“Hide!” I said in a heavy whisper.
“Hide?” said Allard. “Hide where?”
“Anywhere.” It was not a well illuminated tunnel. Lanterns hung at regular intervals, but were set so low as to only produce a limp yellow blush. Shadows fell like drapes between these islets of light, and I sank into the darkest part of the wall.
The person approaching clearly felt no need to take such precautions. Even before we saw him, we were alerted to his presence by his jaunty whistling. He halted directly under a lantern only a few paces from where I hid.
He was a tall man with long hair tied in a top knot and a goatee waxed to a fine point. He was dressed in leather; the kind of outfit that has a host of unnecessary belts and clasps. Does anyone really need multiple straps around each thigh and six buckles down one arm? Still, the elegant rapier hanging from one of the three belts around his waist and the jewel-pommelled poignard hanging from another suggested he was probably an accomplished fencer.
Being a terrible swordsman myself, I carried only daggers, each coated with a deadly toxin. However, I doubted I would get near enough to stab him, and my knife-throwing skills left a lot to be desired. Clearly this was one for Allard.
“Good evening,” the man said in my direction.
I kept silent and awaited Allard’s charge.
The man reached up and adjusted the lantern to burn more brightly, revealing me crouched against the wall pretending to tie my shoe, which would probably have been more convincing if I hadn’t been wearing laceless boots.
“It is truly an honour to be face to face with the inestimable Grin the Cheat.”
I stood up. “You know me?”
“But of course.” He smiled, all teeth and no humour. “Master deceiver, unrepentant backstabber, untrustworthy ally and dishonourable foe — your legend is known to all, Grin of the Seven Blades.”
I was starting to think perhaps this fellow’s elegant manners were not altogether sincere. “I am at a disadvantage, sir. You are?”
“Consider me the welcoming committee.” He raised a single sinister eyebrow and rested his hand on his sword’s hilt. “The Grandest Magus wishes me to extend his utmost courtesy.” He dipped his head, his eyes never straying from mine, and gripped his sword a little tighter. “But, tell me, where is the man-mountain you are known to travel with? Surely you did not leave him at home.”
I looked over my shoulder, but there was no one behind me. I turned all the way round and back to the man. There was no sign of Allard. A groan sounded from above, and slowly we both tilted our heads back.
Pressed up against the roof of the tunnel, feet planted against one wall, hands against the other, Allard had wedged himself overhead, every muscle straining to hold him in place. He opened his eyes, which had been squeezed shut with the effort, and saw us staring. First one hand slipped, then the other, then he came crashing down. The man tried to dive out of the way, but not quickly enough.
Of course, if Allard had intentionally leapt on top of him, it would have been an impressive display of warrior cunning. As it was, Allard was lucky not to have broken his neck, and even luckier to have broken our foe’s.
Allard got to his feet. The man lay there with his head at an unnatural angle.
“Shouldn’t we make a run for it?” said Allard. “They obviously know we’re here.”
“No, we’ve come too far,” I said with great conviction, even though we hadn’t really come that far at all. But the urge to claim the prize awaiting us was overwhelming. “This way.” I hurried on ahead.
The tunnel led to a large circular room. We had entered The Temple.
The Temple wasn’t a place of worship or religious observance; it was home to the Grandest Magus, sorcerer supreme of the Royal Order of Magnificent Magi. It loomed over the First City’s jam-packed tenements, narrow, winding streets and filthy, crowded alleys: a smooth, seamless, obsidian monument to the wealth and power of the magi.
What I hadn’t expected was for it to be a hollow structure containing hardly anything at all.
“Shouldn’t there be more guards?” Allard’s voice bounced off the walls, echoing up and away. “I mean,” he whispered, “if there are valuables in here, you’d think there’d be a little more security, wouldn’t you?”
We stood on a circular platform in the middle of the room. The only thing on the platform was a wooden post, and on the post were two brass knobs.
“I wonder what these do?” I muttered to myself.
Allard leaned across and hit one of the knobs. Nothing happened.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“I thought we were in a hurry,” said Allard.
He slapped the other one and the platform lifted off the ground. I grabbed the post and held on for dear life.
Allard stood on the edge, looking down. “I must say, I approve of this new cavalier attitude of yours.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
“Normally, you’d bore the nipples off a twelve-titted camel, sizing up the possibilities of traps or buggers lying in wait,” said Allard. “But tonight you’ve hardly stopped to draw breath. I like it!”
Even though Allard’s assessment of my usual strategy was rather crude, he had a point. My instinct was to wait and watch before committing myself, but in this case I’d ploughed ahead without too much concern for the consequences.
A pinpoint of yellow light appeared above us. It grew into an opening just large enough for our platform to pass through.
We emerged into a domed room. A large chandelier — two dozen candles at least — hung over us. Shelves stuffed full of books, tomes and manuscripts lined the walls. In front of us was a large desk where a white-haired man, dressed in plain grey garb, sat studying papers. Behind him, large double doors stood wide open, letting in a gentle breeze.
He looked up. “Ah, Grin of the Seven Blades, and the mighty Allard. Welcome, welcome. I am the Grandest Magus but, please, call me Derik. So very nice of you to answer my summons so promptly.”
“You summoned us?” I asked, a little disconcerted by his casual familiarity, and also because the Grandest Magus, sorcerer supreme of the Royal Order of Magnificent Magi, was called Derik.
“But where is Thadus? Can you have passed each other as he went to collect you? It seems unlikely. Please, come closer, take a seat.”
“Thadus?” I approached the desk and sat down. “Evil-looking man, tendency to grab the hilt of his sword without provocation?”
“I suppose you could describe him thus.” Derik placed a hand on the side of his surprisingly youthful face, and raised his rather odd painted-on eyebrows. “You didn’t kill him, did you?”
“Little bit,” said Allard from behind me. He rarely sat down, believing chairs to be bad for the posture. Quadriceps don’t grow themselves, as he was forever telling me.
“That is most unfortunate. Good man — he will be missed. Did he not mention he was sent to welcome you?”
“Oh,” I said, “he really was the welcoming committee? He sort of made it sound like a threat.”
“He does have a tendency to sound sarcastic without meaning to,” Derik said. “Or he did. Never mind, never mind.”
“You said you summoned us here,” I said. “We received no summons.”
“Of course you did,” said Derik. “Why else would you be here?”
“Well, we came for the... I mean...” For the life of me I couldn’t recall why I had been so intent on breaking into The Temple. I looked over my shoulder at Allard.
“Don’t look at me,” he said, “this was your idea.”
“But what did I say we were after?”
“You didn’t. You said you’d fill me in later.”
“Didn’t you think that was strange?”
Allard shrugged. “I think everything you do is strange.”
“It must have been for a...” I looked around the room. I could see absolutely nothing of any value.
“It makes no odds now,” said Derik. “You’re here, and I have a proposition for you. A mission of great importance that only you can complete.” He stood up and raised a fist in declamatory fashion. “A mission to save the world!”
Call me a cynic, but whenever someone claims to have pure and noble intentions, I immediately starts looking for ulterior motives. Still, a man doesn’t act as calm and confident as this one without knowing he has the advantage, so I decided to play along.
“What can we do for you, Derik?”
“First, you’ll need this.” A tube of rolled up parchment shot across the room into Derik’s waiting hand. Impressive, but I had seen the like performed countless times by other members of the Royal Order of Big Fat Fakers. Magic, in my experience, is ninety-nine percent trickery and one percent accidentally setting yourself on fire.
“This scroll contains a spell of banishment,” said Derik, holding the scroll aloft. “I created it myself, so you should have no doubts as to its efficacy. You will take it to a nameless island in the middle of a volcanic crater lake far to the east. Imprisoned on the island is a great evil, one that, if unleashed, will cause devastation the like of which has never been seen by mortal eyes. Right now, Raga, a demon-loving sorceress nearly as powerful as I, heads towards this island. She must be stopped.”
“So why don’t you stop her?” I asked.
“Were it that simple.” He dropped back into his seat and shook his head like he would love to put his own life at risk, but, you know, reasons. “Many people misunderstand what we do here in the Order. We fight battles on many fronts, across many dimensions, protecting those who don’t even know they are in danger. I cannot leave my post unattended.”
Normally, in such a situation, I would be scanning for points of attack, hidden compartments and secret doors, and making note of potential escape routes. On this occasion, however, I felt little threat and no particular need to plan an exit strategy. I leaned back in the chair and crossed my legs. “You want us to go to an island in the middle of nowhere, to face a sorceress bent on the destruction of the world, and read to her from that bit of parchment, hopefully before she turns us into toads. And why would we want to do that?”
Derik smiled and spread his arms out wide. “Because you are Grin the Unkillable, the hero who needs no heroism. You defeat those more powerful than yourself and walk away unharmed. You’ll do as I ask because you want to, and for no other reason. Although, of course, there is the question of compensation. You know who I am, what influence I wield. I can pay you any amount you wish, as much gold as you can carry. Or perhaps you need a warrant lifted, a death sentence revoked? I can make it happen.”
“Actually,” said Allard, “it would be nice if we weren’t banished from quite so many places.”
“Then simply name the province and consider your exile at an end.”
This was indeed a tempting offer, but it’s easy to make grand promises when you have no intention of keeping them.
“And how will you do that?” I asked. “Magic?”
“If necessary,” said Derik. “But mostly through bribery, threats and negotiation. Whatever works, that’s my creed. Here at the Royal Order, we employ various methods to accomplish our tasks, not all of them supernatural. If someone claims to be able to hurl boulders through the air at your enemies, does it really matter if he uses the mystical power of levitation or a large catapult hidden behind a curtain? So long as your enemies are crushed beneath giant rocks, what care you? Come, Grin, I wish you to see the carriage I have prepared for your journey.” Derik rose from his chair, turned around with his hands clasped behind his back and walked out through the double doors.
I felt compelled to follow and see what kind of transportation he had out there.
The breeze whipped around us as we stepped out onto a ledge that circled the top of The Temple like the brim of a hat. The sky was black overhead, changing to silver in the east. Below us, thousands of lights in homes and taverns burnt like a reflection of the stars dotting the darkness above. Derik stood next to a windowed cabin, like a sedan chair, but instead of poles on either side, it had a single bar mounted on the roof.
Derik took a small flute out of a pocket and played three quavering notes. There was a rumble in the clear night sky and then the creaky flapping of leathery wings, slow and heavy. In the half-moonlight a shape descended, at once feathery and yet reptilian, with a cat-like head. It hovered over us before landing on the top of the box, grabbing onto the bar with its immense talons. The creature was as tall as Allard with his hands reaching up and once it folded its wings, as wide as him with arms outstretched. The feline head swivelled from side to side like a mirror-eyed owl.
Derik put away his flute and opened the door to the cabin. “Imprikata will fly you to your destination ahead of Raga, who you will know by her raven-black hair, indecently short skirt and prominently displayed cleavage. Beware! She is an incredible slut. Don’t be seduced. All you need do is wait for her arrival, and then read the scroll aloud — that’s all there is to it.” He made it sound very straightforward, so obviously it would be anything but. “You’ll have to make your way back by foot — unless you know how to summon your own owlcat, of course.” He chuckled to himself.
I had no intention of setting off on any adventure on this man’s behalf, no matter what the reward. However, summoning this strange creature showed Derik was not a man to be taken lightly. Not that his powers were necessarily supernatural — training animals, even strange ones, is nothing new — but as he had said, if a man can do what he claims, what difference does it make how he goes about it?
“One more thing,” continued Derik. “The spell on this scroll banishes all flesh to a distant dimension but her clothes and possessions will all remain on this plane. Return to me her ring with the large blue stone set in it. That’s how I’ll know you’ve succeeded; she certainly won’t give it to you willingly. Any questions?”
“I don’t think this is a job for us,” I said emphatically.
“As you wish,” said the Grandest Magus. “But wait...” He snapped his fingers as if he’d just had a revelation, the middle finger of his right hand sliding off his thumb and hitting the fleshy pad of his palm like a crack of thunder.
I suddenly felt very relaxed. My limbs hung loose and nothing seemed more important than listening to my great friend, Derik.
“Take this scroll and do not let it out of your possession.” He held out the scroll, and I took it from him as though in a daze. “You will get in this box and do as I have instructed. When the task is complete, you will return to me with the ring.”
I wanted to tell him where to stick his scroll and walk away, but all I could say was, “As you wish.”
I entered the box and sat down on the bench. I looked to Allard, trying to communicate my loss of control to him somehow. Allard failed to receive my psychic message. Instead, he bounded into the box, sat down next to me and closed the door.
“Don’t look so worried,” he said. “I’m sure it’ll be safe. Birds fly all the time.”
Derik blew another tune on his flute. The box was jerked aloft.
It was neither a short journey nor a pleasant one. The cabin lurched back and forth, and my stomach flip-flopped with every rise and fall as we travelled east. Eventually, my ability to speak returned, and I told Allard that I had not willingly climbed aboard what would no doubt be our aerial coffin.
“He must have put you under a spell.” Allard’s eyes lit up. “Maybe I should take charge of this expedition! You might still be under his control.”
It pained me to agree, but until I found a way to cut Derik’s puppet strings, I probably wasn’t the best person to be making the decisions.
“In fact,” said Allard, plainly enjoying the idea of calling the shots, “you should probably give me the scroll to safeguard, also. Who knows what it really does?”
“Good idea.” I took out the scroll from inside my jerkin.
“Well?” said Allard. “Give it to me then.”
“I’m trying,” I said, not making the slightest move to do so. I wanted to, but my hand seemed to be ignoring me.
Allard reached over and grabbed the scroll, but I held on. There was a short struggle, some hand slapping, and what I considered to be an unnecessary punch in the stomach. Allard finally wrenched the scroll from my grasp.
“Okay,” I said, feeling queasier than ever. “Since you’re in charge, what’s the plan?”
Allard put the scroll in his belt pouch, where he kept all the herbs and supplements he insisted were necessary for well-defined musculature (although my extensive testing found no evidence for his claims).
“We find this sorceress,” he said, “tell her Derik’s put a hit out on her and send her off in his direction. Then we find somewhere to have breakfast.”
It was actually quite a good plan. “Hold that thought, I’ll be right back.” I stuck my head out of the window and puked my guts up. The cold, fresh air helped clear my head. The sun, rising in the east, beat a yellow path across a shimmering expanse of water in the middle of what looked like a mountain with the top sliced off.
“That must be the lake,” I said. “Can’t see any island, though.”
“Where?” said Allard, interested as always at any mention of a reflective surface. He leaned against the door for a better view, and his weight popped the latch and the door swung open. I’d have fallen out but for Allard grabbing me by the back of my jerkin. Not that it did much good as our courier chose that moment to let go of his cargo, namely us.
The carriage pitched forward, and we were both thrown clear.
We seemed to hang in the air as the box plummeted, smashing against the lake’s placid surface as though it were an egg dropped on flagstone. I twisted to see what had happened to the owlcat to find it falling in my direction, its wings awkwardly pulled back and its head hanging limp. I tried to crawl out of the way, but the air provided little in the way of purchase.
Allard reached out and gave me a push, and we drifted apart far enough for the owlcat to pass between us. Only as it approached the water did it recover from its daze and spread its wings to convert its death dive into a swoop, sending it soaring back into the sky.
The lake rushed to meet us. I had to think quickly how best to survive what would no doubt be a painful impact. Allard chose to enter the water thus: forward tuck, pike, swallow dive. Then he brought his hands together over his head, cutting through the air like a javelin, and slipped into the lake’s embrace with nary a splash.
People who aren’t familiar with Allard’s natural inclinations might wonder about the purpose of this ostentatious display, but taking into account Allard’s unerring instinct for showing off, it could mean only one thing: an audience.
As I rotated onto my back and hoped I wouldn’t break my neck, the last thing I saw was a woman standing on the shore, and hurtling towards her like a raptor descending on a rabbit, Derik’s owlcat.
The water slapped me like a nobleman’s daughter improperly propositioned. Fortunately, the lake was deep enough to slow my downward progress before I hit bottom, which merely left me the task of returning to the surface before I drowned.
Allard was waiting for me when I came up for breath. We kicked for shore, where the owlcat could be seen savaging a prone figure. We dragged ourselves out of the water and tumbled to the ground gasping and wheezing, not far from the screaming woman.
The shrieks turned into laughter. “Ugh! Impy, please, no, stop. Get off!”
Playful as a kitten, the huge bird rubbed its head against the woman’s stomach. She giggled like she was being tickled.
“Yes, yes. It’s nice to see you too.”
She scratched the beast under its chin and it started to purr, shaking the ground beneath us. She pushed it aside and got to her feet.
She was a heavy-set, amused-looking woman. Her hair was black and wild, crowning a large, round face, with eyes set wide apart, tilted slightly, and a ripe mouth. Her low-cut red blouse made a poor job of covering her obvious charms, and her short leather skirt revealed robust legs. And on her left hand, a ring set with a large turquoise stone.
I got to my feet. “Greetings, lady. I am Grin the Unsinkable, this is my comrade, Allard.” I bowed my soaking wet head.
“Greetings,” she said as the owlcat continued to fuss around her. “I am Raga. I take it my brother sent you.”
“So,” said Allard, looking off to the side for no apparent reason, other than that he considered himself to look better in profile, “Derik’s your brother?”
“Indeed.” She shook her head. “The little shit. What is it this time? Some box that fires off coloured lights? A staff that sets itself on fire? It’s always something sneaky and pointless with him. Last time it was a squid trapped in a crystal ball. Couldn’t get the ink out of my hair for a week.”
“He did send us, but no contraptions, just a magic scroll.” I sat down on a rock and took off my boots to empty them of water. Because of the many times I’ve had to effect an aquatic escape, my weapons and pouches are always well secured and as waterproof as possible. That didn’t make it any less uncomfortable to be soaked through on a frosty morning.
“Ha!” she said. “A scroll! He thinks that’s magic does he? You want to see real magic, I’ll show you real magic.”
She raised a hand. Light crackled down her arm and her eyes glowed blue.
Raga waved her hand in a beckoning motion, and a log skidded out of the forest, across the pebbled shore, and landed standing straight up like a totem pole. It burst into flames. The heat was so intense, I had to back away.
“There you are,” she said. “Warm yourselves off in front of that.”
Allard immediately stripped off his shirt and britches, revealing the skimpiest of loincloths, and spread his clothes out on the ground to dry.
Raga passed what I can only describe as an appreciative gaze over Allard’s sculpted torso. “You’re a fine specimen.” She may even have licked her lips.
“At your service, milady.” He took a bow and at the same time somehow managed to flex every muscle in the top half of his body.
“Does your brother often send people to try and kill you?” I asked, interjecting before she could check Allard’s teeth and weigh his testicles by hand.
“All the time. Only the women in our family have the gift of magic. He’s never been able to conjure up more than a fart, although, admittedly, some of those can be quite lethal.”
She slowly walked around the flaming pole, perhaps to check it was burning evenly, perhaps to check out Allard’s rear.
“He’s been a jealous little cur since we were children — always building machines to produce ‘special effects’. Desperate for Daddy’s attention. Every couple of weeks there’d be an explosion in the barn. Little Derik Boom-boom we called him — the boy had no eyebrows most of his childhood. Reading books and building contraptions. Books! I ask you, what kind of magic is found in books? That’s why he set up that ridiculous Magnificent Order of the Midgets, or whatever it’s called. No girls allowed.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Every time he comes up with something he considers particularly deadly, he convinces some poor fool — no offence — to use it against me or one of my sisters.”
“We would not be here at all,” I said, “but he has cast some sort of geas over me. Although, if, as you say, he has no powers, I don’t know how that could be.”
“That’s easily explained,” she said. “It was something he practised often as a child. He would sneak into our rooms at night and whisper melodic instructions in our ears. Next morning we would offer to do all his chores for him.”
“Aye, I have seen such a thing at carnivals,” said Allard. “Once, I saw a man convinced he was a dancing chicken. I laughed till I wept.”
I, too, had seen the kind of tomfoolery Allard was talking about. “But wouldn’t that mean he’d have had to implant the instructions to summon me to his tower? When did he do that?”
“It must have been the other night at the tavern,” said Allard.
I gave him a long, hard stare. “What tavern?”
“You know,” he said, “in The Full Jugs. You spent the night huddled in a corner with Derik.”
“Me and Derik? You’re sure?” I had no recollection of this meeting.
“Of course,” said Allard. “Obviously I didn’t know who he was at the time, just some friend of yours, but I recognised him as soon as I saw him in The Temple.”
“And you didn’t think to mention this to me?”
“Why would I mention it to you?” said Allard. “You were the one talking to him all night!”
I turned my attention back to Raga. “How do I break his hold on me?”
Raga flicked her hair aside and placed her hands on her wide hips. “I’m sure he’s developed his technique since we were children, but let me see... Oh, yes.” She lifted her hand and snapped her fingers making a noise almost as loud as her brother. “Hop around the fire.”
I started hopping, aware of what I was doing, but unable to stop myself.
Allard snapped his fingers and called out, “Dance like a chicken.”
I did as commanded, flapping my arms and clucking while trying desperately hard not to. Allard began laughing and clapping his hands in rhythm to my poultry jig.
Raga snapped her fingers and commanded me to sit. I immediately sat down on the ground.
“You should definitely have someone take care of that.” Raga looked over at Allard wiping tears out of his eyes. “Could be very embarrassing.”
“Can’t you free me?” I asked her.
“Oh, probably, but I’m a little busy at the moment.” She looked out across the water, although there wasn’t much to see other than the trees on the far side of the lake. “I’ve got an appointment on that island.”
I followed her gaze, but the lake was serene and flat. And empty. “Is this island invisible?”
“It is hidden behind a wall. The same wall Impy flew into.” She rubbed the owlcat’s head.
I picked up a stone and hurled it out across the lake. It looped up and fell into the water with a plop. Allard stepped forward, picked up a stone twice the size of mine, and sent it flying like a shot out of a sling. Just as it started arcing downwards, it bounced off seemingly empty air with a clunk.
“The island is also full of many dangers and predatory creatures,” said Raga. “Death is the likely outcome for any who dare venture onto its shores. You’re welcome to come along, if you wish.”
I was about to politely refuse the offer, when Allard raised a hand to indicate he would take it from here.
“I assume,” said Allard, “these creatures protect a treasure of great value.”
“Indeed,” said Raga. “The most precious thing I know of.”
“Well, that’s good enough for me. We’re in.”
My mouth dropped open. “Wait, what?”
“Now, Grin, remember the chain of command. First me, then you.”
“Excuse us for a moment,” I said to Raga. “I just need a quick word.” I dragged Allard aside.
“Grin, please, I know what you’re going to say, I’m being rash, I’m going to get us killed, blah and blah. But you have to be more spontaneous. After all, as the old saying goes, the best things in life involve the constant threat of a violent death.”
“First,” I said, “nobody has ever said that. Secondly, we don’t even know what she’s going to do on this island. And thirdly,” I pointed at the lake, “there isn’t an island!”
“Grin, Grin, Grin,” said Allard in a way it took most bad leaders years to learn. “You’re under the control of a crazy wizard. If you don’t want to go to the island, obviously that means he doesn’t want us to go there. Which is exactly why we should.”
This did seem to make a kind of sense.
“See?” He tapped the side of his head with a finger. “Watch and learn.”
“Come on if you’re coming,” shouted Raga, bending over to adjust her knee-length boots.
“Be right with you,” said Allard. His attitude towards his new best friend was making me wonder if he wasn’t the one whose mind had been taken control of. Well, maybe not his mind.
“How do we get to this island?” I asked.
“The only way to reach it is to go under the water.” She waved her hands in a circle, and a bubble formed around her, rainbow-hued when the sunlight caught it. She walked to the water’s edge, turned and gave a short whistle. The owlcat squawked a response and took off. Raga entered the water, which parted around her in a perfect circle.
“Aren’t you going to get dressed?” I said to Allard who was putting his sword belt on.
“Best to leave them here to dry. They’ll only get wet again.”
We ran to catch up; passing through the membrane was like walking through a gentle drizzle.
“You aren’t planning to destroy the world, are you?” I asked.
Raga burst out laughing. “Is that what he told you? No, I have no plan to do that. Where would I live?”
The owlcat circled overhead and then flew off to the west.