Oh, but life was good!
The snow was powdery white, and gave a firm, satisfying crunch underfoot as Lord Fear trudged merrily through the forest, his arms heavy with the presents he'd bought from that charming Bartram fellow in the village.
My, but how he loved this beautiful time of year. The gentle nip of cool air reddening his normally pristine-white cheeks and nose, shapely dark trees coated in the flickering tides of white snow gathered in their mighty branches, the cottony clouds billowing majestically in the heavens.
He chuckled to himself and sang a merry - and utterly tuneless - Christmas carol as he walked on.
'Silent knight, holy knight.
All is calm, sweet and bright.
Lovely people with beautiful smiles,
Lines of children lasting for miles.
Turkey, chestnuts and buns.
Christmas is such lovely fun.
'Silent knight, holy knight.
I just love giving gifts.
Presents for my wonderful crew,
Decorations for level two.
And a tree to stand in my throne room.
A tree with fairy lights...'
And so on.
Fear chuckled to himself in good-natured pleasure as he glanced idly through the bundle of presents one more time. There they were... a brand new eye patch for Skarkill, in pink with a lovely carnation motif, a nice tabard for Raptor with a cute little picture of a bunny rabbit on it... oh what a pleasure it was going to be giving Raptor that!... and a ten-litre bottle of triple-strength Listerine for Lissard, the present that Fear was going to enjoy giving (and seeing put into use) most of all.
Oh boy, what a spankingly beautiful world Christmas was!
Majida didn't know what it was about Treguard that irritated her most. Maybe it was his stiff-upper-lip Anglo-Saxon humourlessness. Maybe it was his stuffy love of decorum. Maybe it was his insistence on wearing the same tunic all the way through the summer, meaning he never stopped smelling like a lump of brie after it had negotiated its way through the digestive system of a syphilitic donkey.
But right now, what was infuriating her was Treguard gloating. He really wasn't afraid to pat himself on the back when he was able to pull a fast one, and he'd just pulled the fastest and onest one of all time.
"All right, you tell me so," sneered Majida, trying not to sound impressed. "So it work. So what? The spell only last two weeks anyway."
"But think, Majida, think," persisted the Dungeon Master, not going to be put off until he had dragged the same measure of enthusiasm out of Majida that he was already feeling for himself, "two weeks. After the two weeks are up, Fear will be incapacitated by the humiliation. He'll never be able to live it down! Two weeks possessed by the Spirit of Christmas. He'll be so embarrassed when he wakes from it he won't be able to stamp his authority on the Opposition again. Why, his whole organisation could break down... this could be the end at last...!"
Majida's scepticism only grew. "So you tell me before," she sniffed. "I believe it when I see it, ah?"
Treguard looked disappointed at the minimal impact his little plan had made on his assistant. "You really are a sourpuss aren't you?"
"You call me sourpuss?" bristled Majida. "That outrageous! I no talking to you from now on."
Majida crossed her arms and turned her nose up to Treguard, who eyed her with a knowing grin. Majida tried to ignore it, which she managed with great resolve for the first seven and four-fifths of a second. "What?"
"You don't know what sourpuss means do you?"
"I do!" retorted Majida. "I do, I do!"
Again, Treguard just eyed her.
"Okay I don't," Majida admitted with a shrug. "I still no talking to you."
Treguard was triumphant. "You just talked, you just talked!" he taunted. He turned and marched away with what he correctly adjudged to be an irritating grin on his face. He paused at the door, briefly stuck his tongue out at Majida, and loped out.
Majida rubbed her jaw suspiciously as she watched the Dungeon Master stride out. Whatever else was true of him, it wasn't like him to make such childish gestures at people.
Marblehead was a miserable place at Christmas this year. Skarkill was embarrassed walking around in a pink eye patch, Raptor was feeling self-conscious every time anyone smirked at his rabbit-top (which was to say, any time anyone saw him at all), and Lissard, misunderstanding the purpose of his present, had drunk the entire bottle of Listerine and had to retire to bed until the gag reflex had finally worn off. Sly Hands was baffled at receiving a Christmas bonus of money, as the use of money was a distant memory for him - money involved purchasing things legally, after all, a practise he had long ago forsworn.
In fact, all of them were baffled at receiving anything for Christmas at all, especially from his Lord Bony-face Misery-guts. They were also a little put out that Fear was not sending them out on their traditional Christmas pastime of climbing down chimneys into people's houses and stealing all the kids' favourite toys.
"But, yer Fearship," protested Skarkill, "it's tradition-like innit? We slides down chimneys into people's 'ouses, we takes their toys, and we puts anyone who tries to stop us in chains... luvly!"
"Nonsense, dear Skarky," cooed Fear sweetly. "This year, we're doing something new, and much more interesting and exciting."
Raptor and Hands exchanged intrigued glances. "Yeah?" asked Raptor eagerly. "What is it? Pillaging and burning the harvest stores on the farms?"
Fear looked at Raptor in disappointment. "No!"
"Ooo, lemme guess," begged Hands, raising his arm enthusiastically and jumping up and down.
"By all means, sweet Sly," nodded Fear.
"We goes into town," he suggested, "and finds all the blind people begging for money, and for a laff we steals all the cash from their begging bowls!"
Fear looked appalled. "Certainly not!"
Skarkill smiled sadistically. "Oh right. We go to Freneville Forest, capture some elves and chain 'em into the tree troll's mouth, where they get chewed to death slowly, over the course of a dozen agonising years..." He licked his lips. "Luvly!"
"No," said Fear, gently but firmly. "We will do none of those things this year."
"You got somethin' even better in mind?" cried Sly in amazement.
"That's right!" smiled Fear. "This year, we're going to be... making rissoles!"
There was a silence that was long, slow, and so excruciating that it violently killed the playful smile on Fear's face.
"We're what?" Skarkill managed to sneer at last.
"R-rissoles?" Fear managed to repeat, a little less confidently. "Rissoles. We're going to be making some. I managed to get this fantastic recipe for Christmas rissoles from this new cookery show they've just started up on the Telepathic Broadcasting Circle." Fear decided to do away with the sudden uncertainty he felt at his dear chums' reaction. "Come on, you killjoys!" he cried out eagerly. "Let's go cook!"
"Ah, the delectable Majida," Hordriss greeted the genie as she arrived at Facewarts Academy Of Wizarding And French Polishing Services.
"Oh, you all dignity as usual," noted Majida evenly. Her tone turned cold. "You no fool me, Hordriss. You are randy old goat."
Hordriss spluttered incoherently.
"No pretend to be shocked, Hordriss," Majida warned him. "Like I say, you no fool me. And Marta tell me all about that time with you behind the stables at Crazed Heifer."
Hordriss' face turned the colour of his robes in double-quick time. "Er, oh. Did she?" He tried to hide his embarrassment behind anger. "To kiss and tell is to indulge in acts of prostitution and defer payment, that is all!" he thundered pompously.
"I no pay her," Majida corrected him, "it just girlie chit-chat. No big deal." Majida licked her fingernails and polished them gently on the lapel of her gown. "Nothing big at all, or so she tell me."
The conversation was becoming excruciating in triple-quick time, so Hordriss decided that it would be best to change the subject.
"What do you want, Majida?"
Majida raised an eyebrow. "Direct approach?" she noted. "I admire that in man who smooch with serving wench behind stable..."
"Is there something else I can help you with?"
Majida judged that she had tormented the old man sufficiently for one day. "It about spell you give us..."
"Ah yes," nodded Hordriss, allowing himself a proud smile, "the FESTIVE spell. One's proudest achievement yet in the mystical arts. How did it go?"
Majida nodded reluctantly. "It go well," she conceded. "We cast it midnight Christmas Eve morning, like you say. It seem to work. Fearlord-thingy start being nice to everyone he see."
"Excellent!" stated Hordriss with restrained self-congratulation. "Precisely as one anticipated when one fashioned the spell from two holly leaves, a melted candle, and the thrupenny bit from last year's custard pudding; the foul technomancer has become possessed by the Spirit of Christmas! Until midnight on the morning of January the seventh, he will be filled with a pervading sense of joy and a complete inability to be vindictive, greedy or arrogant." Hordriss paused to smile to himself. "One hesitates to boast of course, but only one's genius could have achieved it."
"Yes, spell cause no arrogance," frowned Majida, looking profoundly irritated, "I see that."
"A statement of fact cannot be arrogant."
"Beardy wizard in silly red gown can be!"
"One would advise that you consider your own apparel before criticising one's dress sense," suggested Hordriss.
Majida glanced down at her own scarlet fatigues, and admitted to herself that he had a point.
"One is gratified to hear that matters are proceeding as planned," continued Hordriss, "however, one surmises that there is more to discuss, or you would not have come all this way."
Majida hesitated, wondering whether or not she was going to sound vindictive. "You got another one?" she asked. "For Treguard? He got head bigger than balloon since he cast spell."
Hordriss blinked wisely at her. "Really? That doesn't sound like him."
"No," agreed Majida. "He usually pain in bottom..." (Hordriss cleared his throat very quietly,) "...but right now, I want hit his mouth with brick."
"The insufferable pride of triumph," noted Hordriss. "Not unheard of, but unusual behaviour for a Dungeon Master who is old enough to know far better. Let me see what I can do."
Majida sauntered into the antechamber in as care-free and innocent a manner as possible... and the whiteness landed on her head immediately.
At first she wondered whether it was snowing indoors. Then she saw Treguard sitting on his throne, a huge grin of smug jubilation splitting his face in a manner that more or less exactly failed to please the eye.
Majida shook her head violently and a fresh cloud of whiteness billowed around her. The neutral smell and very dry flavour were immediate identifiers.
"Flour?" she shuddered.
Treguard stuck his tongue out at her again. "Got you! Got you!" He sprang to his feet and pumped the air with his fist. "I am the champ-i-on," he chanted, "you ar-re rubbish!"
Majida stared at Treguard in bemusement. She'd always been irritated by his total lack of fun spirit, and his almost elderly air of reserve. But right now, he wasn't only showing signs of a sense of fun, but a really juvenile sense of humour.
"What got into you?" Majida cried, deeply upset.
"It's not what's got into me," Treguard taunted, "it's what's got all over you!"
"You behaving like bottom-hole!" howled Majida. "It like living with smelly, beardy-weirdy, ugly, fat, fifty year-old baby."
Treguard's grin disappeared. "I'm not fifty!" he protested.
"Not even fifty months, I think," Majida answered nastily.
"You're just feeling bad sporting," Treguard snapped back, pouting, "because you fell for the old 'tripwire-and-plate-of-flour-above-the-door' trick."
Was that how he did it? Majida was wondering. Then she realised that this was a stupid thing to be wondering. She needed to go and wash large quantities of white powder out of her hair, change clothes, and then start wondering about something else altogether. Namely what the goblin-spitting hell had got into the old Dungeon Master.
She turned and marched out, calling back, "I rather be covered in muck than full of it!"
Hordriss sighed in disappointment as Majida explained what had happened in the antechamber. "Alas, one feared as much when one provided the original spell."
Majida peered at him suspiciously. "Feared what?"
"An unfortunate side-effect. There is a price to pay for any magic, Majida. You are a genie, you should know that."
"What does thees mean?"
"A price for gaining it," Hordriss rumbled on, "and sometimes a price for using it. Especially when you are a non-magician."
"What is thees price?"
"Treguard cast the spell. Can you not make the calculation for yourself?"
Majida looked at Hordriss, then over her shoulder at the door, then back at Hordriss again. "Oh no..."
"Yes," nodded Hordriss gravely.
"Dees spell," Majida almost whimpered, "it change caster as well as target! Yeah?"
"So it would appear." Hordriss sat down heavily in his seat. He looked a little tired and even rather embarrassed. "It makes sense in a strange way. We live in a world where things are not created, but nurtured. Kindness and generosity of spirit are hallmarks of maturity, and a mature, rounded personality cannot just be brought into being without time and nurture."
Majida just stared at him. She couldn't understand a word, but as she realised that Hordriss was warming to his subject, she chose not to interrupt.
"So when we used magic to mature the technomancer," Hordriss continued, "the best that the spell could do was take maturity from somebody else."
Majida did understand that bit. "You mean Fearlord-thing has Treguard's noggin, uh?"
"Er," stammered the old warlock, hoping for a translation (just as the genie had been looking for one a moment earlier). He finally settled on saying, "Yes." It seemed easiest.
"Thees is stoopid!"
"Most unfortunate," conceded Hordriss, adding with a reluctance that was tangible, "especially as it is possible that... er, one may bear a small... modicum of responsibility for the..." He was thrashing around for the right words, "er... difficulties."
Majida raised an eyebrow at him, a very harsh look in her eyes. "Oh. Hordriss," she sniffed sardonically, "don' be so hard on yourself."
The sarcasm was not lost on Hordriss of course, and it took a supreme, nay heroic, effort of will on his part to overlook it.
"What do we do about it?" Majida persisted.
"One fears," admitted Hordriss, "that the spell is cast-locked for its fullest duration."
"That the spell cannot be broken," said Hordriss, "unless with the willing consent of its victims."
"W-e-e-ele-e-eng concert?" stammered Majida as she fumbled her way round the words.
"Treguard has to want to be restored to normal in order to break the spell," explained Hordriss, "which is highly unlikely at best, as the spell makes its victim imagine that it is enjoying its new behaviour pattern."
"Enjoying?" scoffed Majida. "He enjoying being babyish loudmouth? You joke, right?"
"One fears not. We shall just have to tolerate Treguard's absurd behaviour until the end of the Christmas period."
Majida needed only seconds to consider the non-stop cavalcade of silly pranks, practical jokes, childish taunts and babyish noises that she would have to endure for the next fortnight to draw her conclusion of that.
"Like buggery we do!" she said, and stuck her tongue out at him, blowing a very loud, very prolonged, and exquisitely pitched raspberry.
Majida turned and stormed out.
Hordriss was taken aback as he watched her go, although not unduly shaken. After all, it was hard to take seriously the temper tantrums of anyone when they had a head of hair caked in baking flour.
Majida marched along the riverside path into the meadow of Wolfglade. She did have a plan, or at least the beginnings of one. Treguard needed the spell broken, so she'd have to release Lord Fear from the magic. And Fear had to want a cure before he could be restored to normal? Well then she'd just have to persuade him that he wanted one.
Yes, she could probably do that. But getting at Fear would not be easy.
"I going to need some help," she said to herself as she arrived at the riverbank and started washing her hair again.
There were glum looks around the kitchen of Marblehead as Lord Fear joyfully lifted a broad tray of beautifully-toasted rissoles from the kiln, humming to himself the tune of a new song he had invented on the spot only that morning - Oh How Nice For Nice People To Be Nice On A Nice Day.
"Oh, wasn't this fun?" cooed Fear pleasantly. "In fact, I've enjoyed myself so much, lads, that this afternoon, as a reward..."
Sly Hands, Raptor, and most particularly Skarkill, all looked up and gathered round their boss hopefully. "Y-yes, Fearship?"
"...This afternoon," continued Fear, building up as much tense enthusiasm into his tone as possible, "this afternoon... we'll be making rock cakes!"
This exciting revelation was greeted with a fresh round of indifference that Fear totally failed to recognise. He turned his attention back to the nice ingredients on the worktop and started preparing a nice recipe for really nice Christmas rock cakes.
"And then, for the coup de gras..." Fear continued, "we really get into gear! We'll be holding a carol singing competition."
The others all merely exchanged surly glances and stared back at their leader unhappily.
Skarkill looked most angry of all. He shook his head. "This," he growled, "has to stop."
"Right," rumbled Skarkill once the others were all present. "I call this meetin' to order. Preparations for Operation: Let's-Bash-Some-Sense-Into-That-Dipstick-We-Laughingly-Call-A-Leader begin now. Luvly."
Back in the kitchen, as soon as Lord Fear's back had been turned, Skarkill had whispered to the others, "You wanna put a stop to this? Conference, goblin pens, ten minutes."
Such was the enthusiasm for this idea that it was rather less than three minutes later that Skarkill, Raptor and Sly Hands were joined by Lissard in the goblin pens, where Grippa and Rhark were in a cage that very precisely failed to meet any and all livestock Health and Safety standards as stipulated by the Angevin Administration. (There were none of these actually, but if they were to look at all the dirt in the pens, people would feel somehow that even non-existent safety standards were being missed.)
"This be a joke!" growled Raptor, disgusted.
"It's humil-... humil-... it's embarra-..." Sly Hands shook his head. "I feel daft. We should be out there hurtin' people and stealin' stuff and callin' everyone names. Not cooking riss-holes and stuff!"
Lissard, who'd still been sleeping off his stomach aches while the others had been baking, glanced around at the faces of the others. "Risssssss-solesss?"
"Don't ask," snapped Raptor. His tone was enough to make it clear that it was an instruction, not a request.
"Look," snarled Skarkill, "I think I can take it as read that we're all agreed, right? The boss is acting like a goit, and it's got to stop."
There were animated nods of agreement from all present.
"Then we've got to find out why he's started behaving like a dipstick," continued Skarkill, "and then put a stop to it."
"How?" asked Sly innocently.
Skarkill was more hesitant. "Ah well, I haven't finalised the closer details of the plan I'm formulatin'-like..."
"Because you ain't got one, right?" sniffed Raptor.
"He hassssssn't, hasssss he?" rasped Lissard irritably.
Skarkill gave him a resentful look. "Trust you lot to spoil the flow-like with petty details!"
"No plan-nesssss, no flow," pointed out Lissard, perfectly accurately. "Give ussss a plan, and we're with you."
"Look," Raptor interjected, "it's obvious, ain't it? We need to find out what's wrong with the gaffer? We give him a medical!"
"Oh come off it-nesssss! He wouldn't admit it'sss even possssssible for him to get ill. He'd never let anyone elssse-nessss sssee him blowing hisss nos-ssse, let alone give him a full-nessss medical."
Raptor shrugged. "So we do it while he's not looking."
"We make sure someone's with him all the time, we keep notes of everything he says and does, and take the occasional blood and urine sample while he's sleeping."
Skarkill looked amazed. "Do you seriously wanna risk trying to get a sample of his..." His voice tailed off. "What, he still wets the bed then?"
"Puddle city," nodded Raptor seriously, "or so the chamber maid informs me."
"Iss thiss a sssseriousss disssscusssion?" asked Lissard.
"Yes," said Skarkill.
"Actually no," admitted Raptor, "I was making it up. But everything else is serious. Face it, my lads, we're going to need help with this."
Hands hadn't known what to make of the message that the page had delivered to him. This was mainly because he was hopelessly bad at reading, but at the same time he was a little shaken by the image on the seal - the emblem of the two-headed griffin superimposed on a giant blue eye; it was the coat-of-arms of Dunshelm Castle.
"Wossa Dunjer-Master wantin' with me?" mumbled Hands nervously as the page, in a considerable rush, departed Marblehead for... well, anywhere that wasn't here.
Hands, after only five minutes' careful deliberation managed to undo the seal and open the message. He stared at it blankly for several more minutes, wondering why he couldn't make out any details. Then he realised he was looking at the wrong side of the parchment. He turned it over and saw the impeccably-written words...
Dearest and most respected Sylvester de Hands
This is a matter of gravest urgency. You must meet with one at the foot of Baasst Hill at sunset. Both your leader and mine have been possessed by mystical energies beyond the shallow limitations of mortal understanding, and we must work in collusion to liberate them. Thus one needs you to mediate between one and your colleagues to negotiate and facilitate the implementation of a mutually-beneficial agreement to the end as intimated above.
Yours with the deepest admiration, faith and respect,
Majida (as compiled by Hordriss T. Confusere).
Unfortunately, Sly didn't understand what the word "matter" meant so he didn't bother to read the rest of it, and instead took it to Lissard to see if he could translate it.
"So let's get this straight," growled Skarkill, his tone taking an increasingly nasty and incredulous edge, "you put a spell on our boss, and now you're asking us to trust you?"
Majida shrugged indignantly. "I no have anything to do with spell!" she protested. "I tell Treguard it never work. It always go wrong, even when it look like it go right. And I right."
They were stood in a meadow at the foot of Baasst Hill, about half a mile from Marblehead. "They" were Majida, Pickle, Stiletta, Motley, Lissard, Sly Hands and Skarkill.
Lissard and Majida had agreed a truce to meet up and compare notes over the FESTIVE spell-business, on the mutual condition that they should come unarmed and alone.
And of course they both violated both conditions, as each knew the other would do. Such a level playing field of mutual distrust bred a surprising degree of confidence that they could at least work together as they both knew in advance exactly how little they could rely on each other.
Majida and the other Powers-That-Be agents had sat in the higher branches of a large, gnarled oak tree. When the Opposition men showed up, it took little effort on Pickle's part to persuade them that the tree was possessed by a dryad that would answer to his commands, and it would therefore tear the life out of anyone who made a move to attack anyone else in the meadow.
He was lying of course, but that's elves for you, and there was no way that Skarkill or the others were going to risk calling his bluff, especially as they knew that the truce was as much in their interests as their enemies'.
"And the spell can't be broken-like?" stressed Skarkill.
"Only by Fearlord thingie-person or Treguard, themselves," explained Majida sadly. "We stuck."
Sly scratched his head. "There's only one thing confusin' me," he complained.
"Only one?" whirred Pickle in astonishment. "What?"
"All of it," admitted Sly.
"I'd call that a sign that we're making progress," sniffed Stiletta haughtily.
"Ssso would I," echoed Lissard, giving Hands a 'sssspeak-when-you're-sssspoken-to' look. "Ssso, at leassst we now know why hisss Lord-nessss isss behaving like sssuch a jessssy."
Skarkill nodded, but his face was still creased by a downcast expression. "But if we can't dispel the magic, it doesn't get us anywhere. Take it from me, I've never seen ol' Fearship so 'appy in all the time I've known 'im. We can't talk him into going back to normal, not a chance. He's so..." He shivered with distaste, "...so cheerful. So full of life. So full of the gifts of happiness, generosity and... euurrrghh... charm. So unluvly."
Majida shook her head dizzily. This had to be a dream. It had to be. She'd suspected it since the moment that Treguard had raised the idea of casting the spell in the first place, and now all of this had finally confirmed it to her.
Yes, it was all a dream. And it occurred to her that that meant that everything was going to be fine. She could even sit back and enjoy herself, try to accomplish some daredevil, exciting plan, safe in the knowledge that in reality it would make no difference whatsoever. This realisation was quite a relief in fact, as it really took the pressure off.
"Well," she said with confidence, "we can no persuade him. But someone else might."
Everyone turned to look at her. There was a nervous edge to everyone's bearing.
"I'm worried," muttered Motley. "She's trying to be clever. Any time anyone tries to be clever, it's trouble."
Majida rolled her eyes. "If that your attitude, forget it."
"Ignore him," said Stiletta hurriedly. "I'd rather try a troubling idea than two weeks of Treguard throwing mud pies at everyone from the battlements."
There were a few chortles from the Opposition goons at this. "You what?" hooted Sly. "Mud pies?"
"God, I hope that's what they were," shivered Motley.
Skarkill gave Lissard a nudge. "Hey, pr'haps we should let this run its course after all. Looks like a pretty luvly consolation prize in it for us."
Lissard gave him a dark look. "Ssssay that to me after two more roundsss of hisss Lord-nessss's campfire sssongsss, and then I'll lisssten to you."
Skarkill thought about this, then nodded sadly. "All right, genie-girl, I'm listenin'-like."
Motley was in a stubborn mood though. "No. Let's face it, it'll be a stupid plan..."
Stiletta gave Motley an unfriendly poke in the ribs with her elbow. "Has anyone got a sensible idea? Any takers?" No one responded. "Fine, so let's make do with a stupid one."
Majida wasn't sure whether she'd won the argument or been mightily insulted, but decided that now was not the time to worry about it.
"Fearlord no listen to us," she began, "because we all enemies. He no listen to you because you all henchmen. He in authority over you so he no take guidance from you. Yes?"
Lissard nodded patiently. "Your point, genie?"
"So, who would he listen to?"
"I don't know!" hissed Lissard, exasperated.
"No she's right," Stiletta interjected. "He must fear or respect someone."
"You've come to the wrong place, girl," sneered Skarkill. "Respect's a one-way street with Lord Fear."
"He'sss right," nodded Lissard glumly. "Hisss Lord-nessss doessn't value the opinion of anyone alive, bar hisss own."
"No one? No one at all?" Majida looked frustrated. "No one can be that arrogant!" The Opposition goons said nothing, but just stared up at her. It said a thousand words. "Okay, he could."
"Wait," interrupted Motley. "No one alive, did you say?"
Motley's face broke into a huge smile. "I've got an idea!"
"Oh?" prompted Stiletta.
"A brilliant idea."
"Care to elaborate?" asked Pickle politely.
Pickle made an effort to keep his temper. "Tell us about your brilliant idea. What sort of idea is it?"
"The sort of brilliant idea," replied the jester, "the sort o' cunning plan that should only be expected of a man on a chief strategist's wage, not an impoverished, deeply undervalued but immensely talented professional entertainer like yours truly." He performed a quick pirouette on the spot as a kind of victory jig, an unwise move as the branch was struggling to support his weight. He tottered dangerously for a moment before grabbing wildly for the trunk and clinging to it for dear life.
"Silence, everybody," mocked Skarkill, "a genius is about to speak."
"He's the brains round 'ere?" snorted Hands. "God 'elp us, everyone."
Treguard was hanging from the chandeliers in the Great Hall of Knightmare Castle. Sidriss walked in, carrying a parchment with a message from her father on it.
"Dungeon Master!" she cried, shocked. "What are you doing up there?"
Treguard glanced down at her, sniffed the air reflectively, and then blew a loud, long, persistent raspberry at her.
Lord Fear slumbered peacefully, enjoying the sweetest of dreams, a temporal world of saccharine thoughts, occupied by hopping pink bunny rabbits, cute little kitty-cats, and sweet affectionate puppies. Oh wasn't the world beautiful? So full of little bundles of loveliness. It was just so perfect. All that was left was for Father Christmas to visit his dreams and give him a fluffy soft toy as a present and the world of joy would be complete.
He pulled the blanket around himself a little tighter, the better to feel snug and warm. It was then that he realised that he was no longer asleep.
In contented curiosity, he sat up in his chair (he always slept on his throne, never in a bed. For some reason he'd always thought lying down was unmanly, and, he was no longer sure why, but being unmanly had always been abhorrent to him, even though sleeping like this was bad for his back) and glanced around to see what it was that had disturbed him.
Shrewdness was not required, for there were two ghostly figures standing in the shadows either side of him, their outlines all glowing dimly in the darkness.
One of them stepped forward and boomed with demonic laughter.
"MWUH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HAAAAA!!!" it roared psychopathically. "Greetings, you miserable scrap of festering insignificance!!! Quail before me, you pathetic lump of wasted sorcery!!! Prostrate yourself at the feet of your destiny, you vacuous, malodorous streak of spurious excrement!!"
Fear blinked. "Have we met?" he asked pleasantly.
The intruder who had accosted him paused for a moment, either confused by the question or put out by the lack of impact his words had had. He seemed to glance at the other ghostly figure, as though looking for guidance, then resumed. "You have been judged and found wanting, Lord Fear."
Fear looked saddened but not overly alarmed. He got to his feet, and smiled pleasantly. "I'm sorry, 'judged'? By whom?"
"You do not recognise me then, Lord Fear?"
Fear peered at the figure as closely as he could. He took it all in. The bulky outline, the enormous height, the cold aura, the unmistakeable tinge of a pale complexion, the vibrant, booming voice full of arrogance and authority...
"No, not really," said Fear at length. There was something familiar about the voice, but he didn't recognise it with any specific clarity. "I thought you might've been me at one point," he joked, "especially the white face, but that would be..."
He broke off as the ghostly figure stepped out of the shadows into the (relative) light of a moonbeam shining through the overhead window.
The face was his own.
"Not a bad guess, Lord Fear," growled the spectre.
Now Fear was really shaken. "Wh-who are you?" he stammered.
"You just guessed it," answered the spectre. "And as I'm you, you'd be forcing me to repeat myself if you made me answer. And we all know how little Lord Fear likes having to repeat himself, eh?"
"You're trying to say that you're me?" scoffed Fear. "I don't mean to be rude..."
"No," the spectre cut in, "I bet you don't. Isn't that the problem?"
"I don't understand."
"We are here to save you, Lord Fear," rumbled the spectre ominously, "we are here to save your soul from the damnation and misery towards which you are heading."
Fear was utterly flummoxed. Damnation? Misery? He couldn't remember feeling more content or happy or full of joy than he had felt so far in this merry yuletide season. Although come to think of it, he wasn't entirely sure why. Was there something different happening? As he paused to consider this thought, however, he suddenly felt something else, and that was an overwhelming urge not to think too hard about it, as though a little voice was whispering in his ear, "Never you mind all that, you've got a Hogmanay party to start organising, and joy to the world to spread."
The spectre suddenly snarled at him, its tone turning more urgent and hostile. "Don't you see? You can't even think about it can you?"
"All this paltry affection you've developed for spiritual growth and harmony," snorted the spectre, its voice dripping over with contempt, "nourishing the soul, and giving pleasure to other people with no thought for yourself? It's all a shallow distraction from the true values to which you once aspired!"
"A distraction?" protested Fear. "Spiritual growth is what it's all about, surely! And harmony... without harmony there is no stability. If there's no stability, there's no progress. How can we build a better world without harmo-...?"
"Build a better world?" hooted the spectre, either deeply amused or just appalled. "Listen to yourself! Is this what it's all come to, you superficial nincompoop?" The spectre spread its arms, and Fear got the strange impression that it was rather enjoying insulting him. "All this generosity? All this indulging in simple, honest, homely pleasures that benefit the many, and at the expense of no one? It's obscene! Whatever happened to larceny? Whatever happened to vindictiveness? Whatever happened to good old fashioned thievery, cruelty or violence?"
"Where's the instinct gone?" the spectre continued, now on such a roll that Fear was starting to wonder if he was going to be allowed the chance to answer him at any stage. "The simple, honest, healthy impulse to hurt someone for no reason other than the sense of power it gives you? The drive to ruin Christmas celebrations for other people for no reason other than you like seeing people looking unhappy and disappointed?"
Fear was again bewildered and flummoxed. The spectre seemed to be talking about these things as though they were par for the course, as though that was the way Fear had always behaved, and as though it was the most natural instinct in his life to be like that. But surely not! After all, what did he do last Christmas...?
He had to stop and think about that. And the more he thought about it, the less he could answer it. Any time the vaguest hint of memory of last Christmas, of any previous Christmas, threatened to break through, he again felt this overwhelming urge not to think about it any further.
In fact, now that he thought about it, he couldn't really remember with clarity anything he had ever done until... well, Christmas Eve morning in fact. That was odd. He was sure he could remember things quite clearly before. Or could he? It was dizzying and bizarre, as he now found couldn't even remember what it was like to remember something.
"This was once a land of law, order, peace and harmony," continued the spectre, "and you fought to change all that!"
"I did?" Fear blinked.
"Yes!" cried the spectre. "And we're here to jog your memory. BeHOLD!!!"
He snapped his fingers and from an unseen source the chamber flooded with light. Hanging on the wall was a vast and imposing portrait of a tall and powerful figure, his white face framed by a giant iron helmet and twisted with gloating, arrogant evil. His body was adorned in black skeletal armour, and a mighty velvet cloak hung from his broad shoulders.
"Hot outfit!" whistled Fear, much impressed. "Who is he?"
"That," rumbled the spectre, "is you."
"Me?" gasped Fear. "Oh go on!"
"My point exactly," said the spectre. "You have lost something, Lord Fear. Numerous things in fact, foremost among which is all sense of style and class. I mean look at you now."
The spectre waved a dismissive hand in the direction of Fear's stripy yellow-and-pink jim-jams, and his cotton night-cap with the 'I'm a happy hippopotamus!' slogan emblazoned across the front of it.
Fear felt slightly abashed. "What's wrong with it?" he pouted.
"It makes you look like a dork," opined the spectre. "That's what's wrong with it. I mean look at the figure you used to be," he continued, gesturing to the mighty war-lord in the portrait. "There he stands, master of all the evil in post-Angevin England, erect, firm, proud... and pretty nifty battle boots I might add." The spectre turned back to Fear and turned his nose up. "And look at you now. Nothing but a poncy-pants in pink!"
"That's a bit harsh," Fear objected.
"Oh shut up!" snarled the spectre.
"Righto," nodded Fear obediently.
The spectre rolled his eyes. "And that's the other thing, you big nancy! You're becoming a doormat. It won't be long before your henchmen lose all respect and start disobeying you."
"They wouldn't do that!" cried Fear. "Not my boys. They're loyal, obedient. Good eggs. They love me as much as I love them..."
The spectre shook his head. "They think you're becoming a wimp, actually. They want you to start calling them names and getting angry with them again." The spectre leaned a little closer and added, in a warning tone, "They call you 'Weedy Wendy' when you're not listening you know."
Fear didn't know where it came from, but he suddenly felt a surge of adrenaline. He felt apoplectic. "They call me what?!"
"Softy Susan. Lord Feeble. Lord Flowery pants. Four-eyes fluffy. You name it. They do not, in short, entirely respect you. You have forgotten that fear and respect are inseparable, and you, the very Lord of Fear, no longer inspire either."
The spectre finally turned to his companion, a much shorter figure wrapped in a dark crimson veil, face hidden in a fetching white burkha.
"Over to you."
The second spectre stepped forward. "We are here to tell you future that awaits you, Fearlord-thing," she said in broken English that sounded uncomfortably familiar to Lord Fear, but he just couldn't place it. The spectre snapped her fingers sharply before he could think about it. "Behold! The future that awaits you on your present course..."
She pointed to another wall, and there Fear saw that there was another portrait. He gave a shudder of astonishment.
A short, bearded and breathtakingly ugly man was stood there, dressed in the same skeletal armour as in the other portrait. It didn't fit him well at all. The man looked dirty and run down, and seemed to be dragging the armour down with him. Nonetheless he still had an air of authority about him, as though he was a man accustomed to command.
Worse though, far worse, was the shrivelled and pathetic figure crouched down at the man's feet, feebly struggling to polish the nifty battle boots with a bright pink duster.
It was Yeoman Fear in a pink apron, polishing the boots of his mighty liege, Lord Sly of Hands.
Fear let out a small whimper of horror. Then he howled, "NOOOOOOOO!!!!" and burst into tears. "It can't be that! Anything but that! Please!" Fear sank to his knees and buried his head in his hands, sobbing uncontrollably.
The two spectres glanced at each other, then looked back down at Fear. "So," murmured the second spectre, "you no want this to happen, uh?"
"Please," Fear wept, "anything but this. Anything at all. Oh, what crime have I committed to deserve this? I want to atone. I want to atone!"
"So you want what's making this happen to go away do you?" asked the first spectre.
"I do!" wailed Fear. "I do, I do, I do!"
And at this point, there seemed to be a strange noise, a distant but familiar chord of music, like someone running their fingers along the strings of a harp, and out of nowhere Fear felt himself relaxing and a renewed surge of energy.
The first spectre winked at the second one, who nodded and quickly ran off, while Fear slowly tottered to his feet.
"Dispell," muttered the spectre quickly and quietly, "A-S-K-M."
And suddenly Skarkill was standing there, helping Lord Fear to his feet.
"Up you get, Fearship... luvly. You 'ave an accident, chief?"
"An accident?" scoffed Fear. "Me? Are you implying that I am afflicted by the banes of clumsiness, Skarkill? I couldn't have an accident even if I went for a walk on the moon of fire with all four of my eyes closed."
"No of course not, yer Fearship... I mean, lordship. But, why were you on the floor?"
Fear glanced down at the floor blankly. "Er..." That was a good question actually. But he shrugged. "Well why not?" he asked, rather weakly. "It's a free country. Speaking of which, we haven't done much about changing that recently have we?"
"No, yer lordship. Unluvly, innit?"
"I quite agree, so get moving."
"Sort of now-ish."
"Where to, sir?"
"Anywhere that isn't particularly close to me," suggested Lord Fear. "I've had my full dosage of knucklehead henchman for one day. Now bug off, you loathsome maggot."
Skarkill gave a smile of relief. "On my way, yer Fearship!" he said with a salute. "And good to have you back, sir."
Fear watched through narrowed eyes as Skarkill left. What in the seven worlds did that tiresome goblin master mean by that?
He sighed, feeling exhausted, then glanced down at himself and almost jumped in fright.
"What the buggering hell am I wearing?"
Everything was back to normal in Knightmare Castle as well. Treguard had, after hearing explanations of all that had happened, cringed his way through a protracted and embarrassed apology to Sidriss, and numerous other people he'd been rude to in the last couple of days for that matter.
So that evening Majida and Pickle were in the dungeon antechamber enjoying mince pies and a glass of Spanish sherry (an unwise choice of beverage, as sherry was famous for giving elves the hiccups) when the communication was received. They looked into the Pool of Veracity and saw Skarkill's smug-ugly face.
"All is well at your end I... >hic!< ...take it?" asked Pickle, hoping the answer was no.
"Like you care," sneered Skarkill. "But yes, everything's top stock again. Luvly. We'll be back to chaos and victimising the poor, the innocent and the weak again in no time. Very luvly!" He paused and then added, more reluctantly, "Guess we owe you one, even if it was you lot who made the mess in the first place."
"I tell you before," retorted Majida, sharply raising her voice above the noise of Pickle's indigestion, "I warn Treguard not to use spell. It not our fault..."
"All right, all right!" fumed Skarkill. "That's why I said we probably owe you one. So as a gesture, we'll keep the truce goin' till New Year. It'll take his Fearship that long to get over the embarrassment of being seen wearin' pink pyjamas anyway."
Majida tried not to smirk. "That very accommodating of you, Skarkill."
"Yeah right," growled Skarkill, "whatever." There was a brief silence, scuppered only by another loud hiccup from Pickle, during which Skarkill seemed to roll over a thought in his mind. He then said, grudgingly, "'Ave a Merry Christmas." More meaningfully he added, "'Cos we're gonna give you a hell of a rotten New Year."
Skarkill's face dissolved from view. Majida looked up with a smile at Pickle, who let out an unsteady belch in response. Majida's smile faded into a revolted frown, but then she smiled again and raised her glass.
"Oh well," she shrugged, "it the party season. If you can't burp now when can you burp, uh? Merry Christmas, Gherkin."
"Merry... >hic!< ...Christmas, Majida," answered the elf. "And it's, er... Pickle by the way."