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RUNCIBLE JONES AND THE BACKWARD HOURGLASS

Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2010.

 

Chapter 1

Resurrection

 

Runcible Jones and the Backwards Hourglass

At the top of a spike so high that it pierced the sky, inside a crucible of polished platinum, a rubbery yolk sac wobbled, bulged upwards, then exploded. Yellow gloop splattered all over the tall man pressed against the far wall, and the stench of rotten eggs filled the crucible. Brown trails drifted in the heavy air.

He dashed the muck off his face and squelched across to the object squirming in the torn sac. Hiding his disgust, he looked down at a man in middle age, broad of face and thickset of body, who was clotted with slime. The tall man heaved the thickset fellow to his feet. The lower half of his face was pale, as if it had once been covered by a heavy beard, and his gaping mouth was toothless.

He swayed and had to be held up. His face oozed sweat; his darting eyes were like trapped ferrets. ‘Larth?’ he slurred. ‘What’th happening to me?’

‘The resurrection spell has gone well, Lord Shambles,’ said Count Lars Sparj, shifting his weight from one black boot to the other, ‘… all things considered.’

Shambles spat out gobs of slime and spoke more clearly. ‘You sure?’ He wiped his hands on Lars’s tailored coat. ‘Feel strange.’ He probed his mouth with yellow-nailed fingers; his eyes widened. ‘Where my teeth?’

‘After such a mighty spell you must expect some discomfort; and certain, er, changes. No one can be brought back from the dead exactly as they were.’

Shambles lurched sideways, looked down at his feet and choked. ‘The spell was supposed to make me whole, imbecile!’

‘And you are, Lord,’ said Lars in a soothing tone. ‘Almost completely.’

Shambles wrenched his robes up, revealing a left leg that ended in a fleshless foot of blackened bones and charred sinews. His voice rose. ‘What’s happened to my foot?’

‘When you and the boy fought atop Jaggenshard, a year ago,’ said Lars, ‘and he defeated you – aaahh!’

Shambles had clenched his fist and Lars doubled over, groaning.

‘I–was–not–defeated.’ Shambles bared grey gums. ‘I abandoned my damaged body, the better to implement my final plan.’

‘As you say, Lord,’ Lars said hoarsely. ‘When you and Runcible Jones fought, and your left foot took the force of his cunning spell, the flesh was lost and could not be resurrected.’

‘Not ever?’

‘If there is a way,’ said Lars after a lengthy pause, ‘not even the seer sorcerers know it.’

Shambles dropped the hem of his robe and lurched across the sticky floor, his foot bones click-clacking. ‘It could be worse; at least I can walk unaided now.’ He turned. ‘But –’

‘Lord?’ said Lars.

Sweat was dripping off Shambles’s pallid chin. ‘There’s something wrong inside me.’

‘Are you in pain? How can I –?’

‘I’m not in pain, I’ve been twisted.’

‘Twisted?’ Lars repeated, frowning.

‘The boy has corrupted me.’

‘In what way, Lord?’

‘At the end of our battle, when Runcible had me at his mercy and should have slain me, he let me live. And then – ah, the shame!’ Shambles turned away, hiding his face. ‘He put me in his debt; he freed me from the bane that had crippled me half my life.’

‘I’ve often wondered why he did that,’ said Lars, backing away.

‘He lifted the curse because he felt sorry for me,’ Shambles said. ‘The stupid boy pitied me. Me – the greatest sorcerer on Iltior!’ He retched, as if he was going to be sick, but choked it down.

‘But surely, after a year, that’s ancient history?’ said Lars.

‘The debt remains, and must be repaid. And I – I’ve begun –’ Shambles looked over his shoulder, furtively, then said in a cracked voice, ‘Lars, what’s happening to me?’

‘Lord, what is it?’

‘I – I care!’ Shambles whispered, as though revealing a dreadful secret.

‘I don’t understand, Lord.’

‘I used to laugh at the suffering of my victims. Their pain was my pleasure. Now I – this is hard to say, Lars. Very hard.’

Lars bowed his head.

‘I’ve started to feel sorry for the pathetic little people I’ve crushed,’ Shambles gasped. ‘The suffering of those miserable worms moves me.’

After a long silence, Lars said carefully, ‘The human emotions can make us stronger, can help us to understand –’

‘I will not have it!’ Shambles cried, punching the wall of the crucible so hard that it dented the metal. He limped away, clack-clack, his knuckles oozing blood the colour of tar.

‘I reject pity. I refuse to care about anyone. I will make myself as hard as iron, as cold as death, as vengeful as a ghast.’ Shambles’s voice rose ever higher, became jagged, shrill. ‘The boy is going to suffer such nightmares as no mortal child has ever experienced.’

‘Do you think this is wise, Lord?’ said Lars. ‘If you touch his mind, it may alert our enemies that you’re back –’

‘I want them to know,’ Shambles snarled. ‘My enemies must wake in terror, knowing that I could strike them at any time. Especially Jac Sleeth, without whom Runcible Jones could never have cast that spell on me. Lure Sleeth in, Lars; he has to die.

‘And then, once the debt is paid, I am going to expunge Runcible Jones, who has so corrupted me.’

 

 

Chapter 2

The Blackout

 

A freezing wind, like sandpaper rubbing against his ears, roused Runcible Jones. He felt his feet sliding, opened his eyes and let out a shriek, for he was standing on slippery ice at the edge of Ghoolenghast Crag. His toes overhung the cliff, five hundred feet above the roof of Mundelf Beastmaster’s manor, and Runcie had no idea what he was doing there.

One wrong move and he would fall to his death. His galloping heart slowed to a crawl as he realised that he’d had another blackout. He had no memory of leaving the manor, or of doing anything since breakfast. Judging by the hollow feeling in his stomach, that had been many hours ago.

Runcie tried to back up the slope to safer ground but his feet would not move. His boots were stuck to the ice. He must have been standing here, like a frozen corpse, for hours.

What was causing the blackouts? The aftermath was always the same: memories of freezing winds and blinding ice storms, then the sickening feeling of being inside a raging Shambles, wanting to crush his victims. But Shambles was dead. Runcie had seen him die.

Mariam had said he was suffering from post-traumatic stress, after all he’d been through in the past three years, but the nightmares were getting worse, the blackouts longer.

He rocked back and forth, which broke the ice around his boots. Runcie was shuffling backwards, faint with relief, when his feet went from under him and he landed hard on his back. If he slid one foot further, he would fall. His legs, from the knees down, were hanging over the edge. Runcie tried to push himself away but the ice was too slippery. His head began to throb and it was hard to think.

‘Help!’ he cried. ‘Help, help!’

There was no answer. No one would hear him from here, for Mariam, Giddion and Ling would be working by the open fire inside the manor. Thandimanilon seldom left her sickbed, while Mundelf Beastmaster would be leagues downstream, fishing through holes in the ice.

Even a Third Order magician might have spell-called for help; on a good day Mariam could send out a cry for half a mile. But Runcie, who practised harder than anyone, could not spell-call as far as his own ears.

He groaned. Last year he had defeated Lord Shambles, the greatest First Order sorcerer in the world. Now Runcie was the Hero of Iltior, the boy who had beaten Shambles twice, and all Iltior believed that he was fated to destroy Shambles completely.

His mind wandered back to that most perfect of days, months after Shambles’s downfall, when Runcie, Mariam, Giddion, Ling and Tigris had been taken to the city of Pellissidan to meet the assembled nobles of Iltior. They had all shaken Runcie’s hand, praising his courage, determination and cunning in the most glowing terms. Then, to his astonishment, in the proudest moment of his life, he had been awarded the highest honour Iltior could give.

Thandimanilon had pinned to his chest the ironsilver medal of a Hero of Iltior, and from the great square before him a hundred thousand people had roared his name. This honour had only been awarded five times in the past two hundred years, and mostly to dead heroes.

But that very night . No, Runcie could not bear to think about it. How could he get out of this? What if he called the imp, Theodosius Tamp? He had done Tamp a favour last year, and to discharge the debt Tamp had required Runcie to call upon him three times. After he had done so, the debt had been repaid.

‘Theodosius Tamp, I call in your debt.’

Whack! A ferocious blow on the left cheek knocked Runcie’s head sideways.

‘Theodosius, please help me – and then you can call upon me three times.’

He took a savage punch to the other cheek.

‘Please, Theodosius.’

Runcie braced himself for a third blow, but it did not come. He should have known better. Theodosius had been angry enough about the debt in the first place; he wouldn’t be doing Runcie any favours a year after it had been repaid.

He had to save himself. Runcie knew at least a dozen spells. He reached over his shoulder for his narwhal tusk staff, Atonement, but it was not there. He must have dropped it in the blackout.

Now he was in diabolical trouble. As a prentice magician, Runcie was required to carry his staff with him everywhere he went, since without it he could hardly do a scrap of magic.

Closing his eyes, he concentrated on the feeble spark of magic inside Atonement. Runcie knew his staff, which he had won after a desperate battle with a narwhal, as well as he knew his own face. Surely he could find its life spark, if the staff wasn’t too far away. And if he could blank out the throbbing in his head .

He tried to form his inner eye into a search beam. It was hard, very hard, for without the staff in his hand his magic was feeble, but he was desperate now. The mental beam formed, faded, formed again, and he swept it across the slope behind him, searching for the tiny enchantment in the heart of his staff. He could not bear to think that he had lost it.

There it was, fifty yards away. As he reached out, yearningly, memories flooded through him: of that desperate day in the dinghy when the black narwhal, driven into madness by Shambles, had kept attacking until Runcie hacked its tusk off. Then, days later when, deep in the ocean, he had speared the depraved sorcerer Thormic Weasand, who had taken the form of a giant octopus, with the tusk. Weasand, who had murdered Runcie’s father, Ansible. And finally, in the most desperate battle Runcie had ever fought, he’d held Shambles off, even without the staff, on that beam spanning the erupting crater below Jaggenshard.

‘Atonement,’ he said softly, ‘we’ve worked together, travelled together, fought together. I know you, and you know me, so please come to my hand.’

He was never sure his magic was going to work – often his spells would fail for no reason. As he waited, the faint cries of lost spirits drifted on the wind, coming from the burial pit at the top of the crag. Would the magic work when he most needed it, or would it abandon him? If it did, his broken body would be recovered from the base of the cliff and interred in that very pit.

The seconds stretched out like a rubber band, then snapped, and he made out the slither of ivory on ice, followed by a bump, bump, bump. Runcie strained backwards, his eyes pricking. His throat had swollen until he could hardly draw breath, and for a second he felt that he was floating for sheerest joy. He’d done it! His staff was coming, called to his hand.

Or was it? It was hurtling down like a javelin. Was the staff under his control, or his enemy’s?

He suppressed a fleeting panic, reached out and willed Atonement into his hand, telling himself that it was coming to him, not for him. It was his staff and it would obey him; it must. Light flashed across his inner eye, a sharp pain sheared through his skull, then Atonement thumped into his open hand.

 Magic, when it worked, was the best feeling in the world. Now he knew what to do. After drawing on the power Iltiorians called quintessence, he concentrated on the freezing surface beneath him and said, ‘Ice, evaporate.’

Hot steam boiled up all around him; heat spread across his back and he settled on wet rock. The ice was gone and he was safe. Runcie drew back his dangling legs, rolled over and stood up. It was over, apart from the headache he always suffered after doing magic, plus a temporary weakness in his legs that made them wobble.

Now he knew what he was doing here. He had come up to cast a difficult spell and he could not go down without doing so. Runcie willed away the cold and emptied his mind of everything but the spell he must get right, by himself, for he dared not speak to anyone about it. He had to block out Shambles, before .

He squirmed at his private shame. Runcie had three wonderful friends who had given everything for him, and yet, even though a year had passed since the astonishing victory over Shambles at Jaggenshard, he was not game to tell them the dreadful secret that had coloured every day since Shambles’s body had been destroyed.

No one must ever know what had happened in Mundelf’s secluded manor after Shambles had gone. Runcie had been ill for days, and in his delirium he’d dreamed that he had seen into Shambles’s mind – and had liked what he had seen.

Had Shambles corrupted him at the moment of defeat? Or had the sorcerer merely brought out an evil already lurking in Runcie and waiting to rise, like scum to the surface? Was he doomed to take that fatal step and become as depraved as the man he had been fighting for so long? Runcie had lived with that fear ever since.

There had been no news of the sorcerer all that time, and many people believed Shambles to be dead, but Runcie did not. Shambles had been beaten twice before, and each time he had returned stronger.

Then, the night after Runcie had been made Hero of Iltior, Shambles had invaded his dreams. At first it had been just a touch – an icy feeling in his head, an echo of Shambles’s mocking, mad laughter – but the following day Runcie had suffered a ten-minute blackout. He had walked, talked, even cast a spell, yet known nothing about it.

Since then, the nightmares had grown stronger and the blackouts longer. A fortnight ago, a spectral Shambles had appeared in his room, looming over him like a vengeful demon, and pressed a dirk into the tip of his nose. Runcie had woken to find his pillow sticky with blood; his shrieks had roused everyone in the manor.

He’d had to lie about it. Just a nightmare, he’d said. Nothing to worry about. He was not sure that Thandimanilon believed him, but she asked no questions. He was grateful for that. He could not tell anyone of his awful dread.

Runcie wrenched back to the present. This spell might block Shambles out, if he could get it right, and it was not such a difficult one. He withdrew the tattered piece of paper with the scribbled incantation on it, a long-forgotten shielding charm he’d found in Mundelf’s library. It had to be cast here at the edge of magical Ghoolenghast Crag, but if it went wrong it could make things worse – easier for Shambles.

The spell had to succeed. Runcie read the incantation, concentrating on taking it all into his mind at once and holding it there. Raising Atonement, he created a link between himself and the life-spark within it, and was preparing to speak the charm when someone came scrabbling up the cliff path, shouting, ‘Runcie, Runcie?’

It was Giddion. Runcie, startled, dropped the piece of paper, which fluttered over the cliff. He grounded the point of his staff irritably. The spell had vanished from his mind and he would not be able to try again today – assuming he could discover where the paper had landed.

Giddion scrambled onto the crag. He was fourteen, like Runcie, but a full head taller and heavily built. His face was red from the steep climb and his blue, excited eyes were watering behind their bottle-end glasses.

‘What’s the matter?’ snapped Runcie.

Giddion waved a crushed piece of vellum. Normally he was slow of speech, thought and action, but now the words burst out of him. ‘She’s gone!’

‘Who’s gone?’

‘Ling.’

‘Gone where?’ Runcie glared at his friend, wanting to thump him for taking so long to get to the point.

‘She’s gone home. Back to Earth.’

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