Emperor Quelch sat in the throne seat of the Ceremony Hall. His head wife, Jocosa, sat in a smaller, less grand throne beside him, and Minah and Ludu took seats at either side. All three of his wives wore masks to hide their faces.
The Emperor gestured to the messenger by the door, and he nodded and left the room. When he returned moments later, his army captain Sinthor, and two guards entered the room and strode respectfully towards him.
Sinthor glanced nervously now and again at the Emperor’s arms. They weren’t like ordinary arms. They were long, rubbery and tentacle-like, with five sharp barbs running up them. He had seen what they could do. Emperor Quelch liked to strangle anyone who disagreed with him. It was by no means a disability – the Emperor could still pick things up and move things around. He could also stretch his arms across long distances at an alarming speed, so Sinthor kept an ingratiating look on his face as he walked.
Sinthor came to a stop two metres in front of Quelch’s throne and bowed.
‘Your Imperial Majesty,’ Sinthor said. ‘I believe you wanted to see me.’
‘I did,’ the Emperor said, stroking his beard. ‘You have been informed of the premonitions shared by my Wizards?’
‘Yes, your Majesty.’
‘We must take action now to ensure this girl does not get the better of me. Have you located her whereabouts?’
‘Not yet, your Majesty. But we have found the site where the gateway between worlds opened. It is in Mage County, near the house of one Mr Warloc.’
One of the wives gasped from behind her mask. The Emperor turned to her and smacked a tentacle into her face. She fell silent.
‘No, your Majesty. Shall I send some of the army recruits to check the residence?’
The Emperor laughed. ‘Well, if she’s gone to Warloc, there’s little chance she’ll find her way here. Warloc is a coward. He hasn’t climbed this mountain in two years.’
‘Yes, your Majesty.’
‘However,’ Quelch continued, touching his moustache, ‘it would be foolish not to take precautions. I shall send someone to unlock the dungeons and prepare the weapons for use. In the meantime, Captain, start getting those men of yours back into shape.’
Sinthor ignored the way the head wife seemed to be staring at Quelch through her mask. He nodded at the Emperor, and left the room.
Emperor Quelch beckoned his head wife as he swept out of one of the side entrances of the Ceremony Hall. Dutifully, she followed. Once they were alone in an adjacent room, the Emperor removed her mask. Jocosa stared at him.
‘My husband is not a coward,’ she said simply.
The Emperor smiled thinly, put down the mask and slapped her across the face. She stumbled right, a hand to her left cheek. He took a step closer and put his mouth next to her ear.
‘I am your husband now,’ he said coldly. ‘I have told you to remain silent when I am holding any kind of ceremony. You will speak when you’re spoken to!’
Jocosa put a finger in her mouth. It came away bloody. She stood up as straight as possible and looked the Emperor straight in the eyes.
‘Of course, your Majesty.’
Siobhan was rudely awoken the next morning by Warloc, holding up a mirror, directing a beam of sunlight into her face.
‘I’m blind!’ she moaned, sitting up.
‘You’ve been asleep long enough,’ Warloc said, yanking away the cloak. ‘Besides,’ he added, somewhat reluctantly, ‘I thought I should explain to you about last night. I don’t want to tell you, but you’d probably feel better if you knew what happened.’
Siobhan blinked and sat up straight. ‘You mean there was something happening?’
Warloc nodded. He turned round and took the other chair. He sat slumped forward, his fingers interlocked. He spoke.
‘Now last night... actually... no. Two years ago...’ He paused, looking hesitant. ‘No, forget it.’
‘Tell me, please.’
‘Oh well, as you said please. Did you hear me talking to anyone before you came in?’
Siobhan thought. ‘I heard you shouting at someone to leave you alone.’
‘No other voices?’
‘Don’t think so, no.’
Warloc exhaled. ‘Well... there was somebody, or rather, something, there. For two years, I’ve been bothered by nightly apparitions.’
‘Like... ghosts? Do you have those in Augura?’
‘Not like ghosts, no. They have a physical presence, and some of them are violent. Last night’s apparition was particularly bothersome. They have different forms – sometimes it’s an old green man, sometimes a cat beast -’ Siobhan glanced at the scratches on his arms ‘- and sometimes a four legged monster, like the one you did damage to before you came here.’
Siobhan remembered. ‘So that was one of your apparitions?’
‘Yes. They do things like talk to me for hours and stop me getting to sleep,’ Warloc sighed, gingerly touching the cut on his jaw. ‘But they only want to hurt me, not you. And if they’re talking to me, you won’t hear them.’
‘Well, why are you getting them?’ Siobhan asked.
‘I was cursed by the Emperor.’
‘I have no idea,’ Warloc replied, scratching his nose. ‘I’ve been trying to get rid of them, but nothing works. Just... if you hear or see it happening again, don’t try to help me because you can’t.’
Siobhan tucked her legs up in front of her. ‘But that’s awful. You can’t have had a lot of sleep.’
‘Not much, no.’ Warloc said. He got up. ‘Anyway, I thought you must be fed up with staying inside all day, and it could be a while before I find a way to send you home. So I thought we’d have something to eat and then go for a walk.’
‘Oh, brilliant,’ Siobhan said. There was a pause, and she gave him the thumbs up. Then she said, ‘So you really have no idea why he cursed you?’
Warloc shrugged. ‘I must have been looking at him the wrong way.’
After they’d had some food –which turned out to be some poached eggs – Warloc took her on a walk through the trees. Siobhan looked around at the bluish and peach-coloured trees. Some had woolly trunks, just the like ones she’s seen a few days ago. She reached out to rub the trunk of a near tree. It had a baggy skin, like someone had knitted a jumper around the wood of the tree.
They walked on. She saw other trees – one was a salmon pink colour and had long droopy leaves. One has think, coarse leaves. One tree looked like it was sporting an afro and was bright red.
‘Your trees are weird.’
‘You don’t have greenery, you have bluery and pinkery and reddery...’
‘That’s normal,’ Warloc replied curtly. ‘And what on earth are you talking about?’
Siobhan thought. ‘Yeah, you’re right, just ignore everything I said there.’
‘It’s hard to think it’s still the same planet sometimes. I mean, I’ve read things before about wizards and giants and fairies and knights and things like that... they’re in a lot of our books and films, but not really like this. It’s fairly, well... atypical. And I know I complain about wanting to go home a lot – I do miss my family and I expect they’re worrying about me, but... I dunno. It’s still really interesting here. I suppose it’d be the same for you if you came over to my world.’
Warloc nodded. ‘I don’t know if I could handle being in another world. I have too many things I need to do here.’
‘Well, I have stuff I need to do as well. My mum’s in bed with a broken arm, my grandma needs me to go out and get Coke for her, and I’ve got to go to school as well.’
‘Right. In the last two minutes you’ve used at least three words I don’t understand.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake. Look, make a list of words you don’t understand and I’ll tell you what they mean later.’
‘I’ll have forgotten them later.’
‘Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr. OK, fine, tell me the words.’
‘Fictional thingies... it’s when people act out a story and you can watch it on TV.’
‘I’ll tell you later.’
‘Right. Er, Coke.’
‘A fizzy drink. Something else you’ll have to try, along with that chocolate I mentioned.’
‘What does it taste like?’ Warloc asked.
‘Um. Not sure. It’s a new taste; it’s not like anything else. Next word, then, come on.’
‘I’ve forgotten it. Er... oh yes. School.’
‘It’s where people my age – well. Children start going to school when they’re about five, and that carries on until they’re sixteen, maybe longer.’
‘And what happens at school?’
‘You learn things. Like, erm, the water cycle, how to read and write, and then later on it’s things like performing arts – that’s acting again – and chemistry, and about other geographical climates... no, forget that, don’t ask me what that is.’
‘What do you need to learn all that for?’
‘God knows. To get a job, supposedly.’
‘Why do you keep saying ‘God knows’? What does that mean?’
‘STOP ASKING QUESTIONS!’ Siobhan exploded.
Warloc shrugged, and they came to a patch of dug earth in the ground. Spiny green, blue and grey things were poking out of the soil, and some clump violet fluffy stuff.
‘This is a communal growing area,’ Warloc explained. ‘Wizards and Mages come here when they need herbs. We all do some planting and growing, and can borrow each other’s herbs.’
Siobhan peered at him. ‘You just explained something to me.’
‘Yes I did.’
‘You don’t usually. You just tell me to bog off and mind my own business, usually.’
‘I’m sure I didn’t say anything about ‘bog off’.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘I don’t, Siobhan.’
Warloc crouched down, found the herbs he was looking for, and put them in his bag. Then he waved a hand over some greenish leafy herbs, sprinkling them with water. Then he turned and walked away.
Siobhan followed. ‘That’s it?!’
‘Is that all we came down here for?’
‘That was a long walk; I thought it’d be for more than a few herbs.’ She glanced at Warloc’s shoe, which has a leaf stuck to the sole.
‘That wasn’t a long walk. To the other end of Wizard County, that’s a fairly long walk.’
‘Does everyone always walk everywhere?’ Siobhan asked, eyes fixed on the shoe.
‘Well, except for those wealthy enough to possess carts, and powerful enough to train an animal to ride them. Oh, and there are the Dragon Riders, the other side of the Enchanted Woodland.’
‘Dragons? You seriously have dragons?’ The leaf was still there.
‘Yes. How does your sort travel, then?’
‘We have cars and planes and boats and trains,’ Siobhan said. She grinned. ‘Hey, that rhymes.’
‘You’re giving me a headache. What are all those words?’
‘Cars and – well, they’re all just modes of transport. Big metal things with wheels, and the planes have wings. Basically that’s it. I’m trying to keep the descriptions simple, but you should really see them for yourself.’
Warloc remembered the flying metal animals from his vision. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I think I can picture them.’
‘Warloc, this had been bothering me for ages - you have a leaf on your shoe.’
‘Oh.’ He stooped down and picked it off. They continued walking.
‘How long have you been doing magic?’ Siobhan asked, the thought just occurring to her. She wanted to talk about her own bit of magic; the thing she could do with her ears, the thing she didn’t understand.
‘I’ve been practising as a Mage for eleven years. About two or three years ago, the old Emperor died, and we got a new one called Quelch. And now he’s divided us all up, so I have to stay in Mage County, but my parents have been moved to a peaceable area. It’s a long way to walk, so I have to be content with writing to them.’
‘Do you have any friends here?’
‘Yes. Dahlia used to teach me, as you know, and it was in Mage County that I met Gargantuum. He’s one of the nicer giants.’
There was a pause. Siobhan tried to get up the nerve to talk about her magic. Warloc asked her a question first.
‘The people in your world,’ he asked. ‘Are they divided, at all?’
‘Hmmm. Well, there’s not any physical divide, like here,’ she said. ‘There’s a sort of class system, I suppose. I’ll tell you about that later. Warloc?’
‘Back home, I kind of noticed... well, if I really wanted to, I could, er, shut off my hearing and... I could make this air bubble go round my ears, and then I couldn’t hear anything.’
Warloc nodded, not looking at her. ‘Yes...’
‘That’s not normal. Where I come from nobody can do that, not that I know of.’
This time he looked at her. ‘So what do you think it is?’
Siobhan didn’t want to say the word. ‘It’s not any sort of... magical ability, is it?’ Damn it. Now she felt awkward.
‘It could be,’ Warloc said, thinking back to what he’d seen in his vision.
‘Could you teach me some more stuff, then, if I can do magic?’
‘I don’t have time to teach you, Siobhan. You’ve seen how busy I’ve been.’
‘Why are you so busy, anyway? What are you doing?’
‘To be a Wizard.’
‘Why is that so important?’
‘It just is, alright?’
Siobhan shut up, feeling annoyed. She’d only asked.
‘It’s important,’ Warloc explained back at the house, once he’d thought about it a bit and calmed down, ‘because I am trying to break my curse and trying to get you back through the portal.’
‘Yes, but do you still have to study while I’m here?’
‘I do, yes.’ Warloc sat in his chair, legs crossed, one foot pointing towards Siobhan. ‘I’m trying to get you home as quickly as possible, like you keep telling me.’
‘Why can’t we just ask one of the Wizards from that herby place?’ she asked. ‘They could recreate the portal, right?’
‘Going to another Wizard would be a bad idea for two reasons. One, they haven’t seen your world and so summoning a gateway back there would be very difficult. Two, you are from another place. You’re an alien. They might decide to sell you to the Emperor and you don’t want that.’
Siobhan picked out another book from the shelf called ‘So You Want to Be a Mage’. ‘So,’ she said, ‘I should stay with you?’
‘And wait for you to open the portal?’
‘And break your curse.’
‘Why do I have to wait for you to break your curse?’
‘You don’t -’
‘You could go to another Wizard for that, couldn’t you?’
‘I’ve tried that. It didn’t work.’
‘Please teach me magic,’ Siobhan whined. ‘You don’t have to study, do you?’
Warloc looked defeated. ‘Siobhan, it has been a very long day...’
‘Well, you don’t have to teach me tonight, obviously. You can wait until tomorrow.’
‘I don’t want to teach you,’ Warloc cried, exasperated.
‘You just said you would.’
‘No I didn’t!’
‘But you will, won’t you?’
Warloc stalked over to her, took away her book, and huffily replaced it on the shelf. He flung his cloak at Siobhan.
‘So are you going to teach me?’ she asked.
Warloc stomped up the stairs.
‘Will you?’ she asked loudly.’
‘I’ll think about it!’ he replied, and somewhere upstairs, a door slammed.
Siobhan smiled to herself and crawled under the cloak. She’d never been good at winning arguments at home. Maybe it was the bread diet.