ITHOUGHTSpits would have a sore head when he awoke, but he was in fine form - he said he never suffered from hangovers. He spent the day tidying up the shack, putting everything in order in case he ever returned. He stashed a jug of poteen away in a corner and packed the rest in a large sack he planned to carry slung over his shoulder, along with spare clothes, his fishing net, some potatoes and dried fish slices. Harkat and I had almost nothing to carry - apart from the panthers teeth and gelatinous globes, most of which we'd managed to hang on to - so we offered to divide Spits's load between us, but he wouldn't hear of it. "Every man to a cross of his own," he muttered.


We took it easy during the day. I hacked my hair back from my eyes with one of Spits's rusty blades. We'd replaced our handmade knives, most of which we'd lost in the lake, with real knives that Spits had lying around.

Harkat stitched together holes in his robes with bits of old string.

When night fell, we set off, heading due southeast towards a mountain range in the distance. Spits was surprisingly morose to be leaving his shack - "'Tis the closest thing to a home I've had since running away t' sea when I was twelve," he sighed - but several swigs of poteen improved his mood and by midnight he was singing and joking.

I was worried that Spits would collapse - his legs were wobbling worse than the jelly-like globes we were carting - but as drunk as he got, his pace never wavered, though he did stop quite often to "bail out the bilge water". When we made camp beneath a bushy tree in the morning, he fell straight asleep and snored loudly all day long. He woke shortly before sunset, licked his lips and reached for the poteen.

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The weather worsened over the next few nights, as we left the lowlands and scaled the mountains. It rained almost constantly, harder than before, soaking our clothes and leaving us wet, cold and miserable - except Spits, whose poteen warmed and cheered him up whatever the conditions. I decided to try some of Spits's home-brewed concoction, to see if it would combat the gloom. One swallow later, I was rolling on the ground, gasping for breath, eyes bulging. Spits laughed while Harkat poured water down my throat, then urged me to try it again. "The first dram's the worst," he chuckled. Through wheezing coughs, I firmly declined.

It was difficult to know what to make of Spits Abrams. A lot of the time he came across as a funny old sailor, crude and coarse, but with a soft centre. But as I spent more time with him, I thought that a lot of his speech patterns seemed deliberately theatrical - he spoke with a broad accent on purpose, to give the impression he was scatterbrained. And there were times when his mood darkened and he'd mutter ominously about people who'd betrayed him in one way or another.

"They thought they was so high and mighty!" he growled one night, weaving drunkenly under the cloudy sky. "Better than dumb old Spits. Said I was a monster, not fit t' share a ship with 'em. But I'll show 'em! When I gets me hands on 'em, I'll make 'em suffer!"

He never said how he intended to "get his hands on" whoever "em" were. We hadn't told Spits what year we'd come from, but he knew time had moved on - he often made reference to "yer generation" or said "things was different in my day". I couldn't see any way back for Spits, and he couldn't either - a common refrain of his when he was feeling sorry for himself was, "Here I is and here I'll die." Yet still he swore to get his own back on "them what done me wrong", despite the fact that the people he disliked would have been dead and buried decades ago.

Another night, while he was telling us about his tasks on board thePrince of Pariahs , he stopped and looked at us with a steady blank expression. "I had t' kill every now and then," he said softly. "Pirates is vagabonds. Even though we didn't kill those we robbed, we sometimes had t'. If people refused t' surrender, we had t' put a stop to 'em. Couldn't afford t' let 'em off the hook."

"But I thought you didn't board the ships you attacked," I said. "You told us you fished out people who jumped overboard."

"Aaarrr," he grinned bleakly, "but a man in the water can struggle just as much as one on deck. A woman too. Sometimes I had t' teach 'em a lesson." His eyes cleared a little and he grinned sheepishly. "But that was rare. I only mention it so ye know ye can rely on me if we gets into a tight spot. I ain't a killer, but I'll do it if me back's against a wall, or t' save a friend."

Harkat and I didn't doze much that day. Instead we kept a wary watch on the snoring Spits. Although we were stronger and fitter than him, he posed a worrying threat. What if he got into a drunken fit and took it into his head to kill us in our sleep?

We discussed the possibility of leaving the ex-pirate behind, but it didn't seem fair to strand him in the mountains. Although he was able to keep pace beside us during our marches, he had no sense of direction and would have become lost in no time if he'd been by himself. Besides, we might have need of his fishing skills if we made it to the Lake of Souls. Both of us could catch fish with our hands, but neither of us knew much about angling.

In the end we chose to keep Spits with us, but agreed not to turn our backs on him, to take turns sleeping, and to cut him loose if he ever threatened violence.

We made slow but steady progress through the mountains. If the weather had been finer, we'd have raced through, but all the rain had led to mudslides and slippery underfoot conditions. We had to walk carefully, and were often forced to backtrack and skirt around an area made inaccessible by the rain and mud.

"Does it normally rain this much?" I asked Spits.

"T' tell the truth, this has been one o' the better years," he chortled. "We gets very hot summers - long, too - but the winters are dogs. Mind, it'll probably break in another night or two - we ain't hit the worst o' the season yet, and it's rare t' get more'n a week or so o' nonstop rain at this time o' year."

As though the clouds had been listening, they eased up the next morning - affording us a welcome view of blue sky - and by night, when we set off, it was the driest it had been since we landed at Spits's shack.

That same night, we topped a small peak and found ourselves on a sharp decline into a long, wide chasm leading out of the mountain ridges. The base of the chasm was flooded with rainwater, but there were ledges along the sides which we'd be able to use. Hurrying down the mountain, we located one of the broader ledges, tied a rope around ourselves to form a chain, me in front, Spits in the middle, Harkat behind, and set off over the fast-flowing river, edging forwards at a snail's pace. Spits even went so far as to cork his jug of poteen and leave it untouched!

Day dawned while we were on the ledge. We hadn't seen any caves in the cliff, but there were plenty of large holes and cracks. Untying ourselves, each of us crawled into a hole to rest, out of sight of any passing dragons. It was extremely uncomfortable, but I was exhausted after the hard climb and fell asleep immediately, not waking until late in the day.

After a quick meal - the last of Spits's dried fish slices - we tied ourselves together again andset off. It beganto drizzle shortly afterwards, but then it cleared for the rest of the night and we progressed without interruption. The ledge didn't run all the way to the end of the chasm, but there were ledges above and beneath it which we were able to transfer to, making the journey in stages. Shortly before daybreak we came to the end of the chasm and crawled down to a flat plain which spread out for many kilometres ahead of us, ending in a massive forest which stretched left and right as far as we could see.

We debated our options. Since none of us wanted to sleep in a hole in the cliff again, and the route to the forest was littered with bushes we could hide under if we spotted a dragon, we decided to head for the trees straightaway. Forcing our tired legs on, we jogged briskly over the plain, Spits feeding himself with poteen, somehow managing not to spill a drop despite the jolting of his arms as he ran.

We made camp just within the edge of the forest. While Harkat kept an eye on Spits, I slept soundly until early afternoon. Harkat and I caught a wild pig soon after that, which Spits gleefully roasted over a quickly constructed fire. We tucked into our first hot meal since leaving for the mountains more than two weeks earlier - delicious! Wiping our hands clean on the grass afterwards, we set off in a general southeast direction - it was hard to tell precisely with all the tree cover - prepared for a long, gloomy trek through the forest.

To our surprise, we cleared the trees a few hours before sunset - the forest was long, but narrow. We found ourselves standing at the top of a small cliff, gazing down on fields of the tallest, greenest grass I'd ever seen. No trees grew in the fields, and though there must have been many streams feeding the soil to produce such greenery, they were hidden by the towering stalks of grass.

Only one object stood out against the otherwise unbroken sea of green - a huge white building a couple of kilometres directly ahead, which shone like a beacon under the evening sun. Harkat and I shared a glance and said simultaneously, with a mixture of excitement and tension, "The Temple of the Grotesque!"

Spits stared suspiciously at the building, spat over the edge of the cliff, and snorted. "Trouble!"

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