Copyright © Ian Irvine 2011.
Chapter 1. The Sprite
‘I’m planning the perfect crime,’ said Mellie.
‘I wondered why you’d been so quiet,’ said Ike.
He was standing in Claudius the cornicle’s cramped left side-pouch, which he had shared with Mellie for the past day as the horned beast flew towards Grimmery.
Ike could not get used to his best friend being an apprentice thief from a clan of thieves. Before he could ask what Mellie meant, however, a petite, pink-haired figure hurtled across the sky above them, swinging two round objects around her head on strings. Tinkling laughter trailed behind her.
‘What was that?’ said Ike.
The cornicle’s wings missed a beat, then the corded muscles bunched and drove it on. Behind the wings, the no-longer-headless highwayman, Lord Monty, sat slumped in the saddle. His recently rejoined head was still on backwards and Monty was snoring stinkily through his sphincter.
‘You’re standing on my foot,’ Mellie said irritably.
‘Sorry.’ Ike pushed forward as far as he could go in the hairy, reeking pouch. The streaking figure was vaguely familiar. ‘She looks like a sprite.’
‘That’s absurd.’ Mellie gave the stolen Bloody Baton a swirl through the air. Crimson sparklets twinkled in its wake.
‘Why?’ Ike wished she would dispose of the demonic device.
‘The denizens of Orcus – efreets, demons, imps and the like – can’t leave the underworld whenever they want to. They have to be summoned by a magician in Wychwold.’
‘Maybe Emajicka summoned the sprite.’
‘She told Nocty that she would never ally with Orcus, remember? Anyway, sprites aren’t allowed out.’
‘Too feckless and silly. They make trouble wherever they go.’
The sprite shot back the other way, juggling the organic objects. Ike rubbed his jaw. ‘It is a sprite. I know her.’
Mellie stiffened. ‘You know a sprite? When did you meet her?’
‘I haven’t exactly met her, but I remember her name.’
‘You’d better explain.’
Why was Mellie so upset? ‘It was when I was trying to rescue Pook in the underworld,’ he said hastily. ‘While you were robbing Achernix of his Bloody Baton. And, incidentally, Monty asked you not to use it, in case it draws demons to us.’
‘I just told you,’ Mellie said crossly, ‘they have to be summoned.’
‘Then what’s –?’
‘You were saying about the sprite?’ The pink-haired figure was doing aerial acrobatics, high above.
‘She was playing silly games with a bunch of other sprites. I recognise her now –’
‘By her curvy figure, I suppose?’ Acid crept into Mellie’s voice.
‘Actually, it’s the maniacal laughter, and the hair as pink as fairy floss. Her name’s Mothooliel.’
The Book of Grimmery pulled itself up Ike’s trouser leg and teetered on the edge of the pouch, holding on with its spindly arms. ‘What a stunning little sprite,’ it said in a reedy voice.
Ike steadied the vital but vexing volume. Having spent the past month searching for the book, he wasn’t letting it out of his sight.
‘You call that pretty? ’ muttered Mellie, who was sensitive about such matters.
‘What do you think, Ike?’ said the book. ‘You have a fine eye for feminine pulchritude.’
‘Pulchri-what?’ said Ike.
‘Where did you go to school?’ jeered the book. ‘It means beauty. If Mellie rates an … um … well, let’s be generous and give her a three for good looks, how would you score Mothooliel? An eight? A nine? A perfect ten?’
Ike knew he was standing at the base of a cliff, a boulder teetering above him.
‘Choose your words very carefully, Ike,’ snapped Mellie.
‘I’m not playing this stupid game,’ he said feebly.
‘Very wise,’ said the book, fixing him with a beady eye. ‘Mellie knows she’s not much of a looker, and if you rate the sprite too low, she’ll be humiliated. But if you tell the truth she’ll never forgive –’
‘Shut it, you detestable dictionary,’ cried Mellie, knocking the book down to the bottom of the pouch and pointing the Bloody Baton at it. Flames spurted, shrivelling wiry hairs on the cornicle’s pouch. It squealed and lurched sideways.
‘Don’t blast the book!’ said Ike, grabbing her wrist. ‘We need it.’
She shook him off. When she spoke, her voice was ice going through a coffee grinder.
‘You do know that sprites are a low form of demon? And demons can change their appearance any way they want. In reality, Mothooliel probably looks like a bubonic garden slug –’
Parchment pages turned. ‘Here we are,’ said the Book of Grimmery. ‘Demons and imps can change at will, but the appearance of sprites is immutable. That means fixed,’ it said to Ike. ‘And that’s the way Mothooliel is. Beautiful. A perfect ten – urk!’
Ike stepped on the book with both feet, cutting it off.
Steam was coming from Mellie’s ears. Desperate to change the subject, he said, ‘If sprites aren’t allowed out, what’s she doing here?’
‘How would I know?’ Mellie snapped. ‘Maybe she escaped after your pen ate that hole through the wall of Orcus –’
She broke off, staring at Ike, her mouth forming an O.
The same thought had occurred to Ike. ‘And if a humble sprite can get out, what else could have escaped?’
Mellie stuffed the baton into her pack. ‘A mighty demon, famous for rages that shake the whole of Orcus.’
‘A demon bent on punishing the thief who stole his Bloody Baton.’
She pressed up against Ike, her anger forgotten. ‘Achernix, the Duke of Darkness.’
‘The ruler of the underworld.’
Chapter 2. Head Versus Body
Lord Monty woke with a farty yawn that smelled worse than the cornicle’s armpit. He sat up, scratched the ugly red seam where his neck had been rejoined to his backwards-facing head, and sighed.
His handsome but obnoxious head, which insisted on being called Lord Bartilope, was still asleep, for which Ike was thankful. To annoy Monty, it had taken to wearing black eye makeup, dreadlocks and a tattoo of a laughing axe on its neck. The head’s mouth hung open and Ike could see the sapphire tongue stud that vexed Monty more than anything.
‘I say, Claudius, old bean,’ Monty said, talking through his backside. Though he’d had his head back for a day now, it refused to let him speak through its mouth. ‘Where are we?’
The cornicle waggled the yard-long horn on its forehead and said in a surprisingly high-pitched voice, ‘We just crossed into Grimmery. It’s three hundred and ten miles to Ambra. And if you don’t brush your bum teeth, you’ll be walking the rest of the way.’
Monty unpacked an object like a toilet brush, spread a pungent green paste on it and poked it down the back of his trousers. Ike looked away, hastily. Though Monty was a dear friend, Ike did not want to know about the personal hygiene of a man who spoke through his bum.
‘We’re making good time,’ Monty said afterwards. He glanced at the sun, which was only a handspan above the horizon. ‘With this tailwind, we’ll get to Ambra in the morning.’
‘With your tailwind, you could get there by dinner time,’ snickered the book.
Monty scowled but continued doggedly. ‘There’ll be three days for the princess to get ready for her coronation.’
‘Three days for things to go wrong,’ Ike said moodily. If Aurora was not crowned queen by Saturday night, Grimmery reverted to the Fey and its people would be taken into slavery. ‘I wish you’d take the Book of Grimmery. It’d be a lot safer with you.’
‘No, lad. You fought for it, and found it. The honour of giving it to the princess should be yours. Besides,’ Monty said after a troubled pause, ‘it’ll be a mitigating factor in your, er …’
‘Trial for accidentally betraying the princess,’ cackled the book. ‘Assuming it was an accident.’
Ice formed on the inside of Ike’s windpipe. ‘But I thought … after all I’ve done …’ His voice went hoarse; panic was choking him. ‘You mean I still have to go on trial?’
‘Unfortunately, the princess has gone into hiding,’ Monty rumbled. ‘No one but us and the Fey Queen knows you’ve rescued Aurora.’
‘You could call Emajicka as a witness for your defence,’ the Book of Grimmery said with a mocking grin.
‘Silence, or I’ll silence you!’ Monty thundered, the bum blast lifting him a foot out of the saddle and turning its leather a horrid shade of green. ‘Ike, no one else knows all the great things you’d done. The moment you set foot on our soil, you’ll be arrested.’
Ike sank down in the pouch beside Mellie, who was practising spell movements with the Bloody Baton, eyes closed. ‘What are you doing now?’ he said.
‘Rehearsing the spells I’ll need for my perfect crime.’
‘What do you mean, perfect crime?’ said Ike.
‘One that no one knows is a crime.’
‘If I told you, it wouldn’t be a perfect crime.’
Ike turned away. His biggest problem was clearing his parents’ names. They had been honoured Gate Guardians, using their Gift to hold the four gates into Grimmery against intruders, as the Guardians had done for hundreds of years.
Then, ten years ago, the Gate Guardians had betrayed their oath and let the Fey Queen into Northgate. That’s what people said, but Ike had to believe it was a lie. Otherwise, if his parents were traitors, what did that make him?
Soon afterwards, the Guardians had all been killed by Emajicka. Their children had been Collected and taken into Feyrie, all save Ike, who was carried into lonely exile at the age of four. But if the Guardians had gone over to Emajicka, why would she have them killed? It made no sense.
She had murdered the queen on the day Ike arrived in Grimmery, and was now searching everywhere for the Gate Guardians’ missing Gift, which would allow her to bring her armies through the gates. Emajicka wanted to steal Ike’s worst nightmare, which dated back to the time of the betrayal. Did his nightmare show where the Gift had been hidden?
Pook, as a little boy, had said that there was a witness to the betrayal of the Gate Guardians, ‘The funny man who cut his own head off.’ Unfortunately, Monty had no memory of that time and his head denied knowing anything. And Pook, furious with Ike for not rescuing the Collected children, had refused to tell him anything.
So many questions, but never any answers.
‘It’ll only take a minute to cut you off and put you back the right way round,’ pleaded Monty to his head. It was an argument they’d had many times.
‘Don’t start that again, you truncated tosser,’ drawled the head.
‘Why can’t we be friends, like we used to be?’
The head poked its tongue out, flicking the sapphire stud up and down. Mellie began to make furtive movements with her hands.
‘We were never friends,’ said the head. ‘I’ve always hated and despised you. The moment I’m off your shoulders, I’m off.’
‘But head –’
‘The name is Lord Bartilope, you gormless gob of gristle. Did I tell you I’m getting another tattoo – a highwayman with a maggot where his brain should be?’
‘Please, Lord Bart–’
‘I don’t talk to traitors.’
‘Don’t say that,’ cried Monty, and Ike was horrified to hear a whine in his friend’s voice. ‘You know I love my country.’
‘Yet you betrayed the Gate Guardians.’
‘I saw you do it. That’s why you hacked me off.’
‘I don’t remember,’ said Monty, distraught. ‘My mind’s a blank.’
‘What do you expect? You’ve been sitting on it for ten years.’
The head looked down at Mellie and its full lips curved into a sneer. ‘What are you staring at, you cunning little kleptomaniac?’
‘I’d really like to know,’ said Mellie, standing up. ‘You’re hiding something, Head, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it.’
‘An unfortunate turn of phrase, in the circumstances.’ The head turned away. ‘Where’s my cup of tea, stump-neck?’
‘Coming right up,’ gabbled Monty, prodding a silver teapot with his staff until steam rose from the spout.
‘And my goolymite sandwiches. White bread. Crusts cut off. Really, the quality of the help around here.’
‘Coming, coming,’ Monty said cravenly.
He held the cup to the head’s mouth. It deliberately spilt half the tea down Monty’s back.
‘Ow!’ cried Monty.
‘Oops,’ grinned the head. ‘That was careless.’
Holding out her hand, palm open, Mellie pointed the Bloody Baton at it and a little black cart appeared there, suspended from a sausage-shaped balloon. The balloon went pfft and collapsed on to the cart, which shrivelled like a dried pea. She flicked it over the side.
‘What’s that supposed to be?’ said Ike.
She created a black butterfly wearing a strap-on side-saddle; it also crumpled within a minute. A spider with a webbed harness and twin nozzles shaped like rocket exhausts at the rear survived for two.
‘I’m experimenting with volatile vehicles,’ said Mellie.
‘Ones that fly, you mean?’
Ike felt a twinge of alarm. ‘Why?’
She swirled her fingers in the air and the face of a child appeared there, a hollow-cheeked girl of seven or eight. Chalk-pale cheeks were framed by draggled blonde hair as limp as string. Grey eyes leaked tears like rain running down a window.
‘My cousin, Melanthia. She’s been Collected, like all my other cousins.’ Tears glittered in Mellie’s own eyes. ‘I’ve got to do something, Ike.’
Mist swirled above Melanthia’s head, then a diamond-coated sickle flashed. The girl let out a silent scream as Nocty Gaunt cut her nightmares from her to feed the cruel Fey Queen.
Chapter 3. Claudius the Cornicle
‘Where’s my sapphire stud?’ screeched the head. ‘You’ve stolen it, you decapitated cur, you bowel-brained blackguard, you –’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ said Monty stiffly, ‘and I resent the allegation, sir.’
‘That stud was given to me by a gracious lady in appreciation of services rendered.’
‘A lady? Who was she?’
‘Mind your own business, you malodorous mugger.’
Mellie was still working on her models yet Ike felt sure that she had stolen the sapphire stud. But how? He would have sworn she hadn’t been within a yard of the head. Was this her ‘perfect crime’? It was certainly a brilliant one. Almost as brilliant as her latest volatile vehicle.
She flicked the Bloody Baton and the black, six-legged balloon on her palm began to inflate. It was not the only thing. Ike felt an alarmingly familiar pressure around his backside, a hot, prickly stretching, and an echoing hiss like air rushing into a scuba tank.
The Book of Grimmery, which was perched on the cornicle’s sloping flank, sniggered so loudly that it lost its grip and tumbled into the pouch.
‘Stop!’ cried Ike.
The cornicle stopped in mid-air so abruptly that Monty was thrown forwards, ending up with the rearwards-looking head facing his backside.
‘Sorry, Claudius,’ Ike said at once. ‘I meant Mellie.’
‘What’s the matter now?’ snapped Mellie, who had been practising for hours and still could not get her flying vessels to last.
‘You’re inflating my bum again.’
To the end of his life Ike would not forget the day he had spent bobbing around under the vast ceilings of Delf, suspended from buttocks the size of small whales while being mocked by angry dwarves.
Mellie looked down at him, smirked, flicked the baton the other way and the pressure in his bottom eased. ‘Hmn,’ she said ominously. ‘Now there’s an idea.’
‘Whatever it is, I forbid it,’ said Ike, squeezing the last air out of his backside. ‘Er, what is it?’
‘A bloated blimp?’ said the book. ‘A colossal crupper? A broad-acre backside?’
‘I was talking about Mellie’s balloon,’ snarled Ike.
‘If I can’t get any of my vehicles to work,’ said Mellie, ‘I could always blow your bum up and float off to the rescue on you.’
‘Very droll!’ Ordinarily, Ike would have seen the funny side, but he was starting to worry about Mellie. ‘You’re definitely going, then?’
‘I have to. That monster, Nocty Gaunt, is tormenting my little cousins –’
A shrill whistling, high up, was growing ever louder. Something small and pink was streaking down at them, travelling so fast that a vapour trail formed at the tip of each foot.
Mothooliel shot past the cornicle’s nose and turned so sharply that the G-forces would have knocked out a test pilot. She zoomed up beside Ike and Mellie then hovered, her wings shimmering like portable rainbows.
Ike swallowed. The sprite was extraordinarily beautiful, and she was staring right at him. ‘I’m Mothooliel,’ she said, like the sound of little bells. ‘You can call me Moth.’ She darted away.
‘You’re drooling, Ike,’ Mellie said waspishly.
He closed his gaping mouth and looked around, dazedly.
‘Anyone that pretty is bound to be dumb,’ she said with a hint of spite. ‘Dumb and dangerous, like Princess Aurora. I recall you having a thing for her as well.’
Ike knew he was supposed to say something, but did not know what.
‘Mellie wants you to say she’s prettier,’ said the Book of Grimmery, scrabbling up the side of the pouch. ‘Quick, tell her she’s a perfect three – aaahh, put me out!’
Mellie’s blast had set the book’s front cover alight. Ike slapped the flames out.
Mothooliel reappeared, flying a yard in front of Ike. ‘You’re very handsome,’ she said, looking into Ike’s eyes.
‘Blind as well as stupid,’ said Mellie hurtfully.
‘She obviously hasn’t seen Ike’s backside,’ said the Book of Grimmery. ‘The stretchmarks are like tent seams.’
The book roared and pounded the flank of the cornicle with its little fists. Mellie gave a sour smile. Ike felt a red wave pass up his face.
‘And you have the loveliest eyes,’ said Moth, coming closer.
‘Th-thank you,’ said Ike. He reminded himself that a sprite was a lowly kind of demon, and therefore untrustworthy, but Moth still looked enchanting.
‘Can I have them?’ she said.
‘I collect pretty things, but eyeballs are my favourite,’ said Moth. She opened her left hand to reveal a slimy green organ, smaller than a pea. ‘A snail’s zlide.’ Then her right, which held a scrofulous bean-shaped object. ‘The gruntle of a warthog. Aren’t they lovely?’
‘Is this a joke?’ said Ike.
Mellie let out a strangled laugh.
Mothooliel shook her head, her earrings swinging back and forth. Earrings made from neat, pretty and undeniably real ears, all bloody where they had been taken from their owners.
Ike yelped and scrambled backwards. ‘No, you can’t have my eyes.’
‘Oh, go on,’ said Moth with a sweet, cajoling smile. ‘You know you want me to have them.’
‘Leave me alone. I need them.’
‘No, you don’t. Think of all the terrible things you see with them; and cutting up onions; and specks of grit you can never find –’
‘Terrible things like some sprite ripping them out of my head,’ scowled Ike. He couldn’t believe that he was having this conversation. Had the world gone insane? Had he?
‘Exactly,’ beamed Moth. ‘If you were blind, you’d never know I was after them. There’d just be a pop-pop, a few second’s pain, and you’d be rid of the nasty, slippery things forever.’
‘I’ve had enough of this.’ Mellie pointed the Bloody Baton at Mothooliel’s middle. ‘Clear out, or I’ll blast you back to the dimension you came from.’
‘Awk! Bloody Baton! Duke of Darkness coming to devour you!’ squealed Mothooliel, shooting upwards. A cone of thunder boomed around them as she broke the sound barrier.
Seconds later she hurtled down again, hooting with laughter. Catching hold of the cornicle’s horn, she gave a mighty heave, as if trying to tear it out of its forehead. Moth must have been far stronger than her petite figure suggested, for the cornicle was tossed twenty feet across the sky. Its wings collapsed and it plunged earthwards, accelerating at a frightening speed with the sprite still heaving on its horn.
Monty landed upside-down in the other side-pouch, his booted legs kicking wildly and his terrified backside blasting smoke rings in all directions.
‘Never mind the women and children,’ the head sobbed. ‘Save me.’