The meeting place for the hike up the mountain hummed like the world’s worst colour co-ordinated cocktail party. Gore-tex and polyester clothed men and women, brightly coloured in every hue known to man, filled the small village square. It was only the addition of identical sized green back-packs that gave any indication that this was an organised mission and not a student-led fashion show in the year the chemical industry first discovered fluorescent paint.
As before, Richard heard plenty of English, but also French and German as well. He stared at the gathering and shook his head in mild amusement. “We just have to hope Creakylid doesn’t have any large predators,” he muttered. “Or they might as well be advertising an all-you-can-eat people buffet in brightly coloured packaging.”
“Don’t worry,” said a calm voice behind him.
“We haven’t found any large predators yet.” It was Fanny Flymoth, still holding her clipboard with the pencil on a string dangling from it. She stood next to another girl of about his age, but this one, unlike Susie, had to be at least as tall as him. She had long, straw-coloured hair tied up in a sensible ponytail and a face that seemed always on the hunt.
“Well that’s good, then,” he said, glancing between Fanny and the girl.
The girl had elegance, definitely, but she was elegant in the way that a diamond was elegant — a diamond nestled in the tip of an industrial drilling machine. Her clothes, he felt, couldn’t have been more practical if picked out by an elementary school teacher. Her boots were made of rubber. Her light blue jeans had clearly been chosen for comfort and convenience, rather than their ability to flatter the female figure. And her thick woolly jumper, embroidered with a picture of a galloping horse, looked like it could help catch the wind on a sailboat. Each individual item could not have been a better example of how not to dress to catch the male eye.
Which was weird, because, while Fanny finished talking about the hiking they were about to do, Richard’s glances towards the girl gradually increased until it was an outright stare. Despite each piece of clothing looking like it came straight from the world’s most expensive charity shop, the full ensemble had a pull that Richard found difficult to resist.
The girl, who hadn’t really been paying attention until Fanny stopped talking, caught his stare and narrowed her eyes. “I do have eyes, you know.”
Wow, her voice was smooth. Richard looked into her face and found himself staring into eyes as blue as ice and as sharp as icicles. “And what incredible eyes they are.” Holy shit, did he just say that?
The incredible eyes widened in shock for a moment before glaring at him.
Richard’s mind went into full emergency mode. The most important thing right now was to not look away under any circumstances, and no matter what, don’t — stop — smiling.
The girl glared for a fraction of a second longer before seeming to realise that he wasn’t backing down. She hastily looked away, muttering something Richard didn’t catch.
Fanny made a note on her clipboard. “Richard, this is Elizabeth Whisper — Elizabeth, this is Richard Struggle. As you’re both the only people travelling to Creakylid by yourselves today, I thought it would be a good idea to pair you up.”
Richard’s heart started to slow down. “Thanks, Fanny. See you at the temple?”
Fanny nodded, said a last few words to Elizabeth, and then left them alone in the crowd of several hundred mages.
“So,” Richard said, sitting on the low stone wall behind him and patting the spot next to him invitingly, “Elizabeth Whisper?”
Elizabeth hesitated, then sat down half a dozen feet away.
Richard turned to face her and spoke slightly louder than a normal talking level so she could hear him over the hubbub. “Is that indicative of anything?”
Elizabeth refused to meet his eye. Instead she stared ahead at the milling crowd. “Do you mean, ‘Do I use whisper magic?’”
She nodded. “As it happens, yes, I do, but that has nothing to do with my name.”
“Oh?” Richard always liked meeting other whisperers. “What animal did you choose?”
Elizabeth finally looked at him and fixed him with an expression that matched the sarcasm in her words when she said, “Take a wild guess.”
The stallion on her jumper suddenly seemed to fill Richard’s world.
“Oh, right.” He rubbed the back of his head, realised he was doing it, and instantly stopped. “I guess that should have been obvious. Does Creakylid have horses, then?”
Elizabeth nodded. “We don’t know if there are any native ones, but the council did take a collection of foals through and set up a stable on the mainland.” She paused as though debating internally whether to continue before saying, “That’s where I’m going.”
“You’re going to the mainland?” Richard asked. “Which city?”
“Oh, hey! I’m going in that direction, at least for a little bit. Why don’t we travel together?”
Elizabeth looked away again. “I’m quite capable of travelling on my own, thank you.”
Richard stared for a fraction of a second before shrugging. It wasn’t his place to pry. Silence dragged out between the two of them. Damn this was awkward.
Just for something to occupy his hands, he unthinkingly opened the lid of his trunk, still slung at his side, reached inside, and rummaged around for a bottle of water.
Elizabeth’s sharp eyes snapped to his arm, which was buried in the tiny trunk up to his elbow. That was impressive in and of itself because Richard was sure she’d been looking the other way at the time. Her eyes widened. “How are you doing that!”
Richard grinned. Oh, yes, everyone liked magic tricks, didn’t they? His fingers closed around a plastic bottle. Ah. There it was. “It’s my magic trunk,” he said, nonchalantly. “Good huh?”
“It’s my mother’s spell.”
“You’re blood bound?”
Richard shrugged, suddenly feeling rather uncomfortable. “Sort of.”
Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, ‘sort of?’”
“I’m officially an orphan. I’ve never known my family.”
Elizabeth’s face softened. Her eyes became slightly less sharp and her pose less guarded. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
Richard shook his head. “Don’t be. I got a message from my mother three years ago along with details for the trunk spell, saying she was alive, but not telling me anything else.”
Elizabeth blinked. “Just, ‘I’m alive?’ She didn’t want to…” She hesitated and her voice softened another notch, “…Meet up, or anything?”
Richard shrugged it off while shaking his head. “Apparently not. I’ve no idea why. I haven’t been able to find any family in the records with a spell that matches this one — I have looked.”
“But, Creakylid…” Elizabeth’s face morphed into confusion.
“What about Creakylid?”
“Well, it’s a trunk too,” Elizabeth said. “It must have been the same spell that made it.”
Richard’s mouth opened minutely, before he firmly shut it again. Creakylid was a trunk? How had he never learned that? The letter from the council had just said it was a passageway to another world. Not even the cheap book he’d picked up at the temple in London had mentioned that. Suddenly the name Creakylid made a lot more sense. But the idea that his spell made Creakylid…
Richard shook his head. “Creakylid is a whole world. I’ve only been able to use the spell to make a trunk five times larger on the inside than on the outside. Highly unlikely.”
Elizabeth bit her lip, eyes now narrowed again. She looked like she wanted to say more, but was holding herself back from doing so.
They sat in uneasy silence for a few more moments before Richard offered Elizabeth the water bottle.
Elizabeth took it, broke the seal, took a long drink, and held it back for him. “Thank you,” she said, primly.
The pathway up the mountain wound around like string around a bobbin. Richard felt like a single soldier in a massive army, winding its way up an embankment to siege a mighty fortress. Surely he’d never seen so many mages walk together in his life before.
“So, you want to be a hero?” Elizabeth marched easily next to him, near enough to talk, but far enough away to maintain some kind of Elizabeth enforced neutral buffer zone. “Why?”
Richard stepped on a pebble and felt the pressure through his boot. His legs throbbed and his lungs took in great gulps of fresh mountain air. “If Prudence wants there to be heroes again there has to be a reason. Societies always have problems and we’re about to try something that hasn’t been tried since before our gods came to Earth — A world of almost only mages. I figure that being a hero might be a good way to help sort those problems out.”
Richard tapped his nose. “No idea yet, but I’m sure we’ll find some. Besides, being a hero is a good excuse to explore, and that’s what I’m really interested in.”
Elizabeth’s face reflected sudden understanding. “Oh, I get it. So, you’re really an explorer who plans to do heroic things if it seems needed.”
Richard nodded. “Got it in one.”
Elizabeth frowned. “But that trunk magic of yours… That has to be so incredibly valuable. People would pay a fortune for trunks like that. You could just settle down in one place, start a workshop, make trunks, and get rich.”
Richard nodded. “Yeah, I could. Maybe one day, I will. But at the moment, I plan to simply take my workshop with me.”
Richard patted the small trunk slung over his shoulder. “Once I’m on the other side, I’ll make a full-sized trunk, fit it out with all the tools I’ve brought with me, and have that as my portable workshop.”
Elizabeth gave him a wry smile. “So, you’re going to be a woodworking hero? I can see that going down well. Facing off against monsters with a hammer and chisel. No elemental magic? Haven’t really thought this through, have you?”
“Hey!” Richard mock pouted. “I’ll have you know that I’ve thought this through more thoroughly than Mister Thinker the Thoughtful from Thinkingville.”
Elizabeth’s wry smile continued. “Oh, how so?”
“Think about it. If you want to go on adventures and travel around, you need stuff. You need money. You need supplies. You need weapons and shelter and medicine and all sorts of things. What’s the point of striding heroically off over the horizon, only to run out of food and having to heroically stride all the way back?”
Richard plunged on. “I am a one-man walking baggage wagon.” He pointed to the donkey whisperer he’d seen back in the village who was still in donkey form, carrying heavy-looking supplies up the mountain on his back. “That guy’s carrying two trunks, one on each side of his body. He’d be able to carry 125 times as much stuff if he was with me.”
Elizabeth didn’t really look convinced, but did offer a half nod.
Richard smiled. “Or you, maybe — once you do the final whisperer ritual.”
Elizabeth looked at him sharply. “I have no intention of ever using the pinnacle of whisper magic to carry luggage on my back like a common mule, thank you.”
Richard couldn’t help himself. “What about being ridden?”
“Absolutely not!” She looked away. “And don’t think I can’t detect the sexual innuendo in your words, Mister Struggle.”
Now it was Richard’s turn to add wryness to his smile. “You’re supposed to detect them. It’s called flirting, Miss Whisper.”
Elizabeth didn’t say anything, just continued to march in silence next to him.
Richard stared for several seconds.
Elizabeth’s didn’t look back at him.
Eventually he shrugged and they continued to push forward. That push lasted several more hours. Occasionally they shared a story or two, although Richard did notice that Elizabeth tended to skirt around the subject of her parents whenever they might otherwise come up.
After several more hours, they finally reached the entrance to the temple — tired, worn-out, and hungry. It was the first temple Richard had ever seen that wasn’t a secreted away flat in the middle of some unassuming apartment block.
They ate dinner in a huge cafeteria that had been set up in the temple’s main entranceway, watched over by two hooded men, robed in blood-red. Council guards. They stood by the door, each holding a long spear with four points on the end. Richard knew each of the four spear tips would be made of a fibreglass reinforced plastic — very nasty — the kind of thing that would make a prison-made shiv look like blunt spoon — and since plastic was made from carbon, it didn’t matter what type of elemental you might be — steel, bronze, titanium, oxygen — no one could liquify or push away those spears. Carbon was the only element a mage couldn’t choose to become an elemental of. Thank Driven for that, or no one would be safe.
“I don’t like them,” Elizabeth said, glancing towards the blood-red dressed guards.
“Really? I wanted to be one, once upon a time.”
She gave him a dull look. “You shock me.”
“Yeah, that’s why the second ritual I did when I was ten was to learn the people sensing spell.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened slightly. “You’re a human whisperer?”
Richard made a sort-of hand gesture. “Not really. I only know the one spell and I’ll probably not learn the others. I don’t think it really counts. My other two spells are the memory palace and my trunk expansion spell.”
She nodded slowly.
Richard gave her a comforting grin. “Yeah, anyway don’t worry about them. If all goes to hell, I’ll be sure to take a spear thrust for you.”
Richard felt sure she’d bite back with some sarcastic comment, and was therefore surprised when Elizabeth instead merely gave him a weak smile. They finished their meal in relative silence. A loud gong sounded and the couple hundred mages that filled the hall started forming a long line into a long corridor, where several of the council guards were pulling people aside and checking the contents of their back-packs before walking them through a stone arch.
A guard motioned him forward. “Sir, I’m afraid you may only take the council back-pack with you.”
Richard motioned to his back. “It fits in there.”
The guard nodded and motioned for him to step into a side room.
Elizabeth shot him a slightly worried look.
Wow, she must really not like these people. Richard flashed her a reassuring smile. “See you on the other side!”
Once in the room, the guard motioned him over to a table. “Please demonstrate for me.”
Richard easily placed his side-trunk in the back-pack and snapped the clasps shut.
The guard nodded. “Thank you, Sir. I’m also going to ask you to empty out your pack for us so we can check you’re not carrying anything into Creakylid that you shouldn’t be.”
Richard gave him a sheepish smile and started undoing the clasps again. “That might take some time.”
The guard shot him a sharp look. “Why?”
In another part of the mountain temple, Nikolo Maximillian Spinner sat behind a desk piled high with paper, reading a report one of his aids had given him on the worrying number of corruption cases springing up all over the fledgeling world of Creakylid. It seemed that no matter where in the world people went, and no matter how plentiful the resources were, people would always be people.
A knock sounded through his closed office door.
“Yes?” he called out.
The door opened a fraction and a guard’s head popped through. “Grand Mage, we’ve got another undocumented blood bound spell and associated artefact passing through customs.”
Nikolo sighed. He really didn’t have time for this. “Is the spell or artefact dangerous?”
“Err… not really, but it is incredible.”
Nikolo looked at the annoyingly long report in his hands. Oh, the sacrifices of high office. He looked back at the guard. “Sorry, but as much as I’d like to, I just don’t have the time. I’ll have to satisfy myself with reading the report later. Thank you, though.”
The guard nodded, the head disappeared, and the door shut.
Every surface of the off-room had been marshalled for something. Tools and books, books and tools. Woodworking planes, chisels, and hammers sat next to book after book on everything from practical chemistry to music.
One guard laughed and slapped Richard good-naturedly on the back. “You know, the council is building a library of its own, right? It doesn’t fall to you to save the wealth of humanity for us.”
Richard grinned as he pulled out one of the last books from the trunk, ‘Encyclopaedia of Herbal Medicine.’ “I very much doubt I will have the council’s library to hand when I need to know how to mix a poultice in some wild Creakylid jungle.”
“Well said, that man!” boomed the guard’s leader, busy inspecting the couple of iron dumbbells Thomas had made for him before he left. “Always be prepared. That’s what I say. Can’t be too prepared.”
“Well, this kid certainly takes it to another level,” muttered the third guard from behind him. “You do know cigarettes cost a fortune on the other side, right? We’ve had almost no tobacco thumbs go through and the demand is insane. You’ll probably have to give the habit up soon.”
Richard turned to see the third guard staring at the pile of cardboard boxes that contained several hundred boxes of premium smokes. “They’re trade goods. They’re not for me,” he said, before turning back to continue unpacking.
“Ah,” came the voice of the third guard from behind him.
The guard’s leader burst out laughing. “That would do it, alright.” He sat down in front of Richard and fixed him with a suddenly intense gaze. “So, Mister Richard Struggle, I can’t begin to tell you how useful these trunks would be to us. What would one of them cost?”
“Err…” The truth was that while Richard had certainly thought about selling trunks to fund his adventures, he was far from ready to actually do so. “I’m not selling trunks just yet. I need to get my own trunk sorted out and that’ll take a while, and then I need to figure out stuff like material cost and the best designs for them, and there are still a couple of tricks that I want to test out, like building shelves into the trunk walls and possibly even furniture—”
The guard leader cut him off. “—No worries, Mister Struggle. Just be sure to remember that we’re here and interested.” He eyed Richard’s crystal ball sitting safely on a nearby table. “Is that just for watching other people’s memories or can you store as well?”
“I can store too. It was the first ritual I did.”
The guard leader nodded to himself and stroked his chin. “Put a memory on your crystal ball when you’re ready to start selling. I’ll be sure to check occasionally.”
Richard nodded. They got through the rest of the customs check, and he left the room with a wave to re-join the queue outside.
The queue got a lot shorter when over half the line—almost all of them speaking languages Richard couldn’t understand—split off towards a door signed, ‘Learn English Here,’ translated into over a dozen other languages. But they weren’t gone for long. They all rejoined the line from another door around the next corner, now rapidly switching back and forth between their native tongue and English. “I’m so glad I didn’t waste my time in school on that now,” said one smug looking woman to another in a still noticeable French accent.
Richard frowned. That had to be blood bound magic, just like his side-trunk. Certainly he’d never heard of any spell that could teach someone a language that quickly.
The line reached the next room and rapidly split off into three separate queues, each going through one of three separate doors on the far side of the room.
There were three queues, but there were four doors.
The first three doors each had the sign of one of the three types of mage above them — a tree for thumbs, a wolf for whisperers, and a mountain for elementals — but the fourth door was signed with a drop of red blood bound in a ring of gold — blood bound.
Richard bit his lip. Mages grew up listening to stories about the blood bound in their local temples. To know you were sort-of blood bound was one thing. To step away from the crowd and declare yourself as such was quite another.
Behind him, a group of loud mages were laughing and making bets on which one of them would be the first to receive a hero prophecy. “September!” “No, I bet Jacquie will have her’s by August!”
Richard took a tentative step out of the main queue, trying to shake the feeling that everyone would be looking at him, and walked over to the fourth door. Yes, he was a whisperer, but he was pretty sure this is what he was supposed to do.
He took one last glance behind him, saw that most people weren’t paying him any attention, and ducked inside. His first impression was of a waiting room designed by a pea hating princess. Plush pillows lay on every sofa and armchair, and there were many sofas and armchairs.
A bored looking woman looked up from behind a desk. “Can I help you?”
“Um.” Richard took another tentative step inside. “This is where I’m supposed to be, isn’t it?”
“Are you blood bound?”
The woman blinked. “Oh!” She quickly got up from her desk and made her way around to him, all signs of boredom vanishing. “I’m terribly sorry, we weren’t expecting anyone today, please, have a seat.”
Richard sat down in one of the many armchairs.
“Coffee?” asked the woman, now smiling warmly.
“I’m okay, thank you.”
“As you wish.” She pulled up an armchair of her own and sat down opposite him, holding a clipboard in one hand and an expensive looking pen in the other. “We’ll get you sorted out as quickly as we can and on your way, don’t worry.”
“Umm, thank you.” Richard shifted in the far too comfortable seat.
The woman frowned slightly. “Date of birth?”
“May 10, 1994.”
“Island of Dragons.”
The woman looked up from her paper at him, frown now clearly suspicious. “Mister Struggle, what is your blood bound spell?”
Richard shifted in his chair again. “Trunk expansion.”
“I’m sorry?” Her eyes narrowed.
Oh. She didn’t believe him. That at least he could deal with. “Trunk expansion,” he said making sure to enunciate each word as clearly as possible. He then flipped open the tiny trunk back at his side and plunged his arm in up to the elbow.
The woman’s eyes widened. She gasped and actually dropped the pen. “Oh, I am sorry, Mister Struggle.” She quickly fished up the pen from where it had rolled under the chair, face now flushed with embarrassment.
Richard grinned. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”
“Right then.” The woman hastily found her place again. “Skills?”
She smiled. “Yes, I can see that now. And what type of magic did you choose?”
“I’m a whisperer.”
“Three,” Richard said. “Memory palace, human whisperer: sensing, and trunk expansion.”
“…and trunk expansion,” the woman muttered as she made an extra long note at the end of the paper. She looked up. “Right, now let’s see about getting you on your way.”
The woman then walked him out of the room of comfy chairs, down a long corridor full of queuing mages, through another large stone arch and into a room filled with yet another queue. At the front of the room stood several more hooded council guards, all carrying those deadly-looking four-pronged spears. She then walked with him right to the front of the room and, much to his consternation, inserted him right at the head of the queue.
There were some vague mutterings from those he’d just leapfrogged in front of, but Richard’s attention wasn’t on them. Not anymore.
In front of him sat a beautifully constructed trunk covered in wood carvings so intricate that Richard could only dream of being able to replicate them. His gaze slid to the sunlight-bright opening to another world. The smell of seawater. The sound of waves. The taste of adventure.
The woman smiled again. “Welcome to Creakylid, Mister Struggle. Please enjoy your trip.”
Richard finished climbing down the long ladder to the beach below.
“What happened?” Elizabeth hurried over to him. “They didn’t do anything did they?”
Richard grinned. “Never fear, my lady. As you can see, I am well and whole. They just wanted to check my stuff, which, as you can tell, took longer than it might for someone just carrying a plain-old-backpack.”
Elizabeth nodded and the brief look of worry on her face quickly faded. “That’s good then.” She turned away. “Come — The boat’s over that way.”
Richard raised a single eyebrow at Elizabeth’s retreating back, still covered in formless woolly jumper, even in the sudden heat of a tropical biome. Apparently they were now officially travelling together, rather than whatever they’d been doing before. He smiled, shrugged, and started to follow, shoes sinking into the loose sand with every step.
Minutes later, they arrived at the boat — a wooden caravel affair with large white sails, which looked like it had been cobbled from whatever was available. Richard’s critical eye roved over the workmanship and declared it, ‘surprisingly well put together.’
“I asked around,” Elizabeth said as she climbed the gangplank. “It takes two hours to get to The Second Island. The boat runs six times a day and you can only get on in one direction. We’re not allowed back once we’ve left. It’s a one-way system.”
“Interesting.” Richard joined her on deck. He ran his fingers along the railing. Good workmanship. Sturdy. Well sanded. He wasn’t sure what stain and treatment they’d used, but it would have to keep out the damp, at least. He shifted his focus. All around them, dozens of mages sat around in chairs or leaned over the rails. He caught Elizabeth’s gaze. “They didn’t say what the second island’s name was, did they? I’ve only ever heard it called, ‘The Second Island.’”
Elizabeth hesitated. “Um… I’m pretty sure that is its name.”
Richard rolled his eyes. “Dear Driven, we’re mages. Can’t we think of some better names?”
Elizabeth gave him that wry smile again. “Apparently not.”
They watched many more mages file onto the boat before a whistle blew, the gangplank was hauled on-board, and four women and one man wearing windbreakers took up position around the boat.
Everyone went quiet.
“Nitrogen elementals?” Richard whispered to Elizabeth.
“Probably,” she whispered back.
The five mages raised their hands, something shifted in the fabric of reality, and suddenly the wind changed direction, blowing straight into the boat’s sails, filling them, and pushing them out to sea. A massive cheer went up from the assembled passengers.
Richard leaned back on the railing and laughed. “You know, this is going to be awesome. We don’t have to hide anything here. No worrying about non-mages spotting us, no always looking out for video cameras or stuff like that. We can just go around doing magic like there’s no tomorrow.”
Elizabeth nodded, drew a long, stray straw coloured hair around her ear, leaned over the railing, and stared out to sea.
As the boat moved onwards towards the next island, unnoticed by anyone, the tiny crack between Richard’s side-trunk and its lid started, faintly, to glow.