler, the outlaw smiled and nodded in agreement. 'She is a magical little girl, believe me’... Pearl smiled 'I don't have to believe you... That, I've always known'... he said, kissing Cora gently on her forehead and embracing the child once again.
CHAPTER THIRTY TWO
THE GOLDEN SERPENT
Foss bent down on all fours and started to sweep the charred remains of the four horsemen into a dustpan. Grolt another of Grimwood's servants used a broom to brush the broken glass into a huge brown sack. Grimwood watched the two men and raising a chubby hand, he pointed down to the floor 'You missed a bit. Looks like a finger bone'.
Foss brushed it into the dustpan. Grimwood sat down at his desk and began to stack his gold coins one on top of the other. He gazed across the room at the broken stained glass window. 'That will cost a fortune to replace’ He grumbled.
Foss tipped ash and glass into the open sack. He Looked sullen 'Pardon me for interrupting sir’ He said in a deeply humble tone 'But are you not concerned about the dead horsemen?' Grolt squeezed the broom handle tightly and his knuckles turned blue. The man stopped working and his body froze in mid sweep.
Grimwood's expression hardened and he stared unblinking at the blank faced, sullen looking servant. How dare he be so impertinent he thought 'Concerned?' 'Concerned!' He yelled, his face turning crimson. 'How can I be concerned when they are quite obviously dead!’...
Foss shook his head, bent back down to the floor and continued to sweep. Enough had been said and to say anything more might terminate the servant's employment position at the fortress citadel.
Grimwood gazed back at the window 'I think next time, I'11 have plain glass instead of stained glass, far cheaper to replace’. He thought. 'Oh God' ...
Grimwood muttered as Foss and Grolt dropped their tools and backed their bodies against the wall. The three men could hear the all too familiar sound of flapping wings. Through the open archway of the broken window a large serpent's head poked inside. It was spiked with golden horns and it had the deepest blue eyes and a silver tongue that flicked in and out of its mouth at regular intervals. The Golden Serpent looked around the room, its streamlined head held above the floor by a long scaly neck. Grimwood gulped heavily, his Adam's apple descending into his chest and then nearly shooting out from inside his mouth. 'What do you want snake?' He said timidly.
The serpent turned her face towards him and hissed 'I am a Golden Serpent, not a snake'... It was Cora’s voice, but no one in the room knew that.
'Sorry'... Grimwood apologised, looking over at his two terrified servants 'I am more fatty than meaty you know.. But you can eat them if you like’... He nodded his head towards Foss and Grolt, both men seemed paralysed with fear and had she been that way inclined they would have put up no resistance.
'No’... She hissed angrily, disgusted by Grimwood's weak and selfish nature 'If I eat anyone it will be you!’
Grimwood slid several bags of coins across the wooden desk towards her ‘Here, take it'... He begged 'I'll give you all I have'... He wiped his sweating brow with the back of his fat hairy hand. Cora the Golden Serpent flicked her silver tongue at Grimwood, showering him in saliva. 'I don’t want your money. 'I want you to give me Elizabeth Pearl’...
Grimwood breathed a sigh of relief 'Vortanna Zague took her’. He grinned at the serpent 'So it’s nothing to do with me’...
The Golden Serpent snorted her nostrils angrily and two jets of pressurised water squirted across the study and struck The Lord of the Mire on his breastplate. The full impact of the blast knocked him backwards onto the floor. Grimwood lay on his back somewhat dazed, with his short fat legs protruding over the desktop.
Foss's sullen expression changed to a broad grin and Grolt stifled a chuckle.
Grimwood peered over the top of his desk, his silver armour drenched in snot. 'I'm terribly sorry. It wasn't my fault!’. He protested, biting into his own tongue in his haste to spit out his words 'They've gone to the fortress of Fire' He garbled 'It’s in the north beneath the mountains of gas and fire'.
Cora the Golden Serpent nodded her head and smiled 'Thank you' she hissed and wiggling her long neck like a snake she withdrew her horned head through the broken stained window.
Cora hovered in mid air outside the fortress tower. She had a long golden body, four sets of huge wings and a thin tail covered in thick silver and gold spines. Her powerful hind legs were tucked into her body and two short fat little arms hung down beneath her endlessly long neck.
Robert Pearl, Drexler, Dhumass and the Bugwug sat comfortably upon her back. The men held onto arched silver horns that protruded from her torso. Pearl gazed into the Golden Serpent's huge blue eyes. 'What did Grimwood say Cora?’ He asked.
'The Fire Queen has taken her’... She hissed, her silver tongue flicking back and forth in her mouth.
'Where?' Pearl inquired, hanging on her every word. Cora looked worried, she knew of the volcanic mountain range, it was a dreadful place and the toxic lair of Vortanna Zague and her demon hoards.
The existence of 'The Fortress of Flame' baffled her. She had never drawn such a place. Cora had quickly deduced that the people in Grimney had a will of their own, but now whole buildings were constructing themselves without her knowledge. Something was not right and the only way she would make sense of what was happening would be to go to the fortress and rescue her mother. ‘To The Fortress Of Flame!' The Golden Serpent flapped her wings rapidly 'Hold on my friends'...
She swooped down and soared upwards into the clouds. The riders leant forward and held tightly to the serpent’s arched horns. Cora's wings pushed her onwards through the air. She moved with great speed, the undercurrent of the wind flowing beneath her long body. Down on the ground, small distant figures ran for cover. The sight of the creature had struck fear into their hearts. The rays of the twin suns splintered across Cora's scaly skin and the Golden Serpent cast a huge, terrifying, black shadow over the rolling green fields below. Cora hoped that her appearance would have the same effect on the Fire Demons, but somehow, she doubted that ...
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE
Elizabeth dragged her feet upon a cobbled stone passageway. Two dark swirling faceless entities pulled her forward along the dimly lit narrow corridor. A huge black door swung open in front of her and she was thrown inside.
Elizabeth fell onto her knees and placed the palms of hands flat upon the cold floor. Darcus Ryalls sat before her on a huge black marble throne. The room was windowless and rolling with dark pulsating clouds of light. The mysterious being dressed in red robes with a hood pulled down over its face lowered its head towards the kneeling woman. Elizabeth looked up sheepishly, but remained on all fours too frightened to gaze directly at the hooded being before her.
Darcus Ryalls sat silently, as stiff as a statue. Elizabeth’s breathing became erratic, the entity before her seemed terrifying. After what seemed like an eternity the being spoke.
'Elizabeth Pearl’... It said, its tone neither male nor female, just somewhere in between. 'You have come here to suffer'...
Elizabeth sat upon her knees and tried to speak, but the fear had caused her to lose her voice. She felt as if an invisible force was holding her tongue.
'You will pay for your lack of love’. Darcus Ryalls bowed its head and pointed a red gloved finger at Elizabeth.
‘It is hard for those that cannot speak, that sit in silence every week. For they have not just lost their voice, they do not speak because of choice'...
The being lowered its hand and gripped the armrest of the throne tightly. ‘You never loved your daughter. You who stood by and watched her suffer in silence' Darcus Ryalls waved its gloved hand through the air. 'You may speak'...
The stranglehold that Elizabeth had felt grip her tongue vanished 'I love Cora, I only ever wanted what was best for her'...
Darcus Ryalls shook its head 'You never loved Cora'... Its tone was hard and disagreeable 'You betrayed her father's memory and loved a man that hated her, for that you will suffer'...
The dark swirling entities rolled forward and lifted Elizabeth's body from the floor. Pulling her arms apart they raised her high into the air and pinned her helplessly against the wall...
Darcus Ryalls remained seated and stared up at the trapped woman 'Soon Samuel Blackthorn will join you there, and together you will spend eternity in silence'...
'What did he ever do to you?!' Elizabeth screamed, before a dark spectral hand covered her mouth and muffled her cries.
‘You did nothing’. Darcus Ryalls replied 'That is why you must be punished'...
CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR
Jade is loyal to the Queen lives under her rile
Stronger than stone this sparkling jewel
Fights for the state in campaigns of war
Never a victim she stands by the law
Awarded a Knighthood, her own coat of arms
A kind-hearted beauty with the deadliest charms
Much loved by the people, Jade’s honest, sincere
Only hated by bad folk who view her with fear
Sworn to destroy the Lord of the Mire
She knows Grimwood Scribes to be a treacherous liar
Outlawed from Golt she has a price on her head
Grimwood Scribes placed the bounty he wanted Jade dead
Living without fear by a sword blade so swift
Jade fights like an angel her skills are God’s gift
In a flowery glade dotted with blossoming trees, Eliza Jade's sword flashed in the sunlight as it cut through the air severing the arm of the savage looking warrior dressed in bearskin. The man looked horrified as he watched his sword arm fall into the flowers. The wounded warrior fled across a small battlefield littered with a dozen dead bodies.
Jade had five more similarly clad assailants bearing down upon her. Waving their swords and axes they charged forward snarling like wild animals. She cut one of the men down and turned her attention to the next, cutting off the man's hand and spraying his shaggy face with blood. Having disabled another of her enemies she waved her sword in front of her face and raised the blade above her head, the tip of her sword pointing at her assailants. She took up a battle stance and waited for her enemies to attack. Jade wore a short, loose fitting blue dress and her long curling blonde locks cascaded down to her soft, bare shoulders. Jade was a buxom girl with long powerful legs and a full figure. The sun had darkened Jade's skin and she looked healthy and robust.
The men raised their weapons and stormed forward, only to be sprayed by several powerful jets of water that flooded downwards from the sky. The men fled from the battlefield as The Golden Serpent threw its huge shadow over them. Jade sheathed her sword and gazed down at the dead bodies that littered the glade. The serpent extended its talons, landed gently in front of the warrior woman and lowered its wings. Pearl and the other riders hopped off Cora's back.
Jade smiled at her rescuers 'You've done me a good service' She said 'I am in your debt'...
The Bugwug settled on Robert Pearl's shoulder and stretched his wings.
The Golden Serpent gazed down at Jade, the warrior was just as she had drawn her 'Eliza Jade... I have always wanted to meet you!' she said excitedly.
Jade was taken aback 'The pleasure is all mine... If I may have your name?'
Drexler was very taken with the beautiful woman and sliding off his black gauntlet he walked towards her with his hand outstretched 'Max Drexler' He said 'I'm I delighted to meet you too’..
Jade shook his hand but barely looked at him. She was more interested in the identity of the Golden Serpent, than the drawling idiot standing before her.
The serpent flicked its tongue back and forth 'I am Cora Pearl’...
'You're a shape shifter?' Jade asked running her slender fingers through her long blonde hair.
Robert Pearl smiled 'She's my daughter'...
Jade looked across at the impressive knight dressed in the shiniest silver amour she had ever seen. "And therefore you must be Robert Pearl’. Jade was a shrewd young lady.
Pearl nodded ‘You've heard of me?' He asked.
Jade smiled and drew her sword from her scabbard. Shrester and Drexler reached for their own blades. But they had nothing to fear from this young maiden. Jade knelt down on one leg, laid her sword across the palms of her hands and offered the weapon to Pearl and the Golden Serpent.
'Your quest is my quest. For many years I have sought to follow you. I ask that I may accompany you on your journey’...
Pearl smiled and walked forward, he crouched down in front of the girl and looked into her beautiful green eyes. ‘I'm just a man. You don't need to worship me’. He placed his hand beneath the smooth soft skin of Jade’s elbow and encouraged the warrior back onto her feet. 'Eliza we do have need of your help'. He smiled softly 'Cora's mother has been kidnapped’.
Jade slid her sword back into its scabbard 'I will stand by you’. She spoke defiantly 'Die at your side if need be’.
Drexler scowled and looked uneasy. 'That's not exactly what I had in mind lady'...
Jade stared at Drexler dismissively 'You fear death?' Her tone was cold and judging.
Drexler chuckled and looked down at his feet. The beautiful woman's stare made him feel uncomfortable “Once I reached the age of seven, that's when the fear began'... He stared at the dead bodies that lay at his feet 'The older you get, the more you try to ignore death'... He looked up at Jade and sighed 'You can't ignore the inevitable, it just doesn't work that way'... The man's eyes were glinting with tears, 'Especially when you’ve seen so much’. He choked on his words and turned away in embarrassment.
The Bugwug flew down and settled on Jade's shoulders. The bird rolled his cross eyes at her and chirped 'I’m the Bugwug'...
Jade laughed 'Are you now?'... She was very much taken by the fluffy creature, 'And who is the quiet man that does not speak?'
Shrester had already deserted the battlefield. The bald headed warrior sat cross-legged upon the grass. His eyes closed, the war Mage was deep in meditation.
The Bugwug whispered into Jade's ear. His warm breath tickled and made the young woman giggle. 'Dhumass Shrester' ... the bird said solemnly.
'Oh' Jade said 'Yes, I know of him’...
Cora knew about him too, although she had never made him the subject of one of her poems. She had drawn Shrester’s picture and written a brief history of his life. He came from beyond the Mountains Of The Moon. Shrester’s homeland was in Vorgania, a neighbouring land next to Grimney. This snowbound world could only be reached by crossing The Dudrassa, the mermaid’s sea of ice, such a journey was perilous and few survived, but the War Mage was no ordinary man and his strength and faith carried him through. Shrester was a pilgrim, searching for the meaning of life. It was strange to think that Cora was the reason for his existence, but the man would never believe such a thing and in truth Cora was quite unwilling to tell him.
CHAPTER THIRY FIVE
THE FORTRESS OF FIRE
Blackthorn dangled helplessly from the Fire Demon’s talons, the creature's razor sharp claws gripping him roughly by the shoulders of his jacket. The ground below seemed so far away and Blackthorn could only pray that the Fire Demon would not drop him. In the distance the towers of The Fortress Of Fire began to take shape through the red sky and dark billowing smoke. The Fire Demon gathered speed, his huge red wings flapping harshly against the sulphurous air. He tilted his body forward and flew towards the highest tower. Blackthorn covered his eyes. 'Oh God help me!' he yelled, his feet bouncing upon the rapid flowing undercurrent that ripped past his body. Blackthorn felt the talons loosening on his shoulders and to his horror he realised that the creature had dropped him. Blackthorn closed his eyes and flailed his arms helplessly through the air. Fortunately he tumbled only a short distance and when he opened his eyes he found that he was lying on a cold stone floor.He crawled to his feet and gazed across the dark room. He could see the dark outline of Darcus Ryalls standing motionless in front of the altar. Its long crimson robes covering its body, the thick red hood pulled down over its face. Although Blackthorn was unable to see the being's eyes, he knew that this thing was staring directly at him.
Blackthorn stuck out his chest and tried to look defiant 'Who, or what are you?' Darcus Ryalls raised its robed arms and the dark light mind spirit spiralled down from the arched stone ceiling. Ryalls opened the palms of its gloved hands and the mysterious energy force became absorbed into Ryalls’ body. 'Samuel Blackthorn, the man that drove the child away'... Its voice sounded melancholy and the words echoed through the cavernous altar room. 'You will suffer more than any other'...
Blackthorn felt a chill rising from the base of his spine 'Cora’s mind is a very disturbing place’ He thought trying to stop his legs from trembling by standing as rigidly as possible. 'I know that you're nothing more than a picture in Cora's scrapbook’... Blackthorn said trying to control the fear welling in his stomach.
Ryalls waved a gloved hand in front of its face 'You know nothing of Cora’s world, you care little for the child'.
'That’s just not true!'... He protested, Blackthorn opened his mouth again and tried to finish his sentence, but the man’s tongue felt numb, and to his horror he found that he had lost his voice.
'Be silent!’... Ryalls said forcefully. 'You believed Cora to be a failure... Her gain will be your pain’... Jets of dark energy flowed from beneath Ryalls’ hood as the being summoned the dark mind spirit from its body. 'Only your pain will be much greater'... Ryalls said as the swirling black mist swept across the altar room floor.
Wispy threads of dark light entwined together and the supernatural force bound itself around Blackthorn’s body. The man struggled desperately to break free, but the power was too great and Blackthorn gritted his teeth, his face turning blue, as the mass of binding dark light forced him to his knees.
CHAPTER THIRTY SIX
The journey to the Fortress Of Fire took two days and two nights. Cora The Serpent had streaked through the heavens like a thunderbolt of golden lightning. On the second night Cora, Robert Pearl, Drexler and Jade sat resting around a huge campfire. Cora had transformed herself back to normal and the Bugwug sat happily on her shoulder preening itself. Dhumass Shrester sat cross-legged at the edge of an overhanging grassy ridge some distance from the others. He gazed down into the valley below, the landscape, dried by the furnace like temperatures was barren, lifeless, and infertile. The fortress stood in the distance, dark flames rolled across its high walls and gas clouds drifted around its three tall towers.
The fortress however was dwarfed by the infernal mountain range that belched flame and smoke into the toxic, gas polluted, green and red sky. Shrester closed his eyes and muttered a prayer under his breath. The War Mage was calling to his ancient ancestors to save his soul from evil.
Drexler looked at his friends' faces and smiled 'So who do you think owns that fortress?' He asked nervously. 'Someone with money I think’.
Cora had never created such a place and had no idea who might be living inside its walls 'It's a mystery to me'... She said with a shake of her head.
Drexler smiled and looked over at Jade. The young woman seemed unconcerned about the impending battle. Instead she sat with her sword across her knees polishing the blade with a white cloth.
Robert Pearl's shiny silver armour mirrored the dancing flames of the campfire. It gave the suit an almost mystical effect as red, blue, yellow and green coated the polished silver sheen with shimmering light.
Drexler slid off a black gauntlet and began to chew off a piece of fingernail, he spat it into the flames and it sizzled. 'I should have brought some alcohol with me'... He said, his face twitching nervously.
Cora smiled at Drexler 'Don't worry it'll be fine Max’
Drexler shook his head 'You're a child, what do you know? I don't know what I'm doing here. I normally just work for money. Not for children’..
Cora looked annoyed by the remark, but decided to let it pass. 'Perhaps I can tell you a poem or two?' She said enthusiastically.
Pearl sat up and leant towards his daughter 'You write?' He smiled 'I used to write too'...
Cora looked excited she was eager to know more. 'What have you written?'
Drexler shook his head and stood up 'Poetry?' He sneered 'What’s the use of that?'.
Jade looked at Drexler, the fire reflected in her deep green eyes 'What's the use of you?' She said scathingly.
Drexler had no wish to argue with Eliza Jade. She was a famous warrior and not the kind of lady one would wish to annoy. Drexler shrugged his shoulders, stood up and walked away from the campfire. He sat down next to Shrester, the War Mage appeared to be deep in meditation.
Cora ignored the confrontation, she wanted to hear more about her father’s poetry. Perhaps they were more alike than she had ever known, the thought of that gave her a warm feeling inside.
Pearl smiled 'Mainly limericks. I can tell you one’. He cleared his throat and closed his eyes...
With red scaly skin
A roar that could wake up the dead
There’s nothing much worse
Than this Grimney curse
Except when his teeth he has shed
For when he breathes flame
It is such a shame
His teeth fall out of the gum
So when he pushes them back
Tries to attach
This dragon looks totally dumb
So now he’s discreet
Never eats meat
For that kind of food he can’t chew
So when he’s picking his teeth
It’s to his relief
That in his garden the vegetables grow!
Cora chuckled and gave her father a round of applause. The Bugwug was impressed too and clapped his wings together causing bits of feather to fly everywhere.
Drexler leant forward on his knees, shook his head and frowned 'They could all be dead by morning and all they can think of doing is reciting stupid poetry’.
Shrester remained in deep meditation. He had no interest in the complaints of his whinging companion.
Jade smiled 'That was quite good'... She held her sword up to the firelight and examined the blade for smears.
Pearl gazed at Cora 'Well, you’ve heard one of mine... Now let’s hear one of yours’...
Jade slid her blade back into its scabbard and stared at Cora 'Yes, it's your turn to tell us a poem'... She said 'It's only fair'...
Cora looked nervous. Nobody had ever expressed any interest in her work before. Her poetry had been merely consigned to her scrapbook and left to gather dust upon the floor beneath her bed. She took in several deep breaths and began to speak slowly and clearly to her attentive audience.
The WIbble is a most peculiar bird
He flies round in circles and looks quite absurd
He hooks onto trees by a curve in his beak
And hangs in mid-air for over a week
The Wibble never builds a nest
For of true power of flight this bird’s not possessed
So when this fellow needs to feed
He hooks up a worm or sucks on a weed
He has long feathers of yellow and green
And wispy white stripes that flow in between
His eyes pop out as if on a spring
When he opens his beak he’s unable to sing
Then every so often he takes to the air
So watch out below.. keep your head down.. beware…
As he does not know his left from his right
There’s nothing much worse than this feathered sight
Flying towards you out of control
So climb up a tree or jump down a hole
For if you do not or fail to see
This bird with a squawk fall from a tree
You are likely to get a large bump on the head
Or worse than that he will knock you quite dead.
Cora's voice fell silent and she bit into her bottom lip, drawing a little blood through the dry skin. She sat with her eyes closed hiding in the darkness, waiting for her father's response that she desperately hoped would be a positive one. She was not disappointed.
Pearl bounded across the camp and laughing loudly, he picked his daughter up in his arms and embraced her proudly 'Cora, that was a wonderful piece of verse!' he enthused, raising her high into the air, Cora's little feet dangling above the ground, 'Cora you are one very talented and gifted little girl'.
CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN
LIFE AFTER LIFE
The campfire glowed with red embers and crackled and hissed as it began to burn out. Drexler lay next to Shrester, who remained cross-legged on the grass, with his eyes closed. The two men appeared to be asleep. Appearances however can be deceptive. A small buzzing insect flittered in front of Shrester’s face and the man's open palm flashed through the air and snatched the bug from the sky. Shrester opened his eyes and gradually unfolded his fingers releasing the insect back into the wild.
Cora sat talking with Jade and her father. The Bugwug was asleep on her shoulder. Pearl stoked the fire with his sword, causing red sparks to burst and pop in the dying flame. Startled by the noise The Bugwug flew into the air squawking 'We’re under attack! We’re under attack!' Observing that the enemy was nowhere in sight he apologised and laid down on his back with his wings outstretched on the grass and went back to sleep.
Pearl shook his head and frowned at the silly bird 'You'll need to change back into a dragon'... He said withdrawing his blade, as the fire danced skyward again. 'Yes daddy I will’. Cora looked across at Jade. The young woman had draped a purple cloak around her shoulders for comfort.
‘Eliza why were you out alone in the wild?' Cora asked. Jade smiled at the young girl. ‘I was on my way to meet Calaman Kade, when I came under attack from Draygon the Scars’ men'.
Cora knew a great deal about Calaman Kade, he was a mighty warrior and famed throughout Grimney. She remembered the poem she had written about him, but she knew that the words did not do him justice and one day she would rewrite the piece. Cora wanted to know more about the man.
'What kind of man is Calaman Kade?' Jade smiled again. 'He is a great leader, I have promised to help him rid Grimney of Draygon the Scar' ...
Pearl nodded 'That needs to be done’ He solemnly agreed ‘When this is over and Elizabeth is safe, I will help you Eliza’.
Cora looked concerned 'Daddy. You must come back with me. We don't belong here’.
Pearl could see the fear in his child's eyes. 'Cora, in the other world, I wasn't a great success. In this place, in five years I've made a name for myself’...
Cora looked confused 'But’... She was stuck for an answer ‘This isn't reality' ...
Jade laughed mockingly ‘It feels like reality to me Cora. I don't see anything else, I'm going to sleep now. Prepare my body for battle’... Jade placed the cloak neatly on the grass and closing her eyes she laid dawn upon it.
Pearl looked sad 'Elizabeth... Your mother, she doubted me... I wasn’t as great as you might believe. The business I was running was collapsing. I would've lost it, if Samuel Blackthorn hadn't helped me out’..
Cora’s face flushed white. Blackthorn, her wicked stepfather had tried to help? That was impossible. 'Blackthorn'... She had to tell her father, he had to know how that evil man had stabbed him in the back.
‘Blackthorn has married my mother’...
Pearl looked shocked by the news ‘I don't understand'. He said glancing into the rising campfire flames, 'We never divorced'.
Cora did not know what to say, she could only tell him the truth and hope that it would not be too much for him.
'Mummy still loves you’.. She said holding back her tears.
Pearl could see how troubled his daughter was and he sat down next to her. The man wrapped his arm around her shoulder and hugged Cora gently 'No need to cry. I'm with you now'...
Cora began to sob 'I've missed you so much, I don't want to lose you again'.
Pearl kissed Cora softly on the head and began to rock her gently in his arms. 'Tell me what happened. ‘Do you know how I got here Cora?'...
Cora squeezed her eyes tightly shut. She did not want to remember the night of the accident. 'Cora you have to tell me what you know'... Pearl stroked the girl's hair and waited.
Cora’s voice trembled as she spoke 'There was an accident'... she said slowly, hoping her sobs would drown her quivering voice. 'And... And you wouldn’t wake up. I woke you up and found you here' ...
Pearl did not fully understand, he needed a clearer answer than that. 'I was in a coma? What kind of accident? If I was alive why did Elizabeth divorce me?'
'You weren’t alive Daddy'... Cora said innocently, trying to dry her tears 'I brought you back from the grave’.
Pearl look astonished 'How could that be possible?' He asked placing his hands on his daughter’s shoulders and staring directly into her huge blue eyes.
'I found the First Book Of The Guardians'... She replied.
Pearl had heard of these books, they were magical and if used correctly could open doors to other hidden worlds.
'What did you do with it?'
Cora looked worried 'I stuck in my pictures and poems about Grimney and alongside them I placed your photograph’ she said timidly, unsure of how her father would react.
He smiled and sighed 'A child's imagination has no limits'... Pearl stroked the side of his daughter's face with the back of his hand 'You've been blessed by the Gods of Grimney'...
'But you are real. This place is real isn’t it?’... Cora asked wanting to be reassured that this was not just some passing dream that she had created in her mind.
Pearl nodded 'You're not just seeing me, I am seeing you. In my mind, I'm as real as you are'...
Cora felt comforted by her father’s words and once more the two embraced. Father and daughter, were bound by a love that had transcended death and neither of them wished to let go of the other ever again...
CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT
Cora slept most of the night wrapped in her father's arms. She woke just before dawn and walked a short distance from the camp. She lay down on the grass and waited for the Mind Spirit to carry her home again. When Pearl, Jade and the others woke from their restless sleep they were confronted by a huge silver dragon, her wingspan was vast and she had scales that changed colour in the sunlight, with each tiny movement, gold, silver and yellow light rippled across her body. The Silver Dragon sat upon her powerful hind legs, her talons embedded in the grass, gazing down with glowing blue eyes at the warriors that stood before her, each of them silenced by awe and admiration.
Pearl called up to her 'Cora? Is that you?' He asked.
The silver dragon opened her mouth and smiled, revealing two rows of sparkling white teeth. 'Yes Daddy’ the Silver Dragon replied 'It is me'...
Drexler frowned and looked across at Jade and Shrester who appeared entranced at the girl’s new appearance.
‘Very impressive'... Drexler remarked sarcastically ‘I just hope you can do more than spit water'...
The Bugwug flew into the sky and settled on Cora’s spiked armour plated head. The Silver Dragon smiled 'I have no wish to burn anyone'... she replied. 'No that would never do'...
Drexler shook his head with irritation 'So you intend to drown the enemy do you?'
The Silver Dragon shook her huge thick scaly neck. 'No Drexler'... She replied, her tone openly mocking the man 'You can’t fight fire with fire. But you can certainly fight fire by using water'...
Drexler nodded in agreement and conceded her point. Pearl threw his head back, clapped his hands and laughed out loud. 'That's my girl!' He said with utter delight 'Gentle, clever and impossible to defeat'...
After a brief discussion the group had decided upon the best strategy of attack. They agreed that they should sit on Cora’s back and fly towards the tallest tower. Cora The Silver Dragon lowered her body down to the grass and one by one the passengers climbed on board.
Pearl sat at the front with the Bugwug on his shoulder, Drexler, Jade and Shrester sat in a row behind and held onto the spikes that were sticking out of the dragon's body. ‘Hold on tight'... Cora commanded, but it was an order that did not need to be given.
The Silver Dragon puffed out its cheeks, inhaled deeply and charged across the grass towards the high ridge. With one giant step the creature plunged over the edge, extended her wings and soared through the air towards the fortress. Darcus Ryalls stood at the arched window of the tallest tower and gazed out over the horizon. It could see the dragon flying through the smoky, gas filled sky. Ryalls shook its head and stepped away from the window.
Behind Ryalls stood hoards of red fire demons and pointing a red gloved finger towards the approaching creature, the demons flooded past their master and flew through the archway to confront Cora and her companions. The Fire Demons swarmed forward extending their sharp yellow talons, their intention was to snatch the riders from the Silver Dragon’s back. Cora opened her huge mouth and sprayed jets of water over them. On contact with the red demons’ skins the liquid sizzled and the creatures’ bodies blackened. The shock of the sudden change in body temperature caused the demons to pass out and fall from the sky like dry leaves dropped in autumn. Pearl and the other warriors drew their swords and held them over their heads cutting through the air as the remaining demons surged past them.
Jade cut into a demon's wing, causing him to spiral out of control and collide with two other demons flying in the opposite direction, all three of them tumbled helplessly into the void. Cora turned her huge body and gave chase, spraying water in all directions and the demons sizzled and fell all around her. Shrester drew his dagger from his shoulder holster and hurled it through the air. The blade struck one of the demons squarely in the back and the creature plummeted like a stone towards the scorched earth beneath.
The remaining demons sensing their defeat fled upwards through the sky and soon they were mere red specks on the horizon. Pearl, Drexler, Jade and the Bugwug cheered, and swords were waved in celebration, but the battle was far from over...
Vortanna Zague hovered in front of the fortress, The Demon Queen’s huge wings held at full stretch. A blazing fire raged around Zague's glowing body, her dress rippled with crimson and yellow flame and her eyes pulsated with a red volcanic fury. Flapping her huge wings aggressively, she focussed a bloodcurdling scream from the darkest depths of her soul and soared downwards to attack the Silver Dragon.
Zague’s shadow was upon them before they could react and reaching down with her razor sharp talons she grabbed Drexler by his armour plated shoulders and hoisted him from Cora’s back. Shrester, Pearl and Jade tried to grab Drexler’s boots, but they risked being dragged to their deaths and had to give up. Zague flew past them and Cora spun through the air and pursued the Demon Queen. Drexler dangled helplessly over the ground below. He concluded that this was perhaps a fight Cora and the others could not win. Reaching down Drexler fumbled for the hilt of his sword and he began to hoist it from his scabbard.
Zague turned around and hissed at the Silver Dragon as it approached. The Fire Queen knew that she would not be attacked. ‘That was the Silver Dragon's weakness’... she thought, the creature cared about its friends.
Drexler looked up at Zague's throat, the Fire Queen was drawing on the sulphurous air and preparing to breathe flame over Cora and the others. Drexler could not allow that, he slowly drew his sword upwards and with great force plunged the blade into Zague’s chest. The Demon Queen screamed in pain and released the man from her grip. Drexler fell downwards, spinning like a top to the earth below. Cora dived towards him, but Zague, although mortally wounded swooped after her. Cora turned her head upwards and sprayed a jet of water into Zague's twisted white face. The Demon Queen's skin sizzled, turned bright blue and her skull began to crack. Zague lost the power of flight, her strength faded and she too fell into oblivion.
Cora looked down to the valley floor, Drexler had already reached the bottom. A brave man was lost... He had saved the lives of his friends, but tragically his noble sacrifice had ended in his own death. Cora’s eyes began to fill with tears. This was her world, and good people should not die.. Pearl stroked Cora's spiked head. ‘We must press on Cora... Drexler must not die in vain’.
Cora agreed and took in several deep breaths, then spreading her wings she glided forwards towards the tallest tower of the fortress.
Darcus Ryalls stepped back from the arched window as the Silver Dragon landed inside.
Jade, Pearl and Shrester leapt off Cora’s back and swords drawn they approached the robed figure dressed all in red.
The Bugwug flew above their heads waving its wing at Ryalls ‘Surrender now, or we will destroy you!' The bird squawked.
Ryalls stood motionless in the corner, its robed arms folded across its chest 'You will destroy me?' The being's tone was mocking. ‘And how will you do that?’
Cora growled at Ryalls 'Give me back my mother you monster!' She snorted.
Ryalls shook its head and gazed at the dragon 'A monster am I? Cora, you know she doesn't love you. So why should you care about her?’.
Jade walked slowly forward and Pearl and Shrester followed closely behind, The three warriors pointed the tips of their blades towards Ryalls, but the mysterious being did not seem concerned about the threat they posed.
‘Swords will not hurt me, I’m a being of words not deeds’... Ryalls raised its robed arms high into the air and the dark light energy force swirled around its body. The dark mind spirit surged forward and lifted Jade, Pearl and Shrester from the floor and pinned them tightly to the wall. 'Your weapons are toys in my kingdom’..
Ryalls waved its hands and the swords that the warriors were holding melted into the ether and disappeared.
The Bugwug flew forward. He was not sure what he intended to do. Perhaps he could peck out the being's eyes, if that is, the creature had eyes. Ryalls extended a gloved palm, and a ball of dark light rolled forward and trapped the bird in mid flight. The Bugwug stood motionless on the air, frozen inside a glowing black sphere. Ryalls turned its head towards the Silver Dragon 'Cora join with me, call your mind spirit so we can become one again’.
Cora closed her eyes and concentrated, perspiration began to seep through the dragon's scales and shafts of blue light began to shoot from her body. It rippled like water over the Silver Dragon's huge frame until the blue Mind Spirit consumed her completely. In the midst of the swirling maelstrom Cora began to change shape and when the electrical storm had passed, Cora had regenerated herself back into a small girl. Cora walked into the centre of the room. She was not afraid of the hooded being, but was this creature afraid of her? 'Step out of the shadows and show yourself properly'... She said defiantly.
Ryalls glided forward and stood just in front of her. 'I can absorb you into my body if I wish, that is where you belong’...
Cora shook her head 'No'... she replied firmly 'I belong with my family, they are the people that love me’ ...
Ryalls raised its hands and a ball of dark light swirled between them 'No Cora, I am all you need... This is your world remember and it can be ours forever’...
'I need my family!’ Cora demanded 'Return them to me!'
'You cannot stand against me, only beside or within our dark heart. We must unite to survive and grow stronger'... Ryalls responded chillingly. 'They never loved you and they never will... Remember your years of silence. How much they angered you. How much you hated them'...
‘I have no hate anymore'... Cora said, tears welling in her eyes. ‘It left me long ago’...
Ryalls pressed both palms together and the dark light became absorbed back into the being's body 'You have no hate, because you released it ... But I still have it, I am that hate'... Ryalls reached up and gripping the sides of its hood threw back the material that concealed its face ...
The girl gasped in horror when she saw what lurked beneath... It was Cora. Darcus Ryalls had her face... There were distinct differences though and none were for the better. Its lips were black and pencil thin and its eyes were as dark as pools of black ink. The skin of the creature was white, pallid and lifeless and the teeth of the being had become stumped and black with decay... 'I am all that is bad within you'... Chillingly, Ryalls’ lips did not move as it spoke... 'You released me that day near the mire.. Remember? I am just a child who couldn't speak... I’m just a child you wouldn't listen to, and I hate you for it’...
Cora did remember the harsh words she had used against her mother and as a result she was responsible for this wretched creature's creation. 'I have no wish to fight you. I’m sorry for you' She said, with tears rolling down her cheeks 'I'll take you back if you wish it. But I'11 take you into my heart, where I promise to give you back your happiness’...
Ryalls stood rigidly in front of her. The being had been prepared to fight the child, believing that in battle it would win over her mind, but that was not to be...
Ryalls began to back away... 'No!' It screamed 'You cannot deny your hatred!?’ The Dark Mind Spirit began to pull itself from Ryalls' body. Shafts of black light tore gaping holes into the being’s robes, until Ryalls could no longer control the separation. It burst through its body, ripping Ryalls in half as if it were made of paper. The Dark Mind Spirit swirled through the air as Ryalls crumbled to the floor and vanished into a swirling pool of dust.
Cora stuck out her chest and extended her arms. The dark light and the blue light entered into her chest and vanished from sight. Jade, Pearl, Shrester and the Bugwug were released from their confinement and the small group gathered in the middle of the floor and hugged each other. The celebration was interrupted by the sounds of creaking walls, as the bricks that held The Fortress Of Flame together began to shatter.
Pearl and the others ran down the adjoining corridor, they had to find Elizabeth before it was too late for all of them. Pieces of stone began to tumble down upon their heads as they ducked through the crumbling dark narrow passageways searching for the young woman.
The group ran down a narrow spiral, stone staircase hoping that this would lead them to the dungeons. Above them rocks bounced down upon the steps, nearly tripping them up in their haste to reach the bottom. Pearl led the charge, the others following closely behind.
In a long narrow passageway they discovered a row of cells and passing from one to the other they gazed in through the rusted iron bars. In one of the cells they found Elizabeth and Blackthorn seated dejectedly upon a wooden bench. Pearl gazed in at them and bashed his gauntleted fist against the wooden panels of the door.
Elizabeth leapt to her feet and reached through the bars 'Robert!'. She said, overcome with emotion and grabbing at his face, she was comforted by the warmth of his skin 'I can't believe it’s you!’...
Pearl motioned with his glove ‘Step back Elizabeth, we have to break through'... Pearl put his armoured shoulder to the door and using every ounce of strength broke the lock and smashed his way through.
Elizabeth leapt into the man's arms and kissed him over and over again. Blackthorn looked disgruntled and watched with the bitterest expression he could muster.
The Bugwug flapped frantically around their heads 'We have to leave. Now!’ He shouted, flying back up the stone staircase as the walls starting to implode behind him.
They fled for their lives down the endless corridors, the walls literally folding over as they ran, Pearl moved sluggishly along the passageway, his armour slowing him down. In the distance Cora could see the huge iron doors that led to the outside. A huge wooden bolt had been slid into place to secure the fortress from attack. Jade, Shrester, Elizabeth and Cora gathered around the door and tried to slide the bolt from the latch. Back down the corridor Pearl was struggling to keep up. A huge wooden beam snapped from the ceiling and it fell towards him. It struck the man's armour and pinned him face down upon the floor. Blackthorn saw what had happened and he gazed back down the collapsing corridor. The air was thick with dust and falling masonry. He could see Pearl trapped beneath the wooden beam. Blackthorn only had a moment to decide his course of action, 'Stupid man' he moaned and ran back down the passage. He grabbed the wooden beam and dragged it across the floor. Blackthorn reached down and hauled Pearl from the debris. Pearl wrapped his arm around Blackthorn’s shoulder and the two men struggled back down the disintegrating corridor. Cora and the others were still trying to lift off the bolt. Blackthorn sat Pearl down upon the floor and with his help managed to shift it.
The doors were flung open, Blackthorn and Shrester helped Pearl to his feet and the group fled to their freedom and not a moment too soon. The whole structure began to rupture, as the collapsing building was dragged back down into the earth, the flames of fire extinguished, as it sank into the swallowing ground. Within seconds the Fortress Of Fire was nothing more than a smouldering pile of rising ash cloud.
Cora, Elizabeth, Jade, Pearl, Blackthorn, Shrester and The Bugwug fell into the dust. They were exhausted by the whole event. All they wanted to do now was go home...
Once the group had recovered a little from their harrowing ordeal they crossed the parched, scorched landscape and located Max Drexler's body. Pearl and Blackthorn dug a hole and the man was lowered gently inside. Shrester praised the Spirits of the Soil and scattered dust over the grave. The small gathering stood solemnly with their heads bowed and gave thanks for Drexler’s short, yet worthy life ...
CHAPTER THIRTY NINE
The journey home was uneventful. Cora had transformed herself back into the blue Water Dragon. The twin red suns of Grimney were rising against the green sky, it was a warm summer's morning as Cora lowered her blue wings and landed gently outside Holmes’ Tavern. The Bugwug settled upon Elizabeth's shoulder and the young woman stroked his feathered wings affectionately.
Shrester, Pearl and the others jumped off Cora’s back. Joanna Simm and Tobias Tave appeared in the doorway and looked at the faces of the people in front of them. 'Where's Max Drexler?' Simm asked, her hands placed squarely on her hips.
Cora The Water Dragon bowed her head 'I’m sorry'... she said speaking softly 'He didn't make it'...
Simm cursed under her breath 'Typical'... she said looking at Tobias who seemed rather unsteady on his feet 'He owes me a drink’... Simm thumped the drunken man on the chest and walked back inside, Tobias followed behind her hiccupping drunkenly.
Shrester walked in front of the dragon and bowed his head. He reached into his pocket and drew out a necklace of gold moon beads. He draped it over one of the spikes protruding from the Water Dragon's head. Shrester smiled 'Cora, this is the emblem of my people ... May it bring you good fortune’... Shrester bowed politely to Pearl and the others and walked away. Entering the tavern stable he saddled Bedight his horse, climbed upon the mighty animal’s back, waved one hand above his head and pulled at the reins with the other. Bedight reared up on his hind legs and neighing defiantly, boxed the air with his hooves and galloped off beneath the two rising red suns.
It was quiet in Holme’s Tavern. The bar was closed. The clientele consisted of those who had slept in after a heavy night's drinking, Simm, Tobias and Zale Corban sat quietly at their usual table, sadly they were one man short.
Arachny Stry sat at another table with a couple of drunken blue skinned Drumlins, who, being rather docile would never associate with such a creature, unless they had drunk far too much alcohol the previous night. The only other customer was a far friendlier face. Vin Reddell sat alone sipping a glass of water. He looked rosy faced and healthy. His wounds had healed well since Cora had last seen him.
Cora crossed the sawdust floor with the Bugwug on her shoulder and Vin smiled broadly as soon as he saw her. 'Sit down. Join me please'... He said, like they needed an invitation.
Cora pulled up a chair and Vin leant forward and kissed the girl gently on the cheek. 'It’s so good to see you again Vin’... Cora said, her green eyes sparkling like emeralds.
The Bugwug was pleased too 'I second the motion!' The bird chirped.
Vin smiled 'You rescued your mother?’ He asked hoping that he was right.
Cora nodded 'Yes of course I did’.
Vin could see that the girl was worried. ‘You are glad?' He asked 'You've got your family back. That’s what you wanted isn't it?’ He said politely.
Cora frowned 'There’s four of us now. Someone has to make a choice'.
Vin was about to say something profound, but he found himself distracted by the beautiful blonde haired warrior that had just entered the tavern.
ELiza Jade crossed the floor and leant over the table. She gazed down at the captivated young man and fluttered her long eyelashes. ‘Who is this handsome young man?’ Jade asked seductively, seeing that Vin had already fallen in love with her.
Vin stood on his feet 'I'm Vin Reddell’ He said bashfully, offering his hand to shake. 'I'm honoured to meet you'...
Jade looked bemused 'You don't even know who I am’,. she replied grinning at Cora and the Bugwug.
'Yes'. That's true'.. He stuttered 'But I'd like to know’.
Cora stood up and decided that it was best to leave Vin and Jade to their conversation. 'Vin I'll catch up with you later".. She did not need to say goodbye, he was not listening anyway, Cora sighed and stroking the Bugwug beneath the chin she whispered 'Let's leave the lovebirds to it'...
The Bugwug rolled its eyes and ruffled its feathers 'Oooh, that's what I'd like, a lovebird’...
Cora chuckled, perhaps in the future she would draw him one she thought...
A LAST DECISION
Pearl sat at his easel outside the small thatched cottage and dipping his paintbrush into a pot of blue paint, he added the finishing touches to the canvas. He stared proudly at the painting. The detail was exquisite. The picture had captured the sea of Forget-Me-Not and the myriad of multi-coloured dancing butterfly perfectly. The two red suns shimmered in the wispy green sky and it was such a beautiful warm day. Pearl dressed appropriately in a loose fitting white shirt, light grey linen trousers and open toed sandals. A huge blue and yellow butterfly danced across the meadow, its silky wings gently lifted upon the summer breeze. The butterfly settled on the grass in front of Robert Pearl, her wings moving gently, a blue light source rippling in lines across the butterfly's body.
Pearl watched as the blue Mind Spirit began to consume the creature and in the electrical storm of dancing blue light Cora Pearl began to appear. The light swirled skyward and father and daughter were once more together again.
'Cora'... Pearl smiled 'You never cease to amaze me with your magic’...
The young girl walked around to her father's side and gazed at the painting 'You're very talented too’... She said, wrapping her arms around her father's waist and kissing him gently upon the cheek. Cora looked into her father's eyes, she could see the sadness reflected inside them ‘What's wrong?’... she asked brushing her father's long blond hair away from his face.
'Elizabeth and Samuel want to take you home’... He replied, his voice subdued and choked with emotion. Cora looked horrified 'No.. I won't go back. I want to stay here with you daddy'.
Pearl stroked his daughter’s hair and tried to calm her, by talking as softly as he could. ‘This maybe your world and you are my life Cora'... His words were breaking along with his heart.
Cora hugged her father as tightly as she could 'Blackthorn won't look after me. He abandoned Nightfire in Grimney... That's what he told mummy’.
Pearl did not know who Nightfire was. ‘I don't know what you mean?"
Cora sniffed and her eyes ran with tears and rolled down her cheeks 'He met a traveller on the road'. She sobbed 'Blackthorn left his horse, because it served no further purpose. He’d abandon me too if he had to’.
Inside the cottage Elizabeth and Blackthorn sat together side by side upon a wooden bench. Elizabeth looked deeply distressed and buried her head in her hands. The Bugwug perched upon a wooden stool in the far corner and watched the painful spectacle unfolding before him.
‘This is no place for us Elizabeth'... Blackthorn concluded ‘Certainly no place for a child to gain an education’...
Elizabeth sighed and wiped away her tears 'I agree we should go home, but what about Robert? He can't come with us’...
‘I know that you love Robert and I would always do my best for him'... He sighed and patted his wife on the back 'But you can't have a life with a man who is dead'...
The Bugwug flapped his wings noisily and squawked at the top of his voice 'Robert Pearl looks very much alive to me'... The bird said angrily.
Blackthorn waved his hand dismissively at the annoying bird ‘What would you know, you’re about as real as he is!’...
Elizabeth shook her head. She knew Blackthorn was right. Cora could not live her life in a world of her own making. She had to return to reality.
Outside Cora and her father held hands and gazed out over the beautiful meadow. Their watering eyes blinking into the streaming sunlight. The two red suns shone down and warmed their faces. It was a comforting sensation and a brief moment of carefree tranquillity. Blackthorn and Elizabeth stood behind them. The Bugwug flew across the meadow and settled on Cora's shoulder.
'It's time for us to go Cora'... Blackthorn said sternly, no hint of sympathy in his tone.
Cora and her father turned around and gazed down at the meadow floor. Their feet were immersed in the endless sea of flowing Forget-Me-Not.
Cora squeezed her father’s hand tightly. She had no wish to let go.
‘You know we have to leave Cora, I have a business to run’... Blackthorn said unemotionally.
Cora gritted her teeth and smiled 'You'll have to buy a new horse too’. She replied.
Blackthorn ignored the remark. 'Take us back Cora. We don't belong here’.
The two red suns were high in the sky when Blackthorn, Cora and Elizabeth laid down amongst the Forget-Me-Not. Pearl and the Bugwug watched tearfully as the three linked hands and closed their eyes.
Cora began to drift into her dreams and the blue Mind Spirit began to descend through the rainbow of dancing butterflies. The Bugwug flew skyward and perched on the roof of the thatched cottage and watched as the sparkling electrical storm enveloped Blackthorn, Elizabeth and the sleeping girl.
'I love you Cora!’ The bird squawked, wrapping his wings around his feathered body 'I’ll never forget you!’.
Pearl slipped the painting of the meadow from the easel and approached the cloud of blue light. He placed the canvas into the storm of growing energy and stepped back. Pearl bowed his head slowly and watched with glistening eyes as Cora faded from sight. In moments the cloud had dissipated and all three had vanished from the meadow.
The blue Mind Spirit descended through Cora’s bedroom ceiling and the whirlpool of glowing energy rolled across the bed. Cora, Blackthorn and Elizabeth began to reappear in the midst of the dancing cloud. Cora opened her eyes and they flickered with blue light.
She watched as the Mind Spirit swept rapidly across the room and smashed through the bedroom window, scattering broken glass into the courtyard below. The light faded and once more, to Cora’s great disappointment her world had returned to normal.
Slowly Cora closed her eyes, she had no wish to see the walls of her prison again. Blackthorn and Elizabeth slid off the bed and looked down at the little girl.
Cora was sobbing beneath her breath, trying to trap her emotions. She had no desire to step onto the floor. Her feet were firmly rooted with her father in ‘The Land Of Grimney'.
Blackthorn shook his head and stared down at the little girl 'I did what was best for all of us Cora’... He said dismissively 'When you’re older, I know you will thank me'...
Elizabeth knelt down by her daughter's side and took hold of her hand 'Cora’... She whispered 'Please get up’.
Cora had decided not to communicate with either of them. This was not the world she wanted to live in and she had no wish to be a part of it ever again.
Blackthorn scowled at Cora and spoke scathingly to Elizabeth 'For God's sake Elizabeth will you please sort your daughter out’... Blackthorn walked across the room and gazed at the butterflies encased behind the glass upon the wall. 'I will control my family even if it is the very last thing I do'. With those harsh words echoing in Elizabeth and Cora's heads he opened the bedroom door, walked through and slammed it shut.
Elizabeth closed her eyes ‘This isn't life Cora'... she said quietly 'Maybe you're right, maybe we should go back'...
Cora opened her eyes, the colour returning to her cheeks. The young girl sat up on the mattress and smiled at her mother 'I know you love daddy. Please mummy, let’s go back’
Elizabeth looked down at the bed. Cora had been lying upon Robert Pearl's painting, Elizabeth slid the canvas from beneath her daughter and gazed at the beautifully painted meadow. 'Real happiness is just a dream away’. Cora said innocently, her eyes beaming with new hope.
Elizabeth nodded 'Then let's go back'...
Cora leant forward and wrapped her arms around her mother's head, nearly smothering the young woman.
'Careful Cara’ She chuckled 'I want to be alive when I get back there!'
Cora released Elizabeth from her grip and ruffled her mother's hair 'Two new things need to be done before we go’ she said, ‘I have a friend I wish to take with me’. Cora jumped off the bed and opened the huge wooden doors of a cupboard. She slid out a photograph album. Pulling back the protective film that covered the pictures she removed two photographs and showed them to her mother.
Elizabeth smiled. One was a recent picture of Cora and Elizabeth sat upon Sparks, Cora’s much loved and deeply treasured horse. The other was a photograph of Blackthorn Manor. Cora slid the photograph of the manor into her jacket pocket and picked up 'The Book Of The Guardians'. She glued Pearl's painting onto a crisp blank page inside. Smoothing the picture down she stuck the photograph of Sparks over the top of it. Holding tightly onto the book Cora lifted her feet from the floor and lay down next to her mother upon the bed.
Mother and daughter closed their eyes and waited for the Mind Spirit to collect them. It did not take long as the blue cloud descended down upon them. Cora and Elizabeth awoke in the sunlit meadow. They were dressed differently, in black jackets, jodhpurs, and boots. Cora felt a deep warmth against her legs and a powerful heartbeat, she looked down and found that she was holding the reins of her beloved horse Sparks. Tucked beneath her arm she held 'The Book Of The Guardians...
Elizabeth stared out at Robert Pearl’s cottage in the distance and began to weep with happiness. Cora pulled at the reins and the horse trotted slowly through the field of Forget-Me-Not.
The man that they loved stood in the distance. The Bugwug seated on his shoulder. When they saw Cora, Elizabeth and Sparks riding towards them, the Bugwug flew into the air clapping its feathered purple wings together in happiness.
Pearl fell onto his knees and the tears of joy fell with abandon. A whole new life was beginning. Elizabeth wrapped her arms around her daughter and kissed the back of the child’s neck. Mother and daughter knew that they had chosen the right path and it was a path that Blackthorn would not be able to follow. This may not have been the real world, but it was a world that Cora, Robert and Elizabeth could share together and as they rode into the circle of love that blossomed amidst the sea of endless forget-Me-Not, it was one, that one and all hoped they could share forever...
CHAPTER FORTY ONE
THE LAST VISIT
Cora did not know how long she had lived in Grimney, but days, weeks and years seemed to pass very quickly. Robert Pearl had spent much of his time planning a campaign of war against Draygon The Scar. Cora felt neglected, but she still loved him and was pleased that in her world he had achieved the success that had eluded him in his other life.
Elizabeth however was far happier in Cora's fantasy land, The years away from Blackthorn had regenerated the young woman. She appeared far younger than thirty, even though she was now much older. Elizabeth looked radiant and completely at home living in Pearl's cottage amidst the beautiful meadow of Forget-Me-Not.
That was the mystery of Grimney, no one aged. No matter how much time passed, everyone stayed exactly the same. In this world Cora would remain the eternal child. Sometimes she longed to grow older and sometimes she even missed the normality of Blackthorn Manor.
It was on a dark cloudy night in Grimney when Cora decided to return to her stepfather's home. She took the old faded photograph of the manor house and stuck it into the 'Book Of The Guardians’. Lying down upon her straw mattress, Cora wrapped her arms around the book and went to sleep. When she awoke she found herself lying on the cobblestone courtyard gazing up through the blue swirling cloud at the dilapidated walls of the manor house.
A moonless night had descended and the world was still and silent. Cora crossed the cobbled courtyard and walked slowly to the front door. She was surprised to find that it was slightly ajar. Hugging the book to her chest she pushed through the entrance into the hallway and walked down the dark empty passage. Grey plumes of cigarette smoke drifted on the air and Cora walked through the poisonous cloud into Blackthorn's living room. Cora's stepfather sat in his leather armchair in the middle of the room. An ashtray filled with cigarette ends stood on a small oak table by his side, and a half empty bottle of brandy and a glass stood next to it.
Cora could see the smoke rising over the man's head and she approached him through the dim light. Her footsteps caused the floorboards to creak. Blackthorn stubbed out his cigarette and stood up. The white haired man gazed over the back of his chair. He could see the outline of a small child standing in the dark.
‘Who’s there?’ Blackthorn asked, his voice dried and aged through many years of smoking and drinking.
Cora stepped forward and gazed into the drawn face of the man she had never loved. Blackthorn's skin had a pale waxen appearance. The man’s eyes were colourless and watery and he had an aura of sadness about him.
'Cora Pearl?' Blackthorn recognised the child immediately. Cora smiled and looked into the tired thin face of the man who had once terrified her.
'Hello Samuel, I came back’.
Blackthorn slipped back down into his chair. He reached across, picked up the brandy bottle and with a shaking hand he poured the liquid into his glass. 'You're a ghost'... Blackthorn muttered, raising the golden liquid to his pale, dried lips. 'I don't have any wish to talk with the dead'...
Cora stepped back into the shadows and spoke gently to the man 'No... I’m alive. You're the one that never lived’.
Blackthorn bowed his head and shook it. 'Two years you've been gone... Two long years’... The man squeezed his eyes shut and tears trickled from them. 'I did what I thought was best. I wanted you to have a normal life. To put aside foolish dreams and accept your real place in this world’.
'You were cruel to me'... Cora shook her head defiantly 'Now I can see that the real world has done you no good at all, I could say I was happy, but I'm not'... She looked across at the far wall on which hung a glass case containing a huge blue butterfly. "Where I come from I can fly free, you wanted to trap me, but you couldn’t'...
Blackthorn opened his eyes and gazed at the blank wall in front of him. 'Then why come back at all Cora? If you disrespect me so much'... He asked, his voice as dry as sand paper.
Cora cleared her throat and spoke to Blackthorn one last time 'Even though you were cruel to me, even though you bullied my mother, I still care for you, I hope one day Samuel you will learn that life is not worth living if you don't have the mind to dream'... With those words echoing against the room's bare walls, Cora turned away and walked back across the creaking floorboards.
Blackthorn sighed and raised the glass for a second time. ‘I had no time to dream... I had a life of work. We don't always have the privilege to choose, I only wish we did'... He whispered, closing his tired eyes and taking another sip of brandy.
Cora stood in the doorway and gazed down at the floor. 'You could come back with me?’... She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth, she could not understand why she had asked, but the tension in the room was unbearable.
Blackthorn shook his head slowly and laughed, Cora's suggestion seemed absurd to him 'Grimney isn't real. You and Elizabeth are not living a life at all. Why don’t you just wake up?'
Cora looked sad, although her stepfather's response was what she had expected. I’ll leave you alone then. You still have your dead butterflies'...
Blackthorn listened quietly as the door to the room closed behind his stepdaughter. 'Yes, and if they were alive behind that glass, they wouldn't be real either, they'd be just like your father, just like you, living in dreams'... The man inhaled the stale smoky air and sighed once again...
THE CONTINUING ADVENTURES OF CORA PEARL
Blackthorn had made Cora feel sad. She so wanted to bring him back to Grimney, but the young girl knew that he would never allow himself to return. Blackthorn was a realist and a man who lacked the imagination to live in such a place. Grimney was a world of adventure and excitement and Cora knew, that all she needed to do, was to write in 'The Book Of The Guardians' and by doing so she would create countless other worlds of wonder, teeming with all manner of life. On a warm summer's day Cora sat in the meadow of Forget-Me-Not, beneath the two blazing red suns. Hundreds of multi coloured butterflies danced around her and the Bugwug snuggled on her shoulder, rubbing its feathers against the girl's neck. Cora with quill pen in hand and 'The Book Of The Guardians' perched upon her lap began to write once more...
Over the mountains of the moon
Down through the valley of Kil Kar Koon
Beyond the Forest of Forever Night
Within the wastelands, out of sight
There lay a chasm so wide so deep
That tumbled sheer by a rock face steep
Down below in this dark abode
There swept a path a winding road
Torches hung from cobwebbed walls
And moisture dripped into stagnant pools
A gravelled path led the way
Through cold dead tunnels of black and grey
Bats did hide beneath each wing
Hidden creatures were whispering
Staring eyes trapped dull light
To give their vision the power of sight
I with my travellers did walk this path
As the creatures watched we heard them laugh
For they knew no one had been below
Where an ocean of ice had frozen in flow
I with my colleagues explorers so brave
Will march into Heaven before death and the grave
And continue the trek to pass through the door
That leads to another world unseen before.
End of Part One
© GavinPaulCarter 2011