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Runcible Jones And The Frozen Compass

Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2008.


Chapter 1

The Spying Spell


Runcible Jones and the Frozen Compass

At the darkest hour of the blackest night,
the cunning boy crept down the stairs of Miluviand tower to a secret
door whose stone knob was shaped like the head of a white panther.
Despite the cold, sweat dampened his back. Of all the dangerous
things he’d ever done, this was the most deadly, and if it went
wrong . no, he simply had to succeed.

He reached for the knob, then whipped his hand
back, for the stone was warm; blood
. He swallowed and grasped it firmly, but it would not

‘Spell-locked!’ Muttering something rude, he
touched the glowing tip of his walrus-tusk wand to the knob. It
came to life, growling and snapping its sabre teeth at him.

With a muffled yelp, the boy jumped backwards,
fumbled a leaf of brown vellum from his pocket, read the stolen
spell and prodded at the knob. The panther head went for his hand
but the boy was too quick, and the moment his wand touched its
muzzle it returned to stone.

The door opened without a sound and the boy
was smiling at his little triumph when, from high above, a panther
howled. The alarm had been raised!

He raced into a large room whose walls, floor
and ceiling were tomb black; at its centre a gigantic glass globe
rested on a wooden dish lined with black velvet. The Seeing Sphere,
which was at least three times his height, was engraved with fine
lines showing continents, islands, roads and place names.

After studying the globe, he turned the leaf
of vellum over and, heart pounding, studied the perilous spell
on the other side, which he had stolen from a forbidden book. Even
a First Order sorcerer might quake at the thought of using such
deadly magic, and the boy, for all his wicked genius, was only

The globe rose silently from its dish, but
subsided again. His heart was thundering now, the wand slipping
in his sweaty hand. Dare he attempt the spell? There was no choice;
he had to know what his enemy was up to.

The boy reached out towards a little island
at the bottom of the globe. His hand shook but he steadied it and
touched the tip of his wand to the glass. The island began to glow.

Taking a deep breath, he concentrated on speaking
the spell perfectly, for a wrong syllable could mean his death.

Show –’ His
voice cracked. He cleared his throat and began the spell anew.
Show Shambles’s
. Show me where Lord Shambles dwells in Fortress

A hum issued from the globe. The map markings
disappeared and a moving landscape appeared inside, as if the boy
were hurtling over it. A brooding purple moon hung above him; below
he made out a wild ocean thick with icebergs. A circular island
appeared, glowing scarlet at its centre. He dived down, heading
for the lava-filled crater of a volcano.

The boy panicked and tried to draw back, but
it was too late now – he had to go on, no matter the cost.
As he fell towards the molten lake a dark spot grew at its centre,
where a rearing, blue-black bastion, as jagged and spiky as if
it had been built of torn metal, hung above the fume and blast
from the crater. Fortress Jaggenshard, which was mounted at the
tops of four narrow half-hoops spanning the crater, looked like
a gigantic metal scorpion

What awesome power it must have taken to build
Jaggenshard there; clearly its dread master had recovered from
his previous defeat and was stronger than ever. How could he ever
be cast down?

At that thought the boy’s wand tip shook wildly,
and the scene froze with the fortress filling the globe and the
jagged roof almost bursting out its top.

Rigid with fear, he forced his wand back to
his target, which was entirely built from the precious metal, rendillium.
Now he was hurtling towards a lighted window halfway up the fortress.

The narrow window was surrounded with metal
hooks, and not even this cunning, slippery boy could have crept
through them without being caught. He shuddered at the thought
of being trapped; helpless; prey.
His physical body still stood beside the globe in the chilly Seeing
Chamber, yet he could feel the heat of the volcano singeing his

Now, like a hovering crow, he was peering down
into a large oval chamber as metallic and jagged as the outside
of the fortress. It must have been freezing inside though, for
every surface – even the rendillium throne on which his enemy
sat – was covered with frost.

At sight of Lord Shambles, the boy shook with
fury. The sorcerer looked up sharply and the boy drew back, though
how could he be seen when he was not physically there?

Shambles turned away, chuckling. A big, florid
fellow, he had tangled hair brushing his shoulders, an extravagant
waist-length beard and long moustaches twisted into springy coils.
He was bobbing up and down on his throne, seemingly bursting with
energy, though the boy knew that the robe across Shambles’s lap
concealed spell-twisted hips and legs that not even his sorcery
could repair. His smile revealed a broad gap between his front
teeth, making him appear a grinning yokel, but the boy was not

Shambles was the most dangerous man on Iltior.
No one hated the way he did; and no one lusted after revenge more,
save the boy himself. He was a tight knot of rage; he burned to
use the spell on Shambles and blast him out of existence, but he
was not ready; not nearly strong enough. Yet come the day, the
boy vowed, oh, you just wait!

Lord Shambles turned to the two other men in
the chamber, who were brothers. One was a handsome young sorcerer
with waxed black moustaches, though he was sadly transparent. His
name was Munz Sparj and the boy had liked him, but Munz was now
dead. Shambles had killed him last summer, turned him into a ghast
and forced him into perpetual servitude.

The older brother, Count Lars Sparj, was a
huge, grim-faced fellow with a brick-shaped jaw, a monocle in his
left eye and moustaches that stood out past his ears like the points
of stilettos. He held his hands over the flame of a brazier and
gave Shambles an angry glance.

‘I must have the frozen compass, Lars,’ said
Shambles. ‘And you know where it can be found.’

Lars and Munz stared at each other. Lars shook
his head, and after a long and troubled pause the sorcerer ghast
spoke in a voice as faint as his body.

‘Lord, the frozen compass is hidden in a place
where no mortal man may venture; even the honest dead tremble at
the thought of going there. Fortunately for you,’ Munz added bitterly,
‘I am no longer mortal, and if you demand it, I will try to recover
the frozen compass. Yet even if I can, it is a treacherous device.’

‘I read the great spell in the Hiv’n Codex
before it was destroyed,’ said Shambles. ‘I can force the frozen
compass to speak truly, and that will be the
fifth sign
– that two worlds are ripe for the plucking.
Bring me the compass, immediately!’

‘Even if I succeed,’ said Munz, ‘it will take
a month, maybe more.’

‘If you have not returned with it in fourteen
days I will enghast your brother.’

Lars blanched. Munz dived head-first into the
brazier, which flared as high as his brother’s head, and disappeared.

As Lars stalked out, Shambles turned, let out
a chilling laugh, and the watching boy felt frost crystallise up
his backbone. He tried desperately to withdraw to his body but
could not move. The sorcerer had paralysed him.

‘Little Jac Sleeth,’ grinned Shambles, ‘my
fifteen-year-old enemy. I will soon have my revenge on you, as
I’ve had on every adult male in your clan.’

‘You swore never to harm me,’ gasped Sleeth,
struggling to break free, but his magic was nothing compared to
Shambles’s, here at the seat of his power.

‘My vow only holds until your first true beard
growth,’ the sorcerer reminded him, ‘and, judging by the bum-fluff
on your cheeks, that’s not far off. On that day you will start
to die, as slowly and painfully as your father has been dying for,
lo, these past seventeen years.’

‘I’ll curse you all the way to the grave,’
gasped Sleeth.

‘I hope so,’ leered Shambles, ‘since the cries
of my victims only add to my power, and my
pleasure. But first, I have a job for you.’

‘Nothing can force me to aid you,’ cried Sleeth
so fiercely that spit flew from his mouth.

‘Really, Jac?’

‘Don’t – call – me – Jac!’
Sleeth ground out. How he wanted to smash his knuckles into that
grinning mouth.

‘Well, Jac,
I hold your father, Croome, in the dungeon closest to the volcano.
Can you imagine how hot it is? And how much that adds to his terrible

‘I – I don’t believe you,’ Sleeth said

‘Would I lie to you, Jac?’ Shambles chuckled.

The Seeing Sphere went blank, and inside it
Sleeth saw a large cell shimmering with waves of heat. It contained
nothing save a bed of nails and a haggard man, mere rags and bone,
unable to rest and crying out with every stumbling step.

A fist clenched around Sleeth’s heart. ‘Father!’

Croome Sleeth faded and the frosted chamber
reappeared in the globe. Shambles, guffawing like a loon, twirled
a coil of moustache around a finger. ‘You can help him, Jac.’

All his life Sleeth had been trying to save
his father from the living death Shambles had inflicted upon him
long ago. Shambles could ease Croome’s agony with a snap of his
fingers, but how could Sleeth help the man who had caused his father
such suffering?

‘H-how?’ he stammered, to gain time. Did his
enemy want the stolen spell? Sleeth slid it into his pocket.

‘I’ll be honest with you,’ said Shambles. ‘My
campaign to take control of Iltior will soon be complete and then
I’m going to move against Earth, but first I must have the secret
of the Earth children’s magic. That’s where you come in, Jac.’

‘Get it yourself!’

‘I can’t. Runcible Jones and his friends are
too well protected in Thandimanilon’s tower.’

‘But I don’t know the secret of their magic,’
Sleeth muttered.

‘For your father’s sake, you’d better find

Sleeth looked away, sickened at the idea of
doing Shambles’s vicious work. His word meant nothing, and helping
him would be betraying his own father, not saving him. And at the
thought of Croome stumbling back and forth in that furnace-like
dungeon, with nowhere to rest save on a bed of nails, Sleeth’s
fury overwhelmed him.

Whipping out the leaf of vellum, he read the
spell, pointed his wand at Shambles’s heart and screamed a mortal
spell, ‘Degenerate Dog, die!

A pencil beam of pure light shot from the wand,
through the barbed window and into the chamber, to strike Shambles
in the chest. He jerked upright, gasping; his fists drummed on
the arms of the throne and for one glorious second Sleeth thought
he’d beaten him.

Until Shambles reached over and swung his brazen
staff up at the window, grinning. He had deliberately provoked
Sleeth, who realised, with despairing horror, that his unguarded
spell had breached the defences of Thandimanilon’s tower. He’d
given Shambles what he’d wanted all along.

The sorcerer shook his staff at Sleeth, and
rumbled, ‘Seeing Sphere, Shatter.’

The chamber and fortress vanished and Sleeth
was back beside the Seeing Sphere, which was shuddering on its
dish and emitting a dreadful screech. As cracks began to snake
around it he tried desperately to reverse Shambles’s spell, but
he did not know how.

As he turned to run, high in Miluviand tower
the white panthers howled. A woman screamed, piercingly, then the
Seeing Sphere burst asunder, deluging him in a million fragments
of glass.

Sleeth lay where he had fallen, knowing that
Thandimanilon’s mighty tower was now unprotected, and Shambles
would soon come to plunder it. And now Shambles began to whisper
orders about Runcible Jones into Sleeth’s defenceless mind.



Chapter 2



Runcible Jones was a First Order magician,
astounding everyone with his spells, when someone shouted, ‘Runcie,
wake up!’ He groaned and pulled a pillow across his head, trying
to hang onto the dream, for dreams were the best part of his life.

After driving off Lord Shambles last summer,
he’d believed that he had finally found his magic, and on the few
occasions when his spells had worked it had been the most wonderful
feeling in the world.

Here in Miluviand, Thandimanilon’s tower on
the enchanted world of Iltior, his friends Mariam, Giddion and
Ling were learning magic rapidly, yet Runcie kept failing at spells
any two-year-old could use. Something was blocking him and even
when he did get a spell to work, it was really painful. Why? His
dead father, Ansible, had been brilliant at magic; his mother,
Millie, was in prison on Earth merely for having a copy of Ansible’s
banned book of magic. So why couldn’t he, Runcie, do magic?

‘Will you wake
!’ someone bellowed.

He opened his eyes. It was Giddion Taw, the
only other kid in the boys’ dormitory. The Iltiorian prentices
had gone home for the festival month but Runcie, Mariam, Giddion
and Ling, unable to return to Earth, had remained in the tower.
Behind his thick glasses, Giddion’s blue eyes looked worried.

‘It’s the middle of the night,’ Runcie said
crossly. ‘Will you stop shaking the bed?’

‘I’m not. It’s an earthquake!’

‘There have been an awful lot of earthquakes

Half the beautiful city of Pellissidan had
been destroyed in a quake last week, and the mansion of Clan Mummery
had vanished into a hole in the ground.

With a mighty crack, a chunk of ceiling landed
on the foot of Runcie’s bed and smashed to pieces, the painted
stars on the plaster still twinkling. Giddion scrambled out of
the way as the dormitory tried to shake itself apart. The bed tilted
over so far that Runcie began to slide into a crevasse that had
opened across the floor. He clung desperately to the bed-head as
the bed crashed down about ten feet, then jammed, but for how long?
The crevasse was widening by the second.

Runcie looked down into a dusty gloom where
uncanny shadows flitted.

‘Help!’ he cried.

said a tiny voice.

At first Runcie thought it was mocking him,
until a slender little man, only knee high, flew by on an absurdly
small pair of wings. His face was red, the arching nose nearly
touched his pointed chin and his glistening eyes seemed as old
as the stone itself. Runcie stared. Thandimanilon’s tower was full
of marvels but he had never seen little people before.

The winged man flew into the hollow floor,
took hold of a tumbled block of stone bigger than himself and heaved,
but could not budge it.

‘Where did you come from?’ Runcie said. ‘Are
you a fairy?’

The hovering man swung a hand. It did not come
close but Runcie felt a stinging slap on the cheek.

‘How dare you!’ the winged man shrilled. ‘Imps
have dwelt at Miluviand since the dawn of time.’ He kept trying
to lift the block, but could not.

As Runcie’s eyes adjusted he saw that the broken
floor was honeycombed with little chambers, now broken, and dozens
of imps were fluttering around, gathering children and possessions.
The fallen block had collapsed one dwelling and from inside Runcie
made out the piping cries of trapped imp children.

Without thinking, he scrambled up, squeezed
in and carefully lifted the block away. It was very heavy but he
managed to heave it out and drop it down the crevasse.

Three little imps fluttered into their father’s
arms. He put them down in a corridor, said, ‘Run, that way!’ then
flew across until he was nose to nose with Runcie, his wings flapping
furiously and his face scarlet.

‘Thank you,’ he choked, his voice tight with
humiliation. ‘My name is Theodosius Tamp and you may call upon
me three times. The third time repays the debt in full.’

‘That’s all right,’ said Runcie. ‘I don’t expect
any –’

The imp’s face turned purple. ‘You–will–call!

‘Okay,’ said Runcie, who had no intention of
doing so. ‘There’s no need to get your knickers in a twist.’

He felt another stinging slap and the imp was
gone. Runcie climbed out and clambered onto the bed-head, trying
to reach the dormitory floor.

‘Give me your hand.’ Giddion was hanging over
the edge, reaching down.

Runcie stretched up to him, felt the bed slip
underfoot and nearly fell. ‘Aaahh!’

Giddion, who was much bigger and very strong,
caught his flailing wrist and heaved. He clung to Giddion’s arm
as the bed dropped another ten feet, then he was lifted to safety.

‘Is the tower falling down?’ said Runcie.

The glowing stars on what remained of the ceiling
sputtered out and Giddion said something rude. The back of Runcie’s
left hand tingled where he’d been burned by venom from a Death’s
Hood scorpion; he rubbed the scorpion-shaped mark absently.

‘I don’t know,’ said Giddion. ‘Come on.’

Runcie scrambled into his clothes, still thinking
about the imp, and felt around for his prentice magician’s baton,
which had been cut from a green, layered stone. Thandimanilon had
given it to him six months ago after he had driven off Lord Shambles,
and it was the focus that allowed Runcie to do magic, or should
have been. He pointed it towards the nearest wall globe, drew the
tiniest amount of magical power, which on Iltior was called quintessence,
and said, ‘Illume!’ then
flinched, because if his magic worked, it always hurt.

He had done this spell several times before,
but this time the globe remained dark. Runcie flushed, and was
glad of the darkness to cover it. Useless baton!

‘Runcie?’ a girl called, close to panic. It
was Tigris, the only Iltiorian prentice remaining in the tower.

‘In here,’ he yelled. ‘Where are Mariam and

‘We’re here,’ came Mariam’s posh drawl. ‘Get
a move on.’

‘What’s happening?’

‘How would I know? Tigris, make some bloody
light.’ Mariam was always irritable when woken abruptly.

A glow streamed up from Tigris’s fingers and
grew until her hand was outlined by cold fire. It turned her into
an illuminated sculpture clad in rippling grey silk, slender, elegant
and as graceful as a ballet dancer. The light touched the dark
hair bound in flat coils to the sides of her head; it lit one sad
black eye and threw the other into impenetrable shadow.

Mariam, though nearly a year younger than Tigris,
stood half a head taller; her olive skin was set off by a bright
red blouse and crisp white pantaloons; a waterfall of black curly
hair tumbled down her back to her yellow belt. Though she was rude,
bossy and hardly ever thought before she acted, Runcie was glad
to see her, for Mariam was his best friend and she was quick-witted
and good in a crisis – well, most of the time.

Giddion stood by the crevasse with his big
feet spread, hunched over as if trying to appear smaller; sweat
sheened his broad face, and he took off his glasses to wipe his
watering eyes.

The floor shook and another crack opened; Giddion
let out a squawk and leapt backwards. Runcie’s bed tore free and
hurtled down the crevasse, smashing itself to splinters.

‘Get your gear before it falls down as well,’
said Mariam. ‘What’s the matter with you?’

‘What’s the matter with Thandimanilon?’ Runcie
retorted. He stuffed his spare clothes into his pack and swung
it over his shoulder. ‘Where are we going?’

‘To find out why she hasn’t fixed this mess

Though Thandimanilon was one of the most powerful
First Order magicians on Iltior, and could repair an earthquake
crevasse in an instant, she had nearly died in Shambles’s last
attack, six months ago, and lately she had often been ill.

‘I wish she’d hurry up,’ said Giddion, yawning.
‘I need another eight hours’ sleep.’

Tigris’s upheld fingers fluttered, and her
eyes widened as if something awful had occurred to her, then she
was her sad self again. Despite her gift for magic, she had never
wanted to be a magician. Tigris dreamed only of becoming an acrobat,
but never would; she was fourteen, far too old to be apprenticed.

‘Ling!’ yelled Mariam. ‘Will you come on?’

Ling Ho appeared in the doorway. She was the
smallest, and always seemed young to Runcie, though at thirteen
he was only six months older. Her dark hair was cut in a neat bob
around a sweet, heart-shaped face, and she wore a faded fawn blouse,
a patched grey tunic that was now too small for her, and black
school shoes. It was the girls’ uniform of Grindgrim Recalcitrants
Academy, the worst school on Earth, where Runcie, Mariam, Giddion
and Ling had met. The uniform reminded Ling of Earth and home,
and she would not wear anything else, because she missed her family
so desperately.

Giddion heaved a pack the size of a small refrigerator
onto his broad back.

‘What have you got in there?’ said Runcie.

‘Just stuff.’ Giddion was always making models
out of junk and giving them absurd names. Sometimes they worked,
but more often they didn’t; either way he took them apart and rebuilt
them. He seemed to prefer his models to the company of the other

As they headed up the stairs, Runcie was thinking
about his dream, and his mother. Millie was terrified of magic
and he’d once promised that he’d have nothing to do with it, though
he’d broken that promise many times since.

‘Dark Lady?’ cried Tigris, running towards
the Seeing Chamber. Light exploded from her fingers and she cried,
‘Oh! Oh!’

A waist-high mound of shattered glass, the
remains of the Seeing Sphere, occupied the centre of the room and
beside it stood the most beautiful woman on Iltior. Thandimanilon
was tall and slender, with sunset-red hair and milk-pale skin,
and she was clinging desperately to her cat-headed staff.

‘I’m beaten, children.’ She slumped to her

Runcie’s skin rose in goose pimples. After
Shambles’s attack six months ago, Thandimanilon had wrapped her
magical protection around the tower so tightly that not even a
gnat could get in. What had gone wrong?

‘What are you talking about?’ said Mariam.

‘Shambles has breached my defences and I can
no longer protect you. You must flee at once; some of you may survive
.’ Thandimanilon swayed and nearly fell. Tigris ran to support

Some of
us? Runcie’s heart gave a lurch.

‘But Dark Lady –’ said Tigris in a shaky

‘This attack has so weakened me,’ said Thandimanilon,
‘I’m not sure that I can even save my tower.’