Copyright © Ian Irvine 2007
Chapter 1. The Creature in the Chasm
The tall man in the black cloak looked over the edge, and shuddered. The sheer-sided chasm was unclimbable by man or beast; spikes thick as a porcupine’s pelt would pierce anything trying to scale its walls, while an iron grille prevented its dreadful occupant from climbing a rope; yet still the tall man was afraid.
‘Master?’ His voice went hoarse. ‘Lord Shambles? The spell has finally worked – you have a new secret name, known to none. You’re safe now; it’s time to turn yourself back.’
The smell from the chasm was revolting. Something scuttled along its floor, clawing at the walls; a bone cracked, then he heard a dreadful, squelching slurp.
‘Master, you’ve had that form far too long. You must change back –’
The trapped creature scrabbled to and fro, striking at the rock, and the sickly-sweet smell of venom stung the tall man’s nose. ‘You can’t, can you?’ Raising a brazen staff until the crystal at its tip shone red, he whispered the mighty spell, ‘Terror-beast, Transmogrify!’
A splinter of crimson light played across the diamond-studded grille, but failed to penetrate the grey fog below. Another light-shard struck down, and another, boiling the fog until, suddenly, it evaporated.
The creature avoided the light as if it hurt. The light-shard probed towards it and it darted the other way, scratching at the wall with its many legs, but finally the light pinned it to the floor like an insect to a board. As the tall man peered down, mist puffed up around the creature, concealing it from his view.
There came a crunching sound, like someone walking on empty crab shells; a snap-snap as of rubber bands; a series of creaks; a gasp of pain; and then a shriek that went on and on until the white diamonds in the grille glittered like needles of frost.
A jangling pulse began, like a drum solo played on saucepans. The mist disappeared, exposing a man gasping in the shadows. Lord Shambles had once been handsome; now he was a monstrosity whose hips and legs looked as though they had been turned to rubber and twisted into knots. His long hair and beared were crawling with vermin and his face was creased with pain lines.
Shambles forced himself to his ruined knees, looked up and croaked, ‘Lars, send down my helm.’
The tall man, Count Lars Sparj, lowered a wire mesh helmet on a rope through the grille.
Shambles jammed it on. His coiled moustaches popped out between the meshes, quivering. ‘And my staff.’
The brazen staff was let down to him. Shambles struck the bone-littered floor with it, sending out a flurry of sparks, then heaved himself upright. ‘Lars?’
‘Yes, Lord Shambles?’ Lars was a First Order sorcerer and a powerful man, but his voice trembled.
‘Nine months I’ve spent in this chasm – nine agonising months – and all because of those two Earth brats. I’m going to make them suffer, just as I have suffered. The girl, Mariam, knows a secret I must have if I’m to take their world …’
‘The gate to Earth is ready now,’ said Lars. ‘We’ll soon track her down.’
Shambles gasped and nearly fell. ‘And the boy – that puny boy, just twelve years old. His father once stole something I value beyond price, but he’s dead, so the boy must pay for the sins of the father.’ He clung to his staff, grinning savagely, madly, as the jangling reached a crescendo, then stopped.
Lars shivered. ‘Yes, Lord Shambles?’
‘Hunt down the boy for me, for I will have my revenge. Find Runcible Jones.’
Chapter 2. The Magic Over the Wall
Runcible Jones was slumped at the back of the classroom, doodling in his exercise book, when coloured lights went off in his head like fireworks. Someone was using magic, not far away, and the jagged shapes made his stomach churn. It was not good magic.
Runcie sat up so suddenly that his pencil case went flying, scattering its contents across the floor. The moment he’d been dreading was finally here.
‘Pick it up, idiot boy, and get on with your work,’ snapped Cordelia Bugg, the teacher.
As Runcie gathered his pens and pencils, he realised that the whole class was staring at him. He’d drawn attention to himself, and at Grindgrim Recalcitrants Academy, the worst school in the country, that was a dangerous thing to do.
He had always been fascinated by magic, even though it was forbidden by law. Why was someone using dark magic near Grindgrim? Did it mean that the war was beginning – a war that the government didn’t know about and wouldn’t believe if it was told? A war where the enemy, Lord Shambles of Iltior, attacked Earth with sorcery against which it had no defence? Runcie had to find out, fast, because it was all his fault.
The flashes in his head grew brighter, then faded away. He always saw coloured lights when strong magic was used nearby, though it hadn’t happened since he and Mariam had returned through the gate from Iltior nine months ago. He still missed that wonderful but dangerous world, where everything was brighter and more beautiful, and even the smallest children could do magic. Everyone on Iltior could, except him, yet magic was the thing Runcie wanted most of all.
The door was kicked open and a boy as big as a man sauntered in, sniggering into a flashy mobile phone. It was Runcie’s bitterest enemy, Jasper Fulk, the leader of the First Form bullies. Runcie slid down in his chair; Fulk gave him a malicious grin.
‘Well?’ snapped Cordelia Bugg, tottering towards Fulk on her four-inch heels. She was thin, dried-up and yellow – her hair, her skin and even her teeth. Today, dressed all in red, she looked like a bizarre tropical fruit. ‘What do you want?’
Fulk strolled across and scowled down at her, stroking the black stubble on his jaw, and Cordelia Bugg took a hasty step behind her desk. He swung towards Runcie, and Runcie wanted to run for his life, but if he gave in once, the bullies would crush him. They probably would anyway, for he was the smallest kid in his class and had lost more fights than anyone.
‘The headmaster wants to see little Runcie,’ Fulk smirked.
‘Runcible Jones!’ Cordelia Bugg’s eyes bulged. ‘What have you done this time?’
‘I haven’t done anything,’ said Runcie. He’d been on his best behaviour ever since coming back from Iltior.
‘You little liar.’ The yellow hairs on her upper lip quivered. ‘Why else would our esteemed headmaster want to see you?’
‘To give me a medal for good behaviour?’
Her cheeks went a muddy yellow. Now she resembled a banana with teeth. ‘Stand up, you insolent little wretch!’
Runcie got up, sweating. The headmaster, Doctor Gravelax, was a shadowy figure rarely seen about the school, but he had a nasty reputation.
‘Not now,’ Fulk said.
‘I beg your pardon?’ frowned Cordelia Bugg.
‘The headmaster isn’t expecting Jones now,’ said Fulk, bursting with glee. ‘He wants to see him at seven o’clock tomorrow morning.’
The punishment hour; Runcie blanched.
Cordelia Bugg chuckled. ‘You’d better escort him there, Fulk.’
‘It’ll be a pleasure.’ Fulk swaggered out. ‘Have a nice day, Jones.’
Runcie sat down, rubbing his sweating palms on his trousers. He was in desperate trouble and he didn’t know why.
When the lunch bell rang he waited for everyone to go – he had to find the source of the magic but didn’t want anyone to see him. However, four big kids appeared – the other members of Fulk’s bully-boy gang. Jud Thorpe, known as The Blob, waddled towards Runcie, his doughy face beaming.
Runcie eyed him uneasily. The bully boys had been wary of him ever since his magical disappearance last winter, but if they ever found out the truth he’d be finished.
‘Goin’ to see the headmaster, Runtsie?’ said The Blob.
He had made that feeble joke a hundred times before, but still The Blob snorted and exchanged grins with his cronies: Stinky Morton the liar, who wore the same clothes all term and had a hundred blowflies on his shoulders; the weasel-faced sneak, Ross Pethick, a born criminal who stole from his crippled mother; and dapper, white-eyed ‘Shylock’ Homes, a kid so sick that even the terrifying Doctor Gravelax avoided him.
‘You wouldn’t be laughing if you knew who Gravelax is seeing next,’ Runcie said, faking a carefree smile.
‘What do you mean?’ cried The Blob.
Baiting him was too easy. ‘He’s interviewing all the kids whose parents are criminals,’ Runcie fibbed. ‘Real criminals, I mean.’ Runcie’s mother was in prison for having a copy of his dead father’s banned book on magic, but he didn’t count that as a crime. ‘You’re next, then Shylock, because of his dear old granny’s villainy.’
‘You don’t know nothin’,’ Stinky blustered, lowering a sagging blue mailbag to the floor. It gave off an acrid smell, like bitumen. The blowflies lifted in a cloud, but settled again.
‘Leave my granny out of it, Jones.’ Shylock’s voice was as dead as his empty eyes, but he looked uneasy. ‘How would you know who the headmaster wants to see?’
‘Magic!’ hissed Runcie in Shylock’s face. ‘You saw me do it last year, but that’s nothing to what I can do now.’
In fact, Runcie couldn’t do a scrap of magic, though they didn’t know that. Last year when he and Mariam had disappeared, he’d merely set off a spell that was ready to go. He felt like a fraud.
Shylock jumped, but pretended he hadn’t. ‘You won’t be boasting in the morning.’ He turned away, carrying a lumpy bread bag. ‘Come on, guys. We’ve got to teach those new kids the rules.’
He meant magic-tainted kids like Runcie, who had been sent to Grindgrim to have it crushed out of them. All over the world, governments were destroying magic, yet Runcie knew Lord Shambles could only be beaten with magic.
It wouldn’t be safe to go wandering around the playground now by himself, and he had no one to go with. His only friend, Mariam, had been sent to school on the other side of the globe. But if the magic he’d seen was Lord Shambles’s, he had to know.
He followed the bullies stealthily up to the main hall, which was as wide as a four-lane freeway and two storeys high. They headed upstairs to the first floor, where they slipped out the fire escape. He gave them a minute to get down the steps before easing the door open against the driving rain. They were weaving towards the rear playground like a pack of hunting dogs.
Once they were out of sight, Runcie followed. Rain hissed on the ash and debris to his right – all that remained of the Science Block which had been burnt down a year ago. Grindgrim schoolyard looked like a prison, and for 278 years it had been part of one. The outer walls were thirty feet high, not counting the shiny coils of razor wire on top. Runcie took cover behind the spiral stairs of the old watchtower. The bullies were pushing and punching one another as they trampled across the black moss under the Great Scaffold. It hadn’t been used in sixty years but Runcie’s skin crawled whenever he went by it.
Now they were sidling up the slope towards the grim side entrance called Newgate. The left-hand gate was inscribed Abandon ye all hope, while the right-hand gate said, Infinite wrath, and infinite despair. His spirits sank further.
Ahead on his left was the former prison governor’s mansion, then the jungle of his walled garden. Runcie often sat inside the garden on hot days, reading the wall plaques about the lives and deaths of notorious villains, or thinking about his father, Ansible Jones. Someone on Iltior knew who had killed him but Runcie had no way of finding out.
The bullies turned left past the garden, The Blob kicking an empty drink can along the asphalt road that curved across the slope near the rear wall.
‘Quiet!’ Pethick hissed.
Runcie slipped behind a cluster of ferns and peered around the corner of the Governor’s Garden. Shylock was staring at the high rear wall of the schoolyard – the New Wall – his head cocked to one side.
‘What’s the matter?’ said Stinky.
‘I thought I heard something, over the wall.’
Beyond the New Wall, and the leering gargoyles topping the cannonball-battered Old Wall immediately behind it, the land rose steeply to a rocky knob with a derelict castle at its crest, topped by triple towers of twisted stone, one slime green, one blood red and one night black. The tallest, the greenstone tower, had a weathervane in the shape of a crescent moon.
‘Can’t hear nothin’,’ said Stinky.
‘Probably the ghost of Mercurius the Mad trying to put its quartered body back together,’ said Pethick with an uneasy laugh.
The castle was a source of endless rumours in the schoolyard: of bloody battles and cunning plots, terrible massacres and mysterious deaths; of slithering beasts too strange to exist; of shades and spectres and ghoulies; and above all, of forbidden magic. The more Grindgrim’s teachers lectured about magic being a crime, the more fascinating the rumours became.
As Runcie was about to follow, violet waves streamed across his inner eye: magic again. He felt sure it was coming from the castle, though it didn’t feel like dark magic this time. It felt nothing like Iltiorian magic, good or bad.
Runcie’s skin came up in goose pimples as he realised what that meant – it had to be Earthly magicians! He knew that many of them had gone into hiding years ago, and the derelict castle, sealed off with high walls topped with spikes, would be a perfect place to hide. He had to find them. They would listen to his story about Shambles and know what to do.
Runcie was creeping towards the New Wall when he saw the bully boys lurking in an alley between two workshops, waiting to ambush someone. He flattened himself on the wet road by the headless statue of Sir Ranulp Gibbertson, the Hanging Governor. After a minute or two a girl appeared from the far side of the school building. She was in Form 1B but he didn’t know her name, for she hadn’t been at Grindgrim long. She was small, with dark brown hair cut in a short bob around a neat, heart-shaped face, and she was staring at the castle. Had she seen the magic too?
She darted between the workshops towards the New Wall and he caught his breath – she was heading directly for the bullies’ hiding place. What villainy did they have in mind? They rarely picked on girls, even those tainted by magic, for that would be trespassing on the territory of Dulcie Cato’s feared girly gang.
He had to get closer. Runcie ran down to the rear of the school building and along it, keeping low. The Blob and Stinky were crouched down, holding the blue mailbag open. Shylock was on watch and Pethick had his arms out, preparing to spring.
The girl came hurrying by and, before Runcie could shout a warning, Pethick leapt out and caught her from behind. He was heaving her towards the mailbag when there came a fizzing crackle and his hair stood up in greasy spikes; he flew through the air, thudded into the wall of the workshop and hit the ground, holding his right arm – his stealing arm – and moaning.
Runcie stared in astonishment. The Blob’s belly, now three times its normal size, was flopping from side to side like a water-filled balloon. The cloud of blowflies formed an arrow and shot into Stinky’s mouth. And dapper Shylock, who never had a hair out of place, lay flat on his back, twitching as his plastic bag erupted white feathers and the mailbag oozed tar all over him.
Runcie could have wept for joy – one small girl had humiliated four hulking thugs. How had she managed it?
Shylock gasped and pointed. A curl of green vapour hung in the air where the girl had been, but she had vanished and a single emerald spark was arching gracefully across Runcie’s inner eye. She’d done magic right in front of him. Who was she?
He was walking between two outbuildings when someone cannoned into him, knocking him off his feet. A muffled groan came from in front of him, though he couldn’t see anyone. Runcie reached out and touched thick hair; he felt a tingle like static electricity and the girl appeared like a picture coming into focus, holding her forehead with both hands. She was rather pretty, and very neat and tidy looking, though her uniform was faded and her shoes almost worn through.
‘Are you all right?’ he said, politely ignoring her magical reappearance.
‘He’s coming through. Block the gate!’ she cried, as though quoting someone.
She suddenly went as pale as chalk, retched and slapped her hands over her mouth, trying desperately not to throw up. A loose board rattled on a nearby shed. She looked around frantically.
‘It’s just the wind,’ he said. ‘Come on, I’ll help you over to the infirmary.’ She jerked her head from side to side. Runcie couldn’t blame her – Matron was suspicious about sudden illnesses. ‘All right. No infirmary.’
The girl dropped her hands and he helped her to sit up. ‘Thanks, er, Runcie.’ She gave him a faltering smile, as if she were painfully shy.
‘That’s all right. How did you know my name?’
‘Everyone knows you.’
He’d never liked being infamous, though he didn’t mind her knowing who he was. She seemed nice; and she could do magic. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Ling Ho,’ she said shyly.
Runcie had a feeling he could trust her, and he really wanted to. Carrying the terrible secret about Lord Shambles, and the coming war, was unbearable.
‘I saw it too – the magic coming from the castle,’ he said in a low voice. ‘What did you mean by they’re coming through. Block the gate! Are the magicians being attacked?’
‘I don’t know.’ Ling avoided his eye. ‘It just came to me out of nowhere.’
Perhaps, being tainted, she was afraid to trust anyone. He could understand that, but he had to know.
‘It’s really important, Ling. I’ve got to find them.’
‘Giddion might know how to get in.’
‘Giddion Taw?’ He was a big, slow kid in one of the other First Form classes. ‘How do you know?’ He didn’t seem the adventurous type.
‘You’ll have to ask him.’ She looked over her shoulder.
‘Do you want me to check on the bullies?’ said Runcie.
‘Thanks.’ Ling stumbled to a doorway and sat down. ‘Sorry – it always gets me like this. I’ll be all right in a minute.’
Did she mean that doing magic made her ill? ‘How did you do that, anyway?’
She didn’t answer, and as Runcie edged down to the corner he wondered if it was rude to ask someone about their magical gift. He so wanted to know how she’d overcome four bullies at once.
The bully boys were hobbling along the New Wall towards the infirmary. Pethick’s stealing arm appeared to be broken; dapper Shylock was covered in tar and feathers; Stinky was still spitting out blowflies; and poor, dumb Blob was struggling to lift his enormous belly off the ground. Runcie gave a silent whoop. By the final bell, the whole school would be laughing at them.
He hurried back, whistling a merry tune his father had taught him. He couldn’t wait to talk to Ling about her magic.
‘Ling?’ he began, but she was gone.
As he was looking for her, he caught a movement at a window on the top floor of Grindgrim. Someone had twitched the curtain to one side, but when he looked again it was back in place. He hoped they hadn’t seen anything incriminating.
Runcie didn’t take in a thing for the rest of the afternoon. If Giddion could show him the way into the castle, he could find the magicians and tell them all about Shambles. They’d know what to do and his troubles would be over.
As soon as the bell went, he hurried out. He couldn’t see Giddion anywhere, but Ling was heading down the rear hall between two tall girls from the Third Form: the identical Spander twins, Gertrude and Mavis.
‘Ling?’ he called, running after her.
The three girls turned, the twins staring at Runcie like something the dog had dug up. They had long, horsy faces, flared nostrils and supercilious expressions. The one on the right said something to her sister over Ling’s head, and both twins snorted.
Ling, still pale and shaky, looked blankly at Runcie. The twin on the right, who had a mole on her upper lip, nudged Ling with an elbow.
She dropped her eyes and said softly, ‘I don’t know who you are, but I’m busy.’ She turned, swaying on her feet.
The tall twins sniffed and went with her. Runcie stood staring after them, feeling his cheeks burning, then trudged out to the bike racks. Stuck-up little cow.
‘How does it feel to have no friends, runt?’ said Fulk as Runcie went by.
How does it feel to have your gang a laughing stock? Runcie didn’t say it aloud; as soon as they’d recovered, the bully boys would want revenge.
‘Runcible, Runcible, he’s a duncible,’ Fulk chanted.
Runcie ground his teeth together and rode off, Fulk’s laughter ringing in his ears.
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