CHAPTER 5: THE CORRIDOR OF EDEN
Miss Sommer took his hand and led him from the lift, out onto the carpet of pristine grass.
‘Going down. It was lovely to have met you Mr Howard. I hope to elevate you again soon.’
The lift was gone…and Daniel wanted to be gone with it.
But he had frozen, staring with mouth agape in the middle of the corridor. His mind quailed at what his eyes were telling him. Round Daniel the corridor went very quiet as those within it stopped talking and stared at Daniel, whose mouth was open and drooling slightly. To the side, Miss Sommer and Mr Powickle also stood motionless. The director smiled, but Miss Sommer’s expression was still despairing. Both of them had raised eyebrows.
Miss Sommer huffed at him.
‘Are you going to go mad, or accept this and follow us?’ she said, gesturing up the corridor.
‘I think I might go mad?’
She groaned at the reply.
Daniel stood in a lobby with a receptionist’s desk to his immediate right and three corridors leading off; one left, one right, the last straight ahead. Dozens of offices lined these corridors. Their occupants came and went in all directions and ignored Daniel, even though he was making strangled gasping sounds. But that was where normality ended in this corridor. Slowly his head swivelled and he glanced down the right-hand corridor. It was carpeted with well-mown grass and had walls not unlike those that surrounded an English castle. Great veins of ivy crept along cracks and around entrances that looked like small portcullises. Upon the floor, rose-beds added colour and, set in the walls, wrought-iron candle mountings provided light. Within this alley from the Middle Ages strode, paced, and crawled a variety of creatures.
Daniel choked as two dogs walked past with a crocodile, chatting with three suited men before he backed away from a strange squawking noise. Looking down, he noticed two penguins shuffling by with files tucked under their wings. Strange voices emanated from further up the corridor and he saw several goats gathered outside one of the offices. As his eyes focused on the strangeness of this scene, the goats knocked on the wooden door of the office they were gathered outside with their hooves. They then shook their bells and entered. At the end of the corridor a small group of otters conversed, drinking tea and eating brownies with Kate from accounting. She waved at him…
…he didn’t respond but looked past her at the immense wooden gates that finished the corridor. Mounted on enormous old iron hinges and with only darkness beyond, they dominated the scene with their presence.
Daniel blinked, said ‘Err…um?’ then slowly looked left.
The half of the left-hand corridor that was nearest Daniel was walled with mud bricks for its first half. The remainder of the corridor consisted of and ended in densely packed forest intertwined with vines. Well-worn rock covered the floor and was sprinkled with sand and small pebbles. The flooring changed further on into dirt covered in leaves and with thin roots that looped out from below. Heat emanated out of the corridor as if from a furnace and a radiant bright light shone from an opening overhead. At the far end the ceiling filled with clouds that drenched the area below with rain; the ceiling was illuminated with flashes of lighting and growls of thunder.
The creatures that emerged from the offices were stunning. He watched as a collection of beautifully coloured birds flew over snakes of various hues and sizes. The snakes slithered through the leaves and roots upon the floor, coiling past four gorillas talking with two large cats. They were all taking sandwiches from Betty’s snack trolley and, worryingly, all now stared at him with looks of distinct challenge.
Quickly he decided to gaze down the last corridor.
His head moved under protest. It was accompanied by strangled noises as separate parts of his mind fought each other for mastery of his body.
Gazing upon the last corridor he could see it was by far the strangest of the three… and it was why his brain had decided to leave it until last, building itself up in preparation for the final onslaught on his fragile and fractured senses.
The corridor, or grand entrance way as he could have called it, was approximately twenty feet wide at its narrowest point. It then rapidly expanded along its length to well over double that. The opening was reminiscent of a huge igloo, with ice-blocked walls and icicle-filled ceiling. Within this opening, animals entered offices via doors made of opaque ice sheets. In the arctic area, more penguins of various sizes mingled with the odd polar bear and moose, and alongside these creatures were men and women dressed in parkas and snow boots walking upon an ice-rink-like floor across which snow swirled from an unseen source. As he looked on, a monkey skidded and fell, dropping its coffee cup with a curse before making its way back to Betty’s snack trolley while glaring at three laughing penguins.
‘That’s one big door,’ he whispered as his eyes shrunk from a scowling monkey.
Positioned at the far end of the ice corridor was an enormous door, round and imposing, that was made from a strange stone he had never seen before. Looking closely he could see it was mainly dark brown in colour, yet it shone with a luminance of brilliant red, blue, and gold crystals that had been set within it. Set across the middle of the door was an iron locking mechanism that centred in a large gold wheel.
But if Daniel thought this wasn’t bizarre enough—and he certainly thought it was —on either side of the door stood two huge baboons.
Each of these massive apes held a wooden spear tipped with a flint that also glistened with crystals. Eventually, Daniel recognised them for what they were…baboon guards. They wore leather jerkins under chain mail corsets that hung low so that they almost touched the floor. Draped around their shoulders were green cloaks adorned with blue and gold dragons, which were depicted as rearing up with wings spread and fire erupting from their evil-looking mouths.
Both guards stood motionless.
They stared straight ahead with eyes that shone deep-red from below their iron-spiked helmets. And they were oblivious to the pandemonium around them.
And no one—not a polar bear, penguin, or monkey—looked in their direction.
It was as if they didn’t exist—the whole mad world in front of Daniel seemed to ignore the existence of these two terrible looking monkeys.
Daniel decided it would be best to do the same.
‘Where am I?’ he stammered and received no reply.
A tugging at his right sleeve made him slowly swivel his head downwards, dreading what his eyes would discover.
A small monkey was tugging at his shirt sleeve and looked back at him with big round pleading eyes. ‘Are you the new Guardian?’ the little monkey asked.
‘Err…err…’ was all he could muster in response to his first talking animal.
‘Are you the Guardian? You know, the new one?’ A slightly agitated small monkey got no answer and reiterated his question loudly. ‘Are you the Guardian?’
No sooner had these words been loudly spoken than a hush filled the fifth floor and all eyes fixated on Daniel.
Startled, he looked up from the small monkey and surveyed the corridors, which were now filled with creatures eyeing him. He lowered his eyes back to those of the questioning primate, still tugging at his sleeve for an answer, ‘Err….who’s the Guardian?’
He dreaded the answer.
‘No I’m bloody not,’ he replied forcibly. ‘Now go away. Shoo!’
The monkey didn’t look convinced. It tilted its head to one side, ‘I think you probably are and just want to keep it quiet? Okay. Only you and I need know.’
Before Daniel could respond, it winked at him and loped away. Around him the corridor’s noise levels returned to normal as the animals and people continued their work on the bizarre corridors of floor five, Global Management Inc.
‘Come along Daniel. We haven’t got all day… and you have a Chairman to disappoint.’ Miss Sommer signalled him forward with her hand as Mr Powickle led them to the right.
Daniel followed obediently.
As he trailed his two guides, a walrus appeared from a cave followed by a polecat.
‘It’s not right!’ the walrus interjected in an incredibly deep voice, spittle forming on huge whiskers. ‘Those Japanese vessels are about as scientific as…as…something that’s not scientific!’
‘Listen Doris, I’m not disagreeing with you. I only asked if you want to come round for dinner on Saturday night? How on earth did we get onto the scientific surveys?’
Daniel realised the polecat was trying desperately to calm the large mammal.
‘Oh, Elizabeth, its types like you who bury their heads in the sand like him!’ The walrus gestured towards an emu, its head submerged in one of the rose-beds. ‘What time do you want me round?’
Daniel said a quick ‘good morning’ as they passed.
The walrus scowled; the polecat politely responded ‘Is it?’ before turning back to the walrus.
‘Anyway Elizabeth, you were saying that Wally wanted to mate again?’
‘Yes, he’s been polishing his tusks and balancing that damn ball on his nose.’
The polecat looked confused.
‘You know?’ the walrus continued. ‘The one I got him last Christmas. As if that’s going to impress me? Males! I ask you. Is mating all they think about?’
Daniel decided to let the question ride and beat tracks after Mr Powickle and Miss Sommer. As he hurried after he shouted, ‘Hey, look around you, we’re in the world’s biggest, and may I say most dangerous….’ he paused as he dodged past a Bengal tiger with a report in its teeth and finished in a whisper, ‘…petting zoo.’
Without waiting for a response he ran after the others, his head down-turned so as not to catch the eye of any other large carnivore.
Unfortunately, by looking down, Daniel didn’t see the rock python hanging from one of the chandeliers. Suddenly his neck caught on one of the loops of the large snake’s body. Before he knew what had happened, both he and the python were writhing on the floor in a mass of coils and swearing. Daniel froze as the nineteen-foot coiled killer disentangled itself from his upper torso and continued a discussion with a cockatiel. Quickly he got up and hurried after the others, the snake hissing at him.
But they had gone, disappeared past the huge wooden gates at the end of the corridor. Increasing his pace, he rushed for the guides who had done nothing to help him. He fumed at the companions that had not noticed, or cared, about his near death experience with the Amazonian killer.
‘They had not even looked back to check I was okay? Right…’ Daniel fumed, ‘…time for Mr Looney and Miss Perfect to get a piece of my mind!’
He burst into the end office and quickly came to a standstill.
Inside the wooden gates was an even mightier set of doors made from marble and granite slabs. These were etched with gold runes, each door standing as high as a house, nearly half as wide and held in place by two huge silver hinges.
Daniel touched the doors and found them cold to the touch, but moving his hands over the runes he felt warmth flow through his palms. Surprised, he pushed on one of the runes and discovered the gates were as light as a feather. Flummoxed by the fact that the doors would have weighed several tonnes, he peered past the mighty entrance.
Inside the others waited silently for him. Slowly he walked forward, sensing a presence that filled him with calm. With his head covered in sweat Daniel stepped inside the biggest office he had ever seen. Its ceiling rose into the open sky and the far wall opened out onto un-interrupted views of the countryside beyond. In the middle of the room a huge tree grew and, looking down, he saw that grass grew wild on the floor. Around him, poppies and other flowers emerged at intervals from the strange carpet. Ivy and wild roses were draped haphazardly upon the walls and set into the stonework; huge lights directed at this scene and illuminating it dazzled him.
Suddenly, Daniel’s head began to pound as his hangover returned and he was forced to shield his eyes with his hands. He noticed the others standing silently with heads down-turned and wondered what on earth he had gotten himself in to.
Should he run?
Yes, he thought. That was exactly what he should do. He should make for the talking elevator post-haste. Run and never turn back. Leave this madness behind.
Before he could muster his wobbly legs into action the colossal doors had closed and Daniel was trapped.
The brilliant lights went out and Daniel saw the ends of enormous glow-worms slither into holes in the two walls.
‘Sir, could I introduce you to Mr Daniel Howard.’ It was the director who’d broken the silence, and Daniel wondered who he was talking to.
‘Daniel Howard, may I introduce you to Mr Oldbark, the Chairman of Global Management Inc.’
As his eyes adjusted, Daniel directed them to where Mr Powickle was gesturing. In front of him, a great oak grew out of the floor with massive limbs of gnarled aged wood. Above him the limbs supported weathered branches that were covered in leaves that shone gold, red, and green in the sunlight. Within the branches, squirrels could be seen jumping from limb to limb and exchanging post-it notes or pieces of paper with each other. Peering downwards, Daniel could see that only half the tree was clearly visible; the other half lay below the grass floor. Daniel stood in awe before the huge oak as the realisation struck him that it was easily the largest tree he had ever seen.
And then the voice spoke.
‘Good morning Daniel.’ A clear English voice greeted him; the sound emanated from the trunk of the enormous tree. ‘I guess you’re wondering what on earth’s happening, aren’t you?’
Daniel replied while looking for the well-spoken speaker, manoeuvring to get a better view of the trunk as he did. Where was the Chairman? Daniel looked up into the branches. All he could see were dozens of squirrels, dashing, climbing and leaping from branch to branch.
‘I’m just here dear chap.’
From the direction of the voice he saw two of the deepest eyes he had ever looked upon. They swirled with joy and happiness, and were illuminated with wisdom and understanding. Centuries of time shone out, as if galaxies were trapped within those eyes, and Daniel stood immobile and staring into them, unable to avert his gaze. The mighty oak trembled, rustling every leaf. Before him, set ten feet up into the trunk, was a face. The bark of the tree was woven into eyebrows two foot long above the deep eyes. Below, wrinkles of wood creased a face that showed the passage of many years, and a moustache formed above a mouth that could have easily swallowed Daniel whole. A straight nose protruded to the left of the eyes, making the face appear distorted and not at all human in character. As he watched, two hands attached to a pair of large branches came down from the canopy above. Huge fingers of aged old wood leapt towards him.
But he was not afraid.
He knew the creature before him held no animosity, or ill will. Instead, it was filled with the most joy and happiness he had ever experienced in his life. And he knew he was meant to be with this aged old tree. The hands came closer. Then they stopped just short and stretched out a sole finger, and he moved to receive it.
‘Oh he is such an idiot Charles!’ Melody cried out and shook her head in despair.
The finger pointed to the trunk, at a small red squirrel looking quizzically at him. It was laughing.
‘Hello Daniel, the tree is just the office mainframe. Don’t worry. It’s a common mistake that everyone makes. I put it down to the family name. I’m Mr Oldbark, glad to meet you.’
Daniel’s eyes refocused on the small laughing squirrel and he glanced around the room for reassurance. He felt very embarrassed.
‘Okay, so the Chairman’s a squirrel. Best be polite.’ He whispered and then took a deep breath. ‘Pleased to meet you, Sir. That’s a computer?’ he indicated towards the tree behind the squirrel.
It looked back at the tree, ‘Yes, the most advanced in the world today. It’s an Oakmac with octo-branch technology. It has over fifteen mega leaves of memory and uses organic processors with root fibre cabling. We’ve just had it upgraded to Branches View software. But it keeps on freezing on us, hence the post-it notes.’
‘You could try root branch delete?’ offered Daniel helpfully.
A wonderful laughing filled the room, joined by the guffaws of Mr Powickle; it was mingled with groans from Miss Sommer.
‘Thank you Daniel. I’ll offer it to the head of IT.’ The squirrel smiled at him and rubbed his tiny chin. ‘Daniel, we’ve been waiting a long time for you my dear boy.’
Before he could react, the squirrel jumped into his arms and ran up his chest. It then placed its small paws upon his forehead and the room became a blur. Instantly he felt a warmth flow through him from the touch and a smile creased his face as he felt the effects of his hangover fade. Slowly the weariness diminished as the effects of over-indulgence flowed out through his forehead. He was about to say ‘thank you’ when the diminutive chairman jumped from him and stood swaying upon his hind legs. But the moment he jumped away and removed his paws, Daniel was aware that the hangover had not been completely removed.
‘No, take it all away. I don’t want any of it. I have no use for it, take it please.’
‘No Daniel, we must keep it to remind us.’
‘But I don’t need reminding!’
Daniel stood before the tiny Chairman, oblivious to all around him. Slowly the room came back into focus. He noticed Mr Powickle and Miss Sommer had sat down under the boughs of the incredible oak and were now engaged in quiet conversation. Above him squirrels continued to run through the overhead canopy, taking notes back and forth. All seemed oblivious to Daniel’s presence. He watched as they rushed around the branches and spoke to small faces set within the limbs above. Amazed at the sight, he saw Mr Oldbark’s eyes had closed. A peaceful humming was emanating from the squirrel as he swayed before him on his two hind legs, his tail vertical.
He tried to converse with the rocking squirrel which ignored him.
‘Is he okay?’ Daniel asked the Director who just smiled in return.
Above Daniel the dark clouds of the morning had been replaced with glorious sunshine. The sound of birds singing perched in the upper boughs filled the room. They chatted to the red squirrels that ran through the branches and Daniel looked down at the one swaying at his feet.
‘Seriously, is he okay?’ he asked Melody.
‘Just sit down Daniel, and be quiet. You’re making a scene.’
The old Director looked up with a smile, ‘How are you feeling, better I hope? It looks like the old squirrel has taken years off you. You’re positively glowing with energy, never would have credited it. Doesn’t he look like a new man my dear?’
She was looking directly into his eyes.
‘Oh yes, you look a lot better Daniel. I wouldn’t have recognised you from the broken-down, dishevelled mess from earlier.’
‘Thanks. I think.’ He did feel better.
‘Join us, join us.’ Mr Powickle asked, gesturing with the palm of his hand for Daniel to sit between them.
Daniel nodded and sat crossed legged on the grass with his arms outstretched behind him. To the side the great doors had reopened and a stream of animals made their way back and forth, stopping if they met an acquaintance or friend before continuing with their various tasks. Daniel watched bemused and laughed at an aardvark conversing with a camp alpaca about the autumn’s fashions before he turned to the Director.
‘Mr Powickle, what exactly am I doing here? I mean, what will be my new job title, my tasks? I just don’t seem the most obvious choice for anything given my history.’
‘Daniel, it is because of your history that makes you the perfect choice,’ replied the director. ‘Now do me the honour of calling me Charles and this is Melody.’
‘Pleased to meet you both.’ He said, shaking both their hands. He shook Melody’s for the longest period of time by far, then waited for Charles to continue his explanation.
‘Now the reason for your being here Daniel and your future job at Global Management Inc. is well… a rather long story I’m afraid. So get comfortable. Melody would you be a dear and ask someone to get us some drinks. Is tea okay Daniel?’
He nodded and smiled as Melody rose above him.
‘Charles! I got the last lot remember. Don’t you think someone else can get the drinks?’ she looked down and hinted with her eyes.
It was a gesture wasted on Daniel and he looked up, confused.
‘It’s not as if I’m your, or his, secretary, is it?’
‘Really? Then what do you do?’ Daniel asked perplexed.
‘What do I do? You’re asking me that! Charles! He should be getting the drinks, not me. I got the drunk the last one!’
‘Oh, well ask someone else would you. It’s not as if Daniel has got his bearings yet. He can get them later,’ He hushed the distraught Melody with his hands before facing Daniel.
‘I believe you make a good cup of coffee Daniel, well according to Rosemary that is.’
Melody butted in. ‘Oh fine, I’ll get them. But don’t you get used to it!’ She pointed a reproving finger at Daniel.
‘Oh, I won’t. That’s black with three sugars please, no lemon. Thanks.’
Melody stormed off, not bothering to respond.
‘Bit of a hothead that one, Daniel. I’d watch out for her if I were you. Anyway, on with the story then.’
He regained eye contact with the director.
‘Now, thousands of years ago a priest in Egypt was roaming the Southern Kingdom of the Pharaoh’s, and searching for the source of the River Nile. After having searched for months, he had become lost in the desert, miles from anywhere, and had run out of water. Finally, with all hope lost, he had resigned himself to a slow death in the sand.’
‘Where’s this going? I thought you wanted me to save the planet and not give me a history lesson?’
‘Please let me continue. It will all make sense, I promise. Now where was I?’ Charles collected his thoughts, ‘Err, yes…resigned to a slow death, and whilst he lay there in the baking sun a voice asked him why he was so content to die…startled by the apparition, if you will. He thought that the Sun God Ra had come to visit him or he had gone mad in the desert sun…’
‘I know the feeling.’
‘… the apparition went on to explain that he was a Shaman of some power. Scared, then realising the being before him meant no harm, he begged for water. The Shaman looked at him strangely and asked him what was wrong with the oasis behind him. The priest startled, looked behind him and there, where previously only sand and stone stood, was a beautiful oasis. The priest wasted no time in running to the pool and drinking his fill and once sated, the priest asked how the Shaman came to be there and where the miracle oasis had come from. The Shaman explained it was magic…ah there you are Melody.’
Mr Powickle paused while Melody handed out cups of tea. She sat down and ignored Daniel before facing the director and asking him to continue.
‘Have I done something wrong?’ Daniel asked the woman beside him.
‘You? Oh no, what ever gave you that idea? Please carry on Charles.’ She turned away from Daniel, leaving him completely confused. She had been nice to him downstairs, hadn’t she? But something had got under her skin. Something he’d done and he didn’t have the faintest idea what it was. Was it simply getting him two drinks?
The Director continued, ‘Ah…yes the priest and the Shaman. Well, the Shaman took the priest in as an apprentice, teaching him all about the magic he knew.’
‘A magic story?’ asked Daniel rather disapprovingly.
‘Yes, hard to believe I suppose, what with all the talking animals?’ Melody said sarcastically and made him blush.
Charles gave Melody a quick look of reproach and then continued. ‘The Shaman was lonely I think, relishing the thought of some company and so picked the priest, believing him as a man of god to be good. Oh, but if he knew what trouble he would unleash, then surely he would have just helped that man and then sent him on his way. No, that day the world trembled with the evil that he created.’
The director looked down at the grass carpet and beads of sweat ran down his forehead onto a face filled with anguish.
Daniel sat quietly, aware that Melody was doing the same next to him. He could feel the torment emanating from the old man opposite who seemed to have totally withdrawn into himself.
‘Tell him the rest Charles, or would you prefer it if I told the story?’
It was Oldbark.
Both Daniel and Melody turned round.
The Director remained motionless and so the squirrel continued the story.
Quickly Melody and Daniel shifted so as to give the Chairman their full attention. As they settled they became aware of more and more animals joining them, listening to the sweet oratory tones of the tiny chairman.
‘So sorry about having lost you there. I was just trying to get rid of the effects of Daniel’s hangover. It was quite a lot of alcohol to deal with for a tiny squirrel.’
Daniel flushed as Melody gave him a withering look.
‘Where had Charles got to?’
Melody told the squirrel.
‘Thank you dear. Yes, a terrible evil was released that day for future generations. But it was done out of kindness and not out of a malevolent deed. It was done for companionship and love. Eventually that Shaman came to love that priest like a son. Unfortunately, the love was returned with deceit, dishonour and murder. But we get ahead of ourselves.’
The squirrel paused and signed a letter presented by a penguin before continuing.
‘So, the priest took up the Shaman’s offer and travelled with him, attending to his wants and needs, picking shrubs and plants to make potions, and fetching food or water when required. The Shaman repaid the service by slowly teaching the Priest some small magic. How to turn a rancid wound healthy, mend a broken bone and so on and so forth.’
Oldbark paused again and his tiny features shifted before continuing, eyes fixed upon Daniel.
‘Then one day the old Shaman showed the Priest the Book of Lore. Within it he had listed all his spells and potions, his curses and cures. Have no doubt, Daniel, that this was the most fantastic and also the most terrible book ever written. Within it the souls of men and women could be twisted into horrible shadows, whilst creatures could be summoned from places that should never even be spoken of.’
The squirrel’s voice had become deeper as he spoke, filling the room with power. Even the sun seemed to have dimmed; all the animals sat perfectly still. A shadow seemed to pass over the office, dispersing as Oldbark’s voice resumed in its normal tone.
‘But it could also do fantastic things. It could lift men’s hearts at the moment of despair on the battlefield. It could bring joy where previously there had only been sadness. No, it was both a terrible and a wonderful book. Alas, it was with despair that the Shaman awoke the next morning to find the Book of Lore gone.’
The squirrel shook its tiny head and then smiled. ‘Of course the Shaman had not written the text in plain language that anyone could read.’
‘Sure.’ Daniel added encouragement and received a huff from Melody.
‘He had used a ciphered text, designed by himself, and covered that with spells of concealment. He knew that if he could catch the thief before he broke that code, then all would be well. However, the priest had deceived the Shaman about his ability, and he was much more proficient than the Shaman could have believed. And so, after a long chase, the Shaman came to realise that the Priest had escaped, and that the book was gone with him.’
‘The rotten little…toe-rag!’ shouted Daniel. He wanted to say something ruder, but he was not sure how old the monkeys were.
A soft hand touched his shaking forearm; he looked across into the eyes of Melody, urging calm, smiling at him and helping him regain his composure.
He smiled at her in reply, touching her hand warmly.
She blushed and added, ‘Daniel, shut up.’
All of a sudden he felt really quite silly and his cheeks reddened. He looked back at the squirrel and saw it was smiling, its eyes gleaming with humour. ‘Don’t stop my boy, let it out. Quite how I feel as well! Probably would have used wording more colourful than toe-rag, but we can work on that. Excellent, excellent!’
Daniel glanced around and saw all eyes were transfixed upon him. Behind him, applause emanated from the monkeys while squirrels jumped in the air and performed somersaults. At the rear, a huge polar bear roared and made a squirrel misjudge its acrobatic performance, falling flat on its face.
His red face was replaced with one of pride, a pride that he had not felt for years. Boy did it feel good.
‘What happened next?’ Melody asked. ‘Just trying to keep the story going before Daniel here needs me to go get him another drink.’
Sitting beside Daniel, her face seemed to radiate and her hair shone with the light of the sun’s glint on her black locks. Daniel reluctantly faced back towards the squirrel as the story was continued. As he did, Melody glanced his way and gave a brief smile before facing back to the storyteller.
‘Well, I shall tell you what happened next,’ continued Oldbark, ignoring Melody’s sarcasm. ‘The Shaman caught him two hundred years later, before he had chance to break the spell on the book. But it had frustrated and tormented him all that time.’
‘Ha…serves him right!’ interrupted Daniel and received another chorus of clapping.
Quickly Oldbark interrupted, ‘But you are forgetting how crafty our little toe-rag was Daniel. No, he knew he could not avoid capture forever and hoped to learn the books secrets beforehand. When that was evidently not going to happen, our thief in the night gathered a Sect of cronies together. He enraptured them with his knowledge and filled them with the same desire for power and evil. One he appointed head priest. He was an evil fellow called Mawdeen. With Mawdeen he plotted for the future, his inevitable capture by the Shaman, and then his release by his henchman. To Mawdeen he taught all the evil spells that the Shaman had warned him of, and many more he had created himself. Mawdeen was more than happy to have the power and succumbed easily, not knowing that the Priest took his very soul to do with as he pleased, feeding it with malice and greed. No, Daniel, this was only the beginning.’
The room had darkened again, a chill swept through the office and Oldbark continued with his voice now deep and resonant.
‘The Shaman trapped the Priest within the caves of the mountain he had been hiding in. Quickly he overcame the thief, entrapping him within a prison of granite, marble and magic.’
Daniel thought of the doors and the runes that lay on the surface.
‘There he would stay for all time to fester, ruing his treachery, to learn and re-learn the lesson of integrity and love freely given. And the Shaman at last had recovered his Book of Lore.’
Oldbark paused and the sun returned. His eyes, which had been shinning with a bright magnificence dimmed as he looked to the floor.
‘It would have been better if he had killed him there and then. The Priest knew all of the Shaman’s traits, and knew he would not be killed. Indeed, it was all part of his plan, and he had deceived the Shaman for a second time. For years, nothing was heard of the Priest. Centuries passed and all was good in the world. The people and animals lived in harmony and the seasons came and went while the Shaman continued his learning of magic alone.’
A wishful look came upon the squirrel’s face and Daniel sat up straight, confusion upon his face.
The Chairman had found an acorn upon the floor and was busy removing the nut from the shell.
‘Would you like me to continue Sir?’
Charles Powickle didn’t wait for an answer and gestured for the two sat before the old oak to follow him. Daniel got up and helped Melody to her feet and then quickly followed Mr Powickle. Glancing round the squirrels had resumed their frantic note exchange within the branches. The Chairman was quietly nibbling on the nut, eyes closed, and rocking again upon his hind legs.
‘Daniel, just how much did you have to drink last night?’ asked Charles looking at the squirrel with concern.
Daniel was about to answer when Melody did it for him. ‘I’m guessing a small brewery?’ she sprayed him with her perfume bottle again. ‘Which he bathed in after?’
They passed back through the doors of granite and marble, the runes twinkling in the sunlight as they slowly
and silently closed behind them. Charles led them back down the corridor of stone, stopping opposite one of the large wooden doors and then opened it with the big iron loop handle. The doors glided open into the most beautiful office Daniel had ever seen.
Inside the office was a large intricate window frame of old-fashioned stone with stained glass windows that allowed the coloured sunlight to stream through the office and onto the walls adorned with golden wallpaper. Gilt-framed oil paintings depicted magical scenes with dragons and knights fighting, wizards casting spells, and other wondrous illustrations. But by far the largest picture was set upon the right-hand wall.
Daniel studied this picture and saw that it portrayed two figures—one with a golden halo surrounding his head, and the other with a darkness so severe surrounding him that it looked bottomless. Both figures fought with all the world’s beasts and armies surrounding them. However, no matter how hard he tried to view those armies, his eyes were always forced back to the two combatants in the middle. Daniel was startlingly aware that the soldiers behind were just a sideshow and that the real battle was being fought solely by the picture’s two main antagonists.
He dragged his eyes away from the picture and looked around the rest of the room. A giant desk made from yew stood in one corner, with a beautiful stone chair behind. In the opposite corner, a desk made from crystal and precious metals stood with a wooden chair behind. Before both desks lay rugs and carpets made from wool or silks. The rugs depicted various scenes of the forest, the desert, and the arctic within their fibres. On top of the largest silk rug was a round table made of ice and around which were placed eight chairs, one of iron, one of large bones—while others were made of wood, marble, wool, and ice. However, the last two chairs, made from earth, vines, and roots, were the most striking. Placed on the table were glasses made from the same materials as the chairs. A bowl of gold was in the centre and filled with delicious fruit.
Daniel’s secretary Rosemary was already in the room and placing items in the in-tray of the right hand desk. As they entered she smiled and joined Mr Pinkbody who stood looking at Daniel from behind the large ice table.
Walking into the room before Daniel, Charles quickly pulled out the chair made of bones and sat down before signalling for Daniel and Melody to join him at the table.
Daniel looked at Melody, who sat in the chair made from vines and roots. He made for the chair of iron and tried to pull it out from under the table, struggling futilely before realising he could not shift it. Not a little embarrassed and aware of the smug look upon Melody’s face, he then tried the chair of mud and achieved the same result. Getting a little hot under the collar, he tried the chair of marble. Expecting the same result, or a broken back from such a heavy looking chair, he was amazed when the chair glided back effortlessly. Relived, he sat down and pulled the chair forward. He rested his arms on the table, and was surprised to find the chair not hard to sit upon. In fact, he thought it felt cushioned and the table of ice was warm to the touch.
Mr Pinkbody sat opposite in the chair of iron and Mrs Rosemary Littlebottom in the chair of wood; Rosemary smiled at Daniel with a tear in her eye.
‘Well I guess I should continue where Mr Oldbark left off. Hmmm…let me see.’
Mr Powickle paused in deep thought, his hands resting straight out on the table in front of him, his brow furrowed.
‘The Shaman continued his learning as you recall, unaware of the treachery from the Priest. You remember he had planned all this out, yes?’
Daniel nodded in agreement.
‘Well anyway, his evil accomplice Mawdeen did not remain idle. No, that malignant piece of humankind searched for his master. Day and night, year after year, decade after decade he searched but to no avail. However, Mawdeen’s master learnt even more magic during his imprisonment. You see his body may have been trapped, but his mind was not! No, his mind was free and that was a mistake. Better imprison the mind and let the body wander then the other way round!’
The Director shook as he made the statement and Daniel blinked at the passion displayed.
‘And so his mind went over all he had learned from that wise old Shaman and twisted and distorted it out of all recognition. What magic he had been taught to heal, he then warped into ways to create pain and destruction, whilst his understanding of animals he changed into ways of controlling creatures, perverting them to do his own evil bidding. But worst of all, he managed to free his mind from his body. He was no longer trapped—no longer constrained by that prison of flesh, marble and magic. And so his mind wondered the earth unobserved, free to learn. The Priest realised he could influence those of weak intellect. Kings and men fell under his spell, whilst animals heard his call and darkened their hearts to his bidding. Too late the Shaman became aware of his ability and influence, too late, too late…’
A tear had formed in Charles’ eye and he rubbed it clear.
‘The tide had begun to turn and all the Shaman could do was to attempt to destroy its source. He made haste back to that prison, intent on finishing it once and for all. But Mawdeen had got there first. Called by his master, he had broken him free and carried his withered body away into hiding. Now it was the time for the Shaman to search again. He was aware that with each passing moment the forces arrayed against him grew, both in strength and numbers. Many a time he was set upon by the Priest’s evil accomplices, and many times he defeated them. But after each battle the odds became narrower.’
Charles paused and glanced around the table as Daniel did the same. Melody was staring with deep eyes at the director, Mr Pinkbody sat stern faced with no emotion showing and Rosemary…was knitting!
Daniel had to look again, but sure enough she was knitting away and humming to herself.
‘Ah …Rosemary would you mind not doing that?’ said Charles, looking slightly perturbed and amused at the same time.
‘Oh Charles, I’ve heard this so many times before. I’m just keeping my mind amused, that’s all. Now hurry up, Daniel has a lot of work to do this afternoon.’ She smiled at Daniel.
‘Well seeing time is so precious, would you mind seeing if you could rustle up some lunch?’ Charles said in mock earnest.
A directed look of annoyance paired with a raised eyebrow met the director’s question. But Rosemary got up from the table and placed her knitting to one side, then huffed at the Director and left the office with purpose.
Daniel smiled at Melody. Judging by the look he received, he thought he would probably end up getting his own lunch.
‘Now, where were we?’ mused the director.
‘The odds were getting smaller…with the Shaman’s battles,’ replied Melody irritably.
‘Oh yes, thank you my dear girl. Hmmm… yes, the odds were indeed getting smaller. On several occasions he only just escaped with his life! The Shaman realised what the Priest was doing. He was testing him and finding his weaknesses. Gently probing him for the inevitable battle.’
Charles paused for effect and the room seemed to darken.
‘The Shaman knew that battle was coming, though he tried hard not to believe it. Not to admit defeat and plunge the world into war. So it was late when he started gathering his own forces. Too many had already succumbed to the greed and evil of the Priest. Still the Shaman gathered what little forces he could muster and made for the field of battle.’
The Director’s voice had been getting quieter to this point, but now it boomed out, deep and resonant, ‘For years they toiled! Many fell, good and evil, great and weak, poor, rich, animal and man. None were impervious. The earth moaned at the destruction being played out upon its hallowed surface and it spewed forth volcanoes and earthquakes in protest. Magic fought magic. Sword against sword. Tooth fought tooth and branch against branch. No living creature was left untouched. None remained neutral. The skies darkened and the sun was not seen for many a year, the forces of good began to tremble and weaken. The Priest saw his chance and struck. He amassed his forces for one terrible blow. A sledgehammer against a walnut, so nothing could stop his mastery, nothing!’
The word was said with such ferocity that Daniel shook as it was delivered.
Charles repeated quietly, almost a whisper. He looked around and catching Daniel’s eyes continued softly.
‘…nothing but the Shaman. Forward he walked. To the front of battle, a champion for good, glorious to look upon, and the enemies of darkness fled at his coming. The armies of light rallied. All would be saved!’
The director lowered his eyes from Daniel and the room darkened even more.
‘But it was not to be so simple. The Dark Priest accepted the challenge and made for the Shaman. None stood in the way of these two goliaths, those two gods made mortal upon the Earth. The mightiest shook and trembled as they looked upon the fight. Many a brave knight wept, turning his head to earth.’
The last words were said with disdain, even self-loathing, as if he, Charles, was one of those cowering on the ground.
‘No, the battle came down to the two Magics, one so evil it would destroy all, the other just as terrible, just as great, but good and full of healing and kindness.’
The Director pointed at the painting behind. Daniel looked around at the scene and he could imagine the battle, imagine the knights, heads down-turned and clawing at the earth and grass. He gazed upon the painting and realised the animals around the periphery weren’t fighting. They were fleeing or panicking before the onslaught of the two combatants.
Rosemary walked in with a tray of sandwiches and ruined the sense of drama in the room.
‘Have you not finished yet? God, but you like the sound of your own voice Charles. Daniel must be starving by now. Much left to go?’ she asked a flabbergasted Charles. ‘It’s just that I’ve got one of the monkeys to bring us some nice homemade soup.’ continued Rosemary innocently, winking at Daniel as she plonked the tray unceremoniously on the table and sat down, picking up her knitting once again.
‘I guess we could take a quick break whilst we get some food?’ the director said rather dryly.
‘Oh good, I’m starving.’ Mr Pinkbody said, reaching for the tray of sandwiches and attempting to grab a handful. Rosemary whipped the sandwiches away, then offered the tray to Melody.
‘I think you can wait until your betters have got theirs!’
‘Do we have any plates?’ asked Melody.
‘Oh, how silly of me. Lovelace, get the plates, would you?’
Rosemary smiled at the Marquee’s torture specialist who, without replying, got up, huffed and removed some plates from a cabinet in the corner. He placed one before all around the table before returning with bowls. He then went back to the cabinet before returning with a jug that had been on the top. When the plates, bowls, or jug had appeared Daniel did not know. He was still trying to remember when the cabinet had appeared. He was sure it wasn’t in the office when he entered.
It was Rosemary holding the tray out to him and smiling warmly.
‘Oh yes, thanks.’
He took a handful of the offered sandwiches before adding.
‘Would you like me to offer them to the rest?’ he could feel the eyes of Melody upon him.
‘Daniel, you are always so polite. He is, you know?’ Rosemary said, directing this statement specifically at Melody. ‘Always got the coffee, not like some other bosses!’ The last part was directed at Charles, who just huffed some more before snapping up a handful of sandwiches.
The door opened as a monkey carrying a bowl with a ladle in entered the room. Everyone, save Daniel, just continued to chat with each other as the monkey served the hot food; Daniel sat agog as his mind did further somersaults. The monkey left and they all started eating the small meal before them; the soup was the best that Daniel had ever tasted, a strange chicken and vegetable that was lightly spiced, and he said so.
Rosemary clapped, ‘O, Marcus the chef will be pleased. He’s been trying soup recipes for years and has always struggled to get it right for humans. Thankfully someone bought him a copy of Jamie Oliver’s book for his birthday.’
Daniel gulped, ‘Sorry? For humans you said?’
The Director coughed. Rosemary ignored the question, and continued to eat her meal.
Daniel realised she had made a small faux pas and out of politeness did not repeat the question, even though he really, really wanted to. With the soup finished, the monkey (uncalled for) re-entered the room to remove the bowls. Daniel did not notice as, much to his annoyance, the rather silly cabinet in the corner had decided to disappear again and he realised that he preferred his furniture not to disappear quite so often.
‘Would it be okay with you, Rosemary, if I continued whilst everyone eats their sandwiches?’ the director asked dryly.
‘You go right ahead Charles. Where did you get up to? Has the Shaman kicked the Priest’s arse yet?’
‘No… I was just getting to that bit before you interrupted!’
‘Don’t let me stop you, that’s the best bit. Oh, and don’t forget about the dragons!’
The director just stared with mouth agape at Rosemary. She returned the gesture with feigned innocence before continuing her knitting.
After regaining his composure, he continued his storytelling. The room seemed to darken and all eyes fixed upon him save for Rosemary’s; she was humming away and knitting.
‘The forces of good and evil quailed in the shadows of their masters. These two terrible champions faced each other. Overhead thunder roared and lighting struck the ground. Lava erupted from the earth in rivers of molten liquid rock, destroying many. But amid all this warred the two chief antagonists. Magic flowed between them, ripping the air asunder, and tossing those close by like rags into the deadly lava flows. For days they raged through the battlefield, two tornadoes that discarded all before them and tore the earth into a wild morass. Then the Priest began to get the upper hand and the Shaman weakened. The armies of dark rejoiced. Those of light begged the Shaman to win, to rally to their cause. Losing was too terrible to contemplate.’
He looked around the room, a twinkle in his eye, stopping at Daniel.
‘And then came the Dragons!’
He was pointing again at the painting. Daniel looked again and saw the flight of dragons in the top left of the painting led by the largest, deep red monster. Behind this colossal red were dozens of different coloured dragons. There were gold, blue, silver, and bronze dragons that varied in size and shape. In fact, the only thing in common among the group of dragons, apart from being vaguely dragon-shaped, was the fire coming from their mouths.
The oratory continued. ‘Yes Daniel, the dragons. It was they who turned the battle. Born of magic they were most immune to its effects. It was they who decided who would win. They struck the dark lord with their fire, but many where slain by his hand or that of his chief lieutenant Mawdeen, who had come to his master’s help. But Mawdeen’s assistance was to little avail, and the dragons bathed the Priest in fire so hot, it would have melted an iron-clad knight in seconds. The Priest could not withstand their fury and went to flee. Then the Shaman hit him with a spell of which the like has not been used since. The earth moaned and mountains crumbled. Rivers fell into the earth as others erupted out of the sea clearing away hills and gorging their path. And the dark lord, the Priest of ultimate evil, was imprisoned. He never darkened the earth again. His armies fell on their faces and begged for mercy. Good had won. The armies of light erupted with joy as the clouds cleared and the sun shone again upon the world.’
The room lightened and everyone let out a sigh. The director now smiled as he leant back; his task complete and the narration over.
Daniel sat back in the chair of marble. His heart now beat joyously, and when he looked across at Melody he saw she was also looking at him. He smiled at her and then quickly turned away blushing. Melody scowled in reply before conversing with the others around the table.
He glanced at Charles who stared fixedly at him with a knowing smile. The director sat waiting for a question, ready to answer.
Daniel knew the question…
…but also dreaded the answer.
The director kept staring.
He asked the question; so quietly at first that the director had to ask him to repeat it.
An expectant hush settled on the table as he cleared his throat and asked again.
‘So what happened to the Shaman?’
The director nodded his head. He was pleased with the question and more importantly with who had asked it.
‘Only Mawdeen offered resistance.’
Darkness fell upon the room, but the clouds outside allowed a single shaft of light to enter. It played upon the stained glass window and threw different colours across the paintings and people within.
‘Yes, only Mawdeen. I say only lightly, because Mawdeen himself was a great magician, a master of the dark arts. We must also remember that the Priest held his soul, his very being. So seeing his master destroyed he thought of nothing but revenge and quickly cast his spell. The Shaman reacted to counter the blow but, weakened from the battle, could not stop the evil magic. Instantly he was entombed as the Priest had been centuries before. The armies of good watched on as their saviour was smote down and then turned upon the antagonist. Mawdeen was himself weakened and fled the field while being chased by the dragons. Neither he nor the Shaman were ever seen again.’
Daniel continued to watch the director. Aware of the others, he was unable to shift his gaze from the man before him.
Charles required another question.
Again he was afraid to ask.
Minutes seem to stretch before him and he knew that if he asked the question his life would never be the same again. No more boring days at work, no more pub quizzes, no more little beige flat.
He did not know whether to ask the question.
Daniel decided not to.
‘Wimp!’ The voice in his head had returned, ‘You ask the question now. Or before the end of the day I will have made you as mad as a polar bear that has just come home to find you eating his dinner with your arm wrapped around his wife.’
He was not overjoyed to have his little voice back. However, he had the feeling that unless he asked the question, the voice would do exactly as it had said. He looked squarely at Charles, took a deep breath and asked the question.
‘So what on earth do you want me to do?’
‘We want you to retrieve the cactus you’ve been worrying about, Daniel. That’s all.’