Music: Majestic Nature by Craig Stuart Garfinkle
Artwork by Steve English
Episode 17 – The Key
As Scragg recovered her senses, she looked more closely at the two people in the attic with them. One, a hag-like creature, was holding something in her hand while kneeling in front of the dark and ghostly outline of a door. The other, who looked a bit of an oaf, was some way behind and had a furious expression on his face. Neither of the people had noticed their arrival or the two shadow dogs who seemed to be having a ‘mad moment’ – zooming around chasing each other.
Apart from the kneeling hag, Winefry was the only one who wasn’t affected by what came next. As the hag held out what looked very much like the key they were searching for towards the dark keyhole in the door, everything in the attic seemed to slow down. Then a voice spoke – which was only heard by the woman and Winefry – apparently from the door itself.
It said, ‘Beware how you place that key in my lock, for many have tried and have found no luck. For if by chance you get it wrong, this door will stay open and all blessing be gone. Yet if you get it right when you open this cell, then maybe, just maybe all things will go well.’
The words sent cold shivers down Winefry from his cork to his toes. He could see what was happening but felt no power in himself do anything about it. He watched helplessly as the person blindly pushed the key into the lock, taking no notice of the warning she’d just received. Winefry could see the other person, a large man with a red face moving closer to the hag and saw her throw a worried glance in his direction.
Then, time was released back to normal as the door violently burst open, smashing into the woman kneeling in front of it. It sent her flying across the attic like a rag-doll – only just missing the man.
Then, darkness, like they had never seen before, erupted out from the doorway. It was more than just empty darkness. It was malicious, powerful, filled with hate and, as it shot out, it engulfed the surprised man. Winefry thought he saw dark hands reach out and grab the man, dragging him back inside the doorway. As the man entered the darkness, the door slammed shut with a mighty crash – flinging the key from the lock and shattering it into its component pieces.
Winefry was horrified. When he’d seen the key, he’d assumed that this was the end of their quest, to simply take the key from these people and return home. But now the key parts were spread across the attic. It was hard to see where they’d landed as the light was so dim. All Winefry could see was the shank of the key which seemed to be evaporating into a dark mist. So, throwing caution to the wind, Winefry leapt for the shank and grabbed hold of it as tightly as he could. And, as he held it firmly, so it regained its integrity in his hands, the thin rope through the bow dangling down.
Shouting across to Scragg, Winefry yelled at her to find the bits before they disappeared. But that was easier said than done. The lighting was terrible. Only the woman’s oil lamp was left and was about as much use as a clotted-cream picnic basket. Scragg raced around, but each time she found a bit, it was too late as it evaporated into a vapour before she could grab it.
Thinking she’d missed all the bits, Scragg returned to Winefry who was holding the shank as if it too was about to vanish. He gave her a hopeful look, but she shook her head, and his face fell. The task the Lady of Light had given them would take far longer now.
The shadow border terriers still seemed to be playing, at least one of them did. Flannel’s shadow kept running up to them and then going away again. Both Winefry and Scragg ignored it at first, unsure what to do. But when it came up for the fifth or sixth time, Winefry and Scragg exchanged a glance and Scragg followed the shadow dog with Winefry close behind.
Flannel’s shadow ran ahead and stopped just the other side of some boxes, and when Scragg and Winefry came round, they both stopped dead in their tracks, amazed at what they saw. Shadow Spanner had his nose on the top of one of the bits of the key. Somehow, being a shadow had enabled Spanner to stop it evaporating. So, with shadow Flannel bouncing up and down beside her, Scragg very carefully reached over and put her paw on top of the bit. She could feel it solidify beneath her claw, but she couldn’t pick it up, that would require Winefry who was still holding onto the shank as if his life depended on it.
‘It’s solid again,’ Scragg said to Winefry before nodding towards the shadow dogs as a gesture of thanks. ‘But I think you’re going to have to be the one to pick it up. Can you use that rope in the ring thingy to keep it around your neck so you can come and get this bit?’
‘It’s not a ring, it’s a bow,’ Winefry replied on autopilot, and then looked a little unsure. ‘To be honest, I don’t know. But I guess I’m going to have to try. Here goes!’
With one hand still firmly grasping the shank, Winefry let go with his other hand and pulled the rope up and around his neck. Then, with a slight look of panic, he put the shank against his chest (it actually hung right over his face, which was far from ideal) and let go. It clanked softly against the bottle and didn’t show any sign of wanting to evaporate. Then, because Winefry was a bottle, the rope slipped off his neck and over his body to the ground. At that, he quickly picked it up again and made a type of short loop with the rope so that it wouldn’t slip past his neck and put it back again. It remained solid and, this time, stayed put!
Winefry went over to Scragg and, in a coordinated way, they removed Scragg’s paw from the bit while Winefry picked it up. It felt solid in his grip, and he held it out for them both to see more closely.
As they moved over to the shadowy doorway to examine the shank and bit in the flickering light of the oil lamp, they realised something else. The doorway was open! It was just ajar, but still open. Scragg tried to push it shut, but it wouldn’t stay shut and just opened again. All the while, small amounts of darkness could be seen flowing from the small gap.
They tried putting boxes in front of the door, which failed to keep it closed, so they picked up the oil lamp and moved to a different part of the attic to have a closer look at the shank and bit.
It was Scragg who noticed the little symbols on the shank and bit. All six sides of the shank had a separate symbol as she had seen in the tunnel and, when she looked at the bit, she saw a symbol that corresponded to one of the marks on the shank. The bit had to be slid into the shank with the icons facing each other. So, Winefry took a firm hold of the shank and bit and, with the briefest glance at Scragg, started to slide it into place. It landed with a very satisfying ‘click’ and seemed to lock firmly in place.
No sooner had that happened than a voice spoke close by, making both Winefry and Scragg jump.
‘Well, they took their sweet time getting that sorted, didn’t they?’ said the voice.
‘Who said that?’ Winefry muttered in a hushed voice, reaching for his sword.
‘What are they on about now?’ another voice, similar but slightly higher pitched than the first voice, asked.
At that, Winefry unsheathed his sword and swung it in an arc as Scragg bared her claws and showed her teeth.
‘Show yourselves!’ yelled Winefry, a look of confusion on his face.
‘What’s that thing he’s waving about?’ one of the voices asked. ‘Do you think he’s going to throw it? Do ya? Huh? Do ya?’
‘It’s not a stick,’ the other voice answered. ‘I don’t know what it is exactly, but I don’t think he’s going to throw it for you!’
It was at that point that Scragg noticed the shadows of Spanner and Flannel. The bigger shadow of Spanner was hopping around and crouching down, just like a dog waiting for a stick to be thrown. While Flannel’s shadow was simply sitting watching the situation.
‘I demand you show yourselves!’ continued the now thoroughly wound up Winefry. ‘But know this, if we are to do battle, I will fight to the death!’
‘Now who’s he talking to?’ asked the higher-pitched voice.
‘Don’t know. Don’t care, as long as he throws that stick!’ came the reply.
‘Winefry, calm down,’ started Scragg as the bottle twisted and turned looking for the hidden villains. ‘They aren’t our enemies. I think that, somehow, putting that locky part in the shafty thingy has made us able to hear our ‘new shadows’.’
‘What?’ erupted Winefry. A look of total shock and disbelief on his face. ‘How can we hear shadows? They’re, they’re … shadows?’
‘I know, I know,’ Scragg continued. ‘Like I said, I think it’s the key parts. Putting them together has somehow allowed us to hear their voices.’
At this, and much to shadow Spanner’s disappointment, Winefry visibly deflated and slowly put his sword back in its scabbard. I think he’d been looking forward to using it ever since it had been changed from a poker to a real sword by the Lady of Light.
The voices of the two shadow dogs continued – endlessly – as Winefry and Scragg discussed what to do next.
While their expedition had been successful, it was still very frustrating to have been so near to the whole key and not have it all. They should have been happy to have the two parts they’d saved, but somehow that didn’t make them feel much better. Especially as they had no idea how to find the remaining pieces.
As they examined the key a little more in the murky oil-lamp light, Scragg looked closely at the ring at the end of the shank. ‘I can’t see them,’ she said.
‘What are you talking about?’ asked Winefry.
‘When I saw the picture of the key in the tunnel – you probably don’t remember – there were symbols around the ring at the end of the shafty thingy. But I can’t see any now? Do you think I got it wrong?’
Winefry carefully examined the bow, trying to find any sign of words or symbols.
‘I can’t see any,’ he said. ‘However, this is clearly no ordinary key, so maybe the words will become obvious once more of the bits are in place?’
But then Scragg heard a noise. It was the sound of someone coming up the steps. As the footsteps grew louder, Winefry and Scragg retreated to the edges of the attic and waited.
A head popped up and asked if anyone was there. They were obviously unwilling to venture into the attic themselves. Then, when they got no reply, they stuck their head a little further in and shouted out again but still didn’t get a response. So, after one final call, the head disappeared from view followed shortly by the squeaking of the mechanism as the hatch was shut, closing with a loud thud.
It obviously became a lot darker in the attic, and Scragg made sure that Winefry had her tail in his hand before searching for an escape route. And, as they moved around, Scragg saw the light again. Strangely, it seemed to be coming from the same door that had been left ajar and was bleeding darkness into the attic. Walking towards the light, Scragg gave a running commentary for both Winefry and the shadow dogs. She kept this up until she heard one shadow say to the other, ‘Why does she keep telling us about what’s literally right in front of our noses?’ The other sneezed and then announced, ‘I need a pee!’ Despite themselves, both Scragg and Winefry chuckled.
Moving towards the light, Scragg felt a sense of peace as she walked right up to the door, and then into it. She didn’t enter the doorway, but instead walked into the door itself, only to find herself moments later with Winefry back outside the Manor on the pathway they’d left earlier.
Unfortunately, the shadows did not return to being silent. Scragg had had no idea just how much noise a shadow dog could make when it enjoyed emptying its bladder after being cooped up for too long. Again, despite themselves, Winefry and Scragg found themselves laughing as the shadow Spanner let out an almighty, ‘AHHHHHHHHHHHH!’ as he relieved himself on the shadow of a tree. Then, he rushed off after Flannel, who was chasing the shadow of a very real butterfly.
They had arrived on the path facing in the direction they’d formerly come from. And, instead of turning back to the Manor, they found themselves walking towards the clearing by the cliff wall. Scragg kept her eyes looking down at the path to avoid any of the motion-sickness she’d felt when she’d seen time changing on their way there. Winefry, just took the whole thing in seemingly as if it were any other typical day!
As before, once they crested the little ridge and the Manor was out of sight, the whole time-changing thing stopped, and they were simply walking along a path back to where they’d come from.
It was unspoken, but they all knew what they had to do next, and Winefry was not looking forward to it. The darkness of the tunnel had, so Scragg informed him, very nearly killed him, but that was the only way they knew to go.
Walking up to the cliff wall, Scragg again looked for some sign of light to indicate the entrance back into the cave. Inside were the icons and tunnels that would lead them to the next bit of the key, so they really had no choice.
Winefry reluctantly took hold of Scragg’s tail again. He couldn’t see it, but the lightened entrance was now evident to Scragg. Then, as he held firmly, and the two shadow dogs held some inane conversation about squirrels, they passed through back into the chamber.
For Winefry it was total blackness, but not for Scragg who looked at the various icons. Strangely, two of the tunnels had gone, they were the two that would have led to the shank and the bit they already had. But which of the remaining five should they choose? How would they know which way to go next?
Only time would tell.