A look of surprise crosses his bearded face. "Welcome!" he exclaims, trying to cover up his lack of preparation. "Treguard, master of the dungeon, at your service. You must forgive me; I wasn't expecting you quite so soon. I trust you've made yourselves at home. And if you're all here, that must mean the path is open once more, and the first challenger should soon be arriving!" He glances around the floor for something, and picks up an item from under his chair. "Now if you'll just bear with me a moment... as you can see we've some new technology for this season."
He turns his attention to an enormous viewscreen which takes up much of the opposite wall, and looks rather incongruous with these ancient surroundings. Towards this blank screen he points a remote control that looks suspiciously like the magic wand known as Reach, and presses the button to activate it. The screen flickers into life but displays only a sea of static. "Oh," Treguard frowns, fumbling with the remote. After pressing the button repeatedly without success, he finally gives it two hard smacks against the palm of his hand, and tries the button again. This time a crystal clear image appears, showing the huge castle gate. A figure in a dark green hooded cloak can be seen from behind, standing on the threshold.
"Goodness, they're here already," observes Treguard. "Best not keep them waiting." He reaches for the Staff of Light, a ceremonial mace with the power to summon or dismiss visitors to the castle. Carrying it to the designated entry point at the foot of the staircase, he utters the immortal words "Enter, stranger!" and with arm outstretched, slams the staff onto the floor. There is a flash of blue light and the traveller materialises in front of him.
"Greetings, adventurer. And what do we call you?"
To Treguard's immense surprise, the individual throws back his hood to reveal pointed ears, upswept eyebrows and a bushy head of hair. A face he has not seen in over two years lights up with a grin. "It's me, master!"
"Pickle?! What on earth are you doing here?"
"It's nice to see you too!" responds the elf, good-naturedly. "Well I'm here to help of course. The first dungeoneer should be here any moment."
Treguard looks bewildered, wondering if he has somehow fallen through a time warp and found himself back to five years ago. He closes his eyes for a moment. "Pickle... did you or did you not choose to return to the forest? What was it -- 'couldn't stand the damp, creepy castle, rotten food and no pay'. I believe those were the exact words."
Pickle's face falls. "Believe me master, if I could still be in the forest now, I would."
"Well, what's that supposed to mean?"
"You haven't heard?" Treguard becomes concerned as the elf appears genuinely upset. "Fetlock Forest isn't there any more. It's been completely destroyed to make way for some ghastly new property development. All created with powerful technomagic, virtually overnight - no prizes for guessing who's behind it!" By this point Pickle's tone has turned to one of bitterness and anger.
Treguard shares his friend's outrage. "Lord Fear! Only he would have the audacity to desecrate an ancient woodland that's been there for thousands of years. Oh, he's really crossed the line this time." The Dungeon Master struggles to keep a lid on his fury, but realises that it is Pickle who has suffered the greatest loss. No wonder he is here at the castle - not only does he have nowhere else to go, but he now has a very personal motivation to defeat the Opposition once and for all. "Of course you're welcome to stay and make yourself useful."
That cheers him up a little. Glancing around, Pickle enquires "Are you here alone, master? Where's Majida?"
"Oh, she left about two months ago," replies Treguard. "Went off with a troubadour! I'm not convinced it'll last. Then again, if anyone can keep the fellow in line, she can."
"Well it's just as well I'm back, then!" says Pickle brightly, taking off his cloak and draping it over the back of Treguard's throne. He clearly won't take long to make himself comfortable here again. "Yeeeesss," Treguard sighs wearily, rolling his eyes a little. Deep down he is secretly glad to see his old companion again - but he'd never let Pickle suspect that. Stubbornly reserved, a habitual loner, he wouldn't even admit it to himself.
As he turns around, Pickle is startled to notice the full-length video screen on the opposite wall. "What happened to the magic mirror?" he asks, unsure what to make of this.
"Oh... we replaced it," says Treguard, rather stating the obvious. "We've been having some renovations done. In fact they've only just finished rebuilding the antechamber after a rather large troll came up through the floor. ...It's a long story," he adds hastily, seeing the elf's quizzical expression. "Suffice to say it's good to be back. Our temporary accommodation last season was not what I would call luxurious."
Pickle's eyes drift from Treguard back to the viewscreen. "Er... master? It appears we have company." He nods toward the image of the castle gate; a diminutive figure can be seen approaching it.
"Ah! The first challenger!" Treguard eagerly walks to the stairway and raises the staff, ready to use it as before. "Enter, stranger!"
Within the blink of an eye, a boy with tufty brown hair is standing before him, dressed in a plain cream-coloured T-shirt and trousers. He appears calmly confident, despite his tender years. Even after nearly a decade of observing quests through his dungeon, Treguard never ceases to be amazed by the courage and resilience of these youngsters who dare to cross the boundaries of time. He is particularly impressed that they make this long journey apparently without feeling the cold at all.
"Now then. Why don't you tell us your name?" Treguard asks their new guest.
"Toby Harper," replies the boy.
"Ah, a musician?" Pickle chimes in. Treguard glowers at him, then smiles apologetically at Toby. "You'll have to ignore him. I usually do. Now, you'd better summon your advisors, and be sure to call loudly."
Toby turns to face the large octagonal Quest Table in the centre of the room. Arranged behind it, facing the viewscreen are three rectangular wooden stools. He calls in a loud clear voice: "Louis, Megan, Bronwen!" With a flash of light, a trio of children materialise on the seats.
"Welcome! Who guides this dungeoneer?" asks Treguard.
The girl on his left is the first to answer; a brunette in a pretty long-sleeved blouse, with her wavy hair tied
in a half ponytail. "Bronwen Jones."
"And where do you hail from?"
"From Portsmouth," replies Megan.
"Excellent," says Treguard, handing the Staff of Light to Pickle, who leans it against the wall behind Treguard's chair. The elf slips easily into his former role of assistant as if he's never been away, returning immediately to the Quest Table where the dungeoneering paraphernalia is laid out ready.
"Alright Toby, let's get you properly equipped," says Treguard, gesturing for Pickle to pass him the first item. He places the leather satchel over Toby's shoulder with the strap across his chest. "The knapsack, for any food you may discover on your journey. It's vital that you sustain your life force or you won't get very far." Over Toby's left arm he places a silver shield decorated with a single staring eye. "This is the Eyeshield, which will show us the path you take. You, of course, must be blinded from the dungeon's illusions."
Pickle looks confused as he lifts up the last remaining item, a knight's helmet with movable visor. "But-- where's the Helmet of Justice? What happened to it?"
Treguard smiles grimly. "Majida happened to it."
"I preferred the old one," says Pickle sulkily, making a face. He hands Treguard the helmet anyway.
The Dungeon Master places it carefully over Toby's head. "The helmet will prevent you from seeing the way ahead, though it will allow you to make out objects directly beneath you. For the rest, you must rely on your advisors to guide you safely."
Treguard faces the team and opens his mouth to finish briefing them on the rules, but he does not get the chance to speak. Out of nowhere, an effortlessly sneering voice interrupts the proceedings: "Hail, hail, the gang's all here!" It is deadpan, somewhat upper-class, and quite unmistakable. They all look towards the viewscreen where his anaemic monobrowed face, tightly framed by a helmet of bone, has appeared uninvited. He seems faintly amused.
"Lord Fear! Do you mind?" growls Treguard, grabbing the remote control and attempting to change channels. He presses the button several times but it has no effect.
"Don't bother trying to tune me out. I'm broadcasting on every channel," Lord Fear informs him languidly. "Just thought I'd check in and see how you were getting on." He pauses before adding impassively: "I see your elf is back."
Pickle leaps forward angrily. "It's not like I have much choice now that you've destroyed my people's home!" he retorts, wishing he had some way to reach the enemy through the screen and communicate with his fists instead.
"I prefer to call it 'regeneration'," replies Fear with a satisfied smile. The leader of the Opposition may be proud of his extensive vocabulary, but he does not know the meaning of the word 'remorse'.
"We really must complain in the strongest terms about this latest act of defiance!" Treguard scolds him. "The great forest of the Elven folk was not the place to build another of your accursed monstrosities. It is a sacred land of deep magic beyond your understanding, and to introduce this foul technomancy to such a region is a grievous insult!"
"You know, the only thing more amusing than your chronic self-righteousness is your flagrant hypocrisy," observes Lord Fear. "The Powers That Be are forever droning on about my particular brand of magic and how supposedly awful it is, but that doesn't stop you from taking full advantage of it whenever it suits you. How are you getting on with that new interactive viewscreen? Eh? I bet I look good in super high definition!"
Treguard looks annoyed but is unable to think of a suitable response. He makes a clumsy attempt to hide the Reach wand behind his back, as if suddenly embarrassed to be seen holding it.
After pausing for a moment to enjoy the awkward silence, Lord Fear continues. "Speaking of which. While I'm here, allow me to give you a sneak preview of my new estate. I'm thinking of using it as a summer home." He sweeps his palm once across the screen, which immediately displays an aerial view of an enormous fortified mansion with vast sprawling grounds. "As you can see I've decided to upsize a bit." While he proceeds to boast about it, the watchers are provided with intriguing glimpses of different scenes in and around the palace. Something resembling a moat is seen emitting a yellowish glow. There is a large gateway where armoured figures can be espied through the battlements above, gliding swiftly back and forth in a curiously unnatural manner. A courtyard ominously appears to have a dark rectangular pit in the centre. Sharp spikes are shown popping up through the floor at random along the length of a narrow passageway. The final scene is of a great chamber divided in two by a seemingly uncrossable chasm, in front of which is a row of seven levers mounted on the floor.
Lord Fear comes back into view as they reach the end of this virtual guided tour. "So that's the latest from my neck of the woods - so to speak." (This bad taste pun successfully riles Pickle, who has to be restrained with a firm hand on his shoulder from Treguard. Lord Fear pretends not to notice.) "Quite the idyllic retreat, don't you think? If by any chance you make it that far, you're quite welcome to come and visit." He smiles broadly and concludes with dramatic emphasis: "It's called 'Journey's End'." With that, his image fades from the screen and only the scenery remains.
Well and truly gunning for a fight now, Pickle seethes at the screen for a few moments, before spinning round to face Treguard. "Master, let me go in this time! I'll show him what I think of his grand designs!"
"Now, Pickle," says Treguard sternly, intent on calming down the impetuous elf. "I know you're angry - we're all angry! - but we must follow the proper protocols. If we lose focus and do something rash, that's when Lord Fear is at his most dangerous and he's bound to win. Instead we must concentrate on beating him fair and square, and that means outwitting him."
Pickle looks like he has more to say on the subject, but sullenly closes his mouth and sinks to his usual place on the floor, knowing better than to argue with the Dungeon Master.
Turning his attention to the four children who are still waiting patiently, Treguard suggests: "If you're ready, team, let's get this quest underway, before there are any further delays. A quick reminder - other than food, you may carry only two objects at any one time, and I advise you to choose them with care. Remember: the only way is onward; there is no turning back. Are you sure you wish to proceed, Toby? I can understand if you've changed your mind."
"Nope, I'm ready," replies the young dungeoneer.
"Good!" beams Treguard, lowering Toby's visor. "The rest of you, guide him well, or your challenge is doomed. I can tell you that your quest is for the Cup."
Placing his hands upon the boy's shoulders, Treguard points Toby towards the stone archway beyond which lies the ever-shifting illusory realm of his dungeon. "So turn now, face the dungeon door, and step boldly forward." Toby passes through the shimmering forcefield into a murky passageway, and vanishes from sight.
"OK, Toby, can you hear us?" asks Megan.
"Yep, I can," he replies, their voices reaching him through the helmet. "I'm in a dwarf tunnel and I'm coming up to a junction - which way do you think I should go?"
They guide him forward, ignoring a branch that leads off to the left. Further along, Toby reaches a wall and has no option but to turn right. As he moves towards the light of an opening up ahead, Megan spots something just in front of him, lying in the middle of the corridor. "What's that on the floor, Toby?"
He stoops to pick it up. "It's a scroll." The parchment rustles as he opens it to see what clues it may hold. But there is only a single word written upon it: "HELP!"
A moment of silence follows, before the team laugh uncertainly at this most random of discoveries. (Treguard, too, can be heard to let out a quiet chuckle from his throne in the corner.) "What do we think that means, then?!" asks Toby.
"Someone might be in trouble, that needs our help," suggests Bronwen. The others murmur and nod, unconvinced but not sure what else to make of it. "Could it be a spell, perhaps?" Louis wonders. "I dunno, maybe. Or a password," replies Megan. "What shall we do?"
Treguard decides to interrupt the debate. "You're wasting life force here, team. I should move on if I were you."
"Um... alright," says Megan, as they each make a hurried note on their clipboards about the mysterious scroll. "Walk forward now, Toby."
He does so, exiting the dwarf tunnels and venturing into the dungeon proper.
"Toby, you're in a room, it looks like a clue room," says Bronwen. "There's an exit ahead of you, and a table over in the corner. Can you sidestep right until I say stop...." (Toby obeys.) "Stop! Now walk forward until you reach the table. Can you see it yet?"
"Yep, got it."
"Right, can you tell us what's on the table?" requests Megan.
"There's a pear, a lantern, a sort of knife, a spellbook, a spyglass, and a kind of necklace. I'll put the food in my knapsack," adds Toby, taking the pear.
"I don't think we should take the dagger," Bronwen says immediately.
"No - beware the weapons of our enemies," agrees Megan. "Can you have a look at the necklace and describe it to us?"
Toby picks up the jewellery and examines it. "It's just a string of beads, sort of golden yellow. It could be of some value if we need to buy anything. Or somebody might like it as a gift."
"I think the spellbook would probably be useful," opines Louis. "We're bound to need magic at some point."
"What about the lantern?" says Megan. "In case we end up somewhere that's dark."
They ponder this for a moment. Bronwen is the first to reach a conclusion: "I think we should take the necklace for trading, and I reckon the spellbook would be more helpful than the lantern. We might be able to find a spell for different situations."
"I think so too," says Toby.
Megan nods thoughtfully. "Mmm. That might be the best idea. Anyway, shall we look through the spyglass?" Her teammates respond in the affirmative. "OK, do you want to pick it up, Toby?"
Toby carefully lifts the spyglass and holds it up to the Eyeshield. Poised and ready to make a note of anything useful they might overhear, the whole team concentrates on the scene that unfolds before their eyes...
Lissard hovers behind him, observing curiously. "What are you doing, Lordness?"
"Hm? Oh, just doing a bit of surfing, me old newt. It's marvellous what you can find on here. Technomagic you've never even dreamed of, AND with guaranteed next day delivery!" He's in a rare cheerful mood, for the moment at least.
The Atlantean appears confused. "Your Lordness has taken up watersports?"
Lord Fear pauses, lowers his arm and turns toward his scaly seneschal. "What?-- no-- I'm surfing the WEB, you fool! The information superhighway! And THIS is my new homepage." He gestures grandly at the screen before them.
Lissard tries to sound enthusiastic, but looks more puzzled than ever. "But what IS it, Lordness? The great sea of words and picturenesses?"
His master's patience abruptly runs out. "Oh, don't be such a ludicrous luddite, Lissard! It's the Internet, isn't it? Everybody's using it these days. Yeeessss - a whole world of knowledge, trade and gossip at your fingertips!" He regards the screen with a gleeful chuckle.
"Astonishing! Such... modernness!" gushes Lissard, somewhat unconvincingly. The grin fades from Lord Fear's lips as he senses that this latest wonder is hopelessly lost on his reptilian henchman. "Yes, yes," he mutters with a wave of his hand. "Anyway, did you want something?"
Lissard hesitates for a moment, before proceeding in a tactful manner: "The, uh, password for the Level 1 Blocker. It seems there may have been a small printing error in the memo that Your Lordness circulated. Several goblins have been... well, eaten."
"Really?? Let me see." Lord Fear motions for the scroll that Lissard is clutching, and opens it up. "Rrrgghh, it's that damn spell-checker auto-correcting things that don't need correcting! It should say ARGONAUT, not AERONAUT!" The three advisors scribble on their notepads as Lord Fear complains that every copy of the scroll will have to be recalled and reissued - just what he needs on top of everything else.
Just then, a pulsing alarm begins to sound, and Lissard peers around Lord Fear, his attention drawn to the viewscreen behind him. "Master! You have a... a pop-up!"
Lord Fear turns to see a flashing message has appeared on the screen. "Oh, so I have." There is a tone of mock surprise in his voice as he reads it out: "'Intrusion attempt detected'!"
Without warning, he turns sharply to meet the team's prying gaze. "Hello watchers! Do you know what that is? That is my new Fire Wall! And if you'd like to see how it works, just stay tuned." His eyes begin to glow red, and Pickle lets out a gasp.
"Extreme danger, team! Put it down quickly!" cries Treguard. Toby immediately drops the spyglass, just in time to avoid being frozen on the spot, and the advisors sigh in unison.
Their relief is short-lived when, a few seconds later, a great wall of fire sweeps into the clue room and advances rapidly across the floor towards the unsuspecting dungeoneer. "Oh my god... Toby, there are flames coming at you!" says Megan, a hint of panic in her voice.
"Quickly team, you must get Toby out of there before he's burned alive!" urges Treguard.
"Pick up the spellbook and the necklace and then sidestep to your left, quickly!" shouts Megan. Wasting no time, Toby does as he is told. "Stop! Walk forward!" they all cry at once. "Hurry," Bronwen adds anxiously as the flames begin to lick at Toby's heels. He makes it through the door with seconds to spare.
"OK, you've arrived in a sort of town centre, there are various shops and houses around you," says Louis. "There's a man to your left who looks like he might be selling things from a stall."
"Ahh, this looks familiar, master!" exclaims Pickle.
"Indeed, Pickle," replies Treguard. He leans toward the three advisors. "This is the village of Wolfenden. It's not exactly a safe place to hang about - few places are, nowadays - but you may be able to pick up supplies or information to aid you on your quest. This fellow calls himself 'Honesty' Bartram... but I wouldn't put too much faith in the name."
By this point, Bartram has spotted Toby loitering nearby, and calls him over. "You there, young traveller! Good day to you. Come over 'ere. Bartram's me name, barterin's me game. What's your name?"
"I'm Toby Harper. Pleased to meet you," he adds amiably, offering a handshake which Bartram accepts.
"The pleasure's all mine!" replies the merchant. He hesitates jokingly: "'Ere, you're not Tricky Toby, the two-faced traitor, are you?"
Toby laughs - "No, I've not heard that one before!"
"Good, good - that's a relief! So what you doin' round 'ere, then?"
"I'm on a quest for the Cup," says the dungeoneer.
"On a quest for the Cup," Bartram repeats thoughtfully, casting an eye over his barrow of goods. He makes a show of rummaging in the bag that hangs at his side, then checks his inside pocket, before shaking his head apologetically. "No, I'm afraid I can't 'elp you there, I'm all out of cups at the moment. Tell you what, though, I 'ave got lots o' useful things that a young dungeoneer might be interested in. What do you need?"
"Um... what have you got?" Toby answers, a little blankly.
"What 'ave I got? What haven't I got! Well, let me see. Where is it you're headed?"
"Tell him you want to get to Level 2," advises Megan.
"We're hoping to get to Level 2. Can you help with that, at all?"
"Oh, you want to get to Level 2. Riiight. Well, to get to Level 2, you'll have to catch a lift on the dragon - Smirkenorff, he's called. And for that, you're gonna need a firestone. Now it just so 'appens that I have a firestone in stock - here it is." He reaches into his breast pocket and produces a red gem. "What 'bout you, though, what you got to trade with?"
"I've got this necklace," says Toby, holding it up for him to see.
"You've got a necklace, right, let's 'ave a look at that," says Bartram, peering at the string of yellow beads. "Oh, witch amber, very nice. Yeah, that's certainly of some interest. But I tell you what - I can't 'elp noticing that spellbook you've got in your other hand. Now that is something I would be very interested in taking off your hands - for a fair price, of course."
"No, don't sell him the book," Bronwen interrupts.
"Hold on," says Megan. "He said the necklace was made of witch amber. Maybe we should hold onto that."
"No, I think we need the spellbook," replies Louis. "It's more likely to come in handy."
Megan isn't so sure - she thinks his remark was a hint. "But what if we meet a witch later on? She might want the witch amber as a present."
The others hesitate; it's possible she may be right. But they cannot shake their conviction that magic will surely be of greater value than a piece of jewellery. "I reckon he's trying to mislead us," says Bronwen, remembering Treguard's warning. "He wants us to sell the spellbook, which probably means we're going to need it ourselves." Louis indicates his agreement.
"Guys, what do we think?" asks Toby, keen to give Bartram an answer one way or the other.
As the team captain, Megan faces a dilemma: should she trust her friends' judgement, even if it means going against her own instinct? In the end she accepts the majority vote. "OK, offer him the necklace again," she tells Toby.
"No, look, I'm afraid the spellbook's not for sale," he informs Bartram. "But I'm more than happy to part with this beautiful amber necklace." He holds it out towards the trader, letting the beads slide enticingly between his fingers.
"Riiight, yeah... well, the thing is, I really do like the look of that spellbook," Bartram presses him. "Are you sure you don't want to do a deal for that? Your spellbook for this firestone. You can't say fairer than that."
"No, sorry," says Toby with a knowing smile. "But anyway, wouldn't you rather take the witch amber? Surely you must get lots of witches as customers?"
"Yyyeaah, well, no, you make a good point there," Bartram concedes. "There is a lot of demand for witch amber, especially in the winter months. And admittedly it is very hard to come by, these days."
"I know, tell me about it!" Toby lies through his teeth, bluffing like a pro. "I was lucky to find this. And there are plenty of other traders who'd be thrilled to get their hands on it, if you're not interested." Everyone in the antechamber giggles at his self-assurance.
Unsurprisingly, that does the trick. "Oh, 'old on, 'old on - did I say I wasn't interested?" Bartram responds hastily. "No - fair enough, you've convinced me. I will swap this firestone for your amber necklace. You don't 'alf drive a hard bargain! Come on then, let's have it." He takes the necklace from Toby and hands over the gem in return. "Alright?"
"That's lovely - thank you very much," says Toby.
"Thank you, young man. You 'ave a good day now, and be careful around these parts; you never know who you might bump into. Good to do business with you. Don't tell your dad!" With that, Honesty Bartram strolls away from the marketplace, pushing his barrow.
"Well done, Toby," laughs Bronwen.
"Nice powers of persuasion!" adds Pickle with a grin.
Megan too is amused by her brother's performance, although she still has lingering doubts about whether they've been wise to part with the beads - especially after hearing Bartram say that witches are desperate for this rare commodity. But it's done now, and she says no more about it. "Alright Toby, walk forward."
The Eyeshield guides them along Wolfenden High Street and in through a doorway.
"You're now inside the tavern, there are lots of people eating and drinking," says Megan. The team have recognised a couple of familiar faces at the table in the foreground: "Motley and Sidriss are here, so do you want to walk forward and say hello?"
Toby shuffles forward towards the jester and the young woman, unsure whether to interrupt their conversation. "Um... excuse me."
"Oh!" exclaims the woman, turning to face him with a start. She wears a cheerful but somewhat dizzy expression on her face, and her long blonde hair has a single red streak on either side. "Look Motley, it's a dungeoneer! We haven't seen one of those for a while. What's your name?"
"Oh! Hello Toby. I'm Sidriss. And this is Motley. He's a professional entertainer, you know."
"I'm, er, familiar with your work," says Toby, leaning across the table to shake the jester's hand.
"Are you indeed? My reputation precedes me," replies Motley, sounding chuffed. (Sidriss looks suitably impressed.) "Well then my friend, why don'tcha come and join us? Sit yerself down there."
Toby accepts the invitation and perches himself on a rectangular wooden stool at the end of their table.
"I s'pose you're on a quest are you, mate?" enquires Motley.
"Yes - for the Cup."
"So tell us, what sort o' gossip have you picked up on your travels? We like a bit o' gossip, don't we Sid?"
"Oh yes!" she replies, nodding enthusiastically. Then she looks confused: "...About what?" Motley rolls his eyes and ignores her.
Toby thinks for a moment. "Well... Lord Fear has destroyed the elves' forest, in order to build a new palace."
"Oooh! How dreadful!" squeaks Sidriss.
"Blimey, that IS bad news," agrees Motley. "I know why he's done it, though. You see Toby, Lord Fear 'ad two palaces built in the Mire World, down in Level 3 - Linghorm and Marblehead, he called 'em. But let's just say he 'ad a not-so-friendly rivalry with the local sorceress, and now Ling'orm belongs to 'er. She's a real nasty piece o' work, by all accounts. No wonder he's lookin' to move elsewhere."
"Everybody needs good neighbours!" quips Toby. His advisors snort with laughter, but the remark seems to go unnoticed by Motley, and earns nothing but a vacant smile from Sidriss.
"'Ere, Marta, have you 'eard about this?" says Motley, catching the attention of the winsome tavern wench as she walks past. "This young man says the Opposition's gone an' built one of his palaces on the Elven forest."
"Oh, 'as he, now?" she replies in her broad West Country accent. "Can't say as I'm too surprised, mind - it's not the first bit o' forest he's wiped out, so I've 'eard. It'll be the Greenwood next, and before you know it 'e'll be right on top of us." (Motley refrains from making an inappropriate joke.)
Before they can say any more, the man across the aisle interrupts, slurring drunkenly in a strong Brummie twang: "'Ey! What do I 'ave to do to get some service around 'ere?"
Marta turns to face him, hands on her hips. "You wait your turn! Can't you see I'm servin' this young traveller?"
The man looks put out. "Oh, well meanwhile some of your very loyal customers - your very, very, very, very loyal customers, are dyin' of thirst over 'ere." He waves an empty tankard in the air, swaying unsteadily on his seat as he does so.
"'Aven't you got a home to go to?" Marta tuts. When he merely peers miserably into his tankard, she heaves a sigh and tells Toby "Oh, you'll have to excuse I," before stomping over to serve the awkward customer.
"I wonder if father knows about this," says Sidriss, returning to the original topic. "My father - Hordriss - he's a mage, you know." She glows with pride, then looks suddenly concerned. "Except he can't do a lot of things at the moment, because he's misplaced a very important spellbook. It's probably my fault. I like to borrow his books sometimes - I'm a trainee sorceress, you see - but then I put them down, and... forget where I left them. Erm..." She trails off distractedly.
At the mention of spellbooks, Megan immediately lets out a sigh of relief - so they did hang onto the correct item after all! "Well done, guys; you were right!" she gratefully whispers to Louis and Bronwen. Thank goodness she had listened to them.
"I found this book on my travels," says Toby, placing it on the table in front of Sidriss. "I don't suppose it's the missing one?"
"Oh! Oh, I don't know," she replies. "You'd have to ask father."
"OK. Do you know where I can find him?"
"No. I don't. But I'm sure he's around somewhere," she babbles, trying to sound helpful. She offers an encouraging smile.
"Well, per'aps you'd better start lookin' for 'im," Motley suggests to their guest. "Shall I 'elp you find your way out of 'ere?"
"Yes please," says Toby.
"Alright then, 'elmet 'ead. Come with me." Motley walks around the table and puts a hand on Toby's shoulder.
"Bye-bye! Good luck!" calls Sidriss as they begin to move away. "Bye," Toby calls back.
Motley guides the blind dungeoneer to a staircase at the back of the inn. "You can get out this way," he explains. "Nice to meet ya. Watch your step, now - an' I don't just mean on the steps."
"Thank you!" says Toby. His advisors watch through the Eyeshield as he descends into a cellar, and the darkness of an exit portal.
"SNIPPER SNAP, look here's Jack!" comes a sudden loud cry, which makes them all jump. A figure creeps out of the shadows and begins to circle Toby with an enormous butterfly net. He wears a suit of chain mail with coif, and is wrapped in a long dark cloak. "Ohhh, what have we here? It's a little dungeoneer! And where there's merrymaking, there's oft a fool for the taking!" He speaks in a curious high-pitched warble with northern inflections, that's somewhere between amusing and creepy.
Pickle looks dismayed. "Who on earth is that?"
"Caution, team. This is the fool-taker known as Snapper Jack," explains Treguard. "He's a bit like a thief-taker, except he only kidnaps the foolish. And he's evidently found a rich supply of them in Wolfenden."
"What's that thing on his arm?" asks Pickle, peering at the screen with morbid fascination. When Jack raises his left arm from beneath the cloak, the team can see that it ends at the elbow, and instead of a hand there is a vicious-looking dragon's head.
"Rumour has it that he was mauled by a dragon, and his arm grew back as a Snapdragon," says Treguard. "Nasty little things. I should try to keep a safe distance, just in case."
"Know the rules of 'napping, do you?" enquires Snapper Jack, prowling around Toby with an air of quiet menace. "Three questions I gives you. Two good answers you gives me, and if you don't -- I 'naps ya! And then I keeps ya! Until Snapper eats ya. In't that right, Snapper?" The question is directed at the red dragon where his hand should be, which regards Toby hungrily with a beady yellow eye.
Subtly twirling his giant net, Jack continues: "Here's the first. Let's hope you're well-versed. In Ancient Egypt he guided the dead. Name me the god with the jackal's head."
Toby is quick to respond. "I think it's Anubis - is that right, guys?"
"I think so," replies Megan. "It's either Anubis, or Osiris."
"What about Ra?" says Bronwen.
"No, Ra's the sun god," Megan says confidently. "I'm pretty sure it's Anubis. Go with that, Toby."
"Anubis," answers Toby.
"Oh, smart, smaaart!" exclaims Jack. (A triumphant whisper of "Yes!" can be heard from all three advisors.) "But that's just the start. Hey diddle diddle, here's your middle riddle. From tropical plants does cotton come - but what sort of tree could you get wool from?"
This question is greeted with baffled silence. "...Anyone?" Toby finally asks.
"I... don't know," Megan says slowly, looking as confused as her teammates. "I thought wool only came from animals." None of them notices that they're all chewing their pencils in an identical manner.
"Quick quick quick!" urges Snapper Jack, while his Snapdragon hand seems to inch towards Toby of its own accord.
"Come on, where do you get wool from? Sheep!" says Megan, thinking aloud.
"Or goats," adds Bronwen.
The team are stumped, and beginning to get flustered. "I just thought wool came from sheep," Megan repeats helplessly.
Unexpectedly, Treguard speaks up: "I think you're on the right track, team..."
"Something to do with sheep?" Megan asks with surprise. Thinking hard, she starts word associating. "Lambs? Uhhh.... ewes? ...OH! Yew!!"
Bronwen shoots her a puzzled look - "What?"
"Yew tree, sounds like a female sheep!"
"Ohhh..." Bronwen groans at the awful pun, while Louis covers his face with one hand.
"Yew," says Toby, struggling to keep a straight face.
"Ahhhh!" cries Jack, hastily adding "Get back, Snapper!" and yanking the dragon away as it tries to take a bite out of Toby. "Now listen close to number three. Let's see. Acey, deucey, one-eyed jacks... but who's the one-eyed king with the axe?"
"Ohh!" Louis reacts immediately, frowning as if the answer is on the tip of his tongue.
"Harold...?" Bronwen suggests uncertainly.
"No, no," says Louis. "It's a playing card. One of them's in profile when all the others face forward. I'm not sure which one, though!"
"Any idea at all?" asks Megan. When he hesitates, she adds "Do you know this one, Toby?"
"I wouldn't like to say," Toby replies.
The kooky quizmaster presses him for an answer. "Tell Jack who it is, then?"
"I think it's one of the red kings," says Louis. "If I had to make a guess, I'd say.... the King of Diamonds, maybe?"
"Are you sure?" asks Toby.
"But it's all we've got, so try that," Megan instructs him.
"OK. King of Diamonds."
"Ahhhh! Guessy guessy, quite impressy!" comes the shrill response. "Oohh. Two gets you through - no kidsie for you!" (Snapper retreats beneath his cloak, looking as disappointed as a dragon possibly can.) "But snipper snap, snipper snap - fool about, and we'll be back!" With that, Snapper Jack flounces off and leaves Toby alone in the alleyway.
The team audibly breathes a sigh of relief. "I suggest you get Toby out of there," says Pickle. "I dread to think what else might be lurking about this place!"
"OK Toby, he's gone now," says Bronwen. "Turn 90 degrees to your left - and walk forward."
Toby moves across to examine the object. "Looks like a meat pie."
"Right, put it in your knapsack."
As soon as Toby picks up the food, there is an ominous grinding noise. The grey brick wall in front of him begins to move, and a broad stone face emerges, staring at him with expressionless triangular eyes. The entire wall slides forward, blocking the only exit as it does so, and does not stop until it is mere inches from where Toby is standing. It looks entirely capable of swallowing him up, if it so chooses, but for now it simply demands in a deep, gravelly voice: "PASSWORD!"
"Master, it's one of Lord Fear's Blockers," Pickle whimpers nervously.
The advisors are quickly double-checking the notes they made whilst looking through the spyglass. "It's ARGONAUT, right? It's definitely not AERONAUT?" says Megan. It would be terrible if their quest ended because of a small, careless mistake.
"Right. AERONAUT is what it said on the scroll, but that was wrong," Bronwen confirms.
"That's what I thought. OK Toby, say ARGONAUT."
They all hold their breath as Toby repeats the password. To their immense concern, nothing happens. The face on the wall twitches silently, blinking at him, for what feels like an age. Did he not say it loud enough? Did they get it the wrong way round? Then, just as they start to have visions of Toby being eaten like the goblins, the bricks fly apart and all trace of the Blocker vanishes into the distance. It's safe for everyone to breathe again!
"Guide him to the exit quickly - before it comes back," advises Treguard. They don't need telling twice.
Megan answers him: "You're in a large grassy area on the other side of the wall, and there is a giant chameleon in front of you!"
The oversized reptile peers at the intruder through one of its swivelling eye turrets, while the other rotates independently and appears to be watching something in the other direction. It has spines like saw teeth along its back, a long coiled tail, and fused toes resembling pincers. Its skin is brightly coloured with a red and yellow stripy pattern.
"Is it hostile, master?" asks Pickle.
"I'm not sure," replies Treguard. "But I shouldn't wait around to find out...."
At that moment, the lizard rapidly flicks out its very long tongue, like a whip or a tethered projectile. It is muscular and sticky, and misses Toby by a distance that is too close for comfort. "Quick Toby, walk forward!" shouts Megan, concerned that its aim will be more accurate the next time.
But Toby has only taken a couple of steps when another voice commands "Halt! Do not try to run, for you are not quick enough." The voice is deep, sonorous and proud, and it appears to be coming from the chameleon.
"The creature is talking to you," Megan explains for Toby's benefit. "Turn to your left a bit."
"Hello?" says Toby, turning to face it.
"As you can see, one is no ordinary common-or-garden reptile. One is possessed of an infinitely superior intellect," it says loftily.
Louis leans across and whispers to the girls: "It sounds like Hordriss!"
Realising he is correct, they nod and chuckle. "We think it might be Hordriss the Confuser, in disguise," Megan tells Toby.
"Oh, don't tell me he's still mucking about with these ridiculous charades!" groans Pickle.
"I'm afraid so," says Treguard. "But the danger here is real enough, so it might be best to humour him."
"Do you find me to be an attractive specimen?" asks the chameleon.
"Flatter him, Toby," says Megan.
"Oh... very," Toby replies, suppressing a laugh. "I've never seen such a handsome lizard."
"And what do you like, specifically?" demands the chameleon.
"Oh, er... well, your colours, obviously..." He whispers urgently to the team "What colour is he?!"
"Red and yellow," giggles Bronwen.
"Yeah, the red and the yellow complement each other really well," Toby continues. "And you've got lovely eyes. Even when they're pointing in different directions."
"One hopes you are not being insincere," is the suspicious response. "Be warned - at the merest hint of ridicule, I shall flick out my tongue and devour you like a bug!"
"Oh, don't do that!" pleads Toby. "I'm on a vital mission to return this spellbook to its owner, who's the finest mage in the land."
"Good one," smiles Megan.
There is a thoughtful silence. "Tell me more," the chameleon eventually says.
Toby lays it on thick. "Oh, he's brilliant. Completely unrivalled. And he's got a beautiful daughter, who's a friend of mine. You haven't seen him around, have you? He's called Hordriss."
"Ah!" exclaims the chameleon. "Keep very still, and prepare to be astonished." Raising its voice, it calls out "Lacertam reverte!" and vanishes in a bright blue flash of light. Standing in its place, with arms raised triumphantly, is a mature gentleman whose long white hair and eyebrows are streaked with red. He has a full beard and wears flowing crimson robes, with a large gold medallion hanging on a chain around his neck.
"He's transformed into Hordriss!" says Megan. "Try feigning surprise."
"I'm... astonished!" declares Toby, prompting a laugh from Treguard.
"That is to be expected," Hordriss nods sagely. "But now that one has revealed his true form, a proper introduction is in order. I am Hordriss the Confuser, as you have no doubt guessed from my powers of deception. What is your name?"
"Toby. Well, Toby. I believe you said you have something of mine?"
"Yes, this spellbook," he replies, handing it over. "Sidriss told me you'd lost one."
"So, you have been fortunate enough to meet one's beloved daughter," says Hordriss, examining the book. "This is indeed the very tome one has been searching for. It is a great relief to know it has not fallen into enemy hands. Thank you for returning it to me."
"As a mark of my gratitude, I will offer you some prudent advice. You will need to seek out the great dragon, Smirkenorff, to proceed to Level 2, but do not go to his nesting ledge. He is not there, and the forces of the Opposition are patrolling it constantly. Your only hope of eluding them is to cut through the woods instead. This path is not 100% safe, either, but the alternative will mean certain capture."
"Alright, thank you!" says Toby.
"It is the least I can do. Fare well on your quest, Toby."
Megan guides him away from the town walls and on towards the next location.
As Toby approaches the wooden sign, the advisors are able to read it on their viewscreen. "Right, we can see it now," says Bronwen. "In one direction it says 'Woodland Trail'. The other one says 'Here Be Dragons'."
"OK, so I take it we should avoid the dragon path?" says Toby.
The team agrees. "Turn 45 degrees to your left," Bronwen instructs him. "Now walk forward."
As he does so, the loud two-tone blast of a horn pierces the air. It's a sound that makes their blood run cold, for they all know what it means - goblins hunting nearby! "Walk faster," adds Bronwen, her voice suddenly a little higher than usual. The path bends further to the left as it reaches the trees, and it proves a fiddly job to get Toby pointing in just the right direction without straying onto the grass, but he finally makes it to the portal. The advisors are glad to note that he isn't followed, as the goblins fail to put in an appearance.
Toby takes a few steps forward into the middle of the clearing. "There's just a rock. Doesn't seem to be anything on it."
"OK then, keep going," Louis starts to say. But he is interrupted by a sudden commotion. Without warning, a ghoulish apparition creeps up behind Toby, in the form of a disembodied green head with a wispy tail wiggling underneath. It has large, bulbous eyes and a crown of leaves resembling hair, and is mumbling indistinctly as it floats about.
Pickle gasps, cowering beside Treguard's chair. "Root and fen! That's a Pooka, master!"
"Yes - it's a type of woodland sprite," Treguard informs the team. "I suggest you don't linger here. Any contact with these creatures is extremely dangerous, and potentially deadly."
"Hurry forward!" urges Louis. "Stop - turn to your left!" But before he can guide Toby to the exit portal, a second Pooka appears, and is upon him so swiftly that he bumps straight into it.
"Damage to life force!" cries Treguard. "You must avoid touching it!"
"Toby, sidestep left! Quickly!" shouts Louis. The Pooka follows him. "Careful he doesn't walk into the other one," Bronwen says worriedly.
As the two sprites move closer together, trapping Toby between them, Louis attempts to manoeuvre him backwards and around them - but the second Pooka drifts across into his path, once again blocking their escape route. It is clear that wherever he goes, one of them will cut him off.
"You're surrounded, team - there is no way out!" warns Treguard. "And Toby has no means of defending himself."
A sinking feeling comes over the three advisors. Somehow they were not prepared for this scenario, and each of them is wondering where they went wrong. Megan has a horrible suspicion that they should have acquired some magic from Hordriss to use here. Without it, she fears they are doomed.
But Toby remains alive for the moment, and the team begin frantically flipping back through their notes for anything that might save them. Just as they are losing hope, Bronwen finds a note about the "HELP" scroll they discovered right at the beginning of their quest. Did they ever find out the meaning of it? They had almost forgotten about it entirely. "Louis thought it could be a spell," she reminds the others.
"Right, we'll have to try it!" says Megan.
Desperately hoping his theory was correct, Louis calls out: "Spellcasting, H-E-L-P!"
There is a bright flash accompanied by a fanfare, and a bearded knight on a pure white steed materialises in the clearing. The horse turns in a circle and rears up, as its rider proclaims his arrival with a cheery cry of "Ta-rat ta-rah! Hulloo hulloo! 'Tis bold Sir Hugh to rescue you!"
The team laugh and sigh with relief at the spell's apparent success, but Pickle sounds less than impressed. "Oh, it's him!"
"Yes, our old friend Sir Hugh de Wittless," says Treguard. "Some years ago he had a curse of heroism placed upon him by Hordriss, and now his raison d'être is to gallop around rescuing people - with or without their consent. He's not exactly the sharpest knife in the kitchen, but what he does have in spades is courage."
As the knight dismounts, his horse is spooked by the Pookas, and whinnies with fright before bolting away. "No, Neddy! Neddy, stay!" he calls after it ineffectually, then turns toward Toby with a chuckle. "He's a dashed fine warhorse, is Neddy, but he does have a mind of 'is own." The man speaks with an old-fashioned plummy accent and seems to exude unfailing optimism. His chainmail armour is covered by a scarlet surcoat, emblazoned with a red lion rampant on a white heraldic shield. He wears a Norman nasal helmet with mail aventail, leather gauntlets, and a broadsword attached to the left side of his belt.
"Now then dear heart, was it you who summoned me here? Need a bit o' rescuin', do you?"
"Yes please," says Toby.
"Jolly good, well you sent for the right chap! So what d'ya need rescuin' from?"
"Um, can you help me escape these Pookas?"
"What, these green fellas here? Harassin' you, are they? We'll soon put a stop to that! Stand aside, dear boy." Toby takes a step back as Sir Hugh draws his sword from its sheath. "You there! Come here and fight like a man!" he taunts the nearest Pooka, springing towards it. Before long he is chasing both of them around the clearing, jabbing fearlessly at them with his sword amid cries of "Have at you!", fierce growls and carefree laughter. As a result of this frenzied assault, the Pookas soon retreat altogether.
"Ha ha ha! Wasn't that excitin'? Absolutely capital!" he enthuses once they are gone, returning his sword to its scabbard. "What's your name, anyway?"
"Jolly good - how d'ya do, Toby?" He gives a bow. "Sir Hugh de Wittless at your service. That's me name... but you can just call me 'the bold Sir Hugh', if ya like."
"Pleased to meet you. Thank you for your help," replies Toby, shaking his gloved hand.
"Don't mention it. All in a day's work, you know. Now then, where's Neddy? He's gorne orf somewhere again - damned if I can see 'im. Will you be alright now, dear heart?"
"I think so," says Toby, somewhat amused by this form of address.
"Righto, well I'll be orf then. And if you see Neddy, tell 'im I was lookin' for 'im." (Toby laughs; "Will do!") Sir Hugh flashes a gormless smile and strides off, calling "Neddyyy...!"
The team are all giggling, delighted to have survived their biggest scare yet. "I think we'd better get out of here in case the Pookas come back," says Louis. At last Toby can make it safely to the portal and out of the woods.
"Ahh, it looks like Toby has found Smirkenorff!" observes Pickle, who has made himself comfortable kneeling on the floor behind the team, peeping between the girls' shoulders. "Hopefully that means a trip to Level 2 - if Smirky's in a good mood."
"Yes, indeed," says Treguard. "Now, tread carefully, team. Smirkenorff is a very rare type of dragon - a Great Crested Green, to be precise, and possibly the last of his kind. He's usually friendly, but he's certainly not tame. It's important that you show him the proper respect - and if you want his help, he'll expect something in return."
"Toby, you're on the dragon's back. He seems to be resting on the shore of a lake, maybe," says Megan. She gets him to walk forward along one side of the dragon's spines, pausing when he reaches its shoulder. "Could you say hello to him? And be polite!"
"Hello, Smirkenorff," calls Toby.
The dragon turns his head to face the young dungeoneer, peering at him with bright keen eyes. He has pointed ears, prominent neck frills, and a long crest extending behind his head. The tip of his great jaws is not far from where Toby is standing, and a row of sharp teeth are visible when he opens his mouth to speak.
"Mmmm? Who are you? And more importantly, what do you want? Speak up!" He speaks slowly and haughtily in a rich, deep voice, and Toby can feel the vibration like earth tremors beneath his feet.
"I'm a dungeoneer on a quest for the Cup," he replies. "I need to get to Level 2. And I humbly request your assistance."
"I see," Smirkenorff answers coolly, with a mixture of pleasure and disdain. "And what do you have for the fare?"
"I've brought a firestone," says Toby, holding up the red gem.
"Ohhh!" purrs the dragon, eyeing it hungrily. "Splendid. That will be most acceptable. Well, since you asked so nicely, I shall take you to your destination. Sit yourself down in the saddle. But do please hurry up."
"OK, can you see the saddle?" asks Megan.
"Climb into it, carefully!" There is a rather nasty drop to the side, and everyone feels slightly nervous until Toby is safely seated.
"Are you quite comfortable back there?" enquires Smirkenorff.
"Very comfortable, thank you."
"In that case, we'll be off. Please remain seated throughout the flight, and keep your hands inside the seat at all times." (The advisors laugh.) Smirkenorff begins to flex his vast, powerful wings. "Hold on tight, now... here we go." Raising his huge front claws off the ground and flapping his wings hard, he launches into the air.
Toby's teammates enjoy his dragon ride vicariously as they watch on the viewscreen. Pickle, in particular, still nestled between Bronwen and Megan, wears an expression of delight and wonder as Smirkenorff soars across the landscape. "Better let Toby know what he's missing," he grins.
"You're flying over a large body of water," says Megan. "Just approaching some hills on the other side. You're pretty high up now. Don't look down!"
"Glorious weather, don't you think?" remarks Smirkenorff.
"Oh, perfect flying conditions," agrees Toby. "Thank you very much for taking me."
"It's no trouble at all," Smirkenorff assures him. "So nice to meet a human with such good manners."
They watch in silence for a while as the rugged terrain rolls past. "You seem to be getting lower now," Megan observes, as Smirkenorff banks hard to the right and glides without moving his wings for a short distance. "I think there's some even ground coming up ahead of you."
"Now, I shall set you down upon the threshold of Level 2," the dragon informs his passenger. "There's a suitable spot just over here." They are swiftly descending now as the hillside falls away beneath them. "Please hold on tight and prepare for landing."
"You're coming down towards a grassy area," says Megan.
A moment later, they come to rest on the ground. "There we are. Level 2, as requested," announces Smirkenorff.
"Wow, that was a remarkably smooth landing!" Toby comments.
"Thank you! You can leave the firestone in the saddle. Now, kindly disembark via the same route, and do walk carefully down my tail - I don't imagine that helmet will do you much good if you should fall on your head."
"Alright, climb over the back of the seat, Toby," advises Megan. "And just walk down his back."
"Thanks again!" Toby tells the dragon, as he makes his way along the row of spines.
"You're most welcome. What a charming young man."
As Toby returns to solid ground, his advisors' view changes. "OK, you're standing on the grass, with Smirkenorff to one side of you," says Megan. "There's a line of trees up ahead, which we're gonna guide you towards. Walk forward."
"Be careful," are Smirky's parting words, as Toby disappears into a dark entrance between the trees.