A massively belated second instalment in ‘The Christmas Cat’, a story I wrote one Christmas as a serial for my two nephews, then six and seven. I’m working towards re-releasing this one as an ebook, for now here’s chapter 2. (You can read chapter 1 here.)
On the other side of the door a steep flight of steps led downwards. It was dark — so dark that Myron and Micah could not see their hands in front of their faces. They felt around until they found each other, then held hands tightly and stumbled down the stairs, following where the Cat had gone.
“This way,” they heard it say, a little way ahead of them. Its voice echoed off unseen walls. “Not far to go.”
Myron led the way, feeling ahead of him with his free hand. At the bottom of the stairs was a tunnel, where the walls closed in on either side. The floor was bumpy, and wet in places; the air was cold, and it sighed gently past their faces, making them shiver.
“Where are we going?” Micah whispered.
“I don’t know,” said Myron. “Just keep walking.”
They kept walking, following the Cat. After a few minutes the tunnel sloped upwards and the darkness began to recede. There was light ahead of them, blue and cold, shining through a criss-cross pattern of branches that covered an opening at the end of the tunnel. The Cat slipped through the opening, and Myron and Micah squirmed after it. The branches caught at their pyjamas, but they pushed through and soon they were on the other side.
They were outside, looking out over the sea-front towards Filey Brigg, the headland on the far side of the bay. The sky was clear and the moon was up, her silver light reflecting off the smooth white snow and making everything glow softly. Silence lay everywhere, thick and deadening; the only sound was the soft hushing of the waves on the beach, and even they sounded far-off and muffled.
Myron and Micah shivered. They were only dressed in thin pyjamas, and their feet were bare. Crouching at the entrance to the tunnel they could just about bear the cold, but going any further would be impossible.
The Cat had walked a little way out of the tunnel. When it realised they were not following it looked back impatiently.
“Come on,” it said. “We haven’t got all night.”
“But we’re cold,” Micah protested.
“Yeah,” agreed Myron. “We need to go back and get our shoes.”
“Oh, for goodness’ sakes …” the Cut muttered. It blinked once, and a sudden warm sensation spread from the boys’ feet up their legs, through their bellies and into their chests and fingers. They giggled and rubbed their arms, delighting in the sudden change from cold to warm as their hot breath came out in great billowing clouds.
“Are you coming?” the Cat called, interrupting them. “Only the sun will be up soon, and then it will be too late.”
“Too late for what?” Myron said, venturing out of the tunnel and across the snow. Wherever he stepped the snow melted into feel-shaped puddles with little hissing noises.
“It’ll take too long to explain,” said the Cat. “Follow me and I’ll show you.”
Micah followed Myron out of the tunnel, still wriggling his fingers and giggling at how warm he felt. “How did you do this?” he asked.
“Like I said,” the Cat replied. “It’s possible to do anything if you put your mind to it.”
They followed the Cat down to the sea-front, passing by darkened houses and beneath bright strings of Christmas lights looped between the lamp-posts. When they came to the mini golf-course on the promenade they were surprised to see a group of teenagers slumped in the snow, fast asleep. But when Myron pointed them out to the Cat it hardly spared a look.
“That’s why we have to hurry,” was all it said.
The Cat led them along to the Coble Landing, the slipway where all the fishing boats stood in a row on one side and the silent Amusement Arcade stood on the other; from there they went down on to the beach, along beneath the cliffs for a little way, then up a steep path that wound through a deep ravine to the top of the cliffs.
They emerged in the wide open Country Park that sprawled along the cliff-tops. The wind was stronger now they were higher up, but the boys hardly noticed it — they were still warm from whatever it was the Cat had done.
“There,” said the Cat. It pointed with its nose along the Brigg, the narrow finger of land that projected out to sea at this end of the bay. The boys looked, but they saw nothing: just crisp snow and bare rock under a starry sky.
“What is it?” said Myron.
“I can’t see anything,” Micah added helpfully.
“What? Oh.” The Cat sighed deeply. “Of course. You’re not magical, are you? Very well. Do what I say. Shut your right eye. Good. Now, make a circle with the thumb and first finger of your right hand, and look through it.”
There was a brief pause as the boys followed these instructions, then suddenly Myron gasped.
“I can see it!” he cried. “I can see a house!”
“What house?” Micah was still getting the hang of which eye he should use.
Myron helped him, then Micah, too, gasped and laughed. “I can see it too!” he shouted.
In front of them, through the circle of their fingers, they saw the Country Park and the Brigg, almost exactly as they were — but something had been added. Now a house sat on the Brigg, and not just any house. It reared high into the night sky, built from heavy blocks of stone with hundreds of windows and many towers all projecting out at odd angles to each other. Above the house a bright constellation of stars shone, much brighter than any stars they had ever seen before.
The house was only there as long as they were looking through their fingers with their left eye. If they took their hands away and opened their other eye, the scene returned to normal.
They experimented with turning the effect on and off for a while, laughing to each other as they did so. But Myron could see the Cat was getting impatient again, so he said, “Shall we go on?” and the Cat sighed and padded away wordlessly.
The house grew bigger the closer they came, and they had to crane their necks to see the tallest towers. A great flight of stone steps led up to the front door, which was wide open. The Cat led them up the stairs and into the house.
Once inside it turned to them.
“You can put your hands down now,” it said. “The magic of the house will keep it visible as long as you’re inside.”
The boys took their hands away from their eyes and looked around in amazement.
The inside of the house, it seemed, was even bigger than the outside (if such a thing was possible). The ceiling rose high over their heads, clustered with crystal chandeliers. In front of them was an ornate wooden staircase that swept away to the upper floors. Drapes hung from the walls over polished wooden panels. Paintings hung between the drapes, and bright suits of armour lined the spaces between the paintings.
But the house was dark, and silent, just like their own house and the entire town. It was sleeping.
“So why are we here?” whispered Myron.
“Follow me, and I’ll explain as we go,” said the Cat. It walked away through a set of doors into a long, long corridor, and the boys followed and listened as it spoke.
“The master of this house — my owner — is a very powerful Enchanter,” it said.
“A magician?” Micah asked.
The Cat tutted. “No, an Enchanter,” it corrected him. “Pay attention. This very night a creature called the Boggart broke into the house and put him, and this whole town, into a deep sleep. When it had done that the Boggart stole something very precious to my owner.”
“What’s a Boggart?” Myron asked.
“It’s a bit like a bat, a bit like a tree, and a bit like a bad dream you’re glad to wake up from. I’m sure you get the idea. Now, being a Cat, the Boggart’s spell did not affect me. But now I need to bring my owner a very powerful piece of magic to wake him from the sleep, and being a magical creature I cannot get to it.”
“Why not?” Myron asked.
“Because between the magic and us there is a Veil of Protection.”
“It’s a barrier that stops any magical creature from getting through. My owner values his magic very highly, and he takes every precaution against thieves and robbers.”
They came to the end of the corridor, and turned right into a darkened hall with tall windows and a black-and-white tiled floor. At the far end of the hall was another door, and in front the door lay a massive dark shape, its folded wings rising and falling and a thin trail of smoke rising from its wide nostrils.
“There,” said the Cat. “Beyond that door lies the Veil, and beyond the Veil lies the magic my owner needs.”
But Myron and Micah had stopped dead in their tracks.
The creature that lay between them and the door was a dragon.