The vulture had arrived at Silveramon. Billy gazed in awe at the sight of a winged horse emerging from the mouth of a giant gorgon’s head. As the black horse and vulture passed each other, the warrior woman riding the horse gave him a frosty stare. She had plaited blonde hair and was clad in black leather and chain mail armour, with a short, black fur cloak and a broadsword slung over her shoulder.
Billy was set down before the monstrous entrance. Four wolves were sitting on the terrace, one white and three red.
He couldn’t help muttering to himself, “Wow, what a cool place, Candy, just like summat out of a 'Warhammer' comic.” He looked down but the terrier’s head had disappeared inside the sack.
The white wolf stood up on hind legs and its body transformed into a woman’s, the wolf's head howling at the moon. Then the head changed also, into that of a young black woman, wearing a wolf headdress and cloak over black leather armour and kilt. She gestured for him to follow her into the gorgon’s mouth.
Billy entered Silveramon, the vulture hopping along behind him. He looked around with mouth wide open.
Two brawny trolls in leather armour guarded the inner entrance, holding bill hooks; their heads were far too large for their bodies and small horns poked through holes in the helmets. He could now see that the gorgon's head was two-faced, looking inwards as well as out. The vulture flew back to its perch.
“At last! I have one of them!” shouted the scary-looking woman on the throne.”
Billy ignored her and wandered around the chamber, trying to take it all in at once. The throne room was a large circular chamber, lit by both torches and glowing crystals. He could just make out the faint sound of a soprano's voice singing some beautiful, sad song, in a strange language. The smell of burning pollen and incense filled the chamber. To his left and right, huge stone fireplaces stuck out from the walls, mirroring each other. They had been carved into the shape of human skulls, their mouths housing the great hearths from which sprung dancing blue flames. The rest of the walls were decorated with ancient symbols and mystic runes. Shadows danced across the walls and floors, some of them not even belonging to the people or creatures in the room.
Evenly spaced around the walls were four large arched mirrors with shimmering liquid surfaces, like mercury. Green marble statues stood either side of each mirror, skull-headed female angels with wings like swans. Apart from the entrance, no apparent doorways led out of the room. The floor was tiled with mosaics of strange creatures and signs of the zodiac, a silver pentagram in the centre. Billy looked up but could see no ceiling, only darkness and huge wooden beams with harpies perched on them. He turned his attention to the raised platform facing the gorgon.
Six female acolytes were sitting on the steps of the dais; each had a smooth-shaven pate, except for a long plume of hair sprouting from the top of their heads. They all wore scarlet hooded, sleeveless gowns, with tattooed dragons curling round their slim arms. Another woman, with short blonde hair and a silver skull cap, was similarly dressed but in purple. Stood to one side of the dais was an Oriental woman wearing a long white dress, a live viper necklace circling her neck and small silver skulls ringed the tiara on her head. A grey-skinned goblin sat cross legged at her feet on the end of a leash, wearing just a loin cloth. Beside them a black oval mirror floated in the air.
The throne sat inside the skull of a dragon, a harpy perched on its crown chattering manically, a feathered serpent curled in one of the eye sockets. Within the arch of dragon’s teeth sat the Queen of Astyxia, the self-proclaimed Queen of Queens. She was slouched in her ebony wood, carved serpent throne, smoking from a long crimson tube that led to a crystal water pipe, a yellow-eyed black panther lying at her bare feet. Kergal had a bald head and deathly pale, blue-tinged skin, lips painted black to match her talon-like fingernails. She wore a sleeveless, ankle length, metallic silver dress of fish scale design, with thin black vipers coiled around each arm, like living armlets.
“Well, boy, can you speak?” The queen put aside her pipe, rose from the throne and followed Billy with bleary eyes. “Astrad,” she addressed the white-robed woman in the tiara, “bring the imp here.”
Astrad took Billy by the hand and led him to the edge of dais. The queen rose from her throne and moved to meet them. “Let’s celebrate. Rosemertha,” she addressed the purple-robed blonde. “Bring me some Belladonna wine.” Kergal danced back to her throne, clapping her hands. “Let’s have some entertainment. Dragon fighting, I think.” She accepted the goblet from her priestess.
“But… Your Majesty,” the wolf-woman interrupted, hesitantly. “One of them might die; it’s against the ancient law.”
“Belis!” screamed the queen, “stop quoting the law to me. How many times do I have to tell you? I am the law. And I still haven’t forgiven you yet, the mighty Belisima, defeated by mortal imps.”
“But it was a hound of the Sybil, Your Majesty; it almost tore my throat out and sent me to another dimension.
“The Sybil!” Kergal screeched. “Who is The Sybil but a traitor who chose to live above and have a mortal family? The Sybil may have interfered before, but not while I’m the sole ruler of Astyxia.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Welcome little imp,” Kergal turned to Billy, purring softly. “We’re pleased to have you as our guest.”
Billy ignored her and kept on looking around.
“Do you know who I am, boy?’
Billy forced himself to look her in the eye and act brave. “You must be that nasty old witch, Kergal, who everyone hates.”
The forced smile disappeared from Kergal’s black lips. “You don’t want to believe everything you hear, people are just jealous of me.”
“Yeah, I can’t think why.”
“Anyway,” she forced back the smile as she stood, “I’ve prepared some entertainment in your honour. Billy, isn’t it?”
Billy just shrugged his shoulders and kicked his feet together.
“Open the pit,” Kergal clapped her hands again. “You’d better step up here, Billy.” She held out a hand to him as the walls of the chamber moved back a few metres to create more space.
Billy was determined to ignore her, but then the floor began to move under his feet. He skipped up the steps but brushed away the offered hand.
The centre section of the floor had gone by the time Billy turned around. At the bottom of the pit were two infant horn-nosed dragons, whipping their tails in nervous agitation, their wings not yet fully developed. A row of metal bars separating the dragons slid away. The dragons eyed each other warily and seemed determined to stay as far away from each other as possible.
Candy's head peeped out of the sack. She took a look in the pit and disappeared again. Billy grimaced at the thought of being thrown in the pit
“Why don’t they fight?” Kergal screamed.
From arched openings at each side of the pit, two knights appeared carrying lances with glowing points. They used the lances like cattle prods poking the rear thighs of the terrified dragons, which gave out screams of agony. From somewhere deep below the citadel came the mighty roars of the infants’ mothers. Enraged with pain the little dragons pounced on one another and went rolling across the floor, locked together, tails lashing wildly.
A horrified Billy looked up to see Kergal giving him her deadly viper’s smile.
“Are you pleased with my present, Billy?”
“No… it’s… it’s just horrible. This is like dog fighting. My dad says there’s no dignity in it and the people who force them to fight are bigger animals than the dogs.”
The queen did not look amused. She returned to the throne and stroked the head of her panther. “Close the pit!” she shouted.
The floor slid back into place, muffling the sounds of combat.
“Bring our guest a chair,” ordered the queen.
Rosemertha fetched a small chair made from bones. Billy sat down, trying to look like he didn’t have a care in the world.
“Perhaps you’d like something to eat and drink, Billy?” Kergal asked.
“Could I have some warm biscuits with butter and honey, and a glass of elderflower champagne, please?”
The queen nodded to Astrad, who picked up a silver platter from a table. By the time she’d taken it to Billy, some biscuits and a goblet had appeared. Billy took a bite from the biscuit; it was all right but not half as good as Aunty’s. The champagne was quite good though.
“How come you’re all women?” Billy asked. “Don’t you like men?”
Kergal ignored the question. She rose again and walked over to the mirror, so she could admire herself.
“Do you think I’m beautiful, Billy?”
“I’ve seen better,” he mumbled through a mouthful of biscuit. “You’d look better if you had some hair.”
“What! How dare you?” She moved to stand over him.
“Aunty says beauty is overrated, like the wise man said: All that’s beautiful is not always true, and all that’s true is not always beautiful.”
“Guards, kill this imp, now!” she commanded.
Astrad rushed to the queen’s side. “Majesty, we need him alive, as bait.”
“Men!” exclaimed Kergal. In your world men rule, but here it’s as it should be, because women are superior to men.”
Billy just had to ask: “So how come you can’t pee standing up, then?”
“That’s it...' The queen stamped her feet. "Take this horrid little imp to the dungeons.”