The sun had set all over Augura. Somewhere in the Imperial Palace, Emperor Quelch was preparing for bed. He’d had a busy day looking through the new high class magical weapons he’d ordered. They included a Purger, a Teleporter, a Thruckser weapon and a Mass Demoraliser. He was especially proud of the last one. In battle, it was used to sap the spirit of the opposing side so they’d give up and go home.
He and his wife had been down to the dungeon below the palace to ensure the weapons were safely stored. He had also made time to confide in his army general of his plans to assassinate the Oracle.
When the Emperor and his wives, and even most of the Emperor’s servants were going off to sleep... Jocosa crept out of her bedchambre.
Jocosa wasn’t stupid, and her morale hadn’t been eroded by two years of being slapped in the face by her new husband. She knew that somewhere, Warloc was still at home, probably reading books and feeling sorry for himself. She couldn’t allow that to happen.
Jocosa had had enough of having to stay imprisoned in the Palace; of listening to Minah and Ludu gossiping behind her back; of Sinthor telling her stories about his time as a Waste-Burner. And tonight she was going to escape and find her way home. She had paid close attention to the Emperor’s arsenal of new weapons and already formulated a plan.
She poked her head out of the door. It seemed empty, but she wasn’t taking chances. This was too important. She removed a shoe and threw it down the hallway. It hit a glass lamp and fell to the floor. The noise echoed down the hall.
She waited ten minutes more, then slowly opened her door and slipped out of the room. She closed the door behind her.
Jocosa slipped off her other shoe and started creeping down the hall in bare feet. At all times she listened for any sound of human movement. Her mind was alert and busy. Maybe it was too early. Maybe she should creep back to bed a wait a few hours.
No. It had to be done now. If she waited any longer, the dungeon might be locked.
The dungeon was another ten minute’s walk away. If she didn’t take it at a crawl, she’d be there in five to eight minutes, but she valued carefulness over speed. Meeting another door, she tucked her blonde hair behind her ears and took the handle cautiously in both hands. It slowly turned.
She entered the Throne room, where Quelch had met with Sinthor and the guards under a week ago. It was grand-looking room with red and gold coloured wallpaper. On the walls were pictures of important people she didn’t recognise. On red painted wooden shelves, artefacts, talismans and amulets sat. Some of them were rare and special, like an old Reflexor globe, created by the great Wizard Bardicov over 400 years ago. Others were just confusing, like a green glass jar full of plastic straws.
She ignored the surrounding grandeur and edged her way along the wall, searching for the door in the dark.
A noise in the next room. She froze, listening.
It was a guard passing through the Dining hall. He poked a head through the door the other side of the Throne room. Jocosa flattened herself against the wall, kept her head down, and stopped breathing.
The guard stuck in a lamp, illuminating the room up to the seat that Ludu usually took beside the Emperor. Jocosa kept perfectly still.
Shrugging, the guard ducked back out of the room and carried on. As soon as he was gone, she edged along the wall at double the speed, finding the door and carefully pulling it open.
Now, Jocosa was in the Banquet hall. She’d only been in here a few times in all the time she’d been kept here. She wasn’t sorry that she’d never have to see it again. Beyond this room lay a very small room. And in that room was a door. And beyond that door was a flight of stairs leading to the dungeons; a flight of stairs that she wasn’t supposed to know about.
Jocosa make slow progress across the shiny, polished floor. She was just looking behind her, listening once again for guards, when she tripped on her dress. She fell forward, arms stretched in front of her. She slammed into the table. Cutlery rattled and fell off onto the floor.
She whipped her head round. Footsteps, getting quicker, getting closer.
‘Oh clag!’ she exclaimed, and bolted.
She ran to the small door the other end of the room, yanking it open. She swung herself round the door, and even before it had shut behind her she was opening the other door leading to the dungeons. She threw herself down into the darkness.
Jocosa had no time to lock the door behind her, though it had a lock. The guard were getting ever closer, and they were fast runners. She skipped down the stairs at an alarming speed and was lucky not to lose her footing and fall. A dart whistled past her, catching her on the side of the face and sticking into the wall, but she left it behind her. She reached the bottom unexpectedly and stumbled, but kept going.
She was charging down a stone corridor now. It opened up in a big, stone lined room. No shelves here – the weapons had been left in a pile, to be sorted and locked up in the morning. She rummaged through them, trying to find the right one.
Jocosa heard more than one set of footsteps thundering down the dungeon steps and sifted through the weapons more frantically.
She found it. It was a long metal thing with a reddish stone fixed to either end. The Teleporter.
Someone burst through the corridor behind her. Without looking, she took the weapon in both hands and thought of home.
The reddish stones turned bright yellow and she disappeared.
Jocosa fell to the floor and felt something in her ankle snap. She screamed.
She lay there for about a minute, and tried to prop herself up on her elbow. Slowly and painfully, she got up.
The room around her was her own. It wasn’t quite as she remembered – it was looking untidy, and the curtains were ragged and torn. But it was her room. It was her home.
She checked the bed. Warloc was looking directly at her.
Jocosa smiled in relief and took a careful step forward.
‘Stop there,’ Warloc said. He was sitting up properly now. He had suspicion, exhaustion and detestation in his eyes. Jocosa stopped, startled.
‘Warloc,’ she said, standing on her good foot. ‘It’s me.’
‘Well, that’s what they all say,’ he told her. ‘That’s what they’ve been saying, what they’ve been tormenting me with, for two whole weeks. I’m not listening to you anymore. Go away.’
Jocosa looked at him, frightened. The expression hadn’t faded. She swallowed.
‘Warloc,’ she began. ‘What’s the matter? What did he do to you?’
‘Oh, clag off, you thing,’ he spat back at her. ‘As if you didn’t know. You asked me what I was most afraid of, which was, as you recall ‘My wife getting hurt’. And what do you do? You stand before me, in her body, in her clothes, bleeding from her face. You disgust me.’
Jocosa hadn’t noticed her cheek was bleeding, but left it alone for the moment.
‘Why are you even here?’ Warloc said, getting onto his feet. ‘You’ve already been here tonight; you’ve already stolen one and a half hours of valuable sleeping time. Now CLAG OFF!’
He pushed her backwards. She shot out an arm to grab something, but there was nothing and she met the floor with a thud. She screamed and clutched her ankle.
Warloc stood over her, still with that awful, hateful expression.
‘Warloc,’ she said, holding in her tears, ‘it’s me. It’s Jocosa. He took me away, he made me marry him. I had to sneak down and steal his Teleporter to be here. I had to escape, I couldn’t stand it.’
‘Shut up!’ Warloc roared, kicking her. She cried out and rolled onto her side.
‘It’s true! Warloc, you have to believe me!’
‘Where’s the Teleporter?’
‘I don’t know! It must still be at the Palace,’ she said, crying now.
‘Well, I’m tired of excuses,’ Warloc said, speaking louder. ‘I’m tired of your taunting and goading, I’m tired of feeling guilty every day for not being able to help my wife and I’m tired of being tired. This ends RIGHT now!’
He got on his knees and raised his fist.
Before he could hit her, a voice came from downstairs. A girl’s voice.
‘Warloc,’ it said. ‘Who the hell is that?’
Jocosa glanced at the slightly open doorway, then at her husband. His face was like a mask. He didn’t move. His fist was still raised in midair. Slowly, he lowered his arm.
‘Say that again,’ he called to the girl downstairs.
‘I can hear someone screaming, who is she?’
Warloc’s eyes widened.
There was a long silence. Jocosa was starting to breathe normally again.
‘The Emperor knows about the girl,’ she said. ‘I don’t know why she’s so important, but Quelch is preparing. He’s got weapons. He has all these weapons in the dungeon, including the Teleporter, that’s how I got here.’ She paused. ‘He’s got other plans. He’s going to assassinate the Oracle. He doesn’t want him to return because he’s a threat.’
‘Jocosa,’ Warloc managed to say. ‘You’re bleeding.’
‘I know,’ she said. ‘The Emperor is planning more things, terrible things. We need to do some -’
And then she vanished.
Back at the Palace, a Wizard was holding the Teleporter in his left hand, and was moving the fingers of his right. Emperor Quelch was standing sternly over him. Four guards stood behind them.
‘It had better be working,’ the Emperor said.
‘It will, Your Imperial Majesty,’ the Wizard assured. The stones on either end of the Teleporter turned from yellow to red, and a woman in a dress appeared, slumping to the floor. She cried out. Her ankle seemed to be broken.
Quelch walked over to her, as calm as could be.
‘So good to see you back safe, my dear.’
Siobhan had come up the stairs, curious, and entered the room. Once again, there was nobody there except Warloc. He was lying in the foetal position on the floor and was breathing hard.
‘Warloc?’ she asked, stepping in. ‘Warloc, what’s wrong now?’
‘It was her!’ he wailed. ‘I didn’t believe her! I thought she was an apparition! I was about to kill her!’
Warloc didn’t answer. He just lay there, hugging his knees.
‘She’s gone,’ he moaned. ‘They must have brought her back through the Teleporter.’
‘Brought who back?’
Still Warloc wouldn’t answer her or get up. Siobhan put her head in her hands, wondering what to do. On TV and in books, she’d known people to smack someone around the face to bring them round. But she couldn’t do that now, not the way Warloc was laying. And she couldn’t kick him.
‘Warloc, get up!’ she said sharply.
He just started breathing faster. Now he was panicking. Despairing, she took him by the shoulder and rolled him onto his back. And she brought her foot down on his stomach.
‘Oof!’ Warloc rolled back onto his side, winded.
‘Get up, you... you... clagger!’
Warloc looked at her. There was a long pause, and much to Siobhan’s relief, his breathing started to slow down. She nudged him with her foot, and he got to his feet. He still didn’t look right. There was not a trace of grump in his face.
‘Was it your wife?’ she asked gently.
‘How did you know?’
‘I just guessed. Your house is built for two people, but someone left two years ago and you never talk about it. I thought maybe you had a wife who’d left you.’
Warloc sighed deeply, and he shuffled over to the bed. He sat down.
‘She didn’t leave me.’ He spoke with a resigned tone, and looked more tired than ever. Siobhan sat slowly on the floor in front of him.
‘Tell me,’ she said.
Warloc nodded, and spoke slowly. ‘Years ago, the old Emperor ruled over Augura, and he had the Oracle as his advisor. But then he died, and Quelch took over. As soon as Quelch was handed over the Doctrine of Rule over the Augurian Empire, he decreed that everyone should be separated. He split up families; he shut the giants away in a separate county to live in those awful shelters. And he shut off the Imperial Palace to everyone. People used to visit to see the old relics and amulets, and there used to be a place people could go to learn to read... but he took it all away from us.
‘I remember going to see him make one of his speeches, some halfway down Mount Jaleb. I took my wife with me. Her name’s Jocosa. I took her with me. We were standing near the front as the Emperor told the crowd... he told us what his plans were. Most of us were angry... Jocosa was angrier than the rest. She stood up to him. She just stepped forward and started shouting at him. I tried to pull her back, but... well, soon he was holding her back with those arms of his, but it made her angrier. She wouldn’t stop. And there were people in my way, and I was trying to get through. Eventually he just gestured to his guards and they took her.
‘At first, I couldn’t move. But then I saw how scared she was. The crowd behind me hadn’t really seen her. They didn’t know what happened, which made me even angrier. And I... I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just picked up this stone, and I was going to throw it at him. But his arms just came at me, and... Well, when I woke up he and his guards were gone. The clagger had stolen my wife.
‘I got up and went home. People in the crowd must have seen me and taken my herbs because my bag was empty. I didn’t care. I should have run back and done something, but I felt sick, and weak. And then that night I was woken up by this thing. Taunting me about what I’d done. Telling me I was useless... so that was the first apparition. I’ve had them ever since. I suppose if I hadn’t tried to throw that stone, he wouldn’t have cursed me. But it was the least I could have done. It was the most I could have done.
‘And I’ve been telling myself ever since, I need to train, and I need to get better. I am going to get my wife back, even if it takes years before I’m strong enough.’