"How long is it until noon bell?"
James sighed. He had never realised before how impatient Lester could be. He had no way of knowing the precise time but it couldn't be more than half an hour after mid-morning bell. Lester had already asked his question five times.
"What's the problem?" James asked him refusing to say 'five minutes less than the last time you asked' again. "Yes, we have to stay still, but it's not the most tedious environment in the world. There's hustle and bustle, the various colours and shades of a dynamic market town. It could be much worse."
"That's your opinion," Lester said. "We have to wait here for ages and do nothing. That's not right."
"Well, what else could we be doing?" James asked. "Neither of us can do magic and neither of us are really cut out for cage fighting. Even if they had a rodent league. I don't think I'd be very good. I don't like the thought of hurting anyone, even a mouse."
Lester took a look about, at the market in the square, at the archway that housed the market bell, at the streets of Steephill Fell laid out beyond the market.
"We could spend a little more time looking for the trader's wagon," Lester said. "After all no one will be making a bronze mark within the next twenty minutes, probably."
"Phoebe told us to stay here," James said.
"Well, so?" Lester said. "She doesn't own us. We're free agents."
"That's a bit of a change in attitude," James said. "A couple of days ago it was yes Phoebe, no Phoebe, three bags full Phoebe."
"Three bags full of what?" Lester demanded, his annoyance somewhat undermined by the random thing he had chosen to identify as the source of his annoyance.
"Wool," James said. "Like in the nursery rhyme, you know, yes sir, yes sir, three bags full... one for the master... one for the dame... and one for... the little boy... down the... you don't have any idea what I'm talking about, do you?"
"Don't worry," Lester said. "I've met a lot of strange people, you're not the strangest. You're just a bit crazy and you make up new words and it's like you talk in a completely foreign language sometimes. It's really kind of endearing, in a way."
"Well, anyway," James said. "I had received the impression that you had a bit of a fancy for the irritable witch, what's changed?"
"I don't know," Lester said. "Well, I do, I think Cobb likes her too and I can't compete with that. Besides, when we met Princess Butterstone I realised, well, I just like pretty girls, any pretty girls without any sort of discrimination; particularly the ones armed with dangerous weapons... is that weird?"
"A thousand teenage boys with internet connections would tell you no," James sighed. "As for the rest of us..."
"There you go again," Lester said, "talking complete gibberish, what's an 'into net'? And what does one 'connect' it with?"
"The internet," James said. "You know, the computer network, with all the pictures of naked ladies, and people arguing about Star Wars, and the emails filled with spam and malware?"
"I was with you right up to 'the'," realising that needed qualifying, Lester qualified it: "the first one.".
"Now that you come to mention it," James said. "I had noticed a distinct lack of technology in these parts. I think I'm quite angry. I'm the wrong species, I'm lost in the wrong world and I've lost my daughter." James stopped. There was a period of heavy silence. "Oh," James said. "My."
"You're talking about Rachel, aren't you?" Lester asked. "Rachel is your daughter."
"I don't like this," James complained. "My head's like a house full of stuff, but it's all in the wrong rooms, the settee is in the bathroom and the oven is in the garage. Every so often something suddenly goes back where it's supposed to be but all that does is make the rest of it seem even more confused." James felt the hideously heartbreaking cute of tiny mouse tears at the corner of his tiny mouse eyes. He couldn't give into the terrible sentiment of the mental image. "Hang it!" he said loudly. "You're right Lester, Phoebe's not the boss of us, let's go look for that wagon."
"Okay," Lester said, a smile spreading across his face. "Let's do it."
They started the rebellion small wandering in a broken circle around the fringes of the market and poking their head down a few of the streets always keeping the archway in sight. They'd already taken a look around the market when it was opening up so they opted, instead to have a quick walk about Steephill Fell proper.
It didn't take them long to find the high street where a number of more permanent shops were set up selling all the things the modern resident of the Crossway Realms could wish to buy. There was everything here from gentleman's outfitters to suppliers of magical trinkets, to shops crammed full of curios from far off Kingdoms.
Further along the main thoroughfare were a number of smaller shops and the road splintered into a number of specialist arcades, one for cobblers and tanners, one for dealers in fresh vegetables, one for fishmongers and one for tradesmen specialising in the repair of various items.
A little further along still and the road changed its nature to become more residential, interrupted by the presence of the odd tavern. It was while taking a cursory glance around these streets that James noticed the trader's wagon.
At least, he presumed it was a trader's wagon. It was a tall covered wagon painted in bright colours and bearing the legend 'Riseandshine & Titsadaisy - Goblin Merchants'. Beside the wagon was a nine foot tall metal statue of a man. That feature seemed a bit out of place, stood, as it was, in the gutter. James decided he had better things to worry about, such as catching up with his freshly remembered daughter.
"Lester," he said. "I think we may have found what we're looking for."
Lester turned to look at the wagon.
"Well, technically I'm looking for my brother," he said. "And I only have the word of a strange man in a tall hat that this is the way to find him. That does look like what you are looking for, though, yes."
"Well, come on then," James said, refusing to feel guilty about Lester's brother for the time being, "let's get over there."
Lester crossed the street and walked up to the wagon. As he approached the statue it surprised James by turning out not to be a statue but, in fact, a man made out of metal. Another piece of furniture dislodged itself in James's mind and slotted into a space that allowed James to understand its nature. This metal monster was an iron golem.
Golems were rare now, although once there had been an age when golems were widespread, many had since been smashed or melted down. There were many stories about golems and the problems they could cause because of their nature.
"Not so fast," the golem said, appropriately enough in quite a deep, slow voice. "This wagon is private property."
"Oh," Lester said. "I'm sorry, it's just it... well, we're looking for the owner is he about?"
"Mr Riseandshine is currently out on business," the golem replied.
"Oh, okay," Lester said. The trail end of the remark left James in no doubt that his companion was rapidly running out of conversational road.
"It's not really Mr. Riseandshine we wish to speak with," James said. "It's Rachel, the little girl he's travelling with."
"There's nobody here," the golem said. "Just Felix. Felix just watches the cart. Says 'Not so fast' if people come near. That's Felix job. Security."
There was a motion from the direction of the wagon, James looked over to see what had moved. The flapping wings and giant golden eyes set every rodent nerve in James's little mouse body alight with a keen instinctive pain. Without even thinking James scrambled forward and dove into Lester's top pocket, where he crouched in the darkness waiting for the vision of the death's head to fade from his retina.
"You can tell the mouse not to worry," said a voice that James didn't know. "I haven't been hungry ever since I died."
"Who are you?" Lester's voice asked.
"I am Micras Whitney," the other voice replied. "I live in the model castle in the back of the wagon. I am travelling with Tabarnas and Rachel."
His tiny rodent heart still thumping like a drum James risked poking his head out of the pocket to look at the monstrous form of the white owl perched on the edge of the wagon. Even knowing that this was a spirit form the creature was still terrifying to James's eyes.
There was a part of James that knew he was not a mouse, or at least was not meant to be a mouse. Right now, however, he was scampering about in a mouse body, with a mouse nervous system. This meant that his only thoughts regarding owls were running and hiding and desperate prayers about avoiding death.
"You know where they are?" James asked, sticking to the point, trying to control the quaver in his voice.
"Eos, she's a mermaid, she told me that they were going to the fishmonger's alley," Micras said. "Some kind of trouble."
That gave James something else to worry about. His daughter was in danger from fishmongers, something he didn't even really have a frame of reference for. This was the problem when parts of your identity were both old and new at the same time and then new information came in concerning the things that you hadn't even sorted out in your own head yet.
"When was this?" James's mouth said ignoring the sleet of nonsense that was happening in the rest of his mind.
"It was just after evening bell, yesterday," Micras said.
"That's over twelve hours ago!" James said. "You haven't seen any sign of her since then?"
"Tabarnas, Eos and Gerda, he's the other Iron Golem, they went off together, nobody's been back since," Micras said.
"Lester, you've got to take me to the fishmonger's alley, right now," James said.
"Yes, I will," Lester said. James got the impression that things were moving a bit too fast for Lester but that couldn't be helped, every tiny ounce of James's little mouse body was desperate to find his daughter and make sure she was safe. Vagueness and confusion would not be tolerated.
"Um, bye," Lester said to the golem and to Micras as he hurried back out onto the main street and up towards the entrance of the fishmonger's alley. They headed up the alley with the strongest briny smell emerging from it and found it lead into a quaint covered arcade that contained a number of fish stalls all offering a variety of seafood for sale.
"Now what?" Lester said.
"Ask someone," James said desperately. "I would but this isn't the time for 'oh, a talking mouse' and all that rubbish, please, Lester."
To be fair to him Lester finally got over James's panic and methodically went from stall to stall asking if anyone had seen a little girl, a goblin merchant, a mermaid or an iron golem. Right at the back of the alley there was a final stall that appeared to be offering a wide variety of pickled seafood in various glass jars. The stink from this stall was particularly strong and, as such, it was alone at the end of the alley opposite a dead blank wall of stout stone bricks.
Lester approached the old man tending the pickle stall.
"Excuse me," he said. "I don't suppose that you've seen a little girl come this way? Or possibly a goblin-"
The old man held up his hand for silence. Lester stopped talking.
"I'll tell you as I told the rest," he said. "She went through the magic door yonder." He pointed at the wall opposite the store front. "I said to her, be careful, you'll slip through the door if you mess about there, she didn't listen."
Lester looked at the wall and then back to the pickled fish merchant.
"Magic door?" he said.
"How do we get through?" James cut in no longer caring about the inevitable talking mouse comment that was bound to follow.
"You play patty cake with the bricks," the merchant said, fixing James with a serious stare. "The door opens, as I understand the thing it will take you where you need to go."
"Well, that's handy," James said. "Because I need to find my daughter."
"I didn't see no mice go through there, but then mice are small," the merchant said.
James couldn't be bothered to explain.
"Lester, let's move," he said to his companion.
"But," Lester said. "Magic door, does it work both ways?"
"I've seen people come out from time to time," the merchant said. "Never the same as went in."
"Lester," James said, trying his utmost to make his tone of voice dangerous, this continued not to work.
"Phoebe said..." Lester began.
"Phoebe said what she said because she assumed we would have to travel further to catch up with the trader's wagon," James replied quickly, hearing the impatient grate to his tone of voice. "We've found the wagon and the only thing standing between me and my daughter now is you and a game of patty cake with a wall. Don't argue with me Lester."
At this point Lester could very well have said: 'Or you'll do what? Poop in my shirt pocket?', but he didn't. It was one of the few occasions that James was glad that Lester constantly appeared to be about three moves behind everyone else.
He dutifully stood and patted the wall whilst reciting some rhyme about bakers. Upon completion of the first couplet the next slap turned into a swish as Lester's hand passed straight through the apparently solid brickwork of the stone wall.
"Door's open," said the merchant behind them.
"Go on," James said. "Walk through."
Lester paused for just a moment but then he stepped towards the wall and on through the stone bricks. James didn't know how the experience might have affected Lester but his ears popped and his paws went numb. The temperature of the atmosphere suddenly dropped from comfortable to cold. The light levels sunk dramatically.
For a few moments it was impossible to see anything in the gloom but eventually James's eyes adjusted. They were in some sort of cellar, lit only through thin slits cut into the top of the walls below the ceiling.
"I'm getting a sense of deja dungeon," James said. "How about you?"
Lester instantly turned one hundred and eighty degrees and pressed his hand up to the wall at his back. He played patty cake with the wall. It stubbornly remained a wall.
"Well," Lester said. "We're stuck here now, I hope you're happy with yourself."
"Lester," James said. "My daughter could be here, wherever we are. We are travelling towards my daughter. I don't really care about the operating methods of magic one-way doors."
"I'm just saying," Lester grumbled, "I don't like places like this."
"It's a dungeon," James said. "We've survived worse. Come on, you're on your way to being a seasoned adventurer. This is your second dingy castle in a week. Let's check the rest of the place out, see what kind of evil doer buried grumpy witches in this place. Your next crush might only be six feet of loosely packed earth away."
"You're not funny," Lester said. "Not at all."
"So shut me up by taking in the sights," James insisted.
Reluctantly Lester wandered out of the bare stone room they'd arrived in and down a number of even murkier corridors until he found a set of steps leading up. The ground level was less damp than the cellar, but that just meant it reeked of age and dust. Lester walked from empty room to empty room, occasionally discovering the remains of some forlorn item of furniture but no evidence of anything alive.
"What is it with the empty places?" Lester asked. "Mountain strongholds, weird stone houses, why can't we ever go anywhere nice?"
"The town was quite nice," James pointed out. "The one we just left, not the witch burny one. The Patchwork Market's a fun place to be, very vibrant."
"And then we leave," Lester said. "And come to a place like this. Oh, what's that?"
In a small room behind the remains of a kitchen Lester had spotted an hourglass resting on a shelf. There was a small metal plaque screwed into the wall above it. Lester approached the artifact to read the plate. Engraved into the metal was a short message:
Come, spend an hour and visit with us.
"What do you suppose that means?" Lester said.
"You've clearly never played a point and click adventure," James replied. "It means turn over the hourglass."
"I think I understood half of that," Lester said, reaching out for one of the wooden rods that formed the hourglass housing.
Before his fingers made contact there was the sound of breaking glass from a room behind them. Lester withdrew his hand as if his fingers had been burned.
"It wasn't me!" he protested.
"No, and it wasn't me either," James said. "So that begs the question, who was it?"
"So, what?" Lester asked. "Am I turning the hourglass or not?"
"Not before we find out what that noise was," James said. "Come on let's go back."
Sighing, Lester turned away from the hourglass and went back into the body of the house. Crossing the kitchen and a corridor they found the source of the glass breakage. Lying on the floor, surrounded by broken glass and tangled up with the snapped shaft of a broomstick was a figure James recognised instantly.
"You!" James said to the gnome. "What are you doing here?"
The gnome looked a little confused, he turned his head to the left and to the right trying to get his bearings.
"Oh," it said. "It's you, the nervous mouse."
"Yes," James said. "The nervous mouse. So how come you're here in this mysterious house."
"Well," the gnome said. "I'm always only allowed to travel within a certain range of either you or the little girl who made the wish," the gnome said. "For a while there you were separated by a vast distance, but now you're not. I think this broomstick has brought me back to within an acceptable proximity of both of you."
"You mean," James said breathlessly, "that Rachel is nearby?"
"Must be," the gnome said. "About as close as I was brought to you. I think this broomstick was from The Office. I don't like those guys. They're bossy."
"She's here!" James rejoiced, "she's within about thirty feet of where the gnome landed. Lester, we've got to find her, now."
"I got the message," Lester said.
The three of them ran around the house and out into the grounds surrounding it calling out Rachel's name. There was still no sign of her. They stood in the garden of the house, beside a neatly tended garden, outside the window the gnome's broom had crashed through and looked around hopelessly.
"I don't understand," James complained. "Your magic is broken," he addressed the gnome.
"Impossible," the gnome said. "There are few things in the world which are properly impossible but for my magic to be broken in this instance is one of them."
"Then where is she?" James asked.
"Hey," Lester said. "What's this?"
"Is it another hourglass?" James asked.
Lester wandered away from the house down onto the lawn and across to a simple stone sundial mounted on a column. A parcel was sitting on the dial face, wrapped in brown paper, tied up with red string.
"That's funny," Lester said. "This looks like one of the packages that... oh."
Lester picked up the parcel. Printed on it in neat block capitals was:
FAO LESTER TOPPING
"This is identical to the packages my brother used to send home," Lester said. "Absolutely identical."
"Well, but-" James was about to object to Lester enthusiastically untying the package but having just had a brush with fresh hope himself he checked his skepticism for the moment.
Inside the package was a small bottle of yellow liquid and a note. Lester opened the note and read it out:
"'Dearest Brother'." He paused and smiled. "That's me, oh wow, this is incredible," Lester paused again before continuing to read. "'I'm afraid I am short on time so must be brief. Keep the potion safe, you will know when you need to use it. Turn the hourglass in the pantry and continue on your journey. I will make contact again when the weave permits. Your Loving Brother, Chester Topping Esquire.'"
James looked up into Lester's face, the young man's eyes shining with tears.
"Well," James said. "Are we going to do it? Turn the hourglass?"
"Of course," Lester said. "If Chester said to do it then we have to."
So they did, but what happened next is a story for another time.