Aloysius was lost.
Not that he’d known where he was going in the first place, but now he knew even less. The majestic mountains had looked pretty large from a distance, but now he had reached them they turned out to be two dimensional cut outs placed at right angles to form the walls of a fiendishly difficult maze.
He suspected that the amulet was at the centre, partly because the crudely drawn scribble on the scroll included a bunch of squiggles with the word ‘amulet’ written in a circle in the middle, and partly because the bag lady who wasn’t really a bag lady had told him in a sonorous voice,
“Go to the middle of the maze in the majestic mountains and there you will find that which you seek.”
That which he sought was of course the amulet – it wasn’t rocket science, really.
Al squatted down on his heels awhile, to check whether things were any clearer from a lower perspective. That and he was feeling a bit tired. The huge purple mountains on their wooden bases gazed back at him, impervious to his ninja examination skills.
“Hmm,” he said to himself, standing up too quickly and getting a head rush for his trouble.
It was then that he heard the siren song of the amulet for the first time.
The sound pierced his heart like an arrow tipped with a delicious cherry flavoured poison, echoing around his brain like the ghost of a love never spoken out loud. It was one part the best song you ever heard; one part the sweetest voice you’ll ever know; two parts the truest joy you’ve ever experienced, and a just a dash of the bitterest pain imaginable. The Skinny gave it five stars, and promptly exploded from the excitement of it all.
Without knowing he was doing it, Al moved towards the sound, like sailors of yore being lured to the rocky shores of the sirens’ island. And him with a classical education as well. How humiliating.
He followed it left and right and left and right then straight on then right, right, left, straight, and so on, till eventually he was at the central point of the maze which had eluded him for nearly half an hour. The space was littered with skeletons, people made of stone, and other horrific evidence that the amulet was not to be trusted.
However, the jewel itself was nowhere to be seen.
“What’s making the noise then,” he wondered aloud, looking around him to see what he could see.
In the furthest away corner he could just make out a rather lovely collie dog, lying asleep in a wicker basket. Al wasn’t sure at first, but as he approached he thought that the sound was definitely emanating from the pooch.
He was torn. Should he wake the sleeping animal, which was having one of those dreams where it was chasing something – a cat, most likely, or possibly a squirrel – and seemed quite content? Or should he wait until it woke up on its own? Who knew how long that would be, dogs are notoriously heavy sleepers. Even a fire alarm at 4am won’t rouse them from their slumber.
In the end, he was saved, because the dog woke up of its own volition.
“Hello there,” Al said, “is it you who’s been doing that strange and beautiful singing?”
“Yes,” said the dog, who could talk, “but it’s not because I want to. I ate something that disagreed with me, and now I can talk and dance and I can’t stop this constant blasted singing.”
“Oh,” Al replied, “I am sorry to hear that. What was it that you ate that has affected you so?”
Of course Al had his theories about what the dog must have eaten to be so transformed, but it would have been bad manners not to allow it this opportunity to hold forth on its woes. It may have been suffering in this way for years without ever having the chance to vent its frustrations, and Al was experienced enough in the ways of being alive to know that this was a dangerous way to live.
“I’m not sure,” the collie dog began slyly, “for I eat a lot of things. At first I wondered if it was a shoe I took from one of those bodies, but I’ve chewed on hundreds of shoes like it before and never had a problem. Then I wondered whether perhaps it was the old eggs I took from a nest that had fallen from a tree in the forest on the other side of the island. But they were too foul smelling and sulphuric to be the source of this strange and beautiful gift of mine.”
“Have you eaten anything else unusual of late?” Al prompted.
“Well now that you come to mention it,” the dog said, “there was the magical amulet that lives at the centre of the maze. I did eat that the other day.”
“Why did you do that?” Al enquired.
“To keep it safe,” the dog explained, “whilst I transport it back to my master.”
“And who is your master?”
“The head of the clan of the black cape, of course,” the dog informed him scornfully. “It’d be a member of staff from the Battersea Dogs Home, sending me on my own to a mysterious island to eat one of the most evil artifacts in history just for safe keeping.”
“Who is the head of the clan of the cape?” Al asked, not really expecting a sensible answer.
“Hell if I know,” the dog replied, expectedly. “Some ponce in a fancy cape. Wears a mask as well. Not sure why, in front of me. It’s not like I’m going to sell my story to the papers. I’m a dog.”
“A talking dog, though,” Al pointed out encouragingly, “that’s pretty good.”
“I’m not actually talking,” the dog explained wearily, “I’ve set up a telepathic link between us for the purpose of exposition. And I’m only able to do that due to the power given to me by the magical amulet that’s sitting in one of my bellies.”
“One of your bellies?” Al was perplexed.
“Yeah, one of them. Dogs have two stomachs, genius.”
“I thought that was cows?”
“Yeah right, because cows have the monopoly on extra bellies. That is so species-ist,” the dog complained.
“Sorry,” apologized Al. “I didn’t realize it was such a sensitive subject.”
“People never do.”
“So you’re going to head back to the clan now, are you?”
“Can I tag along?”
“Don’t you want the amulet for yourself?”
“Well, I’ve been told to get it before they do, but there’s not a lot I can do about that now is there. So it’d be interesting to meet my nemeses, I think.”
“They’ll probably kill you or something,” the dog warned.
“Oh, I’m sure they probably aren’t that bad.”
“Well, OK. It’s your funeral.”
And so Aloysius followed the dog out of the maze, and down to the well.
Dawn was breaking as they reemerged into the woods to the south of the city.
It was time to meet the clan of the cape.