“But I can’t stand bloody opera singing,” Tara whispered back, “It’ll drive me mad. When they said he had a melodious voice I was expecting something more modern than this ancient caterwauling.”
“Do you want to solve this case or not?”
“Oh alright then,” Tara said grudgingly. “But your thinking better be good!” She clapped loudly and whistled. “More! More!” she shouted, stamping her feet. The assorted middle aged ladies joined in the applause.
“Yeah, you had to listen to opera with him, poor thing, but he did tip well.”
“Well, he told me a lot about opera. I thought it was a waste of time knowing all that useless old stuff, but listen: this song what he’s singing now, he’s singing this on purpose. It’s a clue, you see, to Uncle Basil and why Vince wants to find him.”
“Go on,” whispered Tara.
“Wasn’t that obvious from the start?”
“Well yes, but we got very cleverly sidetracked with all these middle aged ladies and that wardrobe! This is where the mule comes in.”
“Shh! Keep your voice down! It’s not the same kind of mule as in the opera, these middle aged ladies are trafficking mules!”
“Oh well that would make sense, they’d be perfect. Nobody suspects middle aged ladies. But what are they trafficking, and why are they all here?”
“They’re here to keep us from finding out the truth with all these silly sidetracks and distractions. And we’ve stupidly let ourselves be led astray from the real case.”
“What’s the real case, then?”
“How do you know that for sure?” asked Tara.
“I don’t know for sure, but this is the theory. Once we have a theory, we can prove it. Now, about that wardrobe. We mustn’t let them take it away. No matter what story they come up with, that wardrobe stays where it is, in our office.”
“But why? It’s taking up space and it doesn’t go with the clean modern style. And people keep getting locked inside it, it’s a death trap.”
“That’s what they want you to think! That it’s just another ghastly old wardrobe! But it’s how they smuggle the stuff!”
“What stuff are they smuggling? Drugs? That doesn’t explain what it’s doing in our office, though.”
“Well, I had an interesting intuition about that. You know that modified carrot story they tried to palm us off with? Well I reckon it’s vaccines. They had to come up with a way to vaccinate the anti vaxxers, so they made this batch of vaccines hidden in hallucinogenic carrots. They’re touting the carrots as a new age spiritual vibration enhancing wake up drug, and the anti vaxxers will flock to it in droves.”
“Surely if they’re so worried about the ingredients in vaccines, they won’t just take any old illegal drug off the street?”
Tara smiled ruefully. “Yeah, I guess that was a silly thing to say. But now I’m confused. Whose side are we on? Surely the carrot vaccine is a good idea? Are we trying to stop them or what? And what is Vince up to? Falsifying a will?” Tara frowned, puzzled. “Whose side are we on?” she repeated.
“But what if the client is morally bankrupt? What if it goes against our guidelines?”
“Guidelines don’t come into it when you’re financially bankrupt!” Star snapped. “Hey, where has everyone gone?”
“They said they had to pick up a wardrobe,” said the waitress. “Shall I bring you the bill? They all left without paying, they said you were treating them.”FloveParticipant
The door crashed open and an imposing looking gentleman strode into the room. He looked rather dashing in his pinstripe suit; unfortunately the effect was spoilt by the fact that he was wearing a bright purple beanie complete with yellow pom poms on his head.
“Meandering! Unfocused!” shouted the newcomer. “Call yourselves private detectives? I’ve had enough of this rubbish. I demand you interrogate me.”
“Alright, keep your voice down,” said Tara. “For starters, who are you? And why are you wearing that ludicrous thing on your head?”
“I am Vince French. Yes, that got your attention!” He looked brazenly around the cafe with an unpleasant sneer.
“Oh, the headgear. My elderly Aunt knitted it for me and insisted I wear it. What could I do?”
“Well,” said Star mildly. “That’s extremely sweet of you. And, you are in luck because we’ve been looking for a Vince French. But first can you prove you are Vince French because we are getting rather a lot of false negatives lately. Or do I mean false positives. I really get so confused.”
“Yes, and tattoos as identification won’t do,” said Tara.
“Will Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi prove it to you?” he asked and broke into song.
“Wow,” whispered Star. “What a voice! It must be him.”
“Arrogant bastard,” said Tara.
They walked through a labyrinth of tunnels which seemed to have been carved into a rocky mountain. The clicks and clacks of their high heels echoed in the cold silence meeting all of Sophie’s questions, leaving her wondering where they could be. Tightly held by her rompers she felt her fat mass wobbling like jelly around her skeleton. It didn’t help clear her mind which was still confused by the environment and the apparent memory loss concerning how she arrived there.
Sophie couldn’t tell how many turns they took before Barbara put her six fingers hand on a flat rock at shoulders height. The rock around the hand turned green and glowed for two seconds; then a big chunk of rock slid to the side revealing a well designed modern style room.
A little man was working at his desk. At least Sophie assumed it was his desk and that he was working. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and bermudas. The computer screen he was looking at projected a greenish tint onto his face, and it made him look just like the green man icon. Sophie cackled, a little at first.
The Doctor’s hand tensed on the mouse and his eyebrows gathered like angry caterpillars ready to fight. He must have made a wrong move because a cascade of sound ending in a flop indicated he just died a death, most certainly on one of those facegoat addictive games.
That certainly didn’t help muffle Sophie’s cackle until she felt Barbara’s six fingers seizing her shoulders as if for a Vulcan nerve pinch. Sophie expected to lose consciousness, but the hand was mostly warm, except for that extra finger which was cold and buzzing. The contact of the hand upon the latex gave off little squeaky sounds that made Sophie feel uncomfortable. She swallowed her anxiety and wished for the woman to remove her hand. But as she had noticed more than once, wishes could take time and twists before they could be fulfilled.
“Why do you have to ruin everything every time?” asked the Doctor. His face was now red and distorted.
“Every time?” said Sophie confused.
“Yes! You took your sleeper agent role too seriously. We couldn’t get any valuable intel and the whole doll operation was a fiasco. We almost lost the magpies. And now, your taste for uncharted drugs, which as a parenthesis I confess I admire your dedication to explore unknown territories for science… Anyway, you were all day locked up into your boudoir trying to contact me while I just needed you to look at computer screens and attend to meetings.”
Sophie was too shocked to believe it. How could the man be so misinformed. She never liked computers and meetings, except maybe while looking online for conspiracy theories and aliens and going to comiccons. But…
“Now you’re so addict to the drugs that you’re useless until you follow our rehab program.”
“A rehab program?” asked Sophie, her voice shaking. “But…” That certainly was the spookiest thing she had heard since she had arrived to this place, and this made her speechless, but certainly not optionless. Without thinking she tried a move she had seen in movies. She turned and threw her mass into Barbara. The two women fell on the cold floor. Sophie heard a crack before she felt the pain in her right arm. She thought she ought to have persevered in her combat training course after the first week. But life is never perfect.
“Suffice!” said the Doctor from above. “You’ll like it with the other guests, you’ll see. All you have to do is follow the protocol we’ll give you each day and read the documentation that Barbara will give you.”
Sophie tried a witty answer but the pain was too much and it ended in a desperate moan.
The latex rompers were shaping her old body in a way she quite enjoyed. It was like being back in her… she counted on her fingers to be sure. To be even surer she counted twice. Yes! It was like being back in the sixties, especially with the choice of colours that had been made by whomever had made the rompers. Her silhouette looked gorgeous, if you didn’t pay too much attention to the bingo wings and the pelican throat. She laughed. It was like seeing a superposition of a younger and an older self. She would have loved the face of Ricardo if he saw her like that. And the beehive haircut, it certainly was a good idea. She wondered if she was still under LSD. But the walls and the beehive hair seemed too solid for that.
A sliding door that she had not noticed before opened.
“Good to see you’re settling in,” said the woman who entered with a puff of bacon smell. “I’m Barbara.” She was holding a tray with a steaming plate of sweet peas and carrots. Sophie always had a sharp eye but couldn’t see any real bacon among the peas and the carrots. She smiled to the newcomer anyway. Barbara had the same latex rompers with the same colours. And she had a beehive haircut.
“Hello! Barbara,” said Sophie. “I like that name. I knew a man once… well not that you’re a man. Are you? Anyway I see you have a beehive haircut too. Am I back in the sixties?” She realised she was a bit confused, not able to finish one sentence or follow a single narrative. But the smell of bacon was so unnerving.
Barbara put the tray on the table.
“Well, no,” she said to Sophie. “It’s just a haircut that I like and it’s very practical for all sort of things.” She reached into hers and got out a pen and a notebook. Sophie lifted her hand to her haircut.
“Do I have?..”
“No dear. But, I need your sign here… just a formality.” Barbara smiled and handed the notebook to Sophie along with the pen. Then she crossed her arms waiting. Her fingers were drumming on her soft pale skin and Sophie couldn’t help but notice that Barbara had six fingers on one of her hands.
“Where am I?” she asked.
The front door of Mr French had a certain Gothic quality to it which caught the eye of Star. She was a sucker for the glitz and the extravagant –the more garish, the better. Had she got her way, their office would be full of the cumbersome stuff. Catching the glint in Star’s green eyes, Tara rolled hers. She clanged the metal lion to signal their presence.
A decrepit butler called off their ruckus after what seemed like a pause in eternity. They could hear the rambling from a distance behind the door. “I’m coming! No need for such noise! Ah, these youngs nowadays, not a shred of patience!…”
“Shttt, let me handle it,” replied Star shaping her face into a genial one, oozing honey and butterflies.
When the butler finally opened the door, he snapped her shut “We’re not interested in whatever… hem, services you’re offering Mesdames.”
The butler’s face turned sour. “Yes of course, I understand. Then you should know Mr French has been in a coma since his dreadful accident last month. Since you have a direct line to him, I suggest you… call him?” And with that, he slammed the door shut on their faces.
“Rude!” Tara mouthed.
“At least, that tells us something my dear.”
“Don’t bait me like this. I’ll ask, what exactly?”
“That our Mr French is not who he says he is…”
“I wonder if it has something to do with the immense fortune he made with his voice…”
“That would be a very interesting question to answer indeed.”
The loud voice got her all startled.
“Not so fast Ladies. Hands in the air!”
An officer in uniform was standing there, his service taser pointed at them like they were two dangerous criminals. He was flanked by a trenchcoat acolyte inspector whose tiny glasses were shining in the dark.
“Shhtt! Don’t say anything. They look daft enough, let me do the talking.”
“Mrs June, you’re under arrest for multiple accounts of credit fraud, as well as unlawful impersonation with the intent to commit fraud. You can remain silent. Anything you’ll say may be held against you…” The inspector was speaking like a robot.
“STOP RIGHT THERE!” the officer shouted, “hands up or I shoot! Last warning!”
June was undeterred; she had eluded the police forces for so long and in so many States, she felt invincible and started to voice confused explanations while moving her hands in a frantic fashion and trying to sweet talk the police force.
She never saw the taser come.
Between fuzzy moments of consciousness, she realised she was being cuffed, and her and April taken to the police station.
“You’re back just in time for the fancy dress party, Finnley. Roberto,” she gave him a piercing look as if to say don’t contradict me, “Roberto is going to come as Falla Partland, the well known writer of romances..”
Finnley snorted. “And what are you coming as? One of your long forgotten characters, a neglected thread jumper? A fraught character left dangling on a cliff hanger for months on end? A confused character, wondering what happened to linear time? A frantic character with the still undelivered urgent message?”
“I’ll come as a downtrodden but surprisingly resilient and mouthy subordinate character, who secretly rules the roost,” replied the recurring character with a characteristic smirk.
Roberto turned away to hide his smile, pretending to dust the giraffe bookends. He had been lucky so far in his role as one of her characters. He loved gardening, and had always had a weakness for pink. It could be worse. Much worse.
Noor Mary Chowdhury had just been promoted to the role of housekeeper since the arrival of the new Iranian maid, May. It was a nice change of position but sadly the salary was not really following, she’ll have to talk to the chief of stuff, Mr August. She suspected him to have a crush on her and he might get a word in her favor to Mr Lump.
“Tskk,” she said to May. “You’re not doing it right, rub gently with the newspaper to make the silver shine.”
“Like that?” asked May. Norma bobbed her head the Indian way, and as May seemed a bit confused she added “close enough.”
The shout startled them both.
“Keep doing like that only. I’m the housekeeper, I’ll go check.”
Norma went to the nursery room and her lips tightened when she saw the two au pair aunties slumped on the couch. June’s eyes were misty, she turned her bottle upside down to show it was empty. April was busy on her phone as usual, ignoring the maid as if she was insignificant.
“I’m not your maid,” the housekeeper said.
It hurt but Norma kept her lips tight and left the room. She bumped into Mr August Finest and her mind went blank. He was tall and wore a handsome moustache. She had forgotten she wanted to talk to him about her salary.
I am Trebuchet and they don’t fool me with their filo socks sickle twaddle. I heard a tale on one of my trips (trips is my thing, trips and tales, not to be confused with tripping over a tail, or stripping a trail), a tale with a moral, that is to say the tale included a mention of shooting the messenger, loosely translated as slapping the host. The lack of finesse and discernment is astounding in these parts, these parts being, for want of a better expression, my home base.
The Doctor was at times confused about his own plan. Well, most of the time if felt clear and perfectly diabolical, and he could easily understand why at times lesser minds could get confused about the twists and turns —and to those lesser minds, it would usually suffice to say “don’t worry, it’s all part of the Plan.” It was difficult to properly phrase the sentence so that the Plan doesn’t get too easily confused with any plan. But he was expert in conveying that it wasn’t a mere plan.
After having tried and used old or elaborate devices beyond known technology like alleged alien crystal skulls to outcomes of various satisfaction in the past, he’d realized that those so called AI technologies were a silent gangrene for the mind. By becoming more tech-savvy, people lost their savoir and their savour by relying too much on external support. People were becoming malleable, predictable, and replaceable.
His bloody assistant was a sad testament to the downward evolution humanity was rushing towards. It was a strange and sad irony, that by enhancing their ineptitude, he was actually working to the perfection of the human race.
“Ah yes! Evolution!” That was his legacy, and he was of course profoundly misunderstood.
This whole sad business with the chase after the dolls and the keys and the remote control of magpies, and the psychic blasts, beauty treatments and Barbara enhancements, all that made sense once you showed it in the proper light. These were the catalyst to the real and interesting events. The ones which mattered.
It all started after the Army got him out of his prison rot in exchange for his work on some special science experiments. Top-secret, evidently. His handler, a certain nobody by the name of Fergus, was assigning him the experiments.
While he was dutifully working on his assigned projects, he quickly realized that he was given vast funding which would have taken him more time to gather on his own, so he did his part, all while experimenting and honing his skills. Clearly, the Army lacked any vision beyond the confines of “find a better way to torture, maim or kill mass amount of individuals.” Primates. Luckily, their experiments with remote control, brainwashing, and body modelage were less gory than the average science experiments, and far more into his own area of expertise.
It took him 5 years to escape. This plan (a smaller plan, part of the Plan which had not yet fully hatched at the time) — this plan for an escape started to form when Fergus let slip important bits of information, which seemed insignificant taken in isolation, but meant a whole new area of discoveries when put together by a brilliant mind like his own.
Fergus started to gloat about securing some secrets as a blackmail or fail-safe policy in case the Army’s “hired help” misbehaved. This part was known for a long time, it was what was called our ‘retirement plan’ in the contract we signed. What was more peculiar was when he started to let details slip about the method. All thanks to little doses of hypnotic potion in spiked shared drinks, courtesy of the Doctor. It seemed clear that this elaborate scheming of keys and dolls was child’s play and nothing particularly genius, however what was more interesting was when Fergus started to realize that the dolls his niece had made somehow matched certain persons of interest without her conscious knowing. There was a deeper mystery to be cracked, and even Fergus wondered if the Army had not tempered with his family genetics to induce certain characteristics or something of the like. Well, all ramblings of a simpleton you would say, but maybe it wasn’t.
After all these searches to externalize certain abilities of the mind, the Doctor was starting to get fascinated by people exhibiting these qualities naturally.
The appearance of this strange red crystal seems to confirm these doubts. There are untapped forces at play, and maybe doors that could be opened.
Barbara suddenly irrupted into the room “Our guests are coming, just received a text!”
The Doctor sighed thinking some doors should remain closed.
“Vincentius?” Arona was surprised to see him back in the cave; she looked at Leörmn with a doubtful raised eyebrow.
“Don’t look at me like that, dear”, the dragon replied “he found his own way back to you.”
“It was all thanks to Yikesy” Vincentius said.
Albie was confused as ever.
“Albie! Where have you been!” His mother Freda (or was it Lottie?) was howling from the top of the stone staircase overlooking the crystalline blue pool with its shore of diamantine sands. “Come right here immediately! That dragon and these foreign interlopers ain’t no fit and proper company!”
When Albie woke up, it was shaking all around, as if the ground was quaking under him. It took him a moment to realize he was at the back of the jeep, and the jeep was careening on the dirt road, with none other than Mandrake at the wheel.
“I’m not sure you realized, but we’re being chased!”
The sound of a bullet flew by, missing the car window only thanks to an agile quarter turn of the wheel by Mandrake, followed by a sudden acceleration back onto the road.
“Who’s chasing us!!?” Albie was confused.
“Unclear!” Arona shouted, aiming at the black and white corvette behind them, with Ugo the gecko trying to keep stuck onto her head despite the shaking.
She fired three shots of her magical Owl Pellets, reloading after each one.
“We’re going to be short of ammo, Mandrake! How far?!”
“I DON’T KNOW” the cat meowed, braking to avoid running over a loitering marsupial.
“You have no idea how difficult it is to find a body of water in this place, do you?! We missed the turn to the waterhole about 30 miles ago, at this speed!”
“Better not to risk it, not enough water depth! We need the river.”
“Todd River should be around that cliff there,” he pointed. But the road ends… heEEere!!”
“GO FOR IT!”
** S PLASH **
The other car had braked just before the cliff, while the jeep was sinking slowly into the river which was carrying them near the shore.
All Albie could see next was the swirl of pouring light mixed into the water vortex.
He held his breath as tight as possible, for as… long… as… possible.
“Mmm, that was entertaining. But it ruined my dinner.”
The dragon was there, looking at the three of them drenched near its pool. They were back at the Doline.
The mental mention of locks reminded her confused brain that her characters had gone on a reckless romp through her pages in pursuit of keys. Again! She sighed. Should she just let then run away with themselves, or should she try to rein them in?
Ric was confused as to why he found himself flushed and vaguely excited by Bossy Mam’s sudden and attractive outburst.
He was so glad the two harpies were off to goat knows where, or they would have tortured him with no end of gossiping.
Still troubled by the stirring of emotions, he looked around, and almost spilled the cup of over-infused lapsang souchong tea he had prepared. Miss Bossy was the only one to fancy the strong flavour in a way only a former chain smoker could.
Thankfully, she was still glaring at the window, and while he had no doubt he couldn’t hope to give her the slip for that sort of things, she probably had decided to just let it go.
He took the chance to run to the archives, and started to dig up all he could on the Doctor.
Sadly, the documents were few and sparse. Hilda and Connie were not known for their order in keeping records. Their notes looked more like herbariums from a botanist plagued with ADHD. But that probably meant there were lots of overlooked clues.
He flipped through the dusty pages for a good hour, eyes wet with allergies, and he was about to bring Miss Bossy the sorry pile he had collected when a light bulb lit in his mind.
How could I miss it!
He’d never thought about it, but now, a lot of it started to make sense.
Thinking about how Miss Bossy would probably be pleased by the news, he started to become red again, and hyperventilate.
Calm down amigo, think about your abuela, and her awful tapas,… thaaat’s it. Crème d’anchovies with pickled strawberries… Jellyfish soufflés with poached snail eggs on rocket salad.
His mind was rapidly quite sober again.
Taking the pile of notes, he landed it messily on the desk, almost startling Miss Bossy.
“Sorry for the interruption, M’am, but I may have found something…”
“Fine, there’s no need for theatrics, spill it!” Miss Bossy was ever the no-nonsense straight-to-business personality. Some would have called her rude, but they were ignorants, and possibly all dead now.
“There was a clue, hidden in the trail of Hilda’s collection. I’m not sure how we have missed it.”
“Ricardooo…” Miss Bossy’s voice was showing a soupçon of annoyance.
“Yes, pardon me, I’m digressing. Look! Right here!”
“What? How is it possible? Is that who I think it is?”
“I think so.”
They turned around to look across the hall at Sweet Sophie blissfully snoring.
“I think she was one of her first patient-slash-assistant.”
“How quaint. But, that explains a lot. Wait a minute. I thought none of his patients were ever found… alive?”
“Maybe she outsmarted him…”
They both weren’t too convinced about that. But they knew now old Sweet Sophie was probably unwittingly holding the key to the elusive Doctor.
For a moment, Granola felt in a dream world. It wasn’t the first time it happened, so she relaxed, and let her consciousness focus despite the distraction from the shimmering and vibrating around the objects and people.
She was in another mental space, but this one was more solid, not just a diversion born from a single thought or a single mind. It was built in layers of cooperation, alignment, and pyramid energy. A shared vision, although at times, a confused one.
The first time she’d visited, she thought it was a fun fantasy, like a dream, quickly enjoyed and discarded. But then she would come back at times, and the fantasy world continued to expand and feel lively.
It slowly dawned on her that this was a projection of an old project of her friends. The more striking was how people in the place looked a bit like Maeve’s dolls, but she could see the other’s imprints —Shaw-Paul’s, Lucinda’s and Jerk’s—, subtle energy currents driving the characters and animating everything.
It felt like a primordial fount of creativity, and she basked in the glorious feeling of it.
Once, she got trapped long enough to start exploring the “place” in and out, and it all became curiouser when she found out that the places and the stories they told were all connected through a central underground stream.
Granola had been an artist most of her life, so she understood how creativity worked. Before she died, she had been intrigued the first time her online friends had mentioned this collaboration game, creating that mindspace filled with their barmy stories. She didn’t believe such pure mental creation could be called real at all.
Maybe that was the kind of comments that let her friends forget it.
If only she could tell them now!
“You could, if you’d hone your pop-in skills, dear”, a random character suddenly turned to her and spoke in the voice of Ailill, her blue mentor.
“But how can you see me? I’ve tried and the characters of these stories don’t ever see me!”
“That’s what popping in is all about, justly so!” Ailill had this way of making her mind race for a spin.
“Now, will you stop hijacking this person, and tell me why you’re interrupting my present mission?” Granola turned burgundy red, increased her typeface a few notches, and pushed her ghost leg vigorously at the story character.
“Oh, you are right about that. It is a mission.” he smiled, “I think you’d want to go find certain characters, or avatars. Your friends personae are always shifting into new characters, but they hide themselves and don’t progress. Actually, some of them are trapped in loops, and those loops are not happily ever after. You can help free them, so they can recover their trapped creativity.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound like an impossibly vague mission at all!”
She was about to continue ranting, but the pop-in effect was gone, and the character was back to his routine, unperturbed by her ghostly agitation.
Konrad had to cover his brown eyes as he watched the wall collapse.
On his left was the Tower, the one-of-a-kind creation under which the Dark Lord, Garl, swore an oath. The stone from the center fell toward the right with a soft thunk. The walls surrounding the Tower were broken apart by a flash of light.
Konrad continued to the center of the twelve-tiled square he drew onto the floor to make his escape.
Two or three days later, he would meet another of his patrons, the mysterious Surt, who’d come across him first. They talked about the recent events leading up to the Dark Lord having fallen, and the dark rumors that were rampant.
Surt seemed to be one of those who didn’t believe the news. This one had only heard the official stories, but was still somewhat interested. He said, “My apologies for not making the trip to the capital earlier… it was not easy to travel in such close proximity to it.” Surt explained why he came to this place, even though he had no clue on his own.
“So what brought you here?” Konrad asked the giant.
“Surt has something you’ll want to know about the Dark Lord’s sister Nesingwarys.” Surt explained.
“What about her?” asked Konrad.
“She’s a magical girl. That sort of thing. She goes to school with a little girl with some special abilities. I’ve taken a keen interest.” His eyes narrowed. “Her abilities are her own. You know, something with the potential to kill the whole school. She’ll keep you safe. You’ll become her protector and help her survive the Dark Lord. Maybe one or two times. It’s her calling.”
“N-no-it’s not my calling!” Konrad shouted. “My calling is to protect you!”
“Surt is well versed in her abilities, and she has her own reasons not to go down the Dark Lord’s path. She has no interest in the Dark Lord, or anything related to him.”
Konrad replied with a tone of bitterness. “I will help her by keeping my own thoughts hidden, and not talking about it outside of the school.” Konrad walked away to go back and forth between Surt and Soren. Surt continued to watch him with curiosity.
Soren was looking around worried, confused, bewildered.
Liz felt someone tug at her almost transparent pink silk gown. She tried to ignore it as she worked hard to recall the young woman’s name, she had it on the tip of her tongue.
The tug got stronger and Liz feared that whomever was doing it they were going to tore her silk veil. She turned around, her irritation colouring her high cheekbones with a nice tint of pink and gasped.
“What I do with the spiders,” asked a small woman with dark skin and wearing a rainbow sari. “They’re so big big, and SOOOO hungry. They’re going to eat the guests only.”
“What spiders?” she asked. The maid pointed behind Liz with her chin. When Liz looked she almost dropped her glass. A swarm of colourful giant jumping spiders were running and jumping near the swimming pool, frightening the human guests, while Roberto was riding one of them in his sparkling cowboy costume, laughing like a teenager.
“So?” asked the maid insistently. “What I do?”
Liz was confused.
“Why are they here?” she asked, “I don’t understand. Where’s Godfrey?”
“They are the daughters and sons of Narani from the giant spiders island,” said a man with a beard in a WWII uniform. A ghost dog barked silently at his feet.
“Of course,” Liz said. But it was too much for her and she gulped, all at once, the remaining fifteen jewels of condensed information floating in her cocktail. She shoved the glass in the maid’s hands and said: “Bring me another,” before she collapsed under the afflux of so much knowledge.
A strong and loud guttural roar echoed through the mountains, ferocious and hungry. Fox’s hairs stood on his arms and neck as a wave of panic rolled through his body. He looked at the others his eyes wide open.
Olliver teleported closer to Rukshan whose face seemed pale despite the warmth of the fire, and Lhamom’s jaw dropped open. Their eyes met and they swallowed in unison. “Is that…” asked Fox. His voice had been so low that he wasn’t sure someone had heard him. Rukshan nodded.
“It seems you are leaving the mountains sooner than you expected,” said Kumihimo with a jolly smile as she dismounted Ronaldo. She plucked her icy lyre from which loud and rich harmonics bounced. The wind carried them along and they echoed back in defiance to the Shadow.
You must remember, seemed to whisper an echo from the cave they had used for shelter for weeks. Fox dismissed it as induced by the imminent danger.
The Shadow hissed and shrieked, clearly pissed off. The dogs howled and Kumihimo engaged in a wild and powerful rhythm on her instrument.
You must remember, said the echo again.
Everobody stood and ran in chaos, except for Fox. He was getting confused, as if under a bad spell.
Someone tried to cover the fire with a blanket of wool. “Don’t bother, we’re leaving,” said Rukshan before rushing toward the multicolour sand mandala he had made earlier that day. Accompanied by the witche’s mad arpeggios, he began chanting. The sand glowed faintly.
Lhamom told them to jump on the hellishcopter whose carpet was slowly turning in a clockwise direction. “But I want to help,” said Olliver. “You’ll help best by being ready to leave as soon as the portal opens,” said Lhamom. She didn’t wait to see if the boy followed her order and went to help Rukshan with her old magic spoon.
“Something’s wrong. I’ve already lived that part,” said Fox when the screen protecting the mandala flapped away, missing the fae’s head by a hair.
“What?” asked Olliver.
“It already happened once,” said Fox, “although I have a feeling it was a bit different. But I can’t figure out how or why.”
At that moment a crow popped out of the cave’s mouth in a loud bang. The cave seemed to rebound in and out of itself for a moment, and the dark bird cawed, very pleased. It reminded Fox at once of what had happened the previous time, the pain of discovering all his friends dead and the forest burnt to the ground by the shadow. The blindness, and the despair.
The crow cawed and Fox felt the intense powers at work and the delicate balance they were all in.
The Shadow had grown bigger and threatened to engulf the night. Fox had no idea what to do, but instead he let his instinct guide him.
“Come!” he shouted, pulling Olliver by the arm. He jumped on the hellishcopter and helped the boy climb after him.
“COME NOW!” he shouted louder. Rukshan and Lhamom looked at the hellishcopter and at the devouring shadow that had engulfed the night into chaos and madness.
They ran. Jumped on the carpet. Kumihimo threw an ice flute to them and Fox caught it, but this time he didn’t nod. He knew now what he had to do.
“You’ll have one note!” the shaman shouted. “One note to destroy the Shadow when you arrive!” Kumihimo hit the hellishcopter as if it were a horse, and it bounced forward.
But Fox, aware of what would have come next, kept a tight rein on the hellishcarpet and turned to Olliver.
“Go get her! We need her on the other side.”
Despite the horror of the moment, the boy seemed pleased to be part of the action and he quickly disappeared. The shaman looked surprised when the boy popped in on her left and seized her arm only to bring her back on the carpet in the blink of an eye.
“By the God Frey,” she said looking at a red mark on her limb, “the boy almost carved his hand on my skin.”
“Sorry if we’re being rude,” said Fox, “but we need you on the other side. It didn’t work the first time. If you don’t believe me, ask the crow.”
The bird landed on the shaman’s shoulder and cawed. “Oh,” said Kumihimo who liked some change in the scenario. “In that case you’d better hold tight.”
They all clung to each other and she whistled loudly.
The hellishcopter bounced ahead through the portal like a wild horse, promptly followed by Ronaldo and the Shadow.
The wind stopped.
The dogs closed in on the portal and jumped to go through, but they only hit the wall of the powerful sound wave of Kumihimo’s ice lyra.
They howled in pain as the portal closed, denying them their hunt.
Fox popped back into existence, blind, after what felt like a very long black out. He heard a thud on the ground as he let go of the ice flute. A strong smell of decay and cold ash rendered him dizzy. He fell on his knees, threw up and cursed when the pain caused by a little stone reached his brain. It hurt.
He rolled on the side and banged his head on a tree trunk. He cursed, grabbing his head in an attempt to contain the pain that threatened to make him faint.
Where is the hellishcopter? he thought, confused as his hands touched the sandy ground. He tried to control a wave of panic.
He remained prostrated. He would have been glad to hear any noise other than his heartbeat and his quick breath.
After some time his sight came back. He would have preferred it did not. Everything was grey. The forest had burnt, and so had the cottage.
He looked around what remained of the kitchen. His heart sank when he saw what looked like a burnt body trying to escape. He went back out and found Gorrash, broken into pieces scattered near the pergola. The stones were covered in a thin layer of grey ash. Fox cried and sobbed. He couldn’t believe what had happened.
Where was everyone? Wasn’t he supposed to have the power of miracles? His heart ached.
She came and met him with a sad smile.
“You were not there,” she said more as a constatation than an accusation. Still Fox felt the guilt weigh on his shoulders. He wasn’t there for his friends. The people he had grown to love. The people he called family in his heart.
“You were not there. The monster came right after the others came through the portal. I wasn’t prepared. They counted on you and the flute. But it was too quick. It escaped and went to the village where it merged with Leroway. Eleri tried to cast her stone spell but it bounced back and she met the same end as Gorrash.”
Fox looked at the scattered stones on the ground.
“Once it controlled Leroway, it went into a frenzy and burnt everything. Everything. Only ashes remain.”
Fox remained silent, unable to speak. It was his fault.
“You have to go back,” said Glynis’s shadow. “They count on you.”
The breeze blew. The ghost flickered, a surprised expression on her face.
“Under the ashes in the kitchen, the last potion,” she said quickly. “It can turn back time. Bring the sh…” A cold breeze blew her off before she could finish.
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