Copyright © Ian Irvine 2011
Chapter 1. Ike’s Bum
In a sealed cave at the heart of a forgotten mountain, a blind seer sat in the dark between two mirrors that were reflecting the silvery tendrils of times to come.
‘Find the Gate Guardian who calls himself Ike,’ said the watcher who wasn’t there.
‘I see him, my queen,’ said the seer. ‘He’s drawing with the magical pen.’
The watcher rubbed a patch of tarnish on her silvery arm. ‘This pen bothers me. Tell me about it.’
‘Alas, my mirrors can’t see into it,’ replied the seer.
‘Then make his drawing go wrong!’ cried the watcher, vexed.
Taking hold of the time tendrils, the seer wove a new future. ‘It is done.’
‘What else do you see?’
The ever-shifting paths of the future bounced between the mirrors, then she replied, ‘The thief girl, Mellie, is a good friend to him.’
‘Turn them against one another.’
The seer’s arm jerked, involuntarily. ‘My queen, that could backfire.’
Again the seer wove the future.
Again the watcher asked, ‘What else?’
‘Fleeing from a terrible storm, Ike is taken in by a stranger.’
‘The stranger must betray him. Then?’
‘I see Ike all alone, in a hell from which no one has ever escaped.’
‘Trap him there. And, finally?’
‘He’s in a contest, a deadly contest.’
‘Make him lose!’
The watcher was rising, preparing to break the connection, when suddenly the stern old seer snorted.
‘My queen, you must see this.’
‘I am not amused,’ said the watcher, stiffly.
‘You will be,’ the seer guffawed.
‘You forget yourself, seer,’ the watcher snapped. ‘Nothing can make me laugh. In two hundred and twenty years, I have only smiled when inflicting pain.’
‘It’s the Gate Guardian,’ cackled the blind seer. ‘He’s in Delf, and a spell has gone badly – no, disarsetrously – wrong.’
‘What spell?’ the watcher said, curiously.
‘I can’t say,’ chortled the seer. ‘Take a look, my queen.’
‘Ike’s bum!’ The seer wove light into a mid-air picture.
‘His what?’ sniffed the watcher, shocked at the seer’s vulgarity.
Intrigued, the watcher looked, and her mouth fell open. Certain muscles that she had not used in centuries stretched her mouth wide. Her shoulders began to heave as a great bubble of merriment formed deep in her belly and rose ever upwards.
She tried to stop it, to remain her grim, cold self, but the laughter exploded out in a vast, echoing roar.
‘Ike’s bum! Look at Ike’s bum!’ she hooted, pounding the wall beside her. ‘He should change his name to Date Guardian.’
The watcher laughed until tears flooded down her silver cheeks and washed her latest nightmare clean away.
Chapter 2. You Have to Help Us
‘Never trust a greedy, grasping goblin.’ Mellie hurled her pack at the stony ground and flopped beside it.
Ike saw nothing but mountains in every direction. Tall mountains, sharp peaks, patches of grey ice and cliffs that even sucker ants would fall off.
Aigo’s potion had shown them where the stolen Book of Grimmery lay. Emajicka had hidden it in Delf, the underground city of the dwarves. Unfortunately, even after a week of travelling, Delf seemed as far away as ever, and Ike felt sure their enemies were closing in, racing each other to find them first.
Who would it be – Nocty the cruel night-gaunt, Grogire the fire-breathing wyrm, the malicious demon, Spleen, or the wicked Fey Queen herself? He shivered. Emajicka’s revenge would be terrible.
He shook off the black thoughts. ‘We must be missing something about the potion.’
‘I don’t know and I don’t care.’
‘Aigo said, pour some on the ground and use what you see.’
‘We did that,’ said Mellie wearily, ‘and the yellow cloud showed us the Doors of Delf.’
‘Delf is halfway across Wychwold and time’s running out.’
‘It’s run out, Ike. The food bag’s empty – apart from a handful of tongue weevils.’
Ike felt the end of his tongue, which was still sore from a weevil bite yesterday. ‘But we bought enough food for weeks.’ Mellie had spent half their bag of gold on supplies and mountain gear.
‘Pook’s gobbled the lot, the greedy little runt. He only stops eating to tell another gigantic lie.’
Ike turned towards the boastful boy and felt such a stabbing pain that he cried out, ‘Come away from there.’
Pook was humming mmm-mmmm-mm and stretching his right leg as far over the cliff as he could reach. If he slipped, or the crumbling rock gave, he would die. But Pook, who had been tormented by the Fey Queen all his life, had no fear of death – or anything else.
‘I’ve fallen off a hundred cliffs,’ he said, turning handstands along the edge. ‘I just bounce back up.’
‘It’s wrong to tell lies,’ said Ike, moving carefully towards the boy. You’d think a kid of twelve would have some sense.
‘I used to play war games with Emajicka. I beat her three times in a row.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘Emajicka calls me the Fantastic Fibber,’ Pook said brightly. ‘Also the Platinum Prevaricator and the Magnificent Munchausen. She gave me a medal for lying.’
There was no point arguing. He was such an outrageous liar that the Fey Queen might well have given him a medal for it.
Pook cartwheeled back, his red hair flying. Ike moved closer, his heart rattling against his ribs. Another second and he could grab the boy though, if the rock crumbled, they were both gone. Ike had died a fortnight ago, after picking up a bolt of frozen lightning, and was not anxious to experience death again any time soon.
As Pook landed, his left hand came down on a pebble. It skidded under him and he tumbled towards the edge, head-first.
Mellie let out an incoherent cry.
Ike leapt and caught the boy by his skinny ankle, but the weight slammed him down on his knees and they ground across the rough rock towards the edge. He clamped on with his other hand and heaved.
‘Ow!’ cried Pook as his forehead cracked against the cliff. Still hanging upside-down, he kicked and thrashed his arms. ‘What’d you do that for, stupid big lunk?’
Ike dumped the boy on solid ground and staggered away. Mellie was staring, her eyes wet.
‘I thought you were going over as well.’ She gave Ike a quick, desperate hug.
‘So did I.’
His bloody knees were shaking, he was drenched in sweat and his throat hurt. He sat down with his back to a boulder, where it felt safe.
Pook cartwheeled away, humming, ‘Mmm-mmm-mmm,’ as if nothing had happened.
Mellie sat beside Ike, hugging her knees. ‘What are we going to do?’
His heart was thumping like great wing beats, reminding him of all their airborne enemies. He closed his eyes and tried to calm himself. ‘I don’t know.’
‘I want to go home. I’ve got a bad feeling about my family.’
Mellie’s family were professional thieves, and good ones, too. Ike still found that hard to accept, especially when she was doing it.
‘What kind of a feeling?’
Her cheeks went pink. ‘That they’re in trouble and it’s my fault.’
‘How can it be your fault?’ said Ike. ‘You haven’t seen them for weeks.’
‘After I dragged Princess Aurora through the horse poo, she threatened to hang them by their intestines.’
‘“Once I am queen”, she said. Aurora’s in hiding, and unless we find the book she’ll never be queen.’
‘It must be Emajicka, then. What if she’s taking revenge on my family, right now?’
‘What can we do, Mellie? The thieves’ inn is even further away than Delf.’
‘I’ve got to do something,’ cried Mellie, springing up.
‘If we don’t get the book to Ambra within fourteen days, Aurora can’t be crowned queen. Then Emajicka will make slaves of us all –’
‘Or worse,’ Mellie said darkly.
She began to pace back and forth, making little darting movements with her hands. Practising thievery.
‘What’s the matter with the stupid potion?’ Ike muttered. ‘It’s supposed to show us how to find the book.’
‘You’re not using it properly,’ said Pook, turning handstands towards him.
‘How would you know?’
‘I’ve invented more potions than Fred the Flying Sorcerer.’
‘You just made that up,’ Ike said wearily. ‘Like the story you told King Dibblin about the betrayal of the Gate Guardians.’ Ike desperately wanted to hear the true story but Pook would not tell him.
‘That was the truth,’ said Pook, bouncing on his feet.
‘Then who betrayed the Gate Guardians and put the blame on my parents?’
‘I’ll tell you once you keep your promise.’
‘To rescue the children Emajicka stole for her Collection.’
‘I said I’d try after we’ve found the Book of Grimmery.’
‘You’ve got to do it now,’ said Pook.
‘Her palace is hundreds of miles away. Besides, I gave my word I’d find the book first.’
‘Your word isn’t worth a worm’s whiskers.’
‘Says the biggest liar in Grimmery. Go away.’
Pook squatted beside Ike, staring at him with tragic eyes. Eyes that had seen far more than any child of twelve should have.
‘Emajicka has tormented the Collected children for ten years,’ the boy said softly. ‘She makes us have the most terrible nightmares, then takes them for herself. Have you ever heard a hundred kids screaming all at once?’
‘No,’ said Ike, his voice croaky.
‘Little Lilpili can’t stop crying. Toree is covered in purple hives; she looks like an eggplant. And Agbert hasn’t said a word in nine years. He just stares at the wall.’
‘Emajicka killed all our parents,’ said Pook. ‘We’ve got no one save each other – and you.’
‘Me?’ said Ike, uncomfortably.
‘You’re the last Gate Guardian left alive.’
‘I’m only fourteen, and I don’t have the Gate Guardians’ Gift. What can I do?’
‘The Fey Queen needs more nightmares all the time; worse ones. The Collected children are going mad with terror. You’ve got to help them, Ike – before it’s too late.’
The worst thing was, Ike knew Pook wasn’t lying now.