We plunged deep, slowly sinking until we stood on the sandy bottom. It was surprisingly bright, a blue-green tint to the light. Plants undulated, and in and out of them swam large-eyed fish. One came too close and fell through the membrane to land at our feet, bucking and twisting until we moved past and the water reclaimed it. The fish sprang back to life, looking this way and that before darting away.
“Keep an eye open,” said Raga. “You will have to protect me while I concentrate on maintaining this construct. I don’t usually have to make it big enough for three.” Her voice carried the strain of effort.
The misty wet distance was veiled, but Raga appeared to know where she was going across the wide under-plain, through slender stalks and elaborate fronds and tree-like growths bowed down with bloated water-fruits.
A squadron of larger fish cruised overhead, banking in formation and circling the top of our life-preserving dome. Then two of the long sleek fish peeled away from the group and dived with ferocious speed. The fish shot through the invisible wall and their targeted lunge instantly became a vertical bellyflop.
They both hit the sandy lake floor with a thud, ugly brutes the length of my arm with a mouth full of jagged ivory — little more than teeth on a stick. Allard chopped the helpless flappers in two before the water reclaimed them.
The others circled, keeping their distance and eyeing us warily. They knew not to traverse the barrier, but it also became clear our dome of safety was shrinking. We kept moving.
Allard tried striking at those who got close, his blades scything through the water, but they withdrew with a flicker and came back, teeth bared defiantly.
I took off my jerkin and shook it back and forth, allowing a sleeve to pass out into the water. A fish instinctively snapped at the cuff, and I yanked it across the threshold so it fell at our feet, helpless. Allard brought down his sword to sever its head. We managed to get another one this way, but then they wised up. A dozen still surrounded us.
And then, at some unseen signal, they turned tail and disappeared into the murk. One moment they looked to be preparing a massed surge (possibly their organised intelligence was just my fancy), the next, they vanished.
“Where’d they go?” asked Allard.
“Be thankful, my strength was waning,” said Raga, and the bubble shrank to half its size.
I looked around for what had scared off our escorts. I didn’t have to look very hard. An immense shadow swept over us. It tapered to a point, which turned out to be a tail. The tip dropped low enough to pass through the bubble, narrowly missing Raga as she ducked out of the way. Jets of water broke into our domain before Raga reasserted her control.
“It’s the quyvern. Try not to antagonise her. If I am knocked unconscious,” she said, “you better learn how to breathe water.”
Raga had slowed considerably from her initial pace. The quyvern, a creature I had never heard of before, made a couple more overhead passes. Then it appeared to our rear, snaking along the lake bottom. A large frog-like head on a serpentine neck, with protuberant, heavy-lidded eyes that gave the leviathan a feminine face.
I tried to shout a warning but all that came out was, “Head!”
The mouth gaped as it approached, easily large enough to swallow our bubble whole, although at least there were no teeth. Instead, a mottled grey tongue came harpooning out of the blackness.
I dove to the floor, as did Allard, but the tongue was aimed at neither of us and attached itself to Raga’s back with sticky purpose.
She was pulled backwards, taking our air with her. We both leapt up and grabbed a leg each to stop her being sucked into the belly of the beast. We halted her backward progression, but her blouse was ripped from her back and disappeared into the cavernous mouth.
The creature turned its head to the side and spat out the shredded cloth.
Water was now falling like rain inside our bubble. Raga, naked to the waist, got back to her feet and hurried forward.
“Let the tongue strike you,” I yelled at Allard as I quickly squeezed a red paste onto a dagger.
Allard tore his gaze from Raga’s spectacular chest and sheathed his scimitar. The tongue sprang out again, and Allard leapt to intercept.
The bulbous end stuck fast to his outstretched longsword, then retracted sharply, almost yanking it from his grasp, but Allard held on with both hands, leaning back and digging his feet into the sand.
I jumped forward and drove my dagger into the elongated tongue which instantly snapped back, taking Allard’s sword with it. There was a gurgling roar, and the monster turned around, its tail swiping through the bubble sideways. I threw myself to ground, and Allard threw himself on top of Raga; he took his time getting to his feet.
Although none of my lethal concoctions would have much effect on a creature of such size, the red paste had been ground from bloodfire seeds, a fairly innocuous pepper found in most kitchens. Except this particular paste was ten times the strength of that used by cooks to flavour meals. Giant tongue, giant taste buds. Still, our friend wasn’t short of a cooling drink and would probably return ten times as vexed.
A white ruin showed through the green-blue light; toppled columns, a portico leading into an alcove, ancient steps climbing towards the light. As we emerged onto the sandy beach of an island, our bubble burst with a large pop, and water rushed in to soak our feet. I turned round and could easily see our fire on the distant shore.
The lake’s tranquil surface showed no signs of the monster below. “A creature that size shouldn’t be in a small lake like this,” I said.
“True,” said Raga. “Although, it wasn’t quite so big when I put it in there.”
She waved a hand in the direction of the smouldering stump on the far shore, and something came winging towards us at great speed until it came to a sudden stop. Flattened against the invisible wall it became clear it was Allard’s shirt.
It rapidly began shrinking until it had disappeared, but Raga kept her hand raised and then pinched the air. Trapped between her fingers was a single thread of silk. As she held on to it, it reformed into Allard’s shirt before our eyes.
She slipped the shirt over her head, but despite being many sizes too large, it did little to cover her modesty. Allard insisted on only wearing the sheerest material, so his rippling muscles were forever on view. Raga’s nipples peered through the shirt like an astonished brown-eyed child.
“I hope you don’t mind me borrowing this.”
“No, milady, it looks much better on you than it does on me.” If I didn’t know him so well, I’d almost believe he meant it.
“This way.” We followed her off the beach and into the jungle, swaying and ducking to avoid the tangle of thick vines hanging in loops and braids.
What with the giant sea monster and the giant breasts, I had quite forgotten about Derik’s hypnotic curse. When I brought it up, she said, “Let me first get my bearings. Much has changed since my last visit — best we keep alert for the monkey-men.”
“Monkey-men?” I asked, but she had slipped deeper into the trees.
Stones and boulders appeared about the jungle floor. Their regular shape and arrangement indicated their placement was not a product of nature. Moreover, they lay in lines — wavering, broken lines, but lines nonetheless.
Flagstones, half buried and covered in moss, appeared underfoot, and the remains of walls on either side. The trees parted, and the road turned into steps, which led to an elevated paved causeway that sloped up through the forest canopy, supported on massive weathered blocks of sandstone.
Raga threaded her way through the rubble, passing out of view. Allard and I followed rather more circumspectly.
We broke through the green jungle roof into blinding sunshine and finally saw our destination: a mountainous white pyramid. On the very top there was an enormous tree with a single branch raised to the skies on either side, both winter-bare, while its exposed roots snaked downwards, prying apart the pyramid’s blocks like some immense arboreal octopus.
The roadway widened where it met the pyramid and a series of monoliths, pocked and worn, and toppled off at various heights, formed a semicircle. Stairs had been cut into the pyramid’s smooth face.
The pyramid was built in layers — slope then flat, then slope again — so Raga had already disappeared from view as we climbed. But then we saw her come running back, waving her arms and shouting for us to turn and flee. Behind her, a swarm of hairy men shrieked and screamed as they gave chase, their long tails whipping around behind them.
“Monkey-men!” said Allard, rather unnecessarily.
We drew weapons, but Raga shot past us and scrambled up the nearest monolith — she could really move for a big girl — calling out, “Hold them off while I summon help.”
Easier said than done. Short and stocky, naked but covered in coarse fuscous bristles from face to feet, they were fearsome-looking beasts.
Allard waved his scimitar around, which seemed to give them pause for thought. I threw daggers covered in lethal poisons — even the slightest nick would assure death — but they bounced off their thick hides without penetrating. The lesson was clear — don’t bring a knife to a monkey fight.
I followed Raga’s lead and scrambled up the nearest monolith. Allard, realising he was the only one at ground level, did likewise. The monkey-men gathered below, hooting and clamouring for blood.
I had expected the monkey-men to be expert climbers, but they remained earthbound. Their hands and feet were grotesquely twisted, and their gruesome, oversized fangs were more deformed than deadly.
“More of your doing?” I asked.
Raga was crouched down, breathing deeply. “I created them from the creatures that once inhabited this place. They did not exactly volunteer for the position of island guardians.”
I began emptying my pouches onto the throng below, and the monkey-men backed away from the cloud of toxic fumes forming around them. They gathered out of range, from where they hurled rocks and stones. They threw with great force but little accuracy.
Raga stood up, writhing and mumbling in some strange tongue. Shadows flickered around her without objects to cast them, and dissolving faces appeared in the air.
There was a crack of thunder overhead, and a purple light fell out of the sky, landing between us and the monkey-men. It took the shape of a giant bald head, eyes level with Raga, chin resting on the causeway below; human in looks other than appearing to be made of purple crystal.
“Who has summoned me?” its deep voice boomed. “Who will pay my fee?”
“I will,” cried Raga. “Vanquish my foes. Destroy them and you will be paid as agreed.”
I don’t know if the monkey-men understood what was said or just didn’t fancy the fight anymore, but they turned and ran. Not that it did much good. The head hovered along the ground, scooping them up in its mouth and spitting them out to soar through the sky to I know not where, their screams hanging in the air long after their bodies were out of sight. The time it took for three breaths, our path had been cleared.
The translucent, purple head returned. “Payment is due. Your soul is forfeit.”
Raga slid down the monolith and stared up at the being. “Only a fragment of my soul, Shotis. Take any more and my father will hear of it.”
The head nodded once. “Agreed.”
Raga turned to us as we climbed down. “This will only take a moment.”
She walked into the thing’s open mouth, which closed behind her. She was still visible, like a fly in amber; a mauve silhouette. She leaned back, arms spread wide, and began to shake, uttering moans, and then screams. That would have been bad enough, but there was something in the screaming that didn’t sound altogether tortuous. In fact, the screaming had quite a familiar quality to it; one of pleasure.
Allard leaned closer to me. “Do you think they’re...”
“I don’t know,” I said, unable to tear my eyes away.
After way too much time and lots more yelling, mostly in the affirmative, the obscene shadow play was over. Raga emerged looking flushed and a little unsteady on her feet. The purple head vanished.
Raga brushed hair out of her face. “All right, then. Shall we?” She started walking back the way we’d come.
“Isn’t it that way?” I pointed at the pyramid.
“Hm? Oh yes, of course.” She turned round and headed towards the stairway.
We continued to ascend the pyramid. There was a long way to go, and we needed many breaks, but no more dangers presented themselves, other than crumbling masonry. Allard marched on ahead, sometimes running. He was in quadricep heaven.
“Who was the big head you summoned down there?” I asked Raga.
“That was the demon Shotis, a soul sucker of the underworld. Ravenous creatures that feed on human souls and will do most anything to satisfy their relentless appetite. Dumb, but a handy ally in a fight.”
I had seen many inexplicable things on my adventures, impossible feats that yet left me unconvinced, but Raga was the first magician to make me think magic might actually exist. “I must say, it didn’t sound like you minded too much, having your soul sucked.”
“It’s not so much the sucking, as where it was sucked out from.” She gave me a scandalous wink. “Only a sliver, mind. He wouldn’t dare take any more — he knows what my father would do to him if he forgot himself.”
“Why?” asked Allard. “Who’s your father? A wizard?”
“Ammam, King of Demons.”
Normally I would have been quite cynical about these sorts of claims, but recent events had left me pretty open-minded. “Your father’s a demon?”
“King of demons,” she corrected me. “And also the source of my magic. And of Little Derik’s angst. When a human female joins with a male demon, only the female offspring receive his supernatural gifts. Other than long life and a very peculiarly shaped penis, Derik is an ordinary man.”
“Your mother must have been a great beauty to tempt a demon king.”
“Not particularly,” said Raga. “A pleasant enough face, big-bosomed and large-hipped, a bit like me. Demons like their women to have some meat on them.” She smiled and slapped herself on the rump.
The sun was low in the sky when we finally reached the top of the pyramid; a flat, square area with a tree sticking out of it. The thick trunk grew right out of the rock.
“Is it the tree we’re here for?” asked Allard. “It’s a magic tree, isn’t it? Does it grant wishes?” He rapped his knuckles against the bark. “Hello? Anyone home?”
“It’s not a tree.” Raga waved a hand, and the tree shrivelled and shrank. The pyramid began to shake as the roots slithered upward. The gnarled wood transformed into smooth flesh.
Branches became arms, and the trunk took on the form of a beautifully proportioned young woman, her long blonde hair falling over her shoulders and covering small breasts. She had one leg wrapped around the other, feet still encased in the pyramid, arms held high on each side.
“Gentlemen,” said Raga, “I’d like you to meet my sister.”
“Hello, Cassie,” said Raga. “I have returned as promised.”
The woman, more a girl, lifted her head to reveal a pretty face with delicate features. But the eyes, large and doleful, never stopped moving. The pupils bounced around as though in constant search of escape from their white borders.
“Rags! What a joy! I didn’t think I’d see you again. How is Father? Has he asked after me?”
“I don’t know, it’s been a while since I spoke to him,” said Raga. “How do you feel? Any better?”
“Quite, quite better. Wonderful, in fact. Release me so I can put my arms around you.” She wiggled her fingers; her arms remained raised as though hung from ropes.
“Who did that to her?” I asked.
“I did,” said Raga. “She went through a wild phase, made an awful mess. You know the desert known as The Heart of the World? It was a forest before Castella lost her temper and flattened it.”
“Green is such a depressing colour,” said Castella, her eyes following some drunken bee only she could see.
“But the desert has been there for a thousand years,” I pointed out.
“Eight hundred and twelve, actually,” said Raga.
“She looks very well on it,” said Allard.
“Seems like only yesterday,” said Castella. She looked Allard up and down about a thousand times. “Free me quickly, Rags, I haven’t had a man in an age.”
“It’s a glamour spell,” Raga said to Allard. “She doesn’t really look like that.”
“Spoilsport,” said Castella. She turned her head back to Allard, flicking her golden locks out of her face. “As long as I look like this when I’m in your arms, what difference does it make?” She blew him a kiss and then laughed wildly for far too long.
“Are you sure about this?” I said.
“It’s been long enough,” said Raga. “You can’t lock people up forever.” She snapped her fingers and said to me, “Stay where you are!”
I was rooted to the spot.
Allard turned towards us standing side by side, me unable to move and Raga with her hands raised. He took a single step towards us, and Raga clenched her fists. Allard floated into the air. He kicked and waved his arms to no avail. He drew his sword, but there was no one near enough to strike. He threw it at Raga, but it sailed past her and clattered down the side of the pyramid.
“I’m sorry to do this,” she said, “but the magic I used to bind her is very powerful. It requires the blood of someone pure and untouched to break the spell.”
Allard stopped struggling. “Wait, are you saying this is a virgin sacrifice? Are you calling me a virgin? Look at me! You think I have difficulty finding bedfellows? There’s a waiting list!” His imminent sacrifice seemed to be of little concern compared to defending his reputation as a cocksman. He snapped his fingers. “Grin, kill her!”
While I didn’t know what Raga meant by pure and untouched, Allard did have a strict policy of celibacy during training; and he was forever in training.
I had a dagger half out of its sheath when Raga snapped her fingers. “Don’t move, and don’t listen to any but me.”
Allard snapped his fingers. “Throw your dagger at her.”
I remained unable to move.
“Prepare yourself.” Raga’s head glowed, as if lit from inside. Light streamed from her eyes and out of her mouth. Allard slowly rotated until he hung upside down.
“I am ready,” answered Castella.
“Allard, listen,” I hissed. “Use the scroll. The scroll.”
Allard fumbled about in his upturned pouch, dropping bits and pieces. Finally, he got hold of the scroll, nearly dropped it, juggled it from hand to hand, and began reading it.
“Forces of good, Forces of blight, Take this woman from my sight.”
“Is that it?” said Allard. “It didn’t work.”
There was a blinding flash. When I could see again, Allard was still hanging upside down, I remained unable to move and Raga was standing as before. Only Castella’s circumstances had changed. Derik’s banishing spell had banished her roughly two paces to the left, which had been enough to set her free.
“Look at all those trees,” Castella said, looking out past us at the jungle below. “They’ll have to go.” She held her arms over her head as dark storm clouds rushed to gather overhead.
“Cassie, no.” Something in Raga’s tone was different. She sounded afraid.
Allard fell head first and landed with a painful-sounding thud. He crawled over to me and put his shoulder to my knee and pushed, but I wasn’t to be budged.
Raga tried getting closer to her sister, but a howling wind drove her back, filling Allard’s shirt like a sail. She threw it off, sending it swirling away, but the wind only got stronger. She was knocked off her feet and skidded across the ground towards us, coming to a stop by my feet, her amazing breasts standing upright. If I ‘d been able to move, I’d have given them a round of applause.
“I’d help,” I said to her, “but I’m a little stuck at the moment.”
Raga snapped her fingers. “Move freely.”
The sudden return to life of my limbs took me a little by surprise, and I fell to my knees. “What is she doing?”
Raga sat up. “My brother always claimed she would cause the end of the world. For once he may not have been so far from the truth.”
“Could she really do that?”
“Yes.” She said it so matter of fact I didn’t doubt her at all.
“You have to summon your demon.”
“Twice in one day?” said Raga. “What kind of woman do you take me for?”
Castella was at the centre of her own personal whirlwind, her feet barely touching the ground. The clouds above got ever denser, from grey to purple to black.
“What other choice do we have?” I said. “If she destroys the world, where will we live?”
Allard helped Raga to her feet, and she went into her dance. Her swaying, writing gyrations were mesmerising — her being topless might have had something to do with it.
The purple head landed in front of us, a look of irritation on its giant face. “You summon me again? Where is my payment? For this second summoning I require a full soul.”
“Take her,” I said, pointing at Castella, furious and beautiful as her long blonde hair whipped around her lithe, naked body.
The head turned round to watch the wild woman for a few moments. Then it turned back. “Not my type.”
“Wait,” said Raga. She raised a hand.
Castella’s hair flew away as though a wig had been pulled off, and her skin dropped like a discarded cloak, revealing a plump, middle-aged, frizzy-haired redhead. She laughed maniacally. “That was a little petty, Rags. What good do you think that will do?”
The purple head hovered towards her.
“You, demon, get away from me,” said Castella. “Why are you looking at me like that? No, stop.”
The head rushed forward, mouth open, and swallowed her in one bite. Her silhouette was tossed and tumbled inside the massive cranium. But then the head grimaced and spat her out.
“Treachery. I am cheated. She has no soul.”
Castella rolled to a stop by the tree stump and cackled. “Foolish demon. What kind of brazen hussy would I be to keep my soul on my person, so scoundrels such as you can devour it?”
I can’t be sure, but I think I saw Raga blush.
The purple head roared, its face a twisted snarl of rage. And then Castella was lifted high off the ground. Slowly she began to spin round and round, faster and faster. A strangled wailing filled the air, and then Castella’s form fell apart. The head shot off down the pyramid steps; arms, legs, viscera flew in all directions.
“I shall feed on you all,” bellowed the demon. “Starting with you!” It descended on Allard, licking its lips with a lilac tongue.
Raga fell to her knees.
“Do something,” I said to her.
“I am spent. He is too enraged to be reasoned with. Feed him a soul or suffer his wrath. He will not dare devour me, but you two are not so protected.”
Allard backed away. “No, not me.” He had his arms up, and then he stuck a finger in my direction. “Eat him, he’s the one in charge.”
And so ended Allard’s tour of duty as leader. “Okay!” I cried out. “Take me first. Let’s go.” I took a step forward.
The demon turned to face me, an amused eyebrow quizzically raised. “You wish to have your soul consumed, do you?”
“I assume once soulless, I will be free to roam the underworld.”
“Indeed, you will suffer an eternity of pain and anguish in the Seventeen Levels of the Lower Kingdom. Your skin will be flayed, your flesh devoured, and your eyes—”
“And on which level would I find the demon king, Ammam?”
“And why would you wish to know that?” asked the demon.
“To inform him that you have killed his beloved daughter.”
Shotis smiled, his lips stretching across his face like an opening wound. “But his daughter stands behind you.”
“Not that daughter,” I said. “That one.” I pointed at the smear of blood and entrails on the ground. “Her sister.”
“Sister?” The smile collapsed.
“Yes, Shotis,” said Raga. “My sister.”
Shotis’s eyes widened. He screamed, and then he vanished.
The clouds broke apart, and the setting sun turned the sky pink.
“Where did he go?” asked Allard.
“To hide, I expect,” said Raga.
“You don’t seem very upset about your sister,” I said.
“Her body may be dead, but her soul survives. Once I find it, I only need find her a new body.” She looked over at Allard with a covetous leer.
Allard picked up his shirt, which had floated back down to earth, and put it on. I think that was the first time I ever saw him cover himself up.
Raga snapped her fingers one more time. “I free you from my brother’s control. You need no longer please anyone but yourself.”
I felt no different. “That’s all it was?”
“I told you, my brother’s powers are very limited. But you have aided me greatly today. Tell me Grin, what can I give you in return?” Raga smiled and jiggled her breasts at me.
“Anything?” I asked.
Derik, Grandest Magus of the Royal Order of Magnificent, examined the ring closely. “It does look like her ring.”
“That’s because it is her ring,” I said.
“Amazing.” He held the ring up to the light. “So the scroll worked?”
“Just like you said it would,” chimed in Allard.
“And she’s dead? I mean banished.”
“Would we have the ring otherwise?” I asked.
“Yes. Indeed. You have fulfilled your part of the deal.”
“So, a complete amnesty, as promised,” said Allard.
“Yeeeees.” He slipped the ring onto his finger and admired it. “About that.”
“Wait,” I said. “Before you call your flunkies or pull a lever or whatever you have planned for our demise, can I say one thing?”
Derik smiled indulgently. “Please.”
“Little Derik Boom-boom.”
The blue stone in the ring started glowing. The light dripped off the stone and spread over his hand and up his body like a second skin.
“What have you done?” he said. “Why can’t I move?”
“Your sister very kindly placed a charm on the ring. A kind of hypnosis, only, you know, actual magic. Now you have to do what we tell you. First, I want you to go take a flying leap off the ledge out there.”
Derik immediately got to his feet and started running at full pelt towards the open doors.
“Stop!” I called out.
Derik came to a halt with one foot hanging over empty air.
“I changed my mind. Come back and sit down.”
He did as instructed. After I got him to send out letters to all the places we had become unwelcome, I decided to give him some jobs to keep him busy.
“What I want you to do is gather your best men and head south.”
Derik glared at me, which was about all the movement he had control over.
“Since your only desire is to help those weaker and less fortunate than yourself, you will do exactly that. I’ve heard the southern farmlands are beset by plagues of insects. Huge bastards, millions of them. You will kill them all, or die trying. Once you succeed, as I’m sure you will, travel east to the town of Worlum where I have heard there is a rabid wolf pack terrorising the populace. Careful you don’t get bitten, though. Then into the Heart of the World...”
I had a list of problems suitable for intervention by the benevolent Grandest Magus. In all, if he didn’t get himself killed, they would take him the best part of a decade. He fumed and raged, silently and without gesture, but he had little choice but to obey.
And then we made him dance like a chicken.