Ghosts, Ghouls and Demons
So, what did Mum do when an undead maniac swathed in human skin loomed over her? She kept a cool head, that's what.
She flung the gem old Dreksler had given her right into the skeleton's eye socket where it stuck. It had shattered one of his glass eyes. The gem was something called a sun jewel. They're very valuable. Most of all, for their mystical properties. The skeleton hissed as the sun jewel blazed with light, immolating his cold bones with a life-giving glow. Turns out that this was what was needed to undo the psychic spell with which he bound himself to the mausoleum. His bones burst apart again, and the girls heard a shriek, fading into nothingness. He had finally gone to wherever it is that the most evil men go when they die.
Mum hugged Becky to calm her down. It shouldn't come as a surprise that she was having hysterics again. Mum had just about got her to cool it, when the lid of the noble's coffin swung open with a creak and an ethereal, blue light filled the crypt. The ghost of a very old man say up in the coffin.
"Who is it? Who has put an end to my torment?"
He did not need them to answer. He turned and saw them. "Young ladies, I am in great debt to you. I have been stuck here since that reprobate defiled my crypt. Now at last, my soul can die in peace."
"Another ghost? Where do they come from?" cried Becky.
Mum stepped forward. "You are Lord Kritias?"
"I am, or rather, I was," said Kritias, without the ghost of a smile. "The title expired along with my life. And who are you two? You would not be here without great need." His eyes were shrewd, even though there was no light or life behind them.
"Exactly right," said Mum. She introduced the pair of them to the ghost of his Lordship and then explained their plight. "We were victimised by a dream demon. One that rapes by night. An incubus."
"And now we're pregnant!" added Becky. "This is so … embarrassing."
Kritias looked troubled. "Then perhaps this is a good day to die… Demonic visitations mean great disturbances. But not necessarily doom… Listen, girls. There is one who can help you."
"You mean you're just sending us somewhere else?" snapped Becky. "Can't anyone be bothered to actually help us?"
"Hush, Becky," said Mum. "My Lord, please tell us… who can help us?"
Kritias was visibly crumbling in front of them. There wasn't much time left. His knowledge would soon be lost to the world.
"Our city's founder, Immor himself, that is who. He has passed down wisdom. The cityport's greatest secret. Contained in the north gate. The final barrier to the wilderness. This is forbidden knowledge. Only one at a time can be privy to it. Alexia – I choose you."
Becky squawked in protest. Mum put her arms around Kritias and leaned close as he passed on the knowledge of the incantation for the north gate. He was as light and fragile as old parchment. The incantation is forbidden knowledge. Only mum knows it now.
"Good luck," groaned Kritias, "the way upwards is clear now." With a withered finger he pointed upwards, expecting them to clear out.
"Will you be alright?" asked Mum.
"Is he alright? What about me?" demanded Becky.
"I give the last of my lifeforce to you both," whispered Kritias. With a sigh, he lay back in his coffin and was gone. They both felt a cold strength flood through them. The strength to continue and keep fighting. They left the crypt, still shivering after their meeting with the ghosts. I hope poor old Kritias went somewhere nice. Knowing about all I do about these ghosts make me wonder… what do the gods have in mind for demonspawn? Huh. We don't really even know where untainted humans go when they die.
Anyway, it was dusk outside now. They left the necropolis, taking the seldom trodden road to the north gate. The path led through the tall pine trees of a shadowy forest. The road was in a shocking state of disrepair, all cracked and overgrown with weeds.
"There's something stalking us!" whined Becky. "What is it? More ghosts? I'm absolutely sick of ghosts."
I think that's pretty ungracious of Becky. I mean, hadn't they already met one helpful ghost, as well as one demented ghoul? You can't lump ghosts together like that. I say so, 'cos I really don't want to have to be lumped together with just any demon-spawn. Yeah, yeah, supernatural beings all have a different perspective on things.
Anyhow, it wasn't really a ghost stalking them. It was a wild bristle beast. You remember how Dreksler had a tame bristle beast as a pet? Well, the spiny lizard was following them, but keeping in the shadow of the trees. Mum held Becky's hand and kept her calm. She set the example. If a wild bristle beast is stalking you, don't let it know that you're afraid, just ignore it. Mum set her eyes on the road and led Becky to the gate.
Eventually they reached the towering wall of the cityport. It really was immense. Taller than any of the trees. There was the north gate, made of solid, black wood.
"Halt!" commanded a ghostly voice. "Do you know the incantation?"
Becky screamed. "More ghosts? When will it ever end?"
"Silence!" Boomed the ghostly voice. "Do you know the incantation?"
"I do know the incantation," said Mum, stepping forwards. Yes, she recited the incantation and yes, it's still forbidden knowledge.
As soon as she uttered the words, it was clear that something spooky was going to happen. Time seemed to slow down to treacle around them. The sounds of owls hooting and crickets chirping in the forest slowed down to a low murmur. Becky turned, probably about to flee.
"Halt!" Came the ghostly voice again, and Becky was somehow compelled to obey…
A spectre came gliding towards them. An old man with a long, trailing beard. His top half looked solid, but his legs trailed off into mist. His amber eyes were cold and shrewd. They both recognised him.
"Dreksler!" Cried Becky. "What are you doing here?"
Mum had already guessed the truth. "Sir… you have travelled in time? You became Immor the City founder? When?"
"Soon after you left for the Necropolis. You were the one who worked out the clue in my runes, Alexia. The one piece of that puzzle that I had been missing. It only needed a fresh mind. I know that danger will creep up on the cityport, so I went back to remake it in such a way that it could be saved."
Old Dreksler had gone around in time full circle. Back to the beginning of the Cityport by magic and then he had waited out the centuries until the present. His spirit was haunting the magical gate. Remember the inscription on his grave? That he would never leave? A hard fate to visit on himself. That's what I call dedicated. And wasn't it nice of him not to get shirty when he was woken up? I guess it's pretty boring just haunting a gate and nothing else.
"You travelled back in time? How does any of this help us?" wondered Becky.
"I have observed the dream demon and his comings and goings. I have perfect vision of the realm between the physical and ethereal. I know where he will strike next."
Dreksler showed them to the place where the dream demon would strike next. He guided them back through the forest and showed them a seldom trodden path that led back around the Necropolis and straight to the fairground of the north side of the river. It's the posh fairground. Not like the one where they have the dance of thieves. This is the one where things are expensive and they have those fancy clockwork mannequins.
Dreksler led them to the dream-demon's destination. It was a tiny little shack on the edge of the fairground. An oil lamp at the one small window cast rays of light into the darkness. Unfortunately, it would not be straightforward.
"I cannot accompany you, ladies," said Dreksler, "it would not be appropriate, but I can help you."
"Not appropriate?" Becky was furious. "It would be more appropriate to let two unarmed, pregnant girls risk everything? Yet again."
"Please, Becky," said Mum wearily. "Can we please all just get along?" She thought it good to appease Dreksler. "Following our founder's orders has led us on the right path so far."
"Quite right, Lexi," said Dreksler. He held up a transparent hand. Two rings adorned his fingers. One with a pearl set in it and the other, a plain band made of a strange, green metal. The pearl glowed, its iridescent light casting a film over the girls. "Now you are invisible to mortal eyes. Call me when the dream demon appears." With that, the ring of green metal began to glow, and he pointed his finger at them and then… they were teleported inside the shack.
In the shack was a bed and small vanity table. A girl sat at the table. She was obviously a clown at the fair during the day, because the clown makeup was still plastered on her face, like a mask. With or without it, the poor thing was not as pretty as Mum or Becky.
She was crying, although the tears did not wash away her thick makeup. She could not see the intruders. Just as well really. She was glaring at her reflection and saying stuff aloud to herself that was actually private. See if you agree. She said: "I wanted him to want me, but it didn't matter. No matter how much I loved him, I might as well be a ghost or ugly goblin."
A broken heart. That's something very personal.
The clown-girl turned to her bed. It was then Mum noticed one of those automated mannequins they have at the fair. The ones with synthetic skin that look super-realistic. This one, propped up on the clown's bed, was made to look like a man. Realistic in every detail, down to the stubble. It's amazing how real they make those things. They can actually give them blemishes or put a red paint under their skin so that they could appear to bleed if they got hurt. Even the eyes can look disturbingly real, like they're staring right at you.
The clown stroked the dummy's hair. "You're just a toy, but I'm going to turn you on…"
Clown-girl slipped a copper piece into the slot in the mannequin's chest. There was a whirring and the mannequin said in its tinny, pre-recorded voice; "I love you."
Clown-girl breathed through her nose. "There. Automatic joy."
Becky was becoming restless, wanting to make her contempt clear. Mum had to placate her while remaining quiet and still.
Yeah, yeah, it's weird, the idea clown-girl had of getting an automaton to be her boyfriend. Real men are not perfect. That's what makes them real.
Clown-girl hadn't finished talking at the dummy. "You are not real… experienced with girls. But you say what you should say. Straight up to the point. Tell me again." She thumped the dummy's chest.
"I love you."
"There! You feel as you should feel. I love you too." Clown-girl kissed the puppet's plastic cheek. "Love with no complications." She sniffed suddenly and tears poured down her face. I mean, who did she think she was kidding, right? Not herself. Not while she was holding a lifeless dummy and crying.
"The dummy's out of her league," hissed Becky in Mum's ear.
She calmed down. "I can even take you in the bath. Just wait and see."
She undressed and slid into her bathtub of hot water, dragging mannequin man with her. She sat in the bubbly water with her arms wrapped round the dummy. Yeah…
"Let me take you," she said, curling her lip and reaching for the dummy's rear.
With that the dummy really came to life. Its glassy eyes flared red, and its lips opened in a snarl. It seemed to glow with an otherworldly light, like it was possessed by some ghost… or dream-demon! It turned its rubber neck round a full semi-circle to glare into the painted face of the clown-girl whose eyes were wide with fright…