As I strode backwards I expected to be thwacked around the head by various twigs and twiglets; branches of the shrub I was entering, but there was nothing. I kept chanting the words in my head and staring at the small circular reflection in my flask’s lid.
Within ten or fifteen paces I felt the ground start to incline upward and although I shouldn’t have done, I turned. I couldn’t help myself.
I was dumbstruck. There were no shrubs around me: At all. Just the incline of a hill covered in meadow grasses and small closed-headed flowers. Near the top I could see the flickering flame-light I’d seen before.
Far behind me a toy-like roadway and train set toy shrubs, and the place where I’d contacted Jacob. Looking at the distance, I guessed I must now be at least half a mile from where I’d started.
I replaced the lid on my flask and started the trek to the top of the hill and the obvious settlement.
I had no idea how I’d be received. But the answer was soon coming. The moment I crossed a path that followed the contour of the hill, seemingly circulating the hill in a spiral track-way to its top, my wrists and shoulders were tugged – by what, I couldn’t see – and I was forced, face down, onto the ground.
As I lay there, I could make out a strange whispering that sounded like I should be able to make sense of it, vowels and consonants its constituent parts, but it sounded like no language I’d ever heard before.
As suddenly as the whispering had started, it stopped. I turned my head from side to side but still couldn’t see a soul.
Just as I was about to stand up from my prone position a force lifted me vertically by my armpits. I was accelerated towards the top of the hill, my feet a few inches above the ground skimming tops of blades of grass and flower heads, then the eerie whispering returned.
Within seconds I could see small dark-sided holes penetrating the crown of the hill. Deep inside each, flame-orange torches flickered. The holes were not that large, probably just two or three feet from floor to ceiling.
As if on a whim, my direction of travel changed and, to my shock, I was now heading for one of those titchy holes at break-neck speed.
I tried to struggle free but my upper arms were locked in place by an unseen force – no movement I made able to free myself from this transparent air-glue.
In thirty seconds I would be down the hole with my head snapped back and my pelvis folded up against the small of my back – legs trailing behind.
I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth, waiting for the inevitable.
After what seemed to be too much time, my arms were freed and I knew I’d been slung at the hole.
I landed roughly on a damp floor and opened my eyes. I was kneeling with hands splayed on the ground. Turning to look behind me, I saw the circular “O” of the entrance some hundred yards away.
This had me stumped, how.
“You are lucky that your brain does not possess the power to alter the fabric of Nature, Mr Johns. If you’d had it your way, your neck and lower spine would have been snapped as easily as dried kindling.”
The voice was female, commanding and wispy. I shook my head as I tried to figure out whether it emanated from the centre of my brain or whether it was coming at me through my ears.
I turned to look forward. In front of me was a small cavern apparently carved out from the mud of the hill. The cavern was illuminated by flames; shadows on the circular wall flickered and jumped.
At its centre was an intricately sculpted chair of wood, with a high back and sturdy arm rests, the sculptor obviously having used a single large tree trunk as the foundation for the chair’s creation; dark, gnarled, oak-like bark remained on the external facets of the chair, whilst its exposed core was of the light and cream-like colours of heartwood.
As my eyes focused on the source of the flickering light, I could not stop myself from gasping.
The flickering light was coming from the fire upon the chair. The fire upon the chair was a slender woman with the same pointed chin and pinched nose physiognomy that I’d seen earlier in the Dark Army.
Her flame-red hair crested upward to a point. Two translucent wings, touched by the rainbow colours that usually cruised surfaces of blown soap bubbles, curved down across her shoulders covering her body, as if a cloak or high-necked gown.
Her face and hands were of the palest tangerine, but most striking of all were her wise emerald-green eyes.
The cavern’s flinching and twitching light emanated from the pale orange aura that surrounded her body.
“You’re here to stop the Akh’Mori,” she told me. “Have you seen what you’re doing to my lands and the lands of my people?”
“No… yes. No. I mean, yes then no, I think,” I blurted stupidly.
“You will see what you have done.”
The Queen motioned an outstretched pale hand from left to right and gradually the far wall faded to be replaced by moving images. The images showed swathes of strange coloured countryside chewed up and vaporised by an invisible force; arable creatures cut down and turned into charcoal, little people playing games, only to have their limbs scythed from their bodies by the continuing onslaught of the invisible blade/beam of destruction.
“OK. Stop it. I understand. Surely, with your powers, you could have stopped this?” I pleaded.
“And break the agreement, absolve ourselves from the rules? The rules that were agreed all that time ago? What do you think we are, human?
“How do you think our species could survive if we had as little respect for our kind and our laws as your kind do for yours?
“We agreed to move away into our realm but now you have dissolved the accord. We can no longer accept that we have to live away from the world that was ours long before you arrived.
“Time is finished. The accord is finished. The Akh’Mori march to reclaim Gaia for ourselves once more.”
“No. I can help. Please hear me.” I knew nothing else I could say.