If you missed it, here's chapter 2.
Rowan wasn’t sure if he’d slept. How long had it been since Doremi and his wolf padded away from the cell, Fasol and Latido grinning smugly as they followed? It could have been minutes, or it could have been hours.
Thoughts flashed through his mind like a lightning storm. This could all be a dream. Perhaps the thunder had penetrated his sleep and bullied it into a nightmare.
Yet as Rowan lay on his back and stared at his blue nylon slippers, he knew that it wasn’t a dream. Marvin was right: he really was in quite a pickle.
Why had he been so scared of a little thunder? If he’d been stronger he could have seen the bandits off, screamed, scratched, bitten; anything to chase them from his dad’s bedroom.
Marvin’s voice startled him out of his reverie. The strange man had been crouched against the back wall, twirling his moustache in thought. Now he got to his feet and started rummaging in his waistcoat pockets.
Rowan watched him from the corner of his eye. After a moment’s rifling through his pockets Marvin produced a small ornamental owl, roughly carved out of sandy-coloured wood.
‘Watch the birdie!’ coaxed Marvin.
‘After what happened to Sir Reginald, I’d have thought you’d learnt your lesson about playing with birds,’ replied Rowan coldly.
Marvin’s bottom lip quivered, but he continued as if he had not heard the comment. He clapped his free hand down on top of the wooden owl, apparently squashing it into his palm. When he lifted it away, a bunch of plastic flowers had blossomed out of his hand.
Rowan sat up, unable to deny his curiosity.
Marvin was building to a finale. He fixed his gaze on the flowers and circled his other hand over the stiff petals. They began to glimmer, pulsing with a warm green light that illuminated the cell.
Rowan got to his feet and edged towards the glow, transfixed.
‘Barbarabell!’ shouted Marvin.
The light died instantly and the flowers withered into his palm.
‘Oh,’ muttered Marvin, ‘there was supposed to be fireworks.’
‘They’re sort of big glittery things that make a lot of noise and frighten cats.’
Something remained in Marvin’s hand: a perfectly round yellow slab, punctured unevenly with holes. Rowan picked it up, and realised that it was a reel of cheddar cheese.
‘I’m usually alright at the fireworks,’ mused Marvin, a little sulkily.
‘This is still pretty cool!’ enthused Rowan.
‘Exactly, food!’ Rowan exclaimed. ‘I’m starving!’
‘Oh, well, you have it, my boy, please!’ bumbled Marvin.
Rowan popped the cheese into his mouth with a grin. It was not particularly nice cheddar. But then, it had been fermented from plastic flowers. Even so, the familiar taste made Rowan feel warm, as if his spirits were being stoked up inside of him.
He was just swallowing the satisfying mouthful when he heard the groan. At first he thought it was his stomach, awakened by the small morsel of food. But then he heard it again, a long anguished groan like the sound of a ship breaking beneath a storm. It was coming from somewhere out in the passageway, from another of the darkened cells.
More noises rose up with it, pitiful growls and pained gurgles causing the air to tremble with sadness.
‘What’s going on?’ Rowan had to shout to make himself heard over the racket.
‘We are not the only creatures to have been taken prisoner by Doremi.’
Rowan edged to the bars and looked out into the other cells.
Shapes started to emerge from the shadows that drowned the surrounding enclosures. Rowan recognised the faces and features of familiar animals, but all them seemed distorted and transformed into a nightmare.
The opposite cell housed what seemed to be a giant woodlouse, rearing up onto its many hind legs and feeling at the bars with its fragile antennae. Its pale underbelly was tender and deformed with scarring.
In the cell next to that a bear lay hunched against the wall, its long snout resting on the bars. It was ridden with patches of raw pink skin, enormous bloody scabs littered like a plague between tufts of sodden hair that hung in limp seaweedy strands. It raised its mouth and let out another deep and mournful groan.
All around him arms and feelers, tentacles and wings were striving for the light and relative freedom of the passageway.
‘They’re hungry,’ Rowan said at last, turning to face Marvin. ‘They’ve all smelt the cheese you made! They want some too!’
‘I highly doubt a shaved bear is crying because he wants cheese, my boy.’
‘It doesn’t matter!’ Rowan was practically hopping up and down on the spot. ‘When you haven’t eaten for days anything will do! Make some more!’
‘To be honest it was something of an accident, I’m not sure I - ’
‘Please, just do what you did before!’ urged Rowan.
Marvin sighed, and within a moment another bunch of plastic flowers had seeded itself in the palm of his hand. The agitation of the creatures around them grew feverish as the glow from the plants spilled out over them.
As before, the flowers shrunk back into his skin. Only this time, it was a cucumber that remained.
Rowan seized it instantly and hurled the vegetable through the bars into the opposite cell. The giant woodlouse felt for the cucumber with its antennae, and then took it up in two front legs. A quivering mouth emerged beneath its grey shell, and churned the cucumber up like a wood chipper.
‘Again!’ cheered Rowan.
Marvin repeated the trick again and again, the result never being quite the same. The cucumber was followed by two slices of white bread; next was a jacket potato; then a steak cooked medium rare (this was thrown to the shaven bear and gulped down in one bite); then some dog biscuits; a baked bean the size of a watermelon; and lastly, a small portion of chicken chow mein, complete with takeaway food packaging.
With everything fed, the woeful chorus of animal cries fell quiet.
‘It’s amazing! You really can do magic!’ Rowan cheered. ‘You must be a wizard or a warlock or something!’
‘My boy, you really don’t understand.’
Rowan looked at him in bemusement.
‘I am a magician,’ he continued. ‘The magic I perform consists of tricks and little else. It only seems like more to you because things here are…a little different.’
‘I don’t even know where here is.’
‘Then allow me to explain. Sit down, my boy.’
Rowan took a seat on the cell floor, shuffling until he found a relatively comfy spot between a tree root and a sharp rock.
‘You’ve become sort of stuck just outside of your world,’ Marvin started, struggling to find the right words. ‘When someone or something has an inarguable need to escape their life, a little bit of your world breaks off and hides them. It creates a refuge from immediate danger or emotional trauma. We residents refer to them as the Pockets. These days only one person has the ability to count them all! They’re just the same as your world really, except for the changes.’
‘Every creature in the Pockets came from the normal world at one time or another. When they arrive, they get a visit from the Pocket Spirit.’
‘No one really knows, my boy. But he has more powers than anyone else. Some Pocket folk think of him as a god. Terribly nice chap, actually! He makes sure that no one will ever have to suffer the same danger or trauma again. Look at the woodlouse. If he found a Pocket because he was about to be squashed, he’s been changed so that he can never be squashed by anything. It’s like an exaggeration. That is why my powers are greater than those in your world who call themselves magicians.’
Rowan straightened his legs out in front of him and studied the length of his body. ‘There’s nothing different about me.’
‘Not yet, my boy,’ smiled Marvin. ‘But give it time.’
‘I can’t believe this!’ Rowan jumped to his feet with excitement. ‘I can’t believe that no one knows about this! They can’t have been around for long, or it would be all over the Internet!’
‘Difficult to say, my boy,’ said Marvin, stroking his moustache. ‘But you’re right, the Pockets can’t be too old. After all, this is the first great evil we’ve experienced. That never takes too long to come about.’
‘Typical. I find something as amazing as this just as evil’s taking over.’
‘They haven’t taken over yet! Although I am rather puzzled by their ability to create a portal into your world. It’s usually a terrible effort to go back once you’ve decided to stay.’
Rowan moved across to the bars and stared into the shadows of the passageway. ‘Why did they take my Dad’s beard?’
‘Now you’ve touched upon the strangest part of all, my boy! There is a bizarre condition of the Pockets that renders it impossible for anyone to grow any facial hair.’
‘But you have a moustache,’ said Rowan, turning on the magician.
‘Oh, you are astute! The success of my gloriously furry upper lip is precisely the reason I’m stood with you in this cell. I have a little secret, you see.’
Marvin reached into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out a rounded plastic tub. Rowan moved closer as he unscrewed the cap. Inside the tub was a thick white cream that smelled of gone-off yoghurt. Marvin took a smudge of it on his finger, and carefully dabbed it on his moustache as if applying hair gel.
‘Keeps it fresh, my boy! I’ve had to do horrible things to keep it hidden from Doremi.’ Marvin returned the little tub to his pocket. ‘You see, beards became an incredible rarity. People started to see them as an exclusive fashion, or a status symbol. Soon there was a black market in false beards, varying in quality from shaven hair to potato rinds. But Doremi has gone a step further. He cuts away the skin of the animal and somehow makes it live.’
‘He’s going to sell my dad’s beard! Then some horrible little Pocket man’s going to stick it to his face! I have to get it back before anyone buys it!’
‘Perhaps you don’t quite understand the danger you’re in. It’s only skin and hair, my boy. Is it really that important?’
Rowan remembered his dad lying still beneath the bed covers. He turned away from Marvin to hide the sudden moisture in his eyes.
‘He’d want me to get it back. I let him down. It’s the least I can do.’
‘Are you sure it would be your father’s last wish to put yourself in enormous danger?’
‘They never gave him the chance for a last wish!’ shouted Rowan. ‘So now it’s up to me. I’m going to get his beard back, whatever it takes.’
‘We might have more time than you think,’ said Marvin reassuringly. ‘Something has gone very wrong in the Pockets. For the last six months the air has felt different, like it’s going stale. Even cooped up in here I can tell it’s getting worse. It’s no coincidence that Doremi’s operation is going sour at the same time, I bet you that. He wants me to make a revival spell. You’ve seen his face, Rowan. The beard he’s attached to himself is dying. I suspect that they all are. He sees my moustache and magic and thinks I can save his business. Unfortunately for him, my moustache cream won’t help him. He knows I’m no use to him, and he’s getting desperate.’
Rowan still could not look at Marvin. His insides were slowly turning to stone. Doremi had promised to kill him if the magician refused to help. His life was at stake, yet Marvin still clung to his secret. For years Rowan had never had to rely on anyone but himself. How could he put his life into the hands of this stranger?
The creak of the passageway door jarred him from his thoughts. Rowan shot to the back of the cell as the boom of the door slamming shut again echoed around them.
‘It’s going to be ok, Rowan,’ said Marvin.
Rowan could see the fear in his face. Marvin had no idea how to stop Doremi. Even now he wouldn’t surrender his secret, not even to save Rowan’s life.
Doremi and his wolf loped into view, flanked by Fasol and Latido on foot. The creatures in the other cells shrank back into the shadows as their captors passed.
‘Time’s up,’ growled Doremi.
His tongue glistened through the holes in his cheeks as he spoke. Rowan pressed his back against the wall and shuddered.
‘Do you have what I need?’
‘Did you really believe that I would?’ Marvin stood his ground.
Something in Doremi’s icy demeanour cracked. His big eyes seemed to cloud over, as if drifting into some distant nightmare. He shuddered with a long, rasping breath and let his head hang for a moment. A loose flap of skin rested grotesquely on the bars. Then he exploded.
‘I need that cure!’ he roared, gnashing his teeth at Marvin. ‘This is your last chance. There is more at stake than this filthy little boy!’
Rowan waited for Marvin to make a move. Any second now he would launch a spell to engulf the bandits in flame, and they’d escape in a blaze of glory.
But no such move came. Marvin just stood in silence.
Doremi bared his teeth. ‘Fasol, open the cell and retrieve the wolves’ dinner.’
Fasol fumbled with a thick bunch of keys on his belt and moved to the cell door.
‘Just wait until the Spirit comes!’ shouted Rowan. ‘He’ll give me the power to crush all of you!’
Doremi tipped his head back and laughed. ‘I’m sorry, little boy, but the Spirit’s in no position to help anyone.’
As he finished speaking, the floor shuddered beneath them. Rowan felt the vibrations tremble through the wall.
At first he thought it was his imagination, inventing some kind of salvation to hammer defiantly on the walls. But then he saw the nervous glances of the bandits, and realised that they had felt it too.
‘Ignore it, just get the boy!’ barked Doremi.
Fasol fitted a key into the lock, cranked it around and opened the cell door.
The tremor came again, stronger than before. The lantern in the passageway dropped from its hook and extinguished in the mud.
Fasol dropped his keys and dug a fingernail nervously into the dent in his head.
Suddenly Marvin made his move. He launched across the cell, wrenching the door open and grabbing Fasol by the neck before he even knew what was happening.
‘Get the boy!’ boomed Doremi, shoving Latido into the fray.
There was an almighty bang, and the cell behind Doremi detonated in a cloud of mud and dust.
Rowan could see nothing. The other prisoners erupted in cries of primal panic as the floor shook so hard that Rowan struggled to keep his balance.
Something else rose up over all the other noises; the battle cry of some fearsome army poised to attack.
Read Chapter 4 now!