|"This spade must be magical," Anabyl said. "The earth's just flying out of this grave."|
The door was stout wood. Someone had built it to endure rather than to be ornate; a slab of wood on long metal hinges, a large lock housing and a metal ring handle. The air of foreboding that surrounded it was probably accidental. Probably.
"Well, I wasn't expecting that," Lester said.
"What? After the strange room, dark tunnel and the mirrored dragon? Let alone the frosty topping: a series of rooms furnished by the 'Popular Dungeon Factory Warehouse'?" James asked, not even making an effort to conceal his incredulity. "What were you expecting to find at the top of an ominous wide spiral stair case hewn into the dark granite cave walls? An open plan pine kitchen flowing through to a chic modern living area in a trendy condominium dwelling?"
"I have no idea what half the words you just said mean," Lester replied. "I can still tell that they were, in the main, hurtful and grouchy."
"Are we going to open it?" the princess asked.
"I don't know if we should," Lester said. He was beginning to tire of the constant parade of ominous portals that his life had become. Life had taken a bleak downturn since falling off that broom through the skylight. His fatigue was, in one sense, impressive seeing as this was only the second actual door he had encountered. The cellar complex they'd left behind was filled with gates sporting heavy locks and spiky tops and bottoms.
"Well, what else should we do?" the princess demanded, she was a young lady, it appeared, perpetually on the edge of completely losing her temper. "We can't stay down here."
"She has a point," James pointed out.
"Maybe there's another way out," Lester said, although even he wasn't convinced by that argument.
"I don't care," the princess said. "I'm going to open the door."
She strode over to the massive wooden slab and pulled at the handle. The mechanism unlocked with a quiet click and the door swung silently outwards.
"I'm sensing a theme," James said. "No tigers again."
"What a shame," the princess said. "Tigers would have been fun."
Lester and James swapped a glance. The princess definitely had a strange definition of fun.
By the time they had looked back the princess had already wandered off into the corridor beyond.
"Uh, Arabella!" Lester called out.
"Anabyl," the princess called back. "No 'ah' at the end. Just Anabyl."
"Yes, but, be careful," Lester said. "There could be, um, monsters."
"Oh, yes," Princess Anabyl said, slowing her pace. "I definitely wouldn't want to miss that, thanks for telling me."
"No," Lester said, "I didn't mean..."
But it was too late. Anabyl had already turned a corner and was heading further up into the building beyond.
"Well, are we just going to stand here?" James asked. "Or are we going to let the little girl clear the way for us?"
"Oh, no, I mean, uh, of course not," Lester said and picked up the pace to a light jog. He could feel James's claws digging into his shirt sleeve as he ran to catch up with their small but fearless companion.
Around the corner at the end of the short corridor was a long walkway that opened up into a covered passage up the side of a mountain. Great stone arches divided up the spectacular vista displayed upon the left hand side. On the right the rock face of the mountain was mostly untouched. In a few places the surface appeared to have had large spikes and jagged edges removed to make the wall smoother.
"Where are we?" Lester asked, awestruck. He was not even sure who he was asking the question to. It seemed inconceivable to Lester that many people would be familiar with a strange place like this.
"Looks like a sorcerer's castle," Princess Anabyl said. "They have all sorts of weird rooms, strange dungeons and stuff."
"I hope he's a friendly sorcerer," Lester said.
"I doubt a sorcerer who lives in a place like this would be friendly," Princess Anabyl said, without a hint of worry infecting her tone. "Doctor Dweezlepuff says that most sorcerers are just nasty. The ones who get big castles on the top of mountains are the worst of all."
The princess continued blithely on her way up towards the gates now visible in the distance. The path curved around as it climbed upwards and they had already covered half the distance. Lester found himself slowing down, not keen on the idea of evil sorcerers. Yet, as the princess continued onwards without a care in the world, he couldn't quite bring himself to stop.
"Er, shouldn't we, um, be, you know, a bit more careful then?" he asked. "I mean, I've never met a sorcerer and... ah... well, if he's going to be mean..."
"He's probably dead," James said. "Many of the more notorious sorcerers are. They don't have a huge life spans due to the fact that everybody hates them. Kings will task entire armies with the job of killing them. When you have a party of a couple of thousand men wanting to do you in it tends to shorten your life expectancy."
"How do you know?" Lester asked.
"Hello there, my name is James, I'm currently a mouse but I'm starting to remember that I was once something else, how do you do," James said. Then after a microscopic pause. "Oh, yes, I forgot that we already did that... twice. Do try to keep up."
"Well, I'm not sure who the expert is now," Lester said. He had finally lost his temper and given free rein to the full and awesome power of his very mild tendency towards being a bit crabby. "I just think it is a bit unwise. You know, to go strolling into the castle of a powerful and evil sorcerer who is entirely likely to do something... horrible to us. Sorry for asking questions."
"What are we supposed to do?" Princess Anabyl shrugged. "There's only one way to go. We can't just stand around moaning and crying like pathetic little girls."
Lester was saved from the trouble that blurting out: 'But you _are_ a little girl' would have bought him when James said:
"Sorcerers in castles usually can't keep track of the whole place at once, anyway. They have to rely on a security system, magic mirrors, familiar imps, flying monkeys all that sort of thing."
"That still sounds somewhat dangerous," Lester said. He couldn't help but notice that they were only about twenty feet from the enormous black metal gates now. The steelwork was impressive. Blade like tubes of steel laced through the gate, forming an intricate pattern. The web of metal wove together at the summit to make a strange, magical sigil.
"The good thing is," James said. "That most of the creatures a sorcerer binds to guard his palace can't stand the sight of him, except for flying monkeys. Flying monkeys are loyal. Green, yes. Expensive taste in jackets, sure, but loyal as they come; it doesn't help that they're also damnably stupid."
"So we might be fine as long as there are no flying monkeys?" Lester asked, sounding bewildered and exhausted all at once.
Neither James nor the princess had a chance to answer Lester's question. As they came within a few paces of the gates, some of the metal bent out of its original shape. The air filled with a mighty scraping noise, like nails down a chalk board. The metal contorted into the shape of an ugly face that proclaimed:
"No flying monkeys in the Pleasure Dome of Vikor Moorshade! Halt strangers!"
The small party stopped.
"So, is Mr Moorshade at home?" Princess Anabyl asked. "Tell him that a real princess is at the gate and if he isn't suitably impressed he's in a jolly big pile of trouble."
"The master is, regrettably, deceased," the gate explained. "Which is a shame for him, really. He would have taken great interest in finding out how anyone had managed to break into his research dungeon when he was alive. When you take his death into account, that could only have increased his curiosity. Let alone the intriguing composition of the party: a princess, a talking mouse and a foppish lackadaisy."
"Um," Lester didn't know where to start with being described as a 'foppish lackadaisy' by a talking gate. He decided that he had nothing so he kept quiet.
"So can we come in?" the princess asked. "We really just want to get out and go home, if it's convenient. Of course if there's any big pieces of interesting treasure... Or, even better, fascinating weaponry, lying about in there I might have to call finders keepers."
"Weaponry?" James said but everyone was too interested in the gate's response to pay much attention.
"I suppose that would be fine," the gate said. "There were no standing orders when that young man left with his prize. It was all a bit of shambles to be honest, he left his sword behind and everything."
"Sword?" Anabyl said. "Is it a magic sword?"
"It is," the gate said. "And as such I have a boon to ask regards that particular enchanted item."
"Which is?" Lester asked, he wanted to convey the message that he was being careful in his questioning. The nasal tone he employed meant he ended up feeling like he just sounded a bit stupid.
"Well, as you can imagine, being a metal ifrit bound into a heavy gate for four centuries with no one to talk to is a terrible and tedious fate. If you could bring the sword down here and touch it against the frame I would be able to, sort of, decant, using the ambient magic field. I would boost the sword's enchantment and then, well, let's just say it would be a good career move. It would give me an opportunity to see the world. So, yes, if it would be alright by you..."
"I don't see a problem with that," James said.
"Hold on a minute," Lester said. "I mean, I don't want to be rude, but... I can't help but notice that you're a large and forbidding metal gate. One that guards the walkway from an evil sorcerer's castle..."
"Pleasure Dome," the gate corrected him. "He read a poem about one once, he liked the ring of it. If anyone called the property a castle he had a habit of burying them alive."
"If I were a proper cross sorcerer," Princess Anabyl said. "I think I would be more inclined to bury my enemies dead."
"Hang on a minute here!" Lester said. "I am not sure we can all just place our faith in the good intentions of an evil gate."
"What choice do you have?" the gate said. "If I don't open you won't be able to make me. I'm also connected to the portcullis, if you don't let me go I can keep you trapped here forever."
"See!" Lester said. "Evil gate!"
"Gate that wants a few more career options. Be fair, he has had four centuries to gain an assertive attitude in business dealings," James said. "I have to say, I personally can't blame him. Stop being a bore, Lester."
"But, I..." Lester said.
"Stop being a bore, Lester," Princess Anabyl said. "Of course we'll put you in the sword," she said to the gate.
"Glad to see some of you have sense," the gate said. "The master died with the sword sticking through his chest up in the grand hall. Just follow the stairs around and take the big archway on your right at the top."
With that the face disappeared in another groaning screech of twisting metal and the gates swung open.
"Come on," Princess Anabyl. "First one to the top gets to be the best princess."
It was a race Lester didn't try too hard to win.
The inside of Moorshade's Pleasure Dome was both opulently grand and extremely chilly. It was clear the late sorcerer had a taste for marble in black and blood red. It left the impression you were taking a walk round the coiled intestinal tract of a gigantic, fossilised snake.
The sorcerer's grand hall was an overwrought affair. If the interior design was a reflection of the owner's ego then Vikor Moorshade had a disturbingly high opinion of himself. There were massive gold chandeliers hung high in the black marble ceilings. Red marble columns defined a long sparkling parade up to an enormous plinth. The sweeping curves of a smug throne squatted at the summit.
At the foot of the plinth's stairway was a sadly chaotic jumble of skeletal scree. All that remained of Vikor Moonshade. A silver short sword stuck into the air through the ribcage.
"Hey, look at this!" Princess Anabyl said, ignoring the skeleton for a moment and taking a look at an unusual feature on the right hand side of the throne dais. A small grave site, covered over with soft earth, formed an incongruous, grisly ornament.
"'Here lies, Phoebe September. In accordance with her wishes placed at her master's right hand over her dead body'," Anabyl read. "And look, there's a broom over the gravestone, and a spade, there's something else written on the handle of the spade... 'To be used in case of forgiveness'. What do you suppose that means?"
Lester had approached the skeleton. The thing that disturbed him most was that Vikor Moorshade appeared to have had a skull made out of gold. He found his conscience divided between a desire to steal the item and to never ever see it again as long as he lived.
Turning his attention away from the skull he picked up the silver short sword. He examined an engraving etched into the blade: a shooting star.
"Nice sword," he said quietly.
"Much expertise in the field of weaponry?" James asked. His voice so dry you could have toweled off with it.
"Not as such," Lester replied. "I can still tell that this is a nice sword. You can tell that just by looking at it."
"Maybe you want to be spending less time on amateur sword appraisal," James said. "And more time addressing the arising situation with the tiny grave robber."
"What?" said Lester and turned to see Princess Anabyl digging away at the grave site with what might be described as unholy vigour. "Oh, hey no!" he cried out running towards her.
"This spade must be magical," Anabyl said. "The earth's just flying out of this grave."
"What are you doing?" Lester demanded.
"I'm using the spade. It says 'in case of forgiveness' but I think that was a reminder for the evil sorcerer and he's dead," Anabyl said.
"Yes and someone else is dead down there!" Lester objected.
"The gate said he liked to bury people alive," Anabyl replied.
"She's right," James supplied unhelpfully, "it did."
"But... but..." Lester said. "Whoever's in there will have been down there for four centuries. They're going to be shrivelled and rotten and... oh... gosh..."
In a matter of minutes Anabyl had excavated the grave, unearthing a coffin made from a gold filigree. The gold formed a frame. The spaces in that frame were filled with panes of crystal clear glass. The occupant was not, in fact, shriveled or rotten.
"She's beautiful," Lester said. He felt a bit creepy having his heart in his mouth over a body in a coffin, however well preserved, but he couldn't help himself. The woman inside the coffin definitely was beautiful. She had long, sleek dark hair, high cheekbones and coffee coloured skin. Lester thought that she looked exotic and dangerous.
"You are soppy," Princess Anabyl said. "Soppy as a wet, soppy fish." She made hacking pukey noises as she tested the lid of the coffin for catches.
Her mock-vomiting did not stop her finding the latch for the lid and the coffin sprang open, its hinges augmented by springs. The body of the woman began to glow and coloured patches of light swam around her. A harmonic note thronged through out the Pleasure Dome's vaulted roof and the woman began to levitate out of the coffin.
"Brilliant!" Anabyl breathed as the body rose up. Lester's awe at the woman's good looks found itself squashed by a cautionary flutter in his stomach. It was evident that powerful magic was here present.
The woman's body tipped up till to orient her vertically. Her eyes fluttered open, they were big eyes and rainbow-fire irises shone around dark pupils. She was both gorgeous and completely terrifying at once.
"Vikor Moorshade!" she said, and her voice thrummed with magical power and boiling fury. "I will raze your precious palace to the ground! I will hammer you and your ego flat beneath these marble hallways."
As good as her word she flung out her arms and there was a crack like thunder. The noise was actually caused by the stone floor breaking apart, dust and rubble sifted down from high above their heads.
"Uh, young lady," James called out. "I think you'll find the sorcerer's already dead."
Sealed in a glass coffin by an evil sorcerer for four centuries, it would seem that Phoebe September was in no mood to listen. The palace foundations continued to shake.
"This is amazing!" Princess Anabyl shouted, a smile painted from ear to ear.
"Let's hope you're still so pleased with yourself when we're all dead," Lester complained.
They would never find out if the little princess would be, because they didn't die. But what happened next is a story for another day.