Chris Dews – Writer

Excerpt #1

CHAPTER 1  Making an Iklwa

 

65 Million Years Ago

The Valley of the Lizards stretched north to south through the centre of the Island of Lewis. The land was rocky, covered in wide-bladed grass and small, spiny-leaved bushes. Frequent rains came and went in quick, sharp downpours, leaving the valley sodden and steaming under the hot sun.

Large herbivores lived here, slowly munching on trees in a lifelong quest to fill their bellies. Obeying the same impulse, raptors and other carnivores preyed on them, but with restraint, killing only what they needed to survive. This balance of life and death had endured in the valley for thousands of years.

Today was different; a cloud of lighted dust roamed the valley. Descending on the lizards, it ate the enveloped heads and necks, blood spurting over trees and cascading to the ground in red waterfalls.

Scarlet puddles littered the plain where families of headless corpses lay, blood pulsing from neatly severed necks.

Raptors, attracted by the prospect of an easy meal, had died in their turn, and lay across the bodies as if protecting them. Saturating the air was the hum of insects and the pungent smell of death.

The Valley of the Lizards was turning into the Valley of the Flies.

Three small clouds drifted down from an almost clear sky. Skimming low over the trees of the humid valley, they floated over lakes of blood and dead lizards, looking for a ride, but not many lizards still lived. There was an occasional grazing behemoth, but these were too slow for riding. A couple of the biglegs-littlelegs were feeding on corpses—they were fast enough but vicious. The clouds floated over a single frilly, peacefully munching away at a large bush, as if unaware of the death around it. This herbivore was not too fierce and not too slow. A frilly bone around its neck helped protect it from predators and gave it its name.

The three clouds settled to the ground and disappeared, one by one. After a short delay Harper and her friends, Nimbu and Cumo, appeared in New form, the form people would assume millions of years from now. They stood together looking helplessly at the carnage around them. “How can he do this?” said Harper, close to tears. “How can Aengus get away with killing the lizards? This is horrible—it’s the worst thing I’ve seen in my life.”

Nimbu’s face was grim with shock, his eyes wide open, his jaw tight with determination. “This cannot go on,” he said.

Cumo, cooler, replied, “This is what we are here to stop.”

Nimbu, tall, strong and muscular, with bright red hair, strode off into the woods to find a suitable switch to control the frilly. Harper and Cumo stepped over to look at the beast.

“Hey Harper, he’s a rather large example, I would say. What’s the plan for getting on the darn thing?” Cumo was right to be concerned—normally frillies were smaller than this one, and you could catch hold of their frill and swing yourself onto their back. This creature was big, its frill high above them.

Harper looked at the animal with misgivings. “He is big… I expect Nimbu will get on it and then sort of pull us on—let’s wait until he gets back.”

“If Nimbu can get on, then I can,” said Cumo quickly. He jumped up at the frill, just managing to hit it with the fingers of his outstretched hand, and for the first time, the animal became aware of them. Turning its head towards Cumo, it lunged at him with long, fearsome teeth. Cumo quickly stepped back and eyed the animal with some fear as it resumed its meal.

“He is rather large, isn’t he? Yes—let’s wait to see what Nimbu makes of him.”

Nimbu emerged from the trees at that moment with a thin, swishy stick. He ran up to the frilly and with the easy athleticism that Cumo envied so much, swung himself on to the animal’s back. He caught hold of the frill with one hand and stretched the other to Harper, swinging her easily upon the beast behind him. Cumo was a little more difficult. “I see a problem here,” said Cumo. “It’s going to be difficult to swing me behind Harper—”

“Stop worrying, Cumo,” Nimbu said with an affable smile. “Just get hold of my hand and it’ll be okay.”

“Yes, stop worrying, Cumo.” Harper laughed in her joy at being on the back of a frilly once again, the death around them, for the moment, forgotten.

Cumo tentatively offered his hand to Nimbu, certain that he was going to make a big fool of himself or injure himself badly—in all likelihood, both. He closed his eyes and Nimbu, leaning far down, grabbed his hand and swung him up behind Harper. Cumo found himself lying across the animal’s back, feet dangling over one side, head dangling over the other. From this undignified position, aided by Harper, he managed to pull himself around to sit, facing the right way.

They were ready. Nimbu leaned back and gave the animal a poke on its heavily leathered backside, and the frilly lumbered forward. By lightly touching the stick on the animal’s sensitive nose, Nimbu guided him in the right direction. With another swipe of the stick on its backside, the frilly set off, moving at a fair clip towards the Seething Pits.

These young, bold Agogs were a team, happy in their world of lizards. The young ones were their friends, accepting treats and looking to the Agogs for care of their hurts. The older ones took them racing around the valley in contests, usually won by Nimbu.

There was no place for doubt in the Agogs’ minds. They must stop Aengus.

They hopped off the frilly in a clearing, giving it a final stick to its rump to send it on its way. They sat together in the tall grass, enjoying a brief rest before beginning their task. Long-winged insects buzzed harmlessly around amid the ‘caw-caw’ of small flying lizards. Occasionally, a flying lizard snapped at an insect and missed, as they usually did. The sun was warm but not too hot and later that afternoon, mature Agogs would rise to full Vapour form and drop thundery rain over the mountains surrounding the valley. Some distance away, a group of large plant-eating lizards grazed, missed by the death-dealing dust cloud. The slight smell of lizard dung mixed pleasantly with the stronger scent of the flowers.

Harper appeared in New form as a fresh young girl, her body still immature, with the short, bright red hair characteristic of all Agogs in this form. She was dressed, like her friend Cumo, in a shirt and a pair of pants extending below the knee. Her feet were bare, while Cumo wore some lizard-skin boots he’d found. Harper’s eyes were strikingly dark—almost black, firm and intelligent, set in a strong, determined face. When challenged, her eyes sparkled and her chin set, ready for battle. Today she was sad, nervous but determined to make an Iklwa to fight Aengus.

She explained some of what Old Storm had taught her. “This isn’t going to be easy and it may be dangerous. We need to distil the old powers from a haggis creature into a cloud to make an Iklwa. So… we have to take a haggis skeleton to the middle of the Paraffin Lake.” She paused for the inevitable reaction.

Cumo, bright red hair and skinny, without the slightest hint of muscle beneath his shirt, laughed a little derisively, then continued in his precise manner. “That has to be a joke, Harper, surely. For one thing, it is extremely difficult to capture a haggis skeleton without being turned into a pile of dung or some of that really weird stuff that comes from the future.

“For two things, it is even more extremely difficult to get to the middle of the Paraffin Lake. You can’t even get near the lake without being burnt to a crisp.”

“I don’t know how we do any of it, Cumo,” said Harper, who had expected this response. “There has to be a way, and if anybody can work it out—you can.”

These three Agogs, friends since their first condensations, knew each other well. Cumo excelled as the thinker, the analyst, while Nimbu, physically strong, a little narcissistic perhaps, liked to amuse, always playing around or joking. It was Harper, the determined one, who kept the group together.

Following the ride, their mood had lifted a little, but Nimbu felt his friends still needed cheering up. “Let’s practice, shall we?” he said. “I’m a haggis skeleton.” He wore only a simple shirt and loincloth and right now, was on his hands and knees. “Hey Cumo, try and catch me.” He crawled slowly around, in a good imitation of a haggis skeleton, pretending to munch on shrubs. Encouraged by Harper’s reluctant smile, he actually munched a shrub, which, from his expression, tasted awful.

While Harper sat quietly amused by Nimbu’s gagging and spitting of shrubbery, Cumo’s brow furrowed deeply in thought. He needed an idea for capturing a haggis skeleton.

The three friends set out for the Paraffin Lake at the centre of the Seething Pits, looking out while they walked for anything that might help them to make an Iklwa.

Haggis skeletons were not easy creatures to capture. These magical creatures, long dead, without thoughts or feelings, roamed the Seething Pits for years as their skeletons gradually fell apart. Each haggis bone, falling from the skeleton, took away some haggis powers. If left on the ground, they took root and produced a group of foul-smelling, evil-tempered, snapping haggis plants. These voracious plants gorged on anything they captured in their long teeth—flying lizards, small mammals, chunks of Agog…

After a full season of eating anything and everything, the snapping plants died and some months later, a fully-grown haggis clambered out from beneath the withered stalks. The haggis wandered for decades, its flesh slowly rotting, before finally returning to the Seething Pits to die. The rotted meat fell from its body leaving a new haggis skeleton. The cycle repeated.

Animals and Agogs alike stayed well away from anything haggis. The haggis creatures smelled and tasted like the rotten meat they were. The haggis plants were voracious eaters able to strip a leg to the bone in moments, whether from an Agog or a lizard. However, the haggis skeletons were the dangerous ones. Mindless, directionless collections of bones working on shadowy memories, they wandered the Seething Pits, eating sprouts of grass or insects or rarely, animal dung. Their defence mechanism was unique. If a living creature approached too closely, the haggis skeletons generated a blue aura that changed anything it touched, often into something prosaic like a leaf or clod of dung. Occasionally, the result was fantastical, built from unknown materials, with mysterious function. Only the greatest wielders of the old powers could undo a full haggis skeleton transmogrification.

The Seething Pits were a focus for the old powers, and they were immensely strong here. The pits threw gouts of boiling black tar high into the sky, the tar falling to earth as a scalding black rain. Few creatures lived here, and the only vegetation that did well were the irascible, snapping haggis-plants, which ate anything—even hot tar.

Rocks—restless rocks—crossed the area at high speed, screeching along the rocky ground and against each other. Some were small, just pebbles, but others were many times bigger than the largest lizard. Without sentience or guide, they rushed along, crushing anything too slow to move out of their way. Haggis plants, tough as they were, disappeared underground when a rock approached.

Travelling in the Seething Pits involved keeping an eye upwards to avoid tar bursts, and scanning relentlessly with the other eye to avoid restless rocks, snapping haggis plants and haggis skeletons.

The Seething Pits were certainly hostile, but the old powers were most concentrated at the Paraffin Lake. This was an impossible pool of burning oil, hotter than the lava thrown from an erupting volcano. Multi-coloured flames from the Paraffin Lake burned high into the sky, visible for several miles.

Nothing approached a haggis-skeleton without transmogrification; nothing approached the Paraffin Lake without turning into a cinder. Yet to make an Iklwa, a haggis skeleton must drop into the centre of the Paraffin Lake.

“Ideas?” asked Harper. The three sat on gravel, close enough to the Paraffin Lake to feel its heat and see its flames. This close to the lake, they felt the enormity of their task. Their sombre mood had returned as they considered the difficulty and danger they faced.

“Well, if we capture a live haggis, the Paraffin Lake will burn it down to a skeleton,” said Cumo, looking around to see if the others recognized how clever his idea was.

“Haggises are really nasty when they’re alive,” said Nimbu, arching his body in an attempt to catch his reflection in a nearby puddle. “Those teeth, those claws, that magic, and they stink, and they’re completely inedible so nobody bothers to try and catch them.” Nimbu again craned his neck to see his hair reflected in the puddle, and murmured, almost to himself, “Do you think my hair looks good this way…?”

“Hmmm, that might be an idea, Cumo,” Harper encouraged, “but Nimbu has a point. How do we catch one? The skeletons are a lot slower, but… there’s the aura thing.”

“Well maybe,” said Cumo after a little more thought, “maybe we’ll catch a dead one then.”

Cumo explained his thinking to his friends, and they scattered to search the area for what they needed.

Later that day they were once again walking together, each carrying a long, thick vine, pulled from the forest around them. “This is great,” said Harper, “I feel we’re really getting somewhere. All we need are a few stones and a willing haggis skeleton.”

“Okay, well, assuming we get those,” Nimbu was also beginning to get excited about this plan. “How are we going to get the darn haggis into the lake? That’s the tough bit, seems to me. In case nobody’s heard, the Paraffin Lake is damn hot, with huge flames that will toast us in a heartbeat. I’ll bet Cumo has a great plan though.”

“Yes, Nimbu, I do have a rudimentary plan. And we’ll try not to burn your hair off, although it could do with a trim.”

Harper added some information. “Old Storm told me somethingit’s important. Tonight is a new moon.” Nimbu and Cumo looked at her blankly. “The Paraffin Lake follows the phases of the moon, don’t you see?”

“No, we don’t see, Harper,” said Cumo.

“The lake is hottest when the moon is full and coolest when the moon is new. With a new moon, the flames might disappear for a short while. That’s when we drag the haggis thing into the lake—but we have to be damn fast—if the flames come back while we are out there, our lizard will be cooked for sure. If we’re lucky, the flames will disappear tonight.”

Nimbu wanted to ask a question, but Harper placed her hand on his arm to silence him, and continued. “Because we do this at the new moon, the Iklwa’s going to be weak. For the Iklwa to be powerful, it has to go in again—at full moon—when the lake is at its fiercest. Then it will be strong enough to defeat old bony legs.”

“Yes but—” Nimbu finally asked, “How are we going to get into the lake without being burnt up ourselves?” There was an uncomfortable silence while the friends looked at each other. Cumo hugged himself with poorly suppressed glee.

“Mud.” Cumo looked at his friends with satisfaction. “We cover ourselves with it. The refractory properties of the mud will significantly slow the spread of the heat, so we’ll stay cool until we’re in the middle, then—well, we don’t care after that, do we?”

“That’s a great idea, Cumo.” Harper was enthusiastic. “I knew you’d come up with something.” Nimbu was concerned, however.

“Won’t I get mud in my hair? How am I supposed to keep my hair clean, Cumo?”

“Why don’t you put a glob of earth on it or something?” Cumo had little patience with Nimbu and his hair.

They carried the vines close to the burning Paraffin Lake, where the heat was merely unbearable. They tied a stone to the end of each vine, and tied the other ends of the vines together. The stones were big enough to immobilise a haggis skeleton, they hoped, but not too big for them to carry. To tighten the large noose at the centre of the vines, they pulled on a particular vine.

“Now, we need to persuade a haggis-skeleton to come along and place its head in our noose,” said Cumo. “Nimbu, please take this seriously and take that noose off your head, or I will tighten it and drag you into the lake.” Nimbu, unabashed, took the noose off his neck and laid it, with exaggerated care, on the ground.

“Sorry, Cumo.” Nimbu winked at Harper who smiled at him thinly, her sorrow for the lizards and the stress of their task still clear on her face. Cumo’s look of annoyance faded as he recognised that his friend was trying to cheer them up.

The three Agogs picked up the stones and, dragging the vines with them, went in search of a haggis skeleton. There were several slowly ambling around the Seething Pits and they chose a big one that must have been a large haggis in its time. It was wide in the rib cage and its overall length was nearly Nimbu’s height. Nimbu and Cumo spread out to tighten the vines, the noose hanging between them. They approached the skeleton from the front, planning to snag its unaware head while staying at a safe distance. As they came closer, the long-dead creature must have sensed them. Its aura flashed on, a beautiful bright blue, but potentially disastrous to the Agogs. From either side of the creature, uncomfortably close to the aura, Nimbu and Cumo nervously jiggled the noose over its head while Harper stood by to tighten it.

“Easy does it.” Cumo was encouraging. “Not too fast now, easy there… easy… Oh, Horrible Haggis!” The noose was stuck on the skeleton’s skull. Cumo tried gently to shake it loose, but it wouldn’t move.

“Okay, everybody bring their vines to the front with me.” Cumo said.

They pulled all the vines together in front of the creature, a dangerous position as they were all now in front of the skeleton, close, and with no control. It must have sensed something—it started lumbering forwards. All three of them, as if in a formation dance, ran quickly backwards, holding on to their vines. The noose fell clear of the head.

“Okay everybody, let’s make another attempt, only this time Nimbu, please follow my lead.” Cumo said, a little sharply.

“Of course, Cumo,” said Nimbu, winking at Harper.

They tried again—with more success; the loop went over the head and settled around the haggis skeleton’s neck at shoulder level. Harper quickly tightened the noose and they slowly exhaled—they had their haggis skeleton.

They tensioned the vines, forming a circle with the haggis in the centre, and dropped the stones to the ground. The muscle-less creature was able only to amble a few inches forward and bend down to munch some grass.

“We need mud,” said Cumo. “I believe I saw a suitable pond back there.” Harper and Nimbu followed Cumo back to the pond and they covered themselves with a thick coat of wet, sticky, gooey mud. They put it everywhere, from the top of their heads to the ends of their toes, all except Nimbu, who found a large sod of grass to cover his hair. Unknown to him, a large worm poked its head out of the grass sod to see what was going on.

Harper looked at her muddy friends—they looked so different. They were thinking of the treacherous and agonising job they had to do. Even Nimbu had lost his grin. The three friends gazed at each other for a moment. Distressed and tense, their determination to save the lizards wavered in the face of the approaching ordeal.

Harper slowly drew back her hand and threw mud at Nimbu, aiming for his hair, but hitting his face. Nimbu looked startled for a moment, pulled out of his thoughts, but then, slowly and deliberately, he threw a clod of mud at Cumo, who was standing rigidly, trying not to move a muscle while the mud dried. Cumo looked at Nimbu, his eyes filled with fleeting anger, but then he threw a ball of mud at Harper. In slow, purposeful movements, the friends threw mud at each other, and as they did, they began to smile, then giggle. The tension eased, their dread retreated and became manageable. They could function again and do what they had to do.

Later, serious once more, they sat together to wait for night and the new moon.

Nightfall came, but high clouds hid the moon, so they couldn’t tell when it rose. The lake cooled a little, and as the night wore on, they moved the haggis skeleton closer and closer. The flames were still too hot for an Agog to tolerate in any form, even with their mud coats.

After a while, the clouds parted to reveal the bright new crescent moon. The flames extinguished almost immediately.

“Time to go, my friends.” Cumo seemed to have taken charge. “We now have only a short intermission to place this skeleton into the lake.”

They looked at each other, caked with mud, awed by the task before them, but confident of their strength as a team. They had made their decision. Each picked up a stone and, in formation, walked towards the lake. The haggis skeleton followed reluctantly, forcing them, frustratingly, to walk no faster than its normal glacial pace.

The Paraffin Lake calmly reflected the new moon in the dark night. The sickly smell of burning paraffin, rising from the lake in smoky tendrils, made breathing difficult. It sizzled, even without the flames, and the Agogs felt their skin scorching beneath the mud. Nimbu stepped into the lake and swore an old Agog oath. Cumo, entering just behind him, hopped about from one scalded foot to the other. Harper, at the back and not yet in the lake, looked scared but muddily calm.

The haggis skeleton was not enthusiastic about the lake. Whether it sensed the heat or was just plain obstinate, it did not want to go in. It locked its leg bones, refusing to take a single step from the shore. The heartbeats were ticking away; they must coax, force or drag the skeleton forward. At any moment, the flames would return and immolate them.

Harper joined them at the front of the beast, cringing as she stepped into the lake. The boiling paraffin came up to her waist, and was unbearably painful even through the mud. She reminded herself that the fate of the lizards depended on them making an Iklwa. How could scalded flesh compare to that?

They stood together, ignoring the pain, aware that time was moving fast, and pulled the skeleton towards the lake. The skeleton slipped on the gravel, falling and floating towards them—much too quickly! Again, they retreated hastily, but the hot paraffin and the mud slowed them, and the mud started to crumble away. The blue aura switched on again, came perilously close and, catching a lock of Nimbu’s grassy hair as he stumbled, turned his long hair from bright red to bright silver.

Once in the lake, the skeleton floated well, with most of its body beneath the surface. Nimbu and Cumo yanked their vines to the rear and sighed with relief, in spite of the pain. They had trapped the skeleton between them.

The pain was much worse than they had imagined, and as they waded in, the level of agony rose higher up their bodies until it reached their necks. They felt their flesh searing right to the bones. All their senses were screaming at them to get out of there, but still they dragged the skeleton, until, well into the lake, the heat became too much for Nimbu. “Close enough,” he yelled. Up to his neck in boiling paraffin, he had reached his limit. Nimbu dropped his stone and, changing immediately to Vapour, rose quickly into the air, relieved at once from the agony of the lake.

Harper and Cumo, tormented also, dropped their stones and followed Nimbu gratefully into the cool night sky. The half-floating haggis skeleton remained anchored in the lake below them.

A few heartbeats and the lake erupted in flame. Turbulent waves of boiling paraffin engulfed the haggis skeleton. The heat, which a few moments ago had merely scalded, became so hot that the Agogs would have perished immediately. The three small clouds, propelled by the intense heat, climbed high above the lake to safety.

There were no exclamations of success or pleasure—the memory of their recent scorching numbed them all. The clouds were silent, watchful. Even Nimbu, always ready with a quip, had no comment to make.

Half the night passed by, and the lake still boiled around the haggis skeleton. As dawn approached and the lake calmed, there was no sign of the skeleton—it must have dissolved. Then the sun’s early-morning rays revealed a bubble on the lake’s surface. The bubble grew, separated from the surface and floated ponderously up to the waiting Agogs.

Harper floated to the bubble and merged with the haggis skeleton’s powerful essence within it.

The friends had made an Iklwa, to wield the old powers in their battle with Aengus!