|DREAD LORD’S TOWER by Gavin Chappell|
Evening fell. They had been walking through the forest with only a few halts to burst blisters or to eat. Now the shadows lay across the dusty road as the sun set over the western hills. They had reached the head of a pass, and below them lay a valley, thickly wooded but with occasional clearings. Percy saw what looked like a large house or tower poking up above the trees, a long way away. Otherwise there was not a single sign of civilisation. It was utter wilderness. And it was getting cold.
‘I wish the taverner could have given us a tent or something,’ he commented, shivering at a chill wind that moaned around the trees.
‘Well, he didn’t,’ snapped Gerald tiredly. ‘We’d better find somewhere to bed down for the night. And get firewood.’
‘At least we’ve got food this time,’ said Norman.
They camped a few yards from the king’s highway, on the green mossy banks of a stream that wound through the trees then down a waterfall into the valley below. As darkness fell, they blundered about looking for firewood while Percy tried to get a fire going. He was still trying when it became too dark to see the hand in front of his face.
‘Shit,’ he cursed savagely. ‘I used to be able to do this.’
‘What we need is one of these wizards,’ said Brian. ‘They’d be able to magic up fire. I reckon I’ll become a wizard next.’
‘Let’s just eat and get to sleep,’ said Gerald. ‘Er, we might be best off, er, lying up against each other. For warmth! Nothing pervy.’
It was a cold night. Percy stopped worrying about what the others would think and lay up close to Gerald while Brian huddled next to him. It took him a long time to get to sleep, what with his shivering and Brian’s snores...
Percy came to suddenly. For a moment he couldn’t work out what had woken him. Then it came again.
The howl of a wolf, from the hill up above. Dread struck Percy’s heart. The moon still looked full, and it shone down on the dark forest. The wolf howled again and then it was echoed by what sounded like hundreds of others.
Percy felt Brian leap up beside him. Gerald was muttering.
‘Wolves,’ Norman said in an undertone.
‘Loads of wolves,’ Brian whispered.
‘Shit!’ said Gerald. ‘Let’s hope they don’t get our scent.’
Percy heard a barking and snarling growing closer.
‘I saw this documentary and it said that wolves aren’t a threat to people unless they’re starving,’ Norman gabbled anxiously. ‘They’re not like they are in fairy tales.’
Something large burst out of the undergrowth. Percy caught a waft of horrendous dog breath and suddenly his arm was gripped by powerful jaws. Terrified, helpless, he rolled over and over, tearing his arm from the grip of the unseen monster.
Then more things were leaping out of the darkness, howling and snarling.
‘Run for it!’ he yelled, and went bounding down the slope, cannoning into trees that were invisible in the dark, feeling his face whipped by unseen branches. The others ran with him.
The wolves pursued.
Sweat ran down Percy’s skin despite the night chill. His heart was booming in his chest, and he gasped for breath as he ran blindly through the dark forest. He could hear smashing, crashing sounds on either side that told him that his friends were somehow keeping pace with him. But the snarling and growling of the wolves at their heels was equally audible. Their pursuers didn’t seem to pause, didn’t give up. Percy’s legs were flailing, he kept stumbling over tree roots, his lungs were burning and every breath was an agony. He couldn’t go on!
The slope began to level out now, and despite the pitch blackness beneath the trees, Percy could tell that they had reached the valley floor. The trees were less densely packed and he could see them dimly in the ghostly light of the moon, stretching away on every side like the pillars of some vast aisled hall. The dark shapes of his friends became visible, blundering through the gloom on either side; a snatched glance over his shoulder showed him that the wolves were still pursuing. Dark dog-like shapes leapt and raced across the ground towards them. Percy turned his head round and ran on.
Of a sudden, the trees stopped. Ahead of them loomed a wall of darkness. Beyond it treetops were visible, black against the starry sky. But the dark wall, whatever it was, ran straight across their path. Percy halted in horror. The others copied him.
‘What now?’ Gerald gasped.
Uncertain, Percy swung round. Wolves raced relentlessly towards them.
‘Fight them!’ Brian declared.
‘Don’t be stupid, Brian!’ Percy said.
He ran to the wall. On close inspection it proved to be made of stone. It rose to about ten or twelve feet high. ‘We need to get over this. If we get over it, the wolves won’t be able to follow us. They can’t climb...’
‘Get moving, then,’ said Gerald desperately.
He put his hands together as a stirrup and Percy stepped into it, reaching upwards as Gerald boosted him with all his might. Percy’s fingers scrabbled at rough stone and he seized desperately at a jutting stone, first with one hand then the other. The stone thrust out of the wall about seven feet above the ground, more than halfway up the wall. Stepping out of Gerald’s hands, he tested the wall for footholds. He could hear the wolves snarling behind them, heard Brian shouting...
His feet secure in some kind of crack, he let go of the jutting rock with one hand and tried to find another handhold but found nothing. He looked back to see down below him Brian trying to fend off the wolves with his sword while Norman cowered away uselessly. Gerald was peering up at Percy.
‘Get moving!’ he hissed. ‘Don’t fuck about!’
Gritting his teeth, Percy tried to find a handhold with the other hand.
The wolves were still snarling and snapping, and the others were trying to fight them off. Norman was crying out in fear now. Percy’s questing fingers found a handhold; he grabbed it and used it to balance himself as he pushed himself up with his other arm. Now Norman was wailing, Brian was screaming some kind of war-cry, and Gerald was bellowing at them both, but he kept breaking off as if he was under attack himself.
Percy pulled his legs up, scrabbled for a foothold or at least a toehold, failed to find any. Desperately, he flailed at the stone above him with his right hand. For a moment he felt like he was going to fall. He grabbed at the stone and his fingers sank into a crevice. He made the mistake of looking down.
Brian was flat on the ground now, struggling with two dark shapes that tore and clawed at him. Gerald was stabbing at one of them. Norman was trying to climb the wall. Wolves had gathered in a ring beneath Percy and were looking up at him, slavering. Percy almost wet himself. He raised his other hand and gripped the crevice with it, then hung by his fingers, his shoes scraping against the wall, which seemed suddenly devoid of footholds. The strain on his arms and shoulders was unbearable.
Then he found the first handhold, the jutting piece of stone, and got his foot up on it. He panted with relief and used it to push himself further. His face rose above the top of the wall, and he caught a glimpse of parkland. He clung on, then brought up his right leg to the level of the top of the wall and managed to heave himself up and astraddle it.
He frowned to see Norman had already got up there and was peering back down at the fight below. Then he leaned over and shouted, ‘Gerald! Brian! Get up the wall! Go the way Norman went! Norman, you show them.’
Gerald sheathed his sword and scrambled up the wall. It seemed to take him no time. Dimly, Percy realised that his own ascent had been over in a few seconds, even though it had seemed like several life-ages of the Earth. Now Brian tore himself away from the wolves and clambered after Gerald, pausing only to sheathe his bastard sword across his back and detach the more infatuated of the creatures from his trousers.
They all sat atop the wall as the wolves leapt and snapped at them, but they were too high for the monsters. Percy glared down at his tormentors.
‘Fuck off!’ he snarled. The wolves were unimpressed by his invective, but it seemed they began to realise the futility of it all, and one by one they slunk into the cover of the distant undergrowth. One big wolf halted on the edge of the trees and looked back. Percy shivered as those glittering eyes seemed to bore into his brain, their malign intelligence plain to see. Then, with studied leisure, the wolf turned and trotted into the darkness.
Gerald breathed a deep sigh.
‘We got away.’ He sighed again. ‘They’ve gone.’
‘I don’t feel well,’ said Brian weakly.
Percy saw that his trousers were torn and his legs were ripped and bloody. ‘We’d better get something done about that. Tito gave me some healing salves. They were in my backpack...’ He broke off, realising he’d left his backpack back at the temporary camp. ‘Shit,’ he said savagely. ‘I’ll just have to go back and find them.’
He jumped back down off the wall. The instant he hit the bottom, the darkness came alive as wolf-shapes streamed out of the trees. His hair stood on end. They’d been waiting for him! Panicking, he leapt back, grabbed for a handhold, hauled himself frantically up the wall with the snarls of the wolves ringing in his ears. As soon as he was close enough, Gerald and Norman reached down and dragged him up to join them.
He straddled the wall and glared down at the wolves. They were waiting there, directly below him. His fingers plucked at the stones of the wall until he found one that was loose; he prised it out and flung it down. One wolf leapt back, and raced off yelping. The rest closed in and glared up at him, tongues lolling.
‘We’re stuck,’ he said despairingly. ‘They’re going to keep us here until we faint of hunger and fall off.’
Gerald tapped him on the shoulder. ‘Why don’t we just go down the other side?’ he asked, as if it was obvious. Percy supposed it was.
One by one, they leapt down into the woods beyond the wall. It was open between the trees, with a minimum of vegetation. Beyond the walls the forest was wild and tangled, but here it was well-maintained, like a park. The snarling of the wolves was still audible. Gerald gazed up at the wall. He reached out to touch it.
‘That’s odd,’ he said as his hand fell away. Percy looked at him.
Gerald turned to face him. ‘This wall,’ he said. ‘On the outside there are handholds and toeholds...’
Gerald ignored the interruption. ‘On this side,’ he went on, ‘it’s smooth. Touch it.’
Percy inspected the wall. This side the stone was smooth, even polished. He stroked it. ‘Weird,’ he said. ‘You’d think if they could do this, they’d make it just as hard to climb on the outside.’
‘It’s as if they’re more interested in keeping something in than keeping people out,’ said Norman ominously.
Brian was lying on the ground, grimly inspecting his mangled flesh. Percy turned to Gerald. ‘You got any of that brandy or whatever it was Tito gave you?’ Gerald had taken a bottle of some kind of spirit from the taverner’s supplies.
‘You want to start drinking?’ Gerald shook his head and yawned. ‘Now we’re safe, I just want to get some kip before the sun comes up.’
‘Not to drink!’ said Percy impatiently. ‘For Brian’s wounds.’
Gerald nodded quickly. He produced the bottle from his rucksack. Percy cracked it open and went to Brian.
‘Get some of this down you, mate,’ he said. Brian seized the bottle and swigged from it eagerly. Percy had to wrest it away. Then he quickly poured more of it on Brian’s leg. The would-be barbarian cried out with pain. Percy let him drink more of the spirit.
After a while Brian fell asleep. Percy swigged a bit himself. Gerald took it off him, scowling.
‘Don’t waste it,’ he said irritably. He wiped the neck then took a swig himself. ‘Powerful,’ he said.
‘It’s not fair,’ Norman exclaimed. ‘Why can’t I have some? Everyone else has.’
‘Piss off,’ said Gerald, swigging more. Norman grabbed at it.
‘Give him a drink,’ said Percy. ‘We all deserve it after that run. And it’ll keep out the cold.’
Grudgingly, Gerald let Norman drink some. They passed the bottle round while Brian slept, covered in blankets Percy arranged. Soon all of them were asleep.
Percy woke with a mouth as dry and rank as an old campfire. When he opened his eyes, the midday sunlight falling through the forest canopy jabbed into his brain like a splinter of glass. He threw up.
When he’d got this off his chest, he felt much better, though still hungover. He went to find something to eat. Only then did he remember that he’d left his provisions behind in the earlier campsite. Out in the wolf-haunted woods.
‘Bugger,’ he said, then went rooting around in Norman’s rucksack. Like the other two, Norman was fast asleep and he paid no attention to Percy’s pilfering. Percy breakfasted on dry bread and jerky washed down with the dregs of Gerald’s bottle. Feeling bleary but refreshed, he shook the others awake.
Brian’s wounds had scabbed over, and he seemed to be a bit better for a night’s sleep. Norman went looking for a stream or a pool to wash in. As Percy and the others were gathering together their possessions in preparation for the day’s journey, he came running back, looking scared.
Percy glanced up. ‘Find it?’
Norman shook his head. ‘No. But I saw something else!’ His face was white.
‘What did you see?’ Gerald asked curiously.
‘A big scaly thing like a dinosaur,’ Norman said. ‘It walked on all four legs and it had what looked like wings on its back.’
‘How big was it?’ Gerald asked.
Norman shrugged. ‘Big. Bigger than those wolves. Steam was coming out of its nostrils.’
‘Sounds like those wyverns Tito told us about,’ said Percy worriedly. ‘Except it had four legs... Maybe it was a dragon.’
‘Oh great,’ said Gerald in disgust. ‘We’re stuck in this place with a dragon roaming round.’
‘Don’t panic,’ said Percy. ‘We’ll just have to avoid it. Which direction did you go in?’
Norman pointed. Percy nodded. ‘Okay, we go the other way. Ready, guys?’
Gerald nodded unenthusiastically. Norman shrugged. Brian limped over, and wheezed, ‘Any dragon comes near me and I twat it,’ but his voice was as pale as his face.
They set off through the trees. The going was easier than their escape from the wolves, or indeed their journey to Wishbone Village. A stroll in the park, Percy kept thinking. They made their way through a screen of bushes and found a path paved with smooth stones.
‘Who made this, d’you reckon?’ Gerald asked.
‘Who knows?’ asked Percy. ‘People, I suppose. People must live here. Same people who made that wall. We should try to find them.’
‘Won’t they be angry with us?’ Norman asked. ‘We’re trespassing.’
Percy thought about this. Norman could be right. But why were these people letting dragons wander round their lands? Maybe the people had been and gone and left the place to be overrun by wild monsters. Still, the woods looked like someone was managing them.
‘Which way shall we go?’ Gerald asked.
‘This way,’ said Percy decisively, pointing to the right. ‘If we keep going in this direction, we’re bound to join up with the king’s highway.’
He started walking down the winding path, and the others followed him.
It took them over a little ornamental bridge across a stream that was thick with lily pads. On the other side, large white and red toadstools grew in the shade of giant redwoods. Sitting on one of these was a tiny old man in green and yellow clothes. When they approached, he leapt down and raced into the cover of the trees.
‘What was that?’ Gerald laughed. ‘A garden gnome?’
‘He shat himself when he saw us,’ Percy said with a grin.
‘We should have tried to make friends,’ Norman said, pouting. ‘Gnomes are Good People. They’d be sure to help.’
‘We should have threatened him until he told us where his treasure was,’ Brian grumbled.
Laughing wryly at the bizarre encounter, they kept walking.
The redwoods towered high above them. Sunlight dappled the forest floor. They came to a crossroads: to left and right the paths wound away into the trees, while ahead of them the main path stretched as far as Percy could see. They decided to go on in this direction.
After a while they came out into a clearing in the middle of which stood a thatched cottage. Outside it was a small vegetable patch and a wishing well. Two paths led from the clearing.
Sitting on a bench outside the cottage was an old man in long purple robes, wearing a skullcap. He was leaning back, smoking a pipe in a leisurely fashion and watching jewelled glimmering bugs dancing in the sunlight. At the sight of them he leapt up guiltily and the pipe vanished so quickly it might have been by magic. He grabbed an ornate staff that looked as if it was a branch of some exotic alien plant or perhaps the horn of some weird creature, and leant upon it.
‘What brings you to the cottage of Quvaringer the Magician, brave adventurers?’ he said in a dry, reedy voice.
‘Not another bloody wizard,’ Percy grumbled.
‘We’re looking for the way out,’ explained Gerald. ‘We’re on our way to join the fight against the ogres.’
Quvaringer the Magician relaxed slightly. ‘Oh!’ he said in a stronger voice. ‘Then you’re not friends of the Dread Lord? How did you get here?’
Percy exchanged glances with Gerald. ‘Er...’ Percy said. ‘Of course we are! We go way back! Good chums, us and the... the Dread Lord.’
Quvaringer crooked his back and rolled his eyes at them. ‘Come ye here seeking wisdom from Quvaringer?’ he asked, his voice reedy again. ‘Two paths lead on from here: one to riches and wealth, the other to certain death and all the perils of demonland. Quvaringer alone knows the true path.’
‘Which one is it, then?’ Percy demanded.
‘Quvaringer will tell you,’ the magician replied, ‘if you will do me a service.’
Gerald sighed, folded his arms. ‘What is it?’
‘Journey north to the Hell’s Wall Mountains,’ Quvaringer began, ‘where the griffins flock around the highest peaks in the world. Cross the Swamp of Misery, scale the crags of Chaos Peak and gain entry to the Tower of Infinite Darkness. In a chamber at the top of the tower will you find the Heart of Athrotep, which in the hands of a true magician will bring peace and justice to the Kingdom of Riparia. Steal it away from the coils of the serpent Ouroboros that guards it, and return to me...’
The gnome ran out of the trees behind them, followed by three walking skeletons that wore baroque armour and carried sickle-bladed spears. Their bony feet clicked like castanets on the stone paves of the path.
The gnome halted, pointed at the adventurers and said to the skeletons, ‘That’s them! Seize them!’
Percy looked sardonically at Quvaringer. ‘Sorry, mate, no time for quests,’ he said. ‘Think we’ll just have to chance it.’
The leader of the skeletons approached. His bony jaws clicked open and shut. ‘Come with us,’ groaned a sepulchral voice. ‘You are our prisoners!’
Gerald grabbed the magician’s weirdly shaped staff and flung it at the skeleton leader, knocking him back into his two companions. As the adventurers fled, the skeletons regained their feet and raced jerkily after them. As Percy led the others at a run down the left-hand path, he caught a glimpse of the gnome wagging an angry finger at the contrite-looking magician.
‘Fucking hell,’ Gerald raged as they ran. ‘All we want to do is find the Mountain Duke and join the war with the ogres. Why do things always have to get in the way?’
They turned a corner and found an area of rocks and sand opening up before them. A fat green lizard with a frill on its head like a crown moved out of the shade of a rock and hissed at them. Brian ran at it, waving his sword. It spat venom at him and he stilled into petrified immobility.
The other three raced past. Gerald stopped, looked back, shouted: ‘Brian! Get your sorry arse into gear!’
‘That thing’s turned him into stone!’ Norman shrilled.
Percy turned to see the lizard turn its head with an arrogant expression and spit a second time at Gerald. Gerald dodged the spray and it spattered the rocks, where it steamed slightly.
The three skeleton warriors appeared at the far end. Ignoring the creature, which rained them with venom to no effect, the skeletons advanced. Percy, Gerald and Norman turned and ran in terror, leaving their petrified friend to his fate.
As they entered a stretch of jungle on the other side of the rocks, Norman panted, ‘I can’t believe you’ve left Brian behind.’
‘You can stay with him if you want,’ Gerald snapped. ‘Those skeleton things mean business.’
‘How do you kill a skeleton?’ Percy asked wildly.
The lianas that hung from the trees writhed and twisted under their own volition. One struck out and lifted Norman off his feet. He vanished into the darkness of the jungle canopy with a wailing cry.
Another came questing towards Gerald, who hacked at it with his sword, slicing it in half. More dropped down from the trees. ‘Get moving!’ Percy yelled.
‘But Norman...’ Gerald began.
‘He’s gone! We can’t do anything about it!’ Percy replied, dragging Gerald struggling after him.
They burst from the undergrowth to find themselves in a swampy area. A small village lay on an area of dry ground ahead. Reptilian humanoids lounged in front of the huts. At the appearance of the adventurers they leapt up in surprise, strung bows and started shooting at them.
‘This way!’ Gerald cried, pointing towards an abandoned canoe on the nearby riverbank.
They leapt into it and started paddling away. The lizard men followed on foot, splashing through the water, but Percy and Gerald found themselves dragged away by a strong current. As they rounded a bend in the river, arrows zipped through the air like angry hornets. Percy looked over his shoulder as the roar of the water increased dramatically. There seemed to be a lot less river up ahead than there ought to be.
‘Waterfall!’ Gerald shouted. The river cascaded over a cliff edge. ‘Get out before we go over!’ He plunged over the side.
The current dragged him away, straight towards the edge of the waterfall. Percy reached up and grabbed hold of a branch that hung out over the river. He gripped it tightly as first Gerald and then the abandoned canoe were pulled inexorably over the waterfall.
Percy dangled from the branch, his mind numbed with shock.
In quick succession, he had lost each and every one of his friends. He was all alone in this god-awful world. And he was hanging from a branch over a fast running river next to a waterfall, and – he squinted downwards – what looked like crocodiles were gathering below him in the water. Why didn’t the current drag them away, too?
He swung hand over hand along the branch towards the trunk. Here he scrambled down the tree to the hot, sticky depths of the jungle floor.
Hurrying across the knee-deep leaf mulch, he turned a corner to see the jungle abruptly end. The terrain grew rocky again, but this time grass and moss and scrub grew among the rocks. Up ahead was a cave mouth beneath whose overhang stood several stakes bearing human skulls.
Percy was about to hurry away when he heard a familiar castanet-clicking. He ducked behind a rock and peered out to see the three skeleton warriors marching towards the cave mouth. They vanished inside.
Percy got up and was walking past when he heard the skeletons again, followed by the thumping of meatier feet. He ducked into cover a second time and saw the skeletons reappear from the gloom, followed by several pig-faced green-skinned orcs who were adjusting the straps on horned helmets and glancing balefully up at the sun. With the skeletons in the lead the orcs hurried towards the jungle.
They must be looking for him. They’d be quartering the area. The skeletons had lost his trail but they knew that he was still at liberty. Now they’d got reinforcements. And those orcs hadn’t looked happy.
Slowly, Percy approached the cave mouth. He could see the flicker of torchlight from some way within. It reminded him of that other orc-infested complex of tunnels he’d seen, the abandoned dwarf-mines under Mount Mantichora. He wondered if all the orcs had gone with the skeletons. If they were searching the area for him, surely the last place they’d expect to find him was their own cave.
He looked back. No one was about. Tentatively, he crept inside.
It was cold in the cave, and dark despite the torches that burned further down the tunnel. Percy shivered a little as he made his way deeper inside. He rounded a corner to find the passage stretching away for some distance, illuminated by burning torches. Smoke hung around the ceiling, sluggishly drifting towards the cave entrance. The air stank of it. Looked like orcs couldn’t afford glow-gems.
Percy saw a doorway in the right-hand wall, and another further up on the other side. Beyond that, the passage curved away out of sight.
It was dead silent apart from the distant sound of water. Stalactites hung down and some of these were dripping. There was no sign of life in the place. Percy looked through a barred window in the first door, and saw rough bunks and a table on which lay a few dice. A jumble of belongings lay on the bunks and more were strewn untidily on the floor.
He tried the next room, which was a small kitchen. Going round the further corner, he found two more doors; one on the right and another at the end of the passage, beyond a flooded section. The first one was locked and there was no window. Percy listened at it for some time but heard nothing. He came to the edge of the water.
It flowed quickly from a low archway on the right and into another on the left. Gingerly, Percy waded across.
He came out on the far side where a stretch of slippery limestone led up to a doorway. The door was made of solid-looking oak with a large lock. But when Percy investigated, he found that the wood was rotten and as soft as cheese, the lock badly rusted. He shoulder-barged it and it exploded inwards, sending him tumbling into a small room.
A large book sat on a rickety table in the centre of the room. Beside it was a single candle that illuminated the room fitfully, and beneath the table was a chest. The chest was not as rotten as the door but Percy easily jemmied it open with his sword.
He gasped at the riches that lay within. Gold coins, priceless jewels, strings of pearls, silver arm rings and much more lay in a jumble within it. Percy found himself drooling. He wiped away the spittle and picked up a gold ring at random. He looked in bewilderment at the glyphs inscribed on its surface and slipped it on his finger. With all this gold, he wouldn’t starve in this world. Life might be quite pleasant. But how was he going to get it all away?
He investigated the book. It turned out to be a spell book. Leafing through it, he found a list of amulets and talismans. His eyes fell upon a picture of a ring inscribed with glyphs. It was exactly the same as the one he had found in the chest.
‘“Ring of Transportation”,’ he read. ‘“This ring, on the uttering of the following incantation, has the power to make heavy objects as light as a feather.”‘ Percy read out the tongue-mangling incantation: ‘Suppiluliumas! Evoe, evohe! Mandrax, mandra, mandara-rama!’
He tried to lift the chest and almost fell over backwards. It had no weight at all. Laughing to himself, he picked up the spell book, dropped it in the chest, then picked the chest up and walked out of the room.
He halted in horror as he heard that castanet clicking again. Approaching were the skeleton warriors, followed by the orcs. The skeleton leader stopped too, on seeing him. It lifted a fleshless, skinless arm, and pointed at him. Its jaw opened.
‘He is here!’ it groaned. ‘We search the woods and the jungles in vain: the last intruder is here! Seize him at once!’
Involuntarily, Percy dropped the chest and it spilt its costly contents across the rock floor; some of the priceless treasures fell into the rushing stream. He drew his sword, shivering with fear as much as cold, and awaited the inevitable onslaught of the orcs.
He had nowhere to run.
Percy brought up his sword to deflect the first orc’s blow. Another lunged at him from one side, and he swung his blade hacking down to knock the orc’s scimitar to the ground. He followed this up with a half-hearted lunge at the grunting monster, but a third orc swung his own sword at Percy’s head and he had to duck. He kicked out at this orc, but even though his foot connected with his opponent’s warty hide, it made little apparent impression. The first orc caught him a glancing blow to the head and he went sprawling.
Blearily, he tried to rise, only to find himself confronted by a forest of orc legs. Several hairy, ape-like arms lunged down and grabbed him. Where was his sword? He saw that he’d dropped it when he went down and it was lying half in and half out of the water. He tried to get it but the orc-arms gripping him were too strong. Despite his frenzied struggles the orcs held him stoically. He found that resistance, just like in all the best sci-fi films, was futile.
The orcs splashed across the stream, carrying Percy with them. His heart sank as they thrust him to the ground before their skeletal commanders. The lead skeleton’s jawbone gaped and a groaning voice seemed to come from the air.
‘Bring him to the tower!’
Percy was terrified. He was alone in this terrible world, his friends had all been killed, and now he was a prisoner of orcs and skeleton warriors. Now they were taking him to... the tower? What awaited him there? A sorcerer? Death? He felt miserable. All of a sudden, the boredom of Geography lessons had incredible appeal.
The orcs marched him out of the tunnels and into the daylight. Then they hustled him through the rocks and the jungle. Shortly after came an area that resembled a stretch of mountain crags, where heather grew on a limestone pavement. Beyond this was a formal garden with wide lawns, herbaceous borders and well-tended cedars, over which loomed a large house, three storeys high, built to resemble something like the more outrageous of Bavarian schlosses.
A wide flight of steps swept up from the gravel path down which the orcs dragged Percy, ending at a pair of iron-studded oak doors in whose shadow stood a tall man in long robes of green and black. Percy’s heart sank even lower. This was it. This was the evil wizard, the sorcerer who ruled over these creatures. At his side was a smaller figure. Percy recognised it as the gnome who had first raised the alarm.
The orcs flung him down on the steps before the tall man and stood back. The chief skeleton strode forward, heels rapping out that castanet clicking.
‘This is the last of the intruders,’ groaned that sepulchral voice. ‘We found him hiding in the tunnels of the orcs.’
The tall man regarded Percy, then clicked his fingers.
‘Bring him within,’ he said in a calm, measured voice.
He swept inside, robes swirling dramatically around him, the gnome scuttling to keep up behind him. Two orcs followed, dragging Percy between them. The chief skeleton followed.
They found themselves in a high vaulted hallway. Suits of armour stood in the corners, paintings and mirrors hung from the marble walls. Another flight of steps led up to a second level. The tall man and the gnome ushered them into a room lined with bookshelves. Here Percy had the shock of his short life.
‘Hiya, Percy,’ said Gerald, who Percy had last seen vanishing over a waterfall. ‘What kept you?’
Norman looked round from where he’d been giving Brian a drink. He smiled welcomingly, showing no ill effects after being hoisted high into the jungle canopy, apparently to his doom, by animated lianas.
‘I think Brian will recover pretty soon from what Dread Lord Gurak was saying...’ he began. He saw the tall man and the gnome. ‘My lord,’ he said formally, bowing to the tall man. ‘And Ruggins,’ he added, nodding at the gnome.
‘We have the last of your party,’ said the tall man, evidently Dread Lord Gurak, crossing over to a decanter. ‘Another whiskey?’
‘Ta,’ said Gerald. ‘How long will it take for Brian to get better, by the way?’
Lord Gurak poured out four whiskeys. He clicked a finger and the skeleton warrior led the orcs from the library. Then he sat down in an overstuffed armchair.
‘From what you said about him before, youngling,’ he said, ‘I don’t think he’ll ever be entirely normal. But it’ll take him a quarter of an hour to recover from the basilisk venom.’
‘Just what the fuck is going on here?’ Percy demanded. The gnome, Ruggins, approached him with a tray containing shot glasses of whiskey. ‘Oh, er, thanks,’ he muttered, taking one.
‘Take a seat, take a seat!’ Lord Gurak urged.
Tentatively, Percy obeyed. He sipped at his whiskey, looking nervously about him. This place wasn’t half posh. He eyed the stuffed heads mounted on the walls. He didn’t recognise half the creatures, but here was one of those manticore things that Gerald called manicures, and there were a couple of heads on one plaque, a goat and a lion. It reminded him of that thing they’d seen on the way to Wishbone Village; a chimera, was it?
There was an orc’s head too, and Percy wondered how that went down with Gurak’s employees. Then there was a head like that of a huge man, with long straggling hair, a beard, and tusks. Piggy eyes glared glassily from beneath heavy brows.
‘An ogre,’ said Lord Gurak, following his gaze. ‘I bagged him in the Year of the Cockatrice, three year-cycles ago, at the start of my career.’
‘Your career?’ Percy said. ‘As a wizard? A sorcerer?’
Lord Gurak laughed loudly. ‘A wizard? The only good wizard is a dead wizard, youngling. Like that one!’ He indicated another head, this of an elderly man with a long white beard and a pointed hat on his head. A pipe had been placed between his teeth.
‘No, I wasn’t a wizard,’ he said. ‘I was an adventurer. Like you lads.’
Percy looked round. Gerald lounged in another armchair; he knocked back the whiskey and clicked his fingers at Ruggins for more. Norman sat forwards on a sofa, and looked worriedly over his shoulder at Brian.
Percy looked back at Lord Gurak. ‘You were an adventurer?’ he asked. ‘But you’re so rich!’
Lord Gurak laughed.
‘I miss those days of my youth. Forging through the wilderness on foot, alone or with a few like-minded companions, sleeping under the stars, drinking in low dives, battling orcs and goblins in underground caverns, fighting wizards and evil warlords bent on universal domination...
He sighed nostalgically. ‘I made my fortune and retired from the business rich enough to buy myself a title from the duke who rules this land plus twice five miles of fertile ground. With my treasure I built this house and had an itinerant landscape gardener create a park to remind me of where I had come from. I added a menagerie of monsters and similar adventurer-fodder to give it a ring of authenticity, especially for when my old adventuring friends come round.’
Percy rubbed his face tiredly. ‘Then … it’s just a park? None of those threats were real?’
‘Not exactly,’ said Lord Gurak. ‘They’re real enough. They double as a kind of security system. But when I heard that a group of obvious adventurers had blundered into my grounds, I gave orders that you were not to be killed, but taken unharmed to my tower.’ He gestured airily at Brian, who Percy saw was slowly beginning to move. ‘Basilisks don’t obey orders. I’m afraid your friend was petrified.’
‘I was pretty scared myself!’ said Percy, laughing at his own joke. When no one joined in, he added, ‘Hang on. Petrified. Turned to stone?’
Lord Gurak shook his head. ‘Not really. It’s a myth that basilisks turn their victims into stone. They spit a venom that paralyses them. Unable to move a muscle, the victim dies a slow, agonising death from starvation. The basilisk leaves them to rot and then comes back to eat them after a few weeks. It can only digest decomposing flesh. Happily for your friends, there’s an antidote.’
‘What are you going to do with us?’ Percy asked.
Lord Gurak laughed. ‘I’m going to let you go,’ he said. ‘I like to see young adventurers starting out. I wish you luck.’ A shadow seemed to cross his face. ‘I wish I was like you, young and footloose, not weighed down with the responsibility that comes when you’re a man of property.’
Despite Lord Gurak’s sudden gloom, Percy felt more optimistic. The fact that Gurak had given Brian an antidote had made him feel better, but now he was reassured. ‘Can’t you give us the provisions and equipment we need?’ he asked. ‘We’re going to the Mountain Duchies to join the war against the ogres, although really we want to go to Photogeneia’s tower. Could you help us? You’re a man of property, right? You could... shed some of that... weight you were talking about...’
Lord Gurak gave a booming laugh. Gerald leaned forward. ‘I asked him that, Percy,’ he said resignedly. ‘He said he doesn’t want to help because it would make it too easy.’
Lord Gurak nodded. ‘Absolutely, youngling,’ he said heartily. ‘No one helped me, and look how far I got. What kind of pride would you feel if you succeeded but knew that you’d had to rely on others? Look at me. I was just a simple farm-boy who took to the road as an adventurer when times were hard. In my day, I’ve been a warrior, a mercenary, a rebel, a conqueror, a usurper, a buccaneer, a freebooter... With the strength of this right hand’ – he lifted a mighty paw – ‘I gained wealth and lands and a title. You could do the same. If I was to help you, why, it would be like spoiling a child!’
Percy sighed. It would be nice to have a bit of help, he thought. But at least Gurak wasn’t a mad wizard who wanted to kill them.
‘I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you all!’ Brian suddenly burst into life, shouting wildly. He looked around himself. ‘Where’s my bastard sword?’
Lord Gurak laughed again. ‘You’ll get your weapons back when you leave,’ he said. ‘Tonight – a banquet!’
That night they feasted as they hadn’t since Wishbone Village, even Brian, who calmed down somewhat after they’d explained things to him for the fifth time.
It seemed to Percy that their entire lives swung with monotonous regularity from starvation to stuffing themselves, from dehydration to drunkenness. Dread Lord Gurak had an extensive staff, and it obviously included a five-star chef if the food was anything to go by. As for the contents of his wine cellar...! Percy wondered if there wasn’t something to be said for this adventuring business. If only they could find some way to turn a profit...
The next morning Lord Gurak turned out with an honour guard of skeleton warriors to bid them farewell. The skeletons led them down a long drive that led between forests and sand dunes, artificial hills and wide, glittering lakes. Percy saw a dragon crashing through the trees at one point; the same one Norman had seen, apparently. Lord Gurak had only one in his collection, which he had raised from an egg found in the Barbary Wastes. It had had its wings clipped so it couldn’t fly away. Percy thought this was understandable but very sad.
They reached the walls of the park and the wrought iron gates that marked the edge of the Gurak Estate. Here the chief skeleton warrior bade them a gloomy farewell and returned them their weapons. The gates creaked open, apparently of their own accord, and the four adventurers found themselves outside, where the drive met the king’s highway.
‘Back to trudging, then,’ said Gerald, and they started up the road.