and other stories by - 18 Mulberry Road
Magic Parcel: The Gathering Storm
Chapter One
 
Preface 
 
Long ago, in an Omni experiencing the growing pains of a young new world, long before the appearance of the newer races, a dark rumour had begun to grow in the void, from a swirling maelstrom of confusing, choking and discordant mists. Disturbing and challenging the Ancients in their glorious and untroubled youth, that darkness became Umbrano, the powerful Master of Deceit, whose desire to rule, crush and corrupt could not be satisfied.     This world was bright, fresh, new and empty, and he wanted it for himself. It had been foretold that many new peoples would populate this world, so he wanted to be there to welcome them as they arrived.    
     As the elders of the newer races appeared and settled to this awesomely wonderful land over generations, they were confronted by the sugar-coated evil he peddled, and were either ensnared or enslaved before they could evade his evil powers. Once trapped, there was no escape.    
     His was a banner which attracted also a disparate rabble of militant, evil and greedy leaders who hoped to earn a share of his power, which would be all-encompassing and would promise them much. It was destined, however, to deliver them and their peoples into his clutches only. They would swell his army of slaves to aid his relentless quest for domination.    
     Only one had no fear of him. Not of this or any known world, his origins were shrouded in confusion and chaos. This was Magistera, Ice Master, whose power was surpassed only by that of Umbrano himself. Because of their close association, that superiority had never been tested. Magistera’s support of Umbrano’s schemes was unswerving because he wanted it to be so, and because it served the future purposes that he had long identified and harboured.    
     The legends surrounding Magistera whispered of a mystical world of immortal beings whence he was cast out because of his aspirations to wrest power from his masters. Rumour and speculation were all that remained. Kindred yet disparate spirits in many ways, they both felt it unnecessary to vie over something they could share. Both understood the consequence of and penalty for betrayal, so, in this case, there appeared to be an indivisible bond which stitched together the belief that their joint cause was justifiable and their right to pursue it to its end inalienable. They miscalculated massively.    
     How did two of the most powerful beings on this new world with limitless potential manage to make such a spectacular and cataclysmic mistake? They underestimated the resolve of the many ordinary Omnians not to be shepherded and corralled by Umbrano’s arrogance and greed. They didn’t expect the erstwhile inactive and indecisive leaders of the placid ancient races to be as vociferous in their condemnation of the two, or as ready to stand against them.    
     At the same time as the ancients arose against Umbrano, there appeared two powerful magicians, who, it was said, were as old as the bones of the land upon which Omni had been founded. They were called Algan and Gor-ifan, later to be named ‘The Great’ and ‘The Seth’ respectively; incomparable sorcerers with powers granted to them by the Supreme Elder himself, so it was said. Thought to have come out of the west, from the lands of permanent warmth, light and ease, they were the movers, the leaders, the persuaders, charged with a burden of counteracting the excesses of evil perpetrated by the axis of darkness.    
     By the time resistance had begun to be organised, Umbrano’s powers had grown and had become almost insurmountable. The two sorcerers looked towards the west for aid and support, but none was forthcoming. They were on their own.    
     It took generations of death and destruction before the two were defeated by a powerful alliance of mortals and immortals, and laid before the Supreme Elder in the west. Their fate? To be incarcerated in the Crystal Realm forever, from where there could be no escape.    
     That is…                 
 
Chapter One 
 
Saturday afternoon and here was Ursula, in her own home where she should be, but without the friend she was supposed to be sharing it with. How could he have gone and left her here, and how could she not have kept him here when he returned, however briefly? Annoyance very quickly gave way to concern, and then to worry. There was no sure way to get back to Omni, only when Omni needed you, as Jimmy had said. And my, did they need her! She giggled slightly at their flabbergasted faces when she appeared and destroyed all those … those creatures which were attacking her friend. It was only when the enormity of what she had done, and the thought of the terrible power she had wielded hit her, that she started to shake. She had known for a long time that she had a hidden power, but not that sort of power; not the power to change worlds and take … lives! That frightened her. It frightened her a quite a bit!    
     Deep in thought, Ursula wandered aimlessly around the ground floor of the house. She hadn’t really taken note of where she was going, but walked without thinking, hoping something would occur to her. Muttering to herself, she stopped suddenly in her tracks, eyes wide, and head sweeping left to right, slowly. She stepped forward again, very gingerly, and yes, it was still there! She felt the tingle she had encountered before with Jimmy! Turning to her right, in a deep recess in the wall, she noticed a slim ribbon of yellow light, outlining what seemed to be a large door which was slightly ajar. Her father’s study! It had to be his study! The magic of this house was still a constant surprise to her, even now. Perhaps he might know of a way to help. After all he was a scientist. She tapped on the oak staves which formed the door’s body. No answer. She tapped again, louder this time. Still no response.    
     “Father, are you in there?” she croaked, almost holding her breath. “I need to speak to you.” There was still no answer.    
     She took a single step forward; one solitary half-movement. As she did so, the door swung inward very slowly, until she was in and the door was fast shut behind her. She hadn’t moved any more, but the room seemed to ‘scoop her up’ and secure her inside.    
     Six and a half paces or so square, with no windows and only the one door, it was the perfect place not to be disturbed. The enormous oak desk, which was clear of all clutter save a desk tidy, a pen rack, and an over-sized geographical globe, dominated its side of the room opposite the door. Three walls were festooned with hanging tapestries which were, in fact, painfully detailed maps of different areas of an Omni she didn’t recognise. They appeared to be flat two-dimensional maps picked out in embroidery silks, but they were three-dimensional moving pictures, albeit changing very slowly. She moved to the desk, sliding her finger tips around its silky edges as she walked around it, all the while not letting her gaze wander from the largest map. As she felt the sharpness of the desk’s leading edge press in to the middle of her back, the map began a slow descent to become level with Ursula’s face. All the while it descended, it was playing a telecast of the northern-most part of Omni.    
     In this land of barren desolation, covered entirely by snow, she could see a daunting black tower growing out of the surrounding. The Northern Watch Tower had stood for many ages of man, with its air of gothic decrepitude, as a symbol to all Omnians. However, unfortunately, it had fallen into darkness and disuse; yet she could see a small group of humanoid figures struggling against the almost horizontal blizzard, as they headed towards the Tower. The image became clearer and grew, and she was able to make out an indistinct and shadowy leader who seemed unaffected by the snow, and upon whom none seemed to settle.
 
 
 
 
    Although she didn’t know it, this was Umbrano, master of disguise and illusion. He bore no physical form or substance, because he still inhabited the Crystal Realm. Yet, his stay there would soon be over. Inside that mysterious and dreaded place, he looked to be released, once more to assume solid form, heralding the swift end of life as Omnians knew it. Ancient lore had prophesied that his release would be achieved through the sacrifice of a young boy.      
 
 
     Suddenly a small figure flanked by fell ice creatures and warrior guards, swam into sharper focus, and Ursula’s horror was complete. She almost collapsed in shock, disbelief and dismay when she realised that the pathetic figure which was dwarfed by those guarding it, was Jimmy. She could feel the intense cold and flecks of snow on her cheeks as she watched, a helpless spectator, her face drawn towards her friend’s predicament. She wished herself there with all her might, but try as she would, she remained rooted to that carpet and secure in that warm and comfortable study.    
     The telecast slowed almost to a standstill, as the figures drew nearer to the threshold of that dreadful place. The snow storm redoubled as they reached the great black door, which opened, allowing a pool of crimson light to spread slowly in to the drift of snow before it, like a growing pool of blood. As Jimmy’s trailing foot crossed the step, the clanging shut of the door reverberated around the study, rattling the globe on the desk and ruffling the tapestries around the room. Ursula witnessed that awful moment and, as he disappeared once again, she collapsed in a death-like swoon, and she knew no more.     
     All the while she was unconscious, the maps continued their stories. For half a day, forces from outlying peoples had crossed the drawbridge of Oompah’s castle. Battalions of hardy foot soldiers clad in dark chain mail bearing keen swords, wicked lances, and small round shields, entered, rank upon rank. They were followed by proud horsemen from the plains of the south, beyond the Standing Stones, by green and brown clad wood people from the pine forests to the north beyond River Evenflow, and by sturdy hillsmen from the foothills to The Mountains of Cloud to the south of The Golden Caves of Eastinghall. All these and many more, poured in to the castle as tribute to the power of the Toad King, who watched for a short time from his topmost battlements. With these fell warriors to bolster his forces, his kingdom could not fail.
***    
     “Father,” Dominic’s voice cut into Oompah’s reverie, “we have not had any word of, or from Tarna.”     
     Oompah swivelled very slowly, uncomfortably, and with extreme difficulty because of his bulbous and ungainly body. Crouching on his hugely long, sinewy and muscular legs as if ready to spring, with his enormous crown tilted at a crazy angle, he unlidded his eyes before he answered his son’s question.     
     “Tarna is no longer part of this family,” were his stark words. “He has betrayed his lineage and me, his father and king. That is tantamount to high treason, and as such punishable by death. He will not return. If he is foolish enough to do so, he will be executed.”    
     “But,” Dominic interrupted, “he’s your son … and my brother, I should remind you. Your blood runs through his veins, too.”    
     “Irrelevant!” Oompah cut in sharply. “He is a traitor, and no son of mine. I will hear no more!” With that last word, he sprang away from Dominic, along the battlements at the top of the castle, and disappeared through a high archway just below the topmost turret.
***
     Across Omni, Tarna’s isolation was complete. He had meddled in affairs which were beyond his stature and had been snared by a power far greater, and now he would pay the price for his arrogance. Most of what he held dear had been destroyed, and now he was old before his time, weighed down by the burden of guilt which sat ill on his once fine shoulders. The decisions and actions he knew he must take, he was not able to do so because of the control exerted by the Seth himself. He needed to sever that bond, but they were indivisibly linked, tightly tied, mind-to-mind. The Seth bound him as a cooper rings his barrel staves with iron. His decision, ill-advised by scant experience, had returned ten fold to haunt his every waking moment. It was as if his whole life was being drawn inexorably towards his final, crushing defeat; utter despair as a thrall to an evil so complete, so uncompromising, and so bereft of compassion, that he could see no end to his fall.
*** 
     The great iron-clad oaken door clanged shut behind him as his trailing foot found solid ground beneath him. Temporarily enclosed in a world of blackness and warm moistness, his eyes tried to adjust to the darkness after the blinding white of the intense blizzard outside. Try as he might, he could detect no welcoming smell of warmth or baking which would have reassured him of his safety. Umbrano had disappeared along with the ice creatures the instant they were secure inside, leaving Jimmy to be jostled along by the guards who were warm-blooded. He had already found it impossible to hold a meaningful conversation with them. Doubtless to each other, the range of grunts expressed, conveyed some sort of meaning, but to a well-brought up English boy, with a sophisticated communication system, a grunt is still a grunt. That he was not to be harmed, for now, he had gleaned from the little intelligible conversation he had heard which gave him some degree of comfort. How long that was to last, of course, he wasn’t sure. He was surprised at his own level of composure in seemingly dire and impossible situations, but that shutting down of all systems and surrender to despair would resolve nothing; feelings and rationale which should have been way beyond those of any normal ten-yearold.
     Although dim and smelling vaguely stale, the inside of the tower bore no resemblance to its outside. Once the eyes had become used to the gloom, the inside became a conflict of impacts and styles, mainly playing around stone and oak. The walls and floor were of dark, smooth and polished stone, with the walls giving off a slight phosphorescent glow, providing just enough light to distinguish wall from floor, and the way forward. There were oak doors – manyoak doors – which were similar in construction to those in Reuben’s and Ursula’s father’s studies, giving the feeling that the same carpenter had fashioned them all. The lasting impression, however, was the one of scale. Although the Tower outside could have been no more than ten paces in diameter at its base, inside, corridors radiated from the central pillar of the Tower like some subterranean octopus with unguessably long arms. Some of the passageways seemed wholesome, some not so; some Jimmy could make out dimly, some were impenetrably black. He was taken to what could only be described as a cell, hidden behind an oak door, set in a wall accompanied by many other doors on both sides of the corridor.
     “This you,” one of the creatures uttered in words which seemed vaguely to have their roots in his own language, as he grated the key in its huge iron lock. The door swung outwards into the corridor surprisingly quietly, and as Jimmy was thrust unceremoniously into the cell, the door clanged shut behind him. Expecting to see walls slimed over by seeping water, cobwebs festooning the roof, and a pile of straw in the corner covering a mud floor, he was surprised to find the continuation of the corridor’s floor and walls, a clean bed in the corner, and a toilet of sorts opposite.     
     He slumped onto the bed, resigned to his fate this time, not knowing whether to cry or to try and maintain his new-found grown-up maturity. Without really trying to bring her to mind, Ursula drifted into his thoughts. He wasn’t sure whether her image was idealised, but he could see her clearly, sitting on the edge of a large desk looking intently at something which, try as he might, remained out of focus. Suddenly, his eyes flashed open, and he straightened where he sat, surprised at the image he now had in his mind. Why would he have imagined her in his Uncle Reuben’s study, given that she had never been there?     
     “That’s not his study!” he muttered to himself, surprised at hearing his own voice. “Not his study because Reuben doesn’t have a desk tidy or pen rack.” He realised also that these scenes could simply not have been thoughts, figments of the mind’s activity, because the actions he saw continued sequentially whilst he was talking, and he knew he couldn’t think and talk at the same time.    
     “Ursula!” he shouted suddenly, trying to communicate but knowing really that she wouldn’t be able to hear. Suddenly his image of her stopped as if hearing a sound, and it turned its head slowly, as if searching for the source of that sound. “Ursula!” he shouted again. “I’m here!”    
     “Jimmy,” she mouthed, but the image was lost.        
     He tried desperately to recapture that last connection, but it was not there. The link had evaporated. At one time in his earlier adventures, despair would have invaded him, and he would have collapsed on the bed in sobs of self-pitying resignation; but this Jimmy Scoggins had grown out of all proportion to his age. His experiences of Omni had taught him that if something could happen once, however implausible and outrageous, it could happen again, once the conditions were right.    
     Whilst his thoughts were occupied with Ursula, he glimpsed a slight movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head to face this new occurrence, to find nothing. As his mind registered his disappointment, the same thing happened at the other side of the room, only this time there was more than one flash; instantly visible, then gone. What new devilry had Seth sent to torment him now? Jimmy retreated into the corner of the room where his bed head was protected by the joining of two walls, and there, with his back wedged firmly in the corner, he waited and watched. At least he would see his assailants coming. There was some value in that, surely.    
     He didn’t have to wait long. He watched a small ball of what could only be described as delicately translucent light enter his cell through the wall. It hovered just above his head for a few moments, as if studying him, then it left the way it had come in. Jimmy was sure that no emission of The Seth would behave in such a way, and as he had felt no threat, he considered the being to be entirely pure. It wasn’t long before the lights returned, in numbers this time. Four approached him slowly, with a slightly larger one at their head, persuading Jimmy that it was their leader. The four smaller lights stopped about an arm’s length or so above his head, somewhat like a jewelled halo. The larger one continued to move towards Jimmy, and as it reached his forehead, although he tried to shy away, the light simply spread itself over his skin and, rather like a good sun block, became absorbed immediately.    
     The remaining four lights stayed there, hovering, watching, motionless. Jimmy maintained his position, bolt upright, watching, restless. Hewanted to know what was going to happen. He had never had another being inside his head before, and there was nobody, no having-a-being-inside-your-head expert from whom he might seek advice.    
     “I am Lucix,” a voice sounded in his head. Well, it wasn’t really a voice as such in the accepted sense of the word; more a mixture of feelings and impressions which conveyed meanings. “These are my people, and they are called Luciens. Like you, we are prisoners.”    
     “But,” Jimmy cut in out loud, “you can …”    
     “… Pass through walls?” Lucix finished. “You have no need to vocalise your thoughts. It is enough that you “feel” what you want to communicate. One so young should be able to master the skill quickly. Simply concentrate on what you want to convey.”    
     Now, where had Jimmy heard that before? There must be dozens of Mr Bolams in these worlds, all having the same views on his need to concentrate! Jimmy screwed up his eyes and “thought” his reply. This was a natural reaction for him, for if he cut out all external stimuli, he found it so much easier to hold an idea in his head. Like many people from his world, Jimmy “thought” in words for conversations he might want to have, or pictures for actions. Simply “feeling” was a very difficult concept to understand or, more importantly, to put in to practice.     
     “I am here because I think Seth either believes I have something he wants, or he wants to punish me for my part in his defeat the last time I was here,” Jimmy answered. “Why are you here?”    
     “Because of what we are and what we can do,” Lucix continued. “The wicked Dark Master tricked us and trapped us. Hesaid he wanted to ally himself to us, that he was misunderstood, and that he wanted all citizens of this world to benefit from his wisdom. We now know that he wants to use what we can dofor his own evil ends. This is why he won’t allow us to leave. We can move freely within this place, but we cannot penetrate the outer walls. He is not able to contain us within, and so we wait for an opportunity, any opportunity, to leave.”    
     Jimmy was just beginning to get the hang of having Lucix in his head, when he heard the heavy clump of iron-booted feet in the corridor leading to his door. Lucix had sensed the approaching menace, and left Jimmy’s head and cell rather hurriedly, followed closely by the other Luciens. Jimmy’s head began to spin, and nausea swam into his throat momentarily, leaving him feeling light-headed and fatigued.    
     The door swung open under an extremely heavy hand, and slammed       back on its rusty, groaning hinges to the wall in the corridor outside. A huge man-shaped creature lumbered into the room, bearing a rough platter on which Jimmy could see a crude plate with some sort of food scattered across it, and a cup of sorts, containing a steaming liquid. The creature placed the platter on a small table in the opposite corner of the room, with such force it rattled the utensils and threatened to scatter them on the floor. The creature turned and lumbered out, slamming the door behind him.
     With all this excitement and non-stop activity, Jimmy had not had enough time to consider the gravity of the situation he found himself in, and now he had just been reminded that he hadn’t eaten for some time. The sight and smell of food began to make his stomach growl. He dropped off the bed, and, looking to either side of him as if he thought he might see someone else, he shuffled across the room, half-expecting to be whisked back to his own reality. He stopped twice, to guard against being flung into any hard object should Omni decide he was no longer required in this world, but realising he was still here, he hurried across to the small table.    
     What was in the bowl looked unappetising but smelled good, and the steaming cup held a liquid not dissimilar to tea, although much weaker than mum’s concoctions. Tentatively at first, but then greedily when he realised it was edible, he devoured what was before him.    
     “Well,” he began to mutter to himself as he wandered back to the bed, “that’s a turn up. I wonder why they brought me food when I didn’t ask for it? Perhaps they’re friendly after all.”     
     “Don’t be fooled,” came a light, refreshing voice behind him.    
     Jimmy spun around, knowing there wasn’t anyone else in the room, to see a glimmering translucent being in the form of a young boy about his age, who looked very much like Peter Lee, the youngster who had adopted Jimmy at school.    
     “How come you’re …” he said slowly, a puzzled frown overtaking his brow.    
     “… Like Peter Lee?” the being continued. “And who am I?”    
     “Er … yes,” Jimmy stammered, rather at a loss. He expected the unexpected always in this world, but he couldn’t help wondering if there was going to be any end to all this sorcery and trickery? There was only so much a body could be blasé about, really!    
     “Once again, I am Lucix,” the being replied.    
     “No, you’re not!” Jimmy returned emphatically. “Lucix is a ball of light, and you … you’re … you’re … Peter Lee!”    
     “Once I have connected with someone’s mind,” Lucix explained, “I can take the form of a memory recently experienced, and as this figure was one of the latest to be experienced in your memory close to your form, I chose it to communicate with you.”    
     Jimmy didn’t know what to think or say, he harrumphed and dropped his chin to his chest, hoping something might occur to him so he could make a meaningful response to yet another outstandingly mind-blowing piece of jiggery-pokery.    
     “I have discovered that the only way we can both escape this dungeon is to help each other,” Lucix broke the silence. “For escape you must. They have fed you because they need to keep you alive so they can extract information from you which they need. They will succeed in that, have no illusion, and that process will not be pleasant. Once they have what they need, you will be of no further use to them, and so will be discarded.”
     “How can we help each other?” Jimmy urged, stunned back to action by the image of his impending interrogation and ultimate doom.    
     “We have to be quick,” Lucix returned. His followers had gathered about his head, waiting, listening. “I need to re-enter your mind as before, which will allow you to become as me, as a Lucien. We know we can exit any room within this tower, and I think your substance will allow us to cross the outer barrier.”    
     “And if it doesn’t? What happens to us?” Jimmy enquired anxiously.
     “We will all be lost in the Foggy Land of Four,” was Lucix’s simple reply.    
     “Still,” Jimmy returned after a moment’s thought, “we can’t stay here. Being grilled by Seth is not an option.”    
     At that moment they heard the heavy tread of several booted guards, heading towards their cell. Jimmy’s senses had been heightened by incarceration and the interaction with Lucix, so he knew they weren’t casual passers-by. Muffled orders were barked, and the mobile boots stopped in front of his door. As key found lock, Lucix entered Jimmy’s head once again, ready for their hoped for escape.    
     Ursula had been brooding for some time, pacing back and forth in her father’s study. She stopped before the great map periodically to see if she might discern Jimmy’s whereabouts, but to no avail. Her last vision of him had been that of a captive in an icy land, taken to incarceration in a grim, grey tower amidst a white wintry landscape.    
     She perched on the edge of the great desk once again in an attempt to locate him. How could she, a young and insignificant girl, hope to find her friend in a place where she knew she couldn’t go? Concern began to take root and grow inside her. The increased anxiety grew ever deeper and stronger roots of despair. Yet, profoundly within her a feeling of resolve, hope  and strength increased more quickly than the blackness she was experiencing. The darkness dissipated, to be replaced by a steady determination that her inner power would be enough to overcome any hurdle she might encounter. She closed her eyes slowly and gently, and as she relaxed, her breathing slowed until it had become almost imperceptible. As her mind cleared, random images of Omni swam into her head; images of places she had neither seen nor visited.     
     Then, there it was! Dour, black and threatening, the Watch Tower jerked into focus. Through the walls, and into the corridor her images took her. She followed the passageway to one door of many, outside of which was gathered a menacing group of guards, key in lock making ready to burst into the room. At this moment, Lucix entered Jimmy’s head, Ursula exerted all her will, her considerable, untapped power waxing within her, and the guards burst into the cell. She opened her eyes, blinked, and found herself in the cell, but Jimmy wasn’t there. The light-burst caused by Ursula’s entry subsided to reveal that the guards had disappeared, leaving a pile of their empty clothing and primitive weaponry in the open doorway. Ursula understood the enormity of her error, realised in an instant that she had taken Jimmy’s place as captive, and collapsed, exhausted from the exertion of what she had done. The clothing disappeared and the door swung shut with an almighty clang.      
 

 
 
 
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