Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Long Road Home

The little girl in the green pyjamas watched the snow fall out of the upstairs window. She had, to her own certain knowledge, never seen snow before because she had lived almost her entire life in a jungle, living in a tree hollow under the shadow of the Great Skull Rock. The little girl, whose name as we should realise by now was Rachel Rummage, had lived a peaceful life, never wanting for anything, never cold, never hungry but a prisoner all the same, sleeping nights in terror of the giant bat that lived in the hollowed out cave at the summit of the Great Skull Rock.

Rebecca's father, James, assured her that in Levercastle snow fell every Christmas, after which he had kindly explained Christmas to her. Rachel imagined that being cold was always unpleasant, that long nights would make her feel sad and that having to wear wellington boots to avoid wet feet in snow would be a tiresome chore. She was surprised to find that all these things were bearable if you could live in a warm, cosy house called Rainbow Reach with your mother and your father. She had also imagined that living in the world of men, far away from Faerie, would mean she missed all the friends she had made after she had left the Skull Garden.

Happily she did not have to get used to a life where she never saw the brave Sir Cobb, the powerful Phoebe September or the mighty Princess Anabyl Spireshine. Levercastle was a town unlike many others where the little holes in reality that allow the world of men and the world of folk to interact are many. The residents of Levercastle are generally happy with the arrangement because many of them have stories like Rachel's and know that there is more to the world than might, at first, meet the eye.

"Hey you, time for bed means time to get into bed, not time to loll around on the window seat in your pyjamas," said dad, James, coming in to Rachel's bedroom.

"I was just looking at the snow," Rachel said. "Remember I've never seen snow before."

"So which would you rather?" James asked. "Look at snow or hear a bedtime story."

"How about hear a story while watching the snow?" Rachel asked.

James sighed and sat down next to his daughter on the window seat. He watched the snow flakes with her for a minute. Then he asked:

"What story do you want to hear?"

"Tell me a story about when we came here, when Lester opened his brother's grave," Rachel said.

"That only happened in September, honey," James said. "Don't you want a story about Avan Weatherstrong, or one of the stories about Anabyl when she escaped the Terra Draconis after the Vanishing, I just got a parcel from the Archive chronicling Sir Cobb's journey through the Upside Out."

"No, I want to enjoy remembering what happened three months ago," Rachel said. "I just want to hear it like it's a story, but to know I was there."

"Okay," James said. "I guess that would be fun, in a weird kind of a way."

And so James recounted the events of three months previously, as if it was a story, but both of them knew that all of this had really happened:

So the story goes there was once a man who lost his brother and could not find him no matter where he looked. In the end, out of desperation, the man tracked down the Master of Mischief to ask for help with his quest.

"Are you quite sure you want to find your brother?" the Master of Mischief asked. "You may not like what you find."

"All I want in this world is to see my brother's face once more," the man said. "Please help me, or if you will not then send me on my way, for I know that you are prone to play games. I know that not all of your games are kind."

"Do you understand the threads I would have to pull? The patterns I would have to break? The mischief I would have to do to give you your heart's desire?" the Master of Mischief asked.

"If I knew what needed to be done to find my brother," the man replied. "Then I would not bother you. Please, will you help me?"

The Master of Mischief smiled his smile, the only part of the Master of Mischief that remains the same no matter which particular face he has chosen to wear that day. The Master of Mischief knows more than he ought to, for which reason the Master of Mischief lies to people, but always for the betterment of all worlds, or so he tells us.

"I am in a good mood today," the Master of Mischief said. "So I will help you. Go to death's garden and dig with a spade. You will find your brother under the earth."

And that is where the story ends. Well, most versions of the story, for stories are lies, and stories are mischief of the purest kind in all places but one. The one place where all stories are reflections, or chronicles, or accounts is the Faerie Archive at Sommerslip. The story is told there almost as rendered above, but there is one major difference. After the Master of Mischief says 'So I will help you' the sentence ends. Underneath is printed, in neat block capitals:


Of course Lester Topping didn't know any of that. As far as Lester Topping was concerned he had received a letter from his twin brother Chester recounting that Chester had stopped off in Bridgetown to pick up some supplies and was heading on in three days to a distant shadow.

Having become quite lonely without the companionship of his brother Lester had raced to Bridgetown, got himself lost, missed the window to meet up with his brother and been asked by a curious man in a tall hat to watch a mermaid in a tank. None of that resembled the story of the man who had sought the assistance of the Master of Mischief for help with looking for his brother, for that reason no one who knew the story and travelled with Lester put the two things together, not even Lester himself.

This is how the Master of Mischief works. He lies. For the betterment of all worlds, or so he tells us.

So when Lester Topping found himself in death's garden, looking down at a small wooden box revealed within the tomb that, allegedly, marked the remains of his twin brother, his confusion was, perhaps, understandable.

He was glad that the tomb did not appear to contain Chester's remains, Lester could only imagine how upsetting that would be. Still, that did not completely rule out the possibility that within the small wooden box was an urn containing Chester's ashes. There was no note or inscription to explain the tomb's contents, Chester had proven himself an avid communicator, the content of his communications was gnomic at best.

"You should probably open it," Phoebe said, standing with the others, respectfully, at the edge of the grave site. "You have looked for this place for a long time. Whatever is in there will be your answer."

Would it? Lester wondered as he approached the box and lifted it out of its hollow by the two brass handles hanging from the sides. He knew that it should but now that he was, in theory, at the end of his journey he couldn't convince his brain that the moment was at hand.

The box was not heavy. It had, rather, a reassuring solidity that strongly implied the container's importance. The wood of the box was a nice golden brown, not too dark, not too light, like the burnished surface of a fiddle. Brass corners had been fitted to prevent the wood finish from scuffing or splintering. The handles in the side held firm, appearing as if they were part of the wooden body of the box itself. The craftsmanship of the item could not be second guessed, it was impressive in its simplicity.

There was no lock on the box, just a simple latch, a switch that moved from right to left, embossed with the symbol of the hourglass. With a smooth click the lid was open, Lester lifted the lid on well-oiled hinges to reveal the contents.

The box did not contain an urn filled with ashes. It contained a brass hand mirror, its reflecting surface turned down to rest on a cushion of red velvet. Without even thinking about it Lester picked up the mirror to look at his face.

"What is it?" someone asked, he thought it was Eos.

"I don't know, exactly," Lester said, studying his face in the mirror. "Oh, this mirror is broken."

"What do you mean?" Frederick asked. "Is it cracked? It must have cracked before someone put it in there, no shock would reach it through the earth and the rock and the box and the padding."

"No," Lester said. "It's not cracked. It's just when I talk my lips don't move. My whole face is stuck, like a photograph. I can't even... ah, no. I can wink. I can see my eye it looks like its inside something, like I'm wearing glasses or..."

"Your face," Phoebe said. "It shows you that your face is a mask."

"It does," Lester said. "I've worn a mask, all this time. I didn't even know it." He stopped for a second, he could feel his face smirk although the image in the mirror remained completely still. "That means that when I was at Lady Crimzona's party I was wearing two masks, one on top of the other. How silly."

"Well," Rachel asked. "Aren't you going to take the mask off?"

"I had better," Lester said. "It's been far more fun than I thought it would be to wear a mask for all these days, but now I think, somehow, that it is far more important that I take the mask off. So, here goes."

Lester reached up under his chin and caught the edge of his Lester mask. He felt his false face lift off the surface of his real one. It came away easily, not even fixed to his head by a length of cord. Magic had kept Lester's mask in place, in the mirror it was easy to remove for it was all part of the same spell.

Before Lester could see his real face he turned away from the hand mirror to look at the blank white object in his hands. He looked up at the faces of his friends and smiled.

"How do I look?" he said, playing a game for he already knew.

"Honestly?" James said. "Exactly the same."

Chester's grin broadened, for now Lester knew that he was Chester, his own missing twin brother. The absurdity of disguising oneself as one's own identical twin brother was delicious to both of them. Chester realised that it was he who had felt a small twinge of regret at the need to remember all the things that made up Chester Topping, eccentric, traveller and alchemist. Lester wasn't good for much, that was all part of the mask, what Chester had discovered through Lester was a constant and abiding sense of innocent wonder at the world and all it contained. Sometimes, Chester knew, he was far too clever by half.

"I don't get it," Frederick said. "I don't mind being the first to say it but I am willing to bet I'm not the only one. I don't understand what's happening."

"It's all part of the plan, dear boy," Chester said to Frederick. "All part of my plan to get the Quintessence Crystal into the hands of people better suited to its guardianship than myself and poor Professor Rummage there."

"Professor Rummage?" the gnome asked looking up at James. "And here was I just thought he was a common or garden talking mouse when first we met."

James coloured red.

"I didn't, I don't... remember," he said. "I'm a professor? What of?"

"Well, mostly, folklore," Chester said. "It's a little more complicated than that. As far as the world we come from knows, Jimbo, you are an anthropologist and expert on the mythical beasts of world cultures. Anyone inside our social circle knows that you are the foremost expert on the natural history and evolutionary biology of such creatures, that's a key part to how we ended up in this pickle."

"Dragons," Anabyl chimed in. "James found out about the Vanishing, what had happened, where the crystal was."

"Indeed, brave knight," Chester said. "Most unfortunate for he was not the only party interested in the acquisition of such knowledge. As a consulting alchemist to the Grand Order of the Covenenant of Lies I was sent to Levercastle, Professor Rummage's place of residence, to ensure his safety, and the safety of his beautiful family.

"Alas, I was too late, by the time I arrived the wicked agents of Count Bartolomeo Okulas had already turned James into a mouse, saying that they would give him twenty-four hours to see sense and that they would return on the morrow when they expected he would share his secret. I had to think fast, I came up with a plan that was the child of expedience more than prudence.

"I am, in fact, rather glad that things have played out as they have. I cannot claim any particular good judgement on my own part in that, I rather think that I provided an opportunity for several wrongs to be righted in the great tapestry. Our stopgap measure was, therefore, exploited by the Master of Mischief rather than expedited by him."

"Oh, my dear Monsieur Topping," said a new voice that everyone recognised but nobody could place. "How desperately cynical of you. Why could I not merely have found myself in a giving humour?"

The curious man in the tall hat emerged from shadows that no one could remember being there a moment before.

"Apologies," Chester said to the Master of Mischief. "I did not intend my invocation to carry such strength."

"No apologies necessary, alchemist," the Master replied. "I came of my own volition. Mostly because I like to see those who do not wish to deal with me squirm. Partly because I am tired of this business and would like to see it done."

"What is there left?" asked Chester. "I think I have explained everything."

"Well," Frederick said. "There you and I are going to have to differ. I still don't really understand what's going on. You're not Lester, you're an alchemist who looks like himself and James the mouse is really a professor of dragons and there's something to do with Count Okulas, aside from that... I don't really know what we're all doing here."

"Allow me to fill in the gaps," the Master of Mischief said as his famous grin slowly painted itself from one of his ears to the other. "Chester and James were sought after for James's forbidden knowledge by Count Okulas. The one place Chester knew that James could be hidden that Okulas would not find was the same place that the Quintessence Crystal was hidden. James, his family and Chester came here, to the Skull Garden.

"When they all began to forget things Chester understood what was happening. He forged the Lester mask using the garden's own magic to make the enchantment more powerful," the Master shot a sidelong glance in Chester's direction. "That was very cunning by the way," he said, and then returned to his story. "Knowing nothing but the story Chester had told the mask Chester sent himself away to Bridgetown, Lester arrived. Such a bizarre and powerful magic suddenly manifesting in the Patchwork Market attracted my eye. I settled to study it immediately.

"When I understood what was happening I saw the potential to undo one of the most heinous acts that has ever been committed in all the lands of Faerie. The Vanishing of the Terra Draconis was a work of sorcery and witchcraft that, although literally diabolical, was outside my direct influence. Nobody said that I wasn't able to assist those who wished to put things right.

"My only problem is that, as Master of Mischief, I am one of the most powerful figures in the whole of creation. I have to be subtle if I want to weild my powers, hard as it is to believe I am not invincible. In short, I must be perceived to be neutral.

"So, I nipped reality, I tucked it, tipping people on particular paths down little back alleys of my own devising, ensuring that the great mechanism of mischief brought things out as they have become. Frederick, Phoebe, Anabyl, Eos, you are, between you, quite capable of guarding the Quintessence Crystal from the hands of evil doers. James, Chester, Rebecca and dear little Rachel, you are to be freed from a burden too great for you to bear."

"And what about me boss?" the gnome said. "When does the little girl's wish end?"

"It's not your place to ask such questions," the Master snapped at the gnome. "You'll live as I wish and be grateful for the opportunity."

"Yes boss," the gnome said miserably.

"Don't you talk to my friend like that!" Rachel cried out, outraged.

"Darling," Rebecca said. "That's the Master of Mischief, he's very important."

"I don't care how important he thinks he is," Rachel insisted. "The gnome's given me and James our wish, and helped out with all the other stuff too. I think he deserves to be free now and nobody should be rude to him, not even a scary man in a big hat."

"Dear Rachel," the Master said, kneeling down to bring their heights closer together. "You misunderstand. This gnome is not your friend. He is with you because he is bound to you. He is just an accidental random conglomeration of mischief that calls itself a gnome. I doubt he can feel emotions. He's nothing, really, beneath your notice."

"He's my friend," Rachel said. "And he's never done anything mean or horrible. I don't know what you're talking about but it sounds mean and horrible to me. Mean and horrible people are nothing. The gnome is the gnome."

The grin disappeared from the Master's face. Most were silent, the gnome and Rebecca drew in breath sharply.

"Sometimes," the Master said sadly. "It seems even I can forget my place. Very well Cholmondeley, you shall have your own garden, but first we should see to the end of the wish."

"And how do we do that, exactly?" Rachel asked. "If you know so much then you can help us. We haven't done very well at the job ourselves."

"Why, all the answers your poor father ever needed are behind this door," the Master said pointing to a simple wooden door in the base of the Skull Rock that had certainly not been there a moment before.

The Master opened the door and it was as if they were looking out of a house onto a street. Opposite their position was a small wooden fence, painted blue, that surrounded a two storey detached house completely surrounded by well defined, but slightly overgrown flower beds.

"Rainbow's Reach awaits Professor Rummage," the Master said. "And all the stories that you hold within your head will return within its walls. Once that is done so will Cholmondeley's work."

Saying goodbye to all the friends they had made on the long road home James, Rebecca, Rachel and Chester went through the Master's door and back to James's home where their long adventure had begun so many years before, or so it seemed.

When James remembered exactly who he was, and where he had been, and the nature of those things, he understood that life in the Skull Garden unfolded at a vastly different rate to time in his own world and he had, in fact, been gone only a single night as far as his world was concerned.

Unfortunately this meant that, unless Rachel wanted to squash into a crib, which she did not, she had to sleep that night in her parent's bed. None of them minded that arrangement at all and the next day a brand new bed was bought for the little girl who had grown up in the Skull Garden not knowing anything of who she was or where she came from.

The Guardians of the Quintessence Crystal took their responsibilities very seriously indeed, and their stories are even now depicted, along with all the rest, within the deep, dark stacks of the Faerie Archive. That would probably be the best place to read them for, although the Master of Mischief will claim that he can tell you what came next everyone knows that the Master lies to people. Although, you can be assured, he only does so for the betterment of all worlds. Or so he says himself.


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