The yellow eyes on the horizon flicker and fade. Now they're gone. Like a nightmare gone at sunrise.
"Was that the Dragon King, Lucille?" I ask her.
"Yes, Sammy. But our defences are staying up. For now."
Lucille's shrinking. She gathers me up in her branches and puts me on the ground. The gets smaller and her bark flakes off and her skin is soft and green again. Now she's back to normal, or as normal as she ever is.
"Gadzooks. A remodelling that was too good to last," croaks Quoth.
We fly straight back to Selena's house. Lucille flies at top speed. Quoth goes to that Moon Tower they were talking about. We land on the lawn.
Selena looks very anxious when she hears about the horrible dragons. Her brows draw together and she bites her dark green bottom lip. She leads us into her garden. "I was afraid something terrible had happened. My tumblebuds got jittery. The gnomes are cowering in the undergrowth. The sprite flinched in its pond."
She stands by a bird bath made of white marble. She breathes on it and then stares into the water. "If the Evil One should come back, we're all in great peril, magic and mundane alike. I see his malice seeping through into our world first. This means trouble for us, Lucille. And I really fear for those poor people with no magic."
"Zooks Hurrah! Zooks Hurroosh!" Quoth's back. He lands on the branch of a tree. "What would you know? The Mistress was right. The Crystal Moon is gone. Everything at the Moon Tower is at sixes and sevens. Witches never have an inkling of what to do when it's a real emergency." He gives a scornful croak and hops onto the ground to start digging for worms.
Lucille touches her mum's arm. "You say mundanes are in great danger, mother? My little imp is mundane. I've gotta prepare him for what's coming. Those awful dragons nearly took us by surprise. You have to help me … you have to help us."
She's talking about me. What does my step-mum want to do? Teach me magic? Can she do that?
"Some hope," rasps Quoth from the ground. "He's as weak as an oyster out of its shell compared to either of you. You can't train him to deflect magic. Your hope is a fool's hope, Mistress."
Lucille pouts at him.
"He can't practice with either of us," says Selena. "Of course he can't. But with another child… that would be different. I already have someone in mind. A pupil of mine, from my Magical Herb class. The kindest little girl I know. Ashia Wraith. She would help."
A girl? I've got to practice with a girl? Not sure I like that.
Selena goes to a pool of turquoise water in the garden and fishes out a silver conch shell. She puts it to her ear.
"Hello, Ali… Does the Moon shine bright on you? … Well I just happen to need help from Ash."
I suppose Ash is this girl they're talking about. Selena must be calling the mum.
It's ten minutes later and another green lady on a broom lands on the room. She's got a green girl with her. There's something strapped to the girl. Is it a big ball?
Selena kneels down and talks to the girl, hugs her, then leads her to me. "Sammy, this is Ash. Ash, this is Sammy from the mundane world."
Ash grins at me. It looks weird, with her white teeth and yellowy green face. That ball that's strapped to her looks like a pumpkin! "Hello!" she says. "I'm Ash and I wanna be friends. I wanted a friend from the other world. How come you don't have magic like the rest of us?" She says this very fast.
"Hi… I'm Sammy… and I don't know," I answer.
Ash pushes her purple hair away from her face. Seriously, she has this really long, purple hair. And there's a green ring on her finger. Weird. "Aw, Sammy. Why don' ya know?" she says. "I wanna help."
She unstraps the pumpkin from around her middle. "Here's Squashy. Wanna hold 'im?"
Now I can see the pumpkin has a little face on it. Little black eyes and a smiley mouth. It squirms in her hands. Must be magic.
"OK…" I reach out and take the pumpkin. It's softer than I thought it would be. It feels like it's flexing and moving in my hands.
"How sweet," says Lucille, smiling.
"I grew 'im," says Ash, grinning. "It's magic. Can Sammy learn?"
"Like the boys of our realm, her can borrow magic," says Selena. "I believe he is a good boy, so I will supply it. It comes from the special patch of earth in my garden."
I give Squashy back to Ash and Selena takes my hand and leads me to a patch of green mud at the end of the garden. Strange. Like a tiny green swamp. Ash trots after us and Lucille follows.
Selena scoops up some green mud in her hands.
"What's that?" I ask.
"Magic mud," she says. "Nothing to worry about."
"This doesn't hurt at all, does it?" asks Lucille. Her red eyebrows are knitted together as she looks at the mud.
"Of course it doesn't hurt," says Selena. "Hold still, my dear boy…"
She smears the mud on my face. Ooh! It's cold.
"Yer all green now," giggles Ash.
Quoth the raven alights on Lucille's shoulder. "An entire brood of green things you all appear to be," he croaks. "I can no longer tell you apart."
Lucille's smiling at me and her eyes are bright, but I can't tell if she looks happy or sad. "Sammy is so precious."
"The mask should hold a little while," says Selena. "Enough for Sammy to practice a couple of counter spells."
We go onto the lawn.
"Now children," says Selena. "Face one another and then step back five paces."
Ash puts Squashy on the bluish grass. "Watch this, Squashy." The pumpkin actually turns to watch us as we face one another. We both take five steps back. Ash grins widely at me and waves. Then she points. The green ring on her finger glows with a pulsing light.
I feel weird for a moment, like I'm spinning round, and suddenly I'm right by Ash and her face is right next to mine! "Boo!" She pulls a funny face, crinkling her shiny green nose. "I moved ya, Sammy."
"Now the counter," says Selena.
She hands me a pot of glue. "Sprinkle this around your feet, Sammy. As soon as she points."
We take five paces back again and Ash points her finger with the ring at me. I know what to do. I pour the sticky glue around my feet. This time I don't teleport, but the glue disappears. Weird. Can I stop magic now? Does it count as doing magic?
"Yay!" Ash claps her green hands together. "Ya did it."
"Wonderful, darling, just wonderful," says Lucille.
"Easily impressed," grumbles Quoth.
"Spells can be countered," says Selena. "For each spell, there is a counter. Ash - try the spell of binding."
"Ah, Okay," says Ash.
Lucille kneels down and grips my shoulders. "Remember darling – think of becoming light as air."
As light as air? I think about floating.
"Get ready," calls Ash. She has a little heap of pink powder on her palm and she blows it at me.
"Light as air," urges Lucille as the pink cloud swirls around me.
But I'm turning stiff. My arms are stuck to my sides and my legs are stuck together. I can't move!
"Oh dear… I knew this was a bad idea." Lucille grips my shoulders and her brown eyes are wide. "Oh Sammy, listen, um… I'm going to get you out of this. Um… but Ash cast the spell and I don't know…"
I try to answer, but my jaws won't move!
"There can be no doubt that your mother would prefer Ash as a daughter, Mistress," jeers Quoth. "She actually gets spells right. She's a witch who can spell! Ha, ha…" The raven gives a croaky laugh.
Ash suddenly appears right by me. Her green ring is glowing. She frowns. "You gotta think harder, Sammy. Think 'bout flying."
I'm starting to panic because I can't open my mouth, but when Ash says this I think hard about the times Lucille and I flew. I think of the wind rushing through my hair. I feel my body relaxing and I can open my mouth again.
"That was horrible," I say loudly.
Ash purses her lips. "Hush. Here." She slips her green ring off her finger. "You need this more'n I do."
She holds it out. Is she giving me her magic ring?
"You hesitate to snatch it, boy?" says Quoth. "My cousins, the magpies, certainly wouldn't."
"That's very generous of you to make the offer, dearest Ash," says Selena.
Ash stares at me. The sunlight shines off her green nose. "Don't be proud, Sammy. Jus' take it, will you?"
I take the ring. "Thanks…" I slip it on my finger. My hands are about the same size as the witch-girl's. For a split second, I feel a pulse from the green metal down my arm, but then it's gone. Did I imagine it?
Ash sighs. "I'm a bit worried 'bout you, Josh. Cos you're so weak."
"It's something I love about him," says Lucille, her green lips twitching to form a smile. She kneels and puts her hands on my shoulders. "My precious little homunculus."
"You know what ravens say about weakness?" rasps Quoth.
"I don't care what ravens say about weakness," says Lucille. She's still smiling at me. Then she stands up and touches Selena's arm.
"We must fly back," Lucille tells her mum. "You understand now, I think."
Selena nods. Her eyes are strangely bright. The witches hug and kiss one another goodbye, and now my step-mum and I are going to leave.
We get on Woody the broom and Lucille straps me to her. take off in the air. Ash and Selena wave at us on the lawn below. The pumpkin's sitting there beside Ash.
There's a little, silvery globe attached to Lucille's broom. "My moon compass," she explains, "so there's no chance of getting lost even if it gets dark too soon. It should fly us in the direction of the moon…"
"Why would it get dark too soon?" I ask.
"The Dragon King," answers Lucille.
All of a sudden, it's getting dark and I can hear a rumble of thunder… There are dark clouds above us.
It's almost dark, and my step-mum's bright green face seems almost luminous. "C'mon, c'mon, fly straight," she murmurs.
But then, two points of glaring yellow loom over us. Two great yellow eyes, with slits for pupils, like a snake. We hear hollow laughter, rumbling like thunder around us. The eyes lunge closer and my heart beats fast.
"No!" cries Lucille, and Woody the broom shoots downward.
"Find the moon!" cries my step-mum.
But we're falling now… We're not going to find the moon.
Down and down we fall, down and down. It's like we're floating and turning over and over as we fall through darkness. Then there's a splash and we're in a cavern with all these weird lights. Strange, coloured lights. All the colours of the rainbow and more. We're standing, ankle deep in water. I look around. There are all these pulsing, jelly things on the rocky walls of the cavern.
"Where are we?" I ask. "What are those?" I point at the pulsing, jelly thingies.
"Oh…" says Lucille, looking around with wide brown eyes. Her green face looks even weirder in this light. "Ah…" She flicks her read plait over her shoulder. "We've fallen, Sammy dearest. Into the cavern of the Minuses."
"What's a Minus?"
They were people once, but they tried to cast a spell of eternal youth on themselves. It went terribly wrong. It made them younger and younger until it subtracted all their years and made them… minus something years old. I dunno… I don't really understand it."
"Why don't you understand it, Lucille?"
"I'm not a great witch," says Lucille, shrugging. "The Minuses shouldn't really be here, but they are. They're alive and they think. But if we don't bother them, they won't bother us."
"Yes, dear. I do at least know that they only attack evil creatures. Evil is a source of psychic pain to them."
Lucille smiles and takes my hand. "The Minuses can sense evil creatures thinking evil things and it agitates them. Come. I don't know what went wrong with my compass, but it's pointing the way now."
She picks up Woody and the little globe in her other hand. We wade and splosh through the shallow water in the cavern and out onto the other side, into a long tunnel, lit faintly by glimmering crystals in the ceiling. The tunnel leads upwards and starts to widen. There's light at the end of the tunnel, but now something's blocking it. Something like a great pair of bat wings, but impossibly large… Oh no! Something like a dragon!
"So, you thought your unnatural tricks would save you?" hisses War Dragon. "You were never more wrong. This is the end of the line." She holds up her knives, the blades gleaming in the pale light…