Chapter One — A Different Kind of Hero

All heroes have prophecies. Or rather, all heroes had prophecies. They used to turn up in the lives of the heroic like mid-life weight gain, unwanted and unasked for, and as hard to shake as warm royal bed-sheets after half a lifetime of heroic living in tents and on carts.

Back then, a young boy with the gift of magic couldn’t save his little sister’s dolly from a flowing stream without the heavens opening, a voice descending, and a prophecy settling upon the hapless kid like a bad reputation.

‘A child of humble origins will overthrow evil and restore balance to the world.’ Or maybe, ‘only when the three lost artefacts are united can the crown be restored.’ Or quite possibly, ‘if the princess is not saved from the dragon, then darkness shall surely cloak the world.’

But that was a long time ago. A time before science and gunpowder, before new world exploration and the printing press, before Mister Adam Smith looked at a pin and idly wondered how many angels he could get to make it. Across all this time, the magic of the world went into hiding, scared of the many who envied the few.

And for many centuries, they hid pretty well. But then photography happened and they had to learn to hide better. And then radio happened and they had to learn to hide better still — and then television, and then live television, then computers, and the internet. By the time smartphones started to become popular, the father council, who ran things from their hidden temple on the top of some hidden mountain, were getting monumentally fed up.

“If technology doesn’t slow down soon,” spoke one of the ancient hooded figures sitting around the large round table, “our people will be exposed.”

Another hooded figure tapped his fingers on the mahogany woodwork. “I still think our best bet would be to talk to the world governments and work to gradually integrate back into the rest of humanity.”

A third hooded figure snorted. “Foolish. We will be hunted down like dogs. Hunted down, or else used as either weapons or scapegoats. People fear that which they do not understand.”

The eleven members of the council sat in silence for a moment, each man — and they were all men — digesting that last comment like over-ripe sushi.

And then, from the domed roof of the overly ornate grand meeting hall, for the first time in eight hundred years, the heavens seemed to open, and a soft female voice descended upon the startled councillors.

“Creakylid awaits.”

The voice sounded like it belonged on a beach smoking something relaxing and highly illegal.

“Creakylid awaits for all those children of magic.

It awaits, for all those who do not wish to be hunted down like dogs.

It awaits… in room 509 behind the stuffed dragon’s head.

And a hero among many will rise and more prophecies be given.

And the hero will become king of the children of magic.

And the hero will have many girlfriends who will become the princesses of magic — because Chadwick really likes princesses — yes, that is why —  don’t try to deny it!”

The voice laughed for a few moments before continuing.

“Yes, and the hero will save the world… eventually… and not necessarily in that order, but only if he proves himself worthy, and only if something doesn’t go monumentally wrong in the meantime…”

The voice trailed off awkwardly.

“Anyway,” the voice started again and now took on a far firmer tone, as though the speaker had suddenly remembered they were supposed to be doing something important. “Creakylid awaits. You have five years before this place takes delivery of a tactical nuclear warhead.”

And then the voice was gone.

Silence descended on the group as quickly as the prophecy had.

Eventually, an uneasy voice said, “Was that Prudence?”

Another voice, this one rather more sarcastic said, “Well it wasn’t male, was it? So it certainly wasn’t Driven.”

A third voice, far more uncertain and worried said, “It could have been… Coincidence.”

“No, it wasn’t Coincidence. Did you hear how chilled out she sounded? I always imagined Coincidence as sounding more playful with a possible hint of insane.”

“I don’t recall Prudence’s prophecies being quite so badly worded.”

“Maybe she’s just out of practice? It has been eight hundred years.”

A heavy wooden chair scraped on the marble floor. One of the hooded figures, who’d been sitting in silence all this time, had chosen this moment to stand up.

“Nikolo? Where are you going?”

Nikolo Maximillian Spinner, ancient and grand mage of Europe, walked a few soundless steps away from the table before turning back and lowering his hood. His lower-neck length flaming red hair spilled out around his shoulders. His equally red, thumb-length beard twitched in mild amusement. “Sorry, was I the only one who just heard that there was some kind of prophesied object that, ‘awaits for us in room 509 behind the stuffed dragon’s head,’ which will help prevent the extermination of our people?”

There was a pregnant pause and then the hurried and suddenly very determined sound of ten chairs being pushed back filled the grand meeting hall.

Nikolo shook his head and made his way out of the domed room, down the stairs, along a corridor, along another corridor, down another flight of stairs, and towards ‘the room,’ all ten other members of the council trailing behind him like old, dignified, and incredibly powerful ducklings.

Nikolo smiled ruefully. He wasn’t the group’s leader — the group didn’t have a leader — but, somehow, he always seemed to find himself leading. It wasn’t as though the other council members weren’t leaders in their own right — you didn’t get to be a member of the father council without being a born or bred leader — it was just that it always seemed to be him that the other council members looked at first when the latest horrible bit of news reached their collective ears.

Ah. Here it was — room 509. He produced one of the master keys to the building, unlocked the door, made magical light with a vague wave of his hand, and stepped inside the stuffy and dusty space, careful as possible not to tread on any stray feet or tails belonging to the two-dozen stuffed mythical animals from days of yore that filled the room like shadows in a childhood nightmare.

“Huh, I forgot we had a hydra in here,” said one of the councillors behind him.

Nikolo ignored him and forged a path towards the back of the room where a large reptilian head as tall as a grown man was mounted on a series of large metal pipes in an expression of rage and fury — and behind the terrifying reminder of what past mages dealt with on a semi-regular basis, was…

“A treasure chest?”

Nicole’s eyes narrowed. It was indeed a wooden trunk, like something straight out of a pirate story, bound in iron and decorated with wood carvings of what looked like half the stuffed monsters of the room they stood in. On the front of the trunk, near the keyhole, sailed a tiny, wood-carved three-mast sailing ship. Nikolo suddenly thought he could hear the sea.

“Well?” said one of the councillors, a tad impatiently, “shall we open it?”

Nikolo stepped towards the trunk.

“Err, is this really a good idea?” said another, “I mean, Pandora’s box and all that.”

Nikolo grasped the lid.

“We are Pandora’s box,” said the first voice. “And if we don’t do something soon, we’ll be all the ills of the world too, and the world will be pissed.”

Nikolo gave a great heave, huge old muscles responding to the call of a purpose long ago forgotten, and the trunk creaked open like every wooden door in every forbidding castle the world has ever known.

Sunlight spewed from the trunk like a geyser. So did many other things — the cry of seabirds, the smell of saltwater, and the now far clearer lapping and rushing of waves.

Nikolo peered down into the trunk. He saw a ladder, leading down onto what looked like a small sandy beach. Ignoring the cries for caution of his fellow councillors, he carefully swung himself onto the ladder, climbed down the first dozen rungs, felt warm air rush around his hands and face, and looked around.

The sandy beach, some twenty feet below, was attached to an island not much larger than the temple he’d just left — barely enough land for a decent sized stone circle or mage tower. All around the mostly flat and bare island, crystal blue water stretched out in all directions, although he thought he could just make out another island far off in the distance. Words like tropical, pirates, coconuts, and wenches, floated through his mind like the flotsam and jetsam he half-expected to see floating around in the nearby sea, but didn’t.

“You alright down there?” called a concerned voice.

Nikolo looked up, still clutching at the rungs above him. The bearded faces of two of his colleagues looked down at him from a hole in the sky, a hole that seemed to just hang in mid-air. On either side of the hole, wood and iron slowly moulded into sky and cloud, giving the effect of an indecisive chameleon.

“Yeah…” he vaguely muttered as the implications hit him. This place, this world — Creakylid… was the trunk. Prudence — or possibly one of the others — was telling them to leave — leave their home and travel here, wherever here was. “Yeah, I’m fine.” And what had been the rest of the prophecy? ‘A hero would rise who’d become king, save the world, and have lots of steamy sex with lots of women?’

Nikolo frowned. That would certainly need careful watching. The new prophecy hadn’t said anything about whether the hero would be any good as a king, or how long he’d last. He wasn’t even sure he liked the idea of a monarchy. Constitutional republicanism was suiting him just fine at the moment. He looked around again and nodded to himself. Yes, best to keep the prophecy secret for the moment.

#

Unfortunately for Nikolo Spinner, rumour is well known to have a magical power all of its own, and it wasn’t one month before the council reluctantly voted to discreetly release the prophecy to an ever growing mob of irate high-ranking mages, all of whom wanted to know exactly why the seeming entirety of Earth’s magical heritage was disappearing from temples and towers all over the planet, and exactly where it was all being taken.

The only bit Nikolo managed to persuade the council to withhold was the bit about the prophesied hero having lots of girlfriends and becoming king.

The mob’s reaction to even the reduced version of the prophecy hadn’t been much better than their total ignorance. Some decided it had to be fake and utterly refused to prepare to leave. Others were all too enthusiastic to leave and flooded the gates of the council’s mysterious temple by the hundred, all demanding to be granted immediate access to Creakylid, and to the new world that awaited them beyond.

Eventually, with much shouting, threats of violence, and occasional actual violence, the council managed to restore order. Schedules were drawn up and plans made to evacuate nearly one million mages from Earth over the next five years.

And in the streets near the tiny Mage Orphanage of Great Britain, hidden away in the Cumbrian town of Penrith, a just-turned fifteen-year-old boy with pasty white skin and coal-black shoulder-length hair stood protectively in front of a younger boy whose whole body was one long tremble.

In front of the protective boy stood a group of three other teenagers. Smirks and scowls were much in evidence. “Oi! Struggle! Leave out of it! This ain’t none of your business!”

The boy named Richard Struggle glanced behind to where his fellow orphan gazed up at him with fear-filled eyes, lip already split and red with blood. He turned back, pretended to crack his knuckles, and flashed the gang a grim smile, far braver than he actually felt. He really wished his best mate Thomas would get his arse into gear. “Alan is like a little brother to me,” he said. “I’m sorry to say, that it is my business.”

“You think you can take all of us?” The leader of the gang of three swaggered one step forward, arms stretched out in mocking challenge. “You’re not that hard, Struggle.”

Richard took a firmer stance, fully ready to strike if needed.

A dark-skinned figure shot out from behind a fence corner and skidded to halt behind the gang.

Richard’s heart leapt. It was Thomas, grinning and holding three feet of solid iron bar like the boss iron elemental that he was.

“You okay there, mate?” Thomas called out.

Richard grinned in relief. “I am now!”

“Oi!” One of the gang looked askance at the length of iron held in Thomas’s hand. “No need for that sort of thing, yeah?”

“Why not?” Thomas asked. “Three against one hardly seems fair odds. I’m just evening them up a bit.”

The gang’s leader held up his hands and started walking across the street backwards, followed closely by his two associates. “Bloody wankers!” he jeered, turning away and flashing them one final hand gesture, suggesting a cheap back-street service to an invisible flying horse.

Both Richard and Thomas watched the three until they turned the far street corner. Then, adrenaline slowly draining from his system, Richard turned to the still trembling Alan. “What was that about, anyway?”

Alan mumbled something Richard couldn’t quite catch.

Thomas narrowed his eyes and leaned in closer. “Sorry? Didn’t quite hear that.”

“Called them poor chavvy ASBO bait.”

Richard groaned. “Alan, you don’t taunt people about their socioeconomic status — it’s just not cool.”

Alan flashed him a look of anger. “But they are! They run around like they’re the kings of everything when they’re nothing!”

Richard sighed. “Yes, but where they come from isn’t their fault. They’ve got half the world stepping on them when they’re down and spitting in their face when they’re not.” He grumbled. “Mostly, anyway. C’mon — let’s go tell Matron what happened. She’ll sort something out.”

Alan and Thomas nodded, neither of them doubting for a moment that the formidable woman could. The matron, whose real name not even her charges knew, was believed by them to have the strength of purpose of a bank vault and the strength of magic of a tornado. She was a nitrogen elemental, among other things, and when not only the north wind blew, but also the south, west, and east ones too, chances were that Matron was on the warpath.

She was the closest thing that Richard had to a mother. The only thing he had from his actual mother was an un-openable book hidden in his wardrobe.

Richard and Thomas helped Alan brush himself down and together the three of them made their way back to the orphanage where Matron listened to their story before promising to sort something out.

Richard helped himself to a leftover slice of birthday cake from earlier that morning.

“And you two boys need to read these,” Matron said, handing Richard and Thomas two identical envelopes. The envelopes each contained a letter and a ticket dated approximately three years from then.

They read with awe-filled eyes.

“We’re leaving Earth,” Thomas said eventually.

Richard nodded and started reading aloud. “Creakylid awaits.” His eyes darted back and forth over the page. “Creakylid awaits, for all those children of magic. It awaits, for all those who do not wish to be hunted down like dogs. It awaits in room 509 behind the stuffed dragon’s head. And a hero among many will rise and more prophecies be given. Creakylid awaits. You have five years before this place takes delivery of a tactical nuclear warhead.”

Thomas whistled. “That’s one hell of a prophecy.” He looked towards Richard with raised eyebrows. “What do you reckon it means by, ‘A hero among many will rise?’”

Richard frowned. “I imagine it means that doing heroic things will grant you a prophecy again — you know — like it used to do in the old days — and that one of those heroes will do something really important or become someone important.”

“So, possibly an actual ‘chosen one.’” Thomas rubbed his chin between his fingers. “Hey!” He elbowed Richard playfully in the ribs, causing Richard to make an oomf sound. “Why don’t we become heroes?”

Richard rubbed his side and eyed Thomas with a glint that promised payback later. His brain processed what his friend had suggested. “What?” he asked, incredulously.

Thomas plunged on. “Think about it. We’re orphans! That’s like, half the qualifications needed to be a prophesied hero right there.”

Richard’s look of incredulity did not fade, but he nevertheless thought about it. Mostly he thought about their sibling orphans upstairs — about Abigail, who he always shared chores with — about Natalie and Alan who were way behind in their school work, needed the occasional tutoring sessions, and were always getting into trouble — and about Jessica, who he’d first consoled when she arrived at the orphanage, crying her eyes out over the death of her parents. He found it difficult to think about them in the same sentence as ‘hero.’ He frowned. “I’m not sure that’s a good reason to become a hero.”

“Okay, you want a better reason?”

Richard nodded.

“Girls.”

Richard blinked. “We should become heroes because heroes get girls?”

“Yes!” Thomas said. “Call me a romantic, but I want to find my perfect pair as soon as possible and everyone knows chicks dig heroes.”

Richard stared at nothing. That was a pretty good reason. Abigail, Jessica, and Natalie had long ago been placed firmly in the ‘sister’ category and there weren’t many others like them around where they lived. Richard looked back at his friend. His blank face morphed into a smirk. “So doing good and defending the innocent against evil and injustice is what? A by-product?”

Thomas shrugged, eyes shining with mirth. “Sure, why not?”

Richard leaned against the wall and scanned the letter in his hands. “It says that since we’re still minors, our turn to enter Creakylid will be on our eighteenth birthdays.”

“Then we have three years to prepare!”

Richard folded his arms. “And what would we do to ‘prepare’?”

“Well, I’m going to practice my iron elemental magic. Good magic for a hero, that.” Thomas looked at Richard with an almost pitying look. “I guess your first two choices of magic spell don’t look so good now, do they?”

“Hey.” Richard mock glared. “I haven’t even agreed to this hero business, yet.”

Thomas smirked. “I know you, Richard. You will.”

#

Richard made his way up to bed that night thinking over the changes piling up in his world like tin cans stacked by the world’s most suspect shop attendant. He’d always dreamed of travelling and exploring the world—of exploring Earth—and now he knew it would never happen. That was a bitter pill to swallow. On the other hand, he might be able to explore a completely new world—one that had never been explored before. That sounded almost as good, if not better. He nodded and opened the door to his room. That was a much better way to think of it. The tin cans were an art installation, not an unstable mess waiting to crush him utterly. He shouldn’t think of this as losing something, rather he should see it as gaining something different. Not necessarily better, just different.

He closed the door behind him and quickly scanned his small room. A small pile of school books neatly stacked on the small wooden desk reminded him he had homework. His small bed was neatly made from where he’d left it that morning. And in the corner of the room, his small wardrobe….

Richard’s eyes widened.

…His wardrobe was emitting a softly glowing blue light through the cracks in the doors.

Richard closed the distance to the suspect furniture in three cautious steps and inspected the doors with a frown, all thoughts of homework forgotten. Had he left something inside that glowed? No. He didn’t have any electronics or anything like that. Might it be magical? Maybe. Should he tell Matron? He slowly shook his head. No. It was too late for that. Besides, the only thing he had that was magical apart from his crystal ball was….

Richard gasped.

…Was the magically locked book from his mother! Heart beating heavily in his chest, he quickly wrapped a hand around one of the wardrobe’s door handles and yanked it open.

The old book sat where he always left it, next to the crystal ball he used for his memory palace. The book glowed faintly blue and was no longer locked. The tiny indestructible steel padlock hung open.

Richard took the book in shaky hands, walked backwards to the side of his bed, and sat down without looking behind him, eyes never leaving the book’s cover.

He never thought about his mother more than he could help. It was a subject he tried to avoid whenever possible. Life in the orphanage wasn’t horrible. It was fine. But he did wonder, sometimes. It was hard not to.

Richard carefully opened the journal-like book to the first page, and read.

Dear Richard,

You should be reading this on your fifteenth birthday.

Congratulations on not dying!

You will now be getting ready to perform your third ritual to acquire your third magic spell. I hope you haven’t already chosen, because my birthday present to you is something of a family legacy — for you, anyway. Below are the details on how to perform the ritual to acquire the trunk expansion spell. With this spell, you can make a wooden trunk larger on the inside than on the outside. The ritual is bound to your blood. Only you and your children can perform it.

– Mum

PS. I am not dead.

Richard took a deep, confused breath. He ran a light finger down the paper. His mother was alive? He had no idea what to think about that. ‘Congratulations on not dying’? What kind of mother writes that? Why was she contacting him only now? If she wasn’t dead, why had he been left at the orphanage? He turned the pages, revealing comprehensive preparation details and chants for the most complex ritual he’d ever seen — so much more complex than the rituals he’d performed on his fifth and tenth birthdays.

The next thought screaming for attention in his head forced its way to the front of his consciousness. A blood bound ritual. His mother was a member of a blood bound family. No, more importantly, he was a member of a blood bound family! Blood bound families were serious business. They were like, the aristocracy of the mages. Was he a bastard? Was he sent away for protection? Because of politics, maybe? And this book… He’d never heard of magic like it ever before. It certainly wasn’t one of the standard magical spells available to everyone. Mind you, he’d never heard of a spell that could expand a trunk either.

What would an expanded trunk be like? Would it weigh more if you put more things in it? What would happen if you tried to break it? What about if you turned it upside-down while it was filled with stuff? Could you make an expanded trunk inside of another expanded trunk? Suppose you used nails made of gold — would they expand on the inside too? Could a gold elemental mage liquify the enlarged gold nails straight out of the woodwork and carry them out of the trunk still enlarged?

He leaned back on his bed. His head came to rest on the small headboard.

An enlarged trunk would be great for travelling. He might be able to carry as much as an entire room’s worth of equipment and supplies with him, depending on how large he could expand the trunk. Now that would be a useful skill for a hero to have…

He stopped reading the notes on how to complete the ritual required to learn the spell and stared at the bedroom ceiling.

…His mother was alive.