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The Chosen Ones

The Chosen Ones

The Chosen Ones 26


  Effie had packed her bag carefully. She had Wolf’s sword in its benign form as an old letter opener. She had her precious calling card that she was never going to let out of her sight again. She had a new medicine bundle that Lexy had made for her, and the magical damson jam her grandfather always used for restoring strength. Effie was wearing her Sword of Light, of course, and her Ring of the True Hero. She had a feeling that something was going to happen today, and she wanted to be ready for it. Stay in, Festus had told her. It was this night that the fabric between worlds was going to be at its thinnest and . . .

  What was Skylurian Midzhar planning? And what was Albion Freake’s role in it? Were they both intending to storm the Otherworld? But how? How did Albion Freake owning a very powerful last edition of The Chosen Ones help Skylurian Midzhar? Effie had a feeling that soon everything was going to be revealed, and she wanted to be ready.

  The Town Hall was packed with people. Orwell, Cait and baby Luna went off to attend several photo calls and Effie, who’d talked her way out of the photos, promised to meet them inside for the gala lunch. There were going to be five courses, and each Superfan’s family was to share a table with their very own local ‘celebrity’ and an authority on some interesting matter. Mrs Beathag Hide was going to delight one table with her thoughts on Greek tragedy, and at another, Dr Cloudburst was going to be talking about bacteria.

  Effie soon found Wolf and Lexy, and they told her about what they’d discovered from Dr Cloudburst.

  ‘Thank you,’ said Effie. ‘I’m so glad I didn’t take those capsules.’

  ‘You seem much better now anyway,’ said Wolf.

  ‘Maximilian brought me something. Some water from the Underworld. And yes, I am completely better now.’

  ‘Well, you should still be careful today,’ said Wolf. He had no idea, of course, that the prophecy had changed.

  ‘Where is Maximilian?’ said Lexy. ‘He was here a moment ago.’

  Unfortunately, Maximilian had popped off into the Underworld by accident. It was becoming a bit of a problem. One minute he’d been looking at the one decent painting in the Town Hall – a strange little Cubist thing from very long ago that hung in the mayor’s office – and the next minute he was back at the crossroads. Still, at least it had given him a chance to get some more deepwater, just in case.

  ‘Oh, there you are,’ said Effie.

  ‘Sorry,’ said Maximilian. ‘What did I miss?’

  Lexy and Wolf repeated their story about going to Dr Cloudburst. Then Effie explained her suspicions about the factory in Walthamstow.

  ‘It all makes sense,’ she said. ‘These golden capsules are made from the lifeforce created from artificial last editions. The books are mass produced in a factory and then sent back to be pulped, except for one single book, which is kept. I think that Miss Dora Wright – and no doubt countless more writers – have been taken prisoner and forced to churn out books that are then enchanted to make people want to read them. The ingenious bit is the competitions. My step-mother Cait does them all the time. Along with thousands of other people, she reads one of these books – therefore giving it power – and then sends it back to Walthamstow in the hope of winning something. But in reality the books that have been read and returned are destroyed until a last edition is created. I think these capsules are somehow made from energy extracted from melted-down last editions. You don’t even have to go to the trouble of reading a last edition: all the lifeforce you would have gained by doing so is here in a convenient little pill.’

  ‘Oh my God, you’re right!’ said Lexy.

  ‘Dr Cloudburst could see traces of paper in them, which makes sense given what they’re made from. And the blood, sweat and tears – those are the traces of how the capsules were produced,’ said Effie.

  ‘It’s evil,’ said Wolf, angrily.

  ‘What, making lifeforce from last editions?’ said Lexy. ‘It’s certainly very clever. I mean, it’s the ultimate tonic, really. That’s what they’ve managed to create. Being a Last Reader in a pill.’

  ‘Yes, but doing it this way? It’s just wrong. Mass production, in a factory?’ Wolf said. ‘That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Isn’t it supposed to be a special thing that happens by accident when you read a last edition?’

  ‘Yes, well. The Diberi certainly do like abusing the natural magic of books for their own ends,’ said Maximilian.

  ‘But why?’ said Effie. ‘I mean, why now? And what has it got to do with the Sterran Guandré?’

  ‘And where on earth is Raven?’ said Lexy.

  27

  ‘So what would you like to do next?’ asked Terrence Deer-Hart.

  He had completed the first of his tasks that morning with little fuss. The yellow school bus had been handed over to him cheerfully by Coach Bruce, who had even replaced the Tusitala School logo with the word SUPERFANS on each side as arranged. Later on, Terrence was to drive the bus of Superfans to the moor for the final ceremony.

  But for now he was stuck with the sad little witch Raven Wilde, and he was supposed to be showing her a good time.

  ‘I would like to be taken to my mother,’ said Raven.

  ‘Your mother is on a book tour, little flower.’

  ‘We both know she’s not.’

  ‘Look, I’m supposed to be making you happy. What makes you happy?’

  ‘Seeing my mother.’

  Terrence sighed. ‘What about an ice cream?’

  ‘In this freezing cold?’

  ‘All right. Well . . . a trip to the zoo!’

  ‘I despise seeing animals in cages.’

  Terrence sighed. He very much hoped that when he joined Skylurian as the plus-one of doom – or whatever charming way she had put it – that there would be no flipping children involved. For now, he’d been told not to let this girl out of his sight. And apparently, the happier he made her, the more powerful Skylurian was going to be.

  Before she was allowed through to the ballroom for the gala lunch, for which she was already very late, Effie had to go through a bag check. Unfortunately, Blessed Bartolo pupils had been brought in to do the ‘security’ and staff the cloakroom. They were being overseen by Dr Green. Among them were Tabitha and Barnaby.

  Effie really hoped that she was going to be able to take her bag to the nondescript boy she’d never seen before on the table to the left. But he seemed to develop a sudden tummy-ache, so she ended up having to show all her most precious things to Tabitha.

  ‘Look at this, Barnaby,’ said Tabitha, in her cut-glass voice. ‘Unregistered boons. Oh – and an extremely magical calling card. You wouldn’t want to lose that, Euphemia, would you?’

  ‘Just give me my things back,’ said Effie, sighing.

  ‘Well, I’d be very careful, if I were you,’ said Tabitha, plonking all Effie’s precious things roughly back in her bag. ‘Next!’

  Effie headed straight for the door to the grand ballroom, still there from the days when the Town Hall had also functioned as the city’s assembly rooms.

  ‘Not so fast,’ came a voice Effie recognised. Oh no. Dr Green.

  ‘I’m late to meet my father,’ said Effie. ‘He’s one of the Superfans and . . .’

  ‘You will come with me,’ said Dr Green, grasping Effie’s arm firmly. ‘Now. I believe you are carrying a number of unregistered boons. I shall need to do a thorough investigation. In here, please.’

  He pushed Effie into the mayor’s office, currently unoccupied, as the mayor was on the big stage in the ballroom getting ready to reveal the winner of the grand prize.

  ‘Right,’ said Dr Green, shutting the door behind him and turning a big brass key in the lock. ‘I am going to ask you for the last time. Hand it over. I don’t care about your other boons for now. Keep them. I’ll report them to the Guild and they can decide what to do with them. And you. But I need your ring now, girl.’

  ‘Why do you keep trying to take my ring?’ Effie asked.

  Dr Green sighed. ‘I hear that you
think you are fighting the Diberi,’ he said. ‘With your little chums. Which is all very sweet and honourable, but you have no idea – I repeat, no idea – what you are up against. I need to requisition that ring immediately.’

  ‘Requisition?’ said Effie. Her dictionary was at home as usual. She had no idea what the word meant. But her answer was the same anyway. ‘No.’

  ‘But we’re on the same side, you dense child.’

  ‘Well, then—’

  ‘I don’t have time to explain, but I need your ring. I am confiscating it, for your own good, and the good of the universe. Don’t you understand? You must have heard the prophecy. Everyone else has.’

  ‘What prophecy?’

  ‘The one that says that it is someone wearing the Ring of the True Hero that will save the universe from destruction on the night of the Sterran Guandré,’ came a familiar voice.

  It was Leander. He had sort of melted out of the rather ugly painting on the mayor’s wall.

  ‘Oh for heaven’s sakes, Quinn,’ said Dr Green. ‘I’ve told you sixth-formers to STOP doing that.’

  ‘And I’ve told you to leave her alone.’

  ‘I am acting on orders from the Guild of Craftspeople,’ said Dr Green. ‘They are requisitioning this ring.’

  ‘I’m not giving it to you,’ said Effie.

  ‘Then, young lady, you will be responsible for the ultimate destruction of our universe. Worth a bit more than a detention, I’d say.’ He started rolling up his sleeves. ‘I can see I’m going to have to fight you for it. And probably kill you. But what’s one child’s life when held up against the fate of the universe?’

  ‘Oh, please,’ said Leander. ‘For one thing, any universe that requires the sacrifice of even one child to survive is not worth saving. You know that. But for another thing, you – forgive me, sir – utter moron, don’t you think that given that it is Effie who wears this ring, that it might be SHE who is going to save the universe from destruction? Has it not occurred to you that by keeping her here and trying to take her ring, YOU might be the person responsible for all our deaths? Worth a bit more than a detention, I agree.’

  Effie quietly brought her hand to the gold necklace at her throat and touched the miniature sword that hung there. ‘Truelove,’ she whispered. The sword seemed to form in her hand out of the brightest and most beautiful glimmers of light in the room.

  ‘I repeat, you’re not taking my ring,’ said Effie.

  Dr Green looked at her, and the large Sword of Light in her hands. He went quiet. Stepped back. Rolled down his sleeves. Sighed.

  ‘You can put your little sword away,’ he said. ‘But you’ll be hearing more about this, you stubborn girl. If, that is, we survive this night at all. And you,’ he began saying to Leander. ‘If your mother wasn’t who she is . . .’

  ‘Oh,’ said Leander. ‘But she is. Come on, Effie.’

  Leander took Effie by the hand and led her from the room. The sword fizzled back into light now that Effie no longer needed it.

  ‘Right,’ Leander said, once they reached the grand foyer of the Town Hall. ‘Where next?’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘The prophecy. You’re due to save the universe today, although up until now no one has told you that, in case it disrupts the prophecy or negates it or something. But since the stupid, ridiculous Guild decided that it was all about the ring and not the person wearing the ring . . . You were also due to die, by the way, although that seems to have changed, thank goodness. Anyway, we need to get on with it. Where should we go?’

  ‘Um . . .’ said Effie.

  ‘Perhaps this will help,’ said Leander, getting his caduceus out of his rucksack. He seemed to have folded it down somehow, like a telescope. ‘Hold it with me for a second. It might be like before.’

  Effie and Leander held on to the caduceus together for a few seconds. The feeling was too strong to do so for any longer than that. It felt like a firework display was going off inside Effie’s head. But it worked. Effie was able to put together all the clues that she had discovered until . . .

  ‘I think we need to start by following them.’ Effie pointed out of the door. There was a strange little convoy of vehicles – the Tusitala School bus containing the Superfans, Albion Freake’s stretch limousine containing himself and his entourage, and, for some reason, a horse-drawn carriage in which Skylurian Midzhar was sitting next to . . . Raven Wilde! The convoy was just setting off in the direction of the moors.

  ‘OK, let’s go,’ said Leander. ‘I’ll get my mum’s car. It’s just parked around the side. She won’t mind.’

  ‘I don’t believe it,’ said Effie as they set off. ‘Skylurian Midzhar’s got my friend too. It’s worse than I thought. We have to stop her.’

  ‘Do you know what she’s doing?’ asked Leander.

  ‘I think so,’ said Effie. ‘I think I know exactly what she’s got planned. We need to pick up my friends and then drive to Northlake Village. You can drop me and my friend Maximilian off there. There are two horses . . . We can ride to the moor. If we do, we’ll probably get there quicker than everyone else. They’ll have to park and walk quite a way, I think. That way we can be prepared. We can hide, and . . .’

  Effie and Leander found Maximilian, Lexy and Wolf in the foyer, waiting. They’d seen the convoy too and were anxious to follow it, especially now they realised the danger Raven was in.

  ‘Oh no, not again,’ said Maximilian, sighing, when Effie told him her plan with the horses. But he was able to create a map for the others to follow and then he almost seemed like a professional as he helped Effie to tack-up the ponies, according to Jet’s calm and patient instructions.

  ‘I see you’ve become wise,’ said Jet, in his deep voice, when Effie mounted him.

  ‘What do you mean?’ Effie said back.

  ‘You’ve lost yourself and found yourself again,’ said Jet. ‘That’s what wisdom is. Now, shall we vamos? I believe that both dear Laurel and dear Raven are in danger.’

  ‘The book,’ breathed Skylurian Midzhar, grandly, from the top of the mound with the strange new set of metal doors that seemed to lead under the moor. In one hand she was holding aloft the limited-edition single-volume copy of The Chosen Ones. In the other she was holding – and occasionally swigging from – what looked like a champagne bottle full of bright gold liquid.

  ‘The book, ladies and gentlemen, is a powerful thing indeed. When we read a great book, we cannot help but give up part of our own soul to it. A book like The Chosen Ones, loved by generations of readers, bought by over ten million people, contains within its pages great power. So . . .’ She paused here for effect.

  To her left raged the great bonfire that she’d created, on which the Superfans had just tossed their copies of The Chosen Ones. Orwell Bookend was feeling rather bored, but several of the other Superfans were wailing in anguish and burning themselves as they tried to get some ashes from the fire to keep as a memento.

  ‘So . . .’ said Skylurian again. She drew out her ivory wonde and pointed it at Albion Freake. It wasn’t a witch’s wonde, despite usually looking like one. It was actually a trickster’s stick, which Skylurian used mainly for smiting.

  ‘So, quite why you think that I would produce a limited-edition single-volume version of such a powerful book to hand over to this vile, uncultured LOSER, to use one of his own favourite words . . .’ Skylurian laughed. ‘Of course, it could be argued that a book has even MORE power when its production has been bankrolled by one of the richest men in the world. To invest a billion pounds in the creation of the world’s first magical super-weapon is just to give that super-weapon – which feeds on emotion, desire and passion – even more power. But to hand that power over to an idiot who does not even read? To give such magical riches to one who has not even epiphanised? Ha!’

  ‘What on earth is she going on about?’ Orwell Bookend asked the person nearest him, a maths teacher from the Mrs Joyful School who was blubbing into a hanky over the los
s of her favourite book. She didn’t answer.

  Overhead, the Sterran Guandré was developing into a great swirl of light and raw hue as ancient rocks flung themselves through the sky and exploded. There was every shade of every colour you can think of, plus some you undoubtedly can’t. Some of the rarest colours had not been seen since the dawn of time, and there were others that didn’t usually exist in this dimension. It was so impressive that the Northern Lights, still in exile from the Otherworld, shuffled over from the North Pole to have a better look. It clashed wildly with the Sterran Guandré, but it didn’t care. The sky was soon a vast, wild, extravagant muddle of sights and sounds that no one had ever seen before.

  So it said something for Skylurian’s performance that all eyes were still on her. She took another swig from her bottle of golden liquid.

  ‘So, Albion, darling, you poor, uncultured wretch, your billion pounds has gone to the local cats’ home. Why? I don’t need it. And anyway, once I’ve finished with this universe, there’ll be no need for cats’ homes anyway. Think of it as my little joke.’

  No one laughed.

  ‘So now I’m going to tell you all what I have got planned. Of course, I disapprove of those silly speeches made by villains that only give the so-called good guys the chance to ready their weapons and attack and so on. But I am quite confident that I can see all my enemies. I fear them not. And anyway, my plan gains more power the more it is spoken. So . . .’

  ‘I wish she’d get on with it,’ said Orwell, yawning. ‘I haven’t even started today’s crossword yet.’

  ‘I have created here a sealed vault,’ said Skylurian, pointing at the metal doors in the mound. ‘Here on the moors there are plenty of rips in the fabric between this world and the Otherworld. The material is always thin here, and never more so than on this night. Soon I intend to travel not just to the other side, but far, far beyond its nearest shores to a village called Dragon’s Green, from where I intend to take control of the entire universe. To fuel my attack, I will require a few things. I already have this last edition of the most popular book to have been published in the last two centuries. When I close the doors of that vault – they can never be opened again, by the way, once they are closed, because the combination is a prime number that has not yet been discovered – I will be inside, with this book, whose power I shall consume, and this pure child, whose blood I shall drink, and . . .’