Into The Realm
Breakfast was interrupted when Mr Bottomley arrived on a motorbike, bringing Aunty a message from an old friend on the other side of the valley who had fallen ill. Aunty packed her herbal remedies and ointments into a small leather bag.
“Right you are, children. I’ll be off now. Do take the dogs for a good walk, won’t you? And try not to get up to too much mischief, Lily.” Then she drove off.
Everyone was still tired after a restless nights sleep, sensing that something exciting was about to happen. Still, no sooner had the sound of the car's engine faded away, than Lily got a twinkle in her eye and started ordering everyone around like a sergeant major.
“Right, get wrapped up in the hiking gear the Old Man bought. Brigit, make sure the small backpacks have some drinks and snacks in them.”
“Why, where are we going?”
“To have a look at that cave, of course.” Lily rolled her eyes upwards.
“Oh, Lily,” Diana looked shocked. “Don’t be getting us into trouble.”
“We’re only gonna take a peak. Don’t be a party pooper, Di. It’ll only be an empty cave, anyway.”
Despite Diana’s moaning, Lily was soon leading them through the beech woods, the dogs barking their excitement and running on while Jack cawed overhead.
Gerri and Gel were sitting outside the cave’s entrance when they arrived.
“See!” Lily pointed at the dogs. “They know we’re supposed to go in there.”
“I don’t know.” Brigit shook her head. “Aunty said it was dangerous.”
“But you don’t know what the Old Dear said to me before we left. You heard her, Billy.”
Billy shrugged and kicked a piece of rotten wood. “You know Mam, I love her, but she talks double Dutch.”
“We’re supposed to go in there, I’m telling you.” Lily insisted. “And what about all that “the portals will be closed to mortals” stuff aunty came out with?”
“If we get in trouble, it’s your fault, silly Lily,” said Billy. “And there’d best be no giant spider in there.”
Lily took two torches from her backpack, handing one to Brigit. They approached the black mouth of the cave.
Lily and Brigit led the way holding the torches, with Gerri and Gel bringing up the rear. Jack had disappeared. The entrance chamber gave way to a narrow, downward sloping passage that could accommodate only two people, side by side.
The passage soon opened up into a larger inner chamber, with stalactites hanging from the roof and stalagmites growing out of the floor, a few having joined together to form columns. Apart from the scuffling of boots on rock, the only sound to break the silence was the constant rhythmic dripping of water. Billy clung to the tail of Lily’s coat with one hand and Brigit’s with the other. Diana hugged Candy to her chest.
Lily and Brigit were too busy using the torches in avoiding the spiked outcrops to notice the steeply sloping drop in front of them. With a “Whoa,” the lights went out.
Diana and Billy were left standing in complete darkness, crying out their sisters’ names. They edged forward, pleading with Lily and Brigit to answer them.
“Dian…” screeched Billy.
“Billy, are you there?” There was no answer. Diana could feel her feet slipping on a slimy coating of algae, but just managed to steady herself and back up a little. “Oh, sugar plum fairies, I knew Lily would get us in trouble.”
She sat on the cold, slippery floor and shuffled forward, until her lower legs dangled over the edge of the slope. Candy was furiously licking her chin.
“Oh, what can I do, Candy? I can’t leave Billy Boy behind.
Gel let out a groan behind her and gently pushed her back with his head, as though offering encouragement.
“Come on, Candy, tally ho!” her voice echoed around the cave as she slid into the gloom. They went shooting down the tunnel, which twisted and turned like a helter-skelter, the glassy smoothness of the rock surface causing them to rapidly gain speed.
Diana and Candy were ejected onto a dense clump of grass. They picked themselves up and moved just in time to avoid having Gel land on top of them. Diana didn’t know what to stare at first, the unbelievable sky above or the amazing scene before them.
Then Billy ran up and tried to squeeze the life out of her. “Oh, Di, glad to see you. I was scared.”
Diana looked up while stroking Billy’s head. Above them the full moon loomed so close it looked like she could reach out and touch it. Yet the moon was the least wondrous thing she was seeing, it was accompanied by all the planets of the solar system, not as large as the moon, but all clearly to be seen set against the backdrop of the Milky Way. Densely clustered stars filled in the rest of the sky, shooting stars blazing amongst them. The only thing missing was the sun.
Apart from the cliff face behind, all that could be seen was a seemingly endless forest of giant mushrooms, some of them as tall as large trees.
“This can’t be the woods near Aunty’s.”
Billy let go and looked up also. “Wow! I must be dreaming again.”
“If it’s a dream, we’re both having it.” Diana turned back to look along the bottom of the cliff. “I wonder what happened to Lily, Brigit and Gerri.”
The cliff face seemed to rise up endlessly, until it disappeared in the dark rolling clouds.
Billy couldn’t tear his gaze away from the sky. “Do you think we’re in heaven, Di?”
“I wouldn’t have thought so; I’m sure heaven’s the other way.”
They wandered among the maze of mushrooms, not knowing where to look first. There were some with red caps and white spots, purple ones, some growing together in rings, others with pointed goblin caps, and white ones shaped like rugby balls as big as a house.
Billy led the way around one of the huge mushroom balls, then bumped into someone. They both fell on their rumps. The creature was a little bigger than Billy and human-like in basic shape, but that’s where the similarity ended. It was charcoal-grey and completely hairless, with pointed ears, a hooked nose, and a mouthful of sharp teeth.
Billy screamed and kicked his feet. Candy begged to be picked up by Diana.
As they both jumped up, the creature spread a pair of leathery wings and rose into the air, hovering above Billy and chattering demonically. Gel leaped up at it but the creature gained more height and the hound’s jaws snapped shut on empty air. Then it was gone, flying towards the stars.
“What the Billy Bags was that?”
It was a good half minute before Diana could speak.
“I don’t know, er… it looked like a demon.”
“Demon!” shouted Billy. “You said there were no such things. I’ll never believe anything you lot say again, Di.”
“Anyway, Billy, at least it seemed as scared as us as we were of it.”
“Only cos it was on its own and Gel was here. What if it comes back with others?”
“Oh, Billy, what are we going to do?” Diana was struggling not to cry. “I don’t know where we’re supposed to go.”
Gel set off walking, then turned round and barked at them.
“I think he wants us to follow him,” said Diana.
Billy shrugged and set off after Gel.
Then they spotted a small group of ghostly figures, herded along like sheep by two jackals, their bodies fading to become transparent, then turning solid again. A single lonely ghost was coming from the opposite direction and as soon as the jackals saw it, one of them broke off to round him up. This accomplished, one of the jackals came over to stand staring inquisitively at Diana and Billy, till Gel warned it off with a rumbling growl.
Diana and Billy looked at each other in astonishment, neither finding words to speak. Then Gel started pushing them with his snout, eager to be off.
For what seemed like forever, they followed Gel through the mushroom forest. Both Diana and Billy trudged along in silence, lost in the wonder and terror of it all.
The mushrooms were finally left behind, Gel taking them on a gradual climb into rocky hill country. Everywhere there were herds of shaggy black, long-horned cattle and scruffy-looking small ponies.
“Di, my legs are tired.”
Gel slid on his belly beside Billy and nudged his legs with his snout.
“I think he wants you to get on his back, Billy.”
Billy climbed aboard and his spirits immediately perked up. Onwards they travelled into the unknown, until a tower appeared silhouetted on the horizon, set on top of a mound.
“That must be where Gel’s taking us,” said Diana.
“Oh, Di, I don’t like the look of that,” Billy replied.
They set off following Gel towards the ominous looking tower.