The Magician’s Gamble By Matt Gregory Chapter 1 – Paul Walker couldn’t believe he was getting away with it for

the thirtieth time. He sat, alone in his bedroom, in the run down, terraced house which he had lived in for the past ten years, looking at the fake ID card he had ‘acquired’ three or four months ago. You had to be eighteen to get one of these and he was only seventeen. But because he had fairly good contacts, he was able to get one for himself. His own, blank, pale face stared up at him from the photograph he had taken inside the booth next to the local Sainsbury’s. All his details were listed next to it. He looked at his reflection in the broken mirror opposite his sagging bed on the wall. He hadn’t changed much since the picture had been snapped. His hair was the only thing different. The blond tangle was long in the photo, but was now cut very short. He had also pierced his left ear with several silver studs. He might’ve grown a few inches, but that seemed unlikely. Paul had always been shorter than most boys his age, only shooting up a few inches or so when he was fifteen. After that, he more or less stopped growing. He was still wearing the same one-size-toosmall tracksuit bottoms and striped t-shirt which cost him much of his allowance. The fake ID was always kept hidden under a loose curl of carpet in the corner of the room. This place was falling apart. There had been a dry patch on his bedroom wall for a week now and everything in the room was covered in a thin layer of dust. Most adults would be shocked by the conditions Paul was living in, but he had grown used to it. After all, most teenagers on the Freeman Estate had the misfortune to live in such an unhygienic state. Even as Paul put the carpet back down, he noticed a few dead bodies of cockroaches sprawled on the floorboards, their legs stuck out at bizarre angels. Paul pocketed the ID and looked at his watch, one of those cheap ones you can buy on the market for less than a pound. It was quarter to nine. In fifteen minutes, he would be leaving to go to the pub with his mate Richard. His mum was out, where he had no idea, and his sister had left as soon as he came in that afternoon from work. They had no idea he had the fake ID, and to be frank, neither probably would’ve cared if they did. Karen Walker, Paul’s mum, spent most of her nights in another man’s house, only ever arriving home early next morning. She’d always been a bit of a free spirit. But as far as Paul was concerned, she had too much freedom, having sex with the first man she sees every times she sauntered into a nightclub. His sister, Denise, hung around with a group of girls who were rumoured to hand out drugs. Though, as far as anyone

knew, they only handed it out to people, not actually take it themselves. Paul had tried, again and again, to persuade both Denise and Karen to stop their nasty habits, to stop sleeping around and stop helping the local dealers delivering cocaine like Father Christmas handing out presents. Both of them didn’t even listen to him and so he stopped trying. That was more or less Paul’s entire family. He never knew his dad, who’d died of cancer when he was a baby. Denise had only been two years old when it happened. The memory must still haunt her, as Paul can hear her crying some nights through the thin partition wall that separated both their bedrooms from each other. His mother on the other hand was obviously still grieving, as she tried to fill her late husband’s place with other blokes. The doorbell rang at two minutes past nine. Richard was standing on the threshold. He was Paul’s oldest friend, since the first year in primary school. Richard was burly boy, a lot bigger than Paul, but there was a certain sensitive air around him, except people never really took this into account, only judging Richard by his size and standing well away. Whenever Paul got into fights, Richard always stuck up for him. The two survived the horrors of secondary school together too, both getting the same grades (very low ones) and both leaving at sixteen. “Dick!” Paul said, opening the front door, greeting his friend. “Fanny!” Richard replied, making them both laugh. “You all set?” “Yeah, hang on,” Paul retreated back into the house, turning off all the lights. “I won’t bother locking. We haven’t got much the burglars can chav off us.” “Nobody has really,” Richard snorted. Paul slammed the door behind him and the two headed off down the street. “How was work?” Richard asked. “Why, it was positively dull, old chap!” Paul yawned, doing a ridiculous impression of an upper class citizen, making Richard laugh hysterically. “Selling mobile phones not exactly your taste any more, Pauline?” he sniggered. Paul shrugged. “Only job you can get around here, innit? Not exactly getting much from it, but name one job around here, part from selling dodgy stuff, which doesn’t?” “You talk as if doing something illegal is bad,” Richard said, hinting at the fake ID card. “Didn’t exactly apply for one at the post office, did ya?” Paul gave him the finger. “It was friendly exchange.” They carried on walking down the street. Paul’s house was one of many of the identical ones on Dickson Lane. Dickson Lane sat in the shadow of the large, apartment block – the centrepiece of Freeman Estate, an ugly

piece of modern construction illuminated against the setting sun. It was early autumn, and the air was still relatively warm, but the evenings were turning darker and already the orange lamps had flickered on in the street, throwing pools of ugly orange light on the pavement. “How’s Louise?” Richard asked as they turned a corner, heading along the main road. Louise was Paul’s girlfriend and for some reason, Richard had never really got on with her. “She’s okay,” Paul replied, with a dreamy look on his face. “Still extra fit! A bit flat-chested, but nice legs. Oh what am I talking about? You’ve seen her!” Richard said nothing. An elderly couple walked past on the other side of the road, glancing disapprovingly at the two boys. They probably thought they were up to no good, looking for a fight. But they said nothing. “What you looking at?” Paul shot at them. The couple pursed their lips and quickened their pace. “So, how’s your love-life?” Paul asked. “Did you get some of that girl at that nightclub last week? Did ya?” Richard looked a bit down-trodden. “No,” he mumbled. “Why not? She seemed to like you.” “She wasn’t my type.” “’Not your type’?” Paul said, incredulously. “She was gagging for ya!” “Is Louise always ‘gagging’ for you then?” Richard demanded. To Paul’s surprise, he sounded a little annoyed. “All the time,” he said. “She texts me, like, every day. She can’t bear to be apart from me!” He put on a simpering voice, now doing an impression of a swoon. “’Oh, Paul! I wuv you, Paul! I want to be together with you for, like, the rest of my days!’” Richard couldn’t help a smirk. But he said nothing more on the subject. He always seemed to have the worse luck with most of the girls he meets. “You gonna take her away to some fantasy island, then?” he said. Now it was Paul’s turn to fall silent. “I... dunno,” he fidgeted with a hole in his pocket, avoiding his mate’s eyes. “I suppose, y’know, it would be nice to get away from here... for good.” “Of course it would be,” Richard agreed. They turned another corner, crossed the road and suddenly a pub called The Green Lion came into view. It was already packed, with lights, shouts and laughter coming from inside. People were outside, smoking in the autumn evening air, their cigarettes burning an angry red in their fingers. The Green Lion was a brick building, with a sign decorated with a fat, green lion hanging over the front door. The smokers barely acknowledged the two boys as they went in.

The smell of tobacco, booze and peanuts immediately flew up Paul’s nose as he and Richard entered. He was almost deafened by the roaring laughter of already drunken men in one corner, throwing pints of bear down their throats. A group of girls, judging by their get-ups, were on a hen-night, giggling in the corner at some inner joke. The bride-to-be was extremely red-faced, wearing a fluffy pink letter L around her neck. The bar itself was crowded, with people talking on stools, cradling pint glasses and dipping their hands into bags of crisps Paul and Richard made their way towards the usual place at the bar, ready to order their first drinks, when, with a sense of dread, Paul noticed something different. The last time he was here, there’d been a pretty woman at the bar named Julia, serving drinks with a nice smile. She was a friendly sort and everyone who went to The Green Lion liked her. Now, she had been replaced by a thin, scowling man, suspicion etched on every inch of his face. He seemed to thrust the ordered drinks under people’s nose, demanding for the money and not even stick around to have a conversation. Whilst Julia would say at least one or two words whilst serving, even on busy nights. This man seemed less than welcoming. “Oh no,” Richard muttered. “What?” “That’s John Snider,” he whispered in Paul’s ear. “I forgot to tell you. Julia was fired cos she dropped a tray of drinks over an old lady. And now... well, just be careful. Make sure he believes you’re eighteen. I heard he isn’t as easy to fool as Julia.” Paul swallowed, the ID in his pocket feeling red-hot against his finger. He knew what he was doing was illegal and wrong. But he prayed to God that he managed to fool the new barman or at least be served by someone else. But to his horror, John Snider made his way towards them, his already beady black eyes narrowing. “Can I help you?” he sneered. Paul felt a sense of fear rise up inside him. Judging by the man’s tone of voice, he already seemed to know he was underage. “Yeah,” Paul said, finally managing to unstuck his tongue. “Uh... two pints, please!” “How old are you?” Careful Paul, he told himself. He didn’t dare blink as his gaze was locked with Snider’s own. “I’m eighteen,” he said. “And your friend?” “Same,” “Then may I see some identification please?” Snider held out an expectant hand.

“Okay,” fingers trembling, Paul fished out his own ID and Richard gave him his own. He handed them to the man, who snatched them out of his hand and held it in front of him, like something he found out of a gutter. Snider looked closely at the photos on each ID, a slight smirk beginning to play around his lips. He looked back at Paul. “These ID cards are a forgery,” he said. “No...” “Please don’t waste your breath,” he chucked the IDs back at them in disgust. “Now get out. And don’t come here until you’re old enough.” “But... but we always come here!” Richard protested. Suddenly, the whole pub went silent, heads swivelling round in their direction. “No one has said...” “You might’ve pulled wool over their eyes, kid, but not over mine. Now please leave before I call the police!” Suddenly, a blinding rage filled Paul from the crown of his head to the tip of his toes. How dare the bastard tell him to get out, and threaten him and his mate? The anger replaced the fear in an instant and, before he knew what he was doing, he lashed out, diving for the Snider over the counter, pushing him to the floor. The man was caught by surprise as Paul started punching him, in a fit of fury. “DON’T – YOU – SMIRK – AT – US!” he roared into the silence. “PAUL, GET OFF HIM!” Richard bellowed, trying to pull him off the man, desperately. Whilst most of the pub was goggling in silence, three of the men at the bar came to their senses and began to assist Richard in yanking the boy off the barman. Paul squirmed and writhed. “GET OFF ME!” he yelled, seeing red, glaring at the bleeding, sneering face of Snider on the floor. “Easy, son!” one of the men said, calmly. “Get them out of here!” Snider shouted and the two boys were manhandled out of the pub and thrown outside onto the street. “You’re both barred!” were Snider’s last words before he slammed the pub door behind them, leaving Paul and Richard in silence on the quiet, deserted street. Chapter 2 – “Way to go, you wanker!” Richard shouted after half a minute of breathing heavily. He went over to the wall and kicked it violently, practising what he would have loved to do to Paul’s face. Paul himself lay on the ground, his knee grazed, his knuckles bleeding and his stomach was full of regret. “Rich...” he began. “I’m sorry. I dunno what came over me... It was just the way he was leering at us, like he wanted to cause trouble.”

“Well, that’s great!” Richard snapped, sarcastically. “Whatever ‘came over you’ just got us barred from the only pub we can get to without paying money to go somewhere else!” He glared at Paul, who got up, wiping the blood on his tracksuit. “Why didn’t you convince him we were eighteen?” the other boy demanded, his hands curling into fists. “He knew they were fake!” Paul exclaimed. “What was I supposed to do?” “Oh, I don’t know, walk out calmly so we may have a chance of getting back in again?” Their voices echoed into a silence so hostile that Paul felt it stab at his skin. Richard’s eyes were burning with anger. It was completely dark now. The sun had set fully whilst they were inside and the only light was the streetlamp over head. Whatever smokers who were out here had decided to either go home or back inside, as none of them seemed to be around. A dog barked somewhere in the distance, the sound bounced between the square houses. “I can’t believe you did that!” Richard said. “One day, that temper of yours is gonna get you in a whole lot of trouble. And I won’t be there to help you.” Now Paul could feel his temper getting out of control again. Why was Richard accusing him for everything that had gone wrong? “Why didn’t you say anything?” he growled. “I did, remember.” “Then why didn’t you say something a little more convincing?” Richard pushed him. “Piss off!” he said, his voice full of aggression. Paul had to resist the urge of repeating his actions in the pub and not lash out all his frustration on Richard’s face. Part of him knew he would be beaten anyway and another part of him knew it was because if he did, he would lose his only friend. But it seemed he already had, as Richard was seething. “Y’know what, mate?” he said. “Good luck finding another pub to drink in. I’ll see you around.” And with that, he turned and stalked off into the night, leaving Paul standing alone on the pavement. He remained there for what felt like forever, his face flushed red, his breathing heavy. Right then, he hated his life. He hated everything. His job, his home, his mother, his sister. Why had everything in his life gone so wrong? Why couldn’t he just live normally, away from this filthy shithole and make new friends, drink in all the pubs he liked, get a decent career, or even some A Levels. It wasn’t fair.

Paul didn’t realise he was walking until he was halfway down the street. He had been so lost in his own rage he was no longer aware where he was going or what he was doing. His eyes found The Block, towering over all the other house on the estate, sneering down at them in just the same way Snider had been sneering at him. If he was a demolition ball, he would punch the stupid building of its high-horse too. If only he had the money to get out of here... But the only amount he had was a couple of five pound notes in a box under his bed. Kicking along a stray beer can on the pavement he decided that he ought to go home. He had nothing else to do for the night. And anyway, he no longer had the heart to go and find anything else. He’d turned towards Dickson Lane, still brooding in his own thoughts, when suddenly, he bumped into someone. “Watch where you’re going!” he immediately snapped. The man who he had carelessly walked into didn’t seem slightly bothered by being almost bowled over by this teenager. On the contrary, he was quite cheerful. “Wonderful evening isn’t it?” he asked, humming slightly. “You what?” Paul snapped, looking at the stranger’s face for the first time and found himself taken aback. He had never seen any man like this before. He was a tall, strapping bloke, with combed-back brown hair, turning grey at the roots. A small goatee was playing around his chin and he had a chiselled sort of face, as if someone had carved it from stone. His eyes were grey and knowledgeable, shining curiously silver in the night. But this wasn’t the strangest thing about him. He was dressed in the most bizarre costume that Paul knew that most people around here wouldn’t be seen dead in. He was wearing what appeared to be a Victorian suit, including a diamond broach and a crimson tie. He even had the insanity to be wearing a dark grey waistcoat, tailor-cut brown trousers and very highly polished black shoes. Did the man have a death-wish or something? If you went around dressed as smart as this on the Freeman Estate, you were asking for it! And yet that wasn’t the worst of it, as on top of the bizarre past-time garments, he wore a long red robe, decorated with fine gold stitching at the hems. Paul gawped at the weirdo, who grinned mischievously, then bowed. “My apologies,” he said. “It is rather dark, y’know.” His voice was silky and pleasant. Paul could tell he was well educated. Hell, anybody who spoke properly must’ve been well educated compared to the lack of geniuses in these parts.

Suddenly, the man waved a perfectly manicured hand and two slips of paper appeared out of thin-air before him. Paul blinked in astonishment. How did he do that? “Please, accept these tickets as a gift.” He stuffed the tickets (for that was what they were) into Paul’s hand and walked off without another word. Paul stood there, gaping after the eccentric man with his mouth open, like a simpleton. A moment or two passed until he managed to draw himself out of his bewildered trance. What a freak! He didn’t even glance at the tickets but already he was screwing them up and he didn’t even think twice when he threw them into the nearest bin he could find. What was this place coming to? Karen and Denise still weren’t home when Paul got in. He wasn’t surprised. Both of them had stayed out way past midnight before. Karen usually arrived with a strange man in tow. A strange man as in someone who Paul had never even met before, not strange as in the strange man he’d met in the street just now. He slouched to his room and slumped onto his mouth-eaten duvet, thinking. Would Richard be all right tomorrow? Would he forget what had happened? Paul hated to admit it, but he acted a bit of an arse towards his friend sometimes. But Richard had always put up with it for some reason. He probably did because Paul was the only friend he had and everyone else thought him a bit of an anti-social person. It was mainly girls who held that opinion because Richard didn’t seem very at ease around them. He always got nervous. And afterwards, Paul would poke fun out of him for it. It wasn’t fair, but he only teased most of the time. They’d had good times together too. When they both went into the Currys Digital downtown last year, and started messing around with the equipment on display. They ended up being thrown out, but it’d been a right laugh. And that time when they went down the scrap yard and made metal men out of the junk they found. He sprung up on the bed, knowing that this will blow over it’ll all be fine over a night’s sleep. He fished in his pockets for the fake ID. But it wasn’t there. Panicking, Paul fished deeper into the depths of his tracksuit bottoms. It wasn’t there! He must’ve left it at the pub. He swore viciously. When he was given it, he was specifically told not to lose it. Otherwise, the police would find it and arrest him for forgery! And they would easily find him because his address was on it! Desperately, he searched for it, praying that he was wrong, and had pocketed it when he was thrown out. Something large and square was now in the palm of his hand, and thinking he’d found the ID pulled it out. But it wasn’t

Sitting in his palm were the two tickets he had screwed up and thrown away. How was that possible? He could’ve sworn he’d got rid of them. And yet, here they were, neatly flattened as if he hadn’t touched them at all. Now that he was looking at the square sheets of paper, he read what was written on them: ALDIWCK ROXBURGH Magician and Illusionist to the Stars Be amazed and mystified as you witness the performance you shall never forget. Watch as Aldwick stuns your mind with fantastic illusions and stunts which will take your breath away. Be on the edge of your seat and witness the show of your life! ADMIT ONE Performance Times: 8:00 pm till 9:00 pm on Tuesday 6th till Friday 9th September at the St George’s Theatre. Don’t Miss It! Paul laughed at the cringe-worthy clichés mentioned, but was all the same mystified by how the tickets somehow managed to find their way back into his pocket. Then he remembered. The man had knocked into him. It was a classic pick-pocket trick. The criminal mastermind would usually pretend to bump into someone, at the same time precariously slipping something out of that person’s pocket. Instead, the strange man must’ve slipped these two extra tickets into Paul’s own pockets without him noticing. He crossed over to his overflowing bin in the corner of the bedroom, getting ready to throw these ones away. The bin was full of empty drink cans and used tissues, but he could probably stuff them in somehow. He was about to drop them inside, when his body froze. Frowning, he tried to move his arm. But he couldn’t. He tried harder, desperately trying to get the muscles to work, to put the bloody things in the bin. Still, his arm wouldn’t move. It was as if it was caught on an invisible bit of wire. What was happening? He put all his weight and strength on the limb, just to make it move. It wouldn’t budge. He tried to open his hand, to just drop the tickets. But they wouldn’t obey him either. Quickly, he became terrified; sweat beginning to pour down his head. What had happened to him? Had he become paralyzed or something? He forced himself to calm down and tried to move his arm backwards. It did just that. Quickly, he moved it forward again. It still wouldn’t work. Some impossible force was refusing him to get rid of the tickets. All he wanted to do was be rid of them – he didn’t even want to go to that stupid

show! But his body wasn’t in his control. Without thinking about it, his arm retreated and put the pieces of paper back in his pocket. The movement wasn’t his. It was as if someone were controlling him like a puppeteer would with a marionette. Something really weird was going on. He quit trying to bin the infernal tickets, got undressed and crawled into bed. It was many hours before he finally did manage to fall asleep. Chapter 3 – “Denise!” Paul yelled at the bathroom door, next morning. “You’re not the only one with a bladder, y’know! Get out of the sodding bathroom!” It was ten o’clock and Paul’s day off work. Denise had been in the bathroom for the past half an hour. Paul was beginning to wonder if she was constipated. She was spending too much time in there, if you asked him. “All right!” came Denise’s irritated and rather weak voice from within. The door creaked open and Paul was taken aback by his sister’s appearance. She looked haggard, as if she hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in days. She was wrapped in her dressing gown, her hair was all over the place and there were heavy bags under her eyes. “What’s the matter with you?” Paul asked. “You look like you were dragged through a bush backwards! And what’s that smell?” He sniffed. There was an odd aroma coming from within. “Have you been shitting out scented candles now?” he grinned. “Sod off!” he sister grumbled and glared at him. “Whatever, I need a piss!” he said, heading in the bathroom. But before he could reach the toilet, he noticed that the tap was running. “Denise, you forgot to turn the tap off! We can’t afford to keep the water running, y’know!” His sister slammed the door of her bedroom shut as way of an answer. “Charming...” Paul muttered. Suddenly, he realised that the door of the cabinet above the sink was ajar, the bottle of their mum’s cheap perfume just visible. Frowning, he opened the cabinet. The can was up foremost inside the cupboard, in front of all the shampoos and shaving gel, as if it had been grabbed quickly then stuffed back into the cupboard. Now he recognised the smell which was everywhere in the room. But why would Denise use it? She always said she wouldn’t be seen (or smelt) dead wearing her mother’s perfume. She’d always complained it was “skanky”. So why else did she use it? To cover another, stronger smell up? Probably the smell of her shit, Paul thought, sniggering.

The high-street down town was where, Paul Knew, Richard spent most of his Saturdays. He usually went into a newsagent, looking at the magazines. What he was looking for every week, Paul had no idea, but still he waited outside for Richard to come out. It was a cloudy day, chillier than the night before and the high street, which was usually packed at the weekend, was virtually empty for once. Either it was too cold or everyone was suddenly bored of the shops. Richard emerged five minutes later with a plastic bad swinging in his hand, with a shifty, uncomfortable look on his face, as if he didn’t want to be seen. “Hey, Dick!” Paul said. His friend spun on the spot, looking alarmed, then saw Paul standing there. “Oh. It’s you.” “What’cha got there?” Paul nodded at the bag. Richard suddenly turned bright red, hiding the bag behind his back. He’d never been very subtle. “Nothing,” he said, quickly. “Just the newspaper.” Paul arched an eyebrow. Whatever was in the bag was too small to be a newspaper – tabloid or broadsheet. And anyway, since when did Richard care about what happened in the news? Paul didn’t buy it, but shrugged it off. It was probably a Beano comic. He used to read them a lot when he was younger and Paul had a sneaking suspicion that it was still a guilty pleasure. “Anyway, I came to say... sorry.” Now it was Paul’s turn to become sheepish. He shuffled his feet like a schoolboy in trouble. “I was a totally dickhead last night. I didn’t think. So, yeah... sorry.” Richard stared at him, then smiled. “It’s all right.” He said. “He was kind of a git anyway.” “’Kind of’?” Paul laughed. “You mean, an uptight, smarmy git!” “Well, I thought about it, and I don’t blame you for getting annoyed. So, sorry for having a go.” “Ah, I forgive you, Richie!” Paul simpered with a babyish voice. “Shaddup!” Richard snorted, punching him on the arm. They began to walk around the high-street, wandering in and out of the shops, loitering around the war memorial and the park. There was just about as much to do in town as there is on the Freeman Estate itself. Everyone who lived there thought it was a dump: the old people complaining about the amount of ‘loud-mouth youths’ were now plaguing the streets and the town governors saying that they would invest some money to improve the community, yet it never happened. The funfair, which had always been an attraction, had been closed down years ago

and there was nothing there anymore. So it was hardly the teenagers’ fault that they had nothing to do. Paul and Richard began walking down a side street off the park, when suddenly Paul remembered the tickets. He’d been thinking about where they should go and do next. Until the two squares of paper came floating into his memory. “Rich?” he said, digging his hand into his pocket and pulling them out. This was weird, because he remembered leaving them on his bedside table when he left the house that morning. “Do you fancy going to a... ‘magic show’?” he spoke the last two words in a high voice, imitating his previous headmistress, whom he’d never got on with. Mrs Yates had been a thin, scowling woman who’d treat naughty children like a personal insult. And there was always a tone and expression she would save just for him. “Say what now?” He thrust them into Richard’s hand. “This weirdo gave me these on my way home last night,” he explained. Richard read the words printed on both pieces of paper. “’Aldwick Roxburgh’...” he said. “Never heard of him.” Then he realised something. “Why did he give you two tickets?” Paul stopped. That thought never crossed his mind. Why had the stranger given him one extra? A spare? Or did he think Paul would take someone with him? “He actually gave me four tickets,” he said. “I found two more in my pocket when I got home.” “Four? Where’re the other two?” “I threw them away.” “Why?” Paul shrugged. “Oh well,” Richard looked back to the tickets. “And I suppose it’s something to do...” he muttered. “Ah, why not? Should be a laugh, eh?” “Yeah. At least I got them for free too. Something quite hard to find around here.” Paul replied, morosely. A pause, as the two slouched along the pavement. “Why didn’t you invite Louise?” Richard suddenly demanded. “What?” Paul was surprised by the question. Why did it matter to Richard who he invited where? And, he wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but there was a hint of scorn in his voice. “Why didn’t you invite your girlfriend to this show?” Paul blinked. “Um... What do you mean? I invited you, and I only have two tickets. And anyway, I can’t imagine Lou sitting for a whole hour on her arse. She’d be fidgeting too much.”

Richard said nothing. “What is with you and her?” Paul scowled. “Ever since the two of you met, you seemed to always have a grudge against us.” “I don’t have a grudge.” Richard denied. “Then, why, every time you mention or hear her name do you cringe? Somehow, I know it’s not cos you hate the name ‘Louise’.” “She made fun of me, Paul,” his friend growled, still bitter at the longpassed memory. “You what!?” Paul was so bewildered by this statement that he had to laugh. “You don’t like her because she ‘made fun of you’? Seriously, Rich! What the hell?” The other boy’s face flushed red. “She called me a freak!” he said, through gritted teeth. “Ahhhhh, poor you!” Paul sniffed, still in hysterics. “Come on, Rich, she was only joking. Since when did you lose your sense of humour?” “She didn’t sound like she was joking. And you laughed along with her...” “Cos you was being a right twat, that’s why! The reason she called you a freak was because you were acting weird around her, like she was gonna bite you.” “She never liked me!” “Oh, you’re such a Drama Queen... Rich, me and Louise are going out. All right? Whether you like it or not, whether you like her or not, she’s my girlfriend! So please, whenever you’re around me, don’t act like she kicked your dog.” Richard fell silent, but still wasn’t pleased, as they re-entered Freeman Estate. They crossed over a virtually empty playground under the direct, scowling shadow of The Block. A girl was sitting on one of the swings, swaying slightly, a Nokia phone in her hand. Judging by the quick movement of her finger, she was texting somebody, blowing a bit of bubblegum at the same time. She was quite pretty, with long brown hair and sparkling chocolate eyes, which looked up from the phone and lit up even more when she saw Paul. “Hey, babe!” Paul called out to her, as she abandoned the swing and threw her arms round him, her looping earrings jangling. The two then engaged in a big wet kiss (tongues included). “I missed you, babe!” Louise simpered, taking a breath from their suffocating snog. “I was just texting you, and you come round the corner like an angel from heaven!” “I missed you too, babe.” Paul said, gasping for air. Richard pretended to vomit behind their backs.

“We were just talking about you,” Paul smiled, glancing at his mate, breaking away from the soppy kiss, his arms around his girlfriend’s hips. “Oh, something nice, I hope,” Louise giggled. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” he teased. “So, how you doing Richard?” Louise asked. “Fine,” he replied, sharply, not even looking at her, which greatly irritated Paul, who scowled at him. “Good,” Louise muttered. “I’ve gotta go.” Richard mumbled, uneasily, then turned round and walked away. His pace was hurried, as if he knew the devil was chasing him. “What is his problem?” Louise asked, her thin eyebrows knitting together in a quizzical frown. “All I did was say ‘hello’.” “You hurt his pwecious ickle feewings,” Paul smirked, though inside, he could’ve strangled Richard for being such an arse. He now wished he hadn’t been so quick in inviting his friend to the magic show. Chapter 4 – The next few days passed almost quickly, towards the night of the magic show. Paul spent most of his hours working in the Carphone Warehouse down the high street, serving customers on autopilot, who hardly had the money to afford a phone anyway. Most of the consumer base was teenagers, wandering aimlessly round the shop, looking dreamily at the new, state-of-the-art mobile technology which they could barely afford. Paul would rather serve this lot than doddery old men and women who had no idea what he was talking about when he began to explain to anatomy of a mobile. And even when he put it as simply as he could, they always walked out of the shop looking none-the-wiser. The job wasn’t exactly the best – the pay was rather low, he had to work seven hours a day, as the store always seemed to be short staffed for some reason and the staff that were there weren’t exactly a friendly bunch. But at least Paul got a free phone out of it. And it wasn’t a bad one either. Not to mention, being on the company’s payroll, he got unlimited texts and calls without having to pay a penny. On the morning before the show, Paul arrived at the Carphone Warehouse in a reluctant slouch. The boss had got really annoyed and fired somebody the day before. And now she was planning to have Paul fill in those hours which the other guy can no longer fill. He was hoping he could give the slip and get the rest of the afternoon off; he wasn’t in the mood to work that day. And besides, if the boss did give him extra hours, it would most probably take run over the time he arranged with Richard to go to the theatre.

But luck seemed to be with him. The boss was the only one there when he arrived and she was thoroughly pleased he made it early, whilst everyone else couldn’t even be bothered to turn up on time. “You can have the rest of today off after lunch,” she said, suddenly, after fifteen minutes on drumming her fingernails on the desk impatiently, waiting for the other workers to arrive. “Thanks,” “I can see you going places, Paul. Not like these slackers!” So Paul’s mood brightened up greatly, knowing that he’d be able to stand there and look smug around the other members of staff, who’d glare at him after they received a scolding from the boss. After grabbing a quick lunch from Subway, Paul rushed home, where, to his dismay, his mother sat on the sofa in the living room, giggling and red in face, clasping a glass of wine, a strange man whispering flirts in her ear. She didn’t even register that Paul had walked in the door nor did she even hear him slam the door of his room shut as he went upstairs. Even though he was used to his mother brining complete strangers into the household that still didn’t stop him from being angry. He’d pleaded her to stop: she might get hurt, or worse! But, like everything else he ever said to her, she completely ignored him. So, instead of suffering with the annoying loud spurts of flirtatious laughter, Paul quickly got dressed and sped out of the house again, walking around the block several times before finally deciding to loiter in the empty playground outside The Block, brooding on the same swing that Louise had occupied last time they were here. He was still grateful that the boss had let him off a few hours early. But if that meant coming home to his slag of a so-called ‘mother’, then he would rather have stayed and endured it. His eyes stared up at the tall apartment building which loomed over Freeman Estate. Most of the poverty and crime happened inside that very building. People were found dead in its corridors at least once every year: either stabbed, shot or beaten senseless. Paul himself had only been inside it twice in his entire life. And it was horrible. He may not live in the most desirable position, but he couldn’t imagine anyone living in such a nasty environment. The place was full of litter and it smelled of sewage. Hence the alternate, preferred, nicknames of The Block such as: Cemetery, Tip or even Hell. The building was Paul’s soul reason for his desire to leave this place. The Block spawned all sorts of evil from within its walls. Loud, violent, hooded individuals, swept out from the front entrance every night to prowl the estate, like marauding beasts, armed with knives and other ghastly tools, prowling the shadows on the streets, lying in wait for their first

victim to stroll by. Paul remembered old Bart – an ancient, but very friendly member, famous on the estate for his happy outlook on life. He’d always walk with a spring in his step, no matter how bad things got for him, even when he was thrown out of his flat or when he broke up with his wife. He’d always refuse to be miserable. To everybody who knew him, Old Bart was the symbol of a brighter life. Until one night, he was found dead, his corpse, days old, rotting in a skip. Some gang had ambushed him on his way home, cracking his skull open with broken glass bottle. That was all it took. One blow and the last cheerful resident of Freeman Estate was no more, his body dumped cruelly near the spot where he’d been murdered. It had been Paul who’d found him. He would never forget it: the blank, glassy stare of the wrinkled face looking up at him, not even an echo of that sunny smile on his lips. And the worst part of it was whoever had killed Old Bart got away with it. Paul closed his eyes, wincing at the haunting memory. He hated it here. He didn’t want to end up like Old Bart – his corpse just left in gutter after being stabbed or shot multiple times. Was that how he would live the rest of his live, always under threat of having to look over his shoulder for a glint of a knife? No! He needed to get as far away from here as possible. He needed to get a decent job, maybe apply for a college. Sure, his education had been so far dismal, but he could retake his GCSEs, start again in a new place to live. He would take Louise with him. The two would get married, buy a house by the sea, have kids, live the rest of his days the way he should be! If only a life like that was in his reach. He didn’t even have the money to go anywhere. The train prices out of town were ridiculously high and so were the buses. And with the current salary he had, it looked as if he wasn’t going to leave this hellhole until he was at least forty. And, judging by other people’s luck, he might not even live that long. The queue outside St George’s Theatre on the other side of town was surprisingly long. Paul and Richard had turned the corner and the line stretched from the front entrance to the wide, red-brick building from half way down the street to all the way up to the streetlamp on the corner. Everybody was bustling with excitement, laughing, talking, sharing jokes or predicting what acts will be in the show. The vast majority of those in the queue were young adults or couples, but some kids had snuck out to also have a peak at what was going on in the theatre tonight. Paul and Richard joined at the very back, both waiting in anticipation. “I wonder if he’s a clown on crack,” Richard wondered.

“Probably an out-of-work actor who has a few party tricks up his sleeve,” Paul sniggered. It was nearly five to eight and the sun cast a golden streak across the sky in the burning twilight as the darkness approached. A large poster, decorated with lightning streaks and two floating eyes, looking down at the viewer, advertised the show inside, next to the gloomy entrance of the theatre. It had been slapped and plastered over older posters which had long-since faded of any colour. Craning his neck, Paul stood on tiptoe, peering over the heads of the crowd to read what it said, as it might give a hint of what would be shown in the performance. But the words were too far away to read. Suddenly, he was struck by something he hadn’t realised before. He had never seen a single advertisement for what he was about to go and see anywhere around town or the estate. No flyers, leaflets, signs, nothing! So how comes so many people had turned up? There must’ve been at least a hundred anxiously waiting people queuing up to watch the night’s performance. Had they all been handed their tickets by the tall, bizarrely dressed weirdo free-of-charge too? Unlikely! How would the show make any money if they just threw out tickets like confetti? A lot of people agreed that St George’s theatre looked creepy. Indeed, there was something almost gothic about the place: with boarded up windows and dark, Victorian rails running along the roof. It almost looked like it was abandoned. Though, technically it was still owned by the council, but for all the plays it held, the place might as well be altogether derelict for the amount of use it was put to. Everything about the place had gone wrong since the time it held its first performance: Macbeth. It was common knowledge that all the actors due to appear in the play all had very mysterious fatal accidents one week into rehearsals. Ever since that disastrous outcome, the theatre had taken on a very bad reputation. It became a stronghold for travelling shows and local comedians to show off their stuff, but had all been booed off the stage. The theatre, it was believed, was now plagued with bad luck just because of the agreement of playing The Scottish Play, which one of the actors accidently mentioned the name of. It was even rumoured to be haunted... The doors for the theatre creaked open and an unnatural hush fell across the crowd, as they filed in. Paul felt a very large sense of foreboding as he and Richard followed everyone into the dark foyer, which was decorated with numerous cobwebs and dusty lanterns. Nobody had been in the foyer to meet them, but a plastic sign reading: MAGIC SHOW THIS WAY with an arrow pointing in the right direction led them into the huge interior of the theatre itself. At least two hundred, dusty, crimson seats lined up in ten rows up from the wooden stage, which had nobody on it. The place was decorated with eerie, neon colour lights and the stage

was covered in a carpet of swirling fog, presumably coming from a hidden machine off-stage. There was no music coming from anywhere, as Paul had expected. The only sound was the audience taking their seats, whispering excitedly. Richard, on the other hand, looked slightly pale. His eyes were wide and he seemed to be watching the aisle apprehensively, as though expecting the bogey man to jump from behind them. It didn’t help that the creepy green, purple and pink lights were making the place look like the den of some spooky monster. “Not scared are you?” Paul grinned. “No,” Richard lied as they took their seats, near the front of the stage. Realistically, they should be at the back, as they were last to arrive in the queue, but for some reason, the back of the theatre was crowded, as if the audience thought they could get a better view or just because they were as apprehensive as Richard was, anxious about some creepy crawlies jumping off the stage to bite them. Richard still looked nervous. His hands were clenched all of a sudden and he shrank back in his chair, looking at the stage with fearful eyes. “Y’know what,” he said, rising out of his seat. “I need a piss, I think I might –“ “Sit down, you whuss!” Paul laughed, grabbing his mate’s jacket and pulling him back down. After a couple more minutes of people shuffling into the theatre, taking their places, everyone finally settled down and the lights began to dim. Paul, who was completely relaxed, slumped back in his seat, his feet resting on the empty seat in front of him. Richard gave a whimper and the grip on his arms rests tightened. “Ohhhhhh, spooky, isn’t it?” Paul whispered. “Shut up!” Richard grunted through his teeth, giving Paul a nudge. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a deep, booming voice rang out, making everybody in the audience jump. Several people screamed. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” it said. “Welcome. Welcome to Show. I thank you for coming tonight. Now, be prepared, as the following stunts are not for the faint hearted.” “Better clear off now then, eh Dick?” Paul smirked. “Don’t want you wetting your knickers, do we?” Richard said nothing. His eyes were fixed on the stage. Paul followed his gaze and saw, to his shock, the mist begin to revolve. Gasps from the audience behind him told him he wasn’t seeing things, as the artificial mist congregated unnaturally together to from the shape. Next second, the shape had solidified and standing in the middle of the stage was a

man wearing a red cloak, with a goatee and a Victorian suit. His eyes shone silver, reflecting the light of the mist in which had made his form. Paul’s mouth fell open. It was the guy who sold him the tickets! “Good evening,” the man said with a twinkle in his eye. “My name is Aldwick Roxburgh. Let the show... begin!” Chapter 5 – Paul still couldn’t get his head round it. The man who was performing in front of him tonight was the same man who he had bumped into him on the Freeman Estate and had handed him the tickets. Now, he supposed, Aldwick Roxburgh definitely was a magician, as he was certainly dressed like one and he should’ve really guessed that when he looked at the tickets. Even so, he couldn’t help wondering as to why he was on the Estate, at such a late time in the evening, nowhere near the theatre. Everyone knew that out-of-towners who came here would just glance at the Estate and would want to stay far away from it as possible (even the other residents thought that). Was the man lost? Had he misjudged his way through the dark? Well, if he was staying here for another couple of days, the man ought to be a bit more careful, or he wouldn’t be able to host another show again... Aldwick stared into the stunned silence of the audience as his last words carried from the stage around the theatre to everybody’s ears. Surprisingly, he didn’t need a microphone to speak, as his voice seemed loud enough for everyone including those at the back to hear. Nobody applauded. On stage, Aldwick raised his right hand into mid air and snapped his fingers twice. And out of thin air, appeared a length of string in his hands. He stretched out his left hand, and from up his sleeve and pair scissors slid into his palm. Without even looking at what he was doing, he used the scissors to cut the pieces of string into small parts, knotted them together and the end result... a flimsy, pathetic version of what seemed to be a lizard, with four legs, a tail and a head, all made up of the same string. Paul and Richard stared. What had this had to do with magic, exactly? It felt more like a demonstration on making knots. Then, as if in answer to what they were thinking, the string grew fatter and fatter, until, blinking in the palm of Aldwick’s outstretched hand was a real-life, baby-sized Bearded Dragon. The entire audience muttered in amazement, then, at last, the first beginnings of applause scattered around the room.

“How did he do that?” asked Paul, astonished, who searched his brains for any logical explanation or known trick for making an inanimate object transform into a reptile. But found no solution. Aldwick bowed again, the lizard turning its gaze at the audience seated before it, flicking a forked tongue. It was alive! That was what stunned everybody most of all. The animal was real and genuine and he had pulled it out of mid air. As soon as the hubbub died down, the man waved his hand over the lizard, which vanished, leaving nothing behind. Another round of applause sounded, louder this time. “Thank you,” he said, smiling, showing a set of very white teeth, apart from one gold one at the front, which glimmered. “As you could all have probably guessed by now, I am not like most other magicians. Apart from appearance, of course. My acts are quite the opposite of theirs because I don’t fool my audience. I don’t wave a magic wand, pull a rabbit out of a top-hat, cut people in half whilst trapped in a box, pull playing cards or flowers from up my sleeve. What I am about to show you tonight, whether you’d like to believe it or not, is real magic. I am not like those amateurs you see on television who look like a wannabe Charlie Chaplin. Although I can do what they do.” He suddenly started pulling a rope of different coloured handkerchief from out of the cuff of his shirt, imitating what a clichéd magician would normally do at a kid’s party. That got a laughs from a few people. “However,” Aldwick continued, holding up his hands for silence. “A lot of my so-called ‘tricks’ have frightened a few people in my past shows. I have travelled all over the country and have experienced many children, as well as adults, running out of the theatre because I made a spider appear in my hand like this.” As he said this, he waved his hand yet again and suddenly, a deadly-looking, hair-ridden tarantula appeared on the sleeve of his robe. A girl at the back gasped, but didn’t run out. Everybody else was silent. “But, let me assure you, none of my ‘tricks’ will harm any of you,” he said, making the spider vanish just like the lizard. “So please, enjoy yourselves as best you can. Now,” his bright eyes scanned the audience as he rubbed his hands. “For my next act, I shall need a volunteer. Anyone willing to participate?” A few anxious and excited hands flew into the air. The majority of them the young pre-teens who’d come here for a dare, some putting on brave faces and willing to face whatever the magician would put to them next. “Ah, yes, you, in the middle row, at the end!” Aldwick pointed to a seat a few rows back from Paul and Richard. A blond, fat boy, around twelve years old, wearing a striped blue jumper and a ridiculous looking medallion, waddled his way up to the stage, looking greedily excited as he climbed up on the stage.

“What’s your name, son?” Aldwick asked. “Chris,” the boys replied, in such a high voice, that Paul doubted whether he’d even hit puberty yet. “Well, Chris, could you please stand here a moment, whilst I fetch a mirror?” “What?” “Just wait here.” Bewildered, the boy stood in the middle of the stage, whilst Aldwick moved over towards the back, touching the velvet of the tattered curtain. He backed away from it slowly, his hand pointing at it as, to the astonishment of the crowd, a full-length, cold slate of glass moulded out of the material. Everybody soon found themselves looking into their own aghast faces reflected in the mirror as it slid forwards towards the now frightened looking boy. “Now Chris, could you please show the audience that there are no secret compartments to this mirror by walking round it. I shall lift the mirror off the floor to demonstrate that there are also no trapdoors.” With a snap of his fingers, the mirror literally levitated at least a foot off the ground. And Paul, staring in amazement, could tell that there were no wires which were lifting it. The way it moved upwards, so solidly and slowly, made it look freakishly real. He saw Chris’s feet move as he inspected the back of the glass. “What do you think he’s gonna do next?” he whispered to Richard. “Shut up!” Richard snapped. Paul turned to him, startled. His friend was staring at Aldwick so intently it was as if he were trying to read the magician’s mind, to see how he performed the tricks. “Rich, what...?” “I said: shut it!” he hissed, now turning angrily towards Paul. “I’m trying to think.” Scandalised by his behaviour, Paul turned back to the stage, where Chris had just confirmed to the audience there were no secret compartments behind the mirror. “Right, then!” Aldwick said, brightly. “Now, you must forgive me Chris, for am I about to put you in a trance.” “What?” the boy spluttered, all colour leaving his face. Clearly this was more than he bargained for. “Please, stay calm,” the magician said, calmly, raising a hand in front of Chris’ face. Without warning, his eyes rolled to the back of his head, the lids falling shut, a long breath escaping him as he toppled backwards, towards the wooden stage floor. But he didn’t hit it. To everybody’s immense surprise and shock, he vanished, right before their eyes. It was as if he had fallen

through the floor, but had left no hole behind him. And a boy that size, well, he was bound to leave quite a big hole. But it was as if he hadn’t been on the stage with Aldwick at all. Now members of the audience began to panic. “Hush, now!” Aldwick commanded, and silence fell once again. “Look into the mirror.” Everybody obeyed, all eyes turning towards the glass, expecting to see their shocked faces reflected in it. But the glass had changed. Instead, it was looking into a dark void, where Chris was slowly floating, as if underwater. He was inside the mirror! Several people gasped. The scene was rather grotesque. The boy was unconscious and his hands, legs and body were being thrown about by a current they couldn’t see. “No way!” Paul said, his eyes widening with awe. Aldwick flicked his wrist, and the still floating mirror began to turn, until it was facing the audience sideways. The glass was as thin as a piece of paper. The magician snapped his fingers once more and the unconscious boy reappeared on the stage, quite unharmed. There was a pause... then the audience exploded into applause, the sound ringing all around the room. Paul joined in this time. “That... was... incredible!” he exclaimed, unable to find the right words to what he just witnessed. Richard said nothing. Aldwick woke Chris with a nudge of his toe, then clapped him off stage, handing him a stick of chewing gum for being a good volunteer. The mirror melted away with another snap. Chris returned to his friends, looking dazed. As he sat down, they began to explain what had just happened. When the applause died down, Aldwick smiled. “Let the show continue...” he said. Chapter 6 – Many laughs, gasps and shouts of approval later and Paul was completely amazed and mesmerised by the magic show which he couldn’t believe he’d had the fortune to be able to see. Aldwick Roxburgh was perhaps the most amazing man to ever exist on this whole world. He’d conjured a giant, floating eye, which had floated over the audience, peering unblinkingly into the screaming faces with curious air about it. Next, he’d made a fully grown Siberian tiger tap dance its way across the stage, playing the ‘Can-can’ with a trombone whilst he was at it. To Paul’s great disgust yet wonder, the man even managed to dethatch both of his own hands from the ends of his arms and make them scuttle like weird crabs

along the stage and do a kind of pirouette in mid air. After that, he managed to create a green fire and let another volunteer (a young woman this time) hold it in the palm of her hand. His entertainment never failed to enthral his audience. They screamed, applauded and exclaimed their enthusiasm as it escalated greatly from when they first entered the theatre. Paul was one of them, whistling shrilly along with the rest. The only person, who wasn’t joining in was Richard. He sat there, in his seat, brooding sulkily. He didn’t even look like he was enjoying himself. How couldn’t he? The acts were outstanding! But he was looking as if he had seen this all before. Paul ignored him. So far, he’d had enough of his friend’s bad attitude and trying to discuss the acts with him was like trying to get blood out of a stone. Richard was being flat out rude. So Paul made a mental note of giving him a royal kick up the arse when they were finished. He’d also had time to think during the performance. Aldwick had stated his show was a travelling show, several times. He’d gone on a comical anecdote about accidently making the tarantula at the beginning of one act all the way in Manchester accidentally land on a man’s head, who screamed like a girl. This man was going places. And he didn’t appear to have any sort of sidekick on stage. Perhaps he could do with one, on tour. This was the chance Paul had been waiting for – to get away from here, to have a life outside of the crumbling place. He smiled as he imagined his own name on posters in a far away city: ALDIWCK ROXBURGH, WITH TRAVELLING SIDEKICK, PAUL THE MARVELOUS. He might even teach Paul a few magic tricks for his own. That would be cool. The magician showed the now beaming woman off of the stage, giving her a pack of chewing gums as well – this time for being the most ‘fabulous’ volunteer. “And now, my final act for this evening, I decided to go out... with a bang.” And at those words there was an enormous BANG as six explosions of purple smoke emitted in a perfect circle around Aldwick, and standing around him were the six most beautiful women Paul had ever seen. They were dressed in the pimpiest outfits too, consisting of a metal bra and knickers, as well as long, trailing threads of material. Their bodies were perfectly curved and each and every man in the audience stared hungrily at them whilst the women tutted impatiently. The beauties spread out along the aisles, almost gliding towards the hot-blooded, drooling males, batting their long eyelashes and puckering their juicy lips. To his immense pleasure, Paul’s body tensed up as the pretty girl gave him a very sexy look indeed. As she began to approach him, boobs out in front of her, he felt the blood rush to a certain part of his body which he knew, if Louise were here, she would dump him for. The

girl leaned in towards him, closing her eyes in a graceful way and inhaling like she was breathing in as much of his air as she could. She was so close, that Paul could smell her warm, seductive breath on his face. It was so good he forgot about everything else. All he wanted to do was reach forward and... But before he could do anything, the girl suddenly raised her hand and blew something into his face: a kind of purple dust which smelt sickly, making him cough, all sexually related thoughts gone from his brain. The dust made him dizzy as he tried opening his eyes, which were burning from the raw exposure of whatever it was she had just blown in his face. Through his watery vision, he saw the girl smile, demonically, as her features contorted into something snake-like: her eyes turning green, with black vertical pupils, her mouth opening impossibly wide to reveal a pair of fangs instead of teeth and a forked tongue flickered out as her skin turned scaly. He yelled out, and judging by the matching yells of other men in the audience and the screams of all the women, the other beautiful girls had transformed into hideous, reptilian beasts. They hissed, hatefully, as they advanced. Aldwick chuckled. “Never judge a girl by her looks, gentlemen,” he said. Snapping his fingers, the snake-girls retreaded from their prey and returned to the stage, where they promptly vanished into thin-air in a puff of purple smoke. “Good night to you all.” “That was wicked!” Paul said, as soon as he and Richard exited the theatre, walking along with the buzzing crowd in the foyer. “I mean... wow! Did you see the way he pulled off his hands? That was gross, yet brilliant! What was your favourite part?” he asked Richard, who looked deep in thought. “I thought it was all good,” he shrugged, sounding less than interested. “What about them girls, eh?” Paul grinned. “Fittest bunch I’ve ever seen! Before they turned into snakes of course.” “Mm,” Richard grumbled, not even looking at him. Paul felt an almighty spurt of annoyance. “Y’know, you didn’t have to come,” he growled, his mood instantly transforming. “All through that, you sat there like you had a smacked arse. What is with you? Are you still sore over what I did in The Green Lion?” “No,” Richard said. “Then it was a bit of a waste of a ticket inviting you then. You were right. I should’ve taken Louise with me.”

Richard rounded on Paul. “What, so you could huddle close together?” he snapped, with unmistakable coldness. “What is your problem?” Paul demanded. “You’ve been acting weird lately. I dunno what is, but you better snap out of it, or you and me are falling out, mate!” “I’m sorry,” Richard retracted, rubbing his forehead. “It’s just things... things that have been going on at home. Mum and Dad are at it again. Why don’t they get a divorce and put me out of my misery? I’m sick of them screaming at each other all the time. I came here so I can forget about it, but no. So, sorry for being a twat, okay?” Paul thought about saying that was no excuse to take it out on everyone else and things for him at home weren’t exactly gliding along easy street, but then he remembered his little hubbub and how Richard had forgiven him so easily. And anyway, he didn’t feel like getting into an endless argument. “All right,” he replied. “It’s fine. Look, I’m going go to the toilet, be back in a second.” They had arrived outside the theatre and were back on the street. It was completely dark now and in the poor light, the theatre looked even more sinister. The last thing anyone wanted was to go back in there in the full darkness. But Paul retreated back inside the building. He was going to make the offer of joining the show right now to Aldwick, who must be backstage. He could ask whether Richard and Louise could come with him. He didn’t fancy leaving them behind in the horrible place. Even so, he felt like he already was, as he had to lie to his best mate, but he tried not to think about it. And besides, it wasn’t like he was leaving him behind right now, was it? The magician would still be in town for a couple of days. He found a corridor leading off from the now empty foyer, with the words BACKSTAGE printed on a sign next to the entrance and started down it. It was long and L shaped, full of doors leading into different rooms, some of them open and Paul saw old props including plastic swords, helmets and even a cardboard dragon inside, laying there collecting dust. In other rooms he saw brilliantly coloured costumes and backgrounds for the stage. A line of hanging bulbs passed over his head as he made his way, flickering with feeble light, casting crazy shadows in the cramped space. He turned the corner and froze. Footsteps were flapping up the corridor behind him, coming his way. Suddenly, without knowing why, Paul jumped into the nearest room, closing the door to. For some reason he didn’t want to be spotted here

now the show was over and the audience had left. Who was coming down the corridor now? Was it Aldwick? No. Peeping through the gap between door and frame, Paul saw, to his astonishment that it was Richard out in the corridor, looking over his shoulder anxiously, as if he didn’t want to be seen. What was he doing here? He was supposed to be outside, waiting for his mate to return from the toilet. Richard passed the door Paul was hiding behind, completely oblivious he was even there. He approached another door at the far end and knocked, three times. A voice commanded: “Come!” and Richard entered into the room beyond. Frowning, Paul tiptoed up towards the room where Richard had just gone in; peeping through the wide keyhole to see what was going on. Inside, Aldwick Roxburgh was sitting behind a desk in front of a mirror, his red cloak hanging on a hat stand, his feet up. All sorts of weird object decorated the surface: a skull used as a paperweight, an upright ice cream cone for a pencil holder and a vase of cucumbers. The room had no other decoration. Most of the space was made up of all the suitcases lining the walls, some open with clothes spilling out. Aldwick was observing Richard with curious eyes. This teenager had come to visit him. That didn’t happen very often. And most who did only wanted to see another magic trick, or have an autograph. But this boy’s eyes had neither excitement nor embarrassment. He’s gaze was quite determined as he stared at the magician. “Anything I can help you with?” Aldwick asked, with polite inquisitiveness. “Yes,” Richard said, stiffly. There was an air about Richard which Paul had never really seen before. It was as if he was mustering all his courage just standing there. “I was in the audience of the show tonight-“ “I know. I saw you.” Aldwick said, impatiently. “I am many things, but not blind.” “Well. I came here to put in a... proposition.” Richard grunted, irritated by the man’s remark. “Go on,” Aldwick prompted. “What ‘proposition’ do you have for me, son?” “You’re a travelling show. So, I thought... maybe... you know,” Richard swallowed. Out in the corridor, Paul listened intently. Was Richard going to say what he thought he was going to say? “I want to join you!” he finished, defiantly. Aldwick raised an eyebrow. “Join me?” he repeated, in a silky voice. “What? You want to become... my sidekick?” he laughed, making Richard turn scarlet in the face. “Thanks, kid, but I don’t need one.”

“Wait!” Richard exclaimed, sounding desperate. “I-I-I don’t have to be a sidekick! I could just... y’know, be a stage-hand or something. I’ll let you perform tricks on me. I don’t care; just let me come with you.” “Not interested,” the magician said, lazily, beginning to throw a small bouncy ball between his hands, which changed colour as he did so: blue, green, yellow, orange and red. “If I wanted somebody to help me in my acts, I would have one by now.” “You don’t understand!” Richard growled. “I need to-“ “No, let me tell you something,” Aldwick cut across him, now himself becoming irritated. “If this is some kind of prank, then ha, ha, you’ve had your laugh, now get out!” He pointed at the door, but Richard stood his ground. “NO!” he shouted, breathing heavily. “This is not a joke! I want to come with you and be your assistant, servant... or slave if I have to, for real.” There was a long silence. “And why would you want to become the slave of a complete stranger?” Aldwick asked, completely perplexed. “Please tell me, I am dying to know.” “All I wanna do is get away from here.” Richard explained. “I hate this place! I wanna see different cities and towns. But I can’t do it because my parents are always arguing and we don’t even have the money.” “I still fail to see the motive behind this,” Aldwick said. “Look. I can’t even walk down the street without getting threatening stares from complete strangers. My life here has always been a mess. I want to leave it behind and never look back.” Aldwick’s eyebrow cocked. “But you’ll be leaving your friends and family behind,” he said. “Those you love dearly. You’re abandoning them, just to come on tour with me? Won’t you miss them?” Richard looked away. “No one understands me,” he said, simply. “Nobody. Not my parents. Not even my best mate, who makes fun and jibes at me at every chance he can get.” Paul couldn’t believe he heard that. The statement sent a ripping pair of scissors through his stomach and out the other side it seemed. What Richard had just said was really unfair! Paul had only been joking around every time he took the piss out of Richard. It wasn’t like he did it out of spite or malice. Apparently Aldwick shared similar thoughts. “Isn’t that what friends are for?” he asked, spreading his hands. He shook his head. “Kid, you need a better sob story than that to win me over.” There was no pity for Richard in the magician’s bright, silver eyes. “And there is something you must know. I am a real magician: a sorcerer,

wizard, conjurer, whatever you want to call it. I practise in the black arts. Medieval peasants would’ve had me burnt at the stake for my unnaturalness. You have no idea what you’re heading in for, teaming up with me. You would be putting yourself in more trouble than you can possibly imagine. And just so you don’t believe I am a real magician, observe...” He dropped the ball, which was now a bright shade of violet, and picked up the skull on his pile of papers. Holding it in the palm of his hand and concentrating on it hard (looking closely like Hamlet on a Shakespearian stage) fixated his gaze into the empty eye sockets. And without warning, it exploded in a burst of orange energy, lighting up the entire room. Richard backed away, covering his face from the exploding shards of bone. Even Paul outside shielded his vision as the blast had been so bright. “I never said you weren’t a real magician,” Richard said, after the last shards of the skull were scattered. “I mean, I admit, at first I thought all your acts were fake cos you were using some sort of hologram or illusion or something. Tricks. But then I realised it was something more than that. I mean, how can digital illusions be that good live on stage? It had to be real.” He smiled, grimly. “I know about magicians and how they sign on new ones. I have read about the process of it in a book my dad has. He said it was all a load of crap, but somehow, I always believed that it’s real.” Aldwick looked alarmed. “And what would the process involve?” he asked, now sounding weary. This boy clearly knew more than he was letting on. “I want you to make me your apprentice,” Richard said, slowly. “And to do that, you must gain possession... of my soul.” Chapter 7 – Disbelieve reached Paul for the second time. In fact, he inserted a gnarled finger into his ear and rotated, not quite sure he had heard right. Even now he was questioning whether he was stuck in some weird dream. Richard had resented him all this time and was willing, perfectly willing, to give up his own soul to simply be rid of Paul and the troubles in his life. Some friend he turned out to be, Paul brooded, feeling anger course through him. And he was thinking of inviting Richard to come along with him when he was going to offer his allegiance to the magician. Aldwick was equally stunned by Richard’s offer, judging by the shocked look on his face. He clearly expected the boy to get it wrong. But then, his shocked expression turned into a smile and then he started laughing.

“You have been reading a lot haven’t you?” he chuckled. “But stop, for one second and think: don’t you realise how selfish you’re acting? You choose to abandon your life to simply move away from here. Have you thought about this at all?” “I have,” Richard said, his voice darker than Paul had ever heard it before. “All the way through the show, I thought about it. They wouldn’t care if I were to go missing. People around here go missing all the time. It’s kind of how it is in this area.” There was another silence as Aldwick thought. “Thinking about it, I have been considering an apprentice for quite some time now,” he murmured. “But nobody has volunteered. Perhaps you could give me some company. After all, I have been on my own for a long time now. “All right then. We shall do the deed.” He straightened up and rose out of his chair, rolling up his sleeves. “You know the exact procedure of binding two souls?” Aldwick inquired to Richard, whose eyes were suddenly filled with fear. “Not having second thoughts are we?” “No!” “Because I don’t like time-wasters. All right. Here it goes.” Aldwick raised both hands in the air in front of him, one over the other with a nice gap in between them. He began to speak, but he wasn’t uttering English words. Paul heard a foreign, strange tongue which sounded lyrical and flowed like silk from one word to the other in a songlike fashion. Paul only caught a few words of it: “hethclad, yilliyong, revier.” He was clueless as to what they meant, but as the magician chanted, the room, which had been dimly lit by a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling, began to darken and the magician’s eyes and hands were glowing! A soft, golden light seemed to be radiating from them. In the middle of the gap between Aldwick’s hands in the air, a soft, fiery orange ball began to grow, larger and larger it got, until it resembled a miniature version of the sun. The tension in room, which must’ve been something to do with the magic, was almost like verging on the edge of a black hole. Paul felt it even outside. Loose bit of paper blew about as if a high wind began to kick up and the hairs on the back of Paul’s neck were standing on end. Aldwick continued to chant the unearthly incantation faster and faster, without drawing breath, his eyes glowing so brightly that his pupils weren’t even visible. It made him appear quite inhuman. Richard was staring at him with the utmost terror in his eyes. The colour of his face had drained. “Stop it!” he shouted. “STOP IT! STOP!”

He was shaking all over, clearly distressed by what was happening, even though he’d asked for it to happen. Aldwick ceased speaking at once. And immediately, his eyes returned to normal, the ball of gold light vanished as fast as it appeared and the darkness lifted the room. “I can’t- I can’t- I can’t do this!” he stammered. “I just...” But he didn’t finish the sentence. Paul saw him approach the door and just before it opened, he threw himself in the next room. He’d barely just got inside to hide when his mate was running out along the corridor, sweat pouring down his face. Paul watched him as he disappeared from sight. He thought he heard a stifled sob. Aldwick had also observed the boy’s progress at the door to his room. He was scowling in distaste. But shrugged, muttering: “Kids...” and then went back into the room, closing the door behind him. Paul stood where he was behind the door for what felt like an eternity. He couldn’t believe what his eyes just saw or what he had just heard. His supposed ‘best mate’ was completely bitter towards him. After all those times when Paul had stuck up for the two-faced git, he resented him all along! And that wasn’t the only thing. Richard had been volunteering his own soul just to get away from Paul. Had he been that terrible a friend? Was he as truly as vile as Richard had made him out to be? If so, why did always hang out with Paul? Why not go off with anyone else? No. Paul knew why. It was because he was different. Too different. And Aldwick... Paul understood now, so he had to learn to accept it. The man was a real magician. He could use real magic, there was no point denying it as he’d seen enough for himself. And he wasn’t willing to take anybody along with him unless they were willing to give up the thing that is most precious. Witnessing Richard doing what Paul had originally planned to do was a real eye-opener. What he was doing was completely selfish. How could he abandon his sister and mother to their doom in this wretched place? They weren’t perfect. But they were the only family he had. He could rebuild the relationship between the three of them if he tried. Running away wouldn’t have achieved anything. In fact he probably would feel massive guilt in leaving them for the rest of his life. He couldn’t do that. And to give up his soul? It wasn’t worth that much! When he got a bit of money, Paul would find another way to get away from the Freeman Estate for good. He smirked at the fact that, at least, he hadn’t been completely selfish. Not like Richard. At least he had thought to offer to take his friend with him. For all its worth, he probably wouldn’t have run away like a coward.

At last, after much brooding, Paul left the theatre, where Richard was waiting outside, looking as if he hadn’t even moved from the spot, eagerly awaiting his friend. But inside, Paul’s stomach screwed up with bitterness. He knew now how he truly felt about him, and he wasn’t buying the fake everything’s-fine-smile now plastered onto Richard’s face. “You were a long time,” he said. “Was I?” “Yeah. Not ill or anything are you?” Paul had to bite his tongue to stop himself with coming back with a sarcastic retort to the fake concern. He swallowed painfully then grimaced. “Nope, but I can tell you: I don’t remember eating that,” Richard laughed. Even if Paul had not just seen Richard’s true nature, the shaky nervous tone behind the laughter would’ve tipped him off. “Something wrong?” he asked. Richard started, looking at Paul as if he just saw the grim reaper over his mate’s shoulder, then shook his head. “No,” he said, showing a shaky smile. “What made you say that?” “You look like someone put a spell on you,” Paul explained, deliberately choosing those words. Richard looked terrified and slightly suspicious. “I’m fine,” he chuckled, dryly, though his eyes gave everything away. They began to walk up the dark, empty street. It was completely quiet. Only sirens in the distant could be heard, filling the tense, almost hostile silence between Paul and Richard. “Didn’t miss me, whilst I was gone, did you?” Paul said, almost lightheartedly. Richard laughed, nervously again, clearly thinking it was a joke. “Cos, you know, mate,” Paul went on. “If suddenly, you vanished, went somewhere or whatever, I would feel pretty lonely. You’ve the only real mate I ever had, y’know. Louise will be my only mate left if you went. But she’s a girl. What I mean is: I’d have no man-talks with her. She hates football and rugby and everything, so I won’t be able to talk with her about those things. And it isn’t like my family pays any attention to me.” “What are you on about?” Richard asked. Though he knew perfectly well what he his friend was ‘on about’. It was there in his eyes. Paul looked at Richard, trying his best to conceal his new-found loathing. “If you had a chance to get away from here, I mean any chance at all, would you take it? Or would you give up that chance for someone else to get out of here?”

The question contorted Richard’s face from confused politeness, to an angry grimace. “What do you mean?” he snarled. “What I say,” Paul said, calmly. “So, would you or won’t you?” The seconds ticked by. He could feel his friend’s eyes burning into him. He knew Richard was fighting to not slam Paul against the wall and interrogate him on what he saw and heard. He must have known by now that Paul had eavesdropped on his conversation with Aldwick – Paul had given so many obvious hints. But still, he remained calm and answered: “If that was my one chance, I wouldn’t take it.” Chapter 8 – The next four days after the magic show drove slowly for Paul. Work had become intolerable, as his boss’s temper was getting shorter and shorter. She lost it completely one day over an employee who had dealt with customers by being rude to them. She even threw a computer screen at him! Paul just hoped he wouldn’t be next. Things at home weren’t exactly getting any better either. If anything, they were worse. His mother, who he saw rarely of anyway, was spending more and more time out of the house. And when she was home, there was usually a man in tow, a different one every time. One had even given Paul a nasty punch on the arm for disturbing him and Karen in the bedroom. Denise, too, was spending more and more time out and she seemed to have moved into the bathroom whenever she was in. What was she doing in there? Paul kept wondering. He’d never really taken much interest in his sister’s doings before. But this time, he was becoming seriously worried without knowing why. He noticed, whenever he went in the bathroom after her, she kept using the same perfume to cover up some other odour. Louise had stopped texting him too, which was unusual. She normally would send him one every morning and every evening. But when she didn’t after the show, he presumed it was she because she had no credit or no battery life. But when it happened again over the next three days, he started trying to call or text her himself. To his immense dismay, she never answered or texted back. Why was she ignoring him? He even knocked on her door of her house three times after work, but each time she’d been out. Paul also took great care in avoiding Richard. He wanted to make it clear to him that he was a git and he was the bad friend, not Paul. But, boys aren’t like girls when it comes to friendship. A girl can hold a grudge for a long time, refusing to talk to the other person who they fell out with for weeks. But boys weren’t so fussed. Normally they made up the minute

they have a disagreement. Paul didn’t want this to be the case with Richard. Yet, he was not someone who can hold a grudge easily, even though what Richard said was enough to drive anyone else away completely. That was the trouble. If Paul truly fell out with Richard, he wouldn’t have any friends left. And now because Louise seemed to be ignoring him for no apparent reason, he had nobody else to turn to. So, the two agreed to meet up again in the playground in the shadow of The Block. When Paul had phoned Richard, he thought his mate would refuse. He was half-hoping he would. But Richard had been eager to meet again. In fact, he sounded happy to hear Paul’s voice. Somehow it sounded worse than the grunts he usually issued to people when he was annoyed with them. Paul felt a large balloon of dread inflate in his stomach as he approached the playground gate, seeing Richard sitting at the bottom of the metal slide on one of the climbing frames. He couldn’t explain why, but he was half-expecting the friendly mask that he’d heard on the phone to drop and accusations to start flying. But he’d had four days to do that. And he could also have done it on the night after the show. It was a chilly, depressing day. The sun hadn’t shown its face at all. An endless curtain of grey clouds seemed to roll across the sky, over the estate, as if The Block were attracting them like a magnet. The playground was empty, as usual. It was put there in the first place to attract the children. But hardly any children ever went near it. Why? Because it was where the druggies, the thugs, the gangs and all the other violent people who nobody in their right mind would want their children to go anywhere near usually loitered around, shouting foul swear words at passers-by and scribbling graffiti all over the climbing frames. One time, a group of these hooligans ripped off one of the swings, right in front of frightened four year old, laughing as they did it. That same gang still lurked around somewhere, appearing when you would least suspect it, tormenting the local residents because they had nothing else better to do. “Hey, Fanny!” Richard called, getting up from the slide, spotting Paul from a distance. The tone of his voice showed he was excited about something. “Guess what!” “What?” said Paul, nervously. He entered the playpen, swinging open an iron gate which led onto the tarmac. “Two things,” Richard answered, holding two fingers to demonstrate his point. “First, I have a game coming up tomorrow, ten o’clock, so don’t miss it.” He was in the local Rugby team and Paul always never missed a

match. It wasn’t because he wanted to. Hell, he found Rugby dead boring. He preferred watching paint dry. But he went out of politeness, hence another reason why Paul was perhaps the better friend out of the two. Yet he said nothing, only merely pretending to look excited. “Second,” Richard continued, looking furthermore pleased. This was probably the news he wanted to tell Paul the most. “I am seeing someone now.” “What?” Paul was stunned by this. Richard... was going out with someone? He didn’t know how to reply. “That’s...” “Great? Yeah, tell me about it!” he said, enthusiastically. “I was going to say unexpected,” Paul mumbled. “How long?” “Since yesterday,” “Wow. Who is she? What’s her name?” Richard was just about to answer when the playground gate creaked open again. They turned to see a miserable looking Louise strolling towards them. Paul could tell she’d been crying: her eyes were raw red and even as she approached, he could hear her stifling sobs. “Louise!” he exclaimed, running over to her, forgetting about his mate. “What’s wrong babe? Why haven’t you been answering my texts or calls?” She stared at him for a few seconds and then burst into fresh tears, water leaking out of her eyes like a burst pipe. Paul tried to embrace her, but she pushed him away, sobbing uncontrollably. She turned away from him, as if unable to look at his face. Paul stood there bewildered. “Louise?” he asked uncertainly. “What’s...? What’s happened?” She wouldn’t answer she was crying so hard. So he had to wait until she’d calmed down before they could speak. “I-I-I need t-t-to talk t-to you,” she gasped. “In p-p-private.” Paul turned to Richard, who looked just as surprised as he did. He jerked his head, telling him to leave them be. Richard, looking rather sour, turned and left the playground. “Okay, we’re alone,” Paul said. “Now tell me, what’s up?” Louise took two deep, calming breaths before going on. “I thought you should know...” she said. “I mean, you need to know...” she let out a soft moan, covering her face with her hands. “God, this is so hard to say. I don’t...” “Just tell me. Whatever it is, just say it.” Even though Paul said this, he was dreading what his girlfriend was going to say. She was not one to cry often, and when she did, it was often to deliver some very, very bad news. She let her hands fall and said: “Paul... I’m seeing someone else.”

There was an uneasy silence as Paul took this in. He couldn’t believe it. The words sounded loud and unreal in his ears. She was seeing someone else? He thought he should’ve been angry, but all he felt was numb shock. “What?” he’d heard what she said, but he didn’t know what to say back. “I’m... I’m leaving you, Paul,” she stated, weakly. “I... I’m with someone else now.” Paul slowly shook his head, beginning to back away from her. “No,” he could feel the anger kicking in. He wanted to shout at her. No – he wanted to hunt down whoever this git was who stole her from him and strangle him! “Paul, please...” Louise tried to reason with him. “Please. I didn’t plan for this to happen. I wanted to tell you, but I couldn’t do it over the phone or... or by text.” He didn’t reply. He just stared furiously at her. “Who? Who is he?” he demanded, feeling his throat burn with rage. “His name’s Jack,” she replied, fresh tears starting once again to roll down her cheeks. “Please, Paul, don’t be angry. It’s not you. You haven’t done anything. It’s me. I... I met him and I... I couldn’t help it.” A pitter-patter of rain began to fall on them, the water slicing into Paul’s face, the rain drops quickly darkening the colour of the tarmac beneath his feet. They said nothing more. Still filled with blank shock, Paul turned and began to storm out of the park, slamming the gate open and stampeding his way back home. He could still hear Louise crying behind him. She didn’t say anything or try to stop him from going anywhere. She just stood there and watched him leave through tear-filled eyes. The rain began to pick up when Paul got home, slamming his front door open, banging upstairs and ramming his bedroom door home, making it rattle in its frame. He punched the bedroom wall, bellowing his rage at it until his fists were sore. How could she just come up to him and say that? How could she just dump him on the spot without a word of warning? WHY?! What had he done wrong? A long time afterwards, he sat on the dirty carpet of his bedroom floor in one of his mega-broods. So, what did this ‘Jack’ guy have that he didn’t? Looks? Money? Whoever the smarmy git was, he hated him. And he wouldn’t have liked to be in his shoes when he and Paul ever met. He sat there, looking at the contacts on his phone, hovering over the keypad, looking at Louise’s name and phone number on the display. He wanted to delete it and forget about her. How could she do this to him? He pressed a button and an option came up: DELETE THIS CONTACT?

YES NO He paused for perhaps half a minute. Then hit the NO option and threw his phone down. His girlfriend had just left him for someone else. But he still didn’t have the heart to just erase her from his life. She was still in his head the next day. He lay in bed, miserably, listening at the rain as it pattered down his bedroom window, each hammering drop reminding him of the best times the two had, all the laughs they shared together, the kisses they passionately had, and that time last month... when they expressed their love truly for the first time. The thought that Louise was probably doing that now to some guy Paul hadn’t met before made him feel truly outraged. He punched his pillow several times, imagining a face just like Richard’s who represented Louise’s new found lover boy. The thought of Richard made him remember that he was supposed to attend that stupid rugby match. Having being chucked by Louise (he cringed every time he thought about her now) nearly drove it clean out of his mind. He looked at his alarm clock. Half past nine! Shit! He thought, as he quickly sprang out of bed, hastily got changed and done his teeth. His friend would give him the almighty clinching silent-treatment if he didn’t go to the match. By the time he was ready to go anywhere, it was already quarter to. So he quickly threw on his rain coat and rushed out the door and down the street. Richard’s team usually played in Freeman Park as their home ground and Paul doubted whether the match would be called off on a count of rain. He knew better than rugby games to mind a little bit of mud. In fact, he could’ve sworn it drove the player crazier. He arrived at the match ten minutes late, stopping at the edge of the park, completely out of breath. It was a few seconds, when he looked after doubling over, gasping, before he realised that something was wrong. On the other side of the park, where two rugby posts stood opposite each other against the ominous grey clouds, an ambulance was parked, its white, sterile exterior visible through the growing curtain of rain. A large crowd of rugby players and other people were huddled around, looking rather worried and anxious. Paul rushed over to the huge white van, mud squelching beneath his feet, his trainers and socks getting soaked. The concerned crowd was muttering amongst themselves and Paul tried to crane his neck over their heads to see what was going on. Had someone been hurt? He tried to find Richard amongst them, but... “Paul!” someone shouted, making him spin round.

Jeff, the captain of Richard’s rugby team, wearing a hooded sweatshirt underneath a see-through anorak, was pushing his way towards him through the crowd. He was a small, fat man with a receding hairline and his face, which was usually a ruddy red, was completely drained of any colour. “Hey, Jeff,” Paul said. “What’s going on?” “The match’s been called off,” he replied, over the chattering crowd. “It’s Richard. He’s been hurt. Bad!” “What?” “He was tackled by one of the opposing players,” Jeff went on, now reaching Paul. “A bit too hard! He was knocked to the ground and... everyone heard this... crack. And then we heard him screaming. He’d broken his leg. There was even a bone poking out. Paul’s eyes widened in complete shock. He was about to say something but the sudden wail of the ambulance drowned him out, the blue lights flashing, the back doors closing as it sped out of the park to the hospital. “Is he gonna be all right?” he asked. “The people in the ambulance said he’ll need an op immediately,” Jeff said. “I heard the mention of stitches too. But I think he’ll be okay. I hope so. Don’t wanna lose my best player.” He laughed. “But now the match’s been called off. We don’t have any substitutes, so now we can’t play.” For a man extremely competitive, Paul thought Jeff was being extremely calm about this fact. But, then again, it wasn’t like the other team had won. “At least the lad who broke his leg apologised.” He said. But Paul wasn’t listening, for he was already on his way, chasing after the van hurtling towards A&E. Chapter 9 – Richard was in the operating theatre for three hours. Or at least Paul thought he was. As soon as he dashed to the front desk, he was told to wait, by a miserable-looking nurse amongst the pretentious, fidgety patients itching to be treated - literally. He knew Richard wouldn’t have been in there for three hours. He must’ve gone through it and is now resting. Though Paul hadn’t seen his wound and no idea how bad it was. So he sat there, watching the hands of the huge clock opposite him tick sluggishly by. Time has weird habits. Whenever you don’t want something to come by any time soon, it has the annoying tendency to speed up, as if someone had fixed the clocks to work double speed, but the opposite when you couldn’t wait until something happened. But right then, Paul was neither anxious nor dreading to see his friend. He had no idea why. Why didn’t he really care? Was it because he was still sore over what happened with Louise?

As he went to get a flask of water from the dispenser in the corner of the waiting room for the fifth time, he knew it wasn’t that. Their friendship was over. It was as simple as that. It had been ever since they went to Aldwick’s magic show and after everything he had heard and seen between Richard and the magician. Nobody had said anything. Nobody had decided they weren’t friends any more. It had simply stopped. So why was he here? He might as well leave. Richard didn’t want to see him. It wasn’t just because Paul overslept and hadn’t turned up to the game. It was just... just. He honestly didn’t know how to answer the question. He got up, about to go, when the same nurse he was greeted by came up to him and said: “Mr Chester is ready to see you now!” she sniffed, as if she’d had rather announced someone had died. Chester was Richard’s last name. After she spoke, she marched off down the corridor, her high heels clacking on the floor, expecting him to follow. It was then Paul knew he couldn’t back out now, so he went after her, hands in his pockets, staring at the floor. She led him into an empty ward, to one of the end beds where Richard lay, his face bloodless, his lips turned up in agony. He was propped almost comically on the bed with his leg in a pure white cast hung up from a sling supported from the ceiling. “Mr Chester, I have your friend here for you,” the nurse announced. Paul waved absent-mindedly, but Richard didn’t acknowledge him. Richard made an effort to smile at the nurse, who grunted then, for no apparent reason, checked his pulse. “Your mother said she’ll be here in a few minutes,” she stated, shrilly. “In the mean time, I’ve brought your friend for company.” She nodded, then left, sliding the partition green curtain across the two of them, blocking them from view. Paul sat in the chair beside the bed, looking at Richard, who was staring into space. “How you doing, mate?” he asked, after a minute of silence. Richard shrugged. “I’ll live,” he grumbled. He didn’t look at Paul when he spoke. “Jeff told me what happened. Must’ve been a bit of a tackle.” “Wasn’t just the tackle,” he grunted. “My leg was cut open by a bit of glass.” “Ouch!” Paul winced. “Yeah,” Richard agreed. There was another really awkward pause. A man coughed outside the ward. A baby cried. But other than that, all was silent between the two boys. Then Richard brought the blow:

“You were there, weren’t you?” he said. His voice was soft and he didn’t sound even slightly accusing. “At the Rugby match? Well, I was ten minutes late, but –“ “Not that!” he snapped. “The theatre. After the show. Backstage. You heard me and Roxburgh didn’t you.” So he had guessed. He still didn’t meet eye contact with Paul when he said all this and in that moment, Paul felt anger bubble up inside him. “And what I heard!” he snarled. “You said you wanted to leave me and everyone else behind in this dump so you could go places? I thought I was supposed to be your mate.” “You are,” “Am I? Then tell me. Why did you say all that bullshit about me? Why the hell did you make me look like I was the bad guy? If I’m your mate, you wouldn’t have gone behind my back and said all those things. And do you know what? I had the exact same thing in mind. Speaking to Aldwick. I was gonna ask to be his travelling sideshow too.” Richard turned to him looking stunned. Paul laughed, grimly. “I would’ve asked whether there were two or maybe three vacancies available for me, you and Louise. I was going you take you along with me. Guess that blew up in my face, didn’t it, Dick? I mean, I just spent three hours in that bloody waiting room, just to see whether your sorry arse is all right. And you call me the bad friend? ME?” “Paul, I –“ “Save it!” Paul stood up, ripping back the curtains to leave, when a high-pitched scream rattled across the ward. Startled, he stared as a woman, looking frantic and hysterical sprinted towards them. It was Mrs Chester, Richard’s mum. “MY BABY!” she was crying. “OH, MY SWEET LITTLE BOY!” She threw her arms around her son, who didn’t even try to resist. Normally he would look embarrassed whenever she called him that in public. But this time, he didn’t even seem to care as his mother sobbed into his shoulder. “OH, MY BABY! NEVER, EVER WILL I LET YOU PLAY THAT HORRID SPORT AGAIN!” she wailed. Paul was already out of the ward, sauntering out of the hospital into the still pouring rain. When Paul opened the door to his house and got in, a funny smell crawled up his nostrils, which sent alarm bells ringing inside his head. His thoughts had been dwelling moodily on what had happened at the hospital, but now his attention had been diverted to the unusual and intoxicating odour which seemed to be coming from upstairs.

“Denise?” he called out. “You home? What’s that smell?” No reply. Paul sniffed again, getting a very strong whiff of the scent. What was going on? It smelt... like some sort of incense. He sniffed again and felt slightly dizzy as he made his way up the stairs, as if drunk. The smell was that strong. And it seemed to be coming from the bathroom. Slowly, he approached the door on the landing and knocked. “Denise? Mum?” he said, uncertainly. There came a painful groan from within. And it sounded like Denise. “Denise!” he bellowed, knocking the door open, where an absolute horror met his eyes. His sister, was lying on the floor, her eyes half close, mouth hanging open, unconscious... a large pile of white powder sitting on the toilet seat amongst a bunch of rolled up paper and a credit card. “DENISE!” Paul yelled, dropping to her side, starting to panic. “Denise? Can you hear me?” Denise let out another moan but didn’t seem to recognise him. “What have you done?” he demanded, his voice cracking. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?” He made an effort to sit her up. But it was no use. She was limp in his arms, unable to move. He leant her against the wall, wrapping up the white stuff which he knew was some sort of drug, which one it was he couldn’t remember, but whatever it was, he thrust it, disgustedly down the toilet and flushed. He didn’t know what else to do with it right then and he didn’t care. All he could think about was his sister. Was she all right? Had she taken too much? Was this how a normal person reacted to drugs? He didn’t know! Nothing like this had happened before. He thought back to when Denise was spending lengthily minutes in the bathroom. So that was why she used the deodorant . Paul dragged his sister into their mother’s bedroom by the armpits, resting her on the bed. “Denise, look at me!” he told her. She didn’t respond. “Look at me! Where did you get it? How much have you taken? How long have you been taking it?” His questions were answered by another, bleary-eyed groan. He felt the panic double. What could he do? Phone an ambulance? Phone his mum? Like she would care, but who else? No, she needed medical assistance. She had to be taken to hospital. Paul didn’t feel like going back there again, but he had no choice. His sister could die if he just stood there. “I’m going to phone an ambulance,” he told her, in a shaking voice. “You’re gonna be fine, Denise. Just... hang in there!”

He crossed to the phone, but before he could dial, he felt a hand grab his arm. “Noooooo....” Denise breathed, sounding like she was in pain. “Denise, you’re drugged up! You need medical treatment.” “Noooooo...” she said again. “Please...” She tried opening her eyes. It was horrible sight. Paul had never seen her so venerable before. It was sickening to him and his heart leapt into his mouth. But he put the phone down and tucked her into bed. “Rest for a bit,” he instructed. “You’re getting better?” “Yes,” “Then I won’t call an ambulance.” “Thanks...” “But I’m calling Mum!” Denise’s eyes snapped open and suddenly she was fierce. “NO!” she yelled, hoarsely. “I have to!” “You can’t! Not yet...” she whispered. “Denise, I can’t just have your word for it.” “I’ll be fine. If I’m not, then you can call.” Paul hesitated. He hated being a grass, but his instincts were screaming at him that not telling anyone who could help in any way was a bad idea. But he didn’t want to aggravate his sister either. He knew how much of a tantrum she can pull off when he disobeyed her. “All right,” he agreed, reluctantly. “But you have to tell her. Agreed? And if you don’t, I will.” “Fine,” she said, and rolled over. Paul looked at her for a few minutes more before leaving the room, closing the door behind him. Chapter 10 – The slowest hour Paul ever had to endure passed with merciless procession. He sat in the front living room downstairs on the sagging sofa, deep in thought, worry and whole other mix of emotion he knew he’d rather avoid: anxiety, frustration and fear swirling around his brain. His sister was on drugs! He found that so hard to accept. And for a few minutes he wondered whether he hadn’t knocked himself out when he got home somehow. But a good hard pinch disproved that. This was real! He’d always known that people around the Estate had fallen victim to crack, heroine and all the other deadly chemicals which could harm you. But never in his dreams would he have imagined it to actually come into his own home. A stupid assumption, he knew that. Yet, even in a neighbourhood this undesirable, his home should still be the safest place

to be. But it seemed even the horrors of the outside world had still wormed its unwanted nose onto the premises somehow. This was such a mess. An inner battle was occurring in Paul. Half of him wanted to call an ambulance, to double-check whether Denise was all right. She still needed to be treated, even if she did say she was getting better. He couldn’t rely on that. She could’ve overdosed and not be aware of it. Yet at the same time, he was scared, afraid for being blamed for what had happened to her. If he had arrived home later than he intended... God, he didn’t even want to think about it. He checked on Denise every five minutes, as if afraid someone was going to snatch her from the bed where he left her. She had fallen asleep and was snoring heavily. The last time he checked on her, he panicked when she didn’t snore. Then felt stupid when she gave a reassuring grunt, which told that she was still alive and kicking. Sixty minutes later, she shuffled downstairs, yawning. “You’re all right, now?” Paul asked her. “Almost,” she said. “We have to talk about this Den,” he said, getting up. “And I’m not dropping it, so you’d better listen. I could’ve come home and found on the floor dead. D’you hear me? Dead!” Denise shuffled her feet, looking ashamed of herself. Tears had begun to sparkle in her eyes. “Now, I wanna know,” he went on. “Where did you get that stuff? How long have you been taking it? Why haven’t you said anything? And since when where you stupid enough to even think about making yourself like this? Do you have a death wish or something?” “That’s right!” Denise shouted, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Stupid Denise! Doesn’t know anything. Thinks drugs are sweets and will eat them like a rabbit eats carrots. That’s me: thicker than a plank of wood. YOU FUCKING IDIOT!” She bellowed in her brother’s face. “WHY THE HELL DO YOU THINK I TOOK IT?!” “I DON’T KNOW!” he yelled back. “THAT’S WHY I’M ASKING!” Suddenly she became quite hysterical, clutching her hair and screaming. The next thing Paul knew she was stomping back up the stairs, bawling like a baby. Paul was completely stunned by her reaction to his questions. Part of him knew it was natural to behave like that when under pressure. Yet, what else could he do? Just stand there and say: ‘oh, you just took something deadly, I can live with that.’ He needed to find out where she got that sickening substance from and whoever gave it to her was going to pay - pay for putting his sister in pain and for nearly taking her life. As a

brother, it was his job to protect Denise (even though she was older than him). He followed her upstairs, into her room where she was curled up on her bed, hugging her pillow and sobbing her heart out. Paul couldn’t stand seeing her upset. “Den,” he began, softly. “You need to tell me. Tell me where you got it! Just that, and I’ll leave you alone, I promise.” “No...” she chocked. “I... can’t.” “Why?” “They said... They’d kill me if I tell anyone...” “Who’s ‘they’?” “No!” she exclaimed, wiping her eyes. “I... I won’t.” He sat down beside her. “I need to know,” he said. “If you don’t tell me, this could get a lot worse.” “What can you do?” she demanded. “Got to the police? What then? The police are too scared to even come to this shithole.” “Well...” Paul was stuck for words. “You... this still can’t carry on. I don’t want to ever to come home and find you unconscious from an overdose again. Or worse... I Just don’t want to you lose you, Denise.” She scoffed. “I mean it!” he snapped, feeling the dreaded lump in his throat. “You must’ve had a bad day,” she sniffed. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be so nice to me.” “The point is: you’ve got to do something about this. You can’t carry on. Why’d you even start in the first place? You know what it does to you.” Denise said nothing. “Have I done something? Has Mum done something? Please just give me an answer.” Still she didn’t reply. “Oh, I get it,” Paul said, slowly, comprehension dawning. “This is about Dad isn’t it?” She sobbed into her pillow again. “Denise...” her brother sighed, exasperated. “When are you going to let go? He’s gone. He’s been gone from our lives since before either of us learnt to read. And we’ve talked about it. We even went to see a doctor about it. Remember when Mum was in deep depression? She needed pills to keep it down. Don’t let that crap become your pills.” He was about to go on, but before he could stop her, she threw her arms round him, wailing pitifully. He returned the embrace, fighting back his own tears he could feel welling up in his eyes.

This was an incredibly rare moment between Paul and his sister. For the first time in so many years, the two were closer than ever before. “I’m sorry,” she gasped. “I’m... sorry... I’ve put you through misery. I’ve been so selfish! But it’s just... I need it, Paul. I need it!” “You can fight the urge.” “You think I haven’t tried? It’s not as easy as you might think.” Suddenly, they heard the front door open and close shut. They broke apart at the sound, looking puzzled at one another. Their mother was home already? It was her day off from work, yes, but she was always out. And, whenever she did decide to come home in the middle of the day (or the night) it was usually stumbling and giggling over the threshold in the arms of a complete stranger. And yet, they heard nothing. “Mum?” Paul called. No answer. Slowly, he went downstairs, Denise following, suddenly anxious. It was their mother who was standing on the threshold of the door. But she was unaccompanied by Mr Nobody. And her face was completely white, her usually bright eyes were now empty and looked lost. She stood on the doormat, not even noticing her children had arrived at the bottom of the stairs. They could tell something was wrong without having to ask. She was clutching a white, official-looking letter in her hand. Slowly, her finger unfolded and it fell to the floor like a falling autumn leaf. It landed face-up and Paul’s eyes read the large, stamped-across black letters on the front in horror. “Mum...” he muttered, weakly. “What... is that?” he pointed at the letter. But he already knew what it was. He just wanted it to come from her own mouth first. Behind him, Denise gasped. Karen slowly turned to look at him, registering he was there for the first time, then spoke, in a hoarse, utterly serious voice which was not like her own at all: “Paul... Denise... In the living room please. We need to talk about something.” The siblings looked at each other with fearful eyes, but did as they were told. Even though they sat themselves on the sofa, their mum stood, her hands holding together. “I thought you ought to know,” Karen began. She spoke in a low soft voice, as if to a person on their deathbed. “That, for a while now, I have been feeling pains when I urinate. I thought it was nothing. But then it got worse. So, I decided to go and see a doctor, as I thought there was something seriously wrong with me. And she was alarmed by the description of my symptoms. So, sent me to a special clinic which would better diagnose what my illness was. I went there a few days ago, where

they took some sample of my blood and called me back there today with the results. And...” She didn’t seem to be able to finish her little anecdote. Her voice died on her lips. Paul and Denise were stunned by the way she spoke: so formally, so matter-of-fact. The rain outside began to thud down even harder. They could hear it on the front window, hammering against the glass, as if demanding to be let in. After an age of silence, Karen found her voice again. “The results weren’t good,” she continued. “They told me I... I... am HIV positive.” The silence after that statement was uttered was too much for Paul to bear as he took in this horrific news. He wanted to get up and kick something over out of pure frustration. Yet, he sat there, completely speechless. His mother wasn’t crying. She didn’t sound upset. Perhaps the shock still hadn’t sunk in for her yet either. After the lengthily silence, Denise was the one to break. “I knew this would happen,” she mumbled. “I knew it.” “Denise, please...” Karen started. “NO!” her daughter shouted. She wasn’t crying either. She’d cried enough for one day. “We told you! Both of us: me and Paul told you that something like this would happen if you kept acting like the world’s biggest slag and slept with any more toe-rags you found on the street. And now look what’s happened! Now because you didn’t listen to us, thinking you’re right as always, you’ve caught an STI!” “You’re not the one to talk!” Paul scoffed, rising to his feet, hotly. “I came home and found you sniffing crack!” “Don’t you start!” she snarled. “You what?” Karen said, staring at Denise, with complete revulsion on her face. “You... Drugs?” She was suddenly angry. “You, young lady! How many times have I told you not to take that filth?!” “Says she who’d rather have cock for breakfast, even if it means –“ But she got no further, for Karen had cracked and slapped her across the face. Denise cried out, more surprised than hurt, as she staggered backwards. “HOW DARE YOU?!” Karen shrieked. “Yes, I may have a Sexually Transmitted Infection because of my mistakes. But you are in no position to judge!” Denise stared hatefully at her mother. Paul watched the two nervously. It’d been a long time before his mother had lost control like that. Not to mention it was scary! “I realised I had been living life too much,” Karen went on. “And as a consequence, I only may have a few years to live. All I ever wanted to do

was replace your father’s love. But there was no other man like him. I was deluding myself I could get sexual satisfaction to make me happy. Now, my eyes are open, kids! My behaviour towards the pair of you for the last few years is... unforgiveable. I don’t blame you if you hate me. But we’re a family. I don’t know who I got this STI from. But arguing isn’t going to cure it. I decided on the way home that we should make up for all our time lost together in all the time I have left.” She glared at them, making each redden with shame. “We’re going to deal with this like a family,” she concluded. Her angry gaze whipped towards Denise who shrank back. “And you, young lady. We’ll discuss your drug problem later.” Paul and Denise exited the room as their mother slumped down on the sofa, deep in thought. She still didn’t even look shocked by her condition. She just seemed exhausted. Back in his room, Paul stood by the bed for a stunned five minutes, trying to go over what had happened today in his head. The termination of his friendship with Richard, his sister collapsed after her overdoes and his mother, his own mother, told him she was diagnosed with HIV. He went over to the wall and punched it as hard as he could, several times, until his fists were cracked and bleeding. To top everything all off, he was now single. His girlfriend didn’t want him anymore. He wanted to cry, or swear, or scream. He was having the worst week of his life. Looking up, he stared at the cracked plaster on his wall. Then, he recoiled in fear. He saw something which terrified him, something which was staring out of the wall, right at him. A pair of eyes. He couldn’t explain it, but they were there, moulded out of the plaster, just looking into his frightened face, gleefully. Paul slapped himself. He was imagining it! This stress was causing him to hallucinate or something. He squeezed his own eyes tight shut, then opened them again. Sure enough, the eyes in the wall were gone. No sooner had he breathed the sigh of relief when there was a knock on the front door downstairs. He sprang to answer it, determined to not look at the wall any longer, when he froze at the top of the stairs. Something was wrong. Behind the distorted glass beside his front door, he could see the silhouette of two tall, sinister figures standing on the threshold. His mother was already opening the door. “Mrs Karen Walker?” It was the police! Two of them. The one who spoke was a tall bloke, wearing a reflective jacket with a walkie-talkie squawking on his shoulder. Both of them were drenched from the rain. “Y-yes,” Karen said nervously.

“We would like a moment of your time to come to the station with us for questioning about an accusation directed against you on the subject of benefit fraud.” “What? No! I –“ “Come with us please!” “MUM!” Paul yelled down the stairs, racing to the door. “What’s going on?” But she was already out of the house and into the rain, being led reluctantly to the waiting police car at the end of the drive. “Don’t worry, love,” she said, reassuringly. “Everything’s going to be all right.” She said no more as she was thrust into the vehicle then driven off into the pouring rain. Chapter 11 – Things did not improve for Paul or his family members over the next couple of weeks. Some snitching neighbour had witnessed Karen going to work in her uniform and come back home again with it on. She worked at the local KFC, which didn’t pay much. This was ordinary enough, but by a mere spout of bad luck and an incredible dose of that neighbours irritating nosiness, the postman had delivered a letter to the wrong address. It was a bank statement, addressed to Karen Walker and that neighbour, completely ignoring the rudeness of opening other people’s mail and invasion of privacy, read it. And what she saw printed on that piece of paper was enough to provoke her into not minding her own business or managing her own pathetic, boring life, and meddle in the lives of her dear neighbours. Simply because she was bored, she’d phoned the police and reported that Karen Walker was a benefit thief, stealing money from the state and at the same time earning wages from employment, which was illegal. As a result of that person’s prying, Karen had been fined the full amount of money she’d been claiming, giving it back to the government. “I had no choice but to do it,” she explained to Paul, who’d confronted her angrily when she got home from the police station. “That bloody job only gives me minimum wage. Not even enough to support the three of us.” “Then why didn’t you claim benefits on being a single parent?” Paul demanded, still seething that she didn’t use her common sense. “I tried,” she said, simply. “But they thought I was earning enough.” She was holding a cigarette which she puffed on angrily, before stubbing it out in the ashtray in front of her. “And anyway,” she scowled. “I wasn’t

stealing it. I mean, I wasn’t exactly using the money to pay for exotic holidays, was I?” “But it is still stealing!” he exclaimed. “People pay taxes for that.” “Oh, what do you know about the law?” she snapped angrily. “I’ve seen that fake ID of yours. Thinking of being a hypocrite like your sister now, are you?” This shut him up and the argument ceased. Now the consequences of her mistakes were further catching up with Karen, as a few days later, she was fired as a result of the fine she’d received. They thought she would, in a desperate attempt to get money, steal cash from the till next. “She’s a loose cannon,” her snooty boss commented in a whisper to his friend. “A renegade.” So with the heavy fine she got and now with no job, Karen was no longer receiving any income. And not even a single day after the sack, the rest of the family were already starting to feel the pinch. Karen didn’t bring food to the house, so had to spend Paul’s money, which he was saving up, to buy themselves (ironically) a family bucket at KFC Chicken. Not only was this a kick in the teeth, but now because the Phone Shop where Paul worked was hiring many new employees, he could see his wages getting cut. He’d preferred it when the place had little to no staff turning up. More labour for him, yes, but that also meant more cash. Now that was out the window. So that meant Paul could no longer spend his money as freely as he used to. He had to walk everywhere and not take the bus, which was very difficult because it always made him late for work and for that he was now in his boss’ bad books. “Is it too much trouble to simply get up earlier?” she demanded, the fifth time he’d done this. “Ever heard of something called an alarm clock? Hell, you have one on the phone we gave you for crying out loud!” “But...” Paul began. “I don’t want to hear any more excuses!” she barked. “Now get to work! And don’t ever let me catch you being late again.” Denise never promised to kick her drug habit. So somehow that convinced her that she didn’t have to stop. Paul caught her in the act three times, seconds away from sniffing up more of the white stuff which she’d somehow got, before bellowing at her and flushing it down the loo. One time, she went quite mad at him, throwing herself at his face, determined to claw his eyes out. “SCUM!” she screamed. “GET OFF!” he bellowed, when she’d wrestled him to the floor. “DON’T THINK COS YOU’RE A GIRL I WON’T PUNCH YOU!” “OH, YEAH? WELL YOU PUNCH LIKE A GIRL, YOU PUSSY!”

The two squabbled until their mother came thundering through them, separated their interlocking, squirming arms and smacked them both, then sent them to their rooms like a pair of kids with their tails between their legs. “I’m getting a migraine from the pair of you,” she exclaimed. “Now stay in your rooms until you play nicely.” “But Mum....” “Don’t wanna hear it!” she said, then stormed back downstairs. Paul hadn’t even thought about going to visit Richard in hospital, but decided to one weekend. He didn’t really know why he wanted to visit his friend – or his ex-friend. He supposed he was just bored. And, as he predicted, Richard didn’t even want to see him. The nurse quoted his exact words: ‘kindly tell him to fuck off!’ Paul didn’t bother persisting. He was strolling back home on the high street, not particularly looking where he was going, when he bumped into someone. “Watch it!” he snapped his usual phrase whenever somebody was careless enough to bash into him. But he instantly regretted saying it because the person he’d bumped into was Louise. An extremely tense pause ensued between the two as they stared into each other’s eyes. Louise was blushing. “Sorry,” she muttered. “No!” he said, at once. “It was my fault. I wasn’t looking.” He started feel his own cheeks redden, not with anger but with pure embarrassment. “Okay,” she said. There was something different about her that Paul didn’t like. She seemed nervous. And not just because she bumped into her ex-boyfriend. It was as if she wasn’t used to her surroundings. Her dark eyes looked left and right every now and then. There was a large bruise under her eye. “How did that happen?” Paul asked, pointing at the bruise, no longer embarrassed. “Oh...Fell over,” she mumbled and then walked away without another word. Paul stared after her, knowing she had lied. He’d been out with her long enough to tell whenever she was being economic with the truth. He also knew a fist bruise whenever he saw one too. He decided to put it out of his mind. Whatever Louise’s problems were, they no longer concerned him. Slouching up to his front door, thinking about Louise, Richard and everything good in his life that was now gone, he slowly produced his front door key. But he froze when he heard a yelling voice from within. It was a man’s voice. One he recognised. God, not him again! Rolling his eyes, he opened the door and went in.

Dave was the house’s landlord and Karen rented the house by coughing up money to him every month. But Dave was never sympathetic when she didn’t offer enough or when she had none at all. An ugly, greasy, fat man, Dave sweated all the time and stank as a result. He was an unpleasant sight to look at. And Paul still couldn’t believe his mum slept with him just to avoid getting evicted from the place. She still scrubbed herself hard in the bathtub because of it. Now, Paul knew Dave wouldn’t be persuaded by sex any more. Karen had failed to pay the rent for the past three months and he was turning blue in the face, perspiration pouring down his forehead from bellowing. “THEN WHY DON’T YOU HAVE THE FUCKING MONEY?!” he bawled. Karen was trying her best to remain calm. “I just told you, I don’t have it because I was given the sack,” she explained. “I don’t care!” he said, breathless from shouting so much, so thankfully his voice was lower. “You get a new job. Bring the cash in next month! If you don’t... then you and your brats will find yourself homeless. Am I clear?” She looked down at her feet, but nodded stiffly. Dave bowled his way out the house, pushing past Paul, who he didn’t even notice then slammed the front door shut behind him. Karen stood there for a moment or two, before sinking down on the bottom of the stairs and began to weep. It wasn’t strong, heart-wrenched tears. In fact, she was remarkably crying softly. All the same, Paul felt a great sense of pity fall down on him looking at her. The last time he saw her cry was when she’d been on the anti-depressant pills. He sat down next to her and held her in his arms. Despite all that she’d done, his mother was not a bad person. She’d made mistakes. She’d been naive. But as long as she was willing to make up for it, then it didn’t matter to Paul whatever she did. She might’ve lost all maternal instincts the day she decided to sleep around. But she was still his mother. And right then, Paul felt like the bad person for even thinking of leaving her behind in this mess. Later that night, Paul lay in bed, brooding heavily. Why was all this happening? Why had he broken up with Louise? Why had he fallen out with Richard? Why was his sister on drugs? Why did his mum have to have that stupid virus which must be attacking her even now? Why did she have to get done by the police? Why had she had to lose her job? Why were they going to be evicted if they don’t cough up next month? Someone was punishing him.

Why? What had he done to deserve all this? Why was it all happening to him? How had all this been allowed to happen? The answer was obvious. This had all happened because he went to Aldwick Roxburgh’s show. The performance seemed to have a curse attached to it. And now, because he had witnessed it, he was paying the price. No, everybody he cared about was paying the price. Nothing had happened to him directly. But all the people around him were suffering and because Paul was connected to them in some way. No. That wasn’t quite true. Yes, everybody was suffering, but Richard had been to the show too. And his mother was just dandy, as far he knew. His dog hadn’t died or his father hadn’t developed lung cancer. The worse he had done to him was a broken leg. Had all the other members of the audience suffered too? Or was it just him? He thought... and he thought... What made him different from everyone else? What had he done that caused only him to go through all this? And then, out of the darkness, the answer came. That woman! During the show, the pretty woman that Aldwick had conjured out of thin air had been all sexy around him. Then he remembered – she blew some sort of powder in his face! How Paul made the connection, he had no idea. But suddenly, he knew that that was the reason for all of this. So, what next? How could he fix all of this? The answer was simple: Aldwick could fix it all. After all, he made it happen. But how was he supposed to persuade the magician to reverse the dramatic changes in his life? And anyway, he couldn’t see how to contact him. It was impossible. The man’s last show in this area was weeks ago! He was probably on the other side of the country by now. Paul had no means of finding him. But what was he supposed to do? Grin and bear it? No! He would find that man, and tell him to turn everything back to the way it was. He knew the magician was capable. And he would get him to do it by any means necessary. Where to start looking? St George’s Theatre. There must be some clue there as to where he was travelling next. A flyer, leaflet... something. And why wait until morning? Quietly, he crept out of bed, got dressed and made his way out of the door and walked off into the night. Chapter 12 – In his head, Paul knew it was incredibly dangerous and stupid to walk the streets of Freeman Estate this late at night. And, barley a street away from his house, he was already regretting the decision to wander all the

way to the theatre on the dark, empty pavements, with only the occasional car cruising along the road. It was extremely sinister. Pools of ugly orange light filled the street as he swiftly went along, reflected in the shallow surface of the dark puddles on the pavement and the tarmac of the road. He was paranoid that any moment someone was going to leap out of the shadows of an alleyway and attack him. He could feel the sparse hairs of his neck standing on end. He’d wandered around at night before, but every time he did, it was a very weird experience. Navigating the streets without the assistance of the sun was a lot more difficult than he always presumed. He got lost three times and had to double-back in order to go the other way. Why couldn’t he have done this in the day time? What had possessed him to find Aldwick then and there, in the middle of the night? It was simple – he wanted this all over before it got any worse. And if that meant risking his safety in the dodgy nocturnal status of the Freeman Estate, then so be it. So far he was lucky. He hadn’t run into anyone. But just before he was convinced he would emerge out of the Estate untouched, did the wheel of fortune turn against him. He was barely within yards of safety outside, striding along the pavement when a tall, hooded figure emerged from the shadows and stood right in front of him. Instinctively, Paul stopped in his tracks, staring up at the pale face beneath the hood of the Nike top. The man was trouble; Paul didn’t need to be told. He could see the glint of maliciousness in his eyes and wicked glee flicker across his thin, sunken, unhealthy complexion. His thin lips slipped back like an open knife-wound, revealing yellow, horrible teeth which he must’ve not brushed for a few weeks. “Well, well!” he said, delightfully, in a deep, threatening voice that chilled Paul to the bone. “Lookie here,” the man licked his lip with relish, digging a hand into his pocket and pulling out a jagged knife, the blade glinting even in the dull orange light. “Got any money on ya, mate?” Paul noticed a tattoo on the side of his neck – a skull with a fist punching a hole through it. He belonged to infamous Estate gang known as the Skull Smashers. These criminals were anti-social, psychotic and absolutely dangerous. To come face-to-face with any of them would mean certain extreme injury or death. It was their sole purpose to wreak havoc, chaos and misery to every life they touch. They also dealt in drugs, weaponry and other illegal, deadly objects. And all of it was to make money. Even if it meant they had to kill for it. Now he felt incredibly stupid and cursed himself. Why did he have to sneak out? Because of his foolishness and impatience to wait until another day, he was going to die and he would never had reached Aldwick and

reversed his horrible predicament. His only chance was to flee. It would be laughably idiotic to confront a Skull Smasher. You might as well commit suicide whilst you’re at it. Paul turned to run, but froze in horror when he realised the man’s mates had surrounded him on all sides, at least twenty of them, all of their faces obscured by dark hoodies, each hollering and laughing manically, like hunters in a pack moving in for the kill... He was trapped! A sudden small sound made every approaching gang member stop in their tracks. It was a tiny chink noise, like metal hitting concrete. They looked down and saw, to their surprise, a huge, solid gold coin roll between their legs like a tiny wheel and come to a stop at in the middle of their midst. They stared at it, for the coin shone brilliantly even underneath the light of the streetlamps. And it wasn’t a pound coin, nor any recognisable sort of currency. But that didn’t matter to the Skull Smashers. They all spun round to see where it had come from. A man, taller than any of them was leaning quite casually against the garden brick wall of one of the houses in the street a couple of metres away, whistling cheerfully. “Excuse me, boys,” he said, coming into the full light, where his full visage was revealed and Paul could not believe his eyes. His mouth actually fell open with shock. “Could I have my coin back? It is an incredibly rare one after all.” It was Aldwick Roxburgh. And he was standing up against the Skull Smashers! Did have a death wish? Nobody did that, not unless they were contemplating suicidal thoughts. Yet, even so, he seemed to exert more power over every Smasher present – an incredibly rare thing to happen. His silver eyes twinkled liked the stars overhead, his red cloak flapping about his ankles. He was wearing a new suit, the tie which he’d been wearing when Paul first met him and when he went to see the show, had been crimson, now it was sapphire and a black waist coat. The Smashers stood there completely stunned by the sudden appearance of this bizarrely dressed stranger for a few seconds. Then they grinned maliciously. Forgetting all about Paul, they began to advance on Aldwick, who remained quite undisturbed: not scared out of his mind like Paul was right now. Didn’t he realise who he was dealing with? “D’you wanna come and get it?” the closest Smasher taunted, making his comrades guffaw like bunch of gorillas.

“No,” Aldwick replied, still miraculously calm. Anybody else would’ve panicked by now. “I asked you to give it to me. Wouldn’t the politest thing to do be to do it?” His tone seemed to irritate the Smashers. They thrived on fear – fear was power! And because Aldwick was showing absolutely no signs of being scared in the slightest, it was making them uneasy, the way he just stood there, facing them and making eye contact! “Fuck you!” one of them snarled, continuing their sinister approach on the magician. “Such rude language...” Aldwick breathed and he smiled! Was he crazy? Paul wanted to scream a warning at him. He obviously had no idea what he was heading in for. But he was transfixed. He couldn’t even move his legs out of fear. No matter how much he wanted to run away, he was rooted to the spot, wondering what was going to happen next. The first Smasher, letting out a strangled war cry, leapt into the air, two knives in his hands. But he didn’t even get anywhere near the man for Aldwick had stretched out a hand and the man stopped in mid-air. Everybody stared in shock. The scene was like something out of The Matrix. The Smasher was hung, or suspended, in the air, unable to move by some unknown spell Aldwick had cast. He screamed, trying to be put down. But no matter how hard he tried, nothing happened. Aldwick thrust his hands at the floor and the Smasher followed it, his screaming ceasing at once as he hit the road, unconscious, falling out of the air right at Aldwick’s feet. Now goggling at the magician in horror, the Smasher’s whimpered. Aldwick gestured, as if telling them to ‘bring it on’. And bring it on they did. The onslaught they unleashed was enough to bring Paul’s heart to his mouth. They bellowed as they pounced onto Aldwick, flailing knives, firing hidden guns. The noise was deafening and it was enough to kill a man. It had done before. But Aldwick wasn’t just a man. He was much more than that and proved it before their eyes. So why on earth were they stupid enough to confront him? Fools... They should’ve imitated what so many of their victims had done and run away. With another casual sweep of his hand, the entire mob was flown back away from him, landing unconscious on the tarmac, pushed by some sort of invisible force. Paul felt it ripple over his head like some sort of heat wave. A few seconds later, the crashing of limp bodies stopped and he stared at Aldwick, who went over to the gold coin he had rolled and picked it up.

“Some people should just be polite,” he sighed. “It makes things much easier for them.” “Wha- Wh- How...?” Paul stuttered, trying to think of something to say. But he was still shocked by what he’d just seen. “Explanations will come later,” Aldwick explained calmly. “But now, we should move. Follow me.” He pocketed the gold coin and began to glide up the street. “Wait... Hang on!” Paul demanded. “Hush!” Aldwick said, not turning round. “Just follow my lead.” Completely scandalised, Paul had only one choice but to obey. He could’ve turned round and gone home. But what would be the point in that? He’d wanted to see Aldwick anyway. At that thought, a firework of questions exploded inside his head. What was the magician doing back here, on The Freeman Estate of all places? Why did he want Paul to follow him? And where was he taking him? Aldwick led him out of the road and down a quiet avenue, then along another, then across one or two roads before they came into the shadow of a huge, derelict funfair. The place had been closed for years. The roundabouts, ghost trains and Ferris wheels were all part of a forgotten age – a time where people from miles around would come here and have a good time. But now, like the rest of The Estate it was located in, it was now unused, empty and falling into disrepair. And in the darkness, it looked especially creepy, guarded by a single ticket booth shaped like a multicoloured clown. The fair was guarded by a large, wooden gate and a tall razor-wire fence. The gate itself was riddled with graffiti and old, tattered posters. Paul hesitated. Why was Aldwick leading him in there? For that was surely where he was going, pushing the gate open with a loud, ominous creak. Usually it would be chained locked. But someone, no doubt the magician, would’ve prized it off. “If you want your answers, then I suggest you strep inside,” he said, bowing to Paul, politely, inviting him in. The boy waited a few seconds more, making the decision. Then, with a stiff, firm nod, and a determined look, stepped inside the funfair, Aldwick shutting the gate behind him. Chapter 13 – The sound of the gate shutting had all the effects of a coffin-lid being closed. Not only was the noise similar to that of one, but once shut, all noises of the outside world had been shut out, leaving nothing but an unnatural hush in its wake. There had been a wail of sirens in the distance, as well as the dog barking and soft whisper of the breeze. In

here, everything was silent and Paul had the feeling he was just buried alive. He was standing amongst the tall, unused, boarded-up attractions which loomed over him, casting long, sinister shadows across the rubbishstrewn pathways. Everything was so still. It was hard to believe that people used to be laughing, screaming and having such a good time here, when right now it was just... here, deserted and forgotten, a memory of the distant past. Paul walked along slowly, taking everything in, his footsteps echoing on the concrete beneath his soles. There was the Screamer – an old, wooden, rickety rollercoaster, which he remembered going on when he was seven years old, just before the park had closed down. The stack wound in crazy circles and hairpin bends. He remembered coming off it, laughing his head off. It had been so much fun; he wanted to go again and again until he was sick! But now, it was just a big heap of rotting wood, several planks in the track missing, the train motionless in the station. Next to the Screamer was a boarded-up coconut shy, in which throwing three balls at coconuts propped up on stands would win you a prize. Paul recalled Denise having a go, knocking two coconuts off the stands and winning a huge, sickly cute pink teddy bear. She was expecting to get a goldfish in a plastic bag and was hugely disappointed and horror-struck by the furry abomination with sewn-on, glassy eyes staring at her. Paul smiled as he remembered her face going red with rage. Denise had always hated cuddly things, especially those that often featured in baby television programmes: bunny rabbits, flowers and prancing fairies. As soon as she got home that day, she got a box of matches and set fire to the wretched bear in the back garden, laughing madly as she watched its face melt as it was devoured by the flames. Karen went mad at that, slapping her so hard that Paul could still see the hand mark where she had hit on the side of the leg for weeks afterwards. So many memories... It was such a heart-wrenching thought to think this once used to be the Estate’s pride and joy. Now it was nothing. Just a relic of what used to be: an echo of the past. There also something slightly creepy about it. Paul wasn’t sure whether it was because of the stillness of it all or the silence or whether because of the knowledge of why the place had been shut down. It had all happened on the very attraction which Paul loved the most. A couple of stupid kids had decided to sneak in here at night, probably at the same time as it was now, long after the last visitors of the day had gone home. They broke in for a dare, climbing on all the rides and defacing a few of them with graffiti and silly string. One of the boys had been idiotic enough to climb the Screamer. Perhaps it was rather ironic the ride had been named that,

because the next thing his friends heard was the boy screaming, then a gut-churning thud, then silence. The boy had been at the peak of the Screamer, slipped and fallen to his death. A moment before, he had been screaming and laughing with adrenaline, like the ride would give him. Next moment, he was screaming in terror as his body plummeted to the ground. Everybody all over the neighbourhood heard about it and it put them off the funfair for good. It wasn’t the fact that they thought the rollercoaster was unsafe. The boy just hadn’t been careful. It was more than that. The place no longer held any joy. And eventually, one by one, people began to avoid the place. There were even whispers of a ghost-sighting, loitering around the Screamer, the apparition reported by local residents which, according to them, took place in the vague image of a small boy, who greatly resembled the one who’d died, with echoes of eerie laughter and the final scream, the same as the one that was heard just before the end of that boy’s life. Hence, the name came to have a double-meaning. The first being people screaming with joy on the rollercoaster during the day. The second being the scream of fright and fear after the sun came down. And so, the place started to lose money and the caretakers and all the people who ran it gave in to keep it running. There was no point making people come to a place they were too scared to approach. Thus, it was closed down, the gates locked and left to rot. But why had Aldwick brought Paul in here? He spun round to face the magician, who was standing on the merry-go-round, leaning against one of the plastic horses, which had a large, jagged hole in its head. He was still smiling, as if amused by some private joke. Paul didn’t know what to say. Luckily, Aldwick started the conversation. “I used to come here you know,” he said, almost dreamily. “Many years ago and perform for kids at this fairground,” he sighed. “Used to love it. I left long before it was closed down. I was so sad to hear what happened here.” He suddenly jumped down from the merry-go-round and clapped his hands together expectantly. “So, aren’t you going to thank me?” he asked. Paul just stared at him. His jaw seemed to be glued shut. The magician leaned in. “I just saved your arse back there, son, show a little bit of gratitude,” he said, but didn’t sound irritated. On the contrary, he sounded rather pleased that he’d acted like the big hero. “Th-th-thanks,” Paul mumbled. “For saving me from those Smashers. I-I thought I was a gonna.” He truly was grateful, though he wished his saviour wasn’t this... eccentric.

“You’re welcome,” Aldwick boomed, bowing low. “Um...” Paul was rubbing his head, embarrassed, even though there was no one around and he had no reason to be. The man was just mad. “Why did you bring me here?” “I’m crashing out here!” “What?” “My show ended here, so I thought I’d stay behind for a couple of weeks. After all, I did live here once. See how much has changed. Ah, the old memories!” Aldwick inhaled loudly, as if breathing those memories in. “And I was feeling a bit lonely hanging around on my own so I thought I could do with some company. I mean,” he lowered himself, as if afraid someone might overhear. But there was still nobody in sight within the old funfair. He gestured towards the ghost train ahead. “Plastic skeletons are all right for company, but they make you feel uncomfortable after a while. And they’re just dead at parties.” Paul stared at the man. Was he all there? “Okay...” he said, slowly, backing away from this nutter. “So why didn’t you check into a hotel or something?” Or a loony bin. He thought to himself. That seemed more appropriate. “Hotels are boring,” Aldwick sighed. “Abandoned funfairs are much more fun.” There was a pause, in which Paul shook himself and said: “I’ve been looking for you!” “Oh yes?” Aldwick said. “Couldn’t get enough of my tricks in that show? I saw you in the audience. You looked like a kid who had just been given a lollipop the whole time. I’m glad you enjoyed it.” “No!” Paul snapped, feeling his temper rising. “This isn’t about that. I know that all your party tricks weren’t fake. I know what you are. You’re for real. A real magician! You can do magic. I overheard what you and my mate Richard were talking about. I saw what you almost did to him in that room, with that magic... ball... thing! You made it appear. He said he wanted to sell his soul to you so he could get out of here. But... he ran.” Aldwick cocked an eyebrow. “You were spying on him?” “What? No! I was going to ask the same thing he did, but he got to you first.” “You planned it with him?” “No!” Aldwick laughed. “Kids,” he muttered. “So, lively! So you wanted to give up your soul too?” “Well... I didn’t know I had to do that.”

“Whatever, kid,” he rolled his eyes. “When I was young, living round here, all I wanted to do was get away from here. Just like you! But travelling can get lonely sometimes. You still wanna come with me?” “No, I want you to do something,” Paul said, taking a deep breath. “Over the past few weeks, ever since I saw your show, everything, and I mean everything in my life has gone wrong. Richard and I have fallen out now over what he did at the theatre. My girlfriend has split up with me. My sister’s on drugs. My mum has caught an STI. We’re out of money and we’re going to be kicked out next month if we don’t pay the rent.” “That’s all very unfortunate,” Aldwick said. “But what do you expect me to do about it?” “Fix it!” Paul demanded at once. Aldwick blinked in astonishment. “Excuse me?” “Fix it all! Reverse it!” “I don’t know what you mean,” “Don’t give me that crap!” Paul barked, jabbing a finger in Aldwick’s face. “You can do magic. Turn back time or something. Make everything better!” There was a long silence. Then Aldwick laughed dryly. “What on earth makes you think I can do that? And even if I could, why should I?” he asked. Paul lunged at him, feeling his impatience and anger bubbling over. Aldwick simply dodged to one side. The boy swivelled round and tried to hit him again. “Oh, come on,” Aldwick said. “You punch like a girl!” “SHUT UP!” Paul yelled, swinging his fist round. “Stop!” Aldwick said, quietly. And, incredibly, Paul did stop. He froze where he stood, like the Smasher did in mid air. He could feel some sort of invisible force paralysing him where he stood. No matter how hard he tried, his whole body couldn’t move. It was exactly like the time when he tried to throw away his tickets. The magician held up a single finger, quite undisturbed, and wagged it at Paul, as if he were teacher giving him detention. “That temper of yours will be the death of you,” he said, tutting. “If you don’t see an anger management class of some sort.” “LET ME GO, YOU BASTARD!” “All right,” Aldwick snapped his fingers and Paul fell to the floor. “But please don’t speak to me like that, or I might not help you.” Paul cursed under his breath, knowing he had to obey and wishing he hadn’t lost his temper like that. But the magician was surprisingly sympathetic. He knelt down and was serious for the first time.

“Now, I maybe a magician,” he said, softly. “But even I cannot magically produce a solution to all of life’s problems out of thin air. It’s a lot more complicated than that. You’ve read Harry Potter haven’t you?” “I don’t read books, it bores me,” “Well, whatever, the point is magic has lots of complicated rules, laws and boundaries to it, just like physics. If magic was allowed to have as much freedom as it wants, the universe would become incredibly unstable. Hell, using it alone is already pushing the boundaries, as magic is the physics of another universe, but bringing into our own. So, long story short, no, I cannot wave a magic wand and make everything better for you. No spell can do it. End of story, goodbye, the end! Life’s life, move on.” Paul felt a sense of complete hopelessness suffocate him. He couldn’t do anything. Nothing would make it all better. “However,” Aldwick continued, and Paul’s ears pricked. “There are ways in which it could be done...” “I’m listening,” Paul said. “No!” Aldwick said, standing up straight at once. “No, no, no! That’s far too dangerous.” “Tell me!” “Are you sure you want to know? Are you so determined to help your family get back on its feet and your lives back on track that you’ll do absolutely anything to make it so?” “Yes!” “Very well...” Aldwick sighed. “This... is what we can do...” Chapter 14 – “There is something we must get,” the magician explained. “Something so precious and so powerful that it’s never in one place for very long – the location of this item always changes for maximum security.” “What is it?” Paul asked, breathless with curiosity. “A jewel made of pure crystal. But it’s more than that. Within is contains unimaginable power that if it were to be smashed, the entire Earth would be cracked in two.” Paul swallowed. “Don’t worry,” Aldwick laughed. “It is very hard to break. Almost impossible.” “But... crystal?” “True, crystal is a very delicate material and simply dropping it will do the job. But this jewel is different. All sorts of protective spells and charms have been placed on it to stop it shattering. And we don’t intend to break it open. We are going to use it.”

“Okay,” Paul said, nervously. “So... where is this jewel now?” “I don’t know. Like I said, it’s moved all the time for maximum security. Because, if it gets into the wrong hands, there’s no telling what chaos it would create. And there are people out there, searching for it. But have fortunately never found it. They need the magical gene in them to do that. Very few people are actually born with it. Another law in magic. Only two or three people a century can have it in them. Imagine if there were about eight million magicians running around like me? It would be a disaster! I mean, my show wouldn’t be unique. But anyway, even for someone who can do magic like me, it’s still very difficult.” “But how exactly can the crystal help?” “Well, we can use it to summon the entity of destruction,” “What of destruction?” “Powerful being, god-like, you know. Basically somebody in charge with the force of chaos. Anyway, that being exists in another dimension. We need to call upon it in order to persuade it to reverse the changes. But it’ll be risky. Extremely risky. In fact...” he paused. “It is a two-man job. I’ll need to have a back-up at my side. Someone with magic in their blood. Trouble is, I don’t know anyone...” he stopped, comprehension dawning on his face. “You... could become my apprentice...” There was a long silence. “What... do you mean?” Paul said, slowly. But he’d already guessed the answer. He wasn’t stupid. He could see what was going to come out of Aldwick’s mouth next. “Richard wanted it to be done to him,” the magician replied, slowly. “He wanted to become my apprentice, just so he could and travel with me. He’d be very bored if he had done, I forgot to tell him I don’t travel as much as I used to, only on the show. But you won’t have to come with me wherever I go, son. That’s a point; I don’t know your name.” “It’s Paul.” “Well, then, Paul, as I was saying, you don’t have to come with me. You can stay here. But you are bound to me forever. Your soul will become one of my possessions after signing a contract.” “How does that work?” “It’ll create a binding, spiritual and magical nexus between us. Once I gain possession of it, I will be able to contact you and vice versa. But your soul will not come out of my possession until the day you die, or the day I die, whichever comes first. When it is done, you will obtain some of my powers, equipped with a current of magical energy which shall not sleep or wear out. It is almost like a new stream of blood in your veins. You’ll be able to do all kinds of things. But, I must warn you. Selling your soul isn’t a

simple process and you won’t live a long happy life afterwards. You’ll never feel whole again.” Paul took all this in with a stunned expression. Could he do it? Sell the ownership of his soul just to fix everything? Was it worth it? Perhaps he didn’t need the magician’s help. Everything would turn out fine in the end. Apart from his mother’s HIV, that’s incurable, but he could make sure her last days are the happiest she’s ever had. What if none of it got better, though? What if they were kicked out of their house? Everything was spinning around and around in his head. He had to do it. No! He couldn’t! “So...” Aldwick said, after a while. “What do you think? Will you become my assistant? Are you willing to give up your soul? You have to be willing, otherwise, it won’t work. And please, if you say yes, don’t be a chicken and run like he did. Be decisive. But I won’t put pressure on you. The decision is entirely yours. You can walk away and forget all about me. Or, if you would like more time...” “I don’t know!” Paul exclaimed, wracking his brains. “Just give me a minute!” He knew he’d been rude and didn’t mean to snap. But Aldwick didn’t seem to mind. After all, this wasn’t exactly like choosing which pair of socks to put on in the morning. This was perhaps the most life-changing decision Paul ever had to make. Two paths lay in front of him. He could have A or B. If he chose one path, to walk away, he risks everything getting worse. But if he took the other path there’s the guarantee that he would no longer be himself any more. His life would never be the same again, entirely in the man’s power. He made the decision. He didn’t have all night and he wasn’t getting younger. In the end, it was the one question that hindered his result: would anyone else do the same for him? Paul looked straight into Aldwick’s strange, silver-like eyes, the twinkling seemed to have gone out. Yet he didn’t rush him or seem impatient. He was waiting for him to choose. There as a very long silence as Paul swallowed and declared his answer: “Yes,” he said. “I’ll do it. Make me your apprentice!” He raised his arms, willing, as if expecting Aldwick to embrace him. The magician said nothing. His expression hadn’t changed. A few seconds later, he started clapping, but not in a sarcastic, patronising way – more like an admirable way. “You are truly noble,” he said, smiling now. “To sacrifice your own soul in order to make other people’s lives better. That is very honourable, Paul.”

The boy sniffed. He didn’t think he was being honourable in the slightest. He felt wretched for some reason, as if this was for his own personal gain. “Right,” Aldwick said, brightly, suddenly business like. “Let’s get this done then, shall we?” He rolled up his sleeves. “You might want to take your ear studs out.” “They can’t come out.” “All right,” Aldwick conjured a plaster from mid-air. “Strap this over them then.” With a trembling hand, Paul took it and covered his ear lobe tightly with the plaster. He was suddenly feeling incredibly nervous. Would this hurt? Now he supposed he knew how Richard felt, knowing what was going to happen. “Also, if you need the loo, go behind that dustbin over there,” Aldwick pointed. “I don’t want you to interrupt whilst I’m in the middle of casting. All right? Here we go.” Next moment, Aldwick had held out both of his hands in front of him, one underneath the other, leaving a large gap in between. He had assumed the same position in the theatre and, as Paul expected, he began to chant the bizarre, melodically sounding incantation. A sudden tension filled the air and his eyes and hands began to glow gold. A small, fiery orange ball began to grow out of thin air in between the gap in Aldwick’s hand, spinning madly, revolving into shape, until it became a small sun, yet produced no heat. Paul stared at it fearfully, but didn’t move. The ball stopped revolving and, eventually it morphed into a rolledout scroll, floating eerily in mid air in front of him. It was made of a very old piece of parchment, colour the same as wood, the edges torn slightly. The contract was written by an elegant hand. The script, slanting, curved and so small, it was almost indecipherable. At the bottom, there was a small line, where Paul was expected to sign his name. Aldwick stopped chanting and looked at the boy who was glancing at the contract reproachfully. “I need a pen,” Paul said. The magician shook his head and drew a very sharp pin from out of nowhere. The metal glimmered, wickedly “You must sign it over in your own blood,” he explained. “Just prick your finger. One drop will do.” He handed it to Paul, who was still shaking and beginning to have second thoughts. But it was too late to turn back now. Why did he have to sign in his own blood? It then occurred to him that signatures could be forged and was he really expecting a pen of even a quill to appear, waiting in the air like the piece of paper to be scribbled with?

With reluctance, Paul put his right index finger over the parchment and, wincing, stuck the needle into his skin, puncturing it, making a small hole where blood dripped slowly out, so slowly it was as if it didn’t want to leave his body. It dropped from his finger and made a single, crimson splash on the ancient material. And as soon as it made contact, everything happened at once. The contract dissolved, as if made of smoke, but instead of rising upwards, it shot straight at him! Paul cried out as the smoke rushed into his body, squirming into every pore of his skin. It was like jumping into an icy swimming pool. He writhed and yelled as the smoke moved all around his nervous system, into every organ and blood cell, examining and testing him. He jerked about, trying to get it out of his system. And, to his surprise, it did. The gaseous like substance poured out of him again, just the same way it went in, but this time it vanished as it soon as it made contact with the air. “It is almost complete,” Aldwick said. “Now, we must shake on it.” His sleeves rolled down, Aldwick outstretched his hand in an unmistakeable gesture which indicated that he wanted to shake Paul’s hand. Completely bewildered, the teenager clasped it. It was warm in his palm and not even slightly sweaty. Aldwick obviously wasn’t as nervous as he was, but then again, people could hide their fear very well. “Are you ready?” the magician inquired. Paul couldn’t say anything. He merely nodded. “This next bit might drain you,” Aldwick warned. And then, the most remarkable thing happened that Paul had seen all evening. The back of Aldwick’s hand, the one he was clasping, had begun to glow, the same gold colour as before. Looking at it, Paul gasped as he saw an intricate, archaic symbol emblazoned in the man’s skin, burning as bright as the morning sun. The symbol was made up of circles, lines, triangles and odd symbols which made little sense to him. He looked back up and to his surprise, saw that the magician’s eye colour had changed to the same colour as the symbol on the back of his hand. Aldwick smiled. Suddenly, Paul felt a rush of pure, fantastic energy surged through his hand like an electric current, entering his blood stream and whooshing around his body. He grunted. But he wasn’t in pain. In fact, he felt elated. It was as if a new life force was entering him. Golden and blue lights were emitting from the clasped hands, causing a gusting wind to kick up around them, bits of rubbish flying everywhere and being scattered all over. Paul had never felt anything like this before. Of course he hadn’t. This was magic! Then it was all over.

The lights vanished and Paul felt suddenly like the energy had been whipped out of him. All of the strength went out of his legs and he fell to the floor, his vision blurring in front of him. There was a searing pain on the back of his hand. Staring at it, eyes watering, he saw the same, archaic symbol now branded into his flesh, but unlike Aldwick’s, it was glowing a bright blue. Then, it disappeared and left nothing to indicate it had been there at all. No mark, no scar, no blemish in the slightest. He felt incredibly nauseous and dizzy. It was like being thrown off of the merry-go-round travelling at a hundred miles an hour. It was almost impossible to get back up again. So he had to wait a full minute to get both his sense of balance and centre of gravity back in order to even try. After a few stumbles, Paul managed to exert himself upright, took a deep breath and waited. He was expecting to feel warmth inside him or certain tingle – nature’s way of telling him the magic was now in his blood. But apart from the dizziness, he didn’t feel any different at all. What had Aldwick said: once your soul has switch ownership, you will never feel whole again? Paul had never been a spiritual person and was therefore not really surprised when he discovered that he felt as ‘whole’ as ever (if whole meant like he was deeply troubled about something). The procedure had gone presumably well. He turned his gaze to Aldwick, who, to his surprise, had his face distorted with the utmost rage. “S-something wrong?” he asked, nervously. The look on the magician’s face was frightening. His eyes had returned to previous silver colour, but there was a dark and ugly light in them, like a brooding storm ready to break. He looked as if he wanted to murder the boy on the spot. His fist were clenching up so tight they turned white and he was breathing in and out like a bull seeing red, ready to charge him down with sharp horns. Suddenly, Aldwick leapt at Paul, crying out with the utmost fury, as if Paul had just insulted him in the worst way possible. “WHAT THE HELL?!” Paul yelled in shock diving out of the way. “SO – MUCH – RAGE!!” Aldwick bellowed, his voice piercing the high heavens as he punched the ground so hard all Paul could do was stand there in shock and observe with horror. He was having a sort of fit! What was wrong with him? And why the sudden mood change? After a few minutes, Aldwick calmed down, his cries echoing into silence to be replaced by the heavy, sweaty breathing – the aftermath of the fury. “I... I’m sorry,” he said, quite calmly now, to Paul’s utter bewilderment. “I forgot to mention. Whoever I pass my magic onto, I absorb their strongest emotion. And I... I have no idea what to tell you about yours.” He turned to Paul, puzzlement mingled with fear in his eyes.

“Do you really get that angry?” he demanded. Paul was stunned. That was him? He got that furious about things? Okay, he knew he had a bit of a temper and lashed out sometimes, but he had no idea... to witness it through someone else... The look in Aldwick’s eye had been psychotic. “I...” The word died on his lips. He felt truly ashamed of himself. Now he knew exactly how the victims of his anger felt when they looked into his eyes. Aldwick was looking concerned. He stood up. “You need anger management, kid,” he stated, bluntly. “That temper of yours will be the death of you, like I said before. It almost consumed me, then and there, and I’d only absorbed it for a few seconds. I hope one day I won’t come to find you murdered someone because of it.” The last sentence was uttered with ill-disguised disgust. It didn’t help in Paul’s case. But he looked over it. “So... now what?” he asked, teeth chattering. “I’m going to disappear for a couple of days,” Aldwick said. “Maybe for a week. I am going to search for this jewel. It shouldn’t be too hard; I already have a pretty good idea where it is. I’ll call you when I find it.” “Do you want my number?” “No. When that sign on the back of your hand burns – that is when you find me.” And with one swoosh of his cloak the silver-eyed magician vanished, folding into the night air. Chapter 15 – No contact for the next few days. Paul had never been so anxious about anything in his life. He had made a deal with a magician to become his associate, apprentice, accomplice, whatever you want to call it, just to save his family and friends from suffering what life threw at them. When he got back that night, he was beginning to wonder whether it was the right decision he made or whether it was some dream and he would wake up any minute. But sitting on the bed until dawn, not tired in the slightest pretty much proved he had experienced the whole thing. Over the course of that day, he began to understand what Aldwick meant about not feeling whole after the possession of his soul was switched. He may not have lost it, it was still there, he knew that, but now it belonged to somebody else. And he began to become conscious of every beating organ of his body, as if he were someone else sitting his

own body. It wasn’t quite right. He kept zoning out randomly, not really taking in any sound or sight. Although, he could be imagining it. Things were not getting better at home. His mother was now desperately trying to find another job. But no one would take her in. All the job positions in town were full. But this wasn’t, by all means, the worst thing about it. Karen was becoming quite hysterical, twitchy and nervous, trying desperately to calm down, but was never able to. Once, she’d screamed in Paul’s face to leave her alone, as she piled over the newspaper for vacancies. And all he did was walk past her, not even saying a word. “Why doesn’t anyone just leave me alone?” she cried, bursting into tears. Paul was almost longing for her old self back. At least she’d been laid back when she was sleeping around. Now she wasn’t, she was just like she was when Paul’s father had died – an emotional wreck, incapable of ever finding happiness. He dreaded the day when he would have to put her back on the anti-depression pill for it. He wished Aldwick would hurry up soon. Denise was not improving either. Her drug habit had got much, much worse. She was taking daily doses, always coming home at night acting like she was in her own world, where no one could reach her. This did not help with Karen. She saw it as another unmoving problem and fled dramatically to her bedroom. The night after that, she came in, rather disturbingly, believing their dad was in tow, holding an imaginary hand, looking up into an imaginary pair of blue eyes. If only their dad hadn’t died all those years ago. Then none of this would be happening. As soon as he drew his last breath was where everything went wrong. But what was done could not be undone. And yet, Paul was going to undo it! When he and Aldwick retrieved the jewel and did whatever they had to do, he would ask the creature of destruction to reverse time, back to the moment when the cancer bug hit his dad. Stop it from happening. Then, everything about his life would change – his mother would have always been maternal, loyal and faithful to her husband and family, his sister would be happy, not resulting to drugs for security and Paul would have always also been happy that he had a full family to live with, not living in this dump at all. But then... If that happened, he would never have met Richard or Louise. The two boys might have had their mishaps, but they had some good times together. And Louise... Paul remembered that time both he and her spent together. God, it had felt good! Not only that, it had been one of the best night of their lives. How could he delete them from his life?

It was then, he remembered, that they had both betrayed him. Richard had attempted to do a runner behind everyone’s back, leaving them all behind, including Paul, even calling him a bad friend and Louise would prefer to shag someone else now rather than him. So what if they went from his timeline? In this new one he was going to create, with his dad alive, he would live in a better neighbourhood, with better friends and girls twice as sexier. He would soon forget about both of them. The jewel was the only thing in his thoughts now. He could imagine it in the palm of his hand, a small, delicate diamond, feeling the raw power flowing into his skin, standing over a half-imagined beast, tempting it with the precious stone, commanding it to change his destiny. The image made his head spin. What other disasters could he gamble with the being? The eruption of that volcano in some far distant country earlier in the year. Thousands of people had died. He could prevent that from ever happening! Save all those precious lives lost... No! He was getting too carried away. All he could do was wait and see what happened. It was on the fourth day of waiting that Paul began to doubt whether the magician had kept his promise. He knew he was being impatient, but he really was getting fed up with having these daydreams of finding the crystal and putting everything right. He wanted to do it now! If he waited much longer, he would go mad. To take his mind off it, he decided to go for a walk around the neighbourhood. It didn’t do much. He seemed to walk all the way round the entire estate, past the block and the playground, under the main road in the underpass, around the park. Every recognisable landmark in the estate he walked past. Secretly, and rather guiltily, he had hoped he would run into Louise again. But she was nowhere to be found. Outside a newsagents, Paul was considering buying a drink, when he saw her, at the other end of the street! Or so he thought. He looked briefly to the right and glimpsed a wave of very long dark hair, then looked again and saw that hair disappear round the corner. It had been dark enough to be Louise’s’! He ran after her, rounding the edge of the street, expecting to see her there. But he’d been mistaken. The hair had belonged to a thin, scowling woman who glared at him when he looked at her expectantly, then stalked off, her heels clacking on the pavement. He turned and moved away sulkily. The heavy, all oppressing feeling of not having ownership of his soul was still weighing down on Paul. He hoped it could be something he could learn to ignore – something to get used to. Perhaps it would in time. After all, he would be feeling like this for the rest of his life now – or at least to

the end of Aldwick’s life. But how much longer did the man have to live? Another sixty years? Paul didn’t really know. The man was about forty by the looks of him and looked fit and healthy, so that overruled the chances of his dying of something like type 2 diabetes. Wouldn’t he just use magic to cure that anyway? And Paul knew it would be foolish to even think about trying to kill him. He needed the magician. Killing him would resolve nothing. Anyway, he somehow worked out that the man would know what he was thinking to do before he would even attempt to do it. He kicked an empty drink can, just across the street from one of the empty warehouses which nobody put to any use. The building was at least thirty years old but could’ve been older. There were gaping holes in its roof, broken windows and was in more or less the same state as the funfair where Paul carried out the exchange with the magician. No one else was around. He picked up a stone near his foot, paused, then vaulted it as high as he could, over the road and it smashed into the wire mesh fence that surrounded the place. He’d almost forgotten that was there. Perhaps it was because he was so used to seeing those kinds of enclosures around the Freeman Estate that he no longer really saw them at all. Crossing over, he retrieved the stone again. Once again, with greater force this time, he lobbed the stone high over the fence. But this time, something quite different happened. It soared about a hundred feet over the fence, like some diving eagle and came straight back down again, lit like a blue comet and went straight through the roof of the warehouse, making a burning hole into the metal surface. Paul blinked in astonishment and looked at his hands. They looked normal. But he was certain he had just done magic. This was the first time it had ever happened. Yet, he hadn’t said anything – a funny word like Abra Kedabra. He hadn’t done anything. Excitement began to stir in him. If he could do magic with no effort, then what could stop him? Looking round, he saw that he was still alone. Then, he jumped onto the wire mesh, clinging on with his fingers and climbed over it. He was lucky the builder’s hadn’t decided to put barbed wire at the top. But who cares? If there had been, he would’ve been able to get rid of it with magic! On the other side, he ran towards the building, bursting inside through an old door which wasn’t locked. It occurred to him he could’ve unlocked it anyway with magic. The inside of the warehouse was a lot bigger than he’d been expecting. Maybe that was due to the fact that it was empty, completely devoid of even a fork-lift truck. The grime on the windows made it dark and gloomy, allowing little of the sunlight to come in, as if it were forbidden. Stairwells

made of painted steel led up to the upper levels. But Paul was on the ground floor, looking for the stone. It wasn’t very hard to find. Paul had no sooner than stepped into the warehouse than he saw a shining blue, hovering light a few metres in front of him. Walking over to it, his footsteps echoing all around, like flapping birds in the great empty space, he saw that the light was coming from the stone and it was floating in space, waiting from him to pick up. He stopped right in front of it. Slowly, he retrieved it. As soon as his hand touched the rock, it stopped glowing at once, turning once again into and ordinary, boring stone. His heart racing, he once again threw it into the depths of the warehouse. But this time, it just rose and fell normally, landing with a clang and a puff of dust on the dirty floor. He sighed, all good feelings fading, and then turned to leave. Without warning something shot past his ear. He heard it whirl through the air, as if thrown, whizz past him then stop in mid-air in front of him. It was a rubber tyre. He stared at it. Then, grinning, he flicked his wrist upwards. It rose slightly. He reversed the movement and the tyre moved down. Next moment, he was raising his hand up and down and the tyre was bouncing off the floor, gaining more momentum as he did so, as if someone invisible was bouncing it like a basketball. Eventually he bounced it so high it went all the way up to the ceiling and dropped right next to his feet, hovering, waiting for its next command. Paul laughed and chucked it to one side, flying out his other hand and summoning a pile of bricks from a corner until he was juggling them all in mid air, each one under his control. It was as easy as Aldwick had made it look! Paul never realised magic would be this ridiculously simple. Another wave of his hand and bits of glass and masonry joined the fireworks of other rubble which was floating around like a crazy debris circus above him. Now he could feel the power running through his fingertips. He made them do crazy shapes; perform dazzling tricks, overlapping each other. Perhaps this wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Suddenly, a stray bit of glass streaked past his cheek, slicing his skin. Crying out, he clutched the wound. It hurt! He looked at his fingers, not surprised to see blood on them. He swore quietly, when he realised what happened. Perhaps fifty other shard of glass like the one that had just cut him was now in the mass above his head. He had been in control of all them, using magic. But he’d lost concentration! For a horrible, sickening moment, there was silence. Then, the masonry, glass, brick and dirt began to rain down on him, completely out of control. The large mass would surely crush him

underneath the weight, or simply slice him to bits. Paul tried to stop them using magic, but he couldn’t do it. He watched as the rain of death came closer and closer. He only had one chance. Paul dived out of the way, springing just in time as the rubble came smashing down on the floor with an almighty, deafening crash, splinters and fragments crashed and exploded all around. It seemed to go on forever. At last, everything was still. Once the boy had jumped out of the way, he’d rolled over on the floor, covering his head, waiting for the heavy weight to break his body. But nothing happened. He raised his head. Dust was rising into the air, clogging in his throat, making him cough. Apart from a few cuts and bruises, he was fine. Shakily, he got up. Staring at the carnage of rubble, he realised how lucky he was. He had cheated death by seconds. If he had waited even just a fraction of a second longer, he might not have been so fortunate. His enthusiasm had nearly taken his life. He cursed himself, deciding it was definitely time to leave – this place was unsafe. Right then, he didn’t realise how much of an understatement that was. Slowly, he looked round and realised the full horror of his predicament. The warehouse was flimsy and old, held up and supported on eight brick pillars, all of them inside the building. The roof must weigh at least a tonne. If it too came down, it would bury anyone underneath it and crush them, or trap them until they run out of air and suffocated. And to Paul’s disbelieve, he’d got so carried away that he didn’t realise he had torn the bricks from every one of these pillars, leaving large gaping holes in their structure. Even as he stared, they began to groan and whine. It was crippling like an old man as the entire structure started to collapse. Paul ran as larger bits of debris began to fall down, smashing into the floor like giant hailstones. The noise was ear-splitting. Grinding metal mixed with hideous noises like screeches, squeaks and bangs. He made for the door. But a by a sheer amount of bad luck, pipes, bricks and more glass fell in front of it, blocking his only way out. It was then he began to panic. He couldn’t get out! He was going to die here. And nobody would’ve known. Quickly he scanned the building for any other entrance. The only one was a large revolving delivery hatch, activated by a switch to allow Lorries carrying cargo in. But it was on the other side of the building! He wasn’t sure he had enough time to dart across, dodging the falling debris and get out that way. The door probably opened slowly as well.

Desperately he started to move the debris from in front of the door he was facing, scattering the pipes out of the way as another pile of rubble crashed down, metres away from him. He was aware of time running out. Then that was when he remembered. He smacked himself for not thinking of it before. He had magic of course! He could use it to shift the heavy weight. He stuck out his hand and commanded, in his head, for the mess to move. It didn’t budge. Frantically, Paul tried again. It wasn’t working! A large fragment of the ceiling came plummeting down, landing in the centre of the building, like a peculiar metal slide, rays of sunlight seeping through. He would never see it again. This place was now his tomb. The end was near. No! He concentrated all his might on the rubble, pleading it to clear his way. Miraculously, it slid to one side in a wave of blue energy, almost reluctantly, as if it wanted to see him crushed under the roof. He barley let out a cry of relief before he was out of the door and running out of the way, into the open air. He stood there, breathing heavily, watching as the whole warehouse finally collapsed in on itself, glass shattering, brick and metal crunching. Thirty years of the structure standing there was now being demolished. After what felt like an age, the last bit of debris fell and there was hush, somehow shocking, all around. Paul stared at the newly made wreckage, his face completely white. He’d slipped through the grasp of death’s fingers twice in the space of a couple of minutes. He felt sick. He had brought down an entire building! Not only that, he had nearly buried himself alive. He would’ve died and nobody would’ve known or care. And if he died, Aldwick wouldn’t be able to contact him. How could he have been so stupid? Why had he let himself get carried away? The stunned silence ended when Paul realised he was still carrying the stone. After all that, the tiny rock had still managed to stay in his grasp. He looked at it for a moment, then scowled, chucking it to one side, as if it were scolding him. That thing had nearly cost his life! He knew it was pretty lame to blame a rock for his mistakes. But Paul never liked being the one to blame. Dust clung to his t-shirt, which was ripped in several places. He wondered what he must look like. Suddenly, he felt a tight knot of fear in his stomach. If anyone saw him standing here like this, they would automatically assume he’d been responsible for what had happened. Well,

he was responsible. But he didn’t much fancy getting interrogated by the police. He could imagine them sitting there and laughing at his face if he started talking about magic. He had to get away! Even as distant sirens began to wail in distance, Paul was already sprinting away, over the wire fence and down the street. He never really saw the point of police sirens. If anything it was an alarm for criminals telling them that the cops were onto them, giving them a head start. The knot in Paul’s stomach tightened when he thought of the word criminal. He more or less was one now he’d brought down the warehouse. Though, it wasn’t much of a big deal anyway. No one had been hurt and there were much bigger criminals going around doing that on purpose. The place had been falling apart anyway, rotting there, useless. He probably did the council a favour to not spend money on demolishing the thing. Besides, this wasn’t his first ever illegal act. What about the fake ID? But still, he ran. He couldn’t bear the thought of his mother’s face when she found out he was bunged up in the police station. She was suffering enough strain at the moment. He dashed around as many corners as he could find, pushing past people, who blinked in annoyance, but he ignored them. He also tried to ignore the stares of his dishevelled appearance. Paul had entered another alleyway, trying to find the shortest way back home when a burning pain seared his hand so much he cried out. It was as if he’d just been stabbed. Clutching it tightly, he winced as the pain eased away as quickly as it had come. Then he saw it. The mark, which had been on the same spot on the back of his hand a few nights ago, was now burning brighter than a blue flame again. He knew what it meant. Aldwick was calling for him. It was time... Paul knew exactly where to find the magician. His heart racing, with new speed, he set off, heading straight for the funfair. Chapter 16 – It was sunset. Aldwick Roxburgh noticed his new apprentice sprinting from a distance, at his vantage point on top of the rickety rollercoaster known as the Screamer. It was quite a peaceful location, despite the grim surroundings of the dilapidated rides. The wind whipped at his greying hair and goatee, making his red cloak flap in the breeze. He’d always loved this cloak. He bought it from an antiques clothes shop and he couldn’t believe the weedy shop assistant who’d served him had actually pulled it out when he’d asked for something to go with his Victorian outfit. The man told him

it had once belonged to a great lord, who’d’ worn it because he thought it repelled evil forces – including magic. Aldwick laughed at the irony. He wondered what that lord would think if he could see him now. Paul ran into the funfair, which seemed less threatening in the daytime, closing the gate behind him, completely out of breath. Sweat was pouring down his face and he had to sit down to catch his breath. Aldwick swooped down, like a giant crimson bat and landed, with a soft plump at the boy’s feet. “What happened to you?” were his first words, noticing the dirt on Paul’s clothes and the still shocked look on his face. “I... I...” “You look like someone just dragged you through a pile of dirt.” “The... The warehouse...” Paul gasped. “I... pulled it... down...” Aldwick’s face suddenly turned stony. “What?” he demanded. “I... didn’t mean it!” Paul got up, still trying to get his breath back. “It was... an accident.” The magician looked thunderous, but then shook his head. “There is no point being getting into an argument over this,” he muttered. “What’s done is done. And we have little time remaining to us. I have found the jewel. It lies within an underground cave, a hundred miles from here. It’ll take a couple of days to get there, so you should tell your family you’ll be away.” “No need,” Paul said, still breathing heavily. “I’ve been gone... longer without them noticing.” “All right. Well, let me warn you. Once you come on this ‘quest’, or whatever you’d like to call it, then there is no going back. Do you understand? We stick together from now on. We work as a team. But you must heed my guidance. If you choose to ignore it, then you may find yourself in terrible danger. And if I give you specific instructions to run and save yourself, you do so. What we are about to do will be putting us both in mortal peril and we could both wind up dead. If so, then remember we will die for a good cause. Do not fear death, Paul. Embrace it!” He outstretched his hand, the same way as before. “We are going to travel by teleportation. Not by the way they do in Star Wars or whatever, but magically. It takes a lot of effort and I can only travel a certain distance without a rest. And remember, if we do scrape into any kind of trouble, which is very likely – use your magic! It’s inside you now, waiting for you to command it. “So... are you ready?” Paul wasn’t sure whether he was ready. If he was going to be in danger, wouldn’t it be best to practise using his magic more? He could put himself

and Aldwick in danger all on his own with the same results as that afternoon, tearing down a building over their heads. He had a large sense of foreboding which he really wanted to obey and turn his back on this whole thing. But that would be cowardly. Nodding, he gripped Aldwick’s hand. “Hold your breath,” the magician said. “You may feel a slight squeeze. 1... 2... 3!” Paul only just sucked in air when suddenly the funfair dissolved and he felt like he was being compressed down a long slide, the ground disappearing beneath him, still clasping Aldwick’s hands tightly. The wind roared in his ears, a thousand lights streaming past his eyes. He wanted to cry out, but he didn’t dare let his breath out. Aldwick’s face was still in front of him, his forehead wrinkled deep in concentration. The two of them kept falling, falling into the swirly, multicoloured vortex for what felt like forever, until... Solid ground reappeared underneath him and Paul fell onto his back, his lungs releasing the trapped air in his body gratefully. That was certainly not how he was expecting teleportation to be like. Of course, he wasn’t hoping it to be as smooth as it is made out to be in any science fiction film, but even so, the real experience had been nauseating. He could feel a cramp building up in his side. As he got over the dizziness, a waft of salty air brushed up his nose, a mournful cry of a seagull was cawing in the distance and a rush of waves crashing down. He opened his eyes, realising he’d closed them for the first time, and looked around. He was by the bloody sea! They had landed on a stretch of a deserted sandy beach in the shadow of giant cliffs. There was nobody around. It was sunset here too, but cloudy and it surprised Paul, even though he was expecting a change of weather. The grey clouds which covered sky made the place look very gloomy. Yet still, he couldn’t help but be excited. He’d only ever been to a beach once before. Back then the weather had been very different, but he didn’t care. It was still good to feel the ocean breeze blow across his scalp. Aldwick, who he was expecting to be right next to him, was in fact ten metres away. He was on all fours, looking completely drained. Slowly, he got up, brushing the sand off his cloak, but he looked like he just swallowed some cod liver oil. His face looked green and there were suddenly bags under his eyes. “I was hoping to land at the top of those cliffs,” he grumbled as he walked up to Paul. “But it looks like we’re going to have to climb. Oh well! A bit of exercise never hurt anybody.” There were man-made steps carved into the cliff’s face and the two began to make their way up them. It was a long climb. Paul felt a stitch

ebbing in his side as well as the cramp. But he didn’t feel nearly as bad as Aldwick looked. The magician was completely exhausted. It seemed he was struggling to keep his eyes open. “There’s a...” he paused for breath. “Village... not too far from here, with a motel. We’ll stay there for the night.” Paul nodded, looking back at the view of the beach and the sea far below him as he and Aldwick made their way across the grassy verge of the rock face, into the growing darkness. The Marino Motel was a charming, classic seaside motel, with a total of thirty one available rooms kept well cleaned and a fish and chips bar on the ground floor. It was packed during the summer season. But now that it was autumn, the place was virtually empty. The corridors were lit by old fashioned wall-lamps with dim light bulbs, giving the place a homey, comfortable feel. But of course, to Paul this place was five star comforts compared to the conditions he had to live in on a daily basis. Aldwick had rented room fourteen for the night. It would be thirteen, except that the manager was apparently very superstitious and had forbidden such an unlucky number to be anywhere on the premises. The exasperated receptionist explained to them how he had freaked when a guest had brought in a black cat and let it wander around. “Kept holding a horseshoe in front of him for weeks,” she sighed. “If he carries on like that, we’ll have no customers at all.” Judging by the woman’s accent, Paul guessed they were somewhere a bit further north. How far had they travelled? How far were they going to travel? Aldwick had said it was a hundred miles to the cave where the jewel was located from where they had began. Perhaps they’d come halfway already. But the magician needed to rest, in order to even attempt to teleport again. The room they were given was small and cosy, with not much floor space, but had a pretty decent view of the sea, stretching out to the quickly darkening horizon, turning from a gloomy grey to a midnight blue. The place had two single beds with white sheets and a small bathroom, decorated with soft, turquoise coloured wallpaper. No sooner had they entered the room when Aldwick had collapsed on the nearest bed, instantly falling asleep... and snoring. It was only seven o’clock in the evening and Paul may’ve been fazed by the climb up the steps but he was nowhere near tired yet. So he left the room quietly. His stomach growled as he went down the motel stairs. He needed to eat something. It was lucky he still had a few quid in his pocket – enough to get him a bag of chips from the fish bar. Even though the place provided tables and chairs, he decided to have a stroll along the sea

front. It was very peaceful, walking along, eating his chips, listening to the distant rolling waves of the water far below. He certainly was a very long way from home. Yet, he didn’t miss it. He was comforted by the thought that, maybe, when he got back home, everything would be a thousand times better. That was something to look forward to. Sticking his wooden fork into another, salt ridden chip, Paul noticed something move out of the corner of his eye. He spun round. It was almost completely dark now. But he swore he saw someone else walk away from the cliff. Probably just someone else out for an evening stroll, yet Paul couldn’t fight a sense of unease. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was because whoever it was had darted quickly out of sight, as if they didn’t want to be seen. Then he saw it again - a swish of movement just out of sight and also heard a small, sinister giggle. Forgetting about his chips, Paul dumped then in a rubbish bin and moved forward, trying to see who was there. He should’ve ordered a bag of carrot slices. He heard they helped you see better in the dark. But then his vision focused and he could just make out the outline of the figure perhaps fifty paces away, long hair blowing dramatically in the breeze. So it was a woman. He couldn’t make out her face or what she was wearing exactly. But something that she was wearing was blowing in the wind along with her hair. A dress? Hardly appropriate clothing for this time of year. He moved closer. She noticed him coming and looked up, making him stop in his tracks. Her eyes were red! They burned through the darkness, piercing Paul with an eerie, evil stare. She looked like some sort of demon. She giggled again – a low, threatening yet playful sound. She turned and walked, almost glided, away, seeming to fade into the night. “You all right, love?” Paul started at the question. An old lady, walking her dog, had stopped near him, seeing his stunned face. She was friendly-looking, with small, watery eyes behind a pair of huge glasses with a kind, concerned smile on her face. Her dog waited patiently by her side. “Did you see her?” Paul asked, pointing in the direction where the demonic, feminine figure had stood. “See who?” “That woman! She was right there.” The old lady looked in the direction he was pointing. “I didn’t see anyone,” she said. “Someone you know is it?” “No,” Paul said. She looked at him curiously now.

“We don’t get many young people round here often,” she said. “Not much for them to do. Where’re you from, love?” “I... moved here,” he lied. “I came here with my dad.” “You look like a right state, if you don’t mind me saying so,” she said, coming up to inspect the poor conditions of his garments. Paul had almost forgotten he looked like someone who hadn’t bought themselves new clothes in a year. “You poor thing,” she said. “My name’s Dorothy.” “Paul,” “Paul? That was my grandson’s name!” “Really?” “Yes. Unfortunately, he was involved in an accident that... he never recovered from.” She sighed sadly. “But that was years ago. I might have stopped grieving, but I think about him every day. The life he could’ve had. He was only about your age, y’know...” Those words hit Paul hard. It was a shame not all people could get over death of a loved one so easily. “Why don’t you come round for a cup of tea?” Dorothy asked. “My husband would just have put the kettle on.” “I really ought to be getting back,” Paul muttered, distractedly. “Dad doesn’t like me staying out too late.” It was a lie, but not because he wanted to avoid her. He just felt guilty taking advantage and replacing the grandson she’d lost. But she seemed to understand. “Well, you take care then,” she said. “I hope to see more of you in future. Come along, Pippin!” she tugged at the lead and the dog, which followed the old lady obediently. Paul felt a great sadness weigh down inside him. Dorothy was a very nice lady. And it was incredibly hard, knowing he was never going to see her ever again. Chapter 17 – Ten o’clock the next morning, Aldwick and Paul were already out of the motel and heading down toward the beach where they appeared from. The magician was fully refreshed after a good night’s sleep and a very hearty breakfast. “Egg was a bit soggy, but they make brilliant toast!” he said. They hadn’t got breakfast from the hotel, even though they provided it. Instead, they had gone to a little cafe around the corner, were Aldwick said the prices were cheaper. The poor waitress girl who served them was so startled by Aldwick’s eccentric appearance that retreated into the back of the cafe to avoid eye contact. Paul couldn’t help but feel uneasy sitting

amongst all the people in the cafe, who were all rather rudely staring at Aldwick without trying to hide it. Next, they had found a charming little clothes shop, where Aldwick had paid for some fresh clothes for Paul. “You don’t have to give me anything,” Aldwick explained, chuckling at Paul, who was counting up how much cash he owed the magician. “It’s on me.” “Thanks,” Paul grumbled. “My pleasure,” Even though Paul was wearing brand new clothes, he couldn’t help but feel naked in them. He was used to wearing grubby t-shirts and tracksuit bottoms day in, day out. What he was wearing now was a bright green top, a brand new pair of Nikes and light blue jeans. He decided not to tell Aldwick about the female figure he saw on the cliff’s edge the night before. He presumed it wouldn’t really be important. Even if it was just a casual conversation, Paul felt too awkward and shy, like he didn’t know the man well enough to do that yet. He didn’t mention Dorothy either. In fact, he tried to forget about her. She was a really nice woman, even inviting him to tea and he felt guilty leaving behind without saying goodbye. Paul shook himself. He didn’t know her! And she had probably forgotten about him anyway, so what did it matter? On the same spot they landed at, Aldwick and Paul joined hands, preparing to teleport. This time, Paul was ready, as he knew what was coming. He held his breath and braced himself. After Aldwick counted down to three, they vanished on the spot. If anyone had been watching them, they would’ve seen a boy and a grown man, clasp hands and vanish in an explosion of multicoloured lights. This time, Paul squeezed his eyes tight shut before they disappeared, hoping to keep some of the dizziness out. It worked slightly, but he couldn’t help but feel the air whooshing past him and the sensation of free-falling through nothing down a tight tube, with nothing to hold on apart from Aldwick’s hand. Then, what could’ve been a second or an hour later, his feet found ground and he fell onto his back once again. This time, there were no waves or seagulls, no waft of salty water and no sand. He had landed in an earthy, twig-ridden ground, on a bed of grass, in the shadow of a lot of trees, watery autumn sunlight pouring through the gaps in the branches, which were full of bright orange leaves. The leaves and the grass were wet. Paul could feel dew seeping in his hair. There was no breeze here, but it was chillier than the beach somehow. The sound of wildlife – birds, squirrels and insects filled the air.

For the first time in his life, Paul found himself completely out of the reach of human civilisation. He’d only travelled to the countryside once or twice, and even then the roads and the cars and the telephone pylons were still there. This place was untouched. “Where are we?” he asked Aldwick, who didn’t seem as exhausted as he did the last time he teleported them both. “We’re in the Peak District,” he replied, straightening himself up. “Come again?” “Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of it!” Aldwick exclaimed. He paused, but judging by the blank look on Paul’s face he sighed. “The Peak District is a national park where tourists come when they want peace and quiet,” he explained. “Beneath our feet are many caves, most of them deemed unsafe. The jewel is here, in one of them. And don’t worry if you think we’ll be bothered by tourists, we won’t and if we do, then I’ll just hypnotise them into thinking they never even saw us.” “Hang on,” Paul said. “If there are like loads of people coming here, then wouldn’t the jewel be better somewhere else?” “Like I said the jewel changes location about every month or so. It is never in one place for very long. And besides, the cave we are about to visit is virtually undiscovered by human means. Magic has helped keep it hidden.” Paul got to his feet, nodding as the two set off. They went a little way into the forest – for that was where they had landed – and emerged onto the edge of a small hill. And the view was magnificent! A river, winding between tall, sloping hills, ran all the way out of sight, the water shimmering in the weak sunlight. It was beautiful all the same, even though Paul reckoned, judging by the approaching clouds it was going to give rain later. It was only then did he realise the true vastness of the English countryside. He’d spent too much of his life trapped behind concrete walls and ugly wire fences. This place was truly open. “People used to look at this all the time,” Aldwick informed him. “This view, I mean. There’s an old viaduct where trains used to pass over, but was closed down in sixties.” They were on top of a really steep hill and the only way forward was down! Yet Paul couldn’t find a way. It seemed they were trapped here. “How are we-?” he started to ask, but Aldwick was moving towards the slope they had just climbed. “Going to get to the cave?” he finished for him. “Watch!” With a surreptitious wave of his hand, the rock in front of him began to crumble away until a wide, gaping hole, with a stone staircase leading down into darkness was revealed. The steps were slippery and seemed to

cut through the earth, in a roughly dug passageway – seven feet tall by five feet wide – into the side of the hill. Anxiously, Paul glanced down it. A faint, distant dripping sound could be heard from somewhere far below. He could already imagine the cave down there – riddled with stalagmites and stalactites (he never knew which was which), wet and moist with thousands of years of water dripping down the walls. In the little time he spent at school, he once saw an underground cave on a video in geography. Not that he paid much attention, but he got some idea of what they looked like and what people should do when they went into one. “Shouldn’t we wear hard-hats?” he asked, timidly. Aldwick laughed. “Believe me, son,” he chuckled, “where we’re going, falling rocks are going to be the last thing on your mind.” “Well, shouldn’t we at least have some sort of rope?” Paul demanded, irritated. No matter how much magic the two of them could do, he knew he would feel much safer with assurance of basic safety equipment. “Fine,” Aldwick said, conjuring a long length of rope out of thin air, looping it over his shoulder. “Happy?” “Yeah,” “Then let us proceed.” And then they did, Aldwick going first, heading through the hole, which closed up with a snap behind them as if it were never there. The darkness which both of them found themselves in was total. Paul wanted to scream. It was like he’d gone blind... or was buried alive. How was he and Aldwick supposed to search for the jewel in this terrible blackness? A sudden sizzling noise caught his attention as a soft, warm golden glow suddenly lit the walls. It was Aldwick. He had lit a magical fire in his hand. The light bounded off the earth-made walls, making them look like they were made of gold themselves. “How do you do that?” Paul asked. “Hold out your hand and say: Thgil eb ereht tel!” the magician said. Paul held out his hand and muttered: “Thgil eb ereht tel!” A warmth shot through his fingers as a blue flame burst into life into his own palm, the sapphire blue mixing with the gold. Hands outstretched, the two proceeded down the long stone staircase that seemed to lead nowhere. They didn’t speak as they descended. Paul had no idea what to talk about. But the silence, apart from the drip, drip dripping falling from some distant ceiling was getting louder, was almost too much to bear.

“How much further?” Paul asked after several minutes of climbing down nothing but steps. His voice seemed to echo all the way down to the dark abyss which was the staircase, showing no sign of ending. “I’m not sure,” Aldwick said. He was clearly doing some very deep thinking for his forehead was creased and he gazed ahead with a contemplative look. “A bit longer.” But to Paul it seemed to take much longer. In fact a full hour passed before they reached the bottom. Paul could feel the pressure rising in his ears and feel the huge weight of centuries and centuries of rock over his head. The dripping sound was louder than ever and as Paul went over to the wall, he recoiled, feeling freezing cold water on his fingers. His and Aldwick’s flames were still lit in their hands, yet weren’t really showing them what lay ahead. The bottom of the staircase had let them out into a wide area which was pitch black. Suddenly, Aldwick threw his flame into the air, his voice echoing all around: “Lla laever thgil tel!” And the orange ball flew, like an arc lamp into the air and suddenly everything was visible. They were in the cave at last. And it was massive! Much bigger than Paul had imagined it would be. The entire ceiling was simply covered with stalactites, like some infection which had spread to an incurable state. Each one was needle sharp. If only one fell on top of either Aldwick or Paul, it would impale them, killing them instantly. The cave had rivulets of water running down it, as if it had rained recently under here. But of course, no mineral or rock this deep underground had ever seen the light of day. The ceiling was held up by pillars, each made of the same rock as the stalactites, almost like gigantic wasp nest. It was very cold. Paul was almost afraid to breath. He was scared that if he even made a sudden loud noise, the ceiling would crumble and the stalactites would fall on top of them. He could almost imagine himself being split in half by the vicious edges. In the centre of the cave was a sort of naturally made well – just a hole in the ground with gurgling water rushing pass, as if trying to get out of here as fast as it could. This must’ve been the source of the river outside, Paul thought. Where did all the water in the world come from? Perhaps, during the ice age, this had all been one huge glacier which had melted as the Earth warmed up. It was startling to think the most valuable substance to support life lasted that long. There was a very tense air in the cave. It probably had something to do with the pressure of millions of grams of rock and earth pressing down. But Paul knew it was something more than that. Not only was the tension

like the feeling you get when you were being watched, but it had a touch of... evil to it. He couldn’t describe it any other way. Something, like a subtle cold cruelty in the air seemed to be caressing the back of his neck with invisible fingers. He couldn’t help but look over his shoulder every five seconds. He followed Aldwick across the cave, feeling infinitely minuscule in the expanse of the place. The magician seemed to go to the far wall opposite, running his hand smoothly across the surface. “Here it is...” he whispered, more to himself to Paul. “Take a look at this,” he said, stepping to one side. Paul stepped closer, lifting his lit hand to see what was on the wall. Scratched roughly into the surface were several, what had to be, runes letters which looked archaic and ancient. But this was the frightening thing: the rock was solid and needed a drill to get through. Yet, the markings were as thin as human fingernail scratches. “What does that say?” he asked, his teeth chattering. “It is a dark language,” Aldwick said, his voice utterly serious, “which hasn’t been spoken by many men across the world for over ten thousand years. It says, something along the lines: those who bear knowledge more than mortal man may pass on. If any normal person could read that, they would have trouble understanding what it meant. But it’s easy really. All I have to do is speak the password, in the same language and we can go through.” “And you know it?” “Oh yes,” Aldwick said. “It is simply, more or less: open.” “The jewel is beyond there?” The magician nodded, the light in his silver eyes shining. “We’re so close to it now,” he breathed. Then, raising both hands and facing the wall, he began to mutter in a guttural, unnatural language which sounded nothing like his normal spells: “Bla sakah! Ja Hisseth! Uz xa gul!” The words sent a chill running down Paul’s backbone, making him shiver. Was it him, or had the cave got darker? And, he didn’t know whether it was his imagination or not, but when those words were spoken, a strange, sadistic, distant laughter and whispering had flared up and faded when the last syllable ended. With a fright, Paul stepped back as a divide in the cave wall ran down it in one, long, irregular crack. The crack reached the floor and the two halves of the wall swung back, slowly, like a pair of doors, inviting them to go on. Whatever was beyond them could not be seen. It was pitch dark! More than that, the blackness in front of them was so dense it was almost as

solid as the wall. If they proceeded into it, Paul was sure he would never come out again. Every instinct was screaming at him to turn round and go back. This was a bad idea! But he had come this far. What would the point of it all be if he just abandoned it at the last minute? Aldwick turned to him. Not much to Paul’s reassurance, he looked pretty scared to, though was trying his best not to show it. “Shall we press on?” he asked, voice shaking a little. “Yes...” Paul said, in a whisper. And they plunged into the deep darkness. There was no going back now. As soon as they stepped in the passageway, the doorway closed behind them sealing them in, what could’ve been their tombs. This was nothing like Paul had ever experienced before. He was breathing loudly, almost hyperventilating, in panic, sure that he would never smell fresh air ever again. How could he stand here and bare this? How had he not screamed yet and demanded to be let out? Any normal person would’ve by now. Aldwick lit his hand again, the same with Paul. But that hardly made any difference. The darkness was enveloped them and it was so impenetrable that almost no amount of sun light or any light would be able to pierce. The same ‘evil’ feeling Paul had back in the cave seemed to have intensified in here. It was almost as if the devil himself was with them or something far more sinister... The only thing either of them could do was go forward. Paul had done so by having his hand resting against the cold, wet wall of the passage. There were no directions leading off, by what he could feel. It was just one, long, linear corridor, carved out the very crust of the earth. “Look at this!” Aldwick said suddenly, pointing his light to the opposite wall. Paul looked where he was pointing, holding his own, blue flame to it. On its surface, were more of the cryptic characters, similar to the ones on the door, except these were even more roughly made, as if someone had carved them desperately, to warn those who went along this passage to turn back and never return. “What does it say?” “Something very gruesome,” the magician said. “It reads: ‘The way is shut. It was made by those who are dead and the dead keep it. The way is shut.’” The words sent a chill through Paul’s body, like an electric current. “What does that mean?” he asked, hoarsely. Aldwick hesitated, true fear reflected in his silver eyes. He turned to Paul. “That we must be extra careful,” he said, grimly. “But... how can the ‘dead’... make anything?” Paul demanded.

The magician did not reply. He simply turned and continued his way up the passage. With growing reluctance, Paul followed. Chapter 18 – At last, mercifully, a small, twinkling light, like some distant star began to shine through the blackness. It was only dim, but to Paul and Aldwick after being in this darkness for so long, it was as bright as day. The two of them exchanged a look. Both of them knew that, at last, they’d reached the crystal. Naturally, they ran for it, glad at last that the jewel was theirs for the taking. Except just grabbing it was not as easy as they presumed. The light was distant and there were bound to meet a few obstacles on the way. And they did... The first came at the end of the passageway. At least this place was lit. The crystal was casting a brighter light now, closer than ever before. The only thing between it and them now though, was a fast, ice cold flowing river. They would’ve wadded into it if they hadn’t heard it from a distance, the water gushing past in the gully. As well as very fast, it was very deep. The duo halted at the shingle, at the very edge of the river. A small splash of it jumped onto Paul’s trainers and even thorough the thick leather, he could feel that it was as cold as death. Both he and Aldwick extinguished their lights, for there was no longer any need for them. The light coming from the crystal illuminated pretty much everything. And it showed its position – on a small island in the middle of the flowing river, starting from the mouth-like opening with stalactites for teeth, at the other end of the cave, chamber, room? He had no idea what to call this place yet the crystal was so far out in the water that they knew they couldn’t reach it. Not unless they waded or swam. But neither of them felt like testing the water. There was a little wooden boat, with two oars, moored on the rim of the island. But it was impossible to reach. Paul felt the sense of hopelessness wash over him. Until he saw Aldwick unwind the rope over his shoulders. He’d completely forgotten he’d had that! “Lucky I brought this, eh?” he said, grinning. “Stand back!” he warned and Paul stood a little to the side. Without warning, there came a loud crunch beneath his heel. Looking down, he saw he’d stepped on something which made his heart freeze. A ribcage... An empty, set of bones, lying bare on the shore line, organless, wet and brittle from decay. He’d just put his foot through the hole where the heart would have been. The sole of his trainer was standing on

top of the backbone. Someone had been here before. Unfortunately, they hadn’t made it out again. But where was the rest of the skeleton? Carefully wedging his foot out of the bone cage, Paul watched as Aldwick tied the rope into a lasso, like something out of a cowboy film, twirled it in the air and cast it towards the boat. There was a splash as it hit the water. “Not far enough,” he grumbled, pulling the rope back, the material dripping wet. Paul was struck by an alarming thought. “Hang on a second!” he said, making Aldwick stop. “You said this jewel is highly protected. What if the water is...? I dunno, cursed or something?” The man smiled. “You’re learning,” he said. “But don’t worry. If this river is cursed, then I doubt a bit of wet rope would be enough to harm us, whatever the effects are.” He drew the rope up again and tossed it, with greater strength. “Whoops! Too far,” he said, drawing it once again out of the water. “Steady...” he swung it over his head then threw it with well aimed accuracy. “Gotcha!” he exclaimed, excitedly, as the hoop had latched onto the prow of the boat, yanking it towards them on the opposite shore. The boat bobbed up and down and the rocks crunched underneath it as it arrived, hovering eerily in the dark water. Paul was surprised it hadn’t been taken by the tide yet. But obviously some magic was keeping it from doing so. Suddenly, this didn’t look so bad after all. In fact, it had been a little easy. Don’t get your hopes up, Paul told himself. We have to get across the river first, and actually get out. Both he and Aldwick climbed awkwardly in, feeling their weight making it sink slightly, but managed to keep afloat. It swayed to and fro, gently, despite the forceful currents battering against it. When he and the magician had settled in, Aldwick unhooked the rope and grabbed an oar, Paul too, and began to paddle to the island together. The journey across the water was eerie. The shore had soon disappeared into darkness a few seconds after leaving it, as if it had disappeared altogether. Paul could feel the sparse hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. There seemed to be a sickly green glow to the river, as if it were some underground mist. But what was even more unsettling was the river itself. It was so deep and black that Paul wandered how far it was to the bottom. Did it have one at all? He stared into the churning depths, as if trying to see it. He saw nothing but dark liquid, with nothing in it. Something moved.

Deep within the river, a sudden writhing movement had caused a ripple to reach the surface. Paul’s uneasiness was maintaining to unimaginable levels now. What could have moved down there? A fish? Somehow, he knew not even the coldest blood of any submarine life could survive these conditions. Had it been his imagination? A trick of the light? He hoped so. Forget fire, demons and devils with horns – to Paul, this was his idea of hell. He tried ignoring the river by focusing on the rhythm of his strokes. Aldwick too seemed to be doing the same. He was clearly just as terrified of the river as Paul. His face was paler than usual and he was humming a song under his breath. The island seemed to take a very long time to get to them. Paul’s arms were aching with rowing but at last, the boat touched on the shingle of the next shore. With sighs of relieve, they both got out. As they did so, both their feet made sickening crunching noises. They froze. “Don’t... look... down....” Aldwick muttered. Paul, who couldn’t resist, looked. To his horror, he saw his feet standing on the bald scalps of skulls! The entire island was made up of the toughest bone structure in the body. Except, they all lacked bodies. Each skull stared at them with blank sockets, with wide, toothy grins. Taking a deep breath, Paul took another step forward, hearing another crunch as he stood on another skull. But he tried to ignore it and followed Aldwick, as their climbed the miniature mountain of skulls. The jewel was at the very top, floating in the palms of two open skeleton hands, like some twisted version of a podium/ “Here it is...” Aldwick whispered. The jewel was perhaps the single, most beautiful object Paul had ever laid eyes on. It shone with an inner light and was the only symbol of hope in this grim place. It filled both of them with a sort of warmth and joy, making them forget about their surroundings. It was pure transparent and diamond shape, glimmering like thousands of tiny stars. Of course, Paul found it hard to believe that something so dazzlingly pretty could cause so much destruction. It took his breath away. Aldwick, who’d looked at the crystal with a longing hunger in his face, snapped back to reality, becoming serious again. “I cannot just grab it,” he stated. “It is surrounded by protection charms which can burn a man’s hands off if he tried to touch it. I know the spell which can deactivate them, but I’ll have to rely on you to then take it, for I shall be too weak. Wish me luck.” He put both hands around the jewel and began to chant, in the same dark language he’d used at the entrance of the passageway. It was a long,

guttural spell and he didn’t seem to draw breath or even blink whilst casting it. Once again, Paul felt the overwhelming tension pull at his instincts and the evil laughter and muttering kick up again. It wasn’t pleasant. He got the overwhelming feeling that evil spirits were at work. And in this place, it wouldn’t be surprising if they were. Aldwick went on chanting, his face growing dark, eyes no longer reflecting the light of the jewel, which continued to rotate as if it were a planet on its own gravitational axis. He waited. The cave, apart from Aldwick’s chanting, was completely silent. Event the gushing of the river had mysteriously gone silent, as if someone had turned down the volume. Perhaps that was another effect of the spell the magician was chanting. Then, unexpectedly, the crystal’s glow dimmed and dropped into the clasps of the podium-like skeletal hand with a small chink. Heart beating rapidly, Paul grabbed and pocketed the jewel just as Aldwick instructed. The surface of the jewel was surprisingly warm against his fingers and its glow was still strong enough to shine through the thick denim of his jeans. He turned to Aldwick, excitedly, glad that they’d done it, at last! But the magician wasn’t there. Confused, Paul looked around. Where’d he gone? He couldn’t have been... tricked, could he? Had the man intended to bring him here for nothing? He was starting to get angry at the thought. But then, he saw him. And the sight froze his blood... The magician was unconscious, lying on top of the floor of skulls with his eyes half open. Yet he was moving! He was slowing sliding down the slope towards the river. His shoes were already brushing the edge. Paul rushed to his aid, grabbing Aldwick by the arms and pulling him away from the freezing water. The man hadn’t simply fallen down the slope. He had been dragged. As Paul pulled, something pulled back. That was when he saw the dead, rotting, skeletal pair of thin hands grabbing at Aldwick’s legs, until the man’s body was the middle of a game of tog-ofwar with the boy. Paul heaved and managed to prize the man’s body free of the hands’ grip, which retracted back into the watery depths, disappearing from sight. “Aldwick?” Paul said uncertainly, leaning next to the man’s face and slapping it. “Aldwick?!” There was no response. He was definitely alive – he was breathing! Something must have crept up behind him and knocked him out with one of the skulls whilst he’d been casting the spell. Something... No sooner than the thought entered his head did the real horror begin.

From across the river, all around, came a horrible sickening sucking noise. There seemed to be almost no light left, but Paul could clearly see all what happened next. Dark sinister shapes had begun to rise out of the water, like something out of a hideous nightmare. They were shaped like people, but he knew differently. The way the shapes moved – slow, robotic and purposefully – were the biggest giveaways that these things weren’t human. Or, they had once been human. For what rose out river where dozens of skeletons, all rotting, filthy, black with decay, with rags hanging from broken ribcages and half-missing arms or legs. Dripping seaweed clung to them like loose bits of flesh. Some of them carried long, broken swords, with wicked, black blades, double-edged axes and chains, and other hideous weaponry which filled him with utter fear. There at least fifty of them, and only one of him. Aldwick couldn’t help him. He was on his own, against a small army of un-dead creatures. He acted quickly, resting Aldwick against the podium where the crystal had floated, then turned to face the enemy. They were already at the shore of the island. Paul thought they were moving slowly at first, but it was only the water that was delaying them. As it got shallower, their movements were alarmingly quick, swift and merciless, moving in for the kill. Paul was ready for them. He’d already called onto the magic which he knew was inside him. This time, he was forcing it to obey his every mental command. His hands began to glow – the same blue flare of a sapphire light. He could feel the raw energy flowing through his blood. One of the skeletons had climbed up onto the pile of skulls, holding a sickle and peering up at him with sightless eyes, raising its reanimated arm to strike. Could it see, Paul wondered, with eye sockets which were completely empty? Did it need to see? It didn’t matter because next second, Paul had raised his arm and a single bolt of magic blasted the infernal thing apart. So, these things were dead, but at least they can be stopped and destroyed. New hope set a fire of delight in Paul’s heart as he fired another bolt of the same blue magic at the next three skeletons that came ashore. All of them exploded in shards of bone. But more were still coming, undisturbed by their blasting comrades, as if programmed to ignore all else, kill and pluck the crystal from the cold dead hands of that person who stole it, dragging their corpses into their watery hiding places to become one with their unholy force. Paul continued to attack them. But he was only another obstacle in their path. They were surrounding the island now and he knew he couldn’t hold

them all back any longer. He could even smell them – the odour of sewage and soaking decay was rank. Paul had to hold his breath not to breathe it in to deeply. He was afraid of the smell rotting his insides. Closer and closer they came. More and more were rising out of the water as if they were punching their way out of their graves in a cemetery. The Way is shut. It was made by those who are dead and the dead keep it. Now Paul knew what that message meant. The dead had made the passageway and they guarded it. They also made sure that ‘the way’ was shut so no one could ever escape their cold, dead clutches. Something grabbed his ankle. With a cry, he saw a skeleton grinning up at him from the ground, crawling (it had no legs) on the skulls and grabbing the boy’s jeans. Paul kicked it, the skull smashing to pieces. But it had been a distraction, for the others with perfectly functioning legs, had grabbed him from behind. He yelled and tried to blast them apart. But it was useless. They were all around him and already dragging his flailing form to the water’s edge. He struggled and writhed but it was no good. They were too strong, even though they were made of nothing but brittle bone. Some magic must’ve been keeping them strong. They raised his body in triumph, their bony feet clacking bizarrely against the surface of the island. It was a weird sound. And it was the only sound they could make. They couldn’t speak – they had no voice boxes or lungs. But whatever dark energy was flowing through them was making their jaws open wide and close as if they were shouting their jubilation. Paul’s legs were now in the water. Its touch was cold – final! With a fresh wave of despair, Paul knew this was the end – the last, horrific moments of his life and that his journey with Aldwick had been for nothing. He almost gave in. Until, there came a new sound – a distant crackling, like the explosion of some firework. It got louder and louder and suddenly, every skeleton around him exploded, their forms incinerating, causing them to drop him. He landed on the skull floor and scrambled away from the water then looked up. Aldwick had woken up in the nick of time. He was leaning against the podium, eyes not quite open, but full of ferocity that Paul had never seen before. His eyes were glowing gold – the sun at the coming of the day, ready to tear apart the night. The skeletons who hadn’t been spontaneously combusted fled back into the waters, terrified of the magician who held out his hand for Paul to take. He was weak and Paul knew it. He only had enough strength left to teleport them out of here.

“Have you got it?” he asked, breathless. Paul nodded, showing him the jewel. “Keep hold of it! Ready? 1, 2... 3!” And with that, they vanished from the gloomy cave. Chapter 19 – Paul still found it hard to believe he had made it out alive. It was hours later, well into the night and Aldwick had managed to teleport them both outside a small market town, where he and Paul found a hotel and booked a room for the night. Aldwick immediately, after using so much magic, jumped into bed and fell asleep. He was still snoring deeply. Paul, on the other hand, was wide awake. How could he sleep, with all the recent, horrible memories still stuck in his mind? Skeletons, rising out of the churning river, nightmarish figures, driven to turn him and Aldwick into one of them. The images would haunt him for a very long time. He sat on the bed, staring at the now faintly glowing crystal, which was still warm in his hands. It was truly a marvel. Whoever had cut it had a remarkably steady hand. The edges were so fine they were almost sharp. How much was it worth? Paul wasn’t very good at guessing, but he knew for definite that what he was holding was probably worth more than all the money he’d ever owned - perhaps even millions of pounds. Though he guessed there’d be some really awkward questions if he tried to pawn it for that money. The night rolled on. After many hours of trying to sleep, Paul gave up and went into the bathroom to have a shower. He let the water run steaming hot. In a way, it was purifying him, from coming in contact with such foul evil. He was only hoping it would be worth it. Once he’d got out of the shower, he saw that Aldwick had woken. “Morning,” he yawned. “Or is it?” he produced a pocket watch from his waistcoat pocket. “It is. Three o’clock.” “Nice sleep?” Paul asked. “Yes, thank you,” he sighed. “And Paul... thank you, for what you did. You saved my life back in that cave. If it hadn’t been for you, I would be at the bottom of that dark river right now, one of the living dead.” “Don’t worry about it,” Paul muttered, running a hand through his sopping hair. “I mean it! You were incredible. I suspect anyone else would’ve panicked and tried to run away. I’m glad you didn’t.” “You’re making me blush!” Paul tutted, sarcastically.

“Well, anyway, we now have the jewel,” Aldwick said. He paused. “You do... have it... don’t you?” “Yeah,” Paul held it up. “Excellent!” he rubbed his hands. “Right, then, no time to waste.” He went over to the door, hung the DO NOT DISTURB sign on the handle outside and locked it. “We should do this when most people in the hotel are asleep. That way, we won’t be disturbed.” “Why?” Paul asked. “What are we gonna do?” “We are going to summon the entity of chaos, here, now!” “What? N-now?” Paul had a sudden sense of foreboding. What if someone did walk in whilst they summoned a god-like being? Why couldn’t Aldwick wait until they reached a desolate place where no one would find them? “Don’t worry,” the magician said, raising a reassuring hand. “It will be all under control.” But Paul wasn’t so easy. He was sure something, like in the cave they had escaped from would go horribly wrong and they’d end up dead... or worse. Even so, he didn’t protest as Aldwick produced a bog of powder from his pocket and began to sprinkle it onto the floor. How much stuff did he have in his pocket? It looked like he had nothing in them at all! The hotel room they had booked had a fairly big floor space, but it still wasn’t enough. Aldwick waved his hand and the two beds they’d been resting in flew up and propped against the wall, as well as all other furniture in the room, leaving a wide, empty space where he could work. A few minutes later, Aldwick had sprinkled much of the powder to make the same, archaic patterns which Paul had seen glow on the back of his own and the magician’s hand. All he did was watch as the man finished the last circle with a flourish. “Now,” he said. “Some candles!” He clapped and out of thin air, and floating, where five candles, each alight, their wicks stuttering slightly as they hovered up and down, eerily. They were all made of black wax, smoke curling into the air. “Lights off!” he shouted and all electrics lights in the room went out at once, leaving the candles to cast flickering shadows along the walls. Paul was bewildered by the preparations. “Is this all... necessary?” he asked. “Course it is!” Aldwick replied, fumbling once again in his pocket. “Wouldn’t be doing it otherwise? Cut the crap! That’s my motto.” “I thought it was more like Hakuna Matata?” Paul smirked. “What made you think that?” Aldwick demanded.

“Oh, nothing! You were only humming the song of it in the cave under your breath when crossing the river. I had no idea you were into kid’s films – “ “Oh, be quiet!” the magician snapped. “Aha!” he found what he was looking for. And, impossibly, he pulled out the biggest, oldest, leatherbound book Paul had ever seen. He just yanked it out of his pocket with ease. But the book was much too thick and bulky to fit into such a small space - another marvellous trick by Aldwick. The book itself looked like something rescued out of the ruins of a castle. It was ancient, falling apart and looked extremely heavy. But Aldwick was holding it by the spine as if it were as light as a feather. Though if it were dropped on someone’s head, it could knock them out cold. Bright, fading gold letters of a cryptic inscription were stamped across its cover. “A spell book,” Aldwick explained. “It’ll help me with the summoning.” “Okay,” Paul said, slowly. “I’ll stand well back.” He went up against the wall and let Aldwick do his stuff. The magician stood in the middle of the circle, facing the door of the hotel. He raised one arm up, with the spell book open in front of him in his hand. A second later, he made it float in front of him like the candles, so he could use both limbs to cast the summoning spell. “Ready?” he asked Paul. “I think so,” “Well, be prepared. What could happen next might shock you.” He turned once again to the book and read its contents out loud in a much more sinister-sounding language this time. He began to rotate his hands clockwise and slowly, the candles began to spin, round and round, anti-clockwise, tracing the circle in which the magician was standing. Faster and faster they spun, until to Paul, they were just a blur. Suddenly, Aldwick brought his spell to a climax and raised both his hands into the air above his head. The book dropped with a heavy thud onto the floor, where it lay open. Nothing else happened for full thirty seconds. Then, without warning, a blinding burst of green light exploded out of the pages surrounding the room. Paul shielded his eyes. Aldwick did not react – he had his eyes closed and hadn’t moved an inch. The light disappeared, sucked back into the book. But the ominous green glow it had emitted was now around Aldwick is a swirly aurora, as if he were radioactive. He opened his eyes and Paul gasped to see that the magician’s pupils had gone; devoured by the same emerald luminous glow that was surrounding him. It looked creepy, as if he wasn’t entirely human. He began to chant again, but this time it was faster and unnatural. He wasn’t

even hesitating or breathing. He had made odd movements with his hand in the air, where green, blue and pink symbols appeared, each burning with a different coloured flame for a brief moment, and then disappeared altogether. All light now vanished from the room and the two were standing in total darkness. But Paul could clearly see Aldwick as if it were bright as day. His form did not seem to be affected by the blackness. It was as if they had reached the bottom of the universe, where there were no stars and no planets or life. It was pure nothingness. The only things that existed right there were Paul, Aldwick and the summoning ritual which continued on. The magician stopped chanting once again and this time, the fast spinning candles exploded, creating a hovering ring of fire around the circle of symbols and around Aldwick. The flames fell and hit the powder on the now black floor and suddenly the powder lit up like gun powder, the brilliant blaze now the tracing of each archaic symbol. Paul knew that it should’ve been hot. But the fire seemed to not emit any kind of heat or smoke. Suddenly, the flames rose up, consuming the form of Aldwick completely. Paul cried out, thinking the spell had gone wrong and had turned against its originator. But then the magician reappeared, his eyes no longer glowing. His expression was grim. The fire died completely and vanished. The two of them stood in the darkness for a long while. Aldwick didn’t say anything. Nor did Paul, even though he really wanted to know what was going to happen next. As if in answer to his question, a low, sadistic giggle sounded from somewhere, echoing all around. It sent a worm of chills down Paul’s backbone. He recognised that laughter! He’d heard it on his stroll along the Cliffside. Before he could think another thought, however, he felt himself being wrenched backwards, as if pulled by an invisible hand by the scruff of his collar. Suddenly, he found himself being propelled across space! He passed million and millions of stars, nebulas, galaxies, planets and moons, glowing brightly against the grim, black backdrop. And yet, Paul knew he couldn’t survive in outer space without a spacesuit. But he was breathing normally. It was incredible. Aldwick was next to him, also being thrown through the vacuum of space, but he didn’t seem to be enjoying it as much as Paul. His face was set with determination.

They were going so fast! They must’ve been travelling hundreds of light years by the second. But they were going faster and faster, picking up momentum as they’d been catapulted by a very large slingshot. The passing planetary bodies, stars and other wonders began to whip past them in a blur. Without warning, they stopped. Paul found himself hovering near a large nebula – a red, blue and green cloud, shaped oddly like a sheep. Many stars and visible galaxies surrounded it, but were, of course, millions of miles away. The two of them were floating about a hundred miles away from the nebula, which drifted slowly by, ominous and silent. Paul found himself shocked by the silence of space. Of course, there is no air here and you need air to carry sound. The only way in which something could carry sound in this great vacuum was radio waves. But he found it very hard to imagine that so many things which could give off deafening noise – like supernovas – could be so quite. Then again, he thought, if anyone went near a supernova, they would be dead before they could even hear it explode anyway. They waited. Then, the sadistic laughter sounded again, more gleefully this time, echoing to every corner, it seemed, of the entire universe. Aldwick’s eyes were weary. Paul tensed himself up, expecting a huge space monster to come and attack them any minute. Without warning, the sheep nebula suddenly disappeared, sucked away from its place as if it was spider down a plughole. Then, Paul saw it and felt his stomach contract. Behind the cloud, had been a black hole. There was no mistaking what it was even though no human eyes had even seen one. It was a giant, gaping mouth, completely black, surrounded by the debris of stars and galaxies that had been unfortunate enough to be swallowed up by the inescapable gravitational pull. Even light was being pulled in. He knew that he and Aldwick were next, that before they could even say anything, they too would be taken by the monster causing so much chaos and destruction. But nothing happened. They stayed where they were, not even feeling a wink of anything trying to yank them in. Gravity no longer had any effect on them, watching as the universe was torn apart before their eyes. After a while, two streams of shapes, like falling ribbons were twirling and twisting their way out of the black hole, defying the gravity and heading towards them. They seemed almost colourless. Paul didn’t think it was possible, but he couldn’t identify the correct colour of those ribbons

as they revolved in space, getting closer. They contributed together, forming a shape, turning to a vivid, passionate crimson – the same colour as blood. The ribbons stopped in front of Aldwick and Paul, finally forming into a woman. Paul’s jaw dropped. Floating before him was perhaps the most drop-dead gorgeous woman he had ever seen in his life. Full-frontal feminine curves! Long, thick hair! A slender body, a nice arse, nice legs, nice tits! And yet, there was something that turned him off about her. Her eyes were glowing red, making her appearance seem sinister, put together with a sick grin on her face, full of perfectly white teeth. Her hair was black and her skin was really pale, with a purple tinge to it. She was wearing a long, black dress, which revealed her back and had her shoulder’s bare. She could probably make every model on Planet Earth seethe with envy. This was the true face of destruction. Paul couldn’t believe it. Chaos and carnage was in the shape of something so beautiful. Then again, he remembered the crystal, how pretty that looked to the eye. Aldwick said it could cause devastation on a massive scale if broken. So why should this woman be ugly? “Why, hello, Aldwick,” she greeted the magician, in a flirtatious voice, as if the two of them were once in a relationship. Her voice was normal, but there was a tone to it which was enough to make rattlesnakes turn and flee in fear. “Long time, no see,” True pain flared in Aldwick’s eyes for the first time since Paul had met him. He pursed his lips and said nothing back to the woman. He seemed angry to see her, as if he wished more than anything that she hadn’t spoken to him. “You!” Paul exclaimed. He’d recognised the woman. She was the one casting the silhouette on the Cliffside. He was sure it was her. He didn’t really have time to wonder how they could be speaking in space, when opening your mouth would let out absolutely no sound – he just dismissed it as something magic. Aldwick turned angrily to him. “You know her?” he growled. “Well, no, I saw her back near those cliffs,” Paul explained, sheepishly. “And you never thought to tell me!” Aldwick roared. “Boys, boys,” the woman said. “No need to fight over little me,” she giggled. “Don’t flatter yourself,” the magician scowled. “Oh, but Aldwick, I love flattering myself. Nobody else flatters the poor old Countess,” the woman said, playfully moping, but her eyes were alight

with wickedness. “Your dear young friend here merely glimpsed me. He could not tell who I was, so he probably thought not to say.” She turned to Paul and arched a pencil-thin eyebrow. “And a very handsome young friend you have here, too,” she purred, running a finger along the boy’s jaw line. Paul shivered. It was like being touched by one of those opposing skeletons in the cave. The feeling was ice cold, like death. She turned back to Aldwick. “You have summoned me?” she asked. “Yes,” Aldwick replied, stiffly. “And what do I owe the pleasure?” “Believe me, the pleasure is all yours. The reason I have come is because I want to make a deal.” “A deal?” the Countess echoed. Aldwick, with greatest reluctance, pulled the jewel out of his pocket. It glittered brilliantly in his hand. The Countess’s eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. “Is that...?” she breathed. “Yes.” The magician confirmed. “I am offering this to you.” Paul had a sudden urge to grab the jewel and hold it out of The Countess’s reach. What was Aldwick thinking? If he gave it over, she would surely use it to tear apart the entire universe! Then he remembered the reason for this whole facade – Karen, Denise! They needed his help. And right now, he was closest as he would ever get to it. “How sweet of you,” The Countess cooed. “But of course, there is a catch. What’s a deal with Aldwick Roxburgh that does not have an almighty catch?” “Whatever,” the magician grumbled. “Listen: I will give you this jewel and the power of total annihilation will rest in the palm of your hands. But... you must do something for us first. Paul, here, has been suffering quite a bit unfortunately. His mother’s ill, his sister’s on drugs. He’s been threatened to be kicked out of his home. And I know you can reverse it all.” “Indeed I can,” The Countess agreed. “But what makes you think I will?” “You won’t get this otherwise,” he held the jewel in front of her eyes. “I know you would do anything to get your bloodstained hands on this thing.” Bloodstained? Why had he said that? Paul wondered what made Aldwick choose that word. There was no blood on the woman’s hands at all. He could be talking about all the innocent lives she’d destroyed. Yet the word was let out of his mouth in an unmistakable breath of personal hatred. The Countess smiled.

“It is true I desire the crystal,” she said. “Such a pretty thing! Would go nice with my necklace. But why should I risk my neck in helping this boy out? He means nothing to me. Just another, small mortal human being, another figure in my line of purpose. And he means nothing to you, Aldwick, so why are you even helping him out?” Aldwick was stuck for words. He spluttered incoherently, trying to find the next persuasive statement. It didn’t come. “However, I never back down from an opportunity or a challenge,” The Countess went on. “I will agree to your deal, simply because it pleasures me to do so.” She yawned. “But let’s make it more interesting. How about we play a game?” “A... game?” the magician asked uncertainly. “Yes, a billiard game. I’ve always liked a bit of a gamble,” she said. “Your young friend here will play me in a game of blackjack. If he wins, he will have all bad things in his life reversed, no questions asked. But if I win, I keep the crystal fair and square and he’ll just have to do without my help. It is a simple proposition. It would be foolish of you to ignore it.” “And what if I refuse?” Paul demanded, sounding a lot braver than he felt. His stomach was squirming with fear. She turned slowly to him, tossing her dark hair dramatically. “Then that’s your lookout,” she said. “You’ll never hear from me again.” Paul looked over at Aldwick, who appeared to be slightly green. They met eye contact and the magician nodded encouragingly. It was all up to Paul. The boy had already made his decision. There was no point turning down The Countess’s offer after coming this far. To do it would be foolish and a colossal waste of time. He took a deep breath and said: “All right. Let’s do it.” Chapter 20 – The Countess flashed another, white smile, the wicked gleam shining bright in her eyes. “Hmmm, a player,” she got very close to Paul and inhaled heavily. “I like a man who takes risks.” Paul pushed her away. “Oh, aggressive too –“ “Piss off!” Paul snapped. “Let’s just play the game.” “Fine,” she said, snapping her fingers. The whole backdrop of space suddenly dissolved to be replaced by a billiard game room. Paul blinked in shock at the sudden transition of finding himself sitting opposite The Countess at a velvet-green poker table. Aldwick was standing between them, on Paul’s left hand side. There

was a deck of playing cards which he had conjured in his hands, being shuffled. “I trust you know how to play blackjack?” The Countess asked Paul, almost sweetly. “Yeah,” Paul said. “But I’ve got the feeling you’re gonna tell me anyway.” “Right you are,” she giggled. “We deal two cards between us. The aim is to get cards which equal up to 21, like two tens and one ace. If the number your first cards go up to is too low, you can twist, and Mr Roxburgh here will give you another card. If you feel you might have a winner, you can fold and wait until I’ve folded. The person with the highest number wins. However, if you get a card which goes over twenty one, you’re disqualified.” Aldwick dealt the first cards, two each for The Countess and Paul. “We’ll have a best-of-three game,” she said, conjuring a glass of champagne and sipping it. “Lovely,” she whispered. Paul snatched up his cards and looked at them, careful not to let her see them. He was feeling complete resentment towards the bitch opposite him. What a cow! How could she just sit there so casually when so much was at stake? Did she care? Then again, would there be any destruction in the universe if she did? The two random cards picked out for him were the seven of hearts and the two of spades. Nowhere near twenty one! “I think I’ll fold,” The Countess said, placing her cards face-down on the table in front of her. Shit, Paul thought. She must’ve had a good one! Otherwise, she wouldn’t be looking so smug. Then again, she could be bluffing, putting on a poker face. “I’ll twist,” he said, playing it safe. Aldwick flipped him another card at the top of the pile, not saying a word. Picking it up, Paul felt his heart sink. It was three of clubs! That made his hand a grand total of fourteen. Not an especially high number, but could he risk asking for another twist? “Come on,” The Countess said, impatiently. “I haven’t got all day. Twist or fold?” “Twist,” Paul said again, receiving another card. Praying this was a good card, he picked it up and winced. It was the jack of diamonds: twenty-four - too high! With a sigh of frustration, he threw the cards back on the green velvet, face-up so she can clearly see. The Countess smiled, flipping over her own cards. Damn it! She had the three of hearts and the two of hearts. Five!

She bluffed her way through! He felt anger bubble inside him and was half-tempted to turn the table over. But it would be stupid to do that. She might not like his temper and call the deal off. Anyway, he had two more goes left: two more opportunities to win... or lose. “Do you know why I love gambling?” The Countess said, lazily as Aldwick dealt their second set of cards. “I don’t think I care,” Paul said, bluntly, but she pretended she didn’t hear him. “It is because I think it represents life in all its forms,” she said. “A flip of a card could win or lose the game. A single decision, a chance or a gamble, choosing a certain path, could lead to great wonder, joy and success, or to disaster, misery and pain.” She licked her lips with relish.” “Can we get on with it?” “Certainly,” Glancing at his cards, Paul felt joy replace his annoyance and previous fear. He had an excellent hand! Two kings – one heart and the other spades. He tried to conceal his excitement as much as he could by keeping his expression blank. “I’ll fold,” he stated. The Countess looked at her cards. Even though she was careful to give nothing away, Paul could tell she had a bad hand. “Twist,” she snapped at Aldwick, glanced at the new card he threw her, and then folded, revealing all her cards one by one: a seven of clubs, an eight of diamonds and three of hearts. Not even close... Paul couldn’t help but smirk when he revealed his cards. The Countess looked outraged, glaring down at the pieces of paper, as if determined to burn them. Hatred flared in her red eyes and she tossed her hair back, pouting, but said nothing. She looked almost like a sulking schoolgirl. Oneall! One last hand and Paul could claim victory, if luck was on his side. Aldwick dealt them their last hand. The Countess snatched hers up and looked at them. This time, Paul couldn’t tell whether she had a good hand or not. She gave nothing away. He looked at his own cards: a five of hearts and an eight of diamonds thirteen. A seven or an eight would be preferable. But could he risk it, could he risk twisting to get a number which would equate to a number higher than twenty one? He had to. “Fold,” The Countess said, emotionlessly. Paul was sweating now. He couldn’t think what to do. She might be bluffing again, and if she was playing that tactic then he’d definitely lose. But he couldn’t stay at thirteen. It might not be high enough. He’d clenched his hands into fists, trying to show his opponent that he wasn’t panicking. In way, her little analogy had been right. One more card and

Paul’s life could lead to great things, or become disastrous. This one playing card would decide his entire future. “Twist,” he said, finally moving his tongue to speak. Aldwick picked up the top card and in one swift movement, threw it towards Paul. This was it! There was no going back now. He stared down at the odd patterns of the card’s back, praying for it to be the right number. If there was a God, he would help him now. With trembling fingers, Paul outstretched his violently shaking hand and picked up the card, feeling his heart doing a drum roll in his chest as he turned it over to reveal it. The seven of clubs! He’d done it! Twenty! That was enough to beat her. Paul couldn’t hide his delight. “HA, HA!” he bellowed, lost in his triumph, jumping out of his chair and throwing the cards down, face-up so she could clearly see what they were. “I’VE BEATEN YOU! HOW DOES IT FEEL? HA, HA, HA, HA, HA!!” Aldwick stepped back a pace, staring. The Countess, on the other hand, was smiling, as she too flipped over her cards, causing Paul’s jubilation to shatter like a broken mirror. She had the Queen of Hearts and the ace of diamonds. A queen equated to ten, whilst an ace could be eleven or one. It was obvious she wasn’t going to pick one. That would lead here with only eleven. She had got twenty-one exactly. He’d lost! It was all over. “NO!” he shouted. “Yes,” The Countess replied, grinning maliciously. “Best out of three – I have won two, you only one. I win.” “You – ‘’ Paul couldn’t speak. He was completely shocked. This couldn’t be! She’d cheated somehow. “No matter how many times you deny it,” The Countess snarled. “It won’t change the fact that I am the victor. I won, fair and square. Now!” she snapped at Aldwick. “The jewel!” Aldwick’s face had gone white. He too could not believe she’d won. But, unlike Paul, he was willing to accept that they’d lost. They had to uphold their end of the bargain. Slowly, he drew it once again out of his pocket and gave it to her. The Countess grabbed it from him and held in front of her, staring at it greedily. “It’s mine...” she breathed, running a long finger over its precious, glowing surface. She turned to both of their stunned faces. “Be gone! You have wasted enough of my time already.”

She laughed a high-pitched, shrill, insane cackle which cut through their very hearts. She seemed to be growing, filling the room with darkness. She was turning into a monster – her skin turned fully purple, her eyes seemed to glow brighter, her straight white teeth becoming horrible, sharp canines and elongated fangs. They were hurled away into the darkness, spinning, crazily back through space. Paul was overwhelmed and wanted it all to end. With a thud, his back hit a hard floor. He and Aldwick had returned to the hotel room – The Countess’s wicked laughter still ringing in their ears. They stayed on the floor for what felt like hours. Paul still couldn’t absorb the shock of it all. He’d lost the game! He’d lost his only chance to improve the horrible things happening in his life. He’d lost because of his naivety. The first fingers of dawn were already creeping in through the window. How long had they been gone from here for? Had they really left the room? Paul wondered whether it had all been some fantasy that had occurred in his head. The entire experience had been so bizarre – even for magic. Flying across space? Surely that couldn’t have been real. Slowly, he got up and sat there as the magician did the same. “Well,” Aldwick said. “We tried.” Anger once again flared up inside Paul at the man’s lack of regret. “’We tried’?” he spat. “Is that all you can say?” He marched across the room, grabbed a lamp and hurled it across the room in a bellow of rage. The lamp hit the wall and smashed to pieces in a deafening clatter. But he didn’t hear it. His own ferocity was making him deaf with rage. Aldwick stepped back in alarm. “Paul! What’s the matter with you?” he demanded. “WE LOST!” the boy bellowed. “WE LOST! ME BECOMING YOUR APPRENTICE WAS ALL FOR NOTHING! EVERYTHING WE’D GONE THROUGH WAS ALL FOR NOTHING! AND ALL YOU CAN SAY IS WE TRIED?!” He glared at the magician, his breathing heavy. There was a pause. “I am sorry that it did not go the way I intended,” Aldwick, said, in a small voice. “And I am sorry that we came off worse.” “But it doesn’t change anything, does it?” Paul snarled. “We still lost! I mean, you could’ve cheated or something! Now my life will never get better. We’ll still be kicked out of our house. My mum still has HIV. My sister’s probably still on the drug habit. I lost the opportunity to fix it all and you expect me to be calm?!”

“Will shouting at me solve it, then?” Aldwick snapped. He too was now frustrated. “If I can remember, it was your choice to come with me in the first place. I didn’t force you into any of this. So you don’t blame me for having come all this way and gaining nothing! You should’ve been better prepared for the consequences if we were to fail.” A stony silence filled the room. They listened as a milk float passed outside, wheezing along the road with the clatter of glass – the milk bottles inside the crates. It was very hard to believe that anything so ordinary could exist outside when so much had happened in here. “However,” Aldwick went on, with a brief smile. “Not all of it was for nothing,” he dug a hand into his pocket and, remarkably, pulled out the same crystal that he had given to The Countess. Paul’s jaw dropped. “What - ?” he was astounded. The jewel was exactly the same as the one they’d retrieved from the cave, still shimmering brightly with its inner glow. “The one I gave her was a fake,” he stated, calmly. “An easy replicating spell did the trick. If she had been a bit cleverer, she would’ve checked. But unfortunately, Miss I-am-the-goddess-of-all-chaos only has looks to flatter her. She doesn’t think much of using logic. The only purpose of her existence is to wreak havoc, not even sparing one single thought about it. She’s used to doing that. The only time she ever does think is in her little poker games, where she likes to play with peoples’ minds. Did you honestly think I was going to let her have it that easily?” “N-no, but... but it still won’t help!” Aldwick smiled. “Paul, you’re being too negative! Things never get better if you have that kind of attitude. Hakuna Matata!” He laughed. “Just bear in mind – things get worse before they do get better. It’s not too late for your family. Your sister could get rehabilitation. And your mother will find some way to keep a roof over your heads. These things just take time to fix by themselves. You never needed my help. All it needed was a little dose of positivity and one day – everything will be fine.” “You... really think so?” Paul asked, sheepishly. “I know so,” Aldwick said. Now Paul felt ashamed of himself. He shuffled his feet, looking at the floor. “Th-thanks...” he mumbled. “For everything... you’ve done. I’ve no idea why you helped me.” “Why wouldn’t I?” “Cos I’m such a bastard,”

“You’re not,” the magician reassured him. “You’re just a little bit... overenthusiastic. If you were such a bastard, would you give a damn about your family?” The boy shook his head. “Exactly,” Aldwick sighed, stroking his beard. “I have no idea what to do with this,” he said, randomly, looking at the jewel. “I’d like to go home now,” Paul said. “Right-o!” the magician said, walking over. “Back to the Freeman Estate. But before we leave, I’d just like to say, Paul that it has been an absolute pleasure having you come with me. I need to be in company with people more often.” Paul couldn’t help but smile as he outstretched his hand, ready for teleportation once again. Back in the funfair where it had all started, early morning. He was almost glad to see it. The magician and his apprentice shook hands for the last time and Paul left, walking home with a new spring in his step. Chapter 21 – Before Paul had even touched the front door handle of his house, he knew something was wrong. He didn’t know what it was. The house looked the same as it had done when he’d left it. Absolutely nothing had changed. But Paul had a sudden sense of foreboding as soon as his foot touched the doormat. It was an inner voice, whispering to him, telling him not to go inside, that he would regret it if he did. Ignoring it, he turned the doorknob and stepped over the threshold. A gut-churning smell threw itself instantly up his nose the moment the door creaked open, making him gag and his eyes water. For a moment, he wondered whether Denise had been, yet again, at the drugs. But this smell was different. Too different. It was an even sicklier scent than the incense any amount cocaine could produce. It was the smell of blood. Paul had no doubt of it. The odour was like rusty metal and he knew it all too well when he came across the corpse of Old Bart. That was an experience he’d never forgotten. And now, the same smell was in his house – everywhere! Dread began to fill Paul’s stomach, making him feel slightly sick. Was he imagining it, or was there a slight red haze on the landing as he climbed the stairs? The scent was definitely stronger up here and although Paul had both hands clasped over his mouth and nose, it was consuming almost all his senses. He tried to say something, but the stench clogged in his throat.

The source of the smell seemed to be coming from the bathroom. Nerves screaming at him, Paul reached forward and turned the doorknob, feeling the sweat trickling over his palm, sliding down the cold metal of the handle. He held his breath and opened the door. What met his eyes on the other side was possibly the most horrific and sickening sight he had ever witnessed in his life. In fact, he had to stop a second and wonder whether he hadn’t walked into some hideous dream. His mother was lying in the bathtub wearing her favourite dress – a soiled, crumpled, ink garment which she’d worn on her wedding day as a substitute for a snow-white gown. But her face was possibly whiter than any wedding dress would ever be. The reason for this – her body was drenched in her own blood, the crimson liquid spilling down the plughole. A deep gash, like a bloody mouth, sliced its way like an insane smile across her throat. Her arm hung limp over the edge of the bathtub. The bloodstained knife was on the floor. Her mouth was hung open slightly, her eyes were wide and empty. She was obviously dead. He stood staring at the grotesque sight for perhaps a full minute. Then the shock sank in and then came the anger, the grief, the misery and the pain. “MUUUUUUUUUUUUUMMMMMM!!!” Forgetting everything else, he flung himself at his mother’s corpse, howling in agony like a wounded animal, begging her to wake up, stop messing around. Her body just lay there, unhearing, unseeing. Why, why had this happened? He yelled and cried, his voice splitting the high heavens, clutching his mother’s head to his chest, tears leaking out of his raw eyes. He didn’t want to let her go. She couldn’t be dead. Not yet! Any second, he was expecting her to jump and say: “boo!” It never happened. She would never move again. After that, things happened very quickly and Paul couldn’t remember half of it. One second the police and an ambulance had arrived at the house after a terrified neighbour had heard him crying out and phoned them, then he was being driven along a street, then he found himself being talked to by demanding officers, with sentences and words he couldn’t string together. His brain was still filled with the same, horrible image of Karen Walker’s corpse. The remorse and misery cut him deeper than he knew any knife wound would ever do. His soul felt even more incomplete than ever, as he sat in the police station, still sobbing, though the tears dried up. His ducts seemed to have run out of them.

“Poor kid,” he heard one of the policemen mutter to another in the far corner, as they watched him pour out his sorrow. “A grown lad, but finding his own mum dead like that.” “Yes,” the other officer replied, sadly. She contemplated Paul, who sat in the chair, not taking any notice to either of them. “We tried contacting his sister, but no luck so far.” “How did it happen?” “Suicide,” the woman confirmed. “Apparently Mrs Walker was under a lot of stress. No surprise really. HIV positive, threatened to be evicted. My question is, though, where was he when it happened. Forensics studied the body and said she must’ve been dead for at least twenty-four hours.” “I tired asking him that. But he wouldn’t say anything.” The man too studied the boy, who had his head bowed over his knees in the chair, now completely silent. “We’ll see when he’s ready to talk.” Hours later and the results were the same. The police interrogated Paul and he only gave them one-word answers or grunts, not even acknowledging where he was. He was in too much pain. He wanted to scream but had no energy left. All he wanted was to be left alone. Why couldn’t they understand that? Unfortunately, Paul was not going to be alone for most of that day. The police, at last, managed to find Denise. She hadn’t been answering her mobile when they tried to contact her about Karen. But one policeman said that the doctors from the hospital had called, delivering some unwanted news. A man had found the girl convulsing violently on the street, having a very painful fit the night before, a huge bag of ecstasy lying next to her. She’d been out clubbing with her so-called friends when she had the overdose. And they just left her there, frightened of getting into trouble or being blamed for her condition. Thanks to them, Paul’s sister was now lying at death’s door in her own room at the hospital, wired up to all sorts of nightmarish machines. Quickly, the police drove Paul to the A&E, where the doctors told the officers that they were too late. They had done all they could. But the overdose had been too strong. Denise was already dead. No sooner had the grave information reached Paul’s ears had he fell to his knees and let out another pitiful cry of anguish. The surrounding doctors, nurses and patients looked onto to him with shame. They could not hide their sorrow for the poor, crying, heart-broken teenager, who knelt on the linoleum hospital floor, weeping, no longer knowing what to do. First his smother, now his sister.

Paul was officially an orphan and had no family left now. He was alone. Utterly alone... WPC Chandler had been a member of the police force for eleven years. She was a sever-looking woman, but that was part of her job. She had spent much of her life dealing with thuggish criminals who could simply look at a person and scare them witless. She, on the other hand, was not afraid of thugs, bullies, criminals and any other of the sort. They angered her, creating a fire in her soul, which never had gone out. Ever since she’d saved her future husband from a pack of Skull Smashers, she knew that the only thing she wanted to do was fight crime. Anyone looking at her would assume she had no strength to bring down a full grown man twice her size. She looked slim and feminine, with plain brunette hair. However, she had hidden muscles, exercising on a treadmill and lifting weights four times a week and had once made a boxer cry. The only thing she did was kick him in between the legs and he was down, bawling like a baby. Most people who say they knew her thought she was rather insensitive. “Not the friendly type, she ain’t,” But if anyone who ever said that saw her now, looking after a boy who’d just been through a terrible trauma, they would think differently. She had been assigned to look after Paul Walker, escorting him to the hospital from the police station and comforting him when he’d broken down after the fresh wave of misery had crashed down on him. She even stayed with him in the waiting room of the hospital, waiting for her superiors to decide what to do next, who were discussing the matter in another corner. She rested a reassuring hand on Paul’s shoulder, who sat next to her, silent in brooding thought once again, and said: “I’m going to get another coffee. Do want anything?” The boy shook his head, not looking up. Chandler got up from her seat and went over to the coffee machine round the corner. She felt slightly annoyed that her fellow officers were just sitting a few paces away, muttering under their breaths about whether they should throw Paul in a care home. He was seventeen, for God’s sake! Wasn’t he old enough to make his own decisions? Sure he wasn’t legally an adult yet, but she still couldn’t believe the nerve of one particular officer accusing him of murdering both his sister and mother simultaneously. She’d put them straight. As she was filling up her flask, Chandler suddenly got a cold shudder, making her shake. At first, she thought it was breeze from outside. But then remembered, there were no windows or doors around here. In fact, it

wasn’t like a breeze at all. It was as if someone had walked over her grave. She went back to the waiting room, expecting to see Paul’s unchanged figure, seated where she’d left him. But he wasn’t there. Frowning, she looked around the room. He was nowhere to be seen. Of course, he could’ve just gone to the toilet. “Rob!” she shouted to a fellow officer, on the other side of the waiting room. “Have you seen Paul?” The bewildered young officer shook his head, looking around too. WPC Chandler suddenly became worried, without knowing why. Where was he? She asked a nurse, a doctor, almost everybody in the waiting room, but no luck. She searched the toilets, the wards, even the morgue. But nothing. No one had seen him leave. It was as if he had vanished into thin air. In fact, he had. Paul just wanted to get away from the damn place. He’d used his magic to teleport himself back home. He wasn’t quite sure how he’d done it. One moment he was in the waiting room, the next, he was here, after a brief flash of whirling light. He suppose it was the result of the ever –pressing desire to get away from any policeman that did it and his constant thoughts of finding the horrors here. What had ever done to deserve this? His life had crashed and burned, lying in ashes at his feet. All because of... what? Why had his sister and mother been cruelly taken away from him? WHY? The question burned in his mind, an unparallel rage running in a river through his veins. He screamed in the utmost fury. He didn’t know what he was doing any more. He’d lost control. So he was completely unaware that he was throwing everything in the house in a fit of rage, blasting holes through walls, smashing the place which had once been his home. But all this time, Death had camped itself outside the front door, just waiting for the right moment when everything would go wrong. It took him several moments to realise that his mobile phone was ringing. He didn’t feel like talking to anyone. He wanted to throw the blasted thing at the wall. Reluctantly, though, he answered. “Paul... is that you?” it took him perhaps a second to recognise the voice at the other end. It was Richard’s mum! Her voice was choked, as if she’d been crying. That wasn’t anything unusual. Most of the time he’d seen her, she’d always been in tears. But this time, she sounded truly distraught . “What do you want?” Paul snapped, not caring about being rude. “It’s... It’s about Richard,” she stammered. “What about him?”

“He... He came out of the hospital a couple of days ago... on crutches.” “And?” “I know you two have fallen out, but...” she burst into fresh tears. “Oh, Paul... he’s dead!” It was as if the ground had opened up beneath Paul’s feet, threatening to swallow him up in a bottomless chasm. “What?” he choked. “He... he didn’t have a chance...” she sobbed. “He probably would have, if he hadn’t broken his leg. He might’ve got away. He was ambushed by Skull Smashers... because... they somehow found out... he was gay.” Paul said nothing. His hand shook as he clutched his phone. “Paul? Are you still there?” Staring into space, he hung up, letting her voice cut off. So now his best friend was dead too. Somehow, The Countess had found out she’d been tricked and in an act of revenge, had decided to destroy Paul’s life completely, killing off just about everybody around him, driving him insane with guilt and grief. He felt sick. He could almost imagine The Countess’s face, cackling at him; almost hear her shrill, triumphant laughter. This was all Aldwick’s fault. If only he’d given her the real jewel, none of this would’ve happened. A new current of anger was flowing through him now and all he wanted was find the magician, track him down... and kill him! He didn’t care about the consequences. Why did he have to go to that stupid magic show in the first place? Then he would never have got involved with things he didn’t understand. He knew where to find him – The Funfair. No sooner had he stepped out of the door, thinking that he’d already suffered enough, Paul’s foot landed on a copy of today’s paper, no doubt left by a paperboy who couldn’t be bothered to give it to the right house. He would’ve ignored it, but the headline caught his attention: YOUNG GIRL STRANGELED BY BOYFRIEND It was the local newspaper and avidly, Paul started reading it: Last night, police were shocked to discover the body of Louise Taylor, aged seventeen, in her bedroom last night. It appeared that young Louise was throttled violently by the authorities’ only suspect – her boyfriend, Jack Hillman, a boy already convicted with several assault charges. Hillman had, apparently, raped poor Louise before escaping the house out of the window. The police are doing what they can to find him and bring him to justice. Louise was a lovely girl, describe by parents as...

The article then went on about Louise’s life, stuff Paul already knew about. He dropped the newspaper in pure shock and defeat. That was it! He was going after Aldwick now. And when he’d finished with him... he was going after The Countess next. Chapter 22 – “ROXBURGH!” Paul shouted as he punched open the rattling gates of the funfair in a blast of blue energy. “WHERE ARE YOU?!” Something had taken over the boy and he was no longer the person he was a few weeks ago. He had become something which many people would cower in fear of. He had a psychotic glint in his eye, warning anyone who got in his way to back off. Paul smashed his way through the funfair, first the merry-go-round, then the coconut shy, then into the hall of mirrors. He smashed every single pane of glass. “ALLLLDDDWICCCKK!!” he bellowed. The magician was nowhere to be seen. This only angered Paul more as he trudged his way through the mirror maze, leaving destruction in his wake. He only hesitated when caught his reflection on a small piece of glass on the floor. For a moment, he stared. Who was it looking back at him? That wasn’t him! What he was seeing wasn’t Paul Walker. It was person in his guise, but with longer, matted hair, wild eyes and a contorted face, full of fury. He recoiled from it slightly, shocked that he’d transformed into something he no longer recognised, even when he looked into a mirror! Aldwick had heard the boy and came out of the ghost train ride. “You called?” he asked. “YES!!” Paul bellowed, seeing him and then shot a beam of blue energy at the magician. Aldwick was taken by surprise. He was knocked backwards, sent through the Screamer and with a deafening crash the entire rollercoaster fell on top of him. If it’d been anyone else, they would’ve been crushed. But Aldwick had used a shield spell to protect himself. He lifted the heavy splinters of wood off of him, his red cloak torn, his face cut and bleeding. He was just in time to see his apprentice, turned rampaging maniac, charge at him, yelling a strangled battle-cry as he did so, charging up another bolt of energy. This time, Aldwick was ready for it. He raised a single hand, blocking the attack, then raised the other, chanting an imprisoning spell on Paul, causing him to be pinned to the ground by a barrage of archaic symbols. Paul cried out, struggling to be free, but couldn’t move. He shouted and swore at Aldwick, who approached him with a slight limp and a worried look in his silver eyes.

“LET ME GO!” he was bellowing. “LET ME GO, YOU BASTARD!! “Not until you’ve had a time out!” Aldwick snarled back, keeping the spell intact. “What’s the matter with you?” Paul’s struggling ceased into silence. Realising he can’t do anything, he decided to give in. He started crying again as Aldwick looked at him with a pitying expression. “It’s... all your... fault!” he sniffled. “Everyone’s... dead...” “What?”Aldwick looked shock. “Who?” “Mum, Denise, Richard, Louise. They’re all dead...” Paul whispered. “The Countess... she realised it was a fake.” There was a long silence, in which Aldwick let Paul’s form go. The boy didn’t get up. He just sat on the ground snivelling. “I... I am so sorry,” Aldwick muttered. “I... I don’t know what to say...” Paul did not reply. “She tricked you, Paul,” the magician went on. “I think I know now. She tricked you, so all of this could happen. That’s what she does. She destroys people’s lives, so she can leech of their misery and despair. She did the same to me. She killed all the people I loved. My wife... My baby...” Tears began to sparkle in the man’s eyes. “But I carried on.” He said, his voice on the verge of breaking too. “I wanted to show her that people still can go on after they lose everything they have, even when they think they don’t have anything to begin with. She’s evil, Paul! She arranged all of this to happen to you and I am sorry. I should’ve seen it coming.” Still sniffing, Paul glared up at Aldwick with a tear-stained face. “’Sorry’?” he repeated, getting onto his feet. “Is that all you got to say?” Aldwick pursed his lips. “You think everything is gonna be all right now, is it?” Paul demanded. “Do ya? Is this one of your Hakuna Matata, moments?” “Paul,” the magician said, seriously. “There is nothing for you now.” “Don’t say that –“ “NO! Listen to me! You don’t have anything to lose. You’re still my apprentice.” He held out his hand. “Come with me. Travel around the world. Learn the art of magic. I can train you, teach you everything I know, and one day, we can strike back, get our revenge on destruction itself. For real this time. Please, Paul! What else, can you do?” They stared into each other’s eyes - the silver of Aldwick’s penetrating the blue of Paul’s. He shook his head. The boy didn’t know whether he could bear to spend the rest of his life in the hands of a man who he now loathed. He began to back away, away from the outstretched hand... away from the deal.

Aldwick didn’t stop him. He just looked crestfallen as the boy slipped further away from him. Paul turned round and began to run. All he wanted to do was put as much space between him and the magician freak as much as possible. He ran across the funfair, out of the gates, across the road... But did not see the car, hurtling at sixty miles an hour towards him... The last thing Paul ever saw was a pair of bright headlights careering towards him. Then, nothing. Aldwick saw everything: he saw Paul run across the road, saw the car coming, shouted out a warning. But too late. There was a sickening screeching sound as the car’s wheels span and the bang of a heavy weight as it rolled across the bonnet of the car, over the roof and smacked back down on the tarmac. “PAUL!” he shouted, running out to the boy, who lay, convulsing, blood beginning to drip from his mouth. He knelt over the dying boy, taking off his cloak, and wrapping Paul up to keep warm. “Paul, stay with me, you’re gonna be all right, you’re going to get to a hospital! Please, just stay with me!” the magician pleaded, the tears beginning to leak out of his eyes. Everything for Paul had gone dark and cold. He could no longer feel anything – not the pain, nor the tarmac beneath him. He couldn’t see anything either. He only heard Aldwick’s voice shouting for him to stay alive. At last, Paul realised what he’d done. How his desire to control everything had caused his downfall. Death was near. He could feel it coming. The magician stared down at his dying apprentice. He was deadly pale already and his breathing was ragged and unnaturally shallow in his throat. His entire body was twitching. At the back of his mind, Aldwick wondered why the person who’d carelessly knocked him down hadn’t stopped to see what they’d hit. But at the same time, he knew it was the final cruel act of fate and destiny which had decided that Paul’s life should end. He was too young! He had had a full life ahead of him. And now, those years had been compressed into seconds. Paul tried to say something, but it came out in a low sort of moan. He no longer had any control over his body. The violent movements began to slow. Aldwick checked Paul’s pulse and could feel it slowing down. Bump, bump... bump, bump... bump. “Farewell, my apprentice,” Aldwick breathed. Bump... bump... bump... The pulse went on for another few seconds... then ceased altogether. Paul Walker died.

Aldwick felt a moment of extraordinary stillness. How could this have happened? He’d encountered dangers far from the imagination with Paul, which could’ve easily killed them both. It wasn’t fair. Suddenly, a blue-white gas leaked out of Paul: from his nostrils, his ear holes, his mouth. It floated eerily in the air before Aldwick. It was the boy’s soul. It was waiting to be collected. Forcing back more tears, Aldwick produced a bottle and captured the gas inside it. He pocketed it again and looked back at the still corpse of the boy, now at peace. A shadow fell across them. Their company had become three. Looking up, Aldwick felt the very air grow cold as he saw who (or what) it was. Death... a shadowy, cloaked, skeletal figure, holding a scythe, great black wings protruding from its back. It stared down at Aldwick, as if waiting for him to speak. “He didn’t deserve to die,” was what he said to it. “And you shall not get this one’s soul. You hear me? Go back to the underworld, where you belong!” Death growled at him, but then disappeared in a column of black smoke, denounced of one other soul. Aldwick Roxburgh stood there in silence, looking once again at the boy he’d known briefly, but was no more. He bent down and pushed his red cloak over the corpse’s face. Then he turned and walked away.