CHAPTER FOUR: REALM (4/4)

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Light flooded Sol's eyes, and for a moment, he could see nothing at all but harsh white light.

"It's a human!" shouted someone.

As Sol's vision returned, he found that he was standing in the middle of a large semi-circular room lit by flaming torches. Pillars of white stone surrounded its perimeter, beyond which the high walls were obscured by a silent curtain of falling water. The floor was a mirror of gold marble and spanning its surface was the outline of a five-pointed sunrise, like a star that had been cut in half. It had five long points which reached out across the room to the five people sitting in ornate wooden chairs.

The first was also the shortest of the five—a squat little man who looked like he'd been chiselled out of a block of stone. His short arms were as thick as his legs, though most of his left leg seemed to have been replaced by a black metal limb. He had a coarse black beard that reached down to his knees, though that wasn't a great length.

The second person was an elderly man with skin like old parchment and a back as crooked as his hook nose. He wore a collarless jacket of deep purple, embellished with gold lace. Like Goone, he looked Chinese and had bright blue eyes, though he had lost most of his hair, leaving only a few thin strands of white silk behind.

The woman in the centre was opposite to the old man in just about every way. She was young and perfectly poised, shrouded under a hooded blue robe, revealing only the oval of her gentle face. Like Pan Magal, she looked Indian with skin the colour of dark caramel. A gold pendant hung in the centre of her forehead.

The fourth person Sol initially took to be a woman sitting atop a white horse... until it dawned on him that the woman and the horse were the same creature. Where the animal's head should have been, the woman's body was instead. She had long black hair braided into a thick tail draped over one shoulder. But, as remarkable as the horse-woman was, it was the fifth and final creature which Sol could not take his eyes off.

The beast was the biggest of the five and must have been over ten feet tall. Perched on a rock, the great bird looked similar to an eagle with autumnal-coloured feathers and huge, powerful wings whose tips hovered just above the polished floor. Its feet were enormous yellow things with long talons. It cocked its head as it studied Sol with its black and beady eyes.

"What have you done?" asked the woman sitting in the middle. It was the Grand Master.

"He's the last person to see Pan Magal alive," said Goone. He was standing right beside Sol, as was a dark-skinned man dressed from head to toe in fine silver chain-mail. His ears tapered up into points, just like Pan Magal's. Sol assumed this was Farkel.

"Then you should have questioned him in the human world, "said the Grand Master, "not brought him back to ours."

"But he--"

"We must send him back at once," said the horse-woman.

"There's little point now," said the giant bird in his deep voice. "He's already seen our world."

The short, square man leaned forwards in his seat with a mighty squint at Sol. "He looks scared."

"Of course he does," said the elderly Chinese man. "He has never seen our kind before."

"That's enough," said the Grand Master. "Detective Goone, your actions have brought chaos into the Temple. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't have you arrested and taken to a cell this very moment."

Goone nodded and removed his wand. He pointed it at Sol and gave it a flick, and the binding around Sol's wrists unravelled.

"What are you doing?" asked the Grand Master.

"Giving you my one good reason," said Goone. He grabbed Sol's hand and lifted it up, displaying the ring on his finger.

"Pan Magal's ring...!" said a voice. The horse-woman was gazing at him with a look of startled disbelief.

"Impossible..." whispered the Grand Master, wearing a similar expression.

"He must have stolen it..." said the short man.

"He didn't steal it," said Goone. "Pan Magal gave it to him. Now I don't know about you, but I'd say if the Old Man thought it was alright to give a human his ring, it can't be all that bad for me to bring him here... or does anyone disagree?"

This time, nobody did.

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Mike

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