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The Chosen Ones
The Chosen Ones 27
Hang on. Drinking the blood of a pure child? This was getting more interesting all of a sudden. Orwell Bookend had never been very gripped by long speeches on the power of books, but the sacrifice of a pure child? Now that was a lot more compelling.
Skylurian gave a sort of nod, and Terrence Deer-Hart brought Raven to her from where she had been hidden behind a drystone wall. Poor Raven looked as if she was trying to be brave, but everyone could see she was trembling. Her hands were tied together with rope, and her wrists were red from where she’d been trying to escape.
Wolf and Lexy were hiding in an old croft just behind the bonfire. Laurel Wilde, who Effie and Maximilian had already rescued, crouched with them behind a tree. All were waiting for their orders from Effie and Wolf. But the sight of her daughter bound and ready for sacrifice was more than Laurel Wilde could bear. She rushed towards Skylurian Midzhar, not sure what she was going to do.
‘Don’t take my daughter,’ she said. ‘Take me instead!’
‘Ha!’ said Skylurian. ‘Well, well. Good. I wanted the author involved. Authors can always be relied on to turn up late to their own launch party and then say embarrassing things, but they are a strangely valuable asset when it comes to promoting a publication. Their death, I find, is what adds most value to a book. I’m surprised publishers don’t use the technique more often.’
Skylurian raised her ivory wonde to smite Laurel Wilde. Terrence Deer-Hart looked on with some pleasure. If only Skylurian would smite every other author she published, then he would be the only one left, which would be—
‘I disown the book,’ said Laurel Wilde quickly. ‘Ha! You didn’t expect that, did you, you vile woman. You might think I don’t understand magic, that I just make up silly stories about it. But I understand this much. If I disown that book, and tell you that I think it is pathetic, juvenile, badly plotted and horribly badly written, then it will halve, maybe even quarter, its power, and—’
‘If that were true, do you think I’d have let you carry on talking?’ said Skylurian. ‘No, we at the Matchstick Press have always been subscribers to the theory of The Death of the Author. Goodbye, Laurel, darling, you truly have been a great asset.’ She raised her wonde further.
‘And I thought we were friends,’ said Laurel. She closed her eyes and waited to be smote.
The next few things happened very quickly. First of all, Albion Freake, who seemed to have taken a while to understand the situation he was in, and the information he was being given, ordered one of his men to grab Raven. This the man did, while Skylurian’s attention was taken up with Laurel Wilde. So, in that sense, Laurel’s bid to save her daughter had worked. When Skylurian turned to see who had grabbed Raven, Effie threw Wolf his sword in its benign form as a letter opener. Once it had grown to full size – which took less than a second once he had touched it – he leapt in front of Laurel and raised the Sword of Orphennyus to strike Skylurian.
‘Oh, you silly – ouch – boy,’ she said, as he brought the blade down through her body. ‘I’m not going to pretend that that doesn’t hurt. But you don’t have the strength to overcome me. That blade only works on M-currency, and, frankly, you’d have to strike me billions of times to take away my immense power. The universe would – ouch – probably end first. So keep tickling me with your little blade if you like. Or perhaps I’ll just do this instead . . .’
Skylurian raised her ivory wonde and smote Wolf. He fell to the ground, dazed. Lexy ran over immediately with a tonic. Meanwhile, Effie and Maximilian tried to save Raven. Effie couldn’t use her Sword of Light on any of Albion Freake’s men, none of whom were magical. But Maximilian was able to get in the mind of the man who had grabbed Raven and persuade him to let her go. Inside this man’s mind he met a mage spy called Frankincense who was able to help him. ‘We’ll meet again,’ she said, mysteriously.
While all of this was going on, the Sterran Guandré raged overhead. The two worlds were getting closer and closer. Many great things have been written about the Sterran Guandré, the one special night every six years when the un-ephinanised can drift into the Otherworld (sometimes never to return), and Otherworld monsters can find refuge in our world without hindrance from any officials and their silly paperwork. At this moment many such exchanges were taking place. Just at the moment when a psycho-geographer intent on discovering ‘the wild’ slipped from a mountain trail into the other realm, three vampires, a ghost ship and a moorhen possessed with the spirit of a poet all slipped into ours.
But there was also the Underworld to take into account. In the Otherworld, people live alongside their demons, facing them, fighting them and, in some cases, living peacefully with them. But in the Realworld our demons are pushed out of sight, deep down into the Underworld, where they live in their own dark and horrible zone. Sometimes these demons find their way into the Realworld, but never more powerfully than on the night of a Sterran Guandré.
And Albion Freake had a lot of demons.
The earth underneath him now started to move as all the battles raged around him. He knew he needed to kill this ridiculous woman who had stolen his money. He wanted his goddamn book! Why was his girlfriend looking at him like that? He’d have to do something about her. And he wanted to get away from this large, cold, damp, wild place full of strange hoots, wails, calls and all that goddamn hokery going on in the sky.
The earth moved under him again.
Most people have at least a couple of demons lodged in the Underworld. Something they are ashamed of. Someone they have hurt. But Albion Freake had personally ordered the deaths of at least a hundred people. He’d invested in weapons that had killed thousands more. When the ground opened up and his demons came pouring out, fangs bared, he didn’t even try to run. Everyone looked away as they fell on him and tore his body apart. Everyone, that is, except the maths teacher from the Mrs Joyful School, who realised she rather liked watching evil people being eaten alive. The blood that spattered her sensible cheap skirt more than made up for the book she’d lost. She’d be able to tell her grandchildren about this.
Terrence Deer-Hart also rather enjoyed seeing the beginnings of Albion Freake’s demise, although he was too squeamish to watch for very long. But he was happy that his main rivals – in love and in writing – were finally getting their comeuppance. He wasn’t completely sure where he stood in relation to this vault idea, however. He assumed that Skylurian would simply come and get him when it was time for him to become the queen’s consort of doom, or however it was she’d put it. But something was troubling him. And then when he tried to get Raven back from Albion Freake’s men, one of them pulled a flipping gun on him! So he ran away and hid.
Meanwhile, the Cosmic Web chose this moment to launch its own attack. News that Raven Wilde, great friend to all living creatures, had been taken prisoner, had quickly spread from moor to town and back again. Slowly they came at first, headed by the brave and loyal robin from Raven’s garden. Here came her three beloved tarantulas, carried safely on the back of a small barn owl. Here came the voles and shrews and mice and blackbirds and skylarks and hedgehogs. Here came rabbits and foxes and wildcats. Soon there was a great cloud of animals all attacking Albion Freake’s men. The rabbits nibbled, the tarantulas bit, the owls used their talons. Soon the men were driven back to their limousine, never to return.
One of the rabbits gnawed easily through the ropes around Raven’s wrists. The creatures couldn’t get anywhere near Skylurian Midzhar, of course, but they had helped to release their witch friend, and that was the main thing. Later, when Skylurian’s body decayed, as all bodies must, they would enjoy getting stuck in to her remains.
For several minutes all was chaos. But when the chaos had started to calm down, one thing became horribly clear.
Skylurian had taken a hostage. Her wonde had shape-shifted into a sharp dagger, and this she now held to his throat.
‘Help me,’ he said weakly. ‘Someone help me, please.’
ed up. It was her father.
Skylurian had got Orwell.
Why would she have chosen Orwell Bookend of all people? By now, many members of the Guild had turned up on the moors, along with the mayor, the elderly headmaster of the Tusitala School for the Gifted, Troubled and Strange, Dr Green, Mrs Beathag Hide, both Professors Quinn and various other local dignitaries and celebrities. Even Tabitha and Barnaby had appeared from somewhere in the darkness. Leander could not be seen by anyone, but he was there too, observing.
‘Tabitha Quinn,’ said Skylurian Midzhar. ‘At last. Do fetch me the calling card, there’s a good girl.’
‘Of course,’ said Tabitha, with a little smirk.
Tabitha went to Effie. ‘Hand it over,’ she said, holding out her thin, pale palm.
‘Hand what over?’ said Effie.
‘Your calling card,’ said Tabitha. ‘The one that takes you to Dragon’s Green. I saw it in your bag before. You’d better give it to me.’
‘No,’ said Effie.
‘She won’t give it to me,’ said Tabitha.
‘Well then, I’ll have to kill her father,’ said Skylurian. ‘I think I’ll do it slowly. Or maybe I’ll take him into the vault with me, now that someone seems to have rescued my original human sacrifice.’
Skylurian Midzhar nicked Orwell Bookend’s neck lightly with her sharp blade. A thin trickle of blood started making its way down towards his shirt collar. It was his best shirt, which he’d put on today because he thought he was going to win a big prize.
Effie looked at Skylurian. ‘Let my father go,’ she said. ‘And then I’ll give you my calling card.’
‘Don’t give it to her, Effie,’ said Lexy. ‘She’s bluffing.’
‘If I let your father go, do you swear you’ll give me the card?’ said Skylurian.
‘Yes,’ said Effie.
‘And you know your word cannot be broken, since you are a true hero?’
‘Yes. Now, let him go.’
Skylurian slowly removed the dagger from Orwell Bookend’s throat. He staggered away, wiping sweat from his brow, and blood from his collar.
Effie took the card out of her bag and handed it to Tabitha.
‘I told you I’d get you back,’ hissed Tabitha.
‘Yes, well, this wasn’t the way to do it,’ said Effie.
Skylurian took the card from Tabitha. Everything went quiet and still. She then pressed a button on a little remote control she was wearing around her neck. The metal doors opened and a platform emerged. Skylurian stepped onto the platform holding the last edition of The Chosen Ones in one hand and Effie’s precious calling card in the other. The platform descended, and Skylurian Midzhar slowly disappeared into the earth.
The metal doors closed with a final clunk behind her. She would now be locked inside the vault for all eternity – except, of course, she was going to use the calling card and the power created by being the Last Reader of The Chosen Ones to launch herself on Dragon’s Green, Truelove House and, presumably, the Great Library. From there she could go where she wanted, do what she wanted. That was the plan. And there’d be plenty of time for the last edition of The Chosen Ones to rot before anyone else could read it.
Effie still didn’t understand exactly what the Diberi wanted with the Great Library, and how it would enable them to control the universe. But she’d felt the power it held when she’d been inside it.
‘Oh my God,’ said Lexy.
‘You stupid, stupid girl,’ said Dr Green, striding over to Effie, pointing his bony finger at her. ‘Do you have any idea what you’ve done?’
Wolf glared at Dr Green. ‘Leave her alone,’ he said.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Maximilian to Effie. ‘I tried to get in her head but she blocked me. She was too powerful. I tried to help save your dad without you having to give up the card.’
Wolf shook his head. ‘We’ve failed you,’ he said to Effie. ‘I’m sorry. I should have tried a different strategy. I should have—’
‘You haven’t failed me,’ said Effie, her voice shaking slightly. She looked at Dr Green. ‘You want to know what I’ve done? Well, it wasn’t just me, it was me and my friends. We’ve just saved the universe. Not that we expect any thanks, of course.’
‘Don’t be absurd,’ said Dr Green.
‘But how . . .?’ said the mayor, coming over.
‘Ignore these stupid children,’ said Dr Green. ‘We can punish them later. If there is a later, of course. This could be the end of everything. Skylurian Midzhar has locked herself in there with the last copy of The Chosen Ones in the world and—’
‘They miscounted the books,’ said Effie. ‘That’s not the last edition that Skylurian has taken into the vault with her. Oh, it looks very impressive and everything. But it won’t work because it’s not the last copy of the book in the universe. There’s one more.’
‘Oh!’ said Raven. ‘Of course. They would have counted one of the books twice – the one I gave you at home was the one your father handed in. That wasn’t really one of the last ten books at all because it had already been counted.’
‘What?’ said Dr Green. ‘Are you saying she’s locked herself in there with a copy of the book that isn’t a last edition?’
‘That’s right,’ said Effie. ‘It has no power at all.’
‘But . . .’ said Dr Green. ‘But . . .’
Mrs Beathag Hide came over. She’d clearly heard everything.
‘Are you not going to apologise to the girl?’ she asked Dr Green.
But he simply turned and walked away.
‘So where is the last copy of The Chosen Ones?’ asked Maximilian, once most of the adults had left. He was going to ride Echo back, and Laurel Wilde was going to ride Jet. Raven would go on her broomstick. Mrs Beathag Hide was taking Lexy and the Superfans home in the school bus. Cait was coming to pick up Orwell and Effie. Leander had driven his mother’s car home, with his sister Tabitha sulking in the back. She knew she was due to be grounded for a very long time. No one could hear Terrence Deer-Hart sobbing for his lost love, unable to come out from his hiding place. No one was coming to pick him up. But he would get his revenge. He wasn’t sure how, just yet. But this girl and her friends would suffer for what they’d done.
‘It’s in the Great Library in Truelove House,’ said Effie. ‘It’s been there since the last Sterran Guandré. And I don’t think I’m the one who saved the universe at all. I think it was my mother.’
‘But your boon,’ said Raven. ‘Your calling card. It’s lost for ever.’
Effie shrugged. ‘The universe is saved. That’s the main thing.’
‘I suppose I won’t even get my thousand pounds now,’ said Orwell Bookend, in the car home.
‘No,’ said Effie. ‘Probably not.’
‘Thank you,’ said Orwell, after a long pause.
‘Sorry?’ said Effie. She wasn’t sure her father had ever thanked her for anything.
‘Thank you for saving my life,’ he said, awkwardly. ‘I know you had to give up something very important in order to do so. I won’t forget.’
‘That’s all right, Dad,’ said Effie. ‘Thanks for saying.’
‘Can it be replaced?’ he asked, after another pause.
‘Can what be replaced?’
‘The little card thingy?’
Effie sighed and shook her head. ‘No,’ she said. ‘No, it can’t.’
Saturday was a strange, sullen, moody day, as if, after the excitement of the Sterran Guandré, the entire cosmos had a massive hangover. Effie tried to catch up with her homework and think herself back into being a normal girl who didn’t visit the Otherworld. Of course, she wasn’t normal at all. She’d epiphanised and was a true hero interpreter with a large amount of lifeforce and all the documentation she needed to travel to the Otherworld. So she could go whenever she liked.
Well, she could in theory, at least until the Guild came along and took her papers away and banned her from practising magic. But it didn’t matter anyway, be
cause she would never see her cousins again. She had saved them, and the Great Library, but in so doing she’d had to sacrifice ever going to Dragon’s Green again. It had been worth it, but it had left Effie feeling sad and empty. Nothing as bad as the Yearning, of course. But it was still awful. Effie had all this lifeforce now, but nothing to do with it. She didn’t even want to go to the Edgelands Market.
It was almost three o’clock when the doorbell went.
Then there was a knock at Effie’s bedroom door.
‘Someone to see you,’ said Orwell Bookend.
Effie wondered which of her friends it was. She wasn’t really in the mood for any visitors. She wondered how quickly she could send them away. But then a tall man strode into her room. Pelham Longfellow! But . . .
‘We’ve been expecting you in the Otherworld,’ he said. ‘Everyone knows what you did.’
‘I didn’t do anything,’ said Effie. ‘Skylurian made a mistake. I didn’t even have to be there.’
‘That’s not true,’ said Pelham. ‘You saved your friend. You saved your friend’s mother. You saved the ten Superfans that Skylurian had planned to smite just before her descent.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘And you knew about the book. When did you work it all out?’
‘A while ago. I guess when I realised what she was planning. I knew it wouldn’t work because of the book I took at Raven’s house. I could see all the sheets of paper with the figures all done in columns. It wasn’t until later that I realised that the last copy of The Chosen Ones was in the Great Library, safe, where my mother had put it.’