Author’s Note: Back in the heady days of the year 2000, a college student of mixed intrigue, instead of doing his homework, sat down in front of a keyboard in the library and trotted out a short story.
It was awful.
A couple of years later, he revisited the story and tried to turn it into something longer.
Now you get to “enjoy” the opening couple of sections of that second go, broadly unedited. The true short story original shall remain hidden from public view, buried in an antique filing system. You are lucky to get this much 😉
“Everything has to start somewhere.
No, I tell a fib, some things start somewhere else entirely, another plane you know? Everything has to exist somewhere.
No, that’s not right either. Some things never get started at all, but happen anyway. Mine’s a pint.”
– The Eternally Misquoted Great Prophet Fengal, ten minutes after the Battle of Khirack.
“Of all the joys, pleasures and remarkable, fantastical and simply beauteous things in this wonderful, joyous world, the fine art of ascension away from our native ground has to be the most splendid.”
This was not what was being thought at the time.
The actual inner voice ran:
“Flying is fun,” as he was doing a grand example of the sort over the desolate Kinhest Mountains.
Of course it was not actually he that was doing the flying, but in fact a large lizard with wings called Rancha.
Rancha was not a proper bona-fide dragon, although he resembled one in some aspects, and occasionally wished he were one out of jealousy. Rancha was instead a fine example of a Lesser-Scaled Urglon, who took all the better qualities of the more usual type of flying lizard, shrunk them, and added a large inferiority complex.
Of course he was also highly intelligent, which more than made up for his other deficiencies, so he had to content himself.
Currently, Rancha was rather annoyed because his rider (Urglons were also raised to act as a better class of horse) was as irritating as spraying chilli-powder up your nostrils and about twice as abrasive. The rider, who wanted to be known as “Master Yansul”, was currently forcing Rancha to do some technically impossible airborne stunts. Luckily thanks to the twisted and distorted nature of the Mountains they were passing through, Rancha managed to make most of his meagre efforts to seem more impressive than they actually were.
On the other hand, perhaps “mountains” is not the precise way of describing their current terrain, as the landscape had as much to do with the standard, huge, grey, conical behemoths as a piece of string has to do with certain pictures by that nice Mr. Esher. Approximately the same difference as well.
After twice nearly spraining his wings on outcroppings, Rancha finally came within sight of their destination, and felt slightly better. Rising over the next ridge he could see the misty turreted heights of a seemingly majestic palace, complete with drawbridges, battlements, and an impossible number of towers.
Of course Rancha knew better as he had been here before. The entire scene in front of him was nothing more than a second-rate illusion, created to lull any potential invaders into a false sense of security.
What he saw, was in reality, a much larger version of the said illusion. The entire castle/palace covered several sprawling square miles, although the image showed it to only occupy less than a ¼ of a mile.
The most often complained about problem apart from the illusion being totally useless, was that it tended to give the occupants a headache when journeying from one section to another due to problems with scale perception and see-through walls.
The illusory image was generally regarded as useless because the impossible nature of the Kinhest Mountains made it inconceivable for anyone to cross them on foot, so the only other standard ways for anybody reaching their destination were to fly or dig a tunnel. The second option was next to improbable to do as well, as there is no humanly possible way to judge distances above and below the Mountains. This made for a pretty impregnable fortress, as there wasn’t an icicle’s chance in a years worth of blazing sunshine of getting an army there. Well, one way, but that had not been tried for decades, so claims of invulnerability were usually justified.
As Rancha neared the tallest visible tower (which was actually a courtyard used as a landing pad) he felt “Master Yansul” speak. Unfortunately, as he professed after they had landed, he could not hear a word due to the wind in his ears. What “Master Yansul” said went along the lines of the following.
“Ah, at last I can finally get of this flea-bitten oversized moth!”
So the fact that Rancha chose not to hear this was good, otherwise by the official Code of his species such an insult would have meant severe punishment, and Rancha was a tad squeamish. But he was duly offended anyway, so when they finally passed through the illusion into the courtyard below with a strange tingling feeling, Rancha landed in such a way that caused “Master Yansul” to hang upside down from the saddle with one foot. Attendants rushed from surrounding buildings to help him untangle himself so Rancha was free to look about the courtyard with interest.
Due to the innate strangeness of the palace/castle and the surrounding mountains, the décor had a tendency to change by itself every so often, so while the buildings maintained their basic layout, the style often changed dramatically. This was also a contributing factor to the inhabitants headaches, so they were a bit tetchy when the recumbent “Master Yansul” shouted abuse at them, so he fell silent quickly when they threatened to leave him there.
The current favoured style of the surroundings was of a classic mediæval bastion, complete with square grey blocks making up the walls, and small rounded cobblestones underfoot. The battlements consisted of tall walls with archers slits every metre or so and the main gateway was a heavy reinforced oak thing with an iron portcullis. Rancha noted that the attendants stood out amongst these surroundings as they were wearing clothes more suited to an Indian palace, which showed that the changes had only occurred recently. Nobody had figured out since the palace/castles construction why this effect kept happening, so most assumed it was a side effect of the accursed illusion and lived with it.
Rancha was torn from his musings by a strangled cry behind him. Turning his head he could see that “Master Yansul” was finally disentangled, and so had dropped to the floor with a thump that seemed would shatter the cobblestones. As “Master Yansul” was led away through on of the side doors swearing loudly, and threatening to commit every grievous act he could to the attendants, Rancha was approached by someone he recognised. Dressed in similar garb to the attendants, but slightly more ornate, was a medium sized oldish man of slight build and tanned skin. Rancha could tell he had been taking advantage of the sunshine which had been prevalent before the weather had gone all mediæval.
The obviously fairly important person stood in front of Rancha and spake thusly:
“Yo Rancha, where you been?”
Rancha blinked a couple of times until his brain had adjusted to cope with this latest personality change of his old dear friend Ihjundas The Just.
Ihjundas had been stationed at the palace/castle when Rancha had been just a chick. Like most people who lived there for a prolonged period of time, his personality traits tended to change as often as the décor. His memories stayed intact however, and there were a number of fairly good psychiatrists also in residence, so he didn’t go insane with the constant shifting of his little world. He had risen in rank over the years and now was second in command of the entire palace/castle. He refused however, to give up his position in the stables because he rather liked looking after the assorted flying creatures that frequently passed through them. Nobody argued with him because they all frankly agreed he was good at it. The fact the surroundings took the form of a tropical paradise at the time nobody particularly noticed.
“So, Rancha?” he said in a rather cool dude fashion.
“Oh nowhere in particular. I went on my holiday to that little island to the south of Grandag as you know, and picked up him on the way back.” on the word him, Ranchas head tilted toward the doorway “Master Yansul” had gone through, with a distinct look of disgust on his reptilian features.
“Hey Ran, no need to be heavy. Be pleasant to the outer forms that we take, you know?”
Rancha wondered vaguely if Ihjundas was on some form of medication, but continued anyway.
“Well that I can say is that, that Shnotdwar is not a particularly nice man, and has the manners and smell of a week dead Dungbeast from Uhngrad!” Rancha said with relish. He had been waiting to let out some of his more homicidal feelings over the past few days, and the relief he felt now helped a bit. Ihjundas regarded him impassively from below.
“Done yet?” He asked innocently.
“Pretty much.” said Rancha. “So what have you been doing with yourself anyway?”
“Well, hey, you know, just hanging and caring for all the lovely lives in my care. You know. Yeah.” Rancha again wondered what the state of Ihjundas’ mind was in, and the possible chemicals his brain could be currently soaking in. He decided to give up wondering and ask him out right.
“Er, Ihjundas are you taking anything at the moment or is it” he motioned with his head to indicate the surrounding stonework, “all this talking?”
Ihjundas put on a puzzled and slightly hurt expression. “Rancha, hey, I thought you were, you know, my buddy, my pal. What you saying all these heavy things about my corporeal shell for?”
Rancha had his answer. “Sorry Ihjundas I meant no disrespect, I was unsure about your health so as a friend I was being merely concerned.” Rancha bowed low at this point, bending his knees and lowering his head. Ihjundas appeared to be mollified.
“Hey, that’s cool Rancha. I’m with that. Oh! You must be weary after your long journey. If you seek material comfort, follow me, but it could be bad for your aura.”
Rancha did not care about his aura at this point because he was an Urglon who were naturally gifted in all things unusual. And besides, he was fairly tired after doing all his airborne stunts, so he indicated that some rest would be nice and Ihjundas nodded and shouted at one of the people on the battlements to open the gates. This took about five minutes, as Ihjundas appeared to feel like giving orders was bad for his karma or something, so he attempted to use gentle cajoling. Unfortunately the current gate guard was a bit deaf so he did not notice Ihjundas’ gentle mewing for a while. That is until Rancha did a very good impression of a bellow, at which the gate guard did take notice, and spring into action.
When the gates finally creaked open Rancha was led through a short stone tunnel into a large barn-like building. It was built like a standard hay covered horse stable (mediæval of course), only on a vastly larger, multi-levelled scale. Various hootings, tweetings, roarings and yammering could be heard echoing within. Rancha was led along the main path down the centre of the structure, past various disinterested and/or sleepy gazes coming from the many stalls. After going through another pair of large double doors at the end of the room Rancha entered a slightly better version of the stables he had just gone through. These had been designed specifically for creatures, and sometimes people, who required privacy, space and decent bedding, and were capable of complaining if they didn’t. As well as having the standard wooden beams and straw strewn floors, there was separate apartment like rooms leading out of the main room, through elegantly carved oaken doors. Each of these rooms looked like what a luxury hotel would look like if it had been built for horses, with most of the amenities an ordinary hotel would contain.
Rancha was tickled to receive such star treatment, and told Ihjundas so. Ihjundas seemed pleased, and left to attend to other things with a polite:
“Don’t get heavy, let your spirit fly while you recline.” which Rancha after some thought translated to “Sweet dreams.”.
The next morning Rancha was awakened abruptly with a high pitched beeping noise. Feeling slightly ratty, he raised his neck from his comfortable oversized four-poster, to identify the noise. Or at least it had been a four-poster when he had gone to bed.
Not quite awake yet, Rancha stood up alarmed, and after banging his head on the now metallic ceiling, he looked around in panic. The room had changed overnight to bolted metal panelling with no visible openings, most of the furniture had disappeared, and there was a soft glow filling the room from an unidentifiable source. Rancha tried to remember where the door had been yesterday, and studied the wall where it had been.
There was assorted tiny flashing coloured bulbs spaced at intervals across the wall, but otherwise there were no discernible features that would indicate an opening.
Behind Rancha a grinding noise started and he twisted round to locate the source. The bed, which was now metal with a spring mattress was pulling into the wall, and within a few seconds had gone entirely apart from a thin slot through which the bed covers were visible.
Rancha was not a happy Urglon. There was too much that did not make sense around him, so he whimpered a bit and curled into a ball. The beeping suddenly stopped, which gave him some relief, as it had been annoying. One of the panels on a wall started glowing brightly, and the face of Ihjundas formed on it. Rancha duly directed his attention at the image, which then stared to speak.
“Ah, Rancha you are awake I see,” said a very clinical voice which was barely recognisable as the one belonging to his friend. “How do you feel? You are probably a little disorientated from the changes around you, but I would appreciate if you joined me in the main hall as soon as possible. In a more suitable form if you would be so kind.”
“Yes! But how do I g…” But the face had disappeared. “…et out.” Rancha finished lamely. He sighed and attempted to figure out what he was supposed to do now. ‘Suitable form’ the message had said, so he decided to deal with that first. Urglons, like most types of their noble cousins the dragons, were blessed with the ability to change their species. Unfortunately the Urglons could not change their form as well, so if they were weedy and uninteresting examples of Urglons, they would be weedy and uninteresting humans as well. Or racoons. Or whatever else they turned into. Luckily Rancha was not as bad as some of his brethren, so his shape changes were not quite ugly or boring, but then they were not exactly beautiful either. If Rancha turned into a bird he would be a pigeon – capable of racing and covering long distances, but usually fat ground peckers. His human form was difficult to describe. He turned into the sort of person you always see at parties, but are usually hanging round in a corner somewhere. Someone who appears all the time at cinemas, but sits somewhere in the middle out the way. He was a non-descript crowd filler basically, who if he committed a crime would be described as ‘average height, average build, brown eyes, brown hair’. Or whatever the norm for your area is.
One of the difficulties Rancha had with species shifting, was the minor matter of clothing. Seeing as Urglons were usually unashamedly naked, as is much of the animal kingdom, so was his human form. With a weird rippling effect Rancha shrunk to human proportions, and had to make a makeshift toga out of the bed sheets. It was not very flattering. Looking round, he saw the room to much different proportions. Whereas it had been very cramped, it was now a vast cavern, a good 30 metres from wall to wall. He returned to the issue of trying to escape out of a door he could not find. For a whole fifteen minutes he poked and prodded the wall where he believed it to be, with little success. Having reached a corner, Rancha thumped the next wall out of sheer exasperation. Being metal, it hurt rather a lot. Cursing loudly, he fell back against a wall cradling his sore hand. One of the panels on the wall behind him started to glow red, which surprised Rancha enough to jump up quickly, and turn round in time to see a large section of the wall simply disappear, leaving a hole to the outside.
Adjusting his sheet, Rancha ventured forth to find the main hall. He immediately had problems as soon as he stepped out in to the corridor, when he was nearly run over by some floating, glowing metal contraption travelling at high speed. Jumping backwards back into the room, he was not surprised in the slightest to see the wall reseal itself, so he had to spend another ten minutes trying to find the appropriate panel again. Eventually, when he finally got to wandering the corridors, he discovered he was very lost, with no idea which direction the hall was. A low humming gradually getting louder behind him indicated another metal thing was approaching, so Rancha stepped to the side of the empty corridor to let it pass. To his immense surprise it slowed and stopped in front of him. A clear panel on the top swung upwards revealing…
“Ihjundas! Am I glad to see you!”
“I do not know, are you?” he replied coolly. “We have been waiting for you to turn up for quite a while, so I decided to take advantage of the current facilities to find you.” He indicated the mobile contraption. “This is a hover-tram that runs on the principle of repulsion between two negative forces which derives from the application of unique elements…”He slowed when he saw Rancha look blank, and continued smoothly. “Suffice to say, it has not been invented yet and is just a better version of a carriage. Hop in and I’ll take you to the hall.” Rancha obliged, the lid swung shut and they moved off again. The interior of the tram was pleasantly warm, with comfortable seats and far too many lights and readouts for its own good. Ihjundas indicated a small metal case set into the side of the interior. “I figured you didn’t bring any suitable clothing with you, so I took the liberty of guessing your size. Nice toga by the way.”
Rancha thanked him and Ihjundas obligingly looked out of the window at the rapidly moving walls while Rancha changed. The trunk contained something silvery with a lot of buckles, similar to Ihjundas’ own but with less gold bits. It looked very…futurish.
Eventually when the tram finally shuddered smoothly to a halt, Rancha was fully kitted out, and looked rather like a chicken leg wrapped in tinfoil. Ihjundas said some words to similar effect. Rancha was not best pleased, but had no chance to complain as the door swung open and the all too familiar sounds of Master Yansul’s whining tones came bellowing from a nearby open door. Rancha sighed inwardly. Looking to his right he saw Ihjundas making a similar pained expression, and he could tell that he had also experienced the wrath that was “Master Yansul”.
“When will that, that person shut up? Ever since he got here it’s been the same: ‘The beds are too tough, I hate soft mattresses, the food is too gooey, why is it so stringy? My room is too warm, its as cold as an ice cube in there’. Honestly I know it’s not a nice thing to say but I’m glad he isn’t staying long.”
Rancha expressed agreement, and, bracing themselves, they entered the room together.
“Ack! Its about time you got here you old fool! Who’s this person?” “Master Yansul” pointed at Rancha, “another of your incompetent lackeys?”
Ihjundas neatly squelched Rancha’s building fury by gently pushing him backwards, and quickly speaking.
“No Percy, he’s the Urglon that brought you here, treat him nicely or you won’t just have him to deal…Rancha? What’s so funny?”
Rancha was smirking and trying to muffle his childish giggles with one hand.
“It’s nothing,” he laughed “I just didn’t realise his name was Per…”he collapsed against a wall shaking with hysterics. Ihjundas regarded him impassively for a moment, and quickly took the bright red and shudderingly indignant Percy out into the hall, where he was bundled into the waiting tram. Closing the lid on his protests, Ihjundas turned his back on Percy and the tram sped away. Re-entering the room he found a misshapen mass of half-human, half Urglon desperately trying to compose himself. Catching sight of Ihjundas Rancha quickly turned back into human shape and straightened his outfit, which was ripped in several places due to the sudden change in size of the wearer.
“I’m sorry Ihjundas, it’s just that after having to put up with him for the last few days, hearing his actual name just made me…” Rancha trailed off as Ihjundas’ face split into a conspiratorial grin and started snickering. Five minutes later when they had both laughed themselves hoarse, Ihjundas said croakingly:
“Come on we had better catch the next tram before people wonder where we have got to.”
Rancha wondered briefly what had been so funny, when suddenly there was a shuddering underfoot, the walls vibrated and took on a hazy look. Ihjundas looked worried, so Rancha followed suit and asked him what it was.
“This isn’t supposed to happen again till at least next week!” he shouted over a high pitched whining that had started up. “Holy Yurmuth I hope it doesn’t…”
The whining suddenly reached a climax and there was a blinding flash, accompanied by the sound of tortured stone and metal screaming as it twisted into a new shape. Then, there was silence.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world…
Terand the Brave was stomping his way though an uninhabited forest. The sun was high in the sky, the birds were singing and the bees were buzzing. Yet still he stomped. An impossibly beautiful apple tree stood in a green meadow, offering its juicy sweet fruit to anybody who wished to take it. Yet still he stomped.
A lithe young deer, its coat shimmering in the bright sunshine, leaped impressively across his path, with a glint in its eye, its proud head held high. Yet still he stomped.
A group of squirrels joined paws in a circle and performed an amazing impromptu dance, bushy tails waving merrily in the air. Yet still he stomped.
A bear burst into a clearing he was passing through, grabbed seven rocks, and skilfully juggled them using all his extremities. Yet still he stomped.
Stomp, stomp, stomp.
Seemingly out of sheer desperation a group of hedgehogs waddled into view, stood on each others backs in a pyramid, and as one, shouted “Oi!”
Terand was not ceasing in the act of stomping. With a sense of somebody somewhere slowly getting fairly irritated, an extremely large pink tiger crashed through the undergrowth, stood on its hind legs, waved its front paws frantically and said:
“Will you please stop moving about, at least for half a second?” What did Terand do?
Oh, you guessed.
Now, ahead of Terand’s thumping trail, starting to rise above the tree line was a stubby grey tower. It was not much to look at. No self-respecting Bastion of Power would try looking like it. It was barely impressive or imposing enough to stop the local wildlife from scaling its round outer wall, and going down the other side, which they invariably did. Trees and vines happily grew round it, with an occasional bird’s nest tucked into its crumbling heights. Or lows as the case may be.
It appeared to be Terands destination, and so the source of the unknown others irritation. Somebody appeared to be trying to slow down Terand just enough so as to stop him, and failing miserably.
Perhaps this is a good point to describe Terands appearance, so that we might learn a little about the man behind the stomp.
Terand is approximately four foot high, has wrinkly brown skin resembling an elephant made of brown leather, and one foot. Not because of any birth defect or any accident, just one leg, right in the middle. All drangls are made like that. Which explains the stomp, as he propels himself by hopping furiously. He won awards for speed in his home village.
Apart from his one notable exception and his size, Terand is built like a standard biped (Or uniped), in that he has two arms, two eyes and so on. This gave him the advantage of being able to mix with most other bipedal species without too much discrimination – not that anybody would, because drangls were fairly common, and anyone picking on one would find that they would be facing a drangl that they just picked on. And probably most of the other drangls from that drangls home village, or current place of residence, because the drangls know that in a world gone bad they always have each other to rely on.
Incidentally this inspired the activation of guilds and unions in many human cities, causing yet more misery and suffering for the poor overworked and underpaid drangls, so that was OK.
Anyway, Terand, after encountering a green giraffe that talked in rhymes and a pink and yellow polka dotted elephant that produced scented bubbles from its trunk and wore a sign round its neck saying “PLEASE STOP NOW!”, approached the door to the tower, without any loss of speed, and headbutted them firmly in the center. Being old and rotted timbers and Terands head being built like a natural hard hat, they splintered around him as he plunged headlong into the inky depths of the tower. Well, inky is a little strong description to use. Dappled light filtered in through the many gaps in the stonework, there were several spluttering torches dotted around the walls, and a lovely pinky, greenish purple colour emanated from some apparatus on a bench, which looked like it had been made by the proverbial glassworker with an irritated phrenic nerve and a spasming diaphragm. So it was fairly well lit.
Oh, and there was also a guy with a silly hat standing in the corner holding a glowing staff like thing, but we’ll come to him in a moment.
Terand, after duly plunging into the actually fairly bright depths of the tower did not stop moving. Using powerful slaps against the walls with his single foot and spinning round like a maniac, he bounced round the interior of the round room like one of those little metal balls you find inside a certain arcade attraction. Unfortunately for whoever had to clean the place afterwards, he did a fair amount of damage to the furniture and the nightmare glasswork in the process. After about five minutes of his chaotic flight, Terand finally stopped in the center of the room amongst the assorted debris and panted for breath. The guy with the interesting hat appeared untouched and quite miffed.
“What,” he began to splutter, but then appeared to stop and rethink his next sentence, in light that there was someone present who could split solid seasoned oak with his forehead.
“Why did you do that?” he sighed resignedly, “I nearly had everything ready as well.”
Terand scratched his wrinkly head with a long finger and said
“Because I’m getting paid about twice the normal rate for this job and my instructions were pretty non-specific, so I thought I’d have some fun in the process.”
It is probably worth mentioning at this point that Terands chosen career at that time was similar to a cross between a bounty hunter, mercenary and standing around in posh restaurants until people paid him to go away. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it.
The guy with the hat (which can now be identified safely as a beret, or the equivalent of) took it off and paced a while. He finally gave a yelp as he trod on some glass, and after hopping a bit he spoke thusly:
“I’ll double whatever it is they are paying, for you to fix everything and become my assistant until my work reaches the stage it was at before you so kindly ruined it. What do you say?”
Terand shook his head “No, that was the only thing in this contract that was definite. I’m not allowed bribes. Besides,” he said grinning, “there’s no way you can possibly afford that much.”
“I’m sure I can pleasantly surprise you on that point Mr…” The behatted figure left the question hanging in the air but Terand neatly side-stepped it.
“Hmm, you might be able to but as I said my contract is quite specific on that score, so I’m afraid you’ll have to deal with this on your own. Oh, I’m supposed to knock you out and take you prisoner before I go, so if you could come over here and kneel it’ll save a lot of effort on both our parts.”
The mystery hat owner drew himself up to his full height, adopted a powerful pose and his thing that looked like a staff started to glow brighter.
“No you won’t! I shall crush you like a bug first! Neve…ow, how did you do that?” Then he fell over with a slight thump.
Quite some time later, the man woke up to find he was minus his hat and staff like object, had his hands and feet bound, and had a very sore back from being dragged along the ground for and unknown distance. The rope tying him was connected to a harness around a wrinkly brown creature who was making an impressive turn of speed despite only having one apparent leg. The man (whose name was usually claimed to be Yrinzametaphicalogispolymoboincat The All-Powerful, call him Yrinmet for short, if you would be so kind) surmised that the situation was “not good” and wondered what he could do about it. It was at this point that he discovered he was also gagged, when he attempted to speak. Sighing, then yelping when he discovered being dragged and sighing deeply at the same time hurts, he attempted to chew though the loosely tied gag. This attempt was quickly given up, when its was found that the gag, putting it mildly, tasted worse than a pile of dung that had spent a week under the armpit of the worlds most smelly bodybuilder. Yrinmet at that point was sorely tempted to throw up, but decided against it on the previously mentioned grounds of the gag. He attempted to sit up whist still being dragged, and received an even sorer bottom than before for his efforts. Nothing, he decided, was for it but to lie back and hope that they stopped long enough for him to try and escape. Judging by the rapidly passing scenery, that was not going to happen any time soon and so he lapsed back into unconsciousness due to a stone someone had conveniently placed in the middle of the path.
Terand, who had dropped the stone in the first place, stopped his headlong hop for a moment and looked over his shoulder at his charge to make sure he was definitely residing in Slumberland (east of The Deserts of Trallis). It was bad enough, he considered, that I have to drag the lousy shnotdwar, never mind him squirming and putting my back out. Terand shook his head sadly; People were so inconsiderate these days.
Meanwhile back at the Kinhest Mountains…
“Oh, well that was interesting.” Rancha stated. Ihjundas did not appear to make any audible response, but Rancha continued.
“Well what I mean to say is that I have never seen metal move like that before, it was almost…beautiful.” Ihjundas was still not forthcoming with any answer, but Rancha managed to answer a question that nobody else could hear.
“Yes I know I have strange tastes, but what do you expect? I am an Urglon after all; I was brought up with strange!”
Ihjundas turned and looked at his companion, who was currently operating a set of pedals in the front of a wooden cart shaped device, with two wheels at the back and one at the front with a pair of handlebars sticking up from it. Numerous cogs and pulleys were connected on the underside of the contrivance from the back wheels to the pedals at the front. The planks in the centre were topped with some comfortable chairs upholstered in a red and gold fuzzy material, and the whole thing was finished with a cane-supported canopy covering the lot. The entire machine looked remarkably efficient, yet very comfortable, provided you were not the one sat in the front.
Rancha again answered something that truthfully could not be detected by anyone using their ears.
“Yes, I know you were the one that brought me up! But why does that mean I have to pedal?” he whinged. He stopped his tirade for a few moments as if listening. “I know I did!” Again a pause. “That’s besides the poi…no I know I did…So what if I…I know that! I know that you know I know, but you don’t have to…oh fine!” Rancha continued his pedalling in a sullen sulk. He seemed to be trying to ignore Ihjundas, but Ihjundas didn’t appear to be trying to get Ranchas attention in any way.
After a few more minutes silent pedalling, the corridor they were travelling along appeared to be reaching an end. A large illuminated sign informed whoever read it that they should “Stop here and the auto grapple will allow docking with the station.”
A couple of grumbling workers still in their silver outfits, were in the process of removing the sign and replacing it with one that said “Park and go up the stairs.” They also kept managing to burn themselves on the lanterns that were fluorescent lights not so long ago.
Rancha stopped pedalling and pulled on the large lever sticking up by his chair. The machine stopped with a heavy jolt, which caused Ihjundas to give Rancha A Look. Emerging from their canopy cover, they proceeded to climb the stairs. Ihjundas gave the workers a wave who, recognising him, waved back, causing one of them to drop the sign on his foot. Ihjundas continued on up the stairs, his head shaking in silent mirth, while Rancha trailed along behind looking unamused.
At the top of the stairs was a very large set of double doors. Currently they were of intricately carved wood, with a shiny deep brown finish, and covered in little brass door ornaments. In the approximate centre was a pair of large doorknobs, either side of a very intricate looking locking mechanism made of polished brass and walnut. Several bars projected from this lock into holes dotted round the doorframe. The door had obviously been designed to look good and intimidate anyone passing though it. Currently it was locked.
Ihjundas turned round and allowed Rancha to pass and stand next to him by the door. Staring intently at Rancha, he managed somehow to elicit a response.
“Yes I have been here before you know,” Rancha bristled “I know all the procedures and general fawning about I’m supposed to follow.”
Ihjundas held up his hands and turned his face away, seeming to indicate that he was only trying to be helpful, no need to snap at him.
Rancha deflated a little, “I’m sorry, its just I haven’t been having much fun lately and its starting to get to me.”
Ihjundas appeared to communicate that he understood, and gestured toward the door.
“Ok, let’s get on with this,” Rancha agreed, “The sooner I get rid of Percy the better.”
Ihjundas gave Rancha an appraising look, but did not appear to say anything, as Rancha did not seem to notice.
Walking up to the doors Rancha studied them for a moment and prodded a lever hidden amongst the vagaries of the lock. The bolts simultaneously popped out of the frame, and with a slight rumble the doors swung open by themselves.
Ihjundas raised his eyebrows at Rancha, who looked embarrassed.
“I just got a knack at that sort of thing,” he mumbled looking at his feet.
Ihjundas raised his hands and eyes upwards, clearly indicating he was thinking something along the lines of “What has become of the cute little Urglon chick I thought of as innocent all those years ago?”
Rancha seemed to interpret this gesture thus as well and was about to comment when they both heard the now much too familiar strains of Percy’s voice complaining loudly once more. Ihjundas made a guttural sound with his throat and beckoned Rancha to follow him through the door.
Now, the hall they entered had changed slightly from when Rancha had last visited, but that was unsurprising, as so had practically everything else. Two things he remembered it being were very, very big, and extremely impressive. These were good observations on his part as that was what it had been originally designed to look like. One other thing that had caught his attention was how bright it had been due to the strands of raw power that flew through the air on regular intervals. Very bright in fact. Which it currently was not, so causing him to say:
“Ihjundas, why is it so dark in here?” For it was very dark indeed, apart from a central column of multicoloured light illuminating the other reason for the halls design. The light came from a small stained glass dome, which was one of the few things in this place that never ever changed. The reasons for this will become apparent eventually.
The rest of the hall was so dark Rancha could not tell where the other six walls were. Was it mentioned that the room was heptagon shaped? Well it is. This may or may not have some significance, but it is worth knowing all the same.
Ihjundas’ response was still inaudible but it appeared to satisfy Rancha, who walked into the hall shivering slightly as if cold.
The other people present in the room turned at their approach and all but Percy turned away again when they saw who it was. Percy started spluttering almost immediately.
“It’s about time you miserable people. I’ve been waiting here for almost an hour for you to turn up, and now you saunter in without any…” This tirade would have continued for quite a while, but one of the other persons present silenced him with an imperious gesture. He was forced to glare all at present in impotent fury getting redder by the second.
“Greetings Ihjundas and friend,” said the left-hand person “We are glad you could join us. Now we can commence business.”
Ihjundas bowed in a gesture of subservience, although all present, apart from Percy, knew that by rights he should be one of the three persons who’s job it was to sit in this room all day and preside over the entire palace/castle. Upon rising he glanced at Rancha who took the hint and bowed also. While doing so Rancha took the opportunity to survey the three distinguished personages. Bathed in the light of the dome, they were sat in high stone chairs, with carvings on the sides and miniature stone arches rising from one armrest, over their heads and down to the other side. Intertwined round these arches was what at first appeared to be a soft brown twisting carved wood, but on second glance seemed to be living plants carefully pruned and trimmed over the years to be an integral part of the chairs’ design. The occupants of the chairs were still dressed in the futuristic garb, but theirs was obviously much more flashy and gold than that which everybody else was wearing. The one on the left was obviously female and appeared to have taken pains to put braids in her hair with little sparkly bobbles. She was fairly beautiful, but her eyes had the tired look of someone who had seen too much too soon.
The one on the right was a jolly looking red bearded man, who looked like he enjoyed his food a bit too much and had a big ingratiating smile on his face. Like his female companion his eyes wore the weary look of someone who knows too much.
The sex of the central person was indeterminate, as they had features that could be applied to either sex. Their waist length black hair was tied into a ponytail, and they wore an unreadable serious expression. Their eyes unlike the other two did not reveal much at all about what he knew or had seen.
The chairs the three were sat in were at the same level to indicate they all had equal status, but were still high enough to show anyone that approached them that they were above them.
The general overall effect was very impressive, enough so it also seemed to silence Percy, who didn’t peep for a whole five minutes. Rancha rose from his bow and looked back at Ihjundas who turned to the three and gestured at them.
He seemed to put forward a very interesting argument as two of the three looked quite grave. The central figure remained unchanged.
“We are sorry to hear of your predicament,” said the woman, “I am sure it will have certain benefits while you still have that ability, but for now there is nothing we can do but wait until the next Alteration.” Ihjundas nodded and stepped back to show he understood.
“Now to business!” the bearded man declared. “We have a mission of the utmost importance for Percy here to complete. Or should I say Mister Yanksulk.”
“Master Yansul!” the owner of both names exclaimed. “People never give it the due respect it deserves!”
“Quite.” The woman picked up where the man left off. “Percy here, for those that do not already know” she said looking at Rancha “is the last descendent of the famous Apple Seller of Franchick. I trust you all know the story?” Rancha and Ihjundas nodded, while Percy gave an impatient harumph.
“Good, good!” The large man continued “that will save a good five minutes on this meeting then. Right, we need Percy here to do the standard ‘journey to a distant land’ and recover the appropriate artefact. Pretty bog-standard stuff really. Get there, slay a couple of monsters, find the damn thing is missing and/or been used for nefarious purposes, slay a few more beasties, storm the appropriate castle, defeat whatever Dark Lord lives there and home in time for tea. Dealing with the inevitable problems that always without fail crop up should be no problem on the side. Now, any questions?”
Percy stirred. “Yes do I have to go alone or do I get some kind of companion?”
The man nodded “Course you do you pillock, what kind of sub-standard quest do you think this is? You get to go with Rancha here, and you are bound to pick up a few more people along the way so you won’t be too lonely. Now get on w…yes what is it?”
This last was addressed to Rancha who had nervously raised his arm. “No offence to any of you, but do I really have to go? This sort of thing isn’t in my job description and besides I don’t think we will make…suitable partners.”
The woman raised an eyebrow and spoke “Regrettably my dear Urglon we foresaw this eventuality and changed the standard charter.” She was sincere “I’m sorry to put you through this but it is necessary. Please tell him about the changes would you Ihjundas?”
Rancha looked pleadingly at Ihjundas who shrugged and eloquently gestured that the matter was out of his hands, sorry but they do fix the charters around here, there’s a note in section twelve paragraph six subsection c that allows them to change certain aspects of the contract at any time without notice, you are on your own with this one.
Rancha sighed, and turned back to the three. “Fine” he said “I’ll do it as long as it is just a standard quest with no more than the usual number of unforeseen circumstances and odd coincidences. Deal?”
The central figure stirred in its chair and focused its corpselike eyes on Rancha. In a voice as deep as the ocean with tones as forbidding as a volcano he spoke.
And that was that.
Ihjundas led the miserable Rancha and the irate Percy back to the waiting cart. Ihjundas looked at Rancha and seeing he was in no fit state to do the pedalling, and that Percy would refuse point-blank, he appeared to shout without uttering any sound. After a few seconds a man trotted out of a side door and looked to Ihjundas for instructions. The fact that he never heard any didn’t seem to bother him and like most employees at the palace/castle he took Ihjundas’ new ability in his stride and hopped up into the drivers seat. When the other three were seated with Rancha on the left, Percy on the right and Ihjundas looking squished in the middle, the man looked round at Ihjundas again and asked for a destination. Ihjundas silently gave him one, so the man swivelled back around and commenced pedalling.
Percy stopped being irate for a few moments to watch this charade. Turning to Rancha he asked:
“Why is the old fart being so quiet? Who is he anyway?”
Rancha replied, “He currently talks with his mind you twit, now shuttup I’m trying to think.”
Percy went so red he looked like he was about to explode. The spittle mounted in his mouth, ready to fly…but Ihjundas seemed to say something to him, which gave Percy the ridiculous look of a person trying to be angry and puzzled at the same time, which can be quite funny if you have ever witnessed it. Percy lapsed into a beetroot silence, his brow crinkling heavily as he tried to cope with current events.
This gave Rancha the opportunity to ask Ihjundas something.
“Ihjundas, who the hell was the Apple Seller of Franchick?”
Approximately two thousand six hundred and three years ago…
In a market place in a town called Franchick located near the Deserts of Trallis (west of Slumberland), there was once a particularly bad and nasty thief. Not bad or nasty as in he was any good at his occupation, but because he was terrible at it. This was mainly due to the nasty smell emanating from him which instantly alerted everyone to his presence. After the six hundredth and seventy-second bungled attempt at repossessing other peoples possessions, he decided he had had enough and ventured out across the nearby desert in the hopes of joining one of the tribes which usually roamed it. He had heard they had a particularly good life with posh tents and plenty of food, water, wine and other more interesting pleasures. This rumour would have surprised any member of a tribe that heard it, as they were all in reality sick to their back teeth of constantly tipping sand out their sandals, getting sand in their beds, washing sand out their hair, eating sand for practically every meal, and of course the damn sand that they had to live amongst for every single day of their miserable and sand-blown existence. Oh and the sun, but they had got used to that.
Anyway, this ninth-rate thief took to wandering and after two weeks he was getting pretty fed up. The various tribes had thus managed to avoid him so far as they had smelt him a mile off. So there he was sitting on a dune picking sand out of his ear, when suddenly the ground shook a bit, a magnificent temple shaped like the head of some great beast rose up out of the next dune (sandstone of course) and glared at him in an imposing manner as if to say “Come and greet your destiny”.
Unfortunately he was facing the wrong way at the time so he didn’t notice it stick its tongue out at him and sink back into the ground after about five minutes.
Two days later he was just about ready to pack it in and return to whatever town was nearby when he tripped over a very small apple tree. Some sand went up his nose, so he sneezed on the plant. Out of nowhere a booming voice commanded “You have given water to this lonely little shrub. For your kindness you must now go forth as its protector, spread its fruit and you will gain good fortune.”
The thief said words to the effect of yeah right, pull the other one its got a ten piece orchestra on it, to which the voice replied “Look matey I’m not mucking around here, look after the bloody weed and you might stand a chance of getting something good out of this, never mind that if you don’t I shall smite you with that scorpion sitting on that rock over there, you see if I don’t!
The thief mulled over his choices and agreed.
And so it was good.
Several months later, the little apple tree had grown at a frankly miraculous rate and spread its fruit fairly widely. Next thing he knew, the ex-thief was now the proud owner of several acres of prime orchard, two houses (one in town, other nowhere near the bloody sand), several apple stalls in markets across eight countries, and a cider distillery.
The ex-thief himself, properly chuffed at his fortune, spread his own fruit fairly widely, much to the disgruntlement of several women who found themselves stuck with several bawling children. However he did allocate a large sum of his fortune to making sure all his children were well provided for, so that was OK. Several decades later long after the thief had died a happy old man, these children got together and argued, squabbled and eventually feuded over who got to keep the old gits vast fortune, orchard and of course the lucrative distillery. The lawyers had managed to “misplace” the will, and so kept the money for themselves as a “percentage”. Some years later when most parties involved were regretfully deceased due to alcohol poisoning, the orchard had fallen into disrepair and turned into building materials for various properties. When it was finally reduced back to one solitary shrub, only one great, great, great, great, great great-grandchild of the original apple seller remained, who, to his immense surprise, received a large amount of cash from some contractors who were knocking down the lawyers old offices and had finally found the will.
This guy set himself and his family up with a nice castle and title to go with it, perched on the side of the Valley of Deranged Meanings (actually a rather nice place, also home to an old woman who had given the Valley its name for unknown reasons. Ok, she was quite mad, but that doesn’t mean we should prejudice against her.)
When the man died he left his estate and title to his only son Percy. His nine older sisters complained like hell, but the father was a sad old git with both feet firmly planted in Tradition.
The owner of the mysterious voice, a rock and a scorpion was never learned.
Rancha leaned back in his seat, wondering if he was supposed to feel enlightened, but instead said:
“What an awful story!”
Ihjundas shrugged and indicated with a nod, that he thought so too, but that’s the way it was, don’t blame me for the way I tell it.
In the meantime, during the story, Percy had taken to staring at the rapidly moving wall, as he was unable to hear the account. He noticed something and turned to the other two.
“Oi, I think we’re slowing down. Driver! Are we nearly there yet or something?”
The peddler turned his head slightly “Y..ep,” he wheezed “I…thi..nk so…you had…all.. bet..ter” he gave one final wheeze and fell forward over the steering bars clearly exhausted. The cart shuddered to a halt.
Well, this looks like where we get off, Ihjundas projected his meaning, come on you two we are going up to the Storeroom to get kitted up before you go to the Chamber Of Significant Exits and get on with your, ha, sacred quest.
This burst of silent conversation was clearly too much for Percy, as he remained in a perplexed silence all the way up another set of stairs. At the top of these was a broad landing with several very large doors leading off it.
The lighting up here was very gloomy, and the doors were fairly imposing structures, so Rancha started to feel a little edgy. This was one of the few sections of the sprawling complex he was not entirely familiar with as it was off limits to anyone who didn’t have a damn good reason. Percy too looked a little uncomfortable and so he turned to Ihjundas.
“So what happens now? I hope you aren’t wasting my time, I do have a quest to complete you know!”
Ihjundas indulged in the standard upwards staring gesture which pleaded help from the nearest available deity. Then he sauntered up to one of the doors and pushed it open while waving them through, revealing a short corridor with some more doors at the end. Percy glared at Rancha, who shrugged and followed Ihjundas.
“Ihjundas,” he asked “What’s behind the other doors?”
Ihjundas stopped a moment to think.
Well, he implied, behind the far right one is a semi-bottomless pit, but we put mattresses and a ladder down there because people kept falling in it. The next one has some spring-loaded crossbows, triggered when you open the door, but they also make great flower holders. One of the others used to be a scorpion pit, but I think Grinwalder keeps a potty collection down there. There are some quite fascinating ones as well, he emoted wistfully. Anyway the third on the left was some sort of room that had walls that crushed you slowly, but Grinwalder got fed up of the wall moving every time one of the potties went back on the shelf so it doesn’t work anymore. I can’t remember what the rest are, but suffice to say this is the only one that goes where we want it to.
They were now approaching the door, and they stopped just in front.
“Old man?” asked Percy “Who or what is this stupid Grinwalder?”