Chapter One: Close Encounter
‘You are getting in above your head, George,’ groaned Malvin. ‘I’m talking in deep, deep doodoo. Don’t think I’m gonna defend you when your mum gets hold of you.’
Walking through the woods in the grounds of the Myth Force Training Centre, George didn’t look at the squirrel-sized goblin sitting on his shoulder – there was no need. He knew exactly what expression that hideous green mug would have: pebble black eyes would be screwed shut, pointed ears flat against oblong skull, fluffy white hair and goatee beard bristled with anxiety. Malvin, George’s companion goblin, looked like Yoda’s ugly younger brother, but without the world-saving-may-the-Force-be-with-you disposition. The goblin was grumpy, greedy and wicked – and he also happened to be George’s best friend.
‘It’s OK. I’m a universal – I know how to handle this stuff,’ George said blithely. ‘Don’t get in a sweat.’
Malvin made a point of drawing his clawed paw across his forehead and flicking imaginary perspiration at his human.
‘Liam said fire imps are cool. They know how to have a good time.’
‘Liam is also eight years older than you and a graduate from the MFTC.’ Malvin rattled his tiny wings with a sound like porcupine quills. ‘Your thing about encountering as many mythical creatures as possible is getting way out of hand.’ The goblin dug his talons deeper in to the padding of George’s jacket and used his half-furled wings to steady himself as the boy clambered over a gate. ‘Kraken scales, would you listen to me! Me, the goblin, giving you, the human, good advice! I’m ashamed of myself. Yeah, go ahead, Georgie boy, go get yourself toasted by the fire imps. I mean, it’s not as if there aren’t loads of universal companions out there with essential roles to play in saving the world. Not.’
‘I won’t get toasted.’
‘Yeah, right.’ Malvin folded his arms.
‘If you don’t want to hang around and watch, why don’t you go do something else? Drag washing off the line or scare a few cats – whatever it is that gives you your kicks.’
Malvin muttered something unrepeatable.
‘So you’re staying?’
‘Yes, because unlike you, I am fire-proof. Unlike you, I might be able to haul your butt out of danger when you get your fingers burnt.’
‘I love you too, Malvin,’ George said in a falsely cheerful voice.
The goblin heaved out a brimstone-flavoured snort. ‘Cut out the warm fuzzies. Makes me want to vomit.’
‘Whatever makes you happy, sweetpea.’
George tried not to let the goblin see he was smiling. Against his bad nature, Malvin could not help wanting to keep his human safe and that really got under his scaly hide. They had been inseparable ever since George had found Malvin tormenting the family cat, using his skill for ventriloquism. As far as the cat was concerned, the blue teddy really had barked at her. The goblin had been lying on the lawn, paralytic with laughter as the cat fought the cuddly bear. George had been a toddler at the time and thought the goblin just a weird looking toy that had wandered in to his garden. After sticking his chubby finger in Malvin’s eye and squeezing his tummy to make him squeak, the goblin had put him right by biting down hard. After Toddler George had got over his initial shock that one of his toys had fought back, he became fascinated by the creature. The attraction had proved mutual – like most mythical creatures, the goblin could not resist a universal companion who was able to create a special bond mind-to-mind with all of them. From that moment, Malvin became George’s secret companion, getting expert at posing as one of his action figures when an adult came in the room. He had been the toy smuggled to the first day at nursery – boy, was that a mistake! Half the kids in Hescombe of George’s age were still having nightmares about the burping green baby doll. Humiliated by that outing, Malvin had demanded that he be treated with dignity rather than as a TeenieTinyTears. And ever since an entire day bingeing out on Star Wars DVDs, he sported Jedi robes when travelling in public with George.
Funny, thought George, looking sideways at the rigid profile of his friend, you would have thought as a rare universal companion, fate would have picked a more awesome creature for his friend. His cousin Connie, head universal in the Society for the Protection of Mythical Creatures, had a beautiful golden dragon called Argand. He had a little green goblin with bad breath.
As his American buddy, Ashvin, would say: go figure.
George jumped a fence in to the wood. Everything was quiet in the cool April twilight. A flush of green on twig tips showed the trees were rousing from their winter hibernation. Pale yellow catkins dangled from bare birch fronds, like fish bait laid out to hook spring. George could sense many old friends out and about this evening: wood sprites, fey folk, kelpies, and the more distance presence of dragons flying on Dartmoor. George shivered with anticipation.
‘I’ve got a really bad feeling about this,’ muttered Malvin.
Ignoring the doomsayer, George gathered some dead wood and built a campfire in a clearing. The sky was smoke grey – thick cloud hiding the over-flight of winged creatures. His backbone tingled as he felt the pegasi going through their manoeuvres.
‘Look, George my friend,’ Malvin continued in a suspiciously reasonable voice, ‘you don’t have to prove yourself to anyone. Connie doesn’t expect you to finish your training early.’
George snapped a branch and shook his head. ‘It’s not about her.’
Of course, it was, but he wasn’t about to admit it, not even to Malvin. He lived in Connie’s shadow. His older brother, Col, was married to her so every family gathering inevitably brought news of yet another triumph or amazing encounter as the couple travelled the world trying to save mythical creatures from extinction. And thanks to a nearly fatal encounter with her arch-enemy, Kullervo, Connie had also become the only shape-shifting human in existence which made her even more exceptional. George loved her dearly, but sometimes wished she wasn’t so perfect. As the only other universal in the Society, he could not hope to measure up.
But he was going to try. He was going to fast track through the training programme and kick some environmental butt when he was finished. The climate crisis meant no one could afford to sit in a classroom; action was needed now, even from thirteen year olds like him. Under Connie’s leadership the Society had shaken off centuries of tradition and completely reorganized to meet the new challenge; George wanted to take his place in that fight. So tonight he was going to cross another species off his list and show that he could manage a tricky challenge on his own. Only then would the Society consider letting him lead his own Myth Force squad. He wanted to be the youngest commander in Society history and this was his ticket to that promotion.
Or the door to his expulsion. It was, he had to admit, a high risk strategy.
He took out a match and struck it on the side of the box. Puff – the match went out, thanks to a gust of foetid air from Malvin.
‘Stop that,’ grouched George. ‘I’m going do this.’
He tried again. This time he was able to set the flame to the tinder. It caught – fire eating up the dry leaves, lapping at the twigs.
‘Now what?’ asked Malvin, intrigued despite his misgivings.
‘When Liam does this, he gets the fire imps to dance on his fingertips. He kind of summons them somehow.’
George closed his eyes, reaching inside himself for his gift. Having been trained by Connie almost from birth, he knew exactly how to access his universal powers, drawing a thread to throw out in to the wind, calling the imps to the campfire.
Whoosh! The explosion of flame almost singed off his eyebrows. George staggered back, momentarily blinded. From the quivering hump he had just acquired, he guessed Malvin had taken shelter under his jacket. He rubbed his eyes to see two giant-sized imps dancing in his campfire. They were pure flame, taking shape then shifting in to another form in a blink of an eye. Dark smoke billowed from their mouths, drifted in a cloak from their spine, snaked from hands and toes. No way were these going to fit on his fingertips.
Er, hi, he stammered, using the mind-to-mind communication of the universal.
Yo, dude, crackled one imp, flickering in to the man’s shape. The voice seared through his head like a blaze in the Australian outback.
‘Yo dude?’ snorted Malvin. ‘What’s with that?’
‘Liam told me he introduced them to hip-hop and rap – it’s spread like wild fire in the imp community,’ George explained. ‘Now, just shut up a minute while I do this.’
Fire Imps, I’m pleased to meet you, George said, bowing to the pair. He knew he sounded too proper but he couldn’t quite bring himself to pretend to be Eminem.
Wanna dance? asked the second imp, a female from her appearance. She moved with a sultry grace, body shimmering in waves of heat.
George blushed. Not today, thanks. I just wanted to meet you and...and get to know you a bit. George thought his first contact with this new species lacked the Neil Armstrong words – one small step and all that. He sounded like a loser.
The male grinned, displaying a row of fire-white teeth. Yeah, we feel you too, dude. Who’s the green bro?
That’s my goblin, Malvin. George prayed his companion hadn’t been listening in on that last question.
Malvin tweaked his ear. ‘George, the fire!’
‘Ssh!’ So, how’s life for you fire imps? How’s it...um...hanging. He would kill Liam for getting these creatures in to hip-hop, he really would. He couldn’t talk the talk.
It’s hangin’ good – real loose, man.
That’s...er...good to know.
‘George, you will listen to me!’ squawked Malvin. ‘Your trainers are melting!’
Bonded with the creatures, George had not noticed the heat or realized that the fire had grown to Guy Fawkes Night proportions. The nearby trees were beginning to suffer from the blaze, wood sprites rustling their protests at him.
Look, um, bro...and er...sista, this has been awesome...er...huge, George told the imps, but I gotta go.
The imps wove around him, engulfing him in a fiery ring, smiles a touch evil.
Leaving so soon? asked the female, extending a long finger nail to him and scoring a hole in his jacket.
George flapped at the burn, making sure it didn’t spread. Yeah, sorry. Got things to do – places to be. But we’ll know each other next time, right, er...you feel me?
The imps were growing larger, the female’s fiery hair streaming straight up in to the sky like a comet’s tail.
‘I don’t mean to interrupt,’ Malvin said in a snide tone, ‘but how are you going to end this?’
Aware the encounter was fast heading out of control, George clamped down on a surge of panic. He couldn’t fail at so simple a task – he wouldn’t be able to face Connie if he did. He struggled to remember what he’d been taught. Liam had told him that the principle for dealing with fire imps was the same no matter the size: snuff the flame. But Liam had also said always to carry his mobile so he could dial 999. Trying not to gulp in smoke, George bowed again to the imps and raised his hands.
No! bellowed the male.
Sorry, but I’m gonna blow this party, George replied, feeling the surge of power as he clapped his hands together, squeezing the air tight in his palms.
With a final pop, the fire went out, leaving a large charred circle in the centre of the clearing. George sensed the imps shooting in to the sky, their bodies invisible until the next time they hit flame.
‘Woo-hoo! Are you impressed or what?’ crowed George to Malvin, feeling very proud of himself.
‘Or what,’ growled Malvin. ‘Your face looks like it’s sunburnt, the ends of your hair frizzled, your clothes...your clothes are a write-off, human.’
George looked down at himself. The soles of his trainers had melted in to a rubber fringe around the blackened canvas, his jeans were a wreck, his jacket smoking on one shoulder. Malvin patted a spark out on the crown of his head with unnecessary force. George couldn’t see his brush-cut brown hair but he would take the goblin’s word for its abysmal condition.
‘Wasn’t that great!’ enthused George, mentally ticking the imps off his list of creatures to meet.
‘You are certifiable, universal. Absolutely bonkers.’
‘Must be the company I keep,’ George grinned, rubbing Malvin under the chin just as he liked.
The goblin purred with pleasure. ‘You have your uses, I suppose. But you are still in deep doodoo.’
You can read on in the book available in my shop.