Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Mamelon - Chapter 26


CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX



“Where the devil are we?” groaned Mick, slowly emerging from unconsciousness. He’d had the weirdest dream. He was at home in bed and his father had been yelling at him to wake up.
       “Call not upon devils in this place,” was Mulac’s grim response, “unless you care for such company.”
      “So? I’m stuck with you, aren’t I?” retorted Mick without thinking. He meant it half-jokingly. It was clear from the Nu-gen’s expression, though, that he was not amused. “Sulk then, see if I care,” muttered Mick. He neither liked nor trusted the surly nomad. His head throbbed. The image of a temple and a tree trunk became confused and blurred his mind. A figure hovered, too. Grandfather, is that you? He had liked the old man and believed the feeling mutual. They had formed a bond, or so he thought. Yet, now he found himself in a dark, unearthly place with only this nasty piece of work called Mulac for company. He sighed and felt betrayed, but struggled, nonetheless to get some bearings. It was so dark he could barely make out the nose in front of his face.
      They were in a huge cave.
     Mulac stared straight ahead, and for the first time, regretted the inner sight that had replaced his normal vision. What he saw, all but paralysed him with fear. And he was no coward. Figures, all monstrous shapes and sizes had gathered directly ahead and were contemplating the two interlopers much as a pack of wolves might relish a meal of fresh meat.
      “Where are we?” repeated Mick.
      “In the jaws of the dragon,” murmured Mulac grimly.
      “Dragon..?”
      “The Dragon Hills make up its tail, we are in its mouth,” the Nu-gen explained.
      Mick recalled the bleak panorama and paled. “That’s not so bad, surely?  If the tail leads to the Purple Mountains then all we have to do is find a way out of here and it shouldn’t take us too long to get back on track, right?”
      “There is no way out of this place,” said Mulac flatly, “except, if the legends be true, for a rare few deemed to have earned the right…”
      “You’re not making any sense,” Mick grumbled between teeth that had begun to chatter. It was growing colder by the second.
       Mulac turned, appearing to collect himself somewhat. “We are in Nul-y-Gray, Place of the Undead,” he said quietly. Nor did he flinch from Mick’s horrified gaze but forced himself to continue. “Those that come here are neither alive nor quite dead. For whatever reason, Ri has forbidden them access to Ti-Gray, Isle of the Dead. Unless they can win back His favour, they must remain here for all eternity and rot. Or…” he paused and grimaced.
      “Or…?” Mick prompted, stomach churning.
      Mulac shrugged. “Tales are told how an exchange may be done,  a life for a death. If any here can lay their hands on a living soul, they may leave. So…”
      “We’re going to be popular!” Mick forced an uneasy chuckle.
     “True,” the Nu-gen also forced a smile. Ahead, the rapidly swelling band of boggle-eyed creatures retreated a few steps.
      “What are you staring at?” Mick wanted to know.
      “We have company.”
      “Really…? I can’t see a bloody thing, it’s so dark!”
      “Be glad you cannot see,” Mulac murmured.
      “Are they...?” Mick gulped.
     “Coming for us? Yes. They will fight over our souls, and then two will be allowed to leave and we will take their place.”
      “There must be something we can do?” Mick began to panic. “We can at least put up a fight!” he added stubbornly.
      “To what end?” Mulac shrugged again. “We cannot kill them for they are already dead. We, on the other hand….”
      “So what are they waiting for?”
      “I have been wondering that myself…”
      The two stared straight ahead, one seeing the whole grisly scene and the other little else in a thickening gloom beyond the Nu-gen’s faint outline. “Why are we here?” Mick wailed. “We’re not dead and we haven’t done anything wrong!”
      “Why indeed?” murmured Mulac.
      In his pocket, Mick felt stirrings of something warm as if alive. He remembered La’s gift and how he had felt its presence just prior to being rescued from certain death by Astor, his so-called grandfather.  Just as he had experienced a sensation of safety then, so he felt it now. But look where had it got him last time, he reflected angrily?  He dug a hand in the pocket of his jeans and promptly removed it, biting his lip to suppress a yelp. The tiny egg-shaped stone had burned his fingers. He was about to tell Mulac but any sound died on his tongue as his eyes focused straight ahead. He could see them. “Oh, my God…!”
      “You can see them?” Mulac exclaimed.
    “You bet!” Mick’s legs threatened to give way under him and he leant against the cavern’s rock wall for support.
     “How…?” Mulac grabbed his companion ad shook him, “How is it you can see them?  Tell me, it may help us!”
      “I…” croaked Mick, and then his eyes widened like saucers.
      “What is it?” demanded Mulac, slackening his hold on Mick’s tunic but slightly.
      Mick could only gulp and stare. Over the Nu-gen’s shoulder, he saw a familiar figure step out of the mob and approach. “Kirin…!”  
      Mulac let go and swung round.
      “Although you are not welcome here, greetings,” said the elf in a strong, clear voice.
      “You…!” Mulac spat, unable to conceal either astonishment or contempt. “How came you to this place, elf?”
      “I erred and now I must pay,” said the elf with such naïve simplicity that it brought a lump even to the Nu-gen’s throat. “Thank you for not leaving me,” Kirin spoke directly to Mick. “I did not deserve your kindness.”
      “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Mick responded if a shade halfheartedly, “You certainly don’t deserve…this.”
          “Can you help us?” Mulac wanted to know.
        That is why I have come. Follow me and I will lead you out of here. But speak to no one or you will pass beyond my help.”
         “How can this be?” Mulac was incredulous.
        “I am new to this place. Even here, an odour of the Forest still clings to me. It will protect us, but not for long so we must hurry. Mark we well. Speak to none but me.” 
      “Fat chance!” exclaimed Mick and took a few hesitant steps forward. The elf turned and faced the creature mob. It oozed hostility, but parted to allow them through. At their every step, it closed ranks behind them. Kirin walked briskly, with confidence and an air of defiance. Mick followed fast on the elf’s heels, trying to ignore the sickening stench and ghastly clamour all around. Nor did Mulac hesitate wither, but continued to mull over the elf’s words and kept them close to his heart.
      The cavern seemed endless. Suddenly, after negotiating one of a seemingly infinite series of twists and turns…they were alone, just Mick and the Nu-gen. Gone was the ghostly rabble, panting at their necks. Kirin, too, had disappeared.  Mick turned to Mulac who appeared no less mystified than he. “What the…?”
  “Your guess is as good as mine,” growled Mulac, “but we must take great care. There is evil here.”
  “You’re telling me!”
  “Not the Undead, though some be evil incarnate. No, something else has stalked our every move long before we came to this place. I feel it with every breath, every step I take. It hunts you, motherworlder.  Yet, like it or no, I am involved also.”
  “So it’s my fault we’re stuck with each other, is that what you’re saying?”
  But Mulac made no reply. Not for the first time, the Nu-gen sensed a curtain drawn over his mind and sought to open even a chink and peer through. “If only I could see,” he murmured and knew, somehow, that he did not refer either to normal vision or that which had come with his ‘blindness’. It had been with him for as long as he could remember. Even amomng the wolves, he had sensed there was a vital part of his true self to which he was denied access. It was as if something or someone was intent upon saving him from himself. In some obscure way, he understood this force was well meant if misguided. I must draw back the curtain. Yet, try as he might to focus his will on penetrating the invisible obstruction, it was to no avail. In the past, he had shrugged it off and given up. This time, though, he persevered. Yet, still nothing. Only, very faintly, he could hear pipes playing a tune he thought he should know but could not place.
“Mulac…!” But Mick’s cry drew no response. “You’re a big help, I don’t think!” He sighed, a growing impatience mingling with the seeds of panic. For his companion appeared lost in a trance of sorts.
“Michael…!”  He heard his name called, and all but jumped out of his skin. Ahead, only a few feet away, stood a familiar figure, arms outstretched. Mick could only stare, open mouthed at his mother and let feelings of sheer relief and joy rise within him like an erupting volcano.
Mum! he yelled in his head and would have rushed into her open arms. But his legs remained as tethered as his tongue to a surfeit of emotion that kept him rooted to the spot.  It was too much. His eyes filled with tears. To find his mother, here of all places, it was…unbelievable. His heart sank. The giant wave of emotion rising within him suddenly transferred itself to some external phenomenon, now towering over him like an ornamental dragon’s head, now dropping…to smash into a million fragments at his feet.
“Michael!” she called again, but more faintly now. She was leaving, leaving without him. This can’t happen. It mustn’t happen. Unspoken words tumbled from his mouth and rushed at her on a tide of such raw feeling that the hurt was unbearable.
Mum, wait! his frantic mind screamed as he forced his lips to frame the sounds that offered him escape, freedom…a way home. Yet, even as they leapt from his tongue they were rudely blocked.
“No!” yelled Mulac, one hand over the struggling motherworlder’s half open mouth and the other wrenching an arm behind his back to prevent him from running after the vision. “Remember what the elf said. Speak to no one. It is not your mother. It is but a trick of the Undead to capture your soul. Be silent or you will never leave this place!” Never, never, never... Echoes like knives splitting his skull mingled with a pounding of the heart that finally penetrating his nether consciousness.  Mick stopped struggling and remained passive, eyes closed, in the Nu-gen’s iron grip.
Sensing that the immediate danger had passed, Mulac relaxed his hold and lowered his companion to the stony ground.  Mick submitted, trembling, and making pitiful whining sounds.  Mulac surprised himself by not wanting to let go. Instead, he continued to hold his companion, rocking him gently in arms unaccustomed to such gestures and making soothing noises.
Tucked up in his bed in Tunbridge Wells, the child, Mick Wright, let The Okay Song wash away the cares of a long day and carry him, safe and snug, into the bosom of a dreamless sleep. 
When he awoke, Mick was mortified to find himself snuggling up to Mulac, of all people! The Nu-gen was resting against the cavern wall, eyes closed, apparently dozing.
Mick shifted his position, and was about to thrust the Nu-gen’s encompassing arm away from him when a blast of cold air hit him in the face and caused him to have second thoughts. After all, he was comfortable enough where he was. Besides, he felt safer than he had for some time. He may not like Mulac, Mick decided, but after this he would trust the surly nomad Nu-gen with his life. He closed his eyes and settled back into the crook of the nomad’s arm, huddling even closer against the other’s tunic for some reassurance as well as warmth.
“Wake up, we must hurry!” The two companions woke abruptly to find Kirin close by and growing more agitated by the second. “There is a power abroad of such evil that even The Undead fly in fear. See…” He swept an arm all around. It was true. Not one of the awful creatures that had thronged and menaced them earlier was to be seen.  The pair, each suddenly aware of the other’s closeness, promptly disentangled themselves and leapt to their feet as one, flushed with embarrassment and careful to avoid looking at one another.
Kirin appeared not to notice their discomfiture. “We must hurry,” he repeated.
“And you, elf, you are not afraid?” Mulac was curious.
“Of course, but the Forest calls and I must answer as best I can. I may not go there, but all the while it remains a part of me there is hope.” He smiled, much as the live Kirin would have done. “And hope, my friends, is stronger than fear, believe me.”
“I believe you,” said Mulac gravely.
“Now, come, hurry…” Kirin pleaded.
They followed the elf this way and that through the maze of tunnels that dogged Nul-y-Gar, running for much of the way and only pausing for breath when Mick got stomach cramp. At last, the elf stopped and pointed. “Take the right fork and it will bring you safely to the world above.”
“And you?” Mick felt obliged to ask even though he knew the answer.
“I must return to the others.”
“How can you bear it?”
“I must. Besides, while Gar is with me I am not like them.”
“But…”
“For how long…? Who knows? Perhaps Ri will take pity on a foolish elf…”
“A brave and good elf,” Mulac growled. At the same time, the Nu-gen contrived a rare smile that, fleetingly, so transformed the sullen features that Mick scarcely recognized him.
“Hear, hear!” Mick agreed and held out a hand to the elf who drew back immediately as if struck.
“He may not touch us or else suffer an even worse fate,” murmured Mulac. Embarrassed, Mick withdrew his hand. “We owe you, elf,” said Mulac quietly before making his way towards the fork ahead.
“Thanks,” said Mick shyly.
“It is I who should thank you,” replied the elf. “When you see Pers and Irina…tell them…” His voice trailed away in abject misery.
“I’ll give them your love just as they would wish me to give you theirs,” said Mick with uncharacteristic diplomacy.  The elf’s face lit up. Then, without another word or a single backward glance, he turned and fled. Mick watched the retreating figure with a heavy heart until it turned the first bend. Only then did he hurry to catch up with Mulac. The Nu-gen was contemplating a wall of solid rock with growing exasperation. “What on earth…where’s the fork?”
“You tell me!” Mulac groaned, hands on hips and a face like thunder.
“Oh, no…!” Mick groaned and sank to his knees.
Mulac pounded on the rock with his fists then, finally, accepted the futility of it and joined Mick on the ground.
“He said there was way out!” wailed Mick.
“And the elf would not lie,” said Mulac thoughtfully, “It can only mean one thing…”
“We’re stuck here forever!”
“We haven’t time for that!” observed the Nu-gen laconically.
Mick burst out laughing. “Do you realize you almost made a joke?”
“A joke…?” Mulac was genuinely puzzled.
“You know...something funny, amusing…”
“You find Nul-y-Gray funny, amusing? By Ri, you motherworlders are impossible!”
“And you clowns from Mamelon are the pits!” Mick exploded despairingly before lapsing into a sulk.
Mulac merely shrugged and continued to brood. The fork had been there. They had both seen it, the elf too. So, either it had been an illusion or… “Of course!” he leapt up and glared first at the wall then at Mick. There was something vaguely familiar about the wall. He closed his eyes. Instantly, the ‘curtain’ appeared. I wonder…?  He continued to ponder. “Do you trust me?” he suddenly flung at Mick. Mick glared back wordlessly. “I did not ask if you liked me, only if you trust me,” said the Nu-gen with a twitch of the lips to which, in spite of himself, Mick could relate only too easily.
“Yes, I trust you.”
“Good. Now get up and take my hand.”
“Why?”
“Never mind, why…just trust me”. Mick got to his feet.
“Now, take my hand.”
“I don’t think…”
“Exactly. For that it what you must do. Don’t think. Just do as I say. Now, take my hand.”  Mick swallowed his pride, contented himself with a baffled shrug and did as he was told. “Good. Now, close your eyes.”
“But…”
“Close them!” Mick grimaced, but obliged.
“Now, on the count of three we will take six paces forward.”
“But…”
“Six paces forward, yes?”
“If you say so…” Mick grumbled peevishly.
“I do.” Mulac closed his eyes and was greeted by the familiar curtain.  “One, two, three...” Hand in hand, the pair stepped six paces forward. Mulac let go of Mick’s hand. “Good. Now you can look.”
With an exasperated click of the tongue, Mick opened his eyes. “What the blazes…?” The wall had disappeared and, straight ahead, the rock floor forked right and left. “How on earth…?
“Either the fork was an illusion or the wall. I guessed it had to be the wall. But we had seen it, touched it. We believed in it. By ignoring it, we undermined that belief and destroyed the illusion.”
“And if you had guessed wrong?”
Mulac shrugged. “Do you really care?”
“I guess not,” Mick acknowledged with a rueful grin. Both men started forward and took the left fork.  After yet more seemingly endless twists and turns, Mick began to have doubts. “Maybe this is an illusion too,” he muttered.
“The thought had crossed my mind also,” Mulac admitted as they entered a new tunnel.
“So what’s your guess?”
Mulac pointed. In the distance, a tiny amber glow winked at them “My guess is that’s the sky!” 
Both broke into a run.