AFTER Along sleep and a hot meal, courtesy of a small gas stove, we packed some tins and drinks (Spits made the three remaining bottles of whisky his first priority), along with a few of the longer knives, and exited the underground kitchen. I switched off the light before we left - a force of habit from the time when my mum would roar whenever I left lights on around the house.
The tunnel was a couple of hundred metres long and ended in the side of a riverbank. The exit was blocked with loose stones and sandbags, but they were easy to remove. We had to jump into the river and wade across to dry land, but the water was shallow. On the far bank we got undercover quickly and hurried away through the tall stalks of grass. We were anxious not to run into any Kulashka survivors.
It was midday when we left the kitchen. Although we'd previously travelled at night, we marched steadily all day, hidden by the tall grass. We stopped late in the night to sleep, and set off early the next morning. That evening we cleared the grasslands. We were delighted to leave the tall grass behind - we were covered in burs and insects and nicked all over from the sharp edges of the blades. The first thing we did was find a pool of water and wash ourselves clean. After that we ate, rested a few hours, then headed south, reverting to our previous pattern of walking by night and sleeping by day.
We expected to come upon the valley at every bend - Mr Tiny had said it was a short walk - but another night passed without any sight of it. We were worried that we'd taken the wrong path, and discussed backtracking, but early the next night the ground rose to a peak and we instinctively knew that our goal lay on the other side. Harkat and I hurried up the rise, leaving Spits to catch up in his own time (he'd been drinking heavily and was making slow progress). It took us half an hour to reach the top. Once there, we saw that we were at the head of the valley - and we also saw the enormity of the task ahead.
The valley was long and green, with a small lake - a glorified pond, as Mr Tiny had accurately called it - set in the centre. Apart from that, the valley was featureless - except for five dragons resting around the edge of the water!
We stood staring down into the valley at the dragons. One looked like the creature which had attacked us on the raft. Two were smaller and slimmer, probably females - one had a grey head, the other white. The remaining two were much smaller - infants.
As we studied the dragons, Spits approached, panting heavily. "Well, lads," he wheezed, "is this the valley or ain't it? If it is, let's sing a wee sea shanty t' celebrate our?"
We jumped on him before he burst into song, and smothered his startled cries. "What's going on?" he yelped through my fingers. "Are ye mad? 'Tis me - Spits!"
"Quiet!" I hushed him. "Dragons!"
He snapped out of his drunkenness. "Let me see!" We rolled off and let him wriggle forward to the edge of the overhang. His breath caught in his throat when he saw the dragons. He lay there for a minute, studying them silently, then returned to our side. "I recognize two of 'em. The biggest is the one that attacked ye in the lake by my shack. I've seen the one with the grey head too, but not the others."
"Do you think they're just - resting?" Harkat asked.
Spits tugged on his straggly beard and grimaced. "The grass round the Lake has been trampled flat in a big wide circle. 'Twouldn't have got that way if they'd only been here a while. I think this is their den."
"Will they move on?" I asked.
"No idea," Spits said. "Mebbe they will - though I doubt it. They're safe from attack here - they'd see anything coming long before it reached 'em - and the land around is teeming with animals and birds for 'em to feed on. Plus, my lake's not far off - as the dragon flies - with all the fish they could wish fer."
"They've children too," Harkat noted. "Animals normally stay where - they are when they're rearing their young."
"So how are we going to get to the Lake of Souls?" I asked.
"Are ye sure thatis the Lake?" Spits asked. "It looks awful small t' be home to a load o' dead souls."
"Mr Tiny said it would be small," I told him.
"There could be another lake nearby," Spits said hopefully.
"No," Harkat grunted. "This is it. We'll just have to keep watch and - wait for them to leave - they have to hunt - for food. We'll move in when they go and - hope they don't return too quickly. Now, who wants to creep forward and - take first watch?"
"I'll go," I said, then snatched Spits's bottle from him as he made to slug back a shot. I also grabbed his sack, where his other bottles were stowed.
"Hey!" he protested.
"No more whisky until this is over," I told him. "You're taking the next watch - and you're taking it sober."
"You can't boss me about!" he griped.
"Yes I can," I growled. "This is serious business. I'm not having you fly off the handle like you did in the temple. You can have some whisky before you go on watch, and when you come off, but between those times - not a drop."
"And if I refuse?" he snarled, reaching towards his long curved knife.
"We'll break the whisky bottles," I said simply, and his face went white.
"I'd kill ye if ye did!" he croaked.
"Aaarrr," I grinned, "but that wouldn't bring yer whisky back!" Handing the bottle and sack to Harkat, I winked at Spits. "Don't worry - when we're through, you can drink all the whisky you want." Then I hurried forward to find a bush to hide behind and observe the dragons.
We kept watch for almost a week before accepting that we'd have to revise our plan. At least three dragons remained in the valley at any given time, usually the two young ones and a female, though sometimes the male took one of the youngsters hunting with him. There was no way of telling when the absent dragons would return - sometimes the male was gone overnight, while other times he'd sweep back to his family within minutes, a bleating sheep or goat clutched between his claws.
"We'll just have to - sneak in one night and hope - they don't spot us," Harkat said as we debated our options. We were in a rough cave we'd dug in the soil of the hill, to hide us from the dragons when they took flight.
"Them dragons have awful good eyesight," Spits said. "I seen 'em spot prey from hundreds o' feet up on nights as black as a shark's soul."
"We could try burrowing to the Lake," I suggested. "The soil isn't hard-packed - I'm sure I could dig a way through."
"And when you broke through - to the Lake?" Harkat asked. "The water would flood the tunnel - and we'd all drown."
"We ain't chancing that!" Spits said quickly. "I'd rather be ate by one o' them demons than drowned!"
"There must a way to get past them," I groaned. "Maybe we could use the explosive Grotesque poison - wait until they're grouped together, sneak up close and lob it among them."
"I doubt we'd be able to - get close enough," Harkat said. "And if even one of them survived..
"If we had more'n one vial, we'd have nowt to worry about," Spits sighed. "We could walk in and toss a vial at 'em any time they came near. Mebbe we should go back t' the temple and search fer more vials."
"No," I frowned. "That's not the answer - even if they didn't blow up during the blast, they'd be buried under rubble. But you're on to something ?" I took out my vial of "holy liquid" and examined it. "Mr Tiny knew that we'd crash through the floorboards and make our way to the kitchen, so maybe he also knew we'd only grab a single vial."
"Then one must be enough," Harkat muttered, taking the vial from me. "There must be a way we can - use it to get to the Lake."
"'Tis a pity Boom Boom Billy ain't with us," Spits chuckled. When we looked at him blankly, he explained. "Boom Boom Billy was a wonder with bombs. He knew all about dynamite and gunpowder, and how t' blow things up. The cap'n often said Billy was worth his weight in gold." Spits chortled. "Which made it all the funnier when he blew himself up trying t' crack open a chest full of ingots!"
"You've got a warped sense of humour, Spits," I sniffed. "I hope that one day you?" I stopped, eyes narrowing. "Bombs!" I exclaimed.
"You have an idea?" Harkat asked excitedly.
I shushed him with a wave of a hand, thinking furiously. "If we could make bombs out of the 'holy liquid'?"
"How?" Harkat asked. "We know nothing about - bombs, and even if we did, we don't - have anything to make them with."
"Don't be so sure about that," I said slowly. Reaching inside my shirt, I took out the piece of cloth I'd wrapped my share of the gelatinous globes in, and carefully unrolled them on to the floor. Picking up a jelly-like ball, I squeezed it softly between my fingers, watching the thin liquid within ooze from side to side. "By themselves, these globes are worthless," I said. "The 'holy liquid' is worthless too - by itself. But if we put them together ?"
"Are you thinking of covering - the globes with the liquid?" Harkat asked.
"No," I said. "It would drop off on to the ground and explode. But if we could inject itinto the globes ?" I trailed off into silence, sensing I was close to the answer, but unable to make the final leap in logic.
With a sudden grunt, Harkat beat me to the punch. "The tooth!" He dug through his robes for the bag of teeth he'd taken from the black panther.
"What're they?" Spits asked, never having seen the teeth before.
Harkat didn't answer, but sorted through them until he found the hollow tooth with the K carved on it. Holding it up, he blew through the tooth to make sure it was clear, then passed it to me, his green eyes shining brightly. "You have smaller fingers," he said.
Picking up a globe, I brought the tip of the tooth close to it, then stopped. "We'd better not try this here," I said. "If something goes wrong.
"Agreed," Harkat said, shuffling towards the mouth of the cave. "Besides, we'll have to test them - to make sure they work. We'd best do that - out of earshot of the dragons."
"What're ye on about?" Spits whined. "Ye ain't making sense!"
"Just follow close behind," I winked. "You'll see!"
We made our way to a copse of thick, stunted trees a few kilometres away. Once there, Harkat and Spits huddled behind a fallen trunk, while I squatted in a clearing and laid several gelatinous globes and the panther's tooth on the earth around me. With extreme care, I uncorked the vial of explosive poison. It smelt like cod-liver oil. I set the vial down, lay out flat on my stomach and placed one of the globes directly in front of me. With my left hand, I gently jabbed the sharp, narrow end of the panther's tooth into the globe. When it was sticking in half a centimetre, I picked up the vial with my right hand, brought its lip to the rim of the tooth, and poured.
I was sweating furiously as the first drops trickled into the tooth - if they exploded this close to my face, I was dead meat. But, like treacle, the liquid rolled slowly down the hole inside the tooth, then into the soft gelatinous globe.
I filled the tooth to the top - it didn't hold very much - then removed the vial and waited for all the liquid to seep into the globe. It took a minute, but eventually the globe had absorbed all of the deadly poison from the tooth.
Keeping my hands steady, I removed the tip of the tooth from the top of the globe and held my breath, watching the jelly-like material close over the tiny hole, until it was no more than a pinprick in the skin of the globe. Once it had closed as far as it was going to, I corked the vial, set the tooth aside, and stood. "It's done," I called to Harkat and Spits.
Harkat crept over. Spits stayed where he was, eyes wide, hands over his head. "Take the vial and tooth," I told Harkat. "Lay them where Spits is, so they're out of harm's way."
"Do you want me to - come back to help?" Harkat asked.
I shook my head. "I can throw it further than you. I'll test it myself."
"But you're a half-vampire," he said. "You took a vow never to use - missile-firing weapons or bombs."
"We're on another world - as far as we know - and facing a bunch of dragons - I think this qualifies as an exceptional circumstance," I said dryly.
Harkat grinned, then swiftly retreated with the vial, my share of the globes and the panther's tooth. When I was alone, I crouched, took hold of the poison-filled globe, and cautiously picked it up. I winced as my fingers tightened around the globe, expecting it to blow up in my face - but it didn't. I turned the globe over, to see if any of the liquid spilt out. Detecting no leaks, I stood, swung my arm back, then lobbed the globe at a gnarly tree in the distance.
The instant the globe was out of my hand, I ducked and covered my head with my hands, following the globe's flight through the cracks between my fingers. It soared cleanly ahead, before connecting with the tree. When it hit the trunk, the shell of the globe smashed, the liquid splashed with great force over the wood, and the air was rent with the sound of a sharp explosion. My fingers snapped closed and I buried my face in the ground. When, a few seconds later, I raised my head and opened my eyes, I saw the top half of the tree topple over, torn to shreds in the middle.
Getting up slowly, I studied the shattered tree, then turned and smiled at Harkat and Spits, who were also on their feet. Taking a cheeky bow, I hooted, "Move over Boom Boom Billy - there's a new kid in town!"
Then Harkat and Spits were racing towards me, whooping with excitement, eager to make some bombs of their own.