In her dreams, she saw Reverend Joseph. Lockview reappeared, and the villagers had tied her to a stake. The other Lockviewians had all been there – Richard and Caroline right at the front, shouting for her death. Courtney Cowell had been cackling in the distance, and Peter McDonald’s torch had been quivering in his trembling hands. The dream had been so vivid that she awoke with a start, convinced that her trip to The Cave had been a delusion. And then she saw the dragon anatomy charts, and knew it was all real.
She braced herself for the day, opening her room door to explore the hospital surroundings. The corridor was dimly lit by purple globular lights. They lined the mahogany panelled walls, and cast eerie reflections on the polished black floor. She could hear low humming noises from the nearby rooms--the sound of television. She was lost in her thoughts, wandering from passage to passage, listening to glimpses of otherwordly life on the other side of the doors, when she saw a man in a silk black cloak at the end of the corridor. He turned to her and stared, his mouth opening in surprise. When the man took a step towards her, Penny turned on her heel and ran away.
She halted. That wasn’t the low, husky drawl of Tarquin Blood, and why would it be? Penny knew that Tarquin had fled London, never to return. She looked over her shoulder and sighed. This man’s eyes were blue, and he had a goatee. Plus, his left arm was in a sling.
“I didn’t mean to scare you” he panted, coming to her side, “but in fact—”
He paused to look her over.
“Are you the new girl?”
Penny nodded once, not quite understanding what he was getting at. The man’s face broke into a wide smile.
“Ah! Marvellous! Where is your room?”
Penny pointed in the direction of her hospital room.
“Well, mine’s just here on this ward!” he said. “Er, but...do you mind if I take your photograph? Do an interview?”
“What are you talking about?” asked Penny.
The man’s smile faltered. He examined her face with puzzlement before gasping loudly.
“Of course; you’re not aware. I think you should come with me. You need to see this,” he said.
At first she was reluctant. The man looked a lot like Tarquin and the black cloak was disconcerting, but then she remembered seeing a lot of other men wearing similar clothes yesterday. It must have been some sort of warlock attire. With a nod of reassurance, she followed him to his room.
It was almost identical to hers, although this room also had a television: a misshapen, glassy orb that floated in the air, hovering in front of the wall behind the bed. The man picked up a controller from his chair and pointed it at the orb. A clear picture appeared of a news station, where a black mage adorned in a red velvet robe sat behind a news desk with the legend behind him reading Blood survivor residing in The Cave. Penny leaned forward and listened intently.
“—An insider spoke to our team last night to shed some light on the news,” The newsreader said.
The picture changed to show another reporter standing outside a white, austere building somewhere else in The Cave. He too was adorned in red robes, but he also carried a mahogany staff.
“Her name is Penny Dido,” he said. “Yes, she does come from the Outside, but we believe her DNA has changed to give her a Creep status, as it were. There’s still more to learn about her origins and how the Blood attack unfolded, but the news is still fresh and a press conference with the Gardien leader will probably be in order.”
The picture changed back to the mage newsreader. Penny sat down on the chair by the bed, her mouth hanging open as the newsreader began to speak again.
“We will get a statement from the Gardien leader very soon about the events of two nights ago, when the human, Penny Dido, sixteen, was attacked by Tarquin Dexter Blood, thirty. We believe she was the last of his victims, and the first to survive a Spine attack. This is interesting, isn’t it, Gloria?”
Gloria was a witch. Her skin was a murky green, lips full and black, with a mane of black hair that had been tamed into a demure bob. She nodded her agreement at her co-host.
“Very interesting. And good news, as well. Our Cave was acquiring a bad reputation amongst the Creeps from other countries, but with the survival of Penny Dido, we can finally gain control of the situation. We can only pray that the Cave Police and Gardien can get enough information to put an end to the reign of Tarquin Blood, before he kills anyone else.”
“Indeed. I also hope that Penny Dido isn’t too scared down here!”
“Yes; it must be awfully daunting!”
They laughed in a restrained way, trying to keep some semblance of professionalism.
“And now, the weather-”
“Turn it off, please,” said Penny. The warlock did as he was told and sat on the bed opposite her.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “I hope it isn’t daunting; we’re all right down here, you know.”
Penny eyes met his.
“Can’t be that all right; look at Tarquin.”
The warlock bristled, his smile faltering.
“This is exactly why I would like to interview you. My name is Dagwood Somme and I’m the editor of The Monthly Spell, the warlocks’ magazine. We warlocks have a hard time down here with the other Creeps – and it’s a worldwide thing. Now people have decided to use Blood to tar us all with the same brush. We’ve become the scapegoats of society once again! But, if I was to get a photo and interview with you, hot off the press, the Creeps will see that Blood is the only one of his kind!”
Penny ran a troubled hand through her hair. Despite her discomfort at becoming a mini-celebrity, she felt sorry for him.
“Why do you guys get a hard time?” she asked. Dagwood sighed and rolled his eyes.
“Long story! Let’s just say people have a knack for upholding silly traditions!”
Penny narrowed her eyes at him.
“What have you guys done?” she said.
At that, Dagwood’s face flushed and he stood to his full height, which was an impressive feat.
“Well excuse me!” he said. “I would have thought that you of all people, the one they say was ostracised in her village, would have more empathy!”
“Okay, sorry!” said Penny. “Enlighten me then! I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
Dagwood eyed her suspiciously, but sat back down and presented a scrap of paper to the table before him. He withdrew a fountain pen from his pocket and began scribbling a detailed sketch of an apple tree.
“Are you aware of the story of Creation?”
“Er, yeah,” said Penny. “God made everything in seven days … garden of Eden and all that.”
“No, our story. That’s the human tale. Ours is similar, but different.
“The word Creep means creature in the Old Language. En is a suffix that means holy. If you ever meet anyone down here with –en at the end of their name, then you know their parents are awfully traditional.
“Creepen is the name of our god. It – as no one is quite sure what gender It was – walked the earth millions of years ago, when the earth was just a rock in space. It cordoned off a part of the earth and began making Itself a family. To do this, a giant tree was made. The wraiths were made from the leaves of the tree, as they are fleeting and can disappear into the wind. The mages were made from the branches, forever reaching the stars. Witches came from the fruit; they were the race to give birth to plenty more, and vampires were made from the trunk: strong, immovable, indestructible. All the other races you see out there evolved from these, and as more races came to mind, Creepen had to make more fruit…”
Dagwood scribbled ‘werewolves’, ‘zombies’, ‘skeletons, etc.’ on the paper.
“But,” he continued, “warlocks were made from the roots of the tree,” he frowned, slashing his pen down onto the paper to draw ugly, knobbly roots, “it was so that we could hold everything together, uplift our god, but over the centuries, the story has become convoluted. People say that warlocks are the bottom race, the race Creepen hated, otherwise It wouldn’t have made us from below the others …”
Penny watched him thoughtfully, observed his defeated expression, the way he appeared to retreat into himself, barely noticing she was beside him.
“I’m really, really sorry,” she said, “I had no idea.”
“Of course you didn’t” said Dagwood, his expression softening. “How could you? You’ve only been here for a day! But as you can see, Tarquin Blood was the last thing we warlocks needed! I would love it if you could just give an interview…?”
Dagwood rummaged around his bag for a notebook and was just about to start asking questions when a knock came on the door.
“I’m sorry if you’re indecent in there but I must come in!”
Spink opened the door a tad hesitantly, and when he saw that Dagwood was dressed, he rushed in. When he spotted Penny, he clutched a hand to his chest and sighed.
“There you are!” he said. “I’m sorry sir,” he added to Dagwood, “but I’ve been looking for this girl everywhere.”
Dagwood looked decidedly uncomfortable.
“Ah, but we were just –”
“No time! No time!” Spink pulled Penny to her feet and started to drag her out of the room, ignoring her protests. “Look, if you saw the crowd outside, you’d be rushing too. They’ve taken all exits and you don’t want to be hounded by the press!”
“Wha-?” was all Penny could manage.
“Maybe we should have let you go yesterday. It’s madness outside.”
Dagwood chased after them.
“What about my interview?” he yelled.
“I-I promise I’ll do it!” said Penny, struggling against Doctor Spink as he pushed her past her room. “You’ll be the first!”
Dagwood looked pleased with this. He gave her a thumbsup and went on his way. Penny turned to Doctor Spink and asked him why they hadn’t gone into her room.
“Forrest and Riider took your belongings. They’re waiting for you in a carriage out front. Let’s go Penny – the crowd must be huge by now!”
The wards and corridors became more crowded as they tore through them. Creeps peeked out from behind their room doors and nurses and doctors stared at the pair, pointing at the new arrival. Green witches and bandaged skeletons, dreary-eyed warlocks and wraiths, materialising through walls, all appeared to witness this insignificant morsel of history being shoved through the hospital by an irate mage like an irritating child. When they finally got to the oak doors that marked the main entrance, Penny could hear a lot of chatter and noise. Nothing could prepare her for the sight that met them.
At first, she could hardly see anything. Then, the forms of camera bulbs flashing frantically next to excited faces swam into view. The reporters wore trilbies and trench coats as if they were auditioning for the roles and one witch hovered above the fray on her broomstick, filming the scene from a bird’s eye view.
“Penny! Penny Dido!” they yelled. It became a strange chorus, a football chant.
“Out of the way, for goodness’ sakes!” snapped Doctor Spink.
They pushed through the crowd, being batted and beaten by the hungry press, until the black horse drawn carriage came into view. Forrest and Riider stood beside it. The former looked worried; the latter was bent double, howling with laughter. At last, Forrest rushed forward, scooped Penny onto his arms, and brushed through the crowd, not stopping until he reached the carriage. Penny’s face flushed and she buried her head in her hands.
“Thank you, Doctor Spink!” said Forrest.
“Whatever! Don’t bring her back to this hospital again; this crowd isn’t good for the patients!”
He all but threw Penny into the carriage, and rushed towards the driver’s chair. Penny flopped into the soft seat with a thud. When Riider came to sit beside her, the stupid grin on her face dissolved Penny’s embarrassment, causing her to laugh out loud. Riider joined in, the pair of them clutching each other for support. Forrest shook his head as he cracked the reins, but his shoulders trembled, as if he too was finding it hard to remain serious.
Penny looked over her shoulder at the hospital. The patients were on their balconies, waving at her, and she waved back as the horses galloped away from the chasing press.
“Crazy, aint it?” yelled Riider, putting her arm around Penny. “Run, Forrest, run!”
Their carridge whizzed through the cobble-stoned streets Penny had observed from a vantage point the day before. It was difficult to see the city in all its glory at the speed with which they travelled, and yet she was mesmerised. It was an inverted, horrific version of Lockview. Every corner was inhabited by some element of the fantastical, and it was difficult to absorb it fully. Above them, the ceiling was enshrouded by blue clouds that swirled as if disturbed by a hurricane. She was entranced by them, and stared thoughtfully.
Riider noticed where Penny was looking and smiled.
“We’re pretty far down here, you know. The fog is an air purifier, just to our liking. If a human came down here – without suffocating first, mind you – they’d die ‘cause of the chemicals in it. Dead as a dodo, they’d be.”
“Indeed,” said Forrest from the front, “the toxicity is too much for human lungs.”
“So I’m definitely not human then...” said Penny.
Riider looked thoughtful.
“S’not all bad, is it? Look at Forrest; look at me.”
“True, but it’ll be nice to know what I am exactly.”
“For now, the press had dubbed you ‘The Spinead’ – one affected by Spine,” said Forrest. “I know it’s not a very flattering name...”
“Ah, it’s okay. I’ve been called worse.”
“The Cave specialist who discovered Spine will probably be able to do some tests on you, see what type of Creep you’ve been turned into. But he’s in Australia at the moment, so it will be a while.”
There was silence, then:
“Your life will never be the same, Penny Dido.”
“And a lot of people’re gonna want your story,” said Riider.
Penny nodded, and as she did, the other warlock came to mind.
“Yeah I know,” she said. “But not before I give an interview for The Monthly Spell.”
Forrest and Riider exchanged a stupefied look before Riider spoke again.
“Don’t tell me you bumped into Dagwood already?”
“Know him, do you?”
“Know him? He was only my boyfriend for a year –”
“All right, all right,” Forrest muttered. He cracked the reins rather too harshly and led them to a quiet street. Riider shrugged at Penny in a ‘well, what can you do?’ kind of way and Penny smirked in response.
"Are you hungry, Penny?" said Forrest after a curt pause.
“Good to hear, good to hear!” said Riider, “We have a full English for you at home.”
“R-really? Full English?”
“Um, with rat meat sausages I’m afraid," said Forrest, "although all canned goods are delivered from the Outside. Outside meat is mainly only eaten on special occasions.”
“It might be strange for you at first, but it tastes great, believe me!” said Riider.
Penny almost vomited there and then. The Sloans might not have been the best cooks in the world, and Penny had had her fair share of shockingly rare meat and hard roast potatoes, but it had still been wholesome human food. Her stomach growled in protest, and she frowned miserably.
“You’re a Creep now,” said Forrest. “Your taste buds aren’t the same.”
He shot her a challenging glare. Something in his eyes reminded her of Courtney Cowell's taunting expression, and she met his gaze evenly. Forrest smiled, a hint of both satisfaction and pride on his face, and turned back to the front. He steered the horses onto a paved drive outside a red cottage. Number Two, Closet Road.
“This is our humble home,” said Riider. “You’ll be staying here till further notice!”
It was easy to tell which things in the house belonged to Forrest and which to Riider. The living room was magnolia, framed by neat, square sofas and a cream rug to finish the look. However, on top of the rug was a pink florescent coffee table decorated with messy, home-made vases, straight from a beginner’s pottery class. There were cushions on the sofas that were bright and furry; the chandelier was made from green, see-through plastic. A chest of drawers was half furnished oak, half luminous orange.
Riider went into the kitchen and Penny followed suit. There were pots and pans on the stove and a small wooden dining set which Penny was pushed onto. Forrest tinkered upstairs before joining them.
“Well, chop-chop, Forrest!” said Riider. “Serve out the brekkie!”
Forrest frowned, his arms dropping limply by his sides.
“I’ve been slaving away on this all morning.”
“I know. Thanks.”
“Even though you promised me you would cook today.”
“Tomorrow then – promise.”
“What’s stopping you from doing dinner tonight?”
Riider’s mouth dropped open as if Forrest had just slapped her across the face.
“You can’t expect Penny to just stay in here!” she said. “We’re going out to eat tonight. Ain’t that right, Pen?”
“Yeah, I guess...” Penny was taken aback at being dragged so unashamedly into the argument.
“Won’t you help share out breakfast, Riider?” said Forrest, looking more dejected by the moment. Riider pulled a face and then started to rub her hands together as if trying to induce some sudden lost circulation.
“I can’t, Forrest. My hands are sore!”
The wraith shot Riider an incredulous look, but when he saw that Riider wasn’t going to give up, he relented and turned to the stove, muttering under his breath.
“Thanks, darling! Mwah! Mwah!”
Penny gave Riider a look of reproach.
“I don’t think that was fair,” Penny said. To her, it looked as though Riider had Forrest at her beck and call. Riider shrugged shyly and continued speaking as if nothing had happened.
“So Penny. Forrest said you lived in the Peak District.”
“The Lake District.”
“Yeah. What’s it like?”
“Well, I’ve only been to the national park once; my old boss took me there. It was really nice, actually, but I got confused; I just never understood why my parents hated the outside world so much, what with the Lake District right on our doorstep.”
“Strict parents, eh?” said Riider.
“You could say that,” said Penny, smiling ruefully.
“Forrest is strict.”
“No, I am not.”
Forrest frowned at Riider as he came to the table balancing three plates of eggs, beans and rat meat shaped like sausages. Once the food was placed on the table, Penny thanked Forrest and gave it a furtive sniff. The scent was mouth-watering enough. Knowing that Forrest had slaved away all morning pushed her to have a taste, and she found that it was delicious.
“Thank you,” she said again.
The trio ate in a peaceful silence before Riider spoke, her mouth full of food.
“Na, I waz lookin’ through your luggage, Pen, an’ I gotta a’mit, you ain’t got a lot of clothes.”
Penny couldn’t find the strength to be annoyed at Riider’s trespassing; she had seemed like that kind of person anyway. The wraith swallowed her food and gulped it down with some tea.
“So yeah,” she continued, “you haven’t got a lot of clothes. I’m not sure how you’re doing for money, but you should save what you have. Me and Forrest are loaded enough to buy some stuff for you.”
“Sure! After breakfast – shopping trip!”
Even though Riider looked happier to be buying something for her own wardrobe, Penny was still grateful. The looks on Forrest’s and Riider’s faces were of real care and it made her eyes water. She blinked back the tears, wondering why she had become so emotional.
“Thank you,” was all she could say.
“Stop saying that!” said Riider, “You’re our guest anyway.”
Penny chewed this over.
“You say that, but I hardly know anything about you guys. Only that you’re both a part of that Gardien thing.”
“How rude of us,” said Forrest. He put his knife and fork down and sipped a little of his tea before speaking again. “Seeing as though you have more or less told us everything about you, or rather, the very important parts, we’ll tell you the major events of our own.
“My family, the Gardners, is well known in The Cave as masons and timber merchants. I was going to take up the family business, and studied Design Technology at Greymalkin’s Academy, the major school of The Cave. However, as time went on, I realised that this wasn’t for me, and went into forensic science. This is where I met Riider—”
“—we were seventeen, and our teacher was this really weird skeleton who used to go on and on about his death. He was murdered, actually; killed by his brother in the eighteen hundreds. My family aren’t as important as Forrest’s or as rich—”
“—well, not rich, really. They earn a bit of money but—”
“—my mum’s a seamstress and owns her own shop. My dad’s a judge. At first, I only did forensics to please my folks; I’m a bit of a wild child, well compared to my brother, anyway. He’s a DCI. But being with Forrest made things really interesting so I decided to stay. And this was after me and Daggy split up, by the way...”
“...So we graduated from the Academy at eighteen," said Forrest. "Several years later there were reports of killings on the Outside. At first, no one was really interested, but then that Cave police officer realised what was going on and a warlock-hunt ensued.”
“How did you get drafted into Gardien?” asked Penny.
“There were adverts going up all over the municipal areas for experienced people. Gardien doesn’t require qualifications, but it helps if you know about forensics or if you’ve been in the police before. Anyone with detective skills can join. After a few fitness tests and a written exam, as well as a good reference from a previous employer...plus, you need an impressive CV—”
“—in other words, they don’t just accept anyone, really,” said Riider.
“But all the members have a strong sense of justice, or that’s what I’ve heard. Riider and I were the first members, but after speaking briefly to the leader yesterday, he told me that the other members have been chosen. I think we all have different reasons for joining, though. I know for me, Gardien is a great opportunity for jobs, experience and meeting new people.”
“I’m all for the opportunity too!” said Riider.
“Do you have any leads at all?” asked Penny. “I feel a bit silly, to be honest. If I knew Tarquin was so wanted I probably would have asked him where he planned to go, then you guys’ jobs would be easier.”
“Don’t blame yourself, Penny,” said Forrest. “You thought you were dying —you had enough on your plate! With Riider and I doing the rounds of London, and the other members doing their jobs, we should catch him soon.”
“Good,” said Penny. Forrest’s words from the day before were still on her mind. Thinking about the long list of women who had died, it frightened her to know just how close she came to death. Peter McDonald probably would have said it was God who allowed her to survive, but Penny knew in her heart it was just the luck of the draw.
“Did you ever meet Tarquin?” she asked finally.
“I knew of him,” said Forrest, “he went to Greymalkin’s, like we all did. He’s eight years older than us, but I still remember him around school. He was popular. I’ve never seen so many people crowd around a warlock before.”
“It’s ‘cause he’s smart. Really smart,” said Riider. “He was always winning awards here there and everywhere. Always doing some kind of invention for the school.”
“That’s what makes it so sad, and so frightening,” said Forrest. “That someone of that calibre can fall so low.”
Penny thought about what Dagwood Somme had told her about the Creation story. Even though she would never understand Blood’s thought processes and why he would want to run the warlock name further into the ground, a part of her wondered if the warlocks’ treatment was a part of the problem. She told Forrest and Riider about her conversation with Dagwood. When she had finished she voiced her concerns.
“Maybe he wanted to free himself of the warlock name? You know, do all this to put a finger up to society."
“I suppose so,” said Forrest. “That has crossed my mind quite a few times, but I’m not sure. I can’t help but feel there’s something more to it than that. He must have a more sinister plan.”
“But don’t be shy to tell us your concerns, Pen. You’ll be a big help to Gardien, I reckon, what with you being the only survivor. At this moment, you know more about Tarquin than the rest of us,” said Riider.
“…I never thought about it like that,” said Penny.
Riider’s expression brightened, and she beamed with excitement.
“Yeah! What if you even joined us? Became me and Forrest’s little helper. That’d be great, innt, Forrest?”
Forrest didn’t answer immediately. He made a fuss cutting one of his sausages and bit into it before facing the two women.
“You are sixteen, Penny. People your age go to school.”
“Aww!” said Riider. “Don’t be a spoil sport! Penny wants to be a crime-fighting superhero!”
The comment made Penny choke on her tea. She looked at Riider’s serious face ad burst into laughter.
“I don’t want to be a superhero!” she said. “But I don’t want to go to school, either.”
“The Academy is an excellent institution,” said Forrest firmly. “It’s the oldest Creep school in the world.”
“Well, can’t I think about it?” said Penny.
“…OK. But –”
“Ugh, who cares,” said Riider. “Let’s forget about it, okay? I’m so psyched to go shopping! Eat up, Penny!”
After eating, Riider showed Penny to the guest room on the first landing which Forrest must have been in charge of decorating. It was made up of neutral colours; the bed a pastel peach, the walls magnolia. A blackened bonsai stood on top of a beech bedside table and the orb lights were bright, enveloping the room in a golden haze.
“Come down when you’re ready, gel!” said Riider, closing the door behind her.
Penny flopped onto the bed, eyeing the golden orbs above the head rest. She was looking forward to exploring The Cave, but she had an odd empty feeling in the pit of her stomach. Despite this amazing world she had discovered, she was still an abandoned child. Lockview had been the worst place she knew, and she had always dreamed of living outside the Holy Borders, but there had been good things about it as well. The slow life, the empty streets that she would pretend belonged to a ghost town, and Peter McDonald, her only friend in the village. The pair hadn’t separated on good terms. She would never return to fix it. And what about Alex, her old boss? She had been spirited away without being able to warm him. There were a lot of loose ends back home, and it filled her with unease.