Kaitlyn sat bolt upright, disturbed from her sleep by the strange noise. It could have just been a twig blowing against her window – but somehow she knew that was not the case. Blinking against the darkness, she glanced over, and barely choked back a scream. Two golden, goblin eyes glared through the glass at her and lit by the moonlight, a gnarled hand rested against the window. With one long bony finger the creature tapped.
Tap, tap, tap.
Forcing herself to crawl from beneath the protective covers, the girl strode across the room. Noting, as she neared it, how the goblin stopped tapping and gave her an expectant look, almost like a cat pleading to be let inside. Closer, it looked no less strange, its thick, dark fur plastered to its sides as rain streamed down around it.
She reached out, drawing the curtain firmly across, obscuring the goblin from view.
Returning to her bed, Kaitlyn allowed herself the luxury of crawling back beneath her sheets, trying to convince herself that it was a dream. Just a dream.
And then the tapping began again.
Fury replaced fear, and the girl sprang from her bed, flicking on her light in the process. Brightness flooded the room and she whipped up the tennis racquet that lay beside the bed. No horrible little goblin was going to disturb her sleep.
Drawing back the curtain so savagely she almost tore it, Kaitlyn peered out into the gloom. With the light behind her it made seeing anything out there much harder, but it did not take her long to realise that the creature had gone.
Somehow, with the lights on, it seemed less frightening, less real and she laughed at herself. It must have been the last vestiges of a dream. Sighing and shaking her head at her own stupidity, she turned from the window.
It was sitting on her bed and it was no dream. Not unless dreams dripped water all over her sheets. In the brightly lit room it was less eldritch, less goblin, and looked more like a pathetically wet cat or possum. Kaitlyn found she was no longer afraid of it.
“What are you doing here?” She hissed, trying to keep her voice low so as not to awaken her mother, in the next room. “How did you get in?”
They were not foolish, nervous questions – for Kaitlyn could speak the language of animals, and she asked them in cat. The creature met her gaze steadily.
“So it is true,” it said, “you are of his blood.” It bowed its head, bat-like ears dribbling water all over her sheets. “I have come to beg of you assistance, and also to warn you of a dark threat that loams above your family.”
Here it paused, turning those pale golden eyes to meet hers once more. “When you would not permit me entrance I took it upon myself to intrude. For this I am sorry, but my cause is a desperate and urgent one and I could not be delayed.”
Kaitlyn was having some trouble following all of this. It was, after all, the middle of the night and she had never known any animal to speak in such well-formed sentences. Perhaps she was just having a very strange and vivid dream. “Whose blood?” she asked.
“Oh, I must apologise,” the creature began again. “For although my matter is urgent and haste is of the essence I have forgotten my manners. I am called Mephistopheles. I am an aiay, Familiaral companion to Sebastian Laroque.” It drew back its lips here, revealing buck teeth in what she took was a smile. “Your father.”
The words stunned her, she had never known her father, and her mother rarely spoke of him. The tennis racquet, which she had wielded like a weapon, dropped from her fingers. “My father?” Then she regained her composure, snatching the racquet from the floor and stepping closer to the creature.
It drew back from her, everything in it radiating fear and submission. “Yes milady. Pray, please do be helping us.”
“Why?” she retaliated. “Why should I help a father who abandoned us? Out, get out. And don’t trouble us anymore.” She slashed the racquet through the air and the creature leapt to one side.
“Kaitlyn, what’s going on?” her mother called through the wall, “why are you shouting?”
“Sorry mum,” she called back, “just a bad dream. Sorry to disturb you.” She marched back to the window and swung it open. “You,” she snarled, “out, out now. And don’t you dare come back.”
In three short leaps the aiay bounded across the room, giving her a most reproachful glare. It sprung onto the window ledge and regarded her one last time. “Please,” it implored, “consider my request. It is true that your father is under the most dire threat, but the talon of the enemy may extend this far and tighten about your Juliet and yourself.” He paused again, and this time there was only sorrow in its words. “Do you not remember us at all?”
And with a final shake of its head, the strange creature leapt away, swallowed by the gloom.
Sleep was a long time in returning.
* * *
The following day dawned cold and wet. It was a Sunday, but Kaitlyn never slept in. Duke wouldn’t let her. The husky-cross nagged her as she ate her breakfast, urging her to come and run with him through the dripping bush land. Her mother was out, leaving a note wedged under the Weetbix box. A yearling calf from one of the neighbouring farms had become entangled in barbed wire and she had hurried out to treat it. It was a pity, because Kaitlyn had a great many questions she wanted to ask. Perhaps it had not been wise to shoo the strange creature away so eagerly. Surely it would be nice to learn more about her father? Obviously he could also understand the speech of the animals.
“Go out, walk. Now,” Duke pleaded, padding restlessly across the kitchen, his claws clicking on the linoleum. He was a loyal and loving companion, but had little in the way of brains. Most domesticated animals were basic in their thoughts and speech, Kaitlyn had noted. Even cats, although many non beast-speakers thought them smart. Most of the cats Kaitlyn had talked to thought of nothing more then eating and finding a pleasant patch of sun to stretch out in.
“Okay Dukie,” she relented, stepping into her running shoes. She wondered if Mephistopheles would be lurking in the woods and where he had come from. He was no New Zealand beastie, that was for certain. The rain had turned the paddocks to mud, but for the moment the sun made a weak effort at shining. A few bedraggled chickens pecked their way around the garden, snapping up worms stirred by the rain. Duke saw great sport in scattering them and Kaitlyn had to snap at him to “stop and leave the poor things alone”. Through the paddocks she jogged, pausing to scratch the two retired ponies, Trixie and Buttercup, and feed them a couple of crab-apples. The patch of native bush lay just beyond. It was the reason Juliet, Kaitlyn’s mother, had bought the farm, and had somehow survived decades of agriculture. The ground squished beneath her feet, leaf litter churned into a quagmire. Small streamlets trickled across the path and the trees sent frequent spatterings of water down her spine. Duke darted back and forth, trailing inviting scents and every so often placing his paws against a tree trunk and barking a challenge for the possums to “come down and face him.” Kaitlyn laughed and scoured the trees for any sight of the strange goblinish creature, but of him there was no sign.
“What would you have done, Dukie?” she asked, scratching the dog’s shaggy, damp ruff.
“Chase, bark, bite,” he replied, tongue lolling.
“Much use you would be,” she replied. “Come on, I’ll race you back to the house.”
Far above, his dark fur camouflaging him against the tree trunk, the aiay watched. She had the talent, that was certain, and a love of nature. Mephistopheles was certain she would be able to help, but perhaps he should have approached Juliet instead. The woman would certainly remember him. And how he had betrayed her. He sighed, shaking his head so his large ears flapped against the sides of his face. No, the girl was the answer – so fill of fire. If anyone could save Sebastian, it would be her.
Now all he had to do was persuade her. He glanced about, the hairs on his nape rising in apprehension. If The Talon did not find him and close upon him first, that was. An eerie cry echoed above the trees and he drew back. The Talon was here and both Kaitlyn and her mother were in great danger.
Kaitlyn also heard the bird’s cry, and paused, glancing back over her shoulder. A large predatory bird hovered above the trees. It was much larger then the harrier hawks that frequented the farmland, although its wings were stockier, more rounded.
And then suddenly it dropped, as though diving on prey.
* * *
It was not until much later that evening that Kaitlyn picked up the courage to confront her mother. All afternoon she had chewed over how to broach the topic, as she cleaned out the hen coop, brushed down the ponies and tried (rather in vain) to do her homework. Juliet was always taciturn when it came to the topic of Kaitlyn’s father, and after a time Kaitlyn had given up asking.
She decided that the best way to approach the topic was to jump straight in. “Mum,” she said casually, as they washed the dishes. “Does the name Mephistopheles mean anything to you?”
Her mother jumped, dropping a plate into the water with a great splash. “Where did you hear that name?”
There was no turning back now. “I had a rather unusual visitor last night,” she admitted. “A strange creature that called himself Mephistopheles, and said my father – and you, were in grave danger. He begged me to help him.”
Juliet’s hands were shaking as she twisted the dishcloth as though wringing an imaginary neck. “That little wretch came here,” she muttered. “And didn’t talk to me. Why that little…” She flung the dishcloth down and drew a deep breath. “Well Kaitlyn, I suppose it’s time I finally told you the whole story. And then you can decide for yourself what you should do. Come, let us sit down because it’s a long and very strange tale.”
Kaitlyn sat. Outside the wind intensified, howling and whistling through the trees, banging the garden gate against its post. A shiver passed down her spine.
“Your father’s name was, is, Sebastian Laroque,” she began. “And I first met him whilst on a field-trip with some of my University friends. We were listening for kiwi in a secluded patch of native bush and I had awoken early. At first I thought I was still dreaming, for here, wandering through this secluded forest, was a man dressed like one of the pirates of old. I thought him mad, and that is in fact an opinion I’m still not sure I’m ready to change. As I watched he whistled into the trees and some large grey-blue birds flew down. You’ve heard of the kokako?”
Kaitlyn nodded in response. “The blue-wattled is very rare and the orange-wattled extinct,” she replied. She was beginning to realise why her mother had never told her this story before – it sounded extremely far fetched and she doubted that she would have believed it, before last night.
“These were the orange-wattled. At that point they had not been seen for nearly sixty years. He called them down to him and they landed on his shoulders and head. Then he walked away with them. I followed – what else could I do? He was stealing extremely rare birds!”
The gate slammed again, more vigorously this time. Juliet cursed. “Damned thing. I really should get it fixed.” She pushed the chair back and stood up. “Well, if I don’t tie it now it’ll be halfway across the country tomorrow morning.”
Kaitlyn jumped up too. “Can’t it wait until you finish your story?” she pleaded, but her mother’s resolve would not be changed. The memories must be too painful to recollect, and any excuse was better then continuing. “Well, I’ll come with you then, we’ll get it done quicker.” And then you can continue with your tale, she added mentally.
It was very windy, and being early spring, the wind still carried with it the cruel bite of snow. Duke accompanied them, barking furiously at shadows and racing back and forth, highly agitated. He did not understand this invisible creature that ruffled his fur exactly the wrong way. Kaitlyn leaned against the gate, her weight holding it in place, whilst Juliet bound it sturdily to the post. They had almost finished in their task, when Duke suddenly went crazy. He positioned himself in front of them, fur bristling and snarling and barking at the darkness.
“Danger,” he cried. “Nasty, bad-thing comes. Must leave, must leave now.”
Juliet clasped her arm and Kaitlyn could feel all the hairs on her neck standing on end. Something was wrong. Something was coming. Clutching desperately to one another, the two females ran, sprinting across the shadowy lawn, towards the welcoming light, and sanctuary, of the house.
And from the shadows it came, moonlight glinting off its bulky armoured hide. On six spindly legs it scuttled, another two held before it. Wicked pinchers, like those of a crab or scorpion snapped at the empty air.
Duke charged it, barking maniacally, “Stay away, leave. Bite you good!” But it paid him no heed. He flung himself at it, snapping his jaws, but for all his courage he could not find purchase. One of the pinchers swatted him aside, tumbling into a rosebush with a yelp and whimper.
“Dukie!” Kaitlyn cried, and at that moment her mother stumbled, catching her foot. Although Juliet regained her footing almost immediately, the damage had been done. She limped, her injured ankle unable to bear much weight.
“Run Kait,” she cried, “get inside and close the door.”
And Kaitlyn ran, but not to escape. She snatched up the bootscraper resting beside the door, a heavy iron thing, and hefted it at the giant spider-crab with all her might. Her aim was true, the creature close, and one splintered pincher tumbled to the ground. Unfaltering, the spider-crab advanced further. It was fast, so fast. It snatched at Juliet with its remaining pincher, but she dodged at the last minute. Kaitlyn sought about furiously for something, anything, she could throw. But there was nothing.
The creature had backed her mother up against the wall of the house. Kaitlyn pounded at its glistening bulk, but its hide was like smoothed stone, and it paid her absolutely no heed. The pincher closed about Juliet’s arm and instantly she sagged as though into a deep sleep or a dead faint. The shell casing cracked open and from it sprang two wings, glinting like blades. So fast and sudden were they, Kaitlyn barely saw it before it struck her across the side of the head, sending her tumbling into the grass. Darkness consumed her.
She could only have been unconscious a few seconds, because when she opened her eyes once more it was to see the spider-crab lower her mother into the opening in its body, and then the wings closed once more.
“No!” She screamed, dragging herself to her feet, fighting the throbbing pain in her temple. “Give me back my mother!” She threw herself on the creature’s body, fingers clawing at the unrelenting armoured hide, fists slamming ineffectually against it. As before it ignored her, scuttling around and off into the night, Kaitlyn clinging to it tenaciously. It was fast, its pace erratic and its hide very smooth – eventually her grip gave way and the girl slid off its back and into the leaf litter. She was unable to do little more then watch as it disappeared into the darkness.
“I will find you,” she sobbed, blood trickling down the side of her head. “I will find you. And make it pay.” And then the shock overwhelmed her and she lay in the leaf litter, blubbering like an idiot.
It was Duke that broke her from her stunned state; Duke nuzzling her, licking her and pleading with her. “Alright? Don’t be hurted.” Taking hold of his shaggy ruff, she dragged herself to her knees and then stood up. The wing had cut her and now the blood had caked, leaf-litter clinging to her face. Standing up was a trial that sent with it spasms of pain at every movement.
“I have to find Mephistopheles,” she declared, and was shocked to find the words slurred. “Can you help me, Duke? Can you find the aiay, the goblin that was in my room last night?”
“Goblin,” Duke muttered. “No smell goblin, no smell aiay. Not find.” He whimpered in his despair.
Kaitlyn took a deep breath. “Mephistopheles!” she shrieked at the trees, “I know you’re here, show yourself!”
The big dog nudged her hand. “Blood no good,” he whimpered. “Go home, wash away nasty-bad blood-smell. Sleep. Mother-person gone.”
“Mephistopheles!” she called again, her voice loud against the darkness. But no response came, nothing stirred in the darkness. Her hand fell once more to Duke’s ruff. “You’re right Dukie,” she admitted, “it’s not good. He’s gone and I’m hurt. There’s no way I can help my mother like this.” She took two steps and staggered, head swimming. She could barely walk unaided – she could not rescue anyone like this.
She laughed ruefully, but without humour. Maybe after a night of sleep it would all turn out to be a bad dream.
They had almost made their way out of the woods when Duke suddenly froze, muscles tense. “Strange blood-smell,” he growled, “stay here. Go look.” Kaitlyn leaned against a tree, shivering somewhat. It had been a cold and stressful night. Duke padded off into the trees, a pale shape against the gloom. He yelped once, and Kaitlyn heard him mutter: “No silly fuzzy thing, not bite. Help you, yes?” And a moment later he padded back, something cat-sized and dark of fur in his mouth. He deposited, at Kaitlyn’s feet, a somewhat damp, and very disgruntled, aiay.
“Goblin, yes?” he asked, ears pricked forward in hopeful expectancy.
Kaitlyn scratched his ruff. “Yes,” she replied and then turned her attention to Mephistopheles. “Just what exactly is going on?”
The aiay regarded her with his pale eyes. “I am cold,” he said, “and wet to the bone. I have almost been torn apart by a fearsome eagle and you ask me now what is going on? Well, I will tell you. But not until I am warm and dry and my belly is filled.” He moved stiffly, blood matting the fur along one side. It was clear he too would have trouble walking unaided.
And so it was, with many a complaint from the aiay, that Duke picked him up gently by the scruff of his neck, and with Kaitlyn using the canine for support, that the three walking wounded made their way back home.
* * *
“The thing that kidnapped your mother was no creature,” Mephistopheles said, spearing a slice of apple with a long claw. “It was a construct from the crystal palace.” He chewed messily on the fruit, spraying a mouthful of juice and pulp across the table. “The golden prince has taken her.”
“Crystal palace? Golden prince?” Kaitlyn stared at him, perplexed, as she bathed the cut on her head. It was not deep, and the bleeding had already stopped, although the bruising would be spectacular. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“Let me explain in simple words that you might understand.” She ground her teeth and clenched her hands at the aiay’s patronising tone. She did not appreciate being talked to as though she were a simpleton. “Sebastian Laroque, your father, lives in another world. It is called Lemuria.”
“Like the animals?”
“Yes, but the name ‘Lemuria’ is derived from the Latin word ‘lemures’, which translates as ‘ghost’. Lemuria is a ghost of your world – a place where the lost and forgotten can be found. It is sanctuary to animals you have never seen, and yet your kin have annihilated from this world. It has a keeper, an ancient being that calls herself the Queen of the Wyld. Three hundred years ago your father – and I of course, caught her attention and she brought us there. It is where you were born, in the crystal palace at the centre of Lemuria.” He paused here, stabbing another piece of apple and eating it just as messily. “I realise this must be a lot to take in,” he continued, his words muffled and pieces of apple showering the room.
Kaitlyn supposed it was too, but really, she was not as surprised as she might have expected. Perhaps it was the strange events of the past few days, but now she was almost willing to believe anything. Besides, she had always felt like she didn’t fit in – and she did have the talent of Beast Speech. Aside from her mother, she had never known anyone that could understand the language of animals. “So who’s this ‘golden prince’ then, and why does he want my mother?”
Mephistopheles regarded her for a moment. “He is a student of the Queen,” he replied, and she sensed he was not telling her everything. “But his ambition runs deep and I am afeared he wishes to use your mother, and Sebastian, to awaken dark magicks and unleash them upon your world.”
“Human sacrifices?” Kaitlyn jumped to her feet, almost knocking over the table. “We must go at once and save her, err them. And the world, of course,” she added as an afterthought.
The aiay regarded her in surprise. “You’re not going to have a quiet sob and mutter ‘why me’?”
Kaitlyn turned a frown upon him. “Whatever would that achieve? My mother is in danger. How long do we have, do you think?”
“The ritual will be cast on the equinox,” he said. “About three days from now, when the moon has vanished from the sky.”
“Then there’s no time to waste. What do we need? Weapons?”
The next hour was spent in a fury of packing. Kaitlyn heaved her mother’s old tramping pack down from the attic and stuffed it as full as she could. Warm clothes, some packets of food stuffed inside a billy-kettle, a box of matches, a blanket and a flashlight were thrown in. Kaitlyn and Juliet had spent many nights camping out in the woods, and were well-stocked in all the necessary bits and pieces. She slid in the tiny portable first aid kit, and after some thought broke into her mother’s office. Being a Veterinarian, she had on hand a variety of tranquillisers and antibiotics, of which Kaitlyn pillaged a few, along with the tranquilliser dart gun. It would surely come in useful. To her belt she strapped her mother’s hunting knife. It had been a gift, and rarely used, and the edge was nicely sharp. With the addition of a coil of rope and a flask of water, she was ready to go, tugging on her thick tramping boots.
“Right,” she said, “how do we get there?”
Mephistopheles had been watching the proceedings with interest. “You are certainly more prepared then I expected,” he said. “I will open the gateway between the worlds.” He paused and his ears drooped, “but I cannot take you directly to your mother. The golden prince has access to the mirrors of the palace. Mirrors that will take him to almost anywhere upon the mortal realms that he chooses. I, alas, do not. I have only this,” and he held up his middle finger. Kaitlyn saw that compared to the others, it was thin and bony, more resembling a twig then a finger. “It can open gateways between the worlds where the ether is thin. The ether’s the bit between our world and Lemuria,” he added, “at some points the two worlds are very close. I believe you mortals call them leylines. Your nearest is in that little patch of forest. It is where I entered.”
With the first traces of dawn in the sky, Kaitlyn picked her way across the paddocks, Mephistopheles perched on her shoulder. She had been keen on leaving straight away, but the aiay had persuaded her that a good rest would be most necessary. Not that she had managed much sleep. Her mother was out there somewhere, and in danger.
Duke bounded around them, eager to come too. Just outside the forest Kaitlyn knelt before him, and threw her arms about his shaggy neck.
“Goodbye Duke,” she said, “take care of the farm.”
“Not leave!” He barked, “come with, protect and snarl-snap. Bite nasty-bad things.”
“No Dukie,” she explained, “you must stay here and make sure nothing bad happens to the animals. You must guard the chickens from nasty-bad stoats and cats. You’re a brave, loyal dog, and I know you will do a good job.” She ruffled his head fur. It worried her a little having to leave the animals without anyone to care for them, but it was early spring and fresh grass was thick on the ground and seeding plants were everywhere. It would not hurt the chickens or ponies to forage for themselves for a few days. Duke was the main worry – he was not a particularly good hunter, and thus she had filled up his bowl with kibble and tried to get it through his thick skull that it had to last him until she returned. She had a nagging worry that he would eat it all at once, make himself horribly sick and then have to starve for the next few days. But there was nothing she could do about it, noone she could call without having to answer lots of awkward questions. And she did not have the time for that.
The aiay sprang from her shoulder. He was still moving a little stiffly, although the eagle had done little more then scratch him before he had managed to wiggle from its grasp. He stalked forward a few paces, sniffing at the ground and tapping it a couple of times with his special finger. After a moment he paused and nodded.
“This indeed appears to be the place.” Squatting back on his haunches he stabbed the air with his strange middle finger. And then slowly brought it up, as though he were cutting it. Kaitlyn gasped, as a shimmering light peeled back reality, leaving behind it a gash shimmering in the air. Through it she could see forest, thick, untamed forest with moss dripping from the tree branches and mighty tangles of vines. His eyes bright, Mephistopheles stepped back and flamboyantly gestured for her to crawl through it. Although he had stood as tall as he could, she would have to drop on her hands and knees to squeeze through the opening.
She turned to Duke, and threw her arms about his shaggy ruff. “Take care, Dukie,” she whispered, “I know you’ll do a good job keeping the farm safe. And I’ll be back soon.”
He whimpered in response, licking her cheek and presing his cold wet nose against her. “Be good,” he said, “come back. Then happy.” His ears drooped and his dark eyes looked about as sorrowful as a dog could manage. “Want stay,” he added.
“I know,” she replied, ruffling his head-fur one last time and surprised to find her eyes damp. She could not help but worry about what would happen to him and the other animals should she not return. They had put their trust and loyalty into the care and protection of her and Juliet. She could not help but feel she was abandoning them.
But she could hardly leave her mother to her fate either, could she?
Wrenching herself away from her faithful companion, she nodded at Mephistopheles and dropped onto her hands and knees. In this position her backpack seemed heavier, unwieldy and she scrabbled through in a most ungainly fashion, the hilted knife banging against her leg.
She stood up again in an eldritch forest.
The cacophony of birdsong startled her. She had wandered the forests many times with Juliet, and knew well the trill of the grey warbler, the bell-like notes of the tui and the twitter of the fantail. But they had always been brief melodies, surrounded by the whistle of the wind through the tree branches or the incessant hum of cicadas. If there was wind whistling or cicadas singing here they were certainly drowned out by the symphony. Fantails flocked, twittering in curiosity as they tumbled and fluttered around her. Mephistopheles leapt through after her. He pinched the glittering edges of the reality gash shut behind them. Kaitlyn had just enough time to catch one final glimpse of Duke’s befuddled and abandoned expression before the opening sealed up between their worlds.
“Who this? Who this?” The fantails twittered to one another. Or at least that was what Kaitlyn thought they were saying, she had always been better at understanding mammals then birds. Other birds fluttered down to take a look at this strange invader and Kaitlyn was delighted to recognise among them the large grey kokako with the fleshy orange lobes that hang on either side of their short, curved bill. The bird that had brought her parents together, if her mother’s strange tale were to be believed.
“This is Kaitlyn,” Mephistopheles trilled, and her name sounded strange when spoken in the voice of the birds. Several of them sounded it, passing it through the gathered flock until she was surrounded by birds singing her name.
“Kaaaaa-liiiin,” they sang and whistled until Mephistopheles silenced them with a shriek.
“Please,” he said, “give the poor human some peace. Surely you have chicks to feed or nectar to forage or mates to find.” And he waved his hands at them in a very human-like manner, shooing them all away. One bird remained. It was a parrot, its head and shoulders painted in feathers of red and grey and gold, contrasting sharply with the grey-green of the rest of its plumage.
It twisted its head to one side, regarding Mephistopheles with one beady eye and said something in a beautiful voice like the chiming of tiny bells. Kaitlyn could not understand more then a few words, she had never spoken with a kaka before.
Mephistopheles replied, his voice grating next to the kaka’s musical one. After a moment he turned to Kaitlyn. “This is Iti,” he said. “He is offering to guide us to the boundary stone in exchange for,” here he faltered and cast the kaka a patronising look, “a shiny.”
Iti bobbed his head in response. “Shiny,” he said, eyes glittering hungrily.
“Shiny?” Kaitlyn muttered. She wasn’t wearing anything shiny, never being one for necklaces or rings (they were awkward and annoying, snagging on tree branches or falling off and getting lost), aside from her belt buckle. And she needed her belt, it had the knife strapped to it. She fossicked through her pockets, but came up with nothing more then dust and a candy wrapper. There was her key ring too, but she rather needed those, should she ever return home. “Whatever does a parrot need a shiny thing for, anyhow?”
Mephistopheles shrugged. “Who can understand the quirks of birds,” he replied. “I believe he collects them, although why I cannot guess.” He paused, crouching back and scratching behind one overlarge ear with his hind-paw. “However, a guide would be most useful. You will notice no paths traverse this forest and I am not as familiar with these forests as I might wish.”
With a deep sigh Kaitlyn wrestled the key for her bike chain free of the ring and gingerly held it out to the kaka. She would just have to hope she could find the spare key upon returning home. With his long and wickedly curved beak he reached forward and gently took it from her fingers, the beak brushing against her skin. For a few moments he played with it, holding it aloft so that the sunlight glinted of it and tossing it in the air, catching it again. Then, suddenly, he was flapping into the air and away.
“Great,” Kaitlyn muttered, “now he’s taken it and flown away.”
“You are filled with scepticism, milady,” Mephistopheles replied. “He will return, he has merely gone to hide it with his hoard.”
And the aiay was right, for a short time later the kaka was back, head bobbing and wings fluttering in his eagerness.
It was not easy going, however, at least not for the human. This forest was completely untamed and Iti, for all his good intentions, was a parrot. It was hard for him to think of something the size and clumsiness of a human and many times Kaitlyn found herself half scrambling up trees or having to crawl through a tangled mess of vines. They gathered followers too, little black robins and bush wrens that glittered like tiny jewels, fluttered in their wake. Fantails swooped and dived, snatching up disturbed insects and two of the scruffy, flightless rail – the weka, made a sport of trying to capture her shoelaces. They darted around her feet, sending her stumbling more then once and forcing her to take great care, lest she step on them.
And so it was hot and dirty, they reached the shore of a lake shortly before noon. Blue-grey ducks, grebes and majestic black swan floated leisurely upon the azure waters and darting swallows welcomed them with their piping cries. Kaitlyn gratefully seated herself upon a handy boulder and removed her shoes, so she could soak her feet in the chilly water. The wekas were upon her shoes within seconds, dragging them around by their laces and playing a jolly game of tug-a-war. Mephistopheles entertained himself by stalking the large dragonflies, which were longer and thicker then the girl’s fingers. She cast her gaze out across the waters, marvelling at the beauty of it all. The beech forest brushed the lake shore from every direction, the trees shrouded in a thin veil of mist even this late into the day.
She leaned over the still waters, staring at her reflection for a moment.
And many miles away someone else stared at her. The young man, long golden hair bound back from his face, peered into a pool of still water. But it was not himself he saw reflected, but the face of another. Like he, she had blue-green eyes and high cheekbones. Her hair was touched with copper-red.
He frowned and shook his head.
“So, sister-mine,” he whispered, “it appears the little rogue found you after all. Well, I’m sure you will have your uses.” And with that he rose his left arm, on which he wore a heavy leather gauntlet. With a whispering of wind, an immense eagle swooped down, wrapping her fearsome talons about the glove. “Talon,” he said, scratching with one hand behind her scraggly crest of feathers. “I have a task for you.” She shifted restlessly and glanced at the reflection in the pool.
“You have found your sister?” She rasped. “I thought she was cast from this world, a mere babe.”
“She was,” he replied grimly. “But my father’s,” (and he spat the word with jealous venom), “Familiar appears to have found her, and dragged her back. She will be seeking to rescue her mother, if nothing else. I cannot let her destroy my plans.” He stood, pacing angrily, his Familiar fluttering her wings to keep her balance. He thrust his arm upwards and she flapped into the air, circling his head. The downbeats of her wings blew his hair every which way. “You must find her,” he said, “she currently resides in Oran. Find her and watch her. On no account must she be allowed to make contact with the dogboy.”
“Understood,” Talon shrieked. “I will tear that ugly monkey into a thousand pieces and dine upon his sweet flesh.” She circled one last time and then flew swiftly towards one of the crystalline walls. It shimmered before she hit it, and she passed harmless through it, save for one feather, which fluttered gracefully to the ground.
The Golden Prince smiled. It was not a pretty smile, but one that showed a streak of cruelty. Once he had her safely in his clutches, why then he could use her as he planned to use his parents. The old rituals always worked better when dipped in the blood of family.
Unaware she was being watched, Kaitlyn had made herself a small lunch of one of her energy bars. Packed with wholesome grains and studded with chocolate, it nevertheless did not fill her belly.
“Where are we going?” She asked Mephistopheles.
He regarded her for a long moment, then wiped a patch of riverbank clear of debris. The black sand beneath was thick and coarse. With his elongated finger at the ready, he crouched over it, scratching a shape in the ground.
<1/4 PS – sketch of Lemuria>
“This is Lemuria,” he said. “It is an archipelago.” He glanced at her, head quirked to one side. “That means it’s made up of a collection of islands,” he added. “Currently we are on Oran, which is here.” And he stabbed his long claw into a tiny island at the very bottom of the crude map. “Where we need to get within the next few days, is here.” His finger moved up, across another island and a vast patch of what Kaitlyn to be open sea. It seemed a very long way away. “Now, this is rather a distance,” he continued, echoing her thoughts. “There are two ways we can get there, one is to make our way up this chain of islands here. But that, as you can see, will take many weeks by which time it will be rather too late to rescue your mother. So the other option is that we travel to here,” he stabbed slightly higher up on the map, “and then cross the ocean.”
Kaitlyn was about to ask him how he intended they do that, when a long trumpeting call interrupted her. It was such a loud, deep sound that she felt the vibrations almost more then heard them. A group of large animals marched towards the lakeshore, calling to each other in these deep, deep voices. At first glance they looked like emus, but much larger. Kaitlyn thought she could walk beneath the largest one without even having to stoop. There were five adults, four of which held their heads level with their shoulders. The fifth stood tall, neck fully extended, watching the skies with dark eyes. He was easily the largest of the flock, his feathers a deeper ash grey. Around their feet skittered several fluffy chicks, their creamy-gold down barred with black.
Slowly the group made their way to the lakeshore about twenty metres from Kaitlyn, calling to each other in a language she could not even begin to grasp. First they drank, then they dipped their heads, flickering water over their shoulders. And all the time, one would kept its eyes on the skies, alert for any airborne predator. Kaitlyn watched, awe-struck, as the family of moa drank and bathed. There was something decidedly prehistoric in their long necks and tiny heads. One of the hens, the smallest one, glanced in her direction, studying her for a moment. Then, ever so slowly, lifting each foot clear of the water before planting it firmly once more, she stalked towards the girl. Breathless, Kaitlyn could do little more then watch as the moa approached her, stopping less then two metres away. This close she made an impressive and rather daunting sight. Her head was tiny in comparison with her body, but her eyes were large and curious. Very, very gingerly Kaitlyn reached out one hand towards her and the moa studied it, and her, twisting her long neck from side to side.
Then the male trumpeted again, and the flock, as one, turned and stalked from the water.
Except for the hen. So great was her interest in this featherless creature that the flock had almost made it to the tree-line before she realised they were leaving without her. Panicked, she hurried after them, stumbling a little on the slippery stones and spraying Kaitlyn with water.
And like a great shadow, the predator dropped from behind a cloud. It was an eagle, immense in size, wicked talons extended. Mephistopheles squeaked and dived beneath Kaitlyn’s legs and her bird companions fluttered away, squawking in alarm. Too late, the moa saw it and ran for all she was worth. It was not enough. With a mighty woosh of wind, the eagle struck. The moa shrieked as the talons sunk into her flesh, a terrible, heart-rending cry. She lurched heavily, almost falling. The eagle slashed forward with its beak and the moa’s legs buckling beneath her, sending her tumbling to the ground with an almighty “splash”. It was over so quickly, Kaitlyn had not even had a chance to unsheathe her knife. She would have been powerless against an airborne predator of that size at any rate. If it could kill a moa with such quick ease, it would make short work of her.
Kaitlyn shivered, feeling nauseous. The carcass lay so close that she could see every feather of the massive eagle as it squatted over its prey. She reached down, moving as fast as she dared and grasped her shoes by the laces. With the other hand she took a firm grip on her backpack and step by step began to inch backwards and away from the carnage, dragging the heavy pack. Mephistopheles kept close behind her, shielding himself with her legs. The eagle watched them with fierce, golden eyes, but seemed content with its kill. Kaitlyn could not help but feel that this had to be some sort of terrible omen. Curiosity could be fatal.
She shuddered as another large eagle soared into view far, far above.
“This is the boundary stone?” Kaitlyn asked, staring at the rather misshapen and lumpy rock. She had expected something rather more impressive then this squat landmark. If she squinted it looked a little like a fat and exceptionally ugly man had sat down and turned to stone. Iti perched on it, grooming himself.
“Rock it is,” he replied. After spending most of the day in his company, she was starting to understand his warbling speech. She had always found that spending time in the presence of an animal would make understanding it either. Perhaps that was why she and Duke talked so easily. “Here I leave you, yes I do.” And with that he bobbed his head and flew away.
Kaitlyn took the opportunity to ease off her pack and lean against the rock. Her feet and back throbbed. She had forgotten how exhausting walking for a long distance with a heavily laden pack could be. Mephistopheles sagged beside her.
The rock rested in a tiny patch of open grassland. A fairly gentle slope lead to a rugged and wild coastline. The sand glinted black in the late afternoon sun. Beyond it the ocean stretched as far as she could see.
“Tomorrow we shall cross the ocean,” Mephistopheles said, “you should get a good night’s sleep. For it shall be a long day indeed.”
Kaitlyn stretched her aching spine, feeling the bones clink back into place. She almost dreaded asking the question, but there was no sign of any boat. “How are we going to get across?”
“I will send a message tonight to the relevant parties,” he replied. “Do not worry yourself. It shall not be the most comfortable voyage, but you will be across the ocean by tomorrow night.”
Somehow the thought did not do a great deal to reassure her. But she was very tired indeed, not to mention very hungry. The brief rest had been enough for her legs to finally start to relax, and when she stood up to gather firewood, every muscle pointedly reminded her that they didn’t want to be moved. It was a painful exercise, but eventually she had a small fire set up on the beach and boiled herself some soup. As darkness fell, Mephistopheles disappeared into the night, presumably to make arrangements for their transport. With the drastic events of the day Kaitlyn could not help but wonder if she would ever be able to get to sleep, but the moment her head touched her backpack (which she was using as a pillow) she fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.
“Cooooo-eeeee, coooooooo-eeeeee.” The weka’s early morning call was better then any alarm clock. Kaitlyn sat bolt upright and for a brief few seconds everything was wonderful, until she remembered where she was, what she had to do and her body recalled that it was stiff and sore. Half a dozen weka had gathered around her and had somehow managed to drag everything out of her backpack without awakening her. Now they delightedly squabbled over her food (much of which lay scattered across the landscape). One had managed to somehow open her first aid kit, and trailed a length of bandage behind it, constantly tangling its legs in the fabric. Chaos and much shrieking insured, causing the weka to abandon their prizes and scatter into the bush.
“My,” came a familiar voice, “you certainly make a fine sight this morning.” She looked blearily up and into Mephistopheles’ golden eyes. “The arrangements have been made,” he continued, “and your vessel awaits you. I have worked hard all through the night to sort things out,” he added, “perhaps you might have some food for a poor, half-starved aiay?”
Kaitlyn stared at the scattered remnants of her carefully packed supplies. If only she had taken better care to strap the pack closed. But now it was too late, and she would have to go hungry. “Only if you don’t mind eating what those blasted wekas left.”
The aiay noticed the destruction for the first time. “Oh my,” he said, “someone did not secure their food away carefully, did they just? Oh well, no matter, it shall be less weight for the craft to carry.”
With every word he spoke, Kaitlyn’s sense of dread increased. “Exactly what sort of craft is this?” She ventured.
The look Mephistopheles gave her was not encouraging. “Gather your possessions,” he said, “ and come see for yourself.”
Apprehension rising, Kaitlyn salvaged what she could of her belongings and stuffed them into her pack, taking great care to strap it firmly closed. She kicked the remains of her fire apart, burying the ashes as best she could. It was well and truly dead, and the tides and wind would soon erase any trace that she had been there. Wrapping her warm clothing closely about her, she followed the aiay across the sand. It was very early morning, and the wind was chilly.
“Here we go then,” Mephistopheles announced.
At first she thought it was merely a pile of sticks, but with sinking heart she realised that it was in fact a boat she was looking at. It was very small and rather more rounded then ones she was used to. Time had not been kind to it and the boards were encrusted with barnacles and warped out of shape. If it floated she would be surprised.
“This … is my boat?” She ventured, after a few seconds of stunned silence. “Are you trying to drown me? This’ll never take me across the ocean. It’ll leak long before then.”
“Look closer,” Mephistopheles instructed, and she did, peering inside it. It looked like a giant nest. Layers and layers of closely woven twigs and fibres lined it, patched here and there with dried clay and droppings. This did very little to make it any more enticing. “The cormorants have been working on this for two days now,” the aiay explained. “Ever since I realised I would need to venture into your realm and return you here, via the water. It is perhaps not the most solid of constructions, but it need not hold for more then a day.”
Kaitlyn gulped, there was something else that had only just occurred to her. “Where are the oars? How am I supposed to row it?”
“I have called in my favours there too,” he explained, “and sought the help of one of the ocean denizens. You can call her Stellar.” He motioned at what appeared to be a large, dark log, studded with barnacles floating a short distance out. After a moment it let out a long, wheezing sigh and rolled over, revealing itself to be a creature of immense size. Kaitlyn had never seen anything quite like it, but it looked a bit like a seal crossed with a whale. She estimated it to be at least seven metres long. Dragging its massive bulk on tiny flippers, it moved itself towards Kaitlyn, rising itself so that it could look her in the eye. Then it opened its mouth, and its breath was so thick with the stench of salt and kelp she stumbled back.
“What is it?” She stammered, covering her mouth and trying not to gag.
“Be polite,” Mephistopheles gave her a stern look, “she is a great and noble creature of the ocean and you should not act thus before her. She is a sea cow and has swum a long way to help us in our endeavours.”
“Can you tell her I’m very grateful for her help,” Kaitlyn managed, although she was not so sure she was.
Mephistopheles nodded and made a few short, wheezing grunts, not too different from the language of the seals. The sea cow replied, her wheezes so strong it blew the sand into Kaitlyn’s face. “She says that she is only to happy to help you, for Sebastian was the saviour of her kin. She would also be deeply appreciative if you could bring yourself to scratch her just behind her ear, for she has an itchy spot there that has been bothering her for days but cannot seem to rub it away. I would recommend that you use some sort of stick for the task, as her skin is very thick and I doubt that she would notice the touch of your small and delicate fingers.”
“She said all that? In just those few, errr, words?”
“Well,” said Mephistopheles, “I paraphrased somewhat, I must confess.”
Using a piece of driftwood, Kaitlyn scratched the sea cow’s itch and was rewarded with a deep sigh and another gust of seaweed-breath. Under the instruction of Mephistopheles the rope was fashioned into a halter – or rather a loop which the sea cow took in her mouth. Luckily the rope was long enough so that Kaitlyn would not be drowned by her tail-fluke, but it was still a little too close for comfort.
With some difficulty Kailyn managed to arrange herself in the boat, her backpack wedged beneath her knees and Mephistopheles in her lap. She secured the loose end of the rope around one of the boards. Taking the rope in her mouth, Stellar dragged it into the water and Kaitlyn held her breath as it scraped across the sand and then, much to her surprise began to float. The smell was wretched, and it swung from side to side frequently, but at least it remained on top of the water. Slowly the huge mammal dragged the boat out, gaining speed as the water got deeper and she had more room to move. Her mighty fluke slapped down, showering Kaitlyn with water and causing Mephistopheles to curse in a rather undignified manner.
Rather more swiftly then she had expected, Kaitlyn watched the island of Oran get smaller and smaller, and finally disappear entirely from view.
They were not alone on their sea voyage. Flocks of gulls and terns glided past, circling several times so they could stare at the strange spectacle. The occasional cormorant flapped crazily across the water, almost touching it. The waves, combined with the wake of the sea cow, battered the craft mercilessly, sending it airborne and then smacking it down into the water. Kaitlyn was kept busy shovelling out the water as best she could, using only her kettle. The aiay did his best to keep dry, crouching on her shoulders, but his fur quickly became drenched, sticking out in erratic spikes.
A pod of dolphins joined them around midday, leaping around the boat and whistling to one another. Whilst she could not understand them perfectly, Kaitlyn had the distinct impression that they were laughing at her, the silly human that had to ride in a smelly nest instead of leaping and dancing. She did not ask for an interpretation, and Mephistopheles was too wet and miserable to offer one. Huge birds occasionally glided by, barely beating their long, narrow wings.
And far above them glided a weary eagle. Talon’s wing muscles throbbed. She was an eagle adapted for a jungle habitat, and was not well-suited for flying over oceans. With her sharp eyes she watched the red-hair in her pathetic little boat.
Many miles away, the Golden Prince also watched them. He sat cross-legged on the floor in the chamber of mirrors, his eyes tightly closed. In his hands he grasped Talon’s discarded feather. “So you’ve made it to the ocean, sister,” he whispered, “well, congratulations. But don’t get your hopes too high. Because you’ll not make it to shore…” His eyes opened, pupils dilated so they were almost completely black. A wicked smile graced his otherwise quite handsome features. “… Alive,” he hissed. He drew apart his hands, but still the feather floated in the air, as though held there by his gaze. “Talon,” he whispered, “it is time to bring the storm.” And, very gently at first, he began to blow upon the feather, so that it danced and spun in the currents, but still remained in approximately the same place.
It was early afternoon when the weather made a change for the worst. A bitter and strong wind sprang up, out of nowhere, and great, grey-black clouds darkened the sky. The dolphins trilled in alarm.
“There is a storm coming,” Mephistopheles muttered, his hands gripping Kaitlyn’s shoulders so strongly she was certain his claws would leave a mark. “I hope we can beat it.”
As though she knew, Stellar increased her speed. The tiny craft spent almost as much time in the air as upon the water, slapping down so frequently and violently that it was all Kaitlyn could do to stop it filling with water.
Great fat droplets began to fall. Kaitlyn shivered, and increased her efforts at bailing, although her arms ached and she had to clench her teeth against the pain every time she emptied it over the side. She might be fit, but she was not used to such frequent, repetitive motions. There were more dolphins around her now too, she noticed, and their tone of voice had changed. No longer were they mocking her, but were instead fearful for her life.
The rain intensified and scooping out the water was no longer possible, it filled much quicker then she could empty it. Water began to pool around her feet and bottom and the boards began to creak and grind in protest. The waves were so large now that the boat leapt into the air, crashing down, twisting about and threatening to capsize. It was all Kaitlyn could do to hang on, her fingers white as she clung desperately to the side. And Mephistopheles clung desperately to her, his claws biting through her clothing and into her flesh.
With one final heave and groan the boat flew through the air, struck the water and shattered. Kaitlyn found herself dropped suddenly into the cold and wild waters with Mephistopheles trying to climb her (and pushing her under in the process). Her boots filled with water, dragging her down. She clawed at the air, struggling to drag herself up but the waves flung her about and she no longer knew which way was up and which down. After a brief few seconds of panic floundering, she fumbled with her shoes, trying to drag them off, but the laces were too tight, her fingers too numb from the cold. Just when it seemed she was doomed, something came up beneath her, pushing her to the surface.
With a great gasp, she filled her lungs, just before another wave collapsed on her, flinging her under again. Once more she was pushed to the surface, to breathe and be dunked again. And so the pattern continued. It was all a blur, Kaitlyn had no idea who (or what) her rescuer was and only the vaguest idea that somewhere along the way she had lost Mephistopheles and all her possessions. Her thoughts were filled with nothing more then filling her lungs and not drowning. She floundered, she breathed, she floundered again, until suddenly she felt sand beneath her hands and somehow managed to drag herself to shore, coughing up mouthfuls of salty water.
How long she lay there, she could only guess. But when she managed to pry her salt-encrusted eyelids open, blinking at the light, the horizon was stained the pale golden-red of early twilight. Her movement startled a fox-like creature that was sniffing at her, presumably to see if she was edible. It jumped back, ears flat.
“Where am I?” She muttered, first in human and then, catching herself, in canine.
The fox’s ears perked forward and it cocked its head to one side. “You, creature from ocean, speak?” It said, and although it was more a yip then a bark, Kaitlyn had no trouble understanding it.
She nodded and the effort sent pain shooting through her head. “Yes,” she said. “Not from ocean but from other side.” She paused, trying to remember the name of the island, “Oran.”
“Oran?” The skitterish creature bounced in surprise. “Long way you come. Not made to swim.” It came closer, moving stiff-legged as though afraid she would lunge at it. Its fur was chocolate brown in colour, with highlights of chestnut red and cream patches about its eyes and muzzle. “You on Tu-Sok Island now.”
“I am?” Kaitlyn managed to drag herself into a sitting position. “Where is the crystal palace from here?”
“Criss-tall place?” The fox queried, “know not where you speak. Not here, not on Tu-Sok. Some other way, somewhere else?”
Despair rose in her. She had washed up somewhere, away from her guide. Now she would never rescue her mother in time. She wondered what had happened to Mephistopheles – had he drowned? Perhaps he had been rescued too. That thought gave her some hope.
“Did anything, anyone, else wash up here?” She asked. “A creature slightly smaller then you perhaps, with scruffy hair and large ears?”
“Many things the tide bring,” the fox replied. “Some good to eat. When storm come, down to shore come I, look for tasty treat. Not look far, find you. Not see else.” It paused, ears perking forward, “hungry?”
“No, I don’t want to eat him,” Kaitlyn explained, although she was in fact rather hungry, as her stomach reminded her, “he’s my friend. I need to find him.” With the aid of a long stick, she managed to drag herself to her feet. Her legs felt weak and her boots heavily laden with water. When she took a step it squelched beneath her toes, reminding her that she was in no fit state to search for anything. Leaning heavily on the stick she squished her way to the long grassland that bordered the beach, before collapsing against a handy boulder.
Which responded with a rasping-roar and slapped at her with a huge flipper. She leapt, tripped and fell on her backside in the grass, but luckily the massive seal was too lazy to make any further move and merely yawned at her, exposing a massive gape, impressive teeth and a strong smell of raw fish.
“Not good,” the fox yipped, darted about her feet. “No disturb sleeping giants. Too big to eat and nasty-moody. Follow, come to family. Ask old one about this criss-tall place.”
And so, leaning heavily on her stick, Kaitlyn followed the leaping fox. The grass towered over Kaitlyn, patches of flattened grass marking where the elephant seals had dragged themselves ashore to sunbathe. There were no trees, nothing but this long, seeding grass that got up her nose, making her sneeze, and the occasional scraggly shrub. Tiny birds fluttered along the grass stems, twittering to one another. The fox bounded ahead, pausing every so often to sit and wait for her to reach him, before running ahead once more. Within a very short period of time Kaitlyn found herself surrounded by foxes, their coat colours varying from the deep chocolate-brown of her guide to a more chestnut-red. They bounded around her, asking a multitude of questions so garbled she could barely understand them. With so many eager escorts, Kaitlyn soon found herself on the shore of a tiny lake. She sagged gratefully to the ground, emptying what felt like half the ocean from her shoes.
“Tell story of where come from!” One of the younger foxes begged, draping itself across her foot and resting its head on he knee. “Never see two-legger that not a bird before.”
“Patience,” her guide snapped. “She come from ocean, very tired. No need pestering cublings. Sleep now, talk in morning, yes?”
Kaitlyn was indeed very tired, and every muscle ached. But she had to find Mephistopheles. “Please, can your family maybe check the beaches and see if my friend washed up? I’m very worried about him. He’s a bit smaller then you with shorter legs and a big bushy tail and likes to talk a lot.”
“If find him,” one of the younger foxes asked, head to one side, “and bring to you, then you tell us story?”
“Yes, if you find Mephistopheles, I’ll tell you all about how I came to be here.”
The foxes all cast an eager glance at one another, then scattered, leaping off through the grasslands in different directions, yipping all the while. Left behind was her guide and an elderly fox, her dark fur grizzled with silver. She lay a short distance away, but with the rest of the family gone, drew herself upright. Very stiffly she walked towards Kaitlyn as though every step pained her, easing into a crouch at her feet.
“Greetings, human-cubling,” she said, gazing at Kaitlyn with topaz eyes. “We have not seen your kin for many a turn. Why do you come to Tu-Sok?”
“I didn’t meant to,” Kaitlyn explained, “I was trying to get to the crystal palace, with Mephistopheles, to rescue my mother from the golden prince. But we had to cross the ocean and then we got caught in a storm and I was washed up here.”
The fox nodded, and Kaitlyn was surprised by the intelligence in her yellow eyes. This was no ordinary fox. “We are the warrah,” she said, “many, many turns ago we washed up on these shores and have remained ever since. I am old, too old,” she continued, “but I have seen your crystal palace. I have walked there and drank its waters of life. Which is why my body grows older and weaker, but I do not die.” She shook her head, baring her teeth in a grimace of pain. “Too old I am, too old to lead you and tread upon its halls one more time. But the way is not hard, not long, not far.”
“I’m not going to have to swim again, am I?” Kaitlyn shuddered at the thought.
“Not swim all the way, but crawl through the Dark.” The fox replied. “It is dangerous and requires much courage and agility, but it can be done. I did it once, many turns ago – to find answers.” She studied Kaitlyn for a long moment. “But you are tired, very tired and must sleep now. Soon we will wake you, lead you across the island, lead you to the Dark.”
“What is the Dark?”
The warrah gulped. “It is a hole,” she explained, a great hole leading deep, deep, deep into the very bowels of the world. You have never seen a night so dark,” she continued. Her words did little to inspire confidence. Kaitlyn huddled closer and the warrah padded forward, placing her paw on Kaitlyn’s knee. “You have courage,” she said. “I can smell it on you. If anyone can do it, then that is you.”
That was something Kaitlyn was not too sure about. But she had to try, at least. With a deep sigh she made herself as comfortable as was possible, curled up on the ground. Stones dug into her back and the earth made a hard mattress, but she truly was tired. Her guide curled up in the small of her back, and the old warrah against her chest. Their warmth was a comfort.
It felt like only a few minutes had passed before she was woken by a flurry of cold noses and tiny, delicate nips. The rest of the warrah family had returned and now clambered all over her.
“No find friend,” one yipped.
“Find treasures, yes,” another added.
Kaitlyn dragged herself from under the pile of furry bodies, sending foxes tumbling in every direction. Some of the stiffness in her legs had faded, but it had been replaced by small throbbing spots of pain in her back and side, where stones and sticks had pressed against her skin. She felt most thoroughly miserable. It could not be much past midnight and the moon hung in the sky, ripe and white. With barely a glance at the foxes she staggered to the shores of the pond and washed her face and hands. It helped, but only a little.
“What did you find?” She asked, without even a trace of enthusiasm.
Several of the foxes nudged at a series of items, scattered amongst the tussock in a random array. Some had brought sticks and there was also a dead cormorant, the skull of some sort of small beast and her first aid kit.
Water had seeped in through the hinges, saturating the gauze bandage and the band-aids and completely dissolving the aspirin, but three small jars of animal tranquillisers and one of penicillin solution were still sealed firmly. However, only one dart remained and she’d lost the gun. Still, they might come in useful. She salvaged what she could, burying the rest, and hung the small kit around her neck. It, and the knife which somehow had not fallen off, were all that remained of her possessions. She stretched her aching muscles, her whole body complaining at the action, and stepped into her still-damp boots. With wet socks and wet boots, blisters were a certainty.
One of the smaller warrah dragged the cormorant up to her. The fox was so small, the bird so large, that it almost stumbled several times before placing it at her feet. “Brought nibble for you,” it said, staring up at her with wide and hopeful eyes.
Kaitlyn did not know what to say. On one hand, it was a very generous gesture, especially from a creature like a fox, but on the other hand, it was also a very dead bird. And it was starting to smell. The very thought of touching it, let alone eating it, made her feel faintly nauseous. “You’re very kind,” she said, trying not to offend, “but I am big and have eaten well recently.” As though to prove her wrong her stomach let lose a loud rumble of complaint. “You eat it, and enjoy it, after all, you found it.”
The little warrah looked from her to the bird and then to her again. The youngster was already starting to drool, to it the dead bird must look a mighty feast. Kaitlyn lowered her head and turned away, surrendering any claim she might have on the proffered food. Instantly the other warrah threw themselves on it, tearing it to pieces in seconds and snarling over the remains.
Ignoring the feasting, her guide from earlier danced before her, looking not in the least tired. “I been chosen to be leading you to Dark,” he declared, grinning toothily. “Long way, walk fast.” And with that he was gone, bounding off into the monochromatic landscape.
Kaitlyn took up the stick, using it as both a walking stick and also to prod the ground in front of her. She staggered of after him, her pace increasing as her stiff legs got used to the idea of walking.
Behind her one of the young warrah glanced at another. “She promise us tale,” it whispered, ears drooping and tail sagging. “But not tell.”
The stiff-legged, old warrah nudged the cub. “Her tale is not finished yet,” she said. “When it is, we shall hear it. It will be in the cry of every bird, the honk of every seal.”
“Really?” The cub’s ears pricked forward once more. “She special, yes. No seen two-legger, no-wings.”
“Yes,” the elder said, “but I don’t think she realises how special she really is.”
The early hours of the darkness merged together, into a haze of forever following the flashing white tip of the warrah’s tail, intermingled with waking dreams. She had the feeling she was all but walking in her sleep. The landscape was just as repetitive, fields and fields of endless grassland, much of it taller then her. The only diversion was the occasional sleeping elephant seal and once she disturbed a small group of slumbering penguins. They honked their disapproval loudly. To his credit, her guide did his best to keep her alert and awake, telling her tale after tale of warrah folklore and identifying every scent as he came across it. His efforts were in vain, however, and his sharp, little voice merged the words into one.
Dawn came slowly and reluctantly, rose-tinted clouds pushing the darkness away. It did little to improve her spirits. Tonight, at sunset, her mother would be sacrificed. She would not let that happen.
“Here the Dark,” her warrah guide yipped. He shuddered, the fur on his neck standing on end.
Her spirits slipped further when she saw what the old warrah had called the “Dark”. She gulped, hands clenched tightly about the stick so that the bark dug into her flesh.
It was a deep, dank hole. She had imagined a cave, but this looked more like a mineshaft. And all around the hole a huge colony of crested penguins had made their nests.
Each bird had defined a section of the tussock, flattened it out and built a nest in it. Because the birds were constantly squabbling with their neighbours, none of the nests had been built within pecking distance from another. This meant that whilst there was a clear path through the nests, walking down it put her in great risk of having her ankles pecked from all directions. And walking around the colony was not an option, for the pit was right in the very center. It almost looked as though they had built their nests there on purpose. Skuas and gulls wheeled in the sky above her, screeching to one another and occasionally soaring down to attempt to snatch an unguarded egg or chick.
Her guide crouched low beside her, wriggling nervously with his ears laid flat and tail between his legs. “Cresties like to peck,” he explained. “Eggs and babies so crunchy-sweet to eat but hard, hard, hard to catch. Mama crestie not like warrah, not like at all.” He demonstrating by walking forward, into the colony, and then leaping backwards as one of the birds lunged at him. “Need family to get egg,” he explained, “one to make crestie all snap and angry, move from nest, other sneak in, steal egg away. Roll it on rocks until snappy open.” He opened his jaws in a grin, tongue lolling, “you make them all snappy at you, I steal egg.”
“I’m not interested in their eggs,” she said, unable to hide a grin. She knelt down beside him, holding out her hands for him to sniff and lick, although she did not try to pat him. Juliet had always told her that where wild animals were concerned, you let them touch you if they wanted to. Her ability to communicate with them was a gift, but it did not make them tame, nor help her understand the finer subtleties of their behaviour. “You have been a fine guide,” she explained, “but you don’t need to come any further. If I can I’ll come back and see you again, give those cubs that tale I promised.”
“Run swift and run free,” the warrah replied. “If come back, maybe we tear flesh with you, yes?” And then, with a final flash of his white tail tip, he was darting away into the long grass and vanishing from view.
Some distance from the penguin colony, Kaitlyn walked around it and down to the ocean shore. She was looking for a piece of bark or a shell or something similar and large. Amongst the assorted detritus she eventually found a flattish shell. The inside had a beautiful sheen. Taking the candle from her Survival kit she melted the base a little (luckily both candle and matches had been kept in a separate zip-locked bag that had miraculously escaped the water) and stuck it to the shell, making her a rudimentary lamp. She would just have to hope the light would last long enough – it was not a very big candle. A quick search of the beach revealed no sign of a bedraggled aiay, dead or alive.
Only once did she glance upwards, and frown. Amongst the clouds of hopeful gulls and skuas glided another, more sinister shape. With its shorter and rounded wings it looked very much like the moa-killing eagle she had met yesterday. It could not be following her, could it?
It was not that eagle, but a slightly smaller and far more sinister watcher. It was Talon, and she was not happy with proceedings. Her wings were sore, her stomach rumbled and she wished the gulls would stop attacking her. They, naturally, resented such a large predator in their midst. But her companion had asked it of her, and she would not complain. And so she glided on the air currents, watching Kaitlyn’s progress with her sharp eyes. She had to admire the girl. It was hard to imagine her human entering the Dark. He never left the palace if he could at all avoid it, preferring to use his Familiar as his eyes and ears in the outside world. She would watch until the human entered the dark depths and then she would return to her companion. The Dark was a place she could not follow.
“Oh my, sister dear,” the Golden Prince purred, gazing into his looking crystal and seeing through his Familiar’s eyes. “You are a most persistent one indeed. It would almost be admirable, if it were not so frustrating. I believe it is time to try another tact. That is, of course, if you can make it across the Dark. It is time, I think, to awaken an old fiend.”
Carrying her unlit lamp, Kaitlyn picked her way along the narrow, winding pathway between nests. Irritated penguins snapped at her ankles, cursing and swearing, but her boots were high and her trousers thick, and they could do little more then bruise her. Most were reluctant to leave their nests as hungry seabirds circled and waited and watched for an opportunity. It did not take her long to reach the entrance to the Dark. She dropped a pebble down the shaft, ears perked for any sound of it striking ground or water. But none came. The pit was either very, very deep, or the bottom was mud. For the sake of her courage, she decided it must be the latter.
The light only seemed to extend a few metres into the pit before the darkness swallowed it up. It was enough for her to see a steep, but not sheer, slope, pitted here and there with groves or ledges. It seemed to be rock, but was spattered with bird droppings. It was only then that she lit her lamp and eased herself into the hole. The penguins muttered and honked at her, they did not like the fire. She made slow process. Because she had to hold the lamp, she could not crawl backwards, facing the wall, and had to instead press herself against it, stretching out one leg until she found a ledge and then easing herself towards it. However, she dared not douse the light. It was not so much that Kaitlyn was scared of the dark, merely that she did not like thinking about what it could hold. And there were creatures lurking there. She saw their long, spindly legs as they scuttled away from her lamp light. Spiders or worse, she was not prepared to linger and find out. Several times she slipped, sliding a short distance down the slope before catching herself against a ridge.
The silence was worse. As the circlet of light above dwindled and eventually disappeared from above, all she could hear was her own breathing and the steady drip-drip-drip of something far below. With that and only the feeble light cast from her lamp, it was easy to imagine herself caught in a stony tomb, forever spider-crawling into the abyss. But it was worse when noises did come. Quiet scuttling, just on the very verge of hearing, that spoke of something unpleasant that just happened to be staying out of the range of her lamp.
Into darkness she crept, deeper and deeper into the earth.
She could not say how long had passed, although it felt like an eternity. Her legs ached from a multitude of bruises, her arms throbbed from over-use. She was thirsty and hungry and very, very tired. Every so often she would feel her feet dislodging pebbles, and hear them tumbling down the slope but it was always to disappear without a sound. It was as though the pit was so deep and dark that not even sound would be allowed to escape it.
Something brushed against her hand and she squeaked at the feeling of a hard chitonous body and spindly legs covered in little spines.
“Not a pleasant place for a holiday home, is it?” Said a voice somewhere to her right.
She bit back a scream so sharply she tasted blood and almost dropped her lamp.
The voice chuckled. “Sorry, did I surprise you?” It did not sound at all sorry.
Kaitlyn edged her lamp over towards it. The light illuminated a small bat crouching on all fours, wings sticking out awkwardly to the sides. As the beam struck it, it recoiled back, covering its face.
“Hey, no need to blind me.”
It did not sound particularly like any creature Kaitlyn had ever spoken with before. Very few animals spoke in such complete sentences. She placed the lamp carefully against the ledge, so that only a faint light touched the bat. “Sorry.”
The bat shrugged, “I’ve been waiting for you,” it said.
“For me? Why?” She paused for a moment as something occurred to her. “You’re not someone’s Familiar are you?”
The bat cocked its head on one side and grinned at her, showing an array of sharp wee teeth. “Perhaps,” it said. “I have been waiting to give you something.” It paused, large ears cocking forward. “A gift.” And with that it lifted one wing, and shoved something towards Kaitlyn. The candle-light flickered off the multi-facets. It looked a little like a sliver of opaque glass, with a strip of leather threaded through a hole at the top.
“You’re giving me a necklace? Why, and where did it come from?” Kaitlyn frowned. “Who’s your master?”
The bat giggled, it was a strange high-pitched noise that echoed about the walls. “He did warn me that you were filled with questions,” she said. It pushed the necklace across to her with its snout. “It is a tear from the crystal city. Can you see the fire in its heart?”
Kaitlyn took the necklace into her hands. The crystal felt slightly warm, as though somehow it were alive. Deep in its heart flickered a tiny, dancing white light. It looked a little like a flame. As she held it, its brightness increased in small flickering motions, until white light flowed across her hands.
“It likes you,” said the bat. “You’ve got to wear it now. It will show you the way home.” It giggled again and sprang into the air, fluttering a little loop-de-loop. “go on, wear it. You won’t need that silly candle anymore.”
And so she put it on. It felt pleasantly warm against her skin and cast its light about in a pale circlet. With both hands free, it would be much easier to scurry down the passage. “So,” she repeated, “who is your master?”
“Master?” The bat giggled again, flying at Kaitlyn and then soaring upward at the last moment, its wings blowing her hair every which-way. “What makes you think I have a master? Maybe I am the master!” It landed on the ceiling, feet hooking into the rock and small furry body swinging underneath. “Or,” it added, a wicked gleam in its small dark eyes. “Perhaps it’s you.”
“Me?” Kaitlyn was startled. It had never occurred to her that she might have a Familiar.
The giggle answered her. “Does that surprise you? You were born here, after all. Or did you forget? You were so young when your mother whisked you away in the night, leaving Sebastian and I behind. And,” the bat’s teeth flickered as it grinned slyly, “your brother too.”
Those three words struck Kaitlyn dumb, a fairly difficult thing to do. She merely stared at the bat in shock. Surely she did not have a brother – wouldn’t her mother have told her?
“Didn’t know that, I see. Mother’s been keeping the secrets from you. Why, I bet she never told you who your father was. Did you ever miss me? Maybe you didn’t feel the loss like I did, maybe you were too young to remember. I certainly recall it. It felt like a small part of me had been ripped cruelly away – like I’d lost a wing or an eye.” It shuddered. “Anyway, enough of these morbidities. We’re together now, again. As we should be.” It dropped down, landing beside her knee. “You can call me Wild. That is a name you gave me, twelve years ago.”
“Can you tell me … tell me about my brother?” Kaitlyn finally managed to get out. All her life she had thought it was just her and her mother, alone. It hurt that her mother had never told her she had a brother. Or her father. She wondered if her mother had a Familiar too. “What’s he like?”
The bat cocked its head on one side, as though thinking very hard about this question. “He thinks a lot of himself,” it replied after a moment, “and knows a great deal. Sometimes more then I think someone his age should. But his heart is in the right place.” It giggled at this. “In his chest, where it should be. And he doesn’t ask as many questions as you – not out loud anyway. He just asks them of himself and then answers them with his books and his research.”
“Is he here in Lemuria? Will I get to meet him?”
“Maybe, if luck is with you. Come along now, before you grow roots and stagnate. There’s a long and nasty path ahead of us.” And with that Wild fluttered into the air and away from the light, chirping in a high-pitched voice. With the light from the tear illuminating the area around her, Kaitlyn no longer needed her lamp and left it behind her, a glowing orange light that dwindled in the distance until eventually darkness claimed it. If her wits had entirely been about her she would have doused it and carried it with her, but her thoughts were elsewhere. A brother, she had a brother! A family. It was a somewhat creepy thought and it angered her that her mother had never seen fit to share it with her. Maybe her and Juliet were not as close as she had believed.
With these thoughts, and doubts, crowding her mind, it seems reasonable that Kaitlyn was paying little attention to the surroundings so it came as something of a surprise when suddenly the ledge she was attempting to slide her feet towards did not exist and she found herself slipping over what felt like the edge of a cliff.
For several seconds she was plummeting through open air, arms and legs waving furiously and her tear-drop light sending strobes through the darkness. Then she struck the ground.
With a squelch.
She had fallen into a thick, black sludge, that she seriously hoped was just mud. It sucked her in, up to the neck. For a moment she floundered, trying to swim through it, but her efforts just pulled her under and it was only when she forced herself to relax that she bobbed back to the surface.
“Oops,” said Wild, circling above her, “maybe I should have warned you about that.”
“Thanks,” she muttered, spitting out globules of mud. “Can you get me to solid ground?”
Wild laughed. “Me, I’m just a little, itty-bitty bat. And you’re a big clumsy human. I can’t possibly carry you. You’ll have to swim.”
With some experimentation, and a lot of muddy dunkings, Kaitlyn managed to find a swimming stroke that did not threaten to drown her. Spreading herself out as flat as possible in the mud, she pushed herself around with long arm strokes and finally managed to drag herself onto solid ground. Wild dangled from the ceiling above her, grooming its wings. She looked, and felt, wretched. Mud caked her entirely in a sticky, black shell. It hardened as it dried, some of it flaking off, but the rest forming a hardened armour that made bending her legs, and arms, very difficult indeed. Yet despite the fact that only her face had escaped the armour-plating, the crystal tear still hung free and its surface was as clean and clear as it had ever been.
Onwards she walked, somewhat stiffly, but there was no other way. Wild fluttered about her head, uttering the occasional shrill squeak that she could hear, and others that were well beyond the human ear.
The dark tunnel widened a little, the stony walls replaced by a translucent crystal weave. Beyond it … Kaitlyn gasped, because beyond these strange and flimsy walls, she could see water, water both above, around and below the tunnel. Yet, none of it dripped through the gaps in the weave. Strange and beautiful plant-like structures grew in the waters, and fish, both brightly coloured and plain, darted every which-way. It took Kaitlyn only a few seconds to realise that she was standing in a tunnel, running right though the middle of a coral reef.
Very, very tentatively she reached out, brushed her finger-tips very lightly against the gaps in the weave. It felt like a thin layer of jelly, and she knew if she pushed her hands hard against it, that it would break and flood her pathway.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” said Wild, pulling faces at a confused fish. “I thought you’d like it. But we cannot dawdle.” Its ears pricked and a shiver passed through its furry body. “Something stirs below us, something that should not be woken.” She followed this rather frightening statement up with another high pitched giggle and pounced her way along the path, flapping through the patterns of light. And there was light down here, a pale and much-filtered light, that fell through the waves above and onto the ground in gentle, undulating motions.
Kaitlyn took one final look at her surroundings, wanting to implant the beauty and oddity in her mind forever, and then hastened after her Familiar.
The two had travelled some distance when she felt the first earthquake. It vibrated through the ground, as though the reef were trying to shake her off. The crystal weave made a strange, pinging noise, almost like tiny bells, as the ground heaved and rocked beneath her feet. Kaitlyn stumbled but did not stop. Down here there was no shelter – if the tunnel broke, then she would drown, there was no other way about it.
And so she ran, vibrations throwing her against the weave which chimed in protest. Wild had already vanished. Was it right for a Familiar to desert its master in time of danger? Kaitlyn didn’t know, she didn’t even know if she wanted the mocking, half mad creature as her bond companion. What did Familiars do anyhow?
Something rose from the waters beyond the wall. It looked like a great worm, as fat around as Kaitlyn and much, much longer. What looked like suction caps covered its grey-white body and it slammed itself against the tunnel. Small pieces of crystal tumbled to the ground. It was then Kaitlyn realised that it was not a worm.
It was a tentacle.
She ran, ran as she never had before, her feet slipping on the stony floor and mud cracking from her body. Another tentacle snaked its way out of the ground and wrapped itself around the crystal tunnel, squeezing. And another. Even for its huge size, the tentacles seemed to be taking a while to crush the seemingly flimsy structure. And Kaitlyn had a terrifying glimpse of an immense hooked beak and huge bulbous eyes. Before, from behind her, came an even more terrifying sound, a splintering crack followed by an ominous trickling of water.
The tunnel had been breached.
Kaitlyn had one final chance to take a huge, gulping breath of air before the tunnel splintered and crumpled around her and she found herself drawn into the water, flailing. A tentacle snaked around her, and she fumbled for her knife, jabbing at it. Viscous dark liquid floated from the cut and she struggled free, kicking desperately for the surface. The tentacle snatched again, but one flailing leg knocked it aside. It was then that she saw them, streaking through the water towards her – three torpedo-like shapes of glossy black and rows of glistening teeth.
With the last of her breath wilting in her lungs, Kaitlyn swam as she’d never swam before. Her hard mud casing disintegrated piece by piece and her boots did their very best to bring her down, but she struggled against them. Another tentacle snaked out, wrapping itself firmly around her leg and slowly, but surely, it began to draw her down.
She fought against the urge to breathe in the water, hacking at the tentacle with her knife. Her movements were slow, too slow.
Then help came from an unexpected quarter. One of the sharks reached them, its vast jaws hanging open displaying row upon row of sharp, pointy teeth. It brushed past Kaitlyn, coarse skin brushing her arm, and then it struck. Against the tentacle, its mighty jaws closing around the writing flesh. Once again Kaitlyn found herself free and battled her way to the surface.
Fresh air had never tasted so good. But she was not yet out of harm’s way. The kraken came up after her, a great and ominous shape looming from the depths. Attracted by its leaking ichor, the sharks lunged at it again and again, but it was single-minded in its purpose.
And so Kaitlyn swam. She had never been a particularly skilled swimmer, climbing was more her forte, but there is something about being pursued by a giant squid that gives you strengths where previously you have none. Another tentacle snaked out, brushing her leg and she felt the suckers grate across her skin. Then it fell slack, sinking beneath the waves.
She risked a glance back and immediately drew to a halt, paddling to keep herself in place. For behind her the kraken floated on the surface, its powerful body limp, save for the occasional twitching of a tentacle. The sharks eagerly tore strips from it, a dark stain spreading out across the relatively calm waters. More torpedo shapes darted through the water as sharks gathered from all over the reef, attracted by the squid’s death throes.
The Golden Prince cursed and swore, beating against the crystal panel with his fists, as though that would somehow help. “How could she?” He muttered, “how could she survive that?” He stamped his foot, like a boy about to throw a temper tantrum.
“You should have thought that through better,” came a soft and melodious voice to his right and he glanced about to find himself staring into the face of an attractive woman. Her skin was tinted lightly with green and daffodils and daisies took the place of clothing. “I am surprised you did not know that the kraken does not do well in warm water.” She sighed, and shook her lovely head, tossing her long golden-green hair and sending a spray of wildflowers into the air. “It looks as though your research has been anything but complete.”
He scowled, an expression that made his handsome face rather less so.
“Oh, poor boy,” she mocked. “Did you break your little toy? Well, don’t you worry. Your Queen has everything under her control. It is time to call back your Talon.” And with that she tossed her long locks one more time and in her place fluttered a small, slightly greenish bat.
Within two flaps of her wings, she was gone, as silently as she had arrived.
For a brief moment, Kaitlyn wondered what had killed the squid, then set such thoughts aside. It would be dangerous for her to remain in the waters much longer, especially now they were teeming with sharks. Still paddling in place, she studied the skies. The commotion of the predators feasting had drawn attention from the air as well, and gulls and skua flapped about, watching the proceedings and occasionally snatching mouthfuls.
“Hey, you,” she called to one of the aerial scavengers. Whilst not particularly good at communicating with birds, she had spoken with gulls a few times, and found them crude and unpleasant. “Yes you, fatso.” She added, when one of the gulls gave her a fleeting glance, then pretended to ignore her.
“Who you call fat, no-wings?” It squawked in response, flapping over her. “You flounder like dying fish. Stupid no-wings.”
“You,” she replied, “I give food, now need help.”
The gull glanced at the huge squid and laughed. And when a gull laughs it is a wholly unpleasant sound. “Stupid no-wings. Not fly, not swim, certain not kill giant feast. Why you need help?”
“I need directions,” she explained, and knowing full well that gulls were compulsive liars, she next said, “I decided to take a little swim from the crystal palace to Tu-Sok, but I have become a little turned about. Can you tell me the way to Tu-Sok?”
“And why should I tell you?” The bird asked, casting an eager glance at the squid. It was clearly undecided between staying and talking to this strange creature that might prove some entertainment, or to ignore it in favour of food.
“Because if you don’t…” Kaitlyn was about to come up with a fitting response when she saw something that made her stop, mid-sentence. Far above the clusters of gulls was another bird, rather more predatory in shape, and it was flying rather hurriedly. If Kaitlyn waited until she was floating on the crest of the wave, she could very slightly, see a dark shape on the horizon. Another island.
If the eagle had been spying on her, chances were that it was returning to its master. It had to be a Familiar – no wild animal would follow anyone with such persistence. And that master would probably be in the crystal palace. She shivered, and it wasn’t because of the water (which was actually rather warm) but with a thrill of apprehension. Perhaps the eagle’s master was the Golden Prince?
Luckily she only had to fight exhaustion, as none of the predators of the reef bothered her. They were probably too distracted by the bountiful feast she had accidentally provided. The waves helped her along, bouncing her playfully in the direction she actually wanted to go, and eventually, as the sun hung high in the sky above her, she dragged herself up onto another shore. This one was not so sandy, but made instead of tiny stones and crushed shells. They crackled beneath her, grazing her skin.
“So pleased you could make it,” came a familiar voice. Kaitlyn glanced up and found herself gazing at the little bat. It did not seem overly bothered by the bright sunlight, which gave its plush fur a distinctly green sheen. Nor did it seem particularly concerned in her health.
“You left me to die,” she managed, dragging herself upright.
“Hurts being abandoned, doesn’t it?” It asked, scuttling across the ground on all fours.
“Not as much as it’ll hurt you,” growled another voice. And out of the bushes leapt a sleek cat-like shape. Before the bat could even spread its wings, it found itself batted into the air by a large paw, and then pinned to the ground with another. “Lies do not become you,” the creature snarled.
Kaitlyn fumbled for her knife, wanting to protect her Familiar, but found she no longer had it. It likely now lay somewhere on the ocean-floor, lost forever. She settled instead for a handful of pebbles and crushed shells, which she flung in the creature’s face. It yowled, reeling back and releasing its grip on the little captive.
Instantly Wild flapped free, taking to the air in a few quick flaps. “You should not interfere in what you do not understand,” it screeched, and then dived on the cat-like beast.
Which dropped back on its haunches and attempted to smash if from the sky. For several moments the two animals chased each other about the beach, neither quite able to capture or harm the other.
“She’s mine,” the cat-creature howled. “Go back to your throne.” And there were many other insults too, some too rude to repeat, others of which made no sense.
As the cat-like creature rushed past her for the third or fourth time, Kaitlyn lunged, grasping it about its extremely long tail. It yowled again, rolling onto its back in an attempt to claw itself free from her grasp.
And for the briefest moments, their eyes met – Kaitlyn’s blue-green with the cat creature’s tawny-gold. And Kaitlyn felt something. Recognition, perhaps? Or something more peculiar – connection.
She released her grip and the creature wriggled free, taking a few moments to sort itself out and get back onto its feet.
“I know you,” she whispered. Distant memories flashed through her mind – a small girl, running barefoot through the woodlands. A tiny creature, small enough for her father to hold in one hand, lying on its belly in the dew-covered grass, mewing piteously. The girl, crouching down, picking it up and cradling it to her chest as though it were a doll and she was pretending it were a baby.
“Of course you know me,” the creature snapped. It looked a lot like a cat, with rounded ears and large golden eyes, but its tail was longer then its body and its fur was a deep chestnut. Kaitlyn had never seen a cat like that before. “You should, even though you abandoned me twelve years ago.” It paused. “You called me Copper.”
“I did?” Now Kaitlyn was thoroughly confused. “I found you as a baby,” she said, “when I was little more then a baby myself. I, I saved you, I guess. But that was twelve years ago. You don’t look that old.”
“No older then you,” Copper replied. “I’m your Familiar.”
“No you’re not – you can’t be. Wild is.”
At this the cat-creature rolled on its back, making a weird wheezing noise that Kaitlyn realised was laughter. “Is that what she told you? That must’ve hurt. The Wyld Queen pretending to be a Familiar. Oh my, wait until Sebastian hears that.”
“The Wyld Queen?”
“You’ve come from the mortal lands, haven’t you?” Copper continued, a little more kindly. “Well, here’s a quick history lesson. This is Lemuria. It is ruled by the Wyld Queen, Earth Mother, the Green, or whatever you want to call her. A long time ago she took fancy on your father, kidnapped him from wherever he was, and brought him here. She’s stuck here now, because of the metal or pollution or technology or something in the mortal world that makes her deathly ill. Anyhow, your father got to go visit the mortal worlds where he found your mother and they fell in love, etcetera etcetera. The inevitable happened and you and your brother were born. The Queen didn’t like this so your mother took you and ran away back to where she couldn’t follow. You understand?”
“Err, yes, I guess.” Kaitlyn was actually having rather a lot of difficulty following this, and not so sure she wanted to. Being told that almost everything you knew about your life was a lie, or at least had very important parts excluded was rather more then a little disconcerting. “So the Queen’s a bat?”
Copper shot her a strange look. “The Queen can be whatever she wants. That’s because she’s the Queen. Quick way to tell if you’re talking to her though, she’s kinda green at this time of year. So don’t trust any green animals. She’s up to something, her and the boy. You can’t be too cautious.” She shuddered, casting a glance at the sky. “You never know when he might be watching. Not one to get his hands dirty, that lad. Always keen on getting someone else to dirty them for him.”
“The Golden Prince?”
“Yeh,” Copper sniggered. “That’s what he likes to think himself. Skinny brat whose always got his nose buried in a book. Dangerous though. He’s trying to awaken things that should be left sleeping.” She shook her head. “Humans, always full of aspirations. Can’t be happy to just eat and sleep and,” she coughed, “other things. Got to try and dabble in nastiness. Anyhow, I’m sure you’ve had enough of listening to me ramble. Come along, there’s someone who’s been worrying about you.” And with that Copper jogged across the stony beach and towards the forest. Staggering to her feet, Kaitlyn trailed along behind. As she walked, she kicked something, and it made a strange rattling noise. Glancing down she saw her Survival kit. True to its name and purpose, it had survived as well, although it was starting to look rather the worse for wear. Picking it up, she swung it over her shoulder and trailed Copper into the forest.
Was this creature really her Familiar? She didn’t know, and could not remember, except for that strange fleeting memory. What was a Familiar anyway? That was something she would have to ask Sebastian, should she ever meet him. It was early afternoon now and she was fairly sure she only had until midnight before this “Golden Prince” proceeded with his sacrifice. She wondered who he was.
It took her a few moments to realise that they were actually walking along a crude path, cut through the centre of the forest but kept relatively clear of roots and dangling vines. Strange noises rang out on the wind, long hooting calls and the warble of strange birds that sent a shiver down her spine. It sounded almost as though the forest itself was singing.
After a short while they came out into a small clearing. Although it was now devoid of life, it was clear that someone had been here before. There was a patch of flattened moss, about the size for two humans to lie down (provided they did not mind lying in the dirt) and a canteen of water. In a patch of cleared dirt someone had scratched a picture of some sort, although Kaitlyn could not work out what it showed. It was, however, clearly not the work of an animal.
“Oh for goodness sake,” Copper muttered, crouching back on her haunches. “You ask them to wait for only a few minutes and they’re off, just like that.” She scented the air, and then sniffed the ground, sneezing once. Her eyes narrowed and she muttered one word.
From far off in the forest, something howled. It was a deep, primeval sound. The answering howl was more frightening however. Not only was it a good deal closer, but it sounded as though it came from a human throat. A very skilled imitator, but an imitator none-the-less.
“Stupid dogboy,” Copper muttered, “when will he learn that just because its got four legs and running doesn’t mean you have to chase it? Since she couldn’t stop you getting to me, now she’s gone to drag him away. Going to try and lose him in the bloodsong or something for sure.” She glanced at Kaitlyn. “Well, what are you waiting for, we have to go and find them.”
“Find who?” Came a weary and rather dignified voice, as from the crook of a tree materialised a pair of large, bat-like ears, attached to a rather scruffy looking creature. The pale gold eyes blinked once, and then blinked again. “Kaitlyn, milady!” Mephistopheles cried, launching himself from the tree and into her arms with such force that he bowled her to the ground. “You’re alive!”
“Yes, yes I am,” she replied, laughing at his exuberance. His gaze turned rather less jubilant when he glanced at Copper.
“Oh, you’re still here,” he muttered, and then grimly shook his head. “I never could understand it, Kaitlyn, milady, why when out of all the delightful and pleasant creatures you could have adopted as your Familiar you had to chose her,” and he spat the word “her” as though it were venomous. “I mean, really, what were you thinking? A fossa does not make a pleasant Familiar.”
Copper, who was obviously a fossa (whatever that was), twitched her long tail and licked her paw, grooming behind one ear. “It proves the lass has some taste. Something I’m afraid you would rather lack. As old and pompous as you are.” Her tongue flashed across her white fangs, accentuating the double meaning in her words.
“Well, despite the rather unpleasant company you choose to keep,” Mephistopheles replied, trying to ignore the fossa (who was staring at him almost greedily, perhaps in an effort to make him uncomfortable), “I am most pleased to see you alive and intact. I was lucky the dolphins brought me here. Where did they chose to deposit you?”
“Tu-Sok,” she replied.
“Ah yes, there. Rather a barren and depressing little island, I must say. No trees to speak of. But you’re in the homeland now,” he continued, “the heart of Lemuria. Which, might I add, mirrors your island of Madagascar.” He paused, as thought waiting for her response.
“The home of the lemur,” Kaitlyn managed after a bit of thought. “I thought you said Lemuria had nothing to do with lemurs.”
“Nothing?” He said, “I said no such thing. Merely that the name was derived from the same source to mean something different. Anyhow, I am a lemur, had you not noticed? And,” here he shot a glare at Copper, “she is a foul fiend that dines upon my kin. But I believe there are more introductions yet to be made. Have you met Jakob?”
“Er, what sort of animal is he?” Kaitlyn ventured.
Mephistopheles laughed. “Human, I’m afraid, although he’d argue that point most vehemently.”
“Who cares,” Copper muttered, “all this can be discussed later. We’ve got to find him now and start planning the great rescue, you know?”
“Oh yes, indeed, err, did anyone see where he went?”
At precisely that moment, there came a shrill scream and something howled once more. There was a triumphant edge to the howl.
“Oh good grief,” Copper muttered, “I do believe he’s caught something.” She and Mephistopheles both sat back on their haunches, their ears twitching as they both tried to pinpoint the direction of the sound. After a moment they both ran off.
In different directions.
Kaitlyn, being very tired, watched both of them vanish into the forest and then sat down, leaning against a tree. How good it was to get off her feet. A quick inspection showed that her clothes were tattered, torn and dirty. Great holes gaped in her trousers from the kraken’s suckers, which had also left vivid black bruises studding her legs. Her hair, never particularly well-behaved to start with, was tangled with dirt, leaves, twigs, pieces of shell and something she strongly suspected was bits of squid.
Only a few seconds had passed before they both came back, presumably to look for her. Then followed a short argument as each declared they had the better hearing, and their direction was the right one. During this time, the wolf (or whatever it was) howled again, and Kaitlyn, sick of listening to the two Familiars argue, figured out the direction herself, and walked that way.
A moment later she heard the aiay and the fossa drop in behind her, still arguing.
The scent of blood reached her nostrils first, a terrible smell that made her choke and gag. She stopped. Copper jumped onto her shoulder. “Keep going,” she whispered in her ear, “but make lots of noise, you don’t want to surprise him.”
“Surprise who?” Kaitlyn pressed her hand against her nose, trying to block the foul stench. It helped, but only a little.
“Jakob, of course.”
Kaitlyn was not so sure she wanted to proceed. The reek was terrible – what if something had happened to Jakob? Remembering Copper’s urging to make a great deal of noise, she tried whistling, but her throat was too dry, and she had to settle instead, for singing.
And then it all came into view.
A dead deer lay on the forest floor, the area around it torn apart by its flailing hooves. And crouching over it, attacking it savagely with a knife in each hand, was a young man. Blood stained his clothing, and more disturbingly, his face. His clothes were even more of a tattered mess then Kaitlyn’s. Opposite him, tugging strips of meat from the carcass, crouched the largest dog Kaitlyn had ever seen. No, that was no dog. It was a wolf, although it must have weighed at least as much as the man.
She stood, staring at this spectacle. When Copper showed no negative reaction, she ventured a word in greeting: “Jakob?”
Instantly he looked up from his kill, dark eyes flashing her up and down, as though he were assessing her at a glance, and finding her wanting, if the frown that followed was anything to judge by. He cast a sideways glance at the wolf, which had stopped its eating to watch them too.
“No sudden moves,” Copper whispered to her, “and don’t turn your back on him. If the Queen has awoken the bloodsong within him, it will take a while to calm and you don’t want him to think you’re prey, understand?”
Kaitlyn understood, although she was not sure she wanted to. “Hi,” she ventured.
The man took another step towards her, and she forced herself to stay where she was, and not take a step back. She must not let him intimidate her. This close she realised that they were much of a height – for a grown man, he was quite small in stature. Not that that would help at all, for his belt literally bristled with knives of various sizes. If it came to combat, she would certainly be on the losing side. He appraised her one more time and then ran one hand through the short-cropped bristles of his dark hair. He then proffered this hand (which was still red with the deer’s blood) to her.
“Name?” He barked.
Kaitlyn did not want to take his hand and indeed found if very difficult to keep eye contact. His lips were red with blood. Kaitlyn did not want to think about him eating raw meat, directly from the kill, but was having some difficulty blocking it. She stood there, staring mutely.
It was Mephistopheles who saved her. “Jakob,” he scolded, jumping onto a tree branch directly in front of the young man. “Surely Sebastian has taught you better then that. This young lass here deserves of better treatment, so break free of your bloodsong and act like a man.”
The effect these words had was strange. It was as though something in the young man’s head snapped. His pupils, which had been heavily dilated, shrunk back to their normal size and his whole posture changed. He blinked a couple of times, rubbing his hands across his face in an effort to clean it, an act which only made it worse. He proffered his hand again, stared at it, wiped it on his (blood-stained) shirt, looked at it again and tucked it behind his back.
“Hi,” he said, rather more smoothly, “I’m Jakob Larouque and I am pleased to make your acquaintance.” This sounded rather like a rehearsed speech, but it was polite and Kaitlyn greatly preferred it to being barked at.
Laroque. Sebastian’s surname. Could this be her brother? She shuddered, not wanting to believe such a thought. If he were, then he must have all of her father and none of her mother. For his face was narrow, his nose large and his eyes were somewhat almond-shaped, as though he might have Asian blood. His hair, eyes and skin were all tending towards the dark, although the latter she suspected was dirt.
“I’m Kaitlyn Marcolin,” she replied. “And this is Mephistopheles and Copper.”
“We’ve met,” he grunted, and Kaitlyn felt stupid. Of course they’d met. She was the only stranger here.
“Who’s your friend?” She asked, trying to cover her embarrassing error and nodding at the wolf.
“This is Loyal,” he said, and the wolf’s ears pricked forward at her name. She was a beautiful creature, with thick white fur, brindled with silver. Her muzzle too was stained with blood. “Why are you here?” He added.
The forthright question rather surprised her. It appeared Jakob was not one for small talk. “I’ve come to rescue my mother,” she replied. Perhaps it should have been “our mother”, but Kaitlyn really did not want to connect herself genetically with this wild man. There was a chance they might have the same father, but she would not believe they could share a mother.
Kaitlyn spluttered. “Because she’s in trouble. As is Sebastian. Don’t you want to help him?”
“Of course,” the reply came fast. “Can you fight?” As he said the words he whipped a blood-stained knife from his belt, and assumed what Kaitlyn guessed was a fighting stance.
“Err, no, not really.”
Jakob stepped closer, uncomfortably close, although he did hold the gore-stained knife to one side. She forced herself to hold her position and not step back or push him away. What he did next caught her entirely unawares, although she should have expected it.
Nostrils flaring, he sniffed her, head to toe, and then stepped back. “You smell of him.” She said.
“Sebastian,” he replied. “Father. You are of his blood?”
“So I’ve been told,” she muttered wryly, not missing his use of the word “father”.
“Then you will help me.” It was a statement, not a question. “We must rescue him.”
“And my mother?” She tried to make it a statement too, but it still sounded like a question.
He shrugged in response. “If we can.” Then he turned his back to Kaitlyn and returned to his dead deer, cutting slabs from it and burying some of them. When he made to eat one of them, Kaitlyn turned away.
“I’ll meet you back at the clearing,” she said and wandered back through the forest, an odd mix of hungry and nauseated. Copper stayed behind, to help “clean up” the carcass.
Back at the clearing, Kaitlyn took a well needed nap, and Mephistopheles brought her a coconut. She had never tasted anything so sweet and good.
A short while later, Jakob stalked into the clearing, Loyal at his side. His face was freshly scrubbed, although his short hair was spiky with dried blood. Without a word he walked across the clearing and sat cross-legged before his sketch from earlier.
“What can you do?” He asked suddenly, without looking up. It took Kaitlyn a moment to realise he was speaking to her.
“I can climb,” she said.