Darkle Deeps was very deep, and far beneath it was the home of the Hurglabat, an entity hideous enough to stop even an army of ogres dead in its tracks.
It had been lurking in the primeval slime beneath their realm for aeons, waiting for the opportunity to become corporeal and, at last having fleshed itself, the Hurglabat allowed no one but the ogres to be aware of its existence. There was always some bold adventurer or clever witch who saw it as their duty to rid time, space, and mythology of monstrous parasites.
And the Hurglabat
could afford to wait. The vibrations from Lustreland,
Not knowing the entity’s true nature, the ogres were willing to obey the mysterious, malevolent commands that issued from the bowels of the Great Underneath. Bribed with the occasional shower of precious stones spewed up from the lower depths, a wiser person wouldn’t have questioned its instructions either. The Hurglabat could not control the ogres by insinuating its way into minds that didn’t have enough room for a subconscious, so was reduced to using the highly nervous Kot Kut, the ogres’ high priest, to communicate through. He was the only one of them insecure enough to visualise monsters from the bowels of their benighted realm.
Ever since the ogres had lost their right to be totally beastly curtailed by the Lustreland authorities, their frustration had spilled down the many holes that honeycombed Darkle Deeps, a place where the even hand of Nature had been rapped before she could infiltrate those dismal cracks.
The Hurglabat rolled in its ooze and rumbled contentedly. A few stones toppled from the ogres’ fortress far above and the outlying orchards of Lustreland prematurely shed fruit. As the darkness slowly encroached, The Province of Light had no idea that its luscious domain would soon be crushed in the monster’s voracious tentacles.
Like the malignant growth that expands without betraying its presence, the Hurglabat stretched its tentacles, and then lay dormant.
The female ogres took exception to the Hurglabat’s parasitical presence, resenting that it only spoke to their mates, and occasionally hurled rocks down the nearest hole at the odd pulsating glow in its depths. Few things ever spoke to the males, even the females, and then it was in monosyllabic grunts. Now they felt like warriors as the Hurglabat burbled up orders for them to invade Lustreland. Best of all, the ogres wouldn’t have to take the blame when that domain’s witches and warlocks waved their wands in the direction of Darkle Deeps. All the ogre chief, Jobaloba, needed to do was point to the voice under the ground and let those smart, self-righteous egotists try casting a spell on their all powerful patron deity instead. For once, he would be on the winning side. All the curses, spells, and wand waving would count for nothing against a creature as powerful as the Hurglabat.
Unfortunately, the only one who had the ability to destroy the voracious, evil entity spent more time watching butterflies than casting spells.
The blizzard of last week was now venting its rage in mid
Peter wanted to jog a few paces despite his doctor’s advice against sudden exercise. Then thought again. Hypothermia was probably easier to treat than a cardiac arrest. Whatever the weather, few things short of stray shells from the military manoeuvres up the road could dissuade him from his morning walk. If there was one thing Peter had learnt from a long lifetime of experience it was to avoid heavy artillery; its recoil was invariably less fatal for the person firing it.
The neighbourhood resented the army waking it up at four in the morning, yet petitions were usually fobbed off with the justification that the enemy was bound to attack at this time. To Peter this only proved that as soon as people put on military uniforms they developed insomnia as well as allowing the Y-chromosome to override their common sense.
Peter, full name Peter Olan Martin, was a mountain amongst men. Over six and a half feet tall with a substantial girth, he awed yapping dogs and their tiresome owners. Despite this, he was a benign person with a large friendly, brown face and soft husky voice that never did more than rumble peevishly whatever the provocation.
He cursed himself for thinking about the army when they weren’t even making a noise. To take his mind off them he watched surprised ducks slither about the ice after wedges of bread hurled by small children, only to recall the letter from his two wives relating the sad progress of their country. Irrational guilt gnawed at Peter for not being there. As the bright winter sun picked out doilies of frosted white snow this warm African landscape was a world away. In fact, it seemed so distant at that moment he might as well have been viewing the world from another planet. He began to wish that Indrina, his accountant, had never pointed out the sinister billions suddenly invested in that fertile country. A consortium of faceless people now owned its mines and agriculture, virtually controlling the economy.
Why did these conundrums keep pursuing Peter when he was trying to relax? Indrina couldn’t be blamed for merely pointing out something she found financially intriguing. No, the manipulation of that country’s economy was something he had always suspected, but dared not admit to himself. Though never in a position to do anything about it, he still fretted despite the condition of his heart.
Then, once more, the world started to spin.
Peter’s heart began to race. The crunch of his own footsteps on the icy gravel could no longer be heard as reality was nudged to one side and his thoughts were once again invaded by that eerie, cracked voice. It was distant, as though it had travelled up through Pre Cambrian seams, elbowing aside carnivorous dinosaur fossils on the way. This time he could understand what it was saying, though at that moment would have much rather been patronised by a paramedic with a defibrillator.
‘You’re not the brightest of creatures are you? But then, giants never have been.’
Peter somehow managed to walk in a straight line past the duck feeders without keeling over.
The voice in his head was undeterred. ‘You’ll have to do, though. There is no other choice.’
Not only was he hearing voices, Peter’s subconscious now seemed to be volunteering him for an unworldly experiment, probably involving life forms from the Magellanic Clouds and Jurassic DNA.
Damn those blood pressure tablets! He always knew they would reduce him to a gibbering idiot eventually - they certainly never did anything for his circulation.
As the curls in his grizzled, greying hair crackled with static he desperately craved a double brandy. He would have pulled out a cigar, but the last time he did that within four metres of a young mother he had been scolded as though he were a diesel guzzling pantechnicon. So he thought better of it and concentrated on controlling his heartbeat. Managing to reach a stand of mahonia, he steadied himself on a park seat donated by some corrupt councillor to expiate his civic sins.
Just as Peter thought he was back in control, something shot past him and crashed into the bushes. He lost his balance and tumbled onto the seat. It was probably only been a cat or large bird, but his imagination was now primed to expect something far more bizarre.
Then that unearthly voice snapped, ‘What’s wrong with you man! Don’t bother to take out your glasses. You aren’t able to see me. Pull yourself together. I’ll come back this evening.’
Then the phantom in his head departed, leaving a void which he would have preferred to be filled with the tumultuous concerns of the real world.
What should he do? Humour this subconscious intruder in the hope it would go away, or ignore it and risk being institutionalised before he was 70? If Peter feared anything more than heart failure, it was dementia. The only way he could deal with that prospect was to prove to himself, one way or another, what was really going on in his head.
That afternoon was the longest in Peter’s life as he agonised over some logical explanation for the voice in the park that had singled him out for his apparent status as a giant.
As he sat and sipped a brandy, watching the sun go down on the orchard outside his basement window, the air crackled with a faint whisper.
‘Find a dish of frosted glass.’
Frosted glass? It was absurd, but the voice was unlikely to leave him alone if it was ignored. Was there any frosted glass in his bachelor’s apartment? Only the hotel above had a use for ornaments, but there were tea chests filled with the unused tableware stored under the staircase, which he fortunately had a key to.
Peter rummaged through the polystyrene chips of an open box until he found a huge cut glass ashtray with a frosted centre too expensive to put outside, and just reflective enough to mirror his dark features. It was in store because it could no longer be used since the smoking ban. He took it to the dining table and propped it up on the folded towels he would have put in the bathroom if the voice in his head hadn’t intervened.
Against his better judgement he gazed into the glass.
Shapes inside it seemed to be resolving themselves.
‘Look deeper,’ came the order.
No, this couldn’t be real. Somebody was playing tricks, though he had no idea how. His mind was already plagued by monsters from his own subconscious; Peter wasn’t up to dealing with ones created by anyone else.
‘Concentrate! You’ve had long enough to get used to the idea,’ the voice persisted.
Peter scratched his grizzled curls. ‘What idea? Why all this performance with a saloon bar ashtray?’ He had never spoken to the illusion in his head before and now felt ridiculous.
‘Frost is my element. As the flowers and trees are to the sprites, as fire is to the dragon, as music is to the minstrel, as pomposity is to my Second Minister, I am cold logic, the cold logic you try to live without.’
To Peter, it was an absurd answer. ‘Who are you?’
A face at last formed in the crystal. Its skin may have once been golden; now it had the patina of silver where the gilt had worn away to reveal a network of wrinkles resembling the road map of an inner city. A pair of ancient eyes twinkled with cunning below an unruly mop of white hair that had been gathered up and pinned with an ornate medallion.
Peter jumped back in surprise.
‘There is no reason to be alarmed,’ announced the apparition. ‘I am merely your other self. You have always known I was here but refused to acknowledge the fact. Now we have mutual problems you must open your mind and let me in.’
Until then Peter thought the worst difficulty was with his heart. ‘Problems?’
‘You need my help to solve your world’s greatest crime.’
‘Crime? What crime?’
‘And in return I need your permission.’
‘Permission for what?’
‘You ask too many questions.’
‘Don’t get inscrutable with me - this is all too bloody weird to take seriously! I want to die in the comfort of my own bedroom, not a padded cell.’
‘I have a heart condition which no longer permits that luxury.’
‘That is something we will come to later.’
‘So, who am I expected to sell my soul to? Beelzebub?’
The ancient face cracked a smile. ‘Call me Rimonay.’ Then she began to fade. ‘I will be back when you are in a calmer frame of mind.’
Would he ever be in a calmer frame of mind? ‘Why?’
‘Oh the wonders you will learn…’
Without warning she was gone and the light infusing the crystal ashtray faded into the towels propping it up.
The experience was unnerving, but so real Peter was perversely persuaded that this couldn’t have been dementia after all. The hallucination was too structured, and with a logic of its own - at least in the realms of magic: it certainly didn’t hark back to any past experience. Perhaps it was akin to a religious revelation? Having been a disbeliever for so long his subconscious might have been priming him for a miracle, however unlikely a holy messenger this Rimonay was. Peter was pragmatic enough to take it into account with the absence of any other explanation. All he could do now was hear her out.
Over the following evenings his sinister alter ego returned to the frosted ashtray to weave such a wonderful account of the realm she inhabited Peter was eventually persuaded to believe.
Rimonay avoided naming her price for this "permission" she had previously mentioned by regaling him with descriptions of the parallel world of Lustreland, the Province of Light, in which he learnt everything about its geography, creatures, politics, deities - and the monster that was about to consume it all, ogres included.
But Peter was most intrigued by the
twin beings of his friends. If he had believed them a trifle eccentric before,
this new insight made him wonder why their Lustreland
incarnations had not managed to burst through the walls of reality to belabour
their earthbound counterparts. Fortunately the Province had boundaries which
prevented its residents wandering too far afield.
Only the rara avis, occasional giant and wandering
minstrel possessed the magical stamina to blunder across them, to and from
other exotic realms beyond the
Although populated with sprites, gnomes, changelings, griffins, unicorns, harpies, goblins, as well as elfin creatures like Rimonay and her more substantial Second Minister, in time Lustreland became as real to Peter as his own dimension. He had no choice but to grow fond of it.
And only then did Rimonay dare name her price.
It was a steep one.
He struck the bargain all the same. It was not an unreasonable demand for saving a realm, even one as bizarre as Lustreland. If they had the equivalent of Satan there, Rimonay was about to sell her soul to him anyway.
As well as the wonderful woods, hills, and quartz outcrops circling Lustreland, there were caves - many, many caves; caves studded with gems, caves gouged out by rivers, caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites resembling worms woven into organic tapestries, caves with bottomless pools that could drown the soul, and caves with deities so mysterious they even frightened the trolls.
The Province of Light’s heartland lived contentedly inside this protective girdle; a gently undulating land of waterfalls and candyfloss mists haloing anything that rose above the height of a dragon’s extended tail. It was believed that dragons extended their tails directly upwards as a sign of contempt, there being something peculiarly disconcerting about the anatomy revealed beneath them. Few had ever described the sight as one glimpse was enough to silence a person for weeks.
But dragons weren’t the problem; it was the ogres preparing to invade the gleaming domain of Lustreland. Repugnant as anything that had ever managed to clamber out of the pitch bogs in Darkle Deeps, the ugly nature of the ogres had been made even surlier by existing in this gloomy realm on a diet of marinaded dinosaur bones and pickled jellyfish, which their digestion required egg sized pebbles to break down. They once had a ravenous appetite for Lustrelanders before some ancient witches cast a spell from The Old Theolopolis Book of Humane Diets on them. That had been aeons ago. Since then the Old Theolopolis diet book had disappeared, probably bored with sitting on a dusty shelf with other crusty volumes on how to cure dragon diarrhoea and beard mildew, despite the darkest endeavours of the Mystic Trine’s sinister librarian to magic it back. Now the ogres were about to invade Lustreland there was nothing to deter them from reverting to their original menu once within a hairy arm’s reach of a few tasty Lustrelanders plump with well-stocked larders and complacency.
As with most things that involved exertion, mental or physical, Lustrelanders had no idea how to repel these odorous hordes. Only a pragmatic few were aware that their only hope perched in Rara Avis Ridge. This was large and gleaming red. The last dragon in the realm was so relaxed about life it took the occasional nap when on the wing, frequently waking up under some other domain’s rainbow or colliding with a less agile roc, and it would take some persuading to come to their assistance.
Unfortunately there was one important dignitary who wouldn’t have recognised pragmatism if it donned hobnailed boots and marched about inside his skull for a week. Bruno, the Second Minister, possessed a phobia about dragons that could only be explained away by one having devoured him in a previous incarnation. That being the case, some centuries old fabulous beast probably still had indigestion.
Minister Bruno exuded self-important pomposity as though it was lettered through his sturdy trunk like the rings of a tree and his strong, oval face was always tilted upwards as though mundane mortals were below the horizon of his worthwhile attention. His robe of office clung to his solid frame like silk over a barrel, and the sleeveless overgown dropped from wide shoulders without so much as a misplaced fold. It would have been impossible for a flock of sprites to lift his ornate staff, even with the aid of fairy dust, and his hefty chain of office required the neck muscles of a troll who wound the lift cage in a goblin mine. All this told anyone expecting reasoned discussion on the impending ogre invasion that the Second Minister was not open to negotiation. Frequently inconvenient, his intransigence had now become downright dangerous and threatened the very existence of Lustreland. And all because he hated dragons.
As Minister Bruno strode out through gleaming, cobbled streets towards the golden avenue leading up to the Halls of Government, a gaggle of sprites, elves and other generally unoccupied members of the population, streamed after him like the uncoordinated tail of a large embarrassed dog as though anticipating gladiatorial entertainment. Far behind them scurried a wizard, the breeze catching his robe and beard in an attempt propel him in the opposite direction. Being tall and very thin, Qulio resembled the mast of a racing merchant ship with flapping sails battling the elements. Despite this, the wizard dare not be late. No one else was willing to throw themselves under the wheels of the juggernaut that was Bruno to prevent him mowing down the last opportunity for Lustreland’s survival.
Resembling a colossus that had stepped from the sculptor’s plinth before any more could be roughed from its girth, the Second Minister strode across the Government lawn and passed under the ceremonial arch into the member’s only courtyard. Like a tail suddenly severed from its body, the phalanx of followers skidded to a halt on the polished chalcedony pavement. Qulio picked his way through the felled elves and sprites in pursuit of Bruno who was charging on towards the Council’s debating chamber like a storm rolling in from Rara Avis Ridge.
No one in Lustreland’s history had ever discovered tobacco, but whenever the Mystic Trine attended the great chamber it was always filled with smoke. The witches and warlocks no doubt thought it added to their mysterious ambience, yet all it did for Bruno was make his eyes water and raise his blood pressure. As the chamber doors were flung open to allow him to make his entrance, scrolls of smoke were sent spiralling through the time worn banners of ancient members.
Despite watering eyes, the Second Minister still managed to glower intimidatingly at the steep, tiered seats filled with Lustreland’s motley government. There were the sinister members of the Mystic Trine sitting in their fossil thrones and wearing robes over which mystic symbols menacingly rambled. There was Rimonay; small, diamond-eyed and shrivelled, installed in the position of supreme power and, just below her, Bruno’s seat, much wider and with fewer cushions.
Unable to register the nuances of the charged atmosphere, one of the ushers, an opal troll, offered to escort the Second Minister to his place with all due ceremony. Rimonay waved it aside. Opal trolls were breakable and hard to come by. The last thing she needed was to send its precious shards to a master jeweller to magic them back together. (Allowing the Magic Trine to turn those turned to stone by the light of the Ligh Tofrea Sun into useful citizens had introduced complications not even the First Minister could have anticipated.)
Bruno strode to the speaker’s podium, knowing that everyone else must have had their say before he arrived and seeing no reason to ask their permission.
‘Dragons!’ he bellowed.
Several sprites disappeared behind a row of goblins, warlocks yawned to show they weren’t intimidated and the witches sniggered provokingly.
‘If the members of the Mystic Trine were half as powerful as they would have us believe, there would be no need to beg favours of dragons!’ the Second Minister ranted on, only pausing as a sharp glance from Rimonay reminded him that there were perils in insulting so many exponents of the dark arts.
The Mystic Trine was so called because it consisted of witches, warlocks, and any mercenary creature corrupt enough to be affiliated to them. The witches detected his brief hesitation, especially Iggata. She had the face of a tiger lily, but heart of black diamond and was the nastiest of them all.
Bruno had never crossed swords with that witch before and, however angry, still wasn’t inclined to try. He had heard the rumours that she had obligingly turned the grandparents of some Mystic Trine members into hedgehogs so they could save on home help sprites. The last survey had certainly found there were more of them in the woods than was natural, and the prickly band had even started a protest movement for better ventilated nests and pension parity with refuse collecting gnomes.
There was a faint, infatuated sigh a short distance away.
Bruno became aware of Wizard Qulio gazing at Iggata as though she had just slid down on a ray from the Ligh Tofrea Sun. The man’s docile eccentricity may have been ideal with changelings and educated monsters, yet when it came to recognising distilled evil he seemed to have a mental block.
The Second Minister refused to be sidetracked any longer. ‘Yes, dragons! Has this chamber lost its mind?’
Oblivious to his rhetorical abuse, the Mystic Trine’s sinister librarian had the inconvenient tendency to take most things literally. ‘No, but I have read about a tribe of pumice trolls who leave theirs safely locked away until they need them.’ She didn’t know how to be sarcastic; facts and statistics governed her bibliophile existence. If Iggata’s malign reasoning was like a rapacious spider’s, the Librarian’s labyrinthine mind was cloaked in a web that no mystic bullet could penetrate.
To conceal that he was becoming distracted from his tirade by the unexpected obfuscation and the tall, spindly Qulio standing a short distance away like a willow being buffeted by the stormy atmosphere, Bruno indicated that he should sit at the debating bench. There was no other place for him. Wizard or not, the Mystic Trine would not allow Qulio to sit with them. He wasn’t mercenary or menacing enough for their company and his spells usually fizzled out before he could cast them.
When the flurry of gowns to allow Qulio through to his place had stopped, the Second Minister cleared his throat and carried on with his onslaught.
‘How could any sane entity believe that the survival of Lustreland must be handed over to the whim of an anarchic reptile? And one more delinquent than a flock of harpies!’
Feeling that it was time to interject before the chamber became persuaded she was taking his side, Rimonay rapped her cane on her marble dais. ‘Explain yourself Minister Bruno.’
He didn’t need to be asked twice. ‘Not so long ago, Dragon Sesame maliciously vaporised the pond in my courtyard because I refused to allow it to roost in my orchard -’
The First Minister was hardly interested, but had to slow the Second Minister’s flow of vitriol before it got under way again. ‘Why did it need to roost in your orchard?’
‘It took on the challenge from some roc to find out which of them could soar high enough to see the Ligh Tofrea Sun. It was its own fault it was too tired to fly home!’
Rimonay decided that the one-sided debate was becoming ridiculous and raised her hand to stop him carrying on with the endless list of demeanours queuing up for the chance to be aired.
Having built up a head of steam, Bruno ploughed on regardless. ‘Then it carried off the spire from my turret to prize open the entrance of a cave some changeling or other had got itself trapped in.’
‘So what’s wrong with that?’ The goblin organiser of Lustreland’s equal opportunity campaign demanded with enough shrillness to knock a harpy out of the sky.
Political correctness had never been one of Bruno’s strongest points. ‘Changelings have no business in caves! They belong in the woods with that lunatic woman who spends all her time looking after them!’
Qulio’s expression fell and Bruno suddenly remembered that the wizard was a close friend of that particular altruist. His hesitation gave Councillor Kolu, the insult queen of the upper benches, the opportunity to rise. Inflicting verbal wounds on the Second Minister by thrusting in the ironic knife were the highlights of her life.
As she rose Bruno roared, ‘And what’s your problem?’
‘Perhaps the real point has escaped the Second Minister?’
Bruno may have been able to dish out irony, but was totally oblivious of it now he had built up a head of steam scalding enough to descale a troll. ‘What point?’
‘And I think that proves my point.’
‘Are you inferring that I’m stupid?’ he threatened Kolu.
‘I wouldn’t dream of uttering such a slur against the Second Minister. However ...’
The goblin equal opportunities representative sensed revenge at hand. ‘However?’
‘But I would say that, if Minister Bruno’s position were not so exulted, he has the tendency to huff and puff like a gas filled bladder, his vocabulary consists of three different barks like the Cerberus, his reasoning is as fluid as the set tar the ogres use for mattresses and, like a hydra, he has seven different ways of coming to the same conclusion - all wrong! But as he is our exulted Second Minister, I will not presume to say any of this.’
The golden skin of Bruno’s neck turned bright orange with rage. ‘Are you sure there is nothing else you would like to add?’
‘Of course not. Who am I to say that you originated from thunder absent-mindedly striking a tree because lightning refused to own you?’
That did it. Kolu had soundly kicked Bruno in his Achilles heel. She knew he was paranoid about not being designated an element; all the lowliest elves and sprites, had their flower, mineral or vegetable. Even Wizard Qulio had an element, even if no one knew what it was.
‘I have no need of an element! I have the strength to know I’m right without debating the matter with some petals or a rock! And I am right about Dragon Sesame! This chamber will never make me approve of any plot to use this creature to defeat the ogres! Just think what would happen if we fell into its debt. Dragons would have the right of residency in Lustreland. Their flaming breath would fill the air. One puff into a stiff breeze and whoosh would go all the crops, or orchards - or Halls of Government. And what if it has relatives? Would you fancy a couple of those creatures trying to nest on your chimney stack?’
Rimonay could take no more of his high-pitched irrationality and again rapped her stick. ‘There is no proof any of this would happen. Dragons have always chosen to live in places like Rara Avis Ridge where they are perfectly adapted to the thin air and damp mists. And only one Dragon lives there at the moment. Sesame has no relatives.’
Arguing with the First Minister was forbidden, but Bruno would not be swayed. ‘There is nothing you can do to make me agree to this plan, and without my approval it cannot be implemented.
Why in the name of Vulcanus had that been written into the law of Lustreland’s constitution? Rimonay wondered to herself. She shook her head regretfully.
‘We may not be able to make you change your mind, though perhaps learning a little humility will loosen the bolt that guards your precious intolerances. The Ruling Council have come to a decision. And I agree with them.’
Rimonay seldom made threats. She was too clever to need them, and alarm nudged its way through a chink in Bruno’s resolve. The Ruling Council and First Minister had the power of expulsion; the ability to banish any Lustrelander to the dimension of their alter egos, a place where the sun disappeared for half a day and there were no protecting deities or elements.
The chamber stamped in approval. This was one issue every member was prepared to vote on - except Qulio, but he didn’t count.
The Second Minister heard two hard rock troll ushers coming up behind him. He knew better than to take a swing at either of them. However large his fist, it was no match for granite; trust Rimonay not to select anything more chisel friendly.
With the aid of her two tree sprites, Rimonay rose.
Having made the decision, she announced, ‘Minister Bruno will be allowed to see a map before he goes in case we have to retrieve him in a hurry. I strongly suggest he does not try to resist the dimension and make a commotion. Humans are very intolerant of things they cannot understand.’
Bruno was unceremoniously escorted from the chamber to the small portal that rippled with images from other dimensions. Inside its depths ghostly dead worlds existed beside vibrant civilisations living in permanent carnival. Places a Lustrelander could only conjure up in nightmare jostled with joyful worlds bustling with activity where the idea of any other existence never entered anyone’s dreams.
Rimonay could have sent Bruno to any one of them; he just hoped that she chose a world not populated by anything red or reptilian.