CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

EARLY AFTERNOONthe next day. We'd been waiting for the male dragon to go hunting. Ideally, we'd like to have waited until he took one of the females or young dragons with him, but he usually only made short trips when accompanied. Our best bet was to make our move when he was off hunting by himself, in the hope that he wouldn't return while we were in the valley.

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Finally, near the end of my watch, the dragon unfurled his long wings and took to the sky. I hurried off to alert Harkat and Spits.

We'd filled the remaining thirty-two globes with liquid from the vial. The vial was still about a third full, and I carried it in my shirt, keeping it in reserve. Harkat and I had divided the globes between us, giving none to Spits, even though he'd argued bitterly for a share. There were two reasons why we kept the globes from him. Firstly, it was our aim to scare off the dragons, not kill them. Neither of us wished to destroy such mystical, marvellous creatures, and we couldn't trust Spits not to go bomb-happy. The second reason was that we needed him to concentrate on fishing. The pirate had held on to his net, despite all we'd been through - he had it wrapped around his chest - and he was the best qualified to fish for Harkat's soul. (We weren't sure what form the souls in the Lake would take, or how we'd recognize Harkat's, but we'd worry about that when - if! - we got there.)

"Ready?" I asked, crawling out of our makeshift cave, four small globes cradled in my hands.

"Ready," Harkat said. He was carrying six of the globes - his hands were bigger than mine.

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"Aaarrr," Spits growled, still sour about not being given any bombs. He'd been in a foul mood most of the week, due to the tiny amount of whisky we'd limited him to.

"When this is over," I tried to cheer him up, "you can drink all the whisky you like and get steaming drunk, OK?"

"I like the sound o' that!" he chuckled.

"Are you looking forward to - getting home?" Harkat asked.

"Home?" Spits frowned, then grinned sickly. "Aaarrr. 'Twill be great. I wish we was there already." His eyes shifted nervously and he looked away quickly, as though he'd been caught stealing.

"We'll go in three abreast," I told Spits, shuffling to the top of the hill. "You take the middle. Head straight for the Lake. We'll protect you."

"What if the dragons don't flee from the bombs?" Spits asked. "Will ye let 'em have it in the gob?" Spits thought we were crazy for not wanting to blow up the dragons.

"We'll kill them if we have to," I sighed. "But only if there's no other way."

"And only after they've - eaten you," Harkat added, then laughed when Spits cursed loudly at him.

Forming a line, we checked ourselves one last time. Harkat and I were carrying everything we owned in our pockets, and Spits had his sack slung over his shoulder. Taking deep breaths, we shared crooked grins, then started down into the valley, where the four dragons were waiting.

A young dragon spotted us first. It was playing with its sibling - the pair often chased each other around the valley, like two overgrown kittens. When it saw us, it drew up short, flapped its wings and screeched warningly. The heads of the female dragons shot up, their hot yellow eyes fierce above their long purple faces.

The female with the grey head got to her feet, spread her wings, flapped them firmly and soared into the air. She circled around, screeching, then directed her snout at us and zoomed in. I could see her nostrils expanding as she prepared to blow fire.

"I'll deal with this one," I called to Harkat, stepping forward and holding up one of the larger globes. I judged my moment finely, waited until the dragon was almost directly overhead, then threw the globe hard into the earth and ducked. It exploded, sending soil and pebbles flying up into the dragon's face. She screamed with panic and veered sharply away to the left.

The second female took to the air at the sound of the explosion, and the young dragons followed, adopting a position several metres above their mothers, who hovered side by side.

While the dragons hung in the air, we hurried towards the Lake of Souls, Harkat and I watching our every footstep, all too aware of the consequences if we stumbled and smashed the deadly globes. Spits was muttering over and over, "Better be worth it! Better be worth it! Better be ?"

The female dragons split up and attacked us on two fronts at the same time, swooping out of the sky like a couple of comets. Harkat and I waited, then threw our globes at the same time, confusing the dragons with loud explosions and blinding geysers of earth and stones.

The dragons dogged our steps all the way to the Lake, attacking in turn or together every minute or so, only pulling clear when we launched our globes. One of the young dragons tried to join in, but its mother shot a warning streak of fire at it, frightening it back to its previous safe height.

As we progressed, I realized the dragons were intelligent creatures. After the first few explosions, they no longer flew into the blasts but pulled up short as soon as they saw us lobbing the globes. On a couple of occasions I tried to outfox them by just pretending to toss a globe, but they obviously saw through my ploy and only withdrew when I actually launched one.

"They'll keep coming until we run out of globes!" I roared at Harkat.

"Looks that way!" Harkat yelled back. "Have you been keeping track - of how many you've used?"

"I think seven or eight."

"Me too," Harkat said. "That only leaves us with about - half our original supply. Enough to get us to the - Lake - but not to get back!" "If we're going to retreat, we'll have to do it now," I noted.

To my surprise, Spits answered before Harkat could. "No!" he yelled, his face alight. "We're too close t' pull back!"

"Spits seems to be getting into the spirit of the adventure," I laughed.

"The time he picks to - develop a backbone!" Harkat snorted in reply.

We hurried on to the Lake and arrived a couple of minutes later, having used another two globes. The female dragons pulled away when they saw us draw up to the edge of the Lake. They hovered in the air with their children, high above our heads, observing suspiciously.

Spits was the first to gaze into the water of the Lake of Souls, while Harkat and I kept a watch on the dragons. After a few seconds he fell to his knees and moaned softly. "It's beautiful! All I ever dreamt, and more!"

Staring over my shoulder to see what he was babbling about, I found myself gazing into murky blue water, in which swam hundreds upon hundreds of shimmering human figures. Their bodies and faces were pale and ill defined, some swelling out and sucking in, almost like a fish puffing itself up and returning to its normal size. Others were squashed into tiny balls or stretched out to impossible lengths. All swam in slow, mournful circles, listless, oblivious to distractions, their blinking eyes or flexing fingers the only signs that they weren't totally lifeless. A few of the shapes drifted towards the upper levels of the Lake every now and then, but none broke the surface of the water. I got the impression that they couldn't.

"The souls of the dead," Harkat whispered. Both of us had turned our backs on the dragons, momentarily captivated by the spectacle of the Lake.

Most of the figures twisted slowly as they swam, so that their faces revolved in and out of sight. Every face was a picture of loneliness and sorrow. This was a lake of misery. Not agony - nobody seemed to be in pain - just sadness. I was studying the faces, filled with a sense of pity, when I spotted one I knew. "By the black blood of Harnon Oan!" I shouted, taking an involuntary step back.

"What is it?" Harkat asked sharply - he thought I'd found the person he used to be.

"Murlough!" It was less than a breath on my lips. The first vampaneze I ever encountered. Consumed by madness, he'd lost control and had been killing people in Mr Crepsley's home city. We'd tracked him down and Mr Crepsley killed him. The vampaneze looked exactly the way he had when he died, only his purple sheen was muted by the water of the Lake and the depth he was swimming at.

As I watched, Murlough sunk downwards, slowly dropping from sight into the lower reaches of the Lake. A shiver ran down my spine. I'd never thought to look upon Murlough's face again. It had dredged up many bad memories. I was lost in thought, transported to the past, reliving those long ago nights, wondering what other souls I might find here. Not Mr Crepsley - Evanna had told me his soul was in Paradise. But what about the first vampaneze I'd killed? Gavner Purl? Arra Sails? Kur?

"Beautiful," Spits murmured, breaking my train of thought. He looked up at me and his eyes were wet with happy tears. "The little man in the yellow galoshes told me 'twould be like this but I never believedit till now. "All my dreams would come true", he said. Now I know he wasn't lying."

"Never mind your dreams!" I snapped, recalling the danger we were in. I put Murlough from my thoughts and spun to keep both eyes on the dragons. "Get fishing, quick, so we can get out of here!"

"I'll get fishing, sure enough," Spits giggled, "but if ye thinks I'm leaving this pool o' sunken treasures, ye're crazier than them Kulashkas!"

"What do you mean?" Harkat asked, but Spits didn't answer immediately, only unravelled his net with measured care and fedit into the still water of the Lake of Souls.

"I was considered a prize on thePrince o' Pariahs ," the pirate said softly. "Nobody cooked as fine a meal as Spits Abrams. The cap'n used to say I was second in importance only t' Boom Boom Billy, and when Billy blew himself up, I became the most valuable man aboard. Every pirate would've sold his mother fer a bowl o' Spits's famous stew, or a slice of his delicious roast meat."

"He's cracking up!" I yelled.

"I don't think so," Harkat said nervously, studying Spits as he focused on his net, lips drawn back over his teeth, eyes burning with a frightening inner light.

"They never asked where the meat came from," Spits continued, swishing his net through the water. The souls in the Lake parted and swam around the net automatically, but their glum expressions didn't change. "Even when we'd been at sea fer months on end, and all the other supplies had run out, I was able t' slap up as much meat as they could eat."

The pirate paused and his mouth grew tight with anger. "When they found out, they said I wasn't human and didn't deserve t' live. But they knew. Deep down, they must've guessed, and they went on chewing regardless. 'Twas only when a new man caught me and made a fuss that they had to admit it. Hypocrites!" he roared. "They was a stinking bunch o' lying, double-faced hypocrites, fit only t' roast in the fires o' hell!"

Spits's face grew crafty and he laughed maniacally, drawing his net out, checking its condition, then lowering it back into the water. "But since the devil couldn't be bothered with 'em, I'll treat 'em to a fire of me own. Aaarrr! They thought they'd seen the last o' Spits Abrams when they tossed me overboard. But we'll see who has the last laugh when they're draped on a spit, sizzling slowly over my flames!"

"What's he talking about?" I croaked.

"I think I understand," Harkat whispered, then spoke to Spits. "How many of the people - that you fished from the sea - did youkill ?"

"Most of 'em," Spits giggled. "In the heat o' battle, nobody took any notice of them what jumped overboard. I kept the occasional one alive, t' show off t' the cap'n and crew. But I slit the throats o' most and hid the bodies in the galley."

"And then you carved them - up, cooked them and served them - to the pirates," Harkat said hollowly, and I felt my stomach churn.

"What?" I gasped.

"That's Spits's big secret," Harkat said sickly. "He was a cannibal and he turned his - crewmates into cannibals too!"

"They loved it!" Spits howled. "They'd've gone on eating Spits's grub fer ever and said nowt if that new lad hadn't walked in on me while I was carving up a nice fat vicar and his wife! After that, they acted disgusted and treated me like a monster."

"I've eaten human flesh," Harkat said quietly. "Little People will eat anything. When I first came back from the dead, my thoughts - weren't my own, and I ate with the rest. But we only ate the flesh - of those who'd died naturally. We didn't kill. And we didn't take pleasure - from it. Youare a monster, even to someone - like me."

Spits sneered. "Come off it, imp! I know why ye're really here - t' feast yer chops on Spits's stew! Shan boy too!" His eyes fixed on me and he winked crookedly. "Ye thought I didn't know what ye was, but Spits ain't as dumb as he lets on. Ye're a bloodsucker! Ye fed from me when ye thought I was asleep. So don't play the innocents, lads - 'twon't work!"

"You're wrong, Spits," I said. "I drink blood to survive, and Harkat's done things in the past that he's ashamed of. But we aren't killers or cannibals. We don't want any part of your unholy feast."

"We'll see if ye think that way when ye smell the cooking," Spits cackled. "When yer lips are drooling and yer bellies growling, yell come running, plates out, begging fer a thick, juicy slice o' thigh."

"He's completely out of his mind," I whispered to Harkat, then called aloud to Spits. "Have you forgotten the dragons?We'll get roasted and eaten if we stand around gabbing!"

"They won't bother us," Spits said confidently. "The Tiny man told me. He said as long as I stayed within eight feet o' the Lake, the dragons couldn't harm me - they can't come this close. There's a spell on the Lake. Unless a living person jumps or falls in, the dragons can't come near."

Spits stopped dragging on his net and gazed at us calmly. "Don't ye see, lads? We don't ever need t' leave. We can stay here the rest of our lives, fishing fer dinner each day, all the water we can drink. Tiny said he'd drop by if we made it, and promised t' provide me with pots and material t' build fires. We'll have t' eat our catch raw till then, but I've ate humans raw before - not as tasty as when cooked, but ye won't have cause fer complaint."

"That'syour dream!" Harkat hissed. "Not to return to our world, but to stay - here for ever, fishing for the souls - of the dead!"

"Aaarrr!" Spits laughed. "Tiny told me all about it. The souls don't have bodies in the water - them's just ghosts that we see. But once they're dragged on to dry land, they become real, the way they was before they died. I'll be able t' kill 'em again and carve 'em up any way I like. An unending supply - including the souls o' the cap'n and most o' the others on thePrince o' Pariahs ! I can have revenge on top of a full stomach!"

There was a heavy thud behind us - the male dragon had returned and set down close to where we were standing. I raised a globe to throw at him, but then I saw that he wasn't coming any closer. Spits was right about the dragons not being able to approach the Lake.

"We can't let you do it," I said. Focusing on Spits, I started walking towards him.

"Ye can't stop me," he sniffed. "If ye don't want t' stay, ye can leave. I'll fish up the imp's soul and ye can take yer chances with the dragons. But there's nowt ye can do t' make me go with ye. I'm staying."

"No," I said. "We won't let you."

"Stay back!" Spits warned, lowering his net and drawing a knife. "I like ye both - ye're decent sorts fer a vampire and an imp! - but I'll slice the skin clean off yer bones if I have t'!"

"Don't try, Spits," Harkat said, stepping up behind me. "You've seen us in action. You know we're stronger and faster - than you. Don't make us hurt you."

"I ain't scared o' ye!" Spits shouted, backing away, waving his knife at us. "Ye need me more than I need ye! Unless ye back off, I won't fish yer soul out, and this'll all have been fer nowt!"

"I don't care," Harkat said softly. "I'd rather blow my chance - and die, than leave you here to torment the souls - of the dead and feed upon them."

"But they're bad 'uns!" Spits howled. "These ain't the souls o' good people - they're the souls o' the lost and damned, who couldn't get int' heaven."

"It doesn't matter," Harkat said. "We won't let you - eat them."

"Crazy pair o' landlubbers," Spits snarled, coming to a halt. "Ye think ye can rob me o' the one thing that's kept me going all these years alone in this hellhole? 'Twasn't enough fer ye t' rob me o' me whisky - now ye wants t' take me meat away too! Well damn ye, demons o' the dark - damn ye both t' hell!"

With that shrill cry, Spits attacked, slicing wildly with his knife. We had to leap back quickly to avoid being gutted by the raging ex-pirate. Spits raced after us, whooping gleefully, chopping with his knife. "Gonna slice ye up and cook ye!" he howled. "The dead can wait - I'll feast onyer flesh tonight! I'm gonna see what ye're made of inside. I never ate a vampire or imp before - 'twill make fer an interesting comparison!"

"Spits!" I roared, ducking out of the way of his knife. "Stop now and we'll let you live! Otherwise we'll have to kill you!"

"Only one man'll be doing any killing today!" Spits retorted. "Spits Abrams, scourge o' the seas, lord o' the Lake, sultan o' chefs, king o'?"

Before Spits got any further, Harkat slid inside his stabbing range and grabbed his knife arm. Spits screamed at the Little Person and punched him with his free fist. When that didn't have any effect, he pulled a whisky bottle out of his sack and prepared to break it over Harkat's head.

"No you don't!" I grunted, seizing Spits's forearm. I squeezed tightly, until I heard bones cracking. Spits screeched painfully, dropped the bottle and spun away from me. I released him and he retreated sharply, breaking free of Harkat's grip, collapsing on the ground a couple of metres away. "Quit it!" I yelled as Spits staggered to his feet and drew another bottle, cradling his injured arm across his chest.

"Never!" he cried. "I've still got one good hand. That'll be enough t'?" He stopped when he saw us freeze, our eyes widening. "What're ye up t' now?" he asked suspiciously. We couldn't answer, only gaze wordlessly at the space behind him. Spits sensed that we weren't trying to trick him, and whipped around to see what we were staring at. He found himself gazing up into the fierce cold eyes of the male dragon.

"Is that all that's bothering ye?" Spits hooted. "Didn't I tell ye they couldn't come next nor near us as long as we stayed ?"

He trailed off into silence. He looked down at his feet, then at us, then at the Lake - which was about four or five metres away from where he was standing!

Spits could have made a run for it, but didn't. With a bitter smile, he shook his head, spat into the grass, and muttered, "Aaarrr!" The dragon opened its mouth wide when Spits said that - as though he'd been awaiting an order - and blew a huge ball of fire over the stranded ex-pirate. Spits disappeared in flames and Harkat and I had to cover our eyes and turn aside from the heat.

When we looked again, a fiery Spits was stumbling towards us, arms thrashing, face invisible beneath a mask of red flames. If he was screaming, we couldn't hear him over the crackle of his burning hair and clothes. We lunged out of his way as Spits staggered closer. He continued past us, oblivious to our presence, and didn't stop until he reached the edge of the Lake of Souls and toppled in.

Snapping out of our daze, we raced to the Lake in case there was anything we could do to help Spits. But we were too late. He was already deep under water, arms still moving, but weakly. As we watched, the shimmering shades of the dead surrounded the pirates body, as though guiding it on its way. Spits's arms gradually stopped waving, then his body sunk deeper into the water, until it vanished from sight in the murky gloom of the soul-filled depths.

"Poor Spits," Harkat croaked. "That was awful."

"He probably deserved it," I sighed, "but I wish it could have happened some other way. If only he'd?"

A roar stopped the words dead in my throat. My head shot around and I spotted the male dragon, hovering in the air close above us, eyes gleaming. "Don't worry," Harkat said. "We're close to the Lake. It can't ?" The words died on his lips and he stared at me, his green eyes filling with fear.

"The spell!" I moaned. "Spits said it would only last until a living person fell into the Lake! And he was still alive when ?"

As we stood trembling, the dragon - no longer bound by the spell - opened his jaws wide and coughed a ball of fire straight at us - meaning to finish us off the same way he'd killed Spits!

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