At first I think I must be dreaming.
Though I never met my grandfather, the dried-up old teabag of a man dancing around the fire is what I imagine he must have been like, based on what my father told me. Though, now I know just about everything dearest papa told me was a lie, I can’t be so sure. My grandfather could have been Captain Hook or Pinocchio for all I know…
Nevertheless, as my senses begin to return, I realise I’m very much awake. And that my hands and feet are bound by glowing gold chains. Looking to my left and right, I see Lance and Cecil are in the exact same predicament — and that they’re both still unconscious.
We’re in some sort of chamber by the looks of things, the smoke from the fire rising to a perfectly round hole in the middle of the ceiling.The walls are covered with runes, sigils, marks and signs, suggesting to me we’re in a place of magic. Possibly a place which doesn’t actually exist…
‘Ah,’ says the old man, his long white beard flapping as he skips to a stop. ‘I see one of our guests is awake!’
I look around to see if there’s someone else in here with us, but as far as I can tell it’s just the four of us. I glare at him, not wanting to speak in case my voice betrays the frisson of fear I’m feeling. I glance at Lance, relieved to see the bundle of kindling is still beside him. I wish I’d asked him how long his enchantment lasts — I could use an array of vastly overpowered weaponry right about now.
‘Scarlett, Scarlett,’ says the wrinkled old walnut. He’s wearing a filthy ragged old tunic, hitched to a disturbingly immodest height above his knees. Under any other circumstance, he’d be as frightening as a drugged dormouse; however, the fact he seems to have overpowered a former Knight of the Round Table, a Minotaur and a werewolf fills me with not a little concern. ‘What’s the matter,’ he says, his voice lilting with glee, ‘Questing Beast take your tongue?’
So he knows who I am, and what I’ve been up to. Which puts him at an advantage I’m not particularly comfortable with. ‘Who the devil are you?’ I say, pleased to hear my voice sharp with menace. ‘And what do you want?’
‘Me? Oh, Scarlett, I’m just a kindly old gentleman wanderer exploring all the fascinating marvels this world has to offer.’ His eyes twinkle like stars. ‘And what I want? Well, just like everyone else, I want to be happy.’
‘And capturing us makes you happy?’
He does a little jig on the spot which makes him look like he has fleas inside his tunic. ‘Not as such, not as such. But every end has its means, dear Scarlett.’
‘How do you know my name? And where are we?’
‘My, my, we’re full of questions today aren’t we. Let’s have someone else answer those for you, shall we? His fingers dance in the air, tracing a glowing blue symbol which hangs there for a moment, then shoots faster than a high-velocity bullet straight into the unconscious Lance’s face.
I flinch instinctively, then watch as Lance convulses, then coughs and groans, then tenses tight.
‘Merlin,’ he whispers. ‘We meet again.’
‘Indeed we do, my erstwhile comrade,’ says the old man, clapping his hands in delight. ‘It’s been far too long, wouldn’t you say?’
‘Not nearly long enough.’ Lance’s tone is cool. ‘Tell me, how are things with your latest employer? Hasn’t she grown tired of you yet?’
Merlin’s shrill laugh sets my teeth on edge. ‘She and I may not always agree on everything,’ he says, ‘but we have a most magical relationship. How about you, Lancelot? Seen dear Guinevere of late?’
Lance bristles. ‘You know I have not.’
‘Shame, shame.’ He cackles. ‘The course of true love never did run the smoothest for you, did it? On the contrary, it was more like a raging rapid.’
‘What do you want of us?’ I growl and bare my teeth.
‘Now, now, let’s not get overexcited. There’s a good puppy.’ Merlin’s grin is so wide it almost splits his face in two, which is something I would most dearly love to do right now. ‘I merely want to give you a friendly bit of advice, that’s all.’
‘And what’s that?’
‘Turn back whilst you still can, my semi-lupine friend. Forget all about noble notions of inheriting kingdoms and any other such nonsense Lancelot may have filled your head with.’ He winks slyly at me. ‘He’s never been the most trustworthy when it comes to women, after all.’
‘How dare you!’ I’ve never heard Lance so angry. ‘The Lady Guinevere and I had the truest and noblest love of all. Not like you and your somnambulant seductress.’
‘At least she was single when she and I got together.’ Merlin’s toothless grin makes me feel queasy.
‘We’re not afraid of you,’ says Lance. ‘You’re not even here. None of this is real.’
‘You don’t believe my magic is real, Lancelot?’ A spark of fire appears between Merlin’s palms, quickly growing to the size of a large melon. ‘We may not be in the same physical space, but my spells are just as effective here.’
‘Perhaps,’ says Lance. ‘But any damage you inflict on our shadow selves will have no effect on our earthly bodies. So nothing you can do here will deter us from our noble quest.’
‘Hang on a minute,’ I say. The bonds dig into my wrists. The pain feels very real to me. ‘Would someone care to explain where exactly we are?’
‘We are in the between world,’ says Lancelot. ‘A plane of existence able to be traversed by those who dabble in the dark arts. It is not a place for you to fear, my lady.’
‘On the contrary,’ says Merlin, tossing his fireball into the wall where it fizzles out of existence. ‘It is a place for you to be terrified of.’
‘What tosh!’ Cecil leaps to his feet. ‘I’ve come across the likes of you before, you little old magic walnut. Your tricks are nothing but a big old stinky sack full of dreams and illusions.’ I notice his chains are lying at his feet, fading away to nothing. He snorts and winks at me. ‘All you have to do is click your hooves together and believe, darling. Or, in this case, my little Scarlett scampi, disbelieve.’
I stare down at my own bonds, then imagine them gone. No sooner have I done so then they melt away as if they were made of ice. I rub at my wrists, trying to disbelieve the nasty chaffing they seem to have caused, real or no.
‘Curse you!’ Merlin shakes his fist at Cecil, who responds by sticking his tongue out and waggling his ears. ‘Illusory or no, my warning still stands. Venture within a mile of SB’s palace and you shall have the full wrath of my most mighty — and most definitely real — magic to contend with. I shall not warn you again.’
And with that, he claps his hands and disappears with a singularly unimpressive pop. The walls of the cavern fade around us, and Lance, Cecil and I find ourselves back outside the exit to the Labyrinth, as though nothing ever happened. Presumably even the blow I remember receiving to the back of my head was all part of Merlin’s illusion, designed to trick us into thinking we were all in mortal danger.
‘Well, that was interesting,’ I say, laughing as I notice that even Lance’s enchantment that disguised my arsenal has worn off. ’Looks like everything’s is exactly as it was before. So, back to the matter ahead of us.’
I pause, noticing Lance and Cecil gaping at me. ‘Er, perhaps that should be the matter behind us, my scary little Scarletto,’ says the minotaur, eyes wide as bullrings. ‘I don’t think quite everything is back to how it was.’
I peer over my shoulder to where the pair of them are looking.
At my proud and majestic but — I have to admit — rather abnormal and inconvenient tail.