The World That Does Not Exist
As Earth, the realm of science, continued the life of order, the magic realms beyond tipped into chaos.
Maya, woke abruptly on a clear night in London.
‘Tommy that felt real, bewitchingly real,’ she whispered to her pet tortoise in his vivarium across the window. Fully awake, she hugged her soft duvet. ‘I was in these dark woods and I saw a portal appear; you know, a doorway to another world. It had an intense blue light with lightning sprouting from its edges, and it tore the woods before me. Don’t worry, nothing happened to the woods; it was like a tear in a photograph, only it was a tear in the air. Through the tear I saw a chamber with a glowing fireplace. And then a wizard walked through!’
Vivid dreams were normal for Maya, but this felt like something else. Rubbing the goosebumps on her arms, she quietly sat up and swept her brown fringe back before leaning across to pluck Tommy from his world. Excited and frightened, she cuddled the small creature and looked through the gap between the curtains behind her to see if it was still night. Her heart sank to the bottom of her stomach when she saw the otherworldly grey sky. An ungodly hour, she thought, recalling what she’d read. It was a period of uncertainty, neither day nor night, when the dark arts were at their strongest.
‘I’ve still got some time before our big day!’ She sighed, giving Tommy another embrace before returning him to his pebbles. Maya and Jack, her not so-identical twin, were about to celebrate their thirteenth birthday. But that wasn’t for a couple of hours, so she snuggled down with thoughts of presents floating in her mind. Comfortable, she gazed up at the glowing stars stuck on her ceiling and gave a quick glance to her fluffy toys before closing her eyes. It wasn’t long before images of fantasy, of wizards, kings and magic rose in her mind. The images returned like a flash flood: slow at first, then quickening until she was swept into another world.
In her dream, Maya found the wizard at the edge of a small opening. He stood with a long staff in hand, studying a tall tower that rose over the woods, like a mushroom above grass. The blue portal was no more, but she didn’t have time to ponder this for the wizard turned to her and said, ‘Something’s wrong! It’s too dark. Stay here, keep an eye out, and leave at the sign of any trouble. Understand, old friend?’
Old friend? Maya looked around, wondering if he meant her, and noticed a small monkey standing quietly beside her. It was about half her height and frail, and it looked on with large, unblinking eyes.
‘Do you understand, old friend? Don’t follow. Leave if there is trouble.’
‘But Hopper prefers to stay by your side, by Torackdan’s side,’ the monkey said feebly.
Maya stared wide-eyed – a talking monkey?
‘I know you want to come along but something doesn’t feel right. Best if you stay back. Understand?’
Seeing the monkey nod, the wizard began towards a wooden door at the foot of the tower. Maya hurried after him, turning back briefly to glance at the monkey, but by then it had disappeared into the nearby undergrowth. Exposed in the open with the fading light, Maya felt her stomach tighten.
When the wizard reached the door, he knocked loudly with his staff. Seconds passed without a response. The wizard was about to knock again when the heavy door creaked open and a bald, plump figure emerged from the darkness, carrying a dim lamp.
‘Ebbelle!’ said the wizard extending his hand.
‘T-Torackdan!’ Ignoring the gesture, the plump man scanned the woods over the wizard’s shoulders, ‘W-Where’s your aide?’
His voice was scratchy and tense.
‘Hopper’s on another errand,’ Torackdan said, withdrawing his hand.
‘That is unfortunate; more company would have been welcomed.’ He ushered the wizard in. Maya snuck in before Ebbelle shut the door.
Inside was an empty round hall with winding steps at its centre.
‘Tell me, did you see anyone or anything strange out there?’ Ebbelle asked.
‘No! Why? What’s the matter? Why the darkness?’ Torackdan pointed at the faint lamp Ebbelle carried.
Good, good! This way then,’ Ebbelle said, ignoring the questions. He led the way up the stone steps. At the top, he placed the lamp on an untidy desk covered with scrolls and books, and rummaged on a long wooden table, lifting various bottles and urns. Maya looked around in the grim light and found that the tower opened up into a deceptively large circular hall with two balconies facing each other and a window at the far side. Her eyes raced around, looking at all the pots, pans, flasks, and herbs that covered the furniture and hung from the walls.
Torackdan spoke: ‘Allow me to brighten the place, light a few lamps’—
‘No!’ Ebbelle snapped returning with a bottle and two chalices.
‘What’s the matter? This isn’t like you, Ebb.’
‘It’s to do with the boy! The prince.’ He poured a dark liquid into the goblets.
‘The lost prince?’
‘Yes. Someone comes with news of him.’
‘Is it genuine? How can you be sure?’
‘You doubt me? Your friend?’ Ebbelle handed him the drink.
‘No! No, of course not.’ Torackdan patted Ebbelle’s shoulder and took a large sip. ‘With so many false hopes, I have simply grown doubtful these past few years.’
Both men remained silent for few seconds, lost in their own thoughts. Maya compared the two men. Torackdan stood like a statue: staff in one hand, cup in the other. Silver armour gleamed on his left shoulder. Underneath it his rich blue robes were draped like a Roman toga. Ebbelle was shorter, bald and more simply dressed than the thin Torackdan, but each boasted a long white beard. Maya’s attention was drawn to Torackdan; something about him captivated her more, but she couldn’t decide what. It wasn’t the heavy ornate collar chain under which he’d tucked his beard, nor the kindness of his face.
‘I see you have your staff!’ said Ebbelle. ‘Good, I’ll get mine as well. We might need them before this night is over.’
‘Hopefully not! These are peaceful times. I nearly left Konjiur without it.’
Torackdan’s staff was a single pole that twisted and curled at the top, where a large fist-sized crystal sat. Maya’s gaze shifted from the pole to Torackdan’s face and realised what captivated her: his eyes. They were two completely different shades of blue.
‘Who comes?’ Torackdan asked suddenly, moving away towards one of the balconies.
‘One of the enslaved warlords! A wraith! I’ve heard they’re a growing menace.’
Disturbed by the mention of an undead spectre, Maya shut her eyes tight, trying hard to dispel the hooded image forming in her mind, and slowly the images vanished as she slipped into pure sleep.
Sometime later, as the sun climbed the sky, a police car took the winding country lanes away from London. At the back sat, a scruffy blonde boy in designers: a grey hoodie, blue jeans, and matching canvas trainers. He stared sneakily at the two officers from underneath his thick blonde mop, thinking little and large – a perfect couple to dupe. He was desperate to escape, not because he had something important to do but because he hated being confined and forced to do simple things that didn’t interest him.
Today he had planned to visit the biggest library in London – The Big L, as he called it – to find books on myths, legends, and general folklore. He loved such mysterious things that science couldn’t explain. He called them ‘frontiers’ and London was full of them. Having read all the books at his local Ls, he was forced to make a perilous trek to the Big L where he’d hoped its supply of good books would allow him to learn more about his latest interests – ghosts and otherworldly apparitions. He dreamt of one day explaining these myths and other inexplicable ‘fantasy’ things, and becoming famous.
Keen to get going, he’d made a schoolboy error by breaking his main rule: be invisible. It didn’t mean actually being invisible – that was still in the realm of myth. For now he was content with doing things to simply blend in and not draw attention. He kicked himself for ignoring his inner voice and boarding an earlier train than he should have. For daydreaming, when he should have been walking alongside an unsuspecting adult as though he was their son. Two silly errors and one broken rule meant the ticket inspectors at Baker Street Station had stopped him for a routine check. The rest was history. The inspector had snapped his fingers and, as if by magic, David’s freedom had vanished. He was taken into custody, handed over to the police and, after surprisingly quick routine paperwork, he was being transferred to some correctional facility outside London.
Pete, the smaller of the two officers, was driving, while the larger one, Bruce, tried for the umpteenth time to settle his big frame into a more comfortable position. His constant movement irritated David, who had more than once contemplated kicking the back of his seat. Settling down some thirty minutes into the journey, Bruce flicked through the boy’s file and read it out loud.
‘Aka, Wizard or Wiz; what’d you like?’
Seeing an opportunity for distraction, he jovially replied, ‘David actually! That’s only for mates.’
His trick seemed to work; Bruce gave him a steely look from the mirror on his sun visor. David returned a comically innocent stare. The officer looked away, choosing to be professional and diffuse the matter.
This was not the first time they’d met. The officer didn’t recall, but David couldn’t forget any of the sixteen officers he’d had a run-in with. He remembered how the security guards, at an expensive clothing store in Victoria Station, had handed him over to this mountain of muscle. On that occasion, David had got the better of him by escaping while being escorted to the car.
Muscles! That was a good nickname. Muscles had chased him through the crowded shopping centre, down the escalators to platform 15 and through the station, where it had been easy for David to give him a slip.
Now Muscles snickered, amused by something in the file. ‘Wizard, always running away. Well, where we’re taking you, you’ll need all your tricks to get away. It’s no holiday camp.’
David ignored this. ‘I wanna go to the boys’ room!’ he wailed.
‘This isn’t a school trip. Hold it till the next services,’ Muscles responded casually.
Spotting another opportunity, David smacked the officer’s seat as if he found the statement funny.
Taken by surprise, Muscles turned back, annoyed, and stared into his blue gaze. ‘Listen buddy, you trying to be a …’ But then he held his tongue and looked away.
David’s plan was beginning to work: Muscles had given up using real names. With luck he may get his chance to bolt. Life as an orphan had taught him many things: how to survive, how to run and, above all else, how to get what he wanted with a smile. There was no need to get annoyed, ever. And he had all he wanted. The state had always provided the basics and the rest he had learnt to acquire or, as the well-off folks called it, steal.
Nevertheless, David always felt alone and empty. He couldn’t quite place what he wanted. Perhaps that was why he kept running away, searching for his own elusive Holy Grail.
‘… quite a file you have here,’ Muscles began again. ‘Being defiant, arguing. Trouble follows you like a shadow.’ Just then, the smaller officer shot him a stern look.
David ignored him once more. ‘Where’d ya say this holiday camp is?’ He knew that, as a minor and a serial offender, he had been assigned to yet another institute, a private one this time. That’s what the officer at the station had said: ‘a private residential home’. That worried him.
‘It’s a specialised place to help your kind of case,’ said the smaller officer. David dubbed him ‘Tiny’.
Those words increased his worry. A specialised place? He knew that only meant one thing: a centre for behavioural disorders. But what did they mean his kind of case? What was that supposed to even mean? He couldn’t understand why no one saw the simple answer: if they left him alone, he wouldn’t continually need to escape. Would he? Anyway, Tiny, the cleverer one, had thrown a spanner in his plans with his stare. Muscles had gone cold and needed some warming up.
‘I really neeeed to go …’ David said, watching the passing woods.
The officers looked at each other and exchanged some silent police code.
‘At the next services, when we have a cuppa,’ Muscles repeated carefully.
‘Step on it then.’
Concerned about the mysterious place, David settled back, pretending to doze off. He needed to know more and hoped the two would let something slip. Tiny was first to start, after he had feigned sleep for about ten minutes.
‘Mate, have you heard of this private centre – “Red Gate”?’
Muscles adjusted himself again. ‘Nay, can’t find it on the satnav either.’
David shrank further into the back seat. He wasn’t really as bold and snarky as he pretended to be; that was simply his way of dealing with trouble. Now, he was troubled about the secretive home that didn’t exist on the satnav. He told himself it was just a fancy name, but despite his best efforts, he wasn’t at rest.
Grand finales often have humble beginnings.
In London, Maya awoke to the sweet smell of Mum’s baking – a rich wisp of caramelised sugar – and the soft hum of her parents chatting downstairs. She recalled her dream and got a chill remembering how it felt. She wanted to speak to Jack about that … Then she perked up as she realised what day it was: their birthday, the first day of half-term break and Saturday. It had her excited and worried at the same time.
But first she needed to search her room. Her warm brown eyes snapped open and studied the sunlight filtering through the gaps between the curtains. Next, she looked up and down all the walls, concentrating on the corners and the edges, searching for her nemesis: spiders. She didn’t like them; they hunted her favourite, the butterflies, and then there was the matter of their appearance. She couldn’t decide whether it was their shape, colour or just how they moved, but she despised them. This autumn was particularly bad. In a newspaper article entitled ‘Spider Invasion!’, an expert had theorised that the unusually warm autumn meant they lived longer, fed for longer and were seeking shelter in homes due to the change of season. Maya wanted to be certain that there were none in her room, lurking to spring on her when she got out of bed. Luckily she found her room exactly as she expected it: neat, peaceful, and spider-free.
Satisfied, she climbed out of the bed, opened the curtains to let the sunlight flood in and retrieved Tommy from his vivarium. The miniature tortoise was least concerned and continued chewing on a small piece of carrot. Maya raised him to her face to tell him about her dream. She loved confiding her secrets to him; he was a good listener.
‘Tommy, I had more of that dream. It was so real – the wizards, the tower, the frightened little monkey. He spoke, fancy that. Imagine if you could speak? Should we tell Jack?’ She paused for a second. ‘I want to, but no, he doesn’t believe in magic and will only laugh. He doesn’t need to know.’ She placed Tommy on the windowsill where he slowly headed towards the window as she turned towards the bookshelf and began to play the books like piano keys. ‘Now, do you remember where I hid it? I think it was …’ Her fingers jumped from book to book: from Warrior Kings and Queens to Fairies & Butterflies to Modern Warlocks & Spells and finally to Mysterious Ancient Games. ‘Which one was it? Do you remember?’ She pulled Fairies & Butterflies half out, then pushed it back. ‘Ah, yes! It’s this one.’ She drew out Modern Warlocks and shook an envelope out from within. It was addressed to Jack.
‘Ta-da! Quickly now, let’s rush to wish him first.’ She tied up her long brown curls. ‘You know what? I should listen to Mum – mustn’t read books on sorcery and witchcraft and magic at bedtime. She’s right – they give me those scary dreams. But they’re all so interesting. Dad says you should face your fears. Imagine facing a real witch or a dragon. That would be scary but great! And what about a unicorn or a griffin? Mmm.’
She looked around for her slippers. ‘And think I am getting stronger? Jack didn’t realise I had a scary dream. Otherwise he’d have sensed I was troubled and rushed in. He always does, but last night he didn’t.’
Maya had barely finished speaking when there was a soft knock on the door, followed by a low, ‘M2?’