‘We have a problem.’ Helian stood in the lounge doorway. The room seemed huge now it was fully lit, and it was clear that the Professor lived, ate and worked in it.
‘Another one? What is it?’ Petra snapped.
‘Vlarimar is missing.’
Everyone turned to look at him. Petra stood up quickly and pushed past him, running up the stairs two at a time. Farron and Zorbel, glanced at each other, pulled out their swords and went in opposite directions in the hallway. Kintra sat on the sofa arm, her hand clasped around her bow and stared at Helian.
‘Where do you think he went?’ she asked. She suddenly felt vulnerable. Helian shrugged and turned to look out into the hall, his own bow at the ready. ‘I don’t know. He didn’t seem strong enough to go far. He could have just wandered off to find us and got lost. This house is big!’
‘Wouldn’t we have heard him coming down the stairs? And there are only bedrooms up there.’
‘With huge windows.’
He put up a hand. ‘I’ll go check them. Someone needs to stay with the Professor.’
Petra came bounding back down the stairs a strange look on her face, this time unreadable. Helian grabbed her arm. ‘Come with me, and we’ll check outside.’
She looked relieved to be told what to do, Kintra thought. Petra was flustered! That in itself was a shocking revelation. She notched an arrow and waited.
The Professor lay still as death beside her. Muffled noises made her jump and kept her tense and ready to strike. The stairs creaked. She couldn’t see them from where she sat. She pulled the bow back against her cheek, ready. She counted each creak, each step. Whoever it was paused, and then carried on. And then Vlarimar stopped in the doorway. He was tall, his hair grazing the frame, and his eyes were wide, childlike. She kept the arrow pointed at his shoulder. He looked shocked, blinked twice as if waking from a deep sleep, and then put up both hands.
‘Don’t. Please. I’m not sure where I am. Where’s Petra?’
His voice was deep, resonant, and she relaxed the bow a little.
‘She’s looking for you. Everyone is. Where were you?’ She kept her voice low, calm, confident, steadying the tremors in her hands by squeezing the bow.
‘Can I come in?’
‘Sit over there.’ She motioned at the fire side chair. He walked slowly and collapsed into it with a sigh.
She stood up but stayed by the sofa. ‘Where did you go?’
‘I am not sure.’ I opened a cupboard, what I thought was a cupboard, and went up some stairs. I was looking for Petra. Where is she?’
Kintra frowned. He was confused, probably coming around after some of Petra’s herbal concoctions. Why did she need to drug him still?
‘Where was the cupboard?’
‘Near the bed.’
Kintra pictured the rooms. There was indeed a closet door next to the bathroom. But Petra’s closet had stairs in?
‘What happened to the Professor?’ he asked.
‘We don’t know. He seems to have fallen on the stairs.’
‘Poor man. Is there something to drink? I need water.’
Kintra glanced around the room. There was an empty wine carafe, but nothing to refill it. She walked to the door and peered out. ‘FARRON! ZORBEL!’ She had no idea if they could hear her. The front door burst open and Helian rushed in.
‘I heard you shout.’ Petra followed him; both were dripping wet. Kintra sighed with relief.
‘Vlarimar is here.’ She pointed at the chair. Petra rushed past her; relief evident on her face. She crouched at the Prince’s side and took his hand, feeling his pulse. Kintra slowly understood. Petra was in love!
The steps in Petra’s closet were narrow and spiralled upwards at a steep angle. Kintra followed Farron, both glad to be out of the large room. A plain and very simple door stood ajar leading from a landing just big enough for one person to stand, rather uncomfortably. Light streamed out.
Farron silently drew his sword, Kintra her boot knife, and pushed the door fully open. Kintra could see nothing but Farron’s back. She paused behind him, knowing he was scanning the room for danger. He lowered his sword and walked in.
The room was round with four windows equally spaced. In the centre was another spiral staircase, although this one was wider and less steep. The room resembled a laboratory. They went in separate directions looking for clues as to what the Professor did here. Kintra ventured up the stairs and found a huge library, a ladder on wheels was hooked on to the shelves that reached up into a domed glass ceiling. A book lay open on a table next to a chair that matched the fireside chair below. She twisted it round to face her, flipping to the front cover.
‘The Secret Art To Aging Youthfully,’ she read aloud. It wasn’t a large tome, but it was an old one, rebound, and much used. Allowing it to fall open again she scanned the page contents. Farron came up behind her.
‘I think I have found out what the Professors problem is,’ she said with a grimace. ‘Looks like we need to find a Ballibeast as fast as we can.’
He picked up the book and after a moment put it down again a look of disgust on his face. ‘That explains the cut on his neck. We better go tell the others.’
‘I’ll bring this.’ She folded the top of the page and shut the book firmly. Petra could read the detail while they went to find the beast. It was preferable to staying put with the monster that lived in this house.
A mist hung heavy over the swampy grounds at the edge of the village. The rain had added extra water to the surface and one of Kintra’s boots had sprung a leak. Each step squelched a little more. They walked in silence, Zorbel leading the way, his huge sword clutched in both hands. The mist wrapped around their legs, only reaching as far as Kintra’s thigh. They felt their way carefully, feeling for the gravel road that wound through the centre of what was once a dangerous bog. Now local farmers had drained the majority, but the ground still retained water. Like a huge sponge she thought, grimacing as the water began to seep into her other boot.
Zorbel raised a shadowed hand in the air. Farron silently drew his sword. Her bow was already notched as she pulled her hand to her cheek, straining the string, trying to make out the shadowy shapes of bushes and trees. Was anything moving? Zorbel’s hand dropped again and he carried on. She relaxed the bow pointing the arrow to the ground.
Swamps and marshes were a Ballibeasts favourite hunting ground. They lived mainly on amphibians and reptiles but would take small mammals and birds when hungry. And they were adept at killing humans who got in their way. They didn’t eat them. They just ripped them apart and left the carrion for some other beast to eat. Ballibeasts were hugely territorial.
A squelching off to their left brought them all to a halt. Kintra scanned the darkness looking for movement. Nothing. They set off again, and once more heard the squelching sound. They stopped as one unit, turning towards the sound. This time the moving shape was unmistakable. She drew her bow, waiting for Zorbel’s signal. The huge man, half the size again of the Ballibeast, edged away to the right, while Farron moved behind her to the left. As one they edged forwards. The beast, known for its poor eyesight was busy catching frogs. The amphibian screams filled the air, now. The Ballibeast was in a feeding frenzy. Kintra was hopeful this would be over quickly.
She focused her arrow on the creature’s torso, watching Zorbel from the corner of her eye. A sudden flash of white above her head made her jump and duck, her arrow pitching to the ground. An owl. Her heart hammered in her chest as she slowly rose. The Ballibeast was still, listening. Zorbel brought his hand up into the air. She froze. The beast suddenly set off, straight towards her. Zorbel’s arm dropped as she leased an arrow, then another and another. Each hit home, but the beast kept coming, splashing, squelching, panting. Zorbel ran in from it’s right as she fired another arrow, chopping towards its legs. Farron hacked from the left. Ballibeasts were fast. And this one, screeching with pain, was not stopping. She loosed another arrow, as the two men ran at the beasts side, slashing, slashing. She wasn’t sure how much longer to stand her ground. Would running help? It was too close. She could smell it now, stagnant muddy water and stagnant frog breath. Farron suddenly leapt and thrust his sword into the beast’s neck. It staggered, but its momentum brought it even closer. She couldn’t tell where to fire as the beast half ran, half crawled, so she shot and hoped. Zorbel concentrated his double handed efforts on the neck now too. Like chopping down a tree she thought in horrified fascination. And like a tree the beast suddenly keeled over with a whine and a thud. She relaxed the bow and took a great swallow of swampy air. The men kept hacking, until the head rolled forward. For a moment she felt sorry for the creature. What a way to die. All because the head of a Ballibeast was needed to keep an alchemist alive.
They wrapped the head in a blanket. Farron and Zorbel carried it between them. It was twice the size of a human head, and it stunk. Kintra walked in front staying upwind of the stench. The men stank too, covered as they were in the luminous green blood, and the thick stagnant mud. Neither complained. She would have complained. With a small shudder she led them back to the huge house as dawn began to light the sky.
Helian must have been watching for them. He opened the door, grimacing at the smell.
‘Petra said to take it up to the tower,’ he said, one hand covering his nose. ‘We took the professor up there.’
‘Does she know what to do?’ Kintra asked.
Helian nodded. ‘It won’t be pleasant. I don’t know how he does it himself.’
‘Perhaps he doesn’t.’ They followed Farron and Zorbel. Helian glanced at her. ‘Someone must come here and help with the cleaning and cooking. He obviously doesn’t do it all himself.’
‘A spell maybe?’ Helian said with a shrug. ‘There is no visible sign of anyone else being here.’
‘They could live elsewhere, in the village perhaps.’
‘I think if you were using a Ballibeasts head to bring you immortality, you would keep who ever helped you close at hand for fear of being run out of the village as a maniac!’
She couldn’t argue with his logic. Zorbel hoisted the blanket over one shoulder. The tower stairs were too narrow for two people side by side.
The professor lay on a bench. Vlarimar held his feet, as if stabilising him. Petra had a sharp knife and seemed to be opening up the wound on the side of the neck.
‘Bring the head here.’
Zorbel swung the load to the floor and opened the blanket. Kintra blanched and turned away, noticing Helian quickly averting his eyes, and swallowing hard. Farron wiped his brow on his sleeve, adding the green blood to his face. He glanced over at her. But his usual smile did not grace his face. She was oddly disappointed. He dropped to the floor and sat, his back to the wall, watching as Petra and Zorbel lifted the head and placed it on a three legged stool next to the professor.
‘What now?’ Zorbel asked.
‘I make a wound the same size as this at the back of the skull.’ She pointed to the professor’s neck. ‘There should be a fleshy bit’. Zorbel felt around until he found the place and Petra made her incision.
‘Now we need to put the two wounds together. Balance the head on the stool.’
Zorbel held the head at an angle while Petra and Vlarimar lifted the professor until both wounds were joined.
‘Kintra. There’s a bowl on the worktable with some herbs in. Fetch it here, along with the blue vial next to it.’
Kintra retrieved the items and took them over to the gruesome scene, averting her eyes from the professor’s snow white skin. He looked dead already. She proffered them at Petra and waited.
‘I can’t do it! I have to hold the head!’
‘What do I do with them?’
‘I thought you read the pages?’
‘I scanned them.’ She turned to face Petra, trying not to gag. The stench was unbearable.
Petra sighed. ‘Sprinkle the herbs around the edges of the wound, and then drip the vial contents over the top.’
Kintra swallowed the rising bile and took a pinch of the herbs from the bowl. She looked at the twin wounds and gagged.
‘Kintra for all the Gods! Just do it!’
She quickly sprinkled the herbs and unstoppered the vial. Gagging again, she held the cork over the top of the bottle so that the liquid came out in drips. As it hit the herbs a crackling sound began and the smell of burning flesh rose straight up into her nostrils.
She gasped. Suddenly she was back, running through the grand hall, tapestries alight, canvases burning in their frames, everything curling up, falling down, screaming. She coughed on the smoke that filled the air and dropped to her knees as a beam fell in front of her crushing Emelza under it. Emelza went up in flames in front of her eyes, the smell of burning hair and flesh mixing with the vomit rising in her throat. Suddenly she was grabbed and thrown over someone’s shoulder. She shut her eyes and prayed.
‘Kintra! It’s going everywhere!’
‘I can’t do it!’ She turned in panic and dropped the bowl and vial in Farron’s lap. Then she ran from the room, down the stairs and out of the front door. She kept on running until she reached the barn where the horses dozed in comfortable silence. Sorrel pricked up her ears, giving a low whicker of greeting. Kintra breathed into the mare’s mane, filling her lungs with the scent of warm horse. She was shaking. The images stuck in her mind. It had been a good while since she had the nightmares, and even longer since she’d had them when awake.
‘Hey. Are you Ok?’
She didn’t want to look at him. She pressed her face further into her horse and shut her eyes.
She listened as he came closer. ‘Did you remember? That smell is bad enough without…’
She swung round to look at him. Why did he have to talk? Farron would know to stay silent.
‘I don’t wish to talk about it.’
He took a step backwards and held up his hands. ‘Sorry. I just wanted to say I understood and see if you were OK.’
‘I will be. I just need space.’
‘Alright.’ He stuck his hands in his pockets and pursed his lips as he backed out from under the roof of the barn. ‘Sometimes it helps to talk that’s all.’
She stared after him, anger hurling daggers at his back, and then buried her head back into the warm mane.