Jo stood alone on a pillar of rock. All around her, as far as the eye could see, was a vast desert of red dust. Dark clouds roiled in the sky and lightning flickered on the horizon. A hot dry wind was blowing grains of sand into her face. She turned her back to the wind and gasped in surprise. For there below her on the otherwise featureless plain was city. But what a city! Jo shivered in spite of the heat. There was something sinister about the dark and distorted collection of buildings. In the windows of the castle, pallid lights shone.
Then, as so often happens in dreams, in the twinkling of an eye, she found herself standing on the plain in front of the city gate. The portcullis grinned at her like a set of teeth. Hesitantly, Jo took a step forwards, despite all her instincts yelling at her to flee from this place as far and as fast as she could. Taking a deep breath, she walked under the portcullis and into the city.
The streets were deserted. No lights shone in the windows of the buildings. The only signs of life were occasional eddies of the omnipresent red dust. Jo staggered as she tripped over a fallen piece of masonry and put out a hand to steady herself. She withdrew the hand with an exclamation of disgust. The wall was covered in something which was cold and slimy. She wiped her hand down the front of her shirt, leaving a long black smear down the material. Then, from the corner of her eye, she caught a movement. Jo whirled around — only to see nothing.
Shivering slightly, she made her way further into the city. Suddenly the street opened up into a wide boulevard. The remains of trees lined the street and on the left, was what had once been a park. Jo reached out and touched the rusty railings. Instantly they crumbled into dust. She stepped through the gap they had left and into the park.
Like everywhere else in the city, it too was slowly crumbling away. Rotting benches lined what was left of the paths and even the weeds disintegrated when she stepped on them. There were statues in the park too — and all of them were covered in the black slime.
One of them however, appeared to have been the victim of a brutal attack, for unlike the others, it had been knocked off its plinth. The remains of its head lay shattered on the ground beside it. There was writing on the plinth. As Jo bent to to see if she could make it out, an impossible task as it turned out, for it looked as if someone had taken a chisel to it and obliterated most of the writing, she once again caught a movement from the corner of her eye.
‘Who’s there?’ she called out in alarm, her voice sounding flat and lifeless in the dry air. Again there was that telltale movement. This time Jo saw what it was. The shadows were moving. Crawling towards her with a horrid life of their own.
Now thoroughly alarmed, she began running. A hot breeze began to blow. As she left the park, the wind began to gather strength. Now it had turned into a gale. She fought her way along the streets, eyes half closed against the sandstorm that had now risen. Then, from overhead, a scream. Jo looked upwards to see a creature straight out of a nightmare flying towards her.
She reached the city gates at last, only to find the monster had beaten her to it. Jo turned. Behind her the shadows were writhing. She was trapped!
She screamed as the creature dived towards her, talons outstretched, red pupiless eyes gleaming in triumph,
‘No, no, no.! Leave me alone!’
Lightning flashed and thunder rolled. And then suddenly, cutting through the din, a voice.
‘Jo, Jo. Wake up. You’re dreaming.’
It was Ben. Jo sat up, heart pounding, sweat pouring off her body. Flick nuzzled her, making anxious noises. The other two burryans were gazing at her too, their silver eyes full of concern. Sitting across the fire, nursing a mug of tea was Tolland. Outside the half ruined hut they’d camped in, a dry thunderstorm was raging.
‘You all right?’ asked Tolland, ‘We’ve been quite worried about you.’
Jo pinched the bridge of her nose.
‘What….’ she began.
‘What happened?’ Ben finished for her. ‘Don’t you remember the Irianns teleporting us away from the Crystal Gardens?’
‘Of course I do. Where are we?’
‘Those wretched fairies dumped us here. They were supposed to take us to the Soulstone.’
‘And where is here?’ Jo was having difficulty concentrating. The remnants of her nightmare were still fogging her brain.
‘In the middle of a half ruined village in Fleate surrounded by dead trees,’ said Ben. He looked at his sister in concern, ‘Are you all right? You passed out as soon as we got here.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Jo, ‘My dream. It seemed so real.’
‘Must have been quite a doozy,’ said Ben, ‘You were thrashing about so much we thought you were going to hurt yourself. What on earth were you dreaming about?’
‘I — I was in this city that was crumbling into the desert,’ said Jo. She shivered. ‘And there were Shadows.They were coming after me. And I ran and ran. And then there was a flying monster. It was after me too. I thought I managed to escape but I was cornered. And then that’s when you woke me up.’
She drew a long shuddering breath.
‘Here,’ said Tolland, thrusting a bowl of stew into her hands, ‘Eat this. You must be starving.’
Jo stomach rumbled. She took a spoonful of the stew. And noticed her shirt. Down the front of it there was a long black smear of dirt.
‘So are you going to talk about what happened in the Crystal Gardens?’ askedTolland, ‘You managed to save us all. How did you do it?’
Jo scraped her spoon around the bowl, trying to get to the last vestiges of the stew before she answered.
‘I don’t know,’ she finally said. She glanced at Tolland who was looking sceptical. ‘I don’t. Truly. It just — happened.’
‘You suddenly start throwing balls of light that knock out Brasson and the Enchantress and you don’t know how you did it?’ said Tolland.
‘And I’m telling you that I don’t!’ she shouted.
Ben’s eyes flared yellow.
‘Leave my sister alone,’ he growled, ‘If she says she doesn’t know how she did it, then she’s telling the truth.’
‘All right, all right,’ said Tolland, ‘I’ll leave her alone. But only because I don’t want you turning into a weer.’
‘No much chance of that,’ said Ben, ‘There’s not a full moon tonight.’
Tolland stared at him.
‘How do you know that?’ he asked. Ben shrugged.
‘I just do,’ was all he said.
Jo gazed into her mug of tea. The conversation between Ben and Tolland seemed to be faint and far away. She was thinking about what had happened in the Crystal Gardens. It wasn’t strictly true that she didn’t know how she’d saved them all. She had her suspicions. And it was all to do with the red gem pendant she’d taken from the ice encrusted skeleton in Tilzan’s dungeons. Her fingers touched it where it lay under her shirt. And remembered it had only worked when Zela had pulled the chain and made the pendant come into contact with her skin. The Iriann had clearly known something about the gem, but what?
Noth the goblin, familiar to the Enchantress was down in the kitchens making cheese sandwiches, when he heard the Messenger screaming from the battlements. Muttering to himself, he laid aside the knife he’d been using and went to see what all the fuss was about. He arrived just in time to see a portal open and a cloud of Irianns drop two bodies to the floor of the Chamber of the Eye.
The bodies picked themselves up and revealed themselves to be Brasson and his mother, the Enchantress. Noth hurried towards them.
‘Mistress, you’re back! Were you successful?’
‘No we were not! The Keymaster’s gone!’ snapped the Enchantress, ‘And with him gone we have no hope of finding out how he opens portals to anywhere he pleases.’
‘You forget. I still have that Iriann,’ said Brasson.
‘And I say that a poison fairy is no good to us at all.’
‘Irianns are like ants. They have a hive mind. It may be separated from the flock, but it’ll know where the rest took LeStrange.’
The Enchantress stared at her son.
‘Hive mind? And just where did you learn that?’
‘I told you. From the books I took from the library at the Darkling Citadel. I — er interrogated the little beast. And I learnt something really interesting.’
‘What could an Iriann possibly know that’s interesting?’
‘Why Tolland was sent on his Quest in the first place. And why we must stop him. And why we must forget about the Keymaster or LeStrange or whatever he calls himself. At least for the time being.’
The Enchantress yawned.
‘What can be more important that finding out where those fairies transported him,’ she said,’Once we’ve found out where he is, and taken his power, then nothing can stop us.’
‘The Soulstone can.’
‘Rubbish. It’s gone. And a long time ago. I saw to that.’
‘You broke it. You told me so yourself. And what’s broken can be repaired. According to the Iriann.’
‘And what else does it say? Anything useful? Like what happened to the pieces?’
‘Shall we ask it?’
A small vat sat on the table. Brasson lit a fire under it and within seconds the black viscous liquid it contained started to boil. He snapped his fingers and a ball of light appeared. Imprisoned in it was an Iriann. It looked very weak and its wings were drooped and ragged. As soon as it saw Brasson, it hissed and spat poison.
Brasson wagged a finger at it.
‘Now, now. There’s no call for that. I want you to tell me where the pieces of the Soulstone are.’
The Iriann chirped rapidly. The chirping ended with something that sounded very much like a raspberry.
‘Feisty little fellow isn’t he?’ said the necromancer, ‘Even after all this time. You should be ashamed of yourself,’ he added to the Iriann, ‘Using language like that.’
‘You understood it?’ said the Enchantress in surprise.
‘Thanks to the translation spell.’
Brasson’s eyes narrowed.
‘Now are you going to tell me what you know?’ he said to the Iriann, ‘If you don’t then it’s into the vat with you. And you know what’ll happen then.’
The Iriann chirped and turned its back.
‘Oh for goodness sake!’
The Enchantress grabbed the ball from her son and dropped it into the vat.
Brasson grabbed a pair of tongs and tried to pull the ball out of the vat. But it was too late. The black liquid curled around it, squeezing it and its inhabitant smaller and smaller. The Iriann cried out in pain and fear before it and its prison vanished below the surface.
‘Mother, what have you done!’ cried Brasson, ‘Now we have no chance of finding out where the pieces of the Soulstone are.’
‘I think I know where one is,’ said the Enchantress.
Tolland stood at the door of the half ruined hut, nursing a mug of tea, staring out across the desert. The thunderstorm had retreated and was now rumbling along the tops of the Emberlin Mountains. Night had fallen and a thin crescent moon was rising slowly in the sky. Ben was right about the moon, he thought.
‘Refill?’ asked Jo from behind him.
Tolland took a sip of his tea and realised it was cold. With a grimace he tossed the contents of the mug away and held it out to Jo.
‘What were you thinking?’ she asked, as she poured him a fresh cup.
‘I was thinking about my brother and how sad he would have been to see Fleate reduced to this.’ He waved an arm to encompass the red desert.
‘Brasson must have done it,’ said Jo, ‘You saw how he sucked the life out of everything at the Crystal Gardens.’ She paused and then said, ‘I wonder where the Irianns took the Keymaster.’
‘Somewhere safe I suppose,’ said Tolland.
He was about to take another sip of tea when something caught his attention.
‘Someone’s coming,’ he said.
‘What do you mean, you know where a piece of the Soulstone is?’ demanded Brasson. His mother ignored him and placed her hands on the Eye of the Beholder.
‘Show me Jo,’ she said. The giant crystal ball began to glow. A picture appeared deep inside it. It showed Ben, Jo and Tolland standing outside a half ruined hut, gazing out across the desert. Brasson hissed in surprise.
‘They’re in Fleate! How did they manage to escape the Crystal Gardens?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘I suppose not. Why did you want to see Jo?’
‘Because it was Jo that stopped us from killing them all in that fight in the Gardens. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but where did she get that sort of power from?’
‘You think she’s got a piece of the Soulstone?’
‘I think it’s possible. But where did she get it from? She certainly didn’t have it when we were attacked by the Shearers. If she had, she would have used it against those ice demons. So if she has a piece of the Soulstone, where did she get it from?’
The Enchantress paced up and down, deep in thought. She stopped and snapped her fingers. ‘Of course! The dungeons! She found it in the dungeons of Tilzan’s castle!’
‘That old vampire had a chunk of the Soulstone?’ said Brasson, ‘Why didn’t he tell us?’
‘I don’t suppose he knew it himself,’ said the Enchantress. She rubbed her hands together. ‘Now all we have to do is to kidnap Jo and I can work the Exchange Spell and take over her body. And when I do that, we will have one piece of the Soulstone in our grasp. And I think for your sake my dear son, we’d better make finding the other pieces our priority.’
The three travellers stood gazing out across the desert at the collection of green lights that were bobbing their way over the sand.
‘Who are they?’ asked Jo. Tolland took the last remaining arc-knife from his belt. The green glow of its blade was so faint it could hardly be seen.
‘I don’t know. Something unholy’s out there, or the blade wouldn’t be glowing. But these folk whoever they are, aren’t a threat to us. The green would be much more intense if they were.’
Suddenly, the twins hiccuped in surprise and raised their hands. Tolland frowned.
‘What’s the mat….’ He was cut off in mid sentence by a spear digging into his ribs. Slowly he put his hand in the air.. They’d been so intent on watching the figures walking towards them, they’d failed to see the warriors creeping up behind them.
The nomads stopped in front of them. All of them were cloaked and hooded and carrying packs on their backs. Some of them had been pulling a couple of carts, that were piled with belongings. Masks covered the lower half of their faces. The children, hidden in the centre of the group, peered out from behind the adults’ robes.
‘We’ve caught them,’ said one of the warriors, ‘Be careful,’ he added, as one of the figures stepped forwards, ‘They could be agents of Brasson.’
One of the nomad stepped forwards. In his right hand there was a staff. Feathers were carved around its length. So fine was the carving they looked almost real.
‘What, at night, unprotected and sitting by a fire that can be seen for miles away?’ said the staff bearer, ’I think it’s highly unlikely.’
At the sound of his voice, Tolland frowned.
‘Have we met?’
‘I don’t think so,’ The figure pushed back his hood and pulled down his mask. Tolland gasped in surprise.
‘I do know you. You’re Chak. You were advisor to my father.’ He removed his hat which had been shadowing his face. Now it was Chak’s turn to be surprised.
‘Prince Arlen! After all this time! How is this possible? We thought you must be dead!’
There was a rustling of robes as their visitors went down on one knee.
‘Prince Arlen?’ queried Ben, ‘I thought your name was Tolland.’
‘Tolland is the family name.’
To their visitors, he said,
‘Please get up. If you know me, then you’ll know I never was one to stand on ceremony.’
Chak stood up and rest of the nomads followed. Some of them began erecting tents which were of the same shade of red as the desert that surrounded them. They were arranged in a ring and connected to the large tent in the centre by roofs of material. Others of the group busied themselves by creating a circle of salt around the campsite.
‘What happened here?’ asked Tolland, ‘When I left, you were people of the woods and forests, not nomads wandering the desert.’
‘Brasson and his mother happened,’ said Chak, ‘Between them they drained the goodness from the land and left it like this. Where we’re standing is the remains of our village.’
‘But your village was in the middle of the Evermore Forest.’
Chak shook his head.
‘And this is what is left of the Fleate’s greatest woodland — a graveyard of trees. But what happened to you? You’ve been gone for a very long time.’
‘Sister Eulalia sent me on a Quest. A Quest to find out how to stop Brasson and his Shadow. Thanks to him it took longer than it should have done. He was manipulating the portals so I went where he wanted me to go. ’
‘Only Brasson?’ Chak grimaced and answered his own question. ‘Of course, it was only after you’d gone that we discovered that his mother was a powerful enchantress and not the little old lady she claimed to be.’
‘I know.’ Tolland’s tone was grim, ‘She’s also a body snatcher. When the old one wears out, she steals another one to inhabit.’
‘That means she could be anyone!’ said Chak in horror. Tolland shook his head.
‘I don’t think so. When we met her, she was calling herself Meredith and claimed to be a Wise Woman. She even travelled with us for a while. Until she showed her true colours. The only thing is, the Meredith body is wearing out. And she already has her eyes on the next one.’
‘Whose?’ asked Chak.
‘Mine,’ said Jo.
‘If that’s true, then we must get you to a Green Place immediately,’ said Chak.
‘Green Place? What’s that?’ asked Ben.
‘Green Places are the only bits of Fleate that as it was that are left. For some reason they are protected from the Enchantress and her magic.’
One of the nomads spoke to Chak.
‘Thank you Hool,’ he said. He raised his voice. ‘Everyone, under cover please. The moon is nearly at its apogee. Tak, make sure the children are gathered together.’ He turned to the travellers. ‘You’ll join us of course. Fleate is not a nice place to be at night, unprotected. The Shadows will soon be out. Thank the spirits that the moon is not full or they would be joined by the weers.’
‘What about the burryans?’ asked Jo. No sooner was the word out of her mouth then every eye was turned towards her.
‘Burryans? You have burryans?’ asked Chak. His voice was full of longing. ‘Where are they?’
Tolland put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. In answer to the summons, Chase appeared followed by Flick and Cole. There was an ‘Ahhh,’ from the crowd and the creatures were surrounded by hands eager to pet them. Only the children hung back.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Tolland, ‘If I didn’t know any better, I’d say they haven’t seen a burryan for years.’
‘They haven’t,’ said Chak, ‘All the burryans are gone. And their cousins the dragons. They vanished a thousand years ago.’
‘A thousand years?’ echoed Tolland in disbelief, ‘But I’ve only been gone for ten.’
Chak shook his head.
‘You’ve been gone for longer than you think.’
‘I don’t understand. If such a long time’s passed since I went on my Quest, why are you still alive?’
‘Fleate’s peoples are cursed. Fated to live forever, never dying or growing old until time unfreezes.’
‘And is there nothing that can be done to start time moving again?’ asked Jo.
Chak shook his head.
‘Nothing. Unless you learned anything on your Quest.’
Tolland was about to reply, when one of the lookouts shouted,
‘The Shadows are coming!’
The twins looked out over the desert and saw a terrible sight. Frost was crackling over the sands towards them and in its wake, hundreds of Shadows, writhing with horrid life.
‘Everyone inside the circle! Quickly now!’ shouted Chak, ‘Tolland, bring the burryans into the circle. Hurry!’
Someone doused the fire with sand.
‘Hurry!’ Chak shouted again.
‘Come on Jo,’ said Ben.
His twin ignored him. She stood there frozen to the spot with horror, staring at the racing Shadows.
‘Jo,’ said Ben again, tugging at her sleeve.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Tolland.
‘She won’t move,’ said Ben.
‘Get inside the circle. I’ll deal with her.’
‘But…’ began Ben.
‘Do as I say!’ shouted the Seeker. He swept Jo up into his arms and dumped her unceremoniously inside the circle. As he stepped inside, his heek hit the salt, breaking the circle.The Shadows racing towards the camp, took full advantage situation. One of them curled its way through the break and towards one of the children. A nomad seized a spear and stabbed at the darkness making its way through the protection. The tip was coated in salt and green sparks flew. The Shadow retreated. The break was hastily repaired.
‘What's the matter with you?’ asked Ben. Jo blinked and shivered.
‘It was just like my dream,’ she said, ‘In my dream the Shadows were chasing me.’ She turned to her brother, eyes wide with horror.
‘I dreamt about that monster too. Do you suppose that's real as well?’
‘Shouldn't have thought so,’ said Ben. ‘That was probably a manifestation of your imagination. After all we've been through a lot.’
Jo stared at him.
‘You don’t half talk a lot of rubbish,’ she said.
‘`Course I do. I’m your brother.’
‘What are you two talking about?’ asked Tolland suddenly appearing from nowhere.
‘Where have you been?’ asked Ben.
‘Been having a talk with Chak. He’s said that we can stay here for the night. And in the morning his people will guide us to the Darkling Citadel. I have to speak to Sister Eulalia. So what were you talking about?’
‘Oh, we were just talking about Jo’s a wild imagination,’ said Ben with a grin.
Jo elbowed him in the ribs.
‘Ow! That hurt!’
‘Serves you right,’ she said.
‘Why do you want to go and see her? I thought she betrayed you by selling you out to Brasson.’
‘That's why I want to go to the Darkling Citadel. I want to get her side of the story,’ said Tolland.
‘All right then,’ he said.
‘And I’m coming too,’ said Jo.
‘No, you’re not. You need to get to one of these Green Places,’ said Tolland firmly.
Jo’s eyes flashed.
‘I said that I’m coming with you.’
‘You won’t win,’ Ben said to Tolland, ‘You might as well give in now. My sister can be more stubborn than a donkey when she sets her mind to it.’
‘I love you too,’ she said to her brother.
‘All right then. But if anything happens to you, I’ll never forgive myself.’
In the Castle of Shadows, the Enchantress, was using the Eye of the Beholder to spy on the nomads and their guests.
‘Well?’ asked Brasson from behind her.
‘They’re going to the Darkling Citadel.’
Her son grinned.
‘They won’t find much there.’
‘What about Sister Eulalia?’
‘What about her? The remnants of the Sisters are scattered to the four winds. The place is just a ruin now. I don’t think we’ve got much to worry about.’
‘Hmm.’ The Enchantress gazed at the Eye. In its depths, a line of figures wound its way through the desert. Three of them were leading burryans, children clinging to their backs like limpets.
‘Nevertheless, I think I’ll send a little insurance,’ she said.
The door to the balcony opened silently. Noth her ever present companion, knew her well enough to know what she was going to do.
There, chained on the balcony that overlooked Fleate, the Enchantress kept the Messenger. It was creature of her own creation. With powerful talons on both hands and feet, a scaly body, a monstrous horned head and red pupiless eyes, it was the creature out of a nightmare.
When the Messenger saw the Enchantress, it threw its head back and screamed its hatred at her. Its mouth was full of long and sharp pointed teeth. Standing well back from it, the Enchantress said,
‘I have a task for you. There are strangers in Fleate, one male, one female. They are currently travelling with the nomads. I want you to bring the girl to me!’
Once again, the creature screamed and lunged at her — but the heavy iron chains attached to the wide silver bracelets around its wrists and ankles remained firm. The Enchantress lashed out at the creature with a whip of red fire. It hit the Messenger’s only vulnerable spot — its bat shaped wings. They were scarred with may weals, both old and new. The creature screamed in pain and cowered back.
‘Do as I say, or it will be the worse for you!’ she snapped. Using her magic, she unlocked the chains.
‘Now go!’ she commanded. The Messenger screamed again and launched itself off the balcony. The Enchantress watched it go.
She had no fear that it wouldn’t return, for the silver bracelets around its wrists and ankles would begin to tighten after a few hours. They would only loosen after the Messenger returned to the Castle of Shadows. She watched the creature, a smile of satisfaction on her face, as it circled the tower three times to get it bearings, before setting off in the direction of the Darkling Citadel.
‘Is it much further to the Darkling Citadel?’ Tolland asked Chak. But the nomad wasn’t listening. Instead he was looking at the clouds that were beginning to boil.
‘Run!’ he cried.
‘Why? What’s the matter?’ asked Jo.
Chak pointed to the clouds.
‘The Messenger is on its way!’ he cried, ‘Run, run for your lives!’
The nomads began running. It began to grow darker. Suddenly there was a crack of lightning
followed by a rumble of thunder. A hot dry breeze began to blow. Sand blew in little eddies around their ankles. ‘Everyone! Head for those boulders!’ cried Chak. The wind grew stronger. A child staggered and nearly fell. Ben picked it up. The wind grew stronger and the little eddies became larger. Supporting the children, the band of travellers reeled through the storm. They reached the boulders just as a bolt of lightning spilt one in two.
Suddenly, without warning, a scream from overhead echoed down from the skies. As if by magic, the wind dropped and the sand settled. All around them they could hear the roar of the wind. The nomad began hastily removing the lengths of red cloths from their packs. It was the same material that had been used to roof the way to the big tent.
‘What are they doing?’ asked Tolland.
‘Camouflage,’ explained Chak, ‘We cover ourselves with the material if we get caught out in the open with the Messenger on the way. I’m sure you’ve noticed that the canvas is the same colour as the sand. Now hurry up and hide underneath. We’re in the eye of the storm. Which means it won’t be long before the Messenger appears.’
‘What about the burryans?’ asked Ben. The others looked at him.
‘It won’t cover us and them. They’re too big. What do we do?’
‘We make a stand,’ said Jo firmly. Chak was appalled.
‘You can’t do that, the Messenger will take you!’ he exclaimed.
‘Well, I’m not going to let the burryans get taken,’ said Tolland, ‘They’re our friends. And friends stand together.’
‘Then I will stand with you,’ said Chak. He motioned to the eyes that were peeping out from under the material. It was pulled down and his people all but vanished from sight.
Suddenly from out of the murk, the Messenger appeared. Jo’s knees turned to jelly. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. It was the creature from her nightmare.
She took a deep breath and pulled herself together. Beside her, Tolland had drawn his arc-knife. Ben’s eyes were flaring yellow. The Messenger swooped down on her. Grabbing Chak’s staff from his nerveless hands, she waved it in a circle over her head — and actually managed to hit the beast. Tolland took advantage of the situation and threw his knife. It bounced harmlessly off the beast’s hide and back into his hand. Ben leapt at it, talons out, but like the arc-knife, they barely scraped the creature’s side.
The Messenger circled away, somewhat confused. This was the first time its prey had ever fought back. But it wasn’t going to give up.
It swooped again. Jo swiped at it again — and missed. Chak had now recovered his nerve. He was shaking his fist and shouting his defiance at the creature. The Messenger dived again towards Jo — and got hit on its snout for its pains. The staff snapped in two. The Messenger grabbed the larger piece, leaving Jo holding a bit just over thirty centimetres long. It crushed the bit of the staff that it was holding in its powerful talons. Splinters of wood rained down on its prey.
‘Now what?’ asked Jo, throwing away the remains of the staff.
‘Throw sand in its eyes!’ cried Chak.
The Messenger attacked for the last time. It flew so low over Jo, that it’s talons touched her hair. Then to the absolute amazement of everybody, it simply flew away.
In the Castle of Shadows, the Enchantress had been watching the battle in the Eye. She turned to Brasson in disbelief. Noth, very wisely had made himself scarce by hiding under the table.
‘What just happened?’ she said.
‘It gave up,’ said Brasson. He too couldn’t believe his eyes. ‘I wonder why?’
‘Do you think it could be because of — well you know,’ said Noth from beneath the table.
He flinched as the Enchantress turned towards him.
‘A good point Noth,’ she said thoughtfully, ‘You could be right.’
‘What do we do now?’ asked Brasson.
‘Night is falling. Send the Shadows.’
Then, as Brasson hesitated, snapped,
‘What are you waiting for? Send the Shadows.’
‘Yes Mother,’ said Brasson meekly. He’d been hoping that she was going to be the one to send them further weakening the Meredith body she was now inhabiting.
He placed his hand on a piece of wall and a symbol began to shimmer under his palm. He pressed down on the symbol and a section of wall vanished. Concealed behind it was a black iron vat. The lid was locked with silver bands. This was the Vat of Sorrows. The birthplace of the Messenger and the prison for the souls that it was sent to collect.
Brasson turned a dial on the top, the silver bands fell back and the lid lifted of its own accord. Dirty grey mist began to flow from the Vat, pooling around it and on the floor. Brasson picked up a hammered silver bowl and, not without some trepidation, dipped it into container. This was the part he liked the least of the birthing of new Shadows. He had a secret fear that something in the Vat would reach out and pull him in. When he withdrew the bowl, now brimming with a dark oily liquid, he sighed with relief. He glanced out of the window. There was still a line of light lingering behind the mountains.
‘It’s not full dark yet,’ he said. The Enchantress grinned.
‘I know,’ she said, ‘I’ll cast a spell — just enough to delay them until its dark enough for the Shadows to catch up with them. She steepled her fingertips and whispered,
‘Round about, twist and turn,
Desert sands begin to churn.
Hold them fast, don’t delay
Shadows soon are on the way.’
Whilst she had been speaking, a small ball of green fire had been forming between her hands. She threw it at the Eye and the ball dispersed in a flash of light. Panting, she slumped back exhausted into her chair.
‘Now?’ asked Brasson.
‘Now,’ she replied.
‘Are we nearly there?’ asked Jo.
‘I think so,’ said Chak. But he didn’t sound very sure.
‘How can you tell?’ asked Tolland, ‘Everything looks the same to me.’
‘That’s because you haven’t spent years travelling the desert,’ replied Chak, ‘There are signs to be seen, if only you know where to look.’ He sighed and added, ‘Although I do wish Tak was here. She is our best tracker.’ After the attack by the Messenger, Chak had sent his people back to the remains of their village.
‘Which way then?’ asked Ben.
‘This way,’ said Chak with more confidence than he felt. He began to stride ahead. The others tried to follow him, only to discover that they were stuck. Looking down, they discovered that a find red webbing had travelled up their legs.
Jo woke to the sound of wind chimes tinkling in the breeze. The scent of roses drifted in through the open window. Slowly she opened her eyes. And sat bolt upright in bed. She was in bed! How had she got here? She screwed her eyes up in an effort to remember. But apart from recalling Chak yelling about the Shadows, it was all a blank. There was a tap at the door.
‘Come in,’ she called. The door opened to reveal a tall red-headed man wearing a dark blue robe with gold buttons. His long hair was tied in a plait that ended halfway down his back. On the end of the plait were two small silver bells that jingled faintly every time he moved.
‘Glad to see you’re awake at last,’ he said, ‘ How are you feeling?’
‘Er — fine thank you,’ said Jo.
‘Good,’ said the man, ‘I came to tell you that breakfast is ready. I took the liberty of providing you with some clothes. The ones you’re wearing got burnt in the blast. They’re over there on that chair.’
As he turned to go, Jo called out,
‘Wait!’ The man paused.
‘Who are you and where am I? And where are my friends?’
‘Oh, I’m sorry. Where are my manners? Allow me to introduce myself,’ he said, placing a hand over his heart and bowing. ‘I am the Wizard Gliss and this is my home, Wizard’s Keape. Tolland and your brother are outside, tending to the burryans. As for Chak, the last time I saw him he was laying the breakfast table. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I smell sausages burning.’ And with that he was gone.
Jo got out of bed. In the corner of the room, there was an old-fashioned washstand with basin and ewer on it. There was hot water in the jug. Jo poured the water into the basin and had a wash. Feeling much better she turned her attention to her clothes. Gliss hadn’t been joking when he said they’d been badly burnt. Tossing her old clothes on the bed, she got dressed in the new. There was a waistcoat lined with soft golden fur and a dark green blouse that was embroidered with flowers. There was also a matching skirt with a hem that was cut on an angle and an item that resembled a cross between trousers and leggings.
As the skirt was so short, Jo guessed that it was supposed to be worn over the leggings. Thick socks and stout boots as well as a fleece lined coat completed the outfit. Everything fitted as if it had been made for her — which it probably had, thought Jo — or should that be conjured up — seeing as her host was a wizard. Leaving the coat lying on the chair, she followed her nose to the kitchen.
There she found Chak and Gliss chatting like they were old friends. (Which in fact they were).
‘All right sis?’ mumbled Ben through a mouthful of bacon.
Tolland said nothing. Just looked at her. It was a look full of hurt and anger. A look that said, We’ll talk later.
Ignoring Tolland’s glare, she sat down. After she’d demolished a large plate of bacon and eggs, several slices of toast and butter and drunk a large mug of tea, she felt much better.
‘More tea?’ asked Gliss, holding a large teapot over her mug. Jo shook her head.
‘No thanks,’ she said, ‘That was fantastic. I didn’t realise that I was so hungry.’
She placed her knife and fork neatly together on the plate, and said to Gliss,
‘So how did we get here? The last thing I remember is being attacked by Shadows.’
Before the wizard could reply, Tolland said,
‘He saw the light from that magical pendant of yours. The pendant that you saw fit not to tell Ben and I about. The pendant that has now saved our lives twice.’
‘Tolland is right,’ said Gliss, ‘I happened to be out in the garden last night watering the plants, when I saw a bright light out in the desert. So I went to investigate.’
‘Foolish but brave of you,’ observed Chak. Gliss smiled.
‘I have to admit, it went against my better instincts to leave here at night,’ he said, ‘But I’m glad that I did. As I walked towards the light, I was passed by retreating Shadows. To my surprise, they completely ignored me. When I found you I discovered why. You were lying unconscious on the ground, surrounded by fried Shadows with your pendant blazing like the sun. Your friends here were busy trying to control your burryans. So, what exactly were you doing out in the desert at night?’
‘I was taking my friends to the Darkling Citadel,’ said Chak, ‘We got caught in a Shadow trap.’
‘She’s back? Why is the Enchantress bothering with you? You must have something she wants,’ said Gliss.
‘Bet you anything it’s to do with that pendant Jo found,’ said Ben.
‘That reminds me. Where exactly did you find it?’ asked Tolland sourly.
Jo hung her head.
‘I found it around the neck of that skeleton in Tilzan’s dungeons. I — I think I was meant to find it. I don’t know why. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about it. I don’t know why I didn’t.’
Tolland got to his feet.
‘I’m going to check on the burryans.’ He strode out of the kitchen, slamming the door behind him.
‘He’ll get over it,’ said Ben.
‘May I have a closer look at it?’ asked Gliss.
Jo unclasped the chain and handed the necklace to the wizard who slipped the stone off the chain.
‘There’s some faceting on this bit,’ he said, running his fingers over it, ‘But this side is smooth. It couldn’t be? Could it?’
‘Couldn’t be what?’ asked Chak.
‘The missing piece of the Soulstone,’ replied the wizard.
Chak’s eyes were round with surprise.
‘How can that be? The fourth Guardian vanished fifteen hundred years ago!’
‘You saw the way it reacted to the presence of the Shadows,’ said Gliss. Chak nodded.
‘You’re right,’ he said.
To Jo he said,
‘It looks you’ve been chosen to be the new Guardian of this piece of the Soulstone. I wonder why?’
‘Sorry, what do you mean by Guardian?’ queried Ben.
Chak looked at his friend.
‘It’s your story, you tell it,’ he said to the wizard.
‘Very well,’ said Gliss. He looked at Ben and Jo. ‘Fifteen hundred years ago, a burglar broke into the palace and an attempt was made to steal the Crown Jewels. The attempt was foiled and the intruder escaped empty handed. But the villain dropped the sceptre in which the Soulstone was set. It broke into four pieces. There was a suspicion that the thief had been after only one thing — the Soulstone itself. The court wizard at the time tried to mend the stone with magic but nothing he tried sufficed. So it was decided that the pieces should be kept apart. Four volunteers were chosen and became Guardians of the Soulstone. Three of them went home. The fourth simply vanished.’
‘And he left Fleate for whatever reason and died in Tilzan’s dungeons,’ said Jo.
There was a sound of derision from Tolland who’d crept into the kitchen whilst Gliss had been talking.
‘Every child in Fleate knows that story,’ he said, ‘The Soulstone is only a fairytale.’
‘And yet, here is a piece of it,’ said Gliss, ‘You saw what it did last night. It was protecting its Guardian.’
‘Pretty substantial fairy tale you have to admit,’ said Ben.
‘All right then,’ said Tolland, ‘Suppose you’re right. Suppose that gem is a piece of the Soulstone. Where are the other three?’
‘Well, I can tell you where one is,’ said Gliss, ‘But where the other two are, I don’t know. Only the Sisters of the Coven know. It was they who chose the four Guardians.’
‘And where is this piece and its Guardian?’ asked Jo.
‘Right here,’ said the wizard, ‘I am one of the Guardians.’
The Enchantress was incandescent with rage. She’d sent the Shadows to capture Jo and her piece of the Soulstone and the mission had ended in failure. Then they’d been rescued by a wizard who seemingly appeared from nowhere. She’d tracked them through the Eye to see where the wizard had come from. To her surprise, the entire party had vanished into a thick patch of mist.
‘Brasson!’ she yelled. At the sound of her voice, Noth dived beneath the table. He’d learnt from bitter experience to avoid his mistress when she was in one of her moods.
The door opened slowly and Brasson peered around it.
‘Explain this to me,’ said the Enchantress in silky tones, ‘Why is it that Tolland and party have vanished from the sight of the Eye?’
Under the table, Noth shivered.
‘Erm, well, maybe they’re in a Green Place,’ said Brasson hesitantly.
‘Oh, and just what is a Green Place?’ enquired his mother.
Brasson shuffled his feet.
‘Er, it’s a place that’s hidden from the Eye.’
‘So that explains your hesitation when I asked if all of Fleate had turned to desert. Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I thought I could sort them before you returned.’
‘And how many are there of these so-called Green Places?’
‘At least three. There could be more. All the Eye can see of them is a patch of fog. And before you ask me, I don’t know why they exist. They shouldn’t but they do.’
‘Three? said the Enchantress thoughtfully, ‘That’s a very interesting number.’
‘Why?’ asked Brasson.
‘Because you simpleton, the Soulstone broke into four pieces. We know Jo found one outside of Fleate. So that leaves the three that are still here.’
‘Still don’t follow.’
The Enchantress rolled her eyes in frustration.
‘How thick can you get?’ she said to herself. Then to Brasson she said, ‘Three pieces of the Soulstone, three Green Places. Now do you understand?’
Comprehension flooded Brasson’s face.
‘Oh, you mean..’ he began.
‘Exactly,’ said his mother, ‘We take the Green Places, we take the Soulstone. We’ll start with the wizard’s Green Place. His soul will make an excellent addition to the Vat of Sorrows.’
‘You have a piece of the Soulstone?’ exclaimed Ben, ‘But how? You’ve just told us a story that according to you, happened fifteen hundred years ago.’
‘I am a wizard and we tend to live longer than man’s allotted three score and ten. But not even a wizard lives for over two thousand years. I’m still alive, partly because I’m a Guardian and partly because time is frozen in Fleate. Even the Green Places, of which this one is, are affected. I was also the wizard who tried and failed to repair the Soulstone.’
‘Then we need to find the other pieces of the Soulstone,’ said Tolland, ‘Do you know who the other Guardians were?’
Gliss shook his head.
‘No. Like I said, the only ones who know are the Sisters of the Coven. They kept the identities of the Guardians secret from each other. I couldn’t tell you where they are, much less than who they are even if I wanted to.’
‘Wasn’t there also a prophecy about the Soulstone as well?’ remarked Chak.
‘You’re right, there was.’ The wizard frowned. ‘But I can’t remember what it said. It was a very long time ago now.’ He brightened. ‘You were on your way to the Darkling Citadel weren’t you? The Sisters could tell you what the prophecy says.’
‘If they’re still there at all,’ said Chak.
Tolland looked at him.
‘What do you mean, ‘if they’re still there?’’ he asked.
‘How could they be?’ the wizard said, ‘The Darkling Citadel was not a Green Place. It was overwhelmed by the desert just like the rest of Fleate.’
‘And just when were you going to tell us that?’ demanded Tolland. Chak said nothing. Just looked embarrassed.
‘Oh, of course,’ said the Seeker, ‘It wasn’t a coincidence that we were so close to Wizard’s Keape. You were bringing us here. Why?’
‘When you told me that the Enchantress had chosen Jo’s body as the next one she was going to inhabit, I was concerned. I still think that the best place for Jo to be is a Green Place. The Green Places are safe from the prying of eyes of that witch.’
Suddenly an ear splitting scream spilt the air and the entire building shook.
‘The Messenger!’ said Jo, through lips that had gone stiff and chill.
‘Don’t worry, it won’t hurt us here. We’re safe, aren’t we Gliss?’ said Chak. ‘Gliss?’
But the wizard was ignoring him. Instead he was looking at a vase of white roses that had been placed on the dresser. One by one, they were turning the same shade of red as the desert and crumbling into dust.
The wizard leapt to his feet and ran out of the kitchen and up the spiral staircase that led to the lookout tower of the Keape.
‘Gliss, what’s the matter?’ cried Tolland. He followed the wizard up the stairs and onto the balcony. Gliss’s hair and beard were streaming in the wind. Overhead dark clouds spiralled. Lighting flashed and thunder rumbled. And Tolland saw a sight that made his blood run cold. The desert was black with Shadows.