A new, out of this world adventure where evil is confronted with vigour and unrivalled incompetence.
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The Quite Contrary Colin Pluck
Corvalpluck is a grumpy, middle-aged goblin longing to retire after a long career in espionage. However he has to complete one last mission if the mystical world of Hellfernezia is to survive. His task is to abduct from the human world a girl called Clarissa. As the descendant of an extinct race of Fallen Angels she holds the key to the survival of Hellfernezia.
The Passage of Time, one hungry spider and a cranky ferryman
Corvalpluck landed on his back with an ouch! The ground was solid granite, dotted with sharp points and edges. One of those razor-sharp granite blades cut into his bottom.
“Ouch!” Corvalpluck rubbed his sore backside. He was bruised from head to toe; this was too much for his old bones – he really ought to have retired a long time ago. He looked up into the mouth of the funnel above his head, expecting Gaulisoir and Braggosquirlt to tumble down any minute. All he saw was dazzling light. Where were they? Did they get stuck?
He probably would have to do the whole thing all by himself, which on second thoughts might be much less trouble than with those two imbeciles in his tow. He scanned the tunnel. His eyes had to take a couple of minutes to adjust to the dark. He was surrounded by bubbly rock formations with the icicles of stalactites and stalagmites stretching oddly in all directions; it was like sitting inside dough full of air bubbles. There were windy corridors with a crisscross of entrances and exits. The echo bounced about in multiple ricochets replicating the drilling sound of dripping water. The entire Passage of Time was leaking. There was slime underfoot and on the walls. Touching them was like coming into contact with an eel – one could not get a grip. Never mind, Corvalpluck was familiar with this hostile environment. He had to play by the rules, move forward, avoid the Quicksands of Time and Memory Whirlpools, as well as thousands of other large and small traps and obstacles, and he would be just fine.
He stood up and checked his battered body for bone breakages. None were found. He stretched and as he did so, a rumbling sound followed by a scream reached his ears while at the same time the tonne-weighing backside of Gaulisoir the Dragon collided with Corvalpluck’s head and knocked him for six. Gaulisoir rolled to one side like a large beach ball, full of complaints, aches and grievances. Corvalpluck was just recovering his senses when Gaulisoir’s tail came down, bringing with it... Braggosquirlt. The dwarf plunged onto Corvalpluck’s head with an earth-shattering shriek, and landed astride the poor goblin’s shoulders, burying the goblin in his matted beard.
Spitting hairs and cursing the day he was born, Corvalpluck shouted, “Get off me! Get off me, you idiot!”
“Are you talking to me?” Braggosquirlt demanded with great indignation in his voice.
“Is there anyone else sitting on my head that I have missed?”
“Oh, you two boys,” Gaulisoir remarked while getting himself up to his feet and wiping slime from his scales, “Do be civil to each other, will you? We have a mission to accomplish.”
Braggosquirlt bounced off the goblin with an astonishing spring in his step. “No hard feelings. I will take it that you’re concussed and don’t know what you’re saying.” He extended his hand to help the goblin to his feet. Corvalpluck accepted though not without a dose of suspicion. And rightly so – at that very moment the dwarf flew at him like a mad blue fly on steroids and knocked Corvalpluck off for the second time. What seemed like a gasp of wind howled over their heads. And then another one. And a third one. Wings. They came low, so low that they nearly shaved off Braggosquirlt’s beard.
“What was that?” he squeaked.
Gaulisoir shoved his head under his tail and began to whimper, “I will be good, I promise... Please don’t hit me... Please....” He was trembling so much that his scales were rattling.
Corvalpluck gazed after the three shadows disappearing into one of the corridors.
“Gargoyles,” he said. “They were gargoyles.”
“What are they doing here in the Passage of Time?”
“Going where we’re going, would be my guess.”
“Looking for the girl?” there was fear in Braggosquirlt’s voice.
“Which means that we will have to find her first,” Corvalpluck said coldly. Then he pointed to the shivering mass of Gaulisoir. “Go and see to that lump of jelly, Braggosquirlt, will you?”
It took them an hour to get Gaulisoir to open his eyes first, and then another hour to get him to pull his head from under his tail. He was still in a state when they explained that the gargoyles were not after him and that they were long gone.
“What if they come back?” he whimpered.
“They won’t! Get your backside up. We must be moving,” Corvalpluck gave up on the explanations. “Are you coming or not?”
“Only if someone holds my hand...”
Corvalpluck put his hands on his hip and spoke angrily, “We have a world to save! In case you haven’t noticed, Gaulisoir, our world is dying! Unless we find that blinking girl, we will all become history: dwarves, goblins, dragons... just like the unicorns and ogres before us. Make up you mushy-peas mind now and let’s be on our way! And I won’t – I repeat: I will not hold your hand! What is it going to be?”
“Yeah, what is it going to be - you tell us!” added Braggosquirlt, just in case Gaulisoir didn’t get the message the first time around.
“Well... I ....” Gaulisoir stammered. “The gargoyles might be able to bring the girl to Hellfernetia without our help? Maybe we can just sit here and wait?...”
A twinkle of hope shimmered in Braggosquirlt’s eye. He cocked his head to one side and seemed to be thinking something over.
“Why can’t we wait for the gargoyles to bring the girl?” the dragon insisted. While Braggosquirlt was thinking about an answer, Corvalpluck was pulling his hair out in sheer despair at their stupidity. (The pulling out of Corvalpluck’s hair is only a way of saying that he was at his wits’ end; truth is he didn’t have any hair to pull – he was as bald as a coot.)
“Are you coming or not?” Corvalpluck had to raise his voice, and it echoed through the labyrinth of corridors like menace: or not... or not...not...
Gaulisoir bound his hands behind his back and fidgeted, looking up to the ceiling and whistling as if he had not heard the question.
Braggosquirlt stepped in again, “Because if you’re NOT coming, I will have to escort you back to Hellfernezia, and that means Corvalpluck will have to go and bring the girl on his own. Is that what you really want?” and at that question, he winked at Gaulisoir.
“Oh, I know what you two are up to!” Corvalpluck hollered. “None of us is going back to the surface, hear me? None of us! You either come with me or stay here and wait.”
“We will wait,” Gaulisoir smiled.
“Be my guest!” shouted Corvalpluck.
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Braggosquirlt assured the goblin.
“Just like you’ve been keeping an eye on me, ha?” Corvalpluck thundered, turned on his heel and started walking. He wasn’t going to look back. His stride was long and confident. He knew how to jump over narrow oily pools without slipping and how to navigate his way along the maze of long, winding corridors without getting lost. He knew how to stay out of Brunhilda’s hairy arms. And he knew how to get back to Hellfernezia, which could not be said for those two misfits he had left behind.
All in all, Corvalpluck was happy. He could no longer hear the whisperings of Braggosquirlt and Gaulisoir behind his back. He dived into the left corridor which would take him to the underground plateau of Midway Chamber where the lake was.
It was eerily silent about him. Suddenly that silence was broken by a shriek so violent that Corvalpluck’s heart stopped in its tracks. There was the sound of struggle – voiceless struggle with only the helpless beating of wings. A commotion. Another squeal was cut short with a sharp sound like the snap of teeth. Then there was a rustle. A gargoyle’s howl followed – it receded into silence.
Corvalpluck guessed what had happened – it had to be Brunhilda. He wiped droplets of sweat from his brow. He was okay. He was alive. Then he heard more yelping.
This time it was ... pathetic. Two panicked individuals were bounding towards him, tripping and falling over each other; screaming their heads off. They were Gaulisoir and Braggosquirlt.
“Corvalpluck, wait for us, my friend!” yelled Braggosquirlt.
When did we become friends? Corvalpluck asked himself and shrugged his shoulders.
“We’re coming with you!” squealed Gaulisoir.
Finally, in a last unfortunate stumble they rolled over each other and, in unison, rammed into Corvalpluck, knocking him off his feet for the third time! All three of them were now spread-eagled on the ground, licking their bruises.
“What was that scream?” Gaulisoir asked after a while.
“We thought someone’s died,” added Braggosquirlt.
“It sounded like an axe murderer on the loose...”
“It sounded scary...”
“We thought it may have been you...”
“... so we came to the rescue...”
“... to save you...”
“Could you hold my hand?” pleaded Gaulisoir.
“...and tell us what on earth was that blood curdling sound?” added Braggosquirlt.
Corvalpluck picked himself up from the ground and glared at them for a while. “You want to know what it was, do you? Come on then, I’ll show you!” He marched ahead whilst aware of his two companions tiptoeing behind him, their shallow breaths on his neck.
At last they emerged in the open of the Midway Chamber. It was a huge, flat area dotted with craters of oil pools. Long salt stalactites, plastered with luminescent cave worms, hung down from the ceiling like enormous chandeliers, shedding light on the green waters of the lake.
“It’s rather beautiful,” observed Gaulisoir. “I think a poem is coming on-“
“Is it now?” taunted Corvalpluck. “Wait till you see this!” and he pointed upwards.
Gaulisoir and Braggosquirlt looked up and at once ran into each other’s arms. Braggosquirlt jumped into the dragon’s lap and they trembled together, mumbling without making any sense.
Above their heads hang the scene of unspeakable horror. There was a thick, tangled net of cobwebs and in the midst of it hovered a gigantic tarantula with eight hairy legs and bloodshot eyes whose pupils looking like smashed mirrors. The monster was munching on something: a dribble of stinking saliva was oozing from its mouth that was buried in a black bundle. On closer inspection, one could identify the bundle as a dead gargoyle bound in cobwebs like a joint of pork. Its wings were broken and hanging lifelessly. Its head was gone (probably already eaten by the spider) and its black blood was dripping from the neck into an oil pool beneath.
“Meet Brunhilda,” Corvalpluck sniggered.
“What...who is that?” stammered Gaulisoir.
“Devil!” Braggosquirlt whispered and crossed himself three times straight and three times back to front.
“She’s a spider,” Corvalpluck pronounced calmly. “A bit overweight, I admit, but a spider nonetheless. She’s also a very busy spider...” He released a few Shiny Bottom Beatles. They buzzed up into the air, their rear lights revealing a very intricate, thick and heavy network of webs. They were stretched across the ceiling of the cave, concealing it entirely. They resembled the tangled, woolly and hairy filth that lives inside a vacuum cleaner bag. Or Braggosquirlt’s beard.
Gaulisoir’s jaw dropped and his nose ran all the way to the floor. “Oh dear!” he said in awe.
“My guess is she is trying to build a bridge between us and The Other Side, and she doesn’t take kindly to anyone who spoils her efforts,” the goblin informed his companions.
“I see! Like those gargoyles who flew right into it and broke the threads!” Braggosquirlt looked very clever for a fraction of a second.
“...so she punished them?”
“They are also a good source of protein.”
Gaulisoir looked petrified, “So are we!”
“Nah! She won’t touch us unless we mess with her weaving handiworks. We’re too small a fish to fry.”
“Someone should come down here and... deal with her!” Braggosquirlt seemed to be recovering his courage, but alas his wit was nowhere around.
“You want to try?” Corvalpluck smirked.
“Well... hmm... I have more pressing matters to attend to,” Braggosquirlt squirmed. “Remember? We have a mission to accomplish.”
A sudden piercing howl interrupted their conversation. They dived behind a rugged rock, and only one pair of eyes – Corvalpluck’s – popped up to scan the cave.
“Aha! They’re still here!” he pointed to two black as death gargoyles who were perched on a ledge on the far side of the Middle Chamber, watching helplessly as their friend was being devoured by Brunhilda. “I’m glad they haven’t gone far.”
“If they are here it means that they are not there yet,” Corvalpluck explained. “It also means we still have a chance of getting to the girl first.”
“What’s the rush?” Gaulisoir inquired. “It’ll be all the same if they bring the girl-“
“Don’t start on that again!” Corvalpluck snapped before Braggosquirlt had a chance to jump on the bandwagon. “Who said they’re planning to bring the girl alive?”
Another squeal came from the two gargoyles. They circled once over Brunhilda and her supper, careful not to get stuck to her web, and flew away with a swish of their membranous wings.
“We’d better be going, too,” Corvalpluck said.
“Rrright you are!” bellowed Braggosquirlt. He got to his feet and immediately tripped over his own beard. Unexpectedly, a grey sewer rat stuck its head out of the beard, looked to the left, and to the right, and scurried away, its long tail slithering behind it like a snake.
“Aaaaaa!” cried Gaulisoir and grabbed Corvalpluck’s hand. “A mouse!!!”
“Oussse.... ousssse.... ousssse....” repeated the echo, rattling Brunhilda’s cobwebs ever so slightly. The great tarantula stopped munching and looked around, her broken-mirror-eyes shooting nervously in all directions.
“Shut up,” wheezed Corvalpluck and pulled the dragon to the ground. They held their breaths for a while until the spider resumed eating.
“Now, you two,” Corvalpluck whispered. “Here are the rules – you live by them or you die. Clear?”
Both his companions nodded.
“That wasn’t a mouse – it was a rat-“
Gaulisoir began whimpering.
“Shush, you! Listen! These are Black Death rats. They once brought the Plague upon the humans, nearly killing them off-“
“That’d be a nice thing of them to do – get rid of the humans, slave masters that they are-” mumbled Braggosquirlt.
Corvalpluck just gave him a stern glare, and went on: “You don’t play with those rats, or any other creatures here. You most certainly do not carry them around in your beard! Do you even know what’s lurking in that beard of yours?” Before Braggosquirlt drew in air to respond, Corvalpluck continued, “Secondly, you watch your step-“
“Goes without saying,” Gaulisoir butted in. “No one wants to step into a dog poo.”
“Ha! Dog poo! If only! There are Quicksands of Time – those patches of sparkly dust, like that one there!” Corvalpluck pointed to a small cloud, like a stretch of fog shimmering over a little hill that resembled a nice sand dune. “It looks very inviting but if you walk into it, the dune will collapse into a deep hole and you, together with the golden sand, will start falling. You will more or less drown in sand, like in an hourglass. There you will be trapped in time – it will neither go forward, nor back. Anyone who tries to help you, and isn’t strong enough, will follow you into the trap.”
“Phew!” Gaulisoir sighed.
“Then there are the Memory Whirlpools. For an inexpert eye they look just like those oil wells that are all over the place. You fall into an oil well, you get a bit sticky. You fall into Memory Whirlpool, you may end up back in time, back to something that happened ages ago. It may be good, or it may be bad – personally, I wouldn’t take any chances.”
“How can you tell them from those silly oil puddles, then?”
“Hm,” Gaulisoir concluded.
“What else...” Corvalpluck mused. “Ah, of course, the bats! They’re pretty harmless till they smell your blood. Once they do, you’re as good as dead – they swarm all over you and suck the last drop out of you until you’re nothing but a bag of bones.”
“Splendid!” Gaulisoir exclaimed in utter despair.
“And to the final rule: always do as I say.”
“Humph-“ started Braggosquirlt, but Corvalpluck glared at him with such force that the dwarf dropped the attitude and tucked his beard into his trousers, down the leg and into his left boot.
They set off, resolutely minding puddles, cracks and anything that moved. Soon they arrived at the edge of a lake. It stank. They had to hold their noses – the smell was so vile. It was a mixture of boiled cabbage and cat pee. The lake stretched from one side of the cave to the other, with no end visible on the horizon. Both its banks were steep gorges dripping with slime.
“Lake Stynx,” announced Corvalpluck.
“It does indeed,” said Braggosquirlt.
The goblin stared at him, puzzled. “No,” he said. “Stynx is the lake’s name.”
“Oh, I see, but the name suits it like no other. Because it stinks like nothing I have ever smelt before!”
“Are we supposed to swim in it?” Gaulisoir growled through his nose (which he was still holding, using a white handkerchief).
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Corvalpluck said. “It isn’t so much the stink as these graceful creatures...” He was gazing down at the surface of the water. “Their teeth grow inwards so when they get hold of your arm or leg, they are likely to shave off your skin to the bare bone. They also wrap themselves around your neck and hold you under until your eyes come out and water pours into your brains through the empty eyeholes. Quite efficient they are...”
“What creatures? Where are they? Bring them on!” shouted Braggosquirlt, drawing his tiny short sword, whilst Gaulisoir cowered behind him and peeked timidly over his shoulder.
“There!” Corvalpluck pointed at the still water. “Look closely and you will see them.”
Indeed, as they peered into the depths of the lake, they saw a multitude of entangled long bodies, entwined with one another, crawling over one another, snarling and snapping at one another – the entire bottom of the lake like a vipers’ nest. They were the colour of mud and the length of an anaconda. From time to time, one of them would come up to the surface, flashing multiple rows of tiny, sharp teeth, not unlike those on a chainsaw.
“Oh my!” Gaulisoir cried out and bounced back, giving Braggosquirlt a tiny push, which threw the dwarf slightly off balance. He tittered for a second over the glassy water and before Corvalpluck managed to pull him back, a jaw of sharp chainsaw teeth splashed out of the water and pounced at the dwarf. There was a slash, like a pair of scissors cutting through paper, and the monster disappeared carrying with it three-thirds of Braggosquirlt’s beard. Relieved of his beard, Braggosquirlt tumbled back over Corvalpluck and, for the hundredth time, knocked him for six.
“Oh my beard! My dear beard!” lamented Braggosquirlt while feeling the few leftover hairs around his chin. “I’ve been growing that beard for the past eighty eight years!” And he wept like a baby.
Lying on his back, with his huge tummy spilled between his legs, Gaulisoir stared in shock. He had never seen a dwarf without a beard!
Corvalpluck picked himself up from the floor. His bones were in pieces. He groaned.
“You’re lucky you still have your face,” he said to Braggosquirlt. “Pull yourself together!”
“You wouldn’t be saying that if it was your beard!”
“I don’t have a beard!”
“And now, neither do I,” cried Braggosquirlt and shed more tears.
“What is that?” Gaulisoir recovered his voice. He was gaping at a shadow that was approaching from the far end of the lake. It soon turned out to be a boat rowed by the skeletal figure of an old man dressed in rags.
“That’s our ferry and our ferryman, Kharon. He will take us across the lake to the Other Side,” Corvalpluck informed them.
“That’s more like it,” said Braggosquirlt. “I was getting tired of all that walking.”
The three of them stood up and waved to the old ferryman; Gaulisoir even stuck his thumb out as one does when hitchhiking.
The boat approached slowly, tiny splashes of the oar could be heard in the stillness of the cave. Strangely, wherever the boat was, the livid bundles of deadly eels beneath it would scuttle away in a hurry. As if they were afraid of the old ferryman.
“Kharon is the only one in this world, or any world really, who those beasts are scared of. Wonder why...” pondered Corvalpluck.
The ferry was at last moored to the shore and Kharon invited them in. Funny enough he had no teeth. Poor dental hygiene, Gaulisoir murmured under his breath and flashed his neat rows of white canines in a smug grin. The three travellers made themselves comfortable in the boat, and that was where the trouble started all over again: Kharon demanded a fare of one gold coin from each of his passengers.
“No one said anything about any costs!” Braggosquirlt exclaimed.
Corvalpluck and Gaulisoir handed in their coins and waited for their companion to do the same.
“It be one golden coin,” Kharon repeated, lisping a bit due to the absence of teeth in his mouth.
“Am I going to be paid back?” Braggosquirlt asked the goblin. “Will the High Council reimburse me for my travelling expenses?”
“What?” the goblin looked genuinely puzzled. “Just pay him and let us be on our way.”
“Yes, my friend,” Gaulisoir encouraged the dwarf with a smile. “Give him the money.”
“I shan’t!” screamed Braggosquirlt. “It is pure extortion! I won’t be ripped off, I refuse!”
It is a well known fact that dwarves are rather stingy, but this was not the time to get petty-minded. After all, there weren’t any alternative means of transport anywhere in sight, were there?
“Give him the coin,” Corvalpluck said through his teeth.
“No. Not a whole coin! Maybe half a coin. Half a coin at the most!”
“The ferry goes in two eye blinks,” said Kharon grimly. “You pay or you get off.”
“That’s not the way to treat customers,” complained Braggosquirlt. “I will give you half a coin, I promise, as soon as I get some change on the Other Side.”
“Get off my ferry!” A very ugly look shot through the ferryman’s face. Corvalpluck began to worry that he would chase all of them away. So did Gaulisoir.
“I will lend you a golden coin, Braggosquirlt,” he offered.
“I can’t accept it. It’s a matter of principle,” bickered the old dwarf.
“Get off my ferry,” shouted Kharon and wobbled the boat. The water stirred dangerously and you could see the eels closing on the ferry like missiles.
“Get off his ferry! Let us go without you,” Corvalpluck had no choice.
“I will! For now!” Braggosquirlt began to waddle to the shore. “I am sure we can negotiate this fare and come up with something satisfactory to both of us... You, my friends, be on your way. I will join you as soon as the ferryman comes to his senses. Farewell!”
Kharon spat angrily. His saliva hissed on contact with water and went up in smoke. It was like pure acid. The snakes slithered away in panic. Kharon smirked under his breath. Using his oar he pushed the boat away from the shore and off they went.
“Goodbye, Braggosquirlt!” Gaulisoir waved his white handkerchief.
Braggosquirlt looked small and rather lost. His confidence seemed to be drifting away from him together with his friends.
“Come back here, Mr Ferryman. I’m sure we can strike a deal!” he shouted, but Kharon didn’t answer. He was steering the boat steadily, saying not a single word to his passengers. Gaulisoir tried to be civil and made small talk about the weather, but Kharon wasn’t interested. He dropped them off on the other side of Lake Stynx, and sailed off into the mist.
They trekked silently through treacherous tunnels and caves, listening to ominous sounds coming from the space above their heads. They did not dare to look up.
“Do you think Braggosquirlt will still be there when we come back?” the dragon asked at last.
“Who knows?” Corvalpluck answered grimly.
Gaulisoir shed a tear and wiped it off quickly with his white handkerchief. “I do hope bringing that girl will be worth all the sacrifice,” he said sadly.
“She is the last of the elfin race. She has to return home for our world to survive – of course she is worth it. Anyway, Braggosquirlt is no sacrifice, he is just a pain in the neck and I am sure as hell he will be there when we get back, waiting and growing his beard back.”
“I think I’ll compose a poem about Braggosquirlt. He deserves it – for his courage and wisdom,” Gaulisoir declared and fell into silence. He furrowed his scaly forehead, searching for ideas and rhymes inside his head. Corvalpluck stared at him, baffled. What courage and what wisdom exactly?
They walked for a little while until it began to get light. Brunhilda’s webs were thinner at this point and you could see cracks in the ceiling. Timid rays of light filtered through. There were tree roots sprouting over their heads like hanging baskets.
Corvalpluck stopped. “See that hole?” he pointed.
“It’s a burrow made by a bear. The bear is now long dead. The burrow opens into a clearing. That is our entry into The Other Side.”
“The Other Side....” Gaulisoir uttered with awe, and sat down. He took out his white handkerchief, spat into it and began polishing scales on his back and tummy. He gently bit his claws sucking out dirt and trimming the edges.
Corvalpluck gaped at him in disbelief.
“What, may I ask, are you doing?” he asked at last.
“Preening myself, my dear friend,” Gaulisoir reply. “I can’t enter another world looking like a tramp. I am the ambassador of Hellfernezia!”