The next day, a firm-jawed Richard went out and found himself a part-time Saturday job down at the local builders yard. That netted him £25 a week. £25 a week for three years was a little under £4,000. He became a frequent shopper at the country’s car-boot sales and second-hand auctions — a hunter with a specific prey in mind — vintage woodworking tools.
Every time Richard caught a glimpse of old steel his heart would leap in anticipation. Slowly, he started to build up his collection — chisels, planes, saws, squares, sharpening stones, hammers, axes — he cherry-picked the best of the old, and painstakingly restored them to near mint condition with the help of instructions he found on the internet.
He consumed the local library’s collection of woodworking books in just a few months and started to order for his own collection a week after that, quickly branching out from woodworking to include all manner of useful topics for a traveller planning to leave civilisation behind.
His first attempt at building a trunk with his new knowledge and tools was a disaster. His second attempt was a lot better. By his third attempt, the trunk expansion spell actually worked and he got his first understanding of what his new power could do, and, more importantly, on its limitations.
The trunk had to be made by him. Pre-made trunks didn’t work. They had to be vaguely rectangular and have a curved lid attached to the body. Once a trunk had the spell cast on it, which took almost a whole waking day, it became indestructible — at least, as far as Richard could make out. None of the things he tried managed to make a dent in them.
Weight placed in the trunks seemed to vanish from the world. He once filled one of his test pieces with water from a local pond and could still carry it, despite the water having to weigh several tonnes.
The biggest trunk he could get the spell to work on measured two meters long by one meter wide. The smallest measured just twenty centimetres on each side.
The dimensions inside the trunks measured five times as large as those on the outside, so his twenty-centimetre mini-trunk measured one meter a side on the inside — one whole cubic meter that he could sling over his shoulder and carry by his side.
He carried it now. In fact, he carried two, each one slung over a shoulder by a long leather strap.
Three years had passed since he and Thomas had read the Earth eviction letter from the council. Three years of study, preparation, and hard effort — working out with Thomas whenever he had a spare moment and learning the basics of joinery when he didn’t.
Richard made his way down the hallway from his room to his best friend’s and knocked on the door.
The door opened. Thomas’ head poked out and grinned. “Hey Rich, you ready to see the birthday boy off?” Thomas had grown quite a lot in three years. Both of them had. Continually lifting heavy things did that — something their foster sisters hadn’t been shy pointing out.
“Your birthday boy ass is lucky my almost birthday boy ass engages his brain every now and again,” Richard said.
Thomas smirked and led him inside. Unlike Richard’s room—which was now wall-lined with enough woodworking tools to start a small carpentry shop—Thomas’ looked like it could outfit a small back street gym. Iron weights, racks, and benches filled every scrap of space. Being an iron elemental certainly had its perks. “So, is that it?” Thomas pointed to one of the miniature trunks slung across Richard’s shoulder.
“Yep.” Richard drew the tiny trunk over his head and proffered it to his best friend. “Here you go.”
Thomas smiled and took it. “Thanks, mate.”
The girls all cried as Thomas left. They’d all have to wait for their turn. The rest of the orphanage residents weren’t scheduled to leave for another year. Apparently the council was building a large orphanage building for them on one of the nicer Creakylid islands.
Richard watched his best friend’s retreating back until he could see it no more. Hopefully Thomas wouldn’t do anything too silly. His best friend did have a habit of acting without thinking. Richard then turned back to finish his own preparations. He still had one whole week to wait for his own birthday.
Later that day Richard bounced lightly on his bed, patted the sheets, looked around, and fidgeted. Seven — whole — days. Urgh! He rolled over and instantly rolled back upright. He got up and padded over to his small desk, now empty but for his miniature side-trunk.
The walls were bare. The shelves were bare. He’d managed to fit all his worldly possessions into one cubic meter — all his carefully assembled tools, every book in his small but treasured library, all the little things he’d been able to think of and afford to make a travelling adventurer’s life easier — they were now all in this wooden box.
He opened the box, reached inside and drew out the first object his fingers found, his mother’s book. It hadn’t glowed again in three years. Not that he’d expected it to. He placed the book on the desk, reached in again and drew out his second most treasured possession. His crystal ball — a present from Matron when he’d completed his first ritual.
All mages needed rituals to learn spells. These rituals could only be performed once every five years. Richard’s first ritual had been the memory palace, which allowed him to store his memories in a crystal ball and generally improved his memory abilities. These memories could then be accessed and re-lived either by him, or anyone else who also had a crystal ball of their own — so long as they knew his full name. Many mages had crystal balls.
Maybe he should start something like a public diary? A good number of mages used their crystal balls like that. Of course, they had to invest one of their precious magical spells in order to do it, so they weren’t that popular, but since he had the ability already, why not? It was better than just sitting here with nothing to do.
Richard turned around, rubbed the back of his head, and started to speak. “Um… so, yeah. Hi! My name is Richard!” He stopped. No, that sounded stupid. He took a deep breath. “Hello everyone, my name is Richard, and I thought I’d show you what I’ve done to prepare myself for the journey to Creakylid.” He paused. Yeah, that sounded a lot better. He took another deep breath before continuing. “I’ve no idea why you’re watching this, or why you’d want to see it, but here we go.” He then turned and slowly started unpacking his miniature trunk, giving a running commentary on each item, how he found it, what it was for, and how he was planning to use it.
Halfway through his explanation, the door opened and Matron poked her head through. “Richard would you—whoa. What’s all this about?”
Richard looked up from where he’d been holding a book titled, ‘The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World’. The floor was covered with neatly arranged items. “I’m making a crystal ball memory of my preparations.”
“Oh!” Matron smiled. “That sounds like a good idea. I’ll be sure to tell Millie about it. She’ll be fascinated.”
Richard nodded uncertainly.
“Anyway,” Matron continued, “would you come help me with dinner? Abigail isn’t feeling very well right now.”
Richard nodded again and left in mid-unpack. He’d finish his memory later.
The next day after breakfast, Richard finished his commentary, packed all his stuff back into the miniature trunk, sat heavily by his crystal ball, placed his hand on the glass sphere, and felt the magic flow.
Memories flashed across his eyes. He saw himself sitting cross-legged on the floor, talking about an old Japanese saw he’d found and restored. Carefully, he plucked out the memories he wanted and arranged them into something like a coherent narrative, doing his best to cut out all the awkward bits where he’d been umming and ahhing.
A few hours later, the magic faded and he opened his eyes again. Well, that was that. The memory was now on his crystal ball. Obviously, no one was going to actually watch it, but it would be nice to look back at it again at some point in the future.
He lay back on his bed, rolled over, stared at the wall, rolled over, kicked his feet up, and let out a long groan.
He shook himself and smiled a grim smile. Oh well, could be worse. He could have been one of the others who had to wait a whole one-more year.
Six days later, it was Richard’s own turn. “You make sure you look after the girls, you hear, Alan?” Alan had also grown quite a bit over the last three years, certainly stronger than Richard had been at fifteen.
Alan gave him a stoic thumbs up. “Will do.”
Richard smiled. “I’m trusting you.”
Abigale gave Richard a hug. “You just make sure to take care of yourself.”
“Yeah, and make sure you find yourself a couple of girlfriends,” piped in Natalie. “You’re wasted otherwise.”
Jessica, who was the youngest, had to stand on tip-toes to hug him.
Richard grinned. “I will, don’t worry.” He waved his final goodbyes, turned, and marched down to the railway station at the edge of town, council-issued, standard-sized rucksack on his back; self-made, non-standard miniature travelling trunk at his side.
No one questioned him as he got on the train to London. No one questioned him as he sat down in an empty seat. Not even the ticket man questioned him when he eventually walked down the carriage, demanding everyone else’s ticket — the contents of Richard’s rucksack saw to that.
Richard blankly gazed around the compartment. The movement of the train jolted through him every other heartbeat. Klur-Klunk, Klur-Klunk, Klur-Klunk. He gently patted his tiny trunk, reassuring himself it was still there. After three years, he was finally off. But to where? Despite all his planning, he still didn’t really have a destination in mind once he got to Creakylid.
He knew Thomas was headed to the west-most islands. His friend had burst in on Richard one day, holding his crystal ball excitedly and ranting something about a town full of iron elementals.
Probably not his thing. He wasn’t an elemental, after all. There were three types of mage — elementals, whisperers, and thumbs. Richard was a whisperer.
The train passed over a stone bridge. Klur-Klunk, Klur-Klunk, Klur-Klunk.
Having said that, there were only two directions he could really go once he was in Creakylid — east and west. Each direction would take him along the archipelago until he reached the mainland. If Thomas was going west, maybe he should go east?
The train arrived at Euston and Richard made short work of his connection to Dover. The man showing people onto the massive ferry gave him a strange look as he passed by, but didn’t make a fuss over Richard’s lack of ticket. Richard couldn’t help wondering if it was things exactly like this that would lead to their prophesied discovery by the non-mages. It did seem like unfair abuse of the system. He sat down in a corner where there wasn’t a security camera and tried to look inconspicuous.
The moment he arrived in Calais, Richard’s mage sensing ability pricked at his brain. There were other mages here. He was barely outside the terminal when he saw two middle-aged women standing in the carpark in front of a minibus. One wore glasses and held a clipboard from which a pencil hung by a bit of string.
The other wore dark eyeshadow, almost but not quite hidden by her warm smile. She held a large board, on which was written the word, ‘Creakylid.’
Ah. Richard strode over to them.
The woman with the clipboard rose an eyebrow.
“Richard Struggle here for Creakylid.”
“Right,” said the woman in a business like tone. She inspected her clipboard. “Richard Struggle — born May 10, 1994.” She looked up. “Happy eighteenth birthday, Mister Struggle.”
The board-holding woman glanced at the trunk slung over his shoulder, her smile fading to a slightly worried expression. “You do know you can’t have any luggage apart from your rucksack, don’t you?”
Richard nodded and smiled. “Don’t worry, it fits in there.” He gestured to his rucksack and climbed onboard the bus.
Two long hours later, after filling up with almost a dozen other mages—most of whom seemed to be much older than Richard—the bus pulled out of the carpark. The woman with the clipboard introduced herself to the group as Mrs Fanny Flymoth, the woman who’d been holding the sign-board as Mrs Kathy Flymoth, and their husband—who was also the group’s driver—as Mr Robbie Flymoth.
Apparently the trio had been among the first wave to explore Creakylid and now helped pave the way for those who’d yet to arrive.
“What’s the most important thing to know about Creakylid?” Richard asked after listening to a story about a stream the three had found that flowed uphill.
Fanny fixed Richard with a serious gaze. “Creakylid is the god’s playground. Only Driven knows what’s there. We certainly don’t. We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface. We sort-of know about the islands in the small chain where the entrance is, but apart from that, it may as well be totally unknown. You can walk for just a few days out of the two cities they’re building on the mainland and find things no one has ever found before. Do not go off adventuring unprepared. It might well eat you alive.”
Richard solemnly nodded. Being eaten alive certainly wasn’t on his to-do list.
Eventually, after many hours on the road, and no less than five over-night stops, the minibus pulled into a small village just visible outside of the brightly lit vehicle interior. Stiff from all the sitting and looking forward very much to a shower and sleep, Richard stepped off the bus and into total darkness.
Fanny led Richard into a small hotel-like bedroom. “The party leaves for the council’s mountain temple tomorrow at twelve o’clock sharp.” She made a conclusive mark on her clipboard before reaching for the door handle and stepping through the door. “Good night, Mister Struggle.”
Richard showered and got ready for bed feeling utterly exhausted. He was so tired that he hit the bed and fell asleep almost immediately, not even pausing to reflect that this would almost certainly be his very last night on Earth.
Richard woke up the following morning to the singing of birds. Did Creakylid have songbirds? He’d never thought to check. Now awake, familiar questions and uncertainties flooded his brain. He descended the stairs to the breakfast room where a breakfast buffet was lined out. He put a boiled egg on his plate and tapped it with a spoon.
Did Creakylid have chickens? Surely it did. The council said they were taking everything they’d need to jump-start a new civilisation. Surely that included chickens. His mind drifted down an oft-worried path. Surely that included books. He’d played it safe with his small library, buying textbooks on science and history and philosophy and all sorts of things, but he hadn’t been able to get books on everything. He hadn’t even been able to afford that copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica he’d once found in the second-hand bookshop.
How much knowledge was he about to lose access to? The internet had been invaluable for all his preparations and he was about to lose it. He shivered. It wasn’t hard to imagine why some people were refusing to leave Earth, despite the dangers the prophecy foretold.
Richard finished his breakfast of bacon, sausages, tomato, beans, toast, egg, and cranberry juice. He stepped outside and dully beheld the mountain. It was a mountain. It was tall and snow-capped and misty. It was a mountain. Richard supposed he should be awed, but butterflies were battering their heads against his stomach walls, and all he could think of was that he was about to leave Earth and would probably never return. Right now, a mountain didn’t seem quite as amazing as he thought it might have.
He slowly ambled down the main village street.
As he went, he couldn’t help notice through his whisper magic that just about every person in this village was a mage. He passed a man turning himself into a donkey, surrounded by heavy looking gear and supplies. A little further on, a pre-teenage girl stood in front of a washing line, holding up her hands while a strong local wind fiercely blew the clothes this way and that. Probably a nitrogen elemental then, just like Matron. Everywhere he looked, people were double-checking backpacks and excitedly talking in groups — sometimes in French, sometimes in a language he didn’t recognise, but more often than not, in English. It seemed he was the only one travelling alone. He reached the end of the street, looked up at the building he’d found himself at, and noticed it was signed with a dolphin holding a letter in its mouth. He frowned in mild confusion.
“Mister Richard Struggle?”
Richard started and looked around. He was being addressed by a man wearing a satchel. “Err, Yes?”
“I’ve a letter for you.”
Richard blinked. Who’d be sending him a letter? And how did they know he’d be here? “Okay, I guess.” He took the envelope the man handed him with an uncertain expression. “Um, how did you know it was me?”
The man paused in the act of turning away. “Got pictures of all the new folks, don’t we? We’d have sent it on to England if we didn’t know you’d be passing through here today. Have a good one.” And with that, he left.
Richard blinked a few times before shrugging, ripping open the envelope, and pulling out the contents. The unbleached paper felt course under his fingers. The ink was dark brown and looked strangely organic. He read.
I hope you don’t mind me writing to you. A friend recommended I watch the hero prep memory you have in your crystal ball. It’s really good! I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone quite so organised before, and that trick with the trunk is amazing! My name is Susie Conker and I’m living on Dragon Island. You said in your memory that you weren’t sure where you wanted to go. Why not come here? There’s a whole bunch of us trying to figure out how to tame the dragons that we found — to use them like people back on Earth use birds of prey in falconry (you can see a memory of the dragons in my grandfather’s crystal ball. His name is Rodger Mortis Conker. I’m the one in the blue bikini). There’s even a prize for the one who figures it out. We’ve already had people try to use whisperer rituals on them, but they don’t work. No one knows why. Ack! I’m rambling. Anyway, we could use a few more hands and heads like yours over here.
– Susie Conker
Richard folded up the letter, put it in his pocket, and grinned. Dragons? Blue bikini? He turned around and headed back towards his hotel. This he had to see. He was almost halfway before the next thought hit him like one of Thomas’ iron bars. Exactly how had someone living that far into Creakylid heard about his preparation memory when he’d only stored it on his crystal ball less than a week ago?
Five minutes later, Richard’s body lay on his hotel room bed while his trance-like mind stood on an unspoiled sandy beach. His fingers could feel the cool glass of the crystal ball held to his chest while his mind’s eye told him he wasn’t holding anything.
Waves lapped and crashed. The occasional seabird cried out. And they were birds. Well, that solved that little mystery.
An arm passed through his chest, ghost-like, and he jumped backwards in surprise, turning around to see four people — three girls of about his age, and one much older man who had to be Susie’s grandfather.
Blue bikini. Richard’s eyes flittered between the girls. There.
Susie’s grandfather held a cage-like box.
Wow, she was pretty.
The box gave a loud screech.
She had to be at least a head shorter than him with long black hair and a curious mix of Asian and Caucasian facial features.
“You ready, girls?” Susie’s grandfather asked.
And that stomach was so flat.
The old man put the box on the sand and reached for the cage door.
And everything else… wasn’t.
The cage door opened, two small, clawed hands grasped the sides, and something launched itself from the box.
The thing got all of three meters before a long chain attaching it to the box by its neck snapped taut and it fell back onto the sand.
Richard’s eyes widened. Dragon.
The small dragon unfurled its wings and screeched at Susie and the others. Its body was about the size of a chihuahua, but its wingspan had to be as long as Richard’s leg. A tongue of flame shot from the dragon’s mouth and Susie deftly stepped behind a wall of sand, which had leapt up from the ground at a flick of the wrist from one of the other girls.
Richard’s eyes narrowed. A silicon or possible oxygen elemental?
The wall of sand glowed red-hot and, moments later, a large globe of seawater splashed against it, causing a great cloud of steam to billow out, caking the wall in a thick, glassy crust.
The third girl had her hand thrust out towards the sea, eyes determined and focused. Even as Richard watched, more water globes levitated out of the sea swell. An oxygen or hydrogen elemental, then. Richard stepped around the wall and watched Susie carefully. Was she also an elemental? Or was she something else? She hadn’t said in the letter.
The four would-be dragon tamers spent the next ten minutes alternatively feeding the dragon scraps of cooked fish when it performed a commanded task correctly and splashing it with water when it failed.
It looked like finicky work and, by the end of it, Susie still hadn’t given any clue as to what type of magic she wielded.
Eventually, Susie’s grandfather concluded the memory with a summary of their progress thus far, more details about the island and its mysteries, the timeline for the next egg laying season, and the prize for anyone who could figure out how to tame the dragons. It sounded like a sales pitch. The memory ended and Richard slowly sat up in bed, still fully clothed and feeling more alive than he had in weeks. He carefully put his crystal ball back in his satchel-like trunk, walked to the window, and stared out at the mountain he was soon to ascend.
His eyes shined.
Really, there could be no better first-step to exploring Creakylid than checking out this island of dragons, could there? And he had a written invitation from a pretty girl to boot. The fact that these dragons didn’t respond to whisperer rituals, the magics that gave a mage power over a specified species of animal, only made it more intriguing. He smiled. Let Thomas go find his town of iron elementals. He would go in the other direction — he would head east.