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On an island far away, the mwahaha flies.
The mwahaha is a bird – not, funnily enough, so called because its cry resembles the laugh of an old-fashioned villain, twirling his moustache as the express train draws near – but just out of sheer soppy sentimentality. There used to be a thriving colony of them somewhere up around old Hollywood way, back in the “real” world. People keep hoping they might come back someday, but, sad to tell, no one in living memory can remember seeing an active colony of mwahahas. Like the dodo, they have passed into the mists of history …
… Except, here, where one watched with curiosity from the branches of a flowering tree, on the slopes of the volcano. It was watching a curious assemblage running towards it. A man, who seemed faintly luminescent, carrying a beautiful young lady in his arms, apparently unslowed by shifting rocky ground or jungle scrub, or even by running straight uphill. On his shoulder, a parrot was squawking encouragement. Behind them, masked warriors flung spears, darts, and arrows while giving chase. It’s a strange world, sometimes, the mwahaha thought, and fluttered off. Some ancient instinct warned it what might lie ahead …
Even in the moonlight, the temple of the volcano goddess Cthoney glittered. It was an intriguing place: Partly because, it was rumoured, swirled among the marbled columns were veins and lumps of ruby and emerald, gold and silver – and partly, because when a temple hasn’t been so much constructed as shaped and moulded from the still-smoking molten lava, and is decorated around with statues that looked like someone had just been standing there five minutes ago, asking, so to speak, for the time, a certain … not quite magic, but “energy” seems to descend upon a place, so that it practically glows with it. Who or what designed it, no one was quite sure or wanted to know (and what happened to the builders was anyone’s guess).
Under ordinary circumstances, sane people didn’t enter it, or go knocking at the door. However, when you’re being pursued by a couple of dozen angry islanders in carved wooden masks, with darts, arrows, and spears whizzing past your ears, you start to get a mite less fussy about the shelter you’ll consider. ‘Whew!’ said Feathers, talking parrot, wise-ass, and rescue co-ordinator extraordinaire, as the big bronze doors closed behind them with a clang and the man Nemo pulled the switch that brought a gigantic reinforced bar down across them. ‘That should hold ’em. At least, for a while, anyway …’ He sniffed. ‘Um, does anyone smell something burning?’
‘More like … sulphur, I’d say,’ said Nessa, wrinkling her nose. ‘Though now you come to mention it, there does seem to be a certain magma-like quality to the place. It sure is dark in here.’
They felt it as Nemo stepped forward. For one thing, the ground sunk about an inch with the sound of shifting stone, as fiery lamps flickered into life.
Nessa gazed up and around, mouth open. ‘Wow …’
Feathers whistled. ‘Yep.’
They were in a kind of entrance hall, with rising pillars reaching off to a far off ceiling, the walls were covered in strange glyphs and pictograms, beautiful but strangely haunting statues stood in a variety of poses around it. Here and there and between some of the pillars, great jar-like flame lanterns that resembled nothing so much as giant lava lamps lit with real glowing lava provided a reddish-yellow orangey glow to the proceedings.
The thing was, if this was an entrance hall, there didn’t actually appear to be any other doors …
‘Is it just me,’ said Nessa, ‘or is there not any other way out of here?’
‘Yep,’ said Feathers again, nodding on Nemo’s shoulder opposite her, ‘we’re trapped.’
As if to reinforce the situation, what sounded like a giant gong seemed to go off behind them, as the bronze doors shook resoundingly.
‘Would that be a battering ram, do you think?’ said the talking parrot.
Feathers glanced sideways at the man called Nemo, who was still sort of glowing with a strange energy after someone (Feathers shuffled his clawed feet) had arranged for him to eat an outaya gourd – one of the rare mystic fruits to be found in this tropical paradise – and so charge off on an insanely heroic rescue attempt. Even if that meant he had gotten so carried away he hadn’t noticed they were running up towards the volcano with nowhere to go but into this strange and forbidding temple with no other apparent exits. Guess you can’t win ‘em all.
‘Um, Nemo,’ said Nessa, gently.
‘I think I might nearly have the circulation back in my feet. You can put me down now.’
‘Oh. Right …’
‘Only, it might be best if we all looked around. To see if we can find another way out,’ she added quickly.
Was his face a bit flushed? Probably just the glow from the lava lanterns, she thought, as he set her, very gently, down on a stretch of glyph-inscribed floor. She noticed the way he kind of looked away and to one side.
‘How are your … your, um …’
‘Ankles?’ she provided.
‘Much better. Thank you.’ She lifted one of her feet demonstratively.
Nemo didn’t seem to know where to look.
She smiled at him.
‘Best get looking, huh?’ he said.
She was actually kind of glad of the reddish-tinged glow from the lava lanterns. Hopefully no one could see her blushing. She sighed, and leaned on to her elbow to try and push herself up – the floor seemed to tilt out from under her—
‘Neeeeeeeeeeeemmooooooooooooooooo … !’
Nemo turned around and saw the hole sliding off into the blackness where he’d set Nessa down a moment before. ‘Nessaaaaaaaaaa!’ he called, diving after her.
‘Hey, kid, what are you—‘ Feathers sighed, as he watched Nemo disappear down a sloping hole in the floor. Ah, well, he thought, flapping over. When ya can’t beat ’em, join ’em:
Outside the temple, masked figures brought the impromptu battering ram round one more time. As it thudded into the big ornamental bronze doors it made a sound a bit like a giant gong. Bonggg … Bongggg … Bonggggg ….
‘What are you doing!’
Uh-oh. About two dozen grown men were suddenly anxious to be elsewhere, as Vexila, the Witch Doctress herself, strode on up the hill, the eyes on her mask blazing with some sort of glowing fire, several of her widely feared assistants in tow.
‘You idiots!’ she said. ‘Get that thing away from there! Do you want to wake Her up?’ She strode up the doors, pushing past as they shuffled awkwardly back. ‘Captain Argalos!’she called to a man in a grass skirt and big elaborately carved mask.
‘Yes, ma’am,’ said the captain of the guards, stepping forward smartly.
‘Send out patrols. Circle all the known gates. They must not escape. I will have that girl, and when I find her I will cut out her heart and throw her to Cthoney!’
The mountain echoed with the rumbling thunder of the volcano.
‘Ma’am …’ he said, fiddling with the straps on his big wooden mask nervously.
‘Have some of your guards wait here. The door mechanism will reset soon. The rest of you, get going. Well, what are you waiting for!’
‘Yes, ma’am!’ The captain hurried off, frantically giving orders. He didn’t want to be around if the Witch Doctress should decide he was to blame for letting the girl escape. Come to think of it, had anyone seen Simeo or Vaxil lately?
Nessa raised her head. Everything was pitch black. She could hear the distant rumble of stone, presumably that trick floor sliding back into place and sealing them in.
She tried to get up but couldn’t. Everything felt bruised. She reached out her arm awkwardly and patted at her breeches pocket. Still had it. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too damaged. ‘Parrot,’ she said, ‘are you there?’
‘Present,’ said Feathers.
‘Where are you?’
‘Well, stand clear. I don’t want to singe your feathers.’
A soft golden flame flickered into life in the darkness and Nessa held up a slightly battered, but still working, cigarette lighter. The parrot was off to one side, a few feathers out of place, but otherwise fine. Nemo … was sprawled bonelessly over her legs. That had been why she couldn’t get up.
‘Nemo,’ she said, pushing at his back. ‘Nemo … wakey-wakey, rise and shine. C’mon,’ she said encouragingly, ‘up and at ’em, champ.’
‘Guess he’s just tuckered out after all that heroing. It takes people that way sometimes,’ said Feathers, hopping over to him. ‘Here let me give it a try.’ Nessa blinked at what, in the flame-light, looked like a mischievous grin on his beak.
‘Awww, I never get to have any fun!’
Carefully lifting one leg at a time and then another (he was heavy), she slid out from under and brought the lighter round. She felt his neck, and then his head. It was wet. She held her fingers up to the light. Blood glinted back at her. As she had touched him, something happened: ‘Why’s he glowing like that again? I thought he’d stopped.’
‘Yeah, ain’t that odd,’ said Feathers, thoughtfully. ‘Is … is he okay?’
If Nessa didn’t know better, she’d say there was just a hint of worry in the parrot’s voice. She tried not to show it in her own as she reached forward to try to wake him. ‘Nemo,’ she whispered again, squeezing his shoulder. ‘Can you hear me … ?’
Nemo could hear voices, calling to him in the darkness … His head throbbed. Thump-thump. His heart beat. Bum-bump.
‘Nemo …’ a voice called. ‘Ne-mo …‘
‘Nessa?’ he asked.
The voices went still for a moment. Whisperings in the darkness, faint twinklings like underground stars. He saw things, floating, fading in and out of his imagination in a way that didn’t quite make sense. A cloak of night … and fire. Glowing flames, in a fiery ring …
The voices called to him. And one voice in particular …
‘Polo,’ he said, dozily.
‘Nemo – is that your name … ?’
The voice became clearer, focusing in on him. It was a beautiful voice. And a lonely one … Why did things have to be like this, it seemed to say. Why won’t anyone talk to me … Be there with me, in the darkness of my deepest night …
He found himself whispering back, words that passed through his head without him knowing them …
The voice called again: ‘Neeeemo …’
In the ancient legends of the islands, there is an old verse that has survived in various forms to the present day. It runs as follows:
‘In her Halls of Sleep,
Cthoney lies dreaming,
Waiting for One Who Is Lost to set her free:
Once more to see the Sunlight,
Dawning o’er the Mountain.
To taste Soul Fruit and flowers’ scent,
To walk with her through the Garden …
… and the Ring of Fire …‘
Nobody’s quite sure what it means …
Nemo woke up. So beautiful and yet so alone …
He tried to open his eyes. A blurring face. Fire and flame. In the fires of a heart that has never stopped burning, fiercer than all the stars, yearning …
Something soft brushed his face. Set me free, mortal … and never die …
He blinked, confused, trying to separate the voices … ‘ … What is it with you and getting knocked on the head?’ Nessa was saying to him.
‘Huh?’ His vision seemed to clear. Golden hair, warm smile, slight sparkle about the eyes—
‘Glad to see you’re still with us.’ She looked at him uncertainly. ‘Nemo?’
He shook himself awake, felt the sudden throb in his head. Winced. ‘I …’
‘Yeah, you got a slight bump on the head on the way down. Just try not to do it again …’
‘Rawk! Time to be movin’! We still need to get outta here. C’mon, glow-boy, toots,’ Feathers said with a nod to Nessa, but she seemed to miss it, ‘we needs ta get going! Had ya forgotten all those mad islanders, tryin’ to kill us? Honestly, good thing ya both gots me to keep your minds on the job. Let’s go, let’s go,’ he finished, and then fluttered up onto Nessa’s shoulder. Nessa glanced at the parrot slightly uncertainly but didn’t try to shift him.
Only one way to go: They headed into the darkness.
‘It’s like the set of a movie …’ said Nessa, eyes wide, gazing around the tunnels.
‘Yeah …’ said Nemo. ‘Wait, they have those here?’
‘Uh, yeah …’ said Nessa. ‘Don’t they where you come from?’
‘Kids, kids, kids,’ said Feathers. ‘Concentrate. Booby-traps at every turn, spiked pits, rolling boulders, ceiling blocks that come hurtling down at you, and poisoned arrows that shoot outta the walls? Any of this ring a bell?’
Nessa looked at him, as he sat bobbing along there on Nemo’s shoulder.
‘What?’ said Feathers. Something about the intensity of Nessa’s gaze was making him nervous. He tried to change the subject. ‘Hey, is it just me or is it getting hot in here?’ He ran a fore-feather around the inside of a metaphorical collar. ‘Whew-ee!’
Nessa stopped, putting her hand out in front of Nemo. ‘You know, he’s right. I hate to admit it, but the feather-brain is right.’ She felt her shirt.
‘Feather-brain?‘ sputtered Feathers. ‘I’ll have you know, lady, that if it weren’t for me, you’d still be stuck in durance vile about to be thrown into a volcano— Mmmph. Hey, hey! Hands off the beak!’ But he didn’t quite dare to try nipping Nessa’s fingers, the way he would, say, Nemo’s. Something about the way she was looking at him just now told him it wouldn’t be a good idea.
‘Quiet, you,’ she said. ‘How close are we to the volcano –’
‘The name is Feathers, lady. And pretty close I should reckon. We musta fell a ways, and if ya listens real close there’s a sort of … rumbling … I didn’t likes ta mention it, or make anyone nervous, but hey, ya did ask.’
‘Hey, birdbr— Feathers,’ she said, carefully. ‘Come over here a moment. I want to talk to you. Nemo, don’t go anywhere, all right?’
Nemo nodded airily. She looked at him. The glow was getting worse. He was like a walking lightbulb. Er. Whatever one of those was …
She got Feathers over round a turn in the tunnel. ‘He’s getting worse.’
‘You said it, sister! Rawk!‘
‘Shhh. I don’t want him to hear us! It’s just … did you hear the way he was whispering when he was … sleeping? I couldn’t really make it out — but together with that glowing… Is something happening to him? Something to do with this place? And don’t you breathe a word about this to him. I don’t want him thinking I don’t trust him.’
‘Oh, I gets it. Just our little secret, right. Tell me, honeycakes, you been in the mermaid business long?’
‘What— I, oh … Honeycakes?’ She scowled.
‘Anyway,’ continued Feathers, moving swiftly on, ‘what we got here is a bit of a conundrum, like one of them mysteries of the sea. Like, suppose, you has one of them ships that floats into port … no crew, but all the table’s set out for a meal, candles still lit – and no one knows what’s happened … Like the — what was that ship called, the one that ran aground off the Sirens’ Triangle? — the something-something … the Lulu-Marie Celeste?’
‘Lulu-Marie?’ said Nessa. ‘That can’t be right.’
‘Oh, well, you would know, being a mermaid and all … But what I was trying to say was, you get places like this sometimes. Just like you get ghost ships, and Old Ones in the Hidden Deeps, seeking a return to this plane of existence …’ he intoned melodramatically. In the background, the volcano rumbled, as if on cue, like thunder echoing down to those very Hidden Deeps. ‘On the other hand,’ he continued, backing and filling, ‘maybe it’s just an interesting natural geographical feature and— Mmmpphh!’
‘This isn’t helping,’ she said. ‘This volcano’s still active, right? And it’s been rumbling a lot lately, hasn’t it? I’ve heard it. So we need to get out of here. I mean, these tunnels could leak. Maybe that’s why it’s getting so much hotter. Maybe the volcano’s about to erupt. So if we don’t want to end up in a river of lava, and you don’t want to end up as Parrot a l’Orange, we’d better come up with something constructive here.’
‘—Guess we just keep going,’ said Feathers. ‘Only … hadn’t we better go check on the kid—’
‘He’s not a kid,’ said Nessa heatedly, ‘he’s— Wait a minute …’ She stepped back round the corner. Sitting on her shoulder, Feathers sighed deeply. Nemo was gone.
From somewhere down in the tunnels ahead, she could hear voices, voices echoing with the sounds of things past trying to claw their way into the present (as Feathers might say), and, in the darkness, a strange clear note … And the temperature was still rising. Nemo, you idiot, if anything happens to you, so help me, I’ll …
No time for thinking, she ran ahead, Feathers gripping on tight to her shoulder and trying not to wince at impending descent or springing of things going squish, splat, or spike.
The tunnels split off multiple ways ahead. And, there were traps, only someone had triggered them and apparently gone by in one particular direction. It was how she could tell which tunnels to follow, quickly doubling back if there were no signs of disarmed traps ahead. In one of the corridors, it was the strangest thing, but there was a hat lying on the ground. With a whip. Huh. She wondered how long they’d been down there. Someone had apparently left them behind. She hoped they’d got out.
‘Hold it, hold it,’ said Feathers. ‘You hear that?’
A voice – Nemo’s, except somehow not – speaking soft and low, but surprisingly clear. It echoed through to them. ‘Deep in her prisoned sleep, the Lady lies dreaming …’
‘Follow that voice!’ said Feathers, urgently. ‘Trust me, if this is what I think it is, we better stop him before—’
But Nessa was already running, loping forward as fast as her legs would carry her. Nemo …
She skidded to a halt in a large open cavern. Nemo was there, glowing still, before some huge … altar? No … Yes. But not quite. It was complicated. Up above, a fissure in the rock let a beam of daylight through. Formations like huge drips of molten rock frozen in motion hung from the ceiling and around the cavern. Gemstones and jewels sparkled in them. Fiery lanterns, like the ones that had lit up the entrance hall before they’d fallen down here, burned with a fierce heat.
Nemo was stepping slowly, hypnotically, towards a bridge over a shallow channel. On the other side, a kind of raised dais with a stone plinth or bier on it – like a bed – and a stone figure in the shadows lying as if in sleep.
On the walls, glyphs and pictograms began to glow into shades of magma and lava, searing with incandescent heat. Refracted light sparkling off rubies and sapphires, emeralds and diamonds …
‘Madre de Pollo!’ whistled Feathers. ‘Will you look at that …’
From the direction of the bier on the dais, a voice, rich and feminine, flowed out over the cavern. Smouldering with long-banked fires. ‘I have been waiting, so lonely through the centuries … Will you be my hero, Wandering One – will you release me from my Endless Night?’
Nessa had a bad feeling about this. ‘Nemo!’
He wasn’t listening. He couldn’t hear her.
‘Kid, step away from the dais. Trust me on this … This is not good …’
‘Cthoney in her Halls of Sleep lies dreaming,’ intoned Nemo, drifting zombie-like towards the bridge, ‘waiting for One Who Is Lost to set her free …’ At the mention of the word Cthoney, the whole chamber rumbled and shook. Had that statue just moved, Nessa thought.
This had gone far enough. She ran forward and grabbed Nemo and tried to pull him back. ‘Feathers, do something!’ she cried.
She risked a backward glance. ‘Feathers?’
Feathers emerged struggling through the open fissure onto the ashy mountainside and scanned the horizon. Please, please, please, he thought … Bingo-bango, we’re in luck. He’d thought it might. Now, to find the right one … He scanned through the leaves quickly, but he couldn’t see … Oh. Well, beggars can’t be choosers. She’d just have to make do.
‘Feathers!’ Nessa called again. ‘I can’t hold him much longer. ‘He’s almost at the bridge! Feathers!’ Nemo was dragging them both ever nearer to the sleeping stone figure. It was a woman, beautiful in her feathered head dress and feather-decked costume. Her eyes closed as if in endless sleep, but as if troubled constantly by an uneasy dream. Her hands and feet were manacled with stone chains bound to the rock. A stone band with a stone lock was bound around her waist running into the rock of the bier. Someone had gone to an awful lot of trouble to make sure she stayed down here.
So this is volcano goddess, she thought. Someone must have worked ages to carve her so intricately. It was like— A suspicion dawned, and then it hit her. ‘Nemo. Nemo, please …’
But Nemo’s eyes were unseeing. He was glowing more than ever now. A fluttering from above caught her attention as Feathers the parrot struggled back through the fissure in ceiling ungainlily. A moment later, he flopped down heavily on her shoulder, with something that looked like a pear-shaped yellow-reddy lemon lodged in his mouth.. ‘Eat thif,’ he mumbled.
‘Feathers,’ she said straining to keep Nemo from getting past her to the bridge. ‘I’m a little – busy – here.’
‘It’f ‘ur only chanfe.’
No time to hesitate. She grabbed the fruit from the bird’s beak. It came away and she bit into it, holding on to Nemo and pushing with her shoulder.
‘Keep going. I think you’ll need it all – it was the best one I could find.’
‘What is this?’ she said, chewing. But she could feel herself getting stronger. She took another bite. Nemo’s rate of movement was slowing. Another. She had him stready. She finished the strange fruit with a gulp and jerked Nemo back. ‘Right, mister, we are getting out of here.’
He tried to turn back towards the statue of the sleeping Cthoney.
‘Oh, no you don’t.’ She’d never felt like this before. As she pulled Nemo round again, with surprising ease, she grabbed him by his collar and drew him towards her. The sound of the slap she gave him made quite an echo through the cavern. Nemo opened his eyes.
‘Er, Nessa,’ he said. ‘Why are you glowing?’
She looked down at her hand, still stinging, but also glowing with a yellowish golden-red light. The same sort of light Nemo was glowing with, roughly. ‘Feathers …’ she said.
‘What? It got the job done didn’t it? No harm, no fowl — so to speak.’ He grinned at her.
Nemo glanced at Feathers, who was twitching again. ‘Feathers, have you been at the outayas again?’
‘I had to hold it in my beak to get it to her. Don’t look at me like that, you was about to wake up a dormant volcano goddess.’
‘I — what?’
‘Actually,’ said Feathers, ‘while we’re on the subject, should that statue be moving like that?’
On the bier, the stone Cthoney was restless and shifting. Glowing slits of light pouring out from about where her eyes would be. Beneath the little stone bridge over to the dais, lava seemed to be pouring in from somewhere, glowing as it flowed through the channel. Over the moving stone form, fiery lines of light seemed to be gathering and coalescing in an outline of something.
They turned to each other in unison: ‘Run!’
It’s surprising how quickly you can move through trap-infested tunnels when the alternative is being roasted alive in a molten-rock bath or, as it may happen, the reawakened avatar of a restless volcano goddess.
‘Rawk! Careful there! That one almost got me.’ A few feathers floated down behind them as if to prove the point.
‘Bird, if we don’t keep moving –‘ Whfft! — ‘our goose is cooked!’
There was light up ahead. Which was just as well, even though with the combined glows of Nemo and Nessa meant they hadn’t really needed the cigarette lighter when they were to see by. ‘Almost there …’
They emerged into the jungle at a dead run and kept moving. A little way further on, as the mwahaha (or perchance, the parrot) flies, they found themselves in a small clearing, where they tried to catch their breath.
‘We made it,’ Nemo said, panting. ‘Oh, hey, you’ve got a little – actually quite a lot of—’
‘You too,’ said Nessa, looking at her hands. ‘Guess it was all the smoke down there.’
Feathers, meanwhile, was looking around. He flapped up into a tree. Something was unsettling him. Nice enough place and all, flowers twining among creepers, a little overgrown perhaps, but almost like a little garden. Sun was shining, birds were— Oh. No, they weren’t, really, were they? Ah.
‘No, you go—‘
‘No, it’s okay, you—‘
‘Rawk! Whi-hoo! Shiver me timbers! — run! — pretty Polly! Rawk!‘
‘What’s gotten into that bird now …’
Captain Argalos motioned to his men as they trod stealthily through the jungle. He thought they’d found them, the girl and the other one. It was difficult to be sure, but he was pretty certain there weren’t another pair on the island that looked quite like that – i.e., as if they’d been through a furnace and then gone swimming in a vat of smoke. He was man with a curious imagination at times, but there you are. He passed the signal to close in.
Nessa paused. Her attention had been caught by a bird. And not, for the first time in a while, a certain talking parrot. She thought it might be what they called a Bird of Paradise. It had big beautiful feathers, in so many different colours. Purples and pinks and yellows, orange, red, and gold, green and blue … In fact, the colours seemed to shimmer, changing as they went, almost glowing with different-coloured light and heat mist and … was that branch beneath its feet … smoking?
She shook her head. Probably just imagining it. Dehydration, that was what it was. Overheating. After all that time in the tunnels.
‘Say, we should find some water—‘
‘Don’t anybody move! We have you surrounded!
They turned together, suddenly back to back. Spear and arrow points seemed to sprout from the undergrowth.
‘I was afraid of that,’ she said. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the Bird of Paradise was no longer be there. Where it was, a couple of sets of claw marks smouldered.
‘At last, my love, I am free …‘
She spun them round, pulling Nemo flat to the ground as arrows and darts started flying — and then suddenly stopped. She dared to look up. Feet were walking towards her. A woman’s feet. And where they stepped, the jungle started giving off smoke and heat and little bursts of flame – which didn’t seem to affect even the trails of her flowing feathered dress in every colour of the rainbow (every colour of a Bird of Paradise, in fact) — or her tropical feathered mantle or head-dress, resting amid her long black hair.
For a moment, molten dark eyes flashed with fire and flame and all the heat of a volcano’s fiery heart. And she was looking, Nessa noticed, first at her, with something like curiosity – but always coming back to Nemo.
‘After endless years of dreaming,’ said the feather-decked fire lady, ‘Cthoney is free.’ She turned to the masked islanders around them, before letting her gaze fall on Nemo once again, with a long, slow smile, and a strange look in her eyes (if anything could be stranger than a fiery volcano goddess come to life, that is). ‘Prepare a wedding feast! And bring … my betrothed …‘ she said.
Nessa couldn’t hold it in any longer. ‘Your betrothed — you don’t mean— You leave him alone!’ she said, springing to her feet and towards Cthoney. A hand gripped her arm. A burning-hot hand. And those eyes looked into hers. She pulled away quickly, but not quick enough. She felt searing heat run through her arm. Cthoney was ridiculously strong, but lucky for her Feathers had got her that outaya. As she pulled away, there were charred holes in the sleeve of her shirt and a vivid hand-shaped patch of skin blistering up on her arm.
‘And bring this other one,‘ said Cthoney. ‘She may be … of service …’ The volcano goddess made a strange hand gesture over Nemo. Clutching her burnt arm, trying to fight back tears, Nessa watched him struggle to his feet, the glow that had suffused him flickering as he struggled with something internally. His eyes looked like he was fighting for control of himself.
‘Leave … her … be …’ he managed, though Nessa doubted if anyone else could make it out.
‘Patience, Beloved. Bring them!‘
The guards closed in.
Daylight, come, and carry my Beloved home …
Swaying upside down from a carrying pole, with your hands and ankles bound (again), gives a girl time to think. One of the things Nessa was thinking about was Nemo. And Cthoney …
Nemo, swaying upside down between another couple of bearers on the pole next to hers, tried to speak to her. ‘Nessa, are you all right, are you—‘
‘I’m not speaking to you,’ she said.
But she didn’t say another word.
Dear Ma, she thought to herself. Well, here I am, in jail again … She kicked out and her boot hit a stone wall. A more solid and difficult-to-get-out-of jail than the last time. It wasn’t as if she’d even done anything. The witch doctress had shot her an evil look when she saw her again. Which felt the wrong way round, somehow. (How she could tell through the mask, she wasn’t sure, but just on general principles she was sure it was evil.)
This building she was in now seemed older somehow than the village, and as if it hadn’t been much used for a while.
A fluttering sound up above caught her attention. A beaked head peered in through carved stonework before descending.
‘Hey, birdbrain …’
‘Heya, yourself … I … brought ya something.’
‘Another outaya?’ she said, hardly able to keep the bitterness out of her voice. But it wasn’t directed at Feathers. She wasn’t even sure who it was directed at. Nemo? (She wouldn’t even say that fire thing’s name in her own head.) Herself?
‘No, it’s … well, that burn looked pretty bad before I took off there. I didn’t want to, ya understand, but I thoughts to myself, if one of us keeps free, he might be able to help the others escape …’
‘I’m not sure if you’re going to be able to help us this time, Feathers,’ she said, wiping her eyes on her sleeve with a sniff. ‘Anyway, lover-boy already brought me something for the burn, when he came in, under armed guard.’
Feathers noticed a pale green splat against the wall and a shattered jar beneath it. He also noticed how livid the burn was still, as if it hadn’t been used. It’s true, pride’ll kill you. But there were worse things …
‘Here, c’mon now, kid. Chin up. It ain’t over till it’s over.’ He fluttered awkwardly along, dragging a little green fruit with him.
‘I want it to be over,’ she said.
‘Oh, c’mon, now. That kid’s crackers about you, you can see it in his eyes—‘
‘I don’t care what he—‘
She felt a bird-like head and a spread wing against one knee.
‘Are you – trying to give me a hug?’
‘Ya looked like maybe ya could use it,’ said Feathers. ‘Only don’t tell nobody. I got a reputation to keep up, here.’
‘Not a soul,’ she murmured. ‘C’m’ere, birdbrain.’ She reached out to lift him up as he folded his wing in again.
‘Mind the feathers! Mind the feathers! Rawk!‘
‘Now, what do I do with this?’ she said, picking up the little green fruit the parrot had brought.
‘Just break it over the burn and rub it in. Should stop it going bad. Or at least from bad to worse. Ya gotta look after yourself. I don’t know how, but somehow we’ll make it. You, me, the kid.’
She put him down and broke open the fruit against her arm.
Then she huddled into the straw in the corner of the cell, a strange fruity smell tickling her nostrils as the fruit soaked into the burn. It felt a little less sore, at least. ‘Feathers … Can you … sit with me a while?’
‘Sure, kid. And don’t you worry, we’ll think of something.’
A hand reached out. A clawed foot rested on an outstretched finger. Occasionally, it shook.
‘Shhh. It’s all right. Goin’ to be all right …’
Vexila, A.K.A. the Witch Doctress, snarled, hurling a potion bottle into the flames. It burned with a sickly green tinge mixed with blue. After all these years of careful planning … After everything she’d done, everything (and everyone) she’d sacrificed, and some … goof comes and messes it all up at the critical moment.
They could have sent Cthoney to sleep for another thousand years, and she could have continued to rule. Now … a wedding … she was going to marry that … that … imbecile! Where had he even come from? And the girl was to be spared, apparently … for now …
I don’t care who you think you are, she thought, I own you. I rule here. And I will have that girl’s heart out and use her to send you back to sleep where you belong! But first, she’d have to do a little something about the stranger – the one they called “Nemo” … Far be it for her to predict the future, but it looked like the groom-to-be was going to have himself a little accident … A magical accident – the best kind. It would take some arranging. And she’d have to be careful. She couldn’t afford to challenge Cthoney directly. Not in a straight fight. But there were ways. Oh, there were ways, all right …
Nemo or whatever your name is, your days are numbered …
To Be Continued …