Sir Charles Wilton had just poured himself a glass of brandy and flipped open a book he’d been looking forward to reading, when a sudden whooshing sound made him look up in time to witness a demon materializing in the library.
For a moment Sir Charles considered running out of the house and then down the road to the church to fetch Father Berlioz — but he soon dismissed the idea. His familiarity with otherworldly creatures such as demons was poor indeed, but he realized that the demon might very well take offence at a priest bursting in, waving a crucifix in its face. Under no circumstances would he have his home turned into a battlefield between the forces of light and darkness.
So instead he cleared his throat and simply said: “Good afternoon!”
The demon aimed two pairs of eye-stalks in his general direction, studied him with an inscrutable expression in its hideous face and took two long strides towards him. A scale-covered hand latched out and made threatening movements in the air.
“Is there anything I can get you?” Sir Charles asked, putting his glass of brandy down with a trembling hand.
The demon took another stride forward, carrying with it a smell of rotting fish. It pointed a claw-like finger at his chest.
Sir Charles shielded his heart with his hand, felt cool metal press against the palm of his hand and sighed with relief.
“Oh, is it this you want?” he said, holding out the heavy pocket watch in gold he’d left hanging out of his vest pocket.
The demon let out a muffled gargle.
“I take that as a yes.”
Sir Charles unhooked the watch from the pocket lining and the demon instantly snatched it from his outstretched hand and quickly stuffed it into a pouch of some kind that seemed to grow from its trunk. Then it reached out with its hand again.
“You want something more?”
But already as he spoke Sir Charles realized that he’d misunderstood the gesture. The demon meant in fact to give him something.
“Oh, a barter? My pocket watch for this — ring?”
Sir Charles took the small, pale green ring from the demon’s outstretched hand. It felt strange to the touch, as if coated with something that wouldn’t allow his skin to come in contact with the metal. He also noted that it had some small knots on it, which on closer examination turned out to be eight tiny gearwheels.
A sudden rush of air made him look up, only to discover that the demon had vanished, as abruptly as it had appeared.
He let out another sigh of relief. Admittedly, the demon had behaved in quite a civilized manner, but he was still happy to see it go. Now he could focus his attention on examining the strange ring. After twisting and turning it for a while, he decided to simply put it on. It appeared to be too narrow at first, but to his surprise the gentle pressure of his finger made the ring widen until he could slide it on quite easily. He was equally surprised to discover that the finger had vanished in thin air.
He jerked the ring off, and the finger reappeared instantly.
“Ah, I see.”
In exchange for his watch the demon had given him a ring with the power to make its wearer invisible — or more precisely, to make the wearer’s ring finger invisible, a limitation that probably had a somewhat inhibiting effect on the number of possible uses.
“Unless — ”
He held the ring between his thumbs and index fingers and started pulling it gently. It widened smoothly. Soon he’d made an aperture twenty-five centimeters across. Taking a deep breath he stuck his head through the ring.
At once he realized he’d altogether misapprehended the nature of the ring. Before him stretched an endless plain, covered with high, red grass that swayed in a calm breeze. A huge, orange-coloured sun balanced on the horizon, and three small, silver-white moons chased each other across a purple sky where alien stars glowed. There was a faint smell of cinnamon in the air.
He raised the ring and there was his library again, with its familiar scents. His hands were shaking with excitement as he widened the ring even more, making it big enough to allow his shoulders to pass through it. He took another deep breath, held the ring over his head and carefully brought it down all the way to his knees. He climbed out of it and felt the soft grass under his feet.
Straightening his back he clutched the ring firmly to his chest, suddenly afraid that it might just disappear, like something out of a dream. He felt the small gear-wheels under his fingers and turned them slowly, thoughtfully as he gazed across the billowing plain, contemplating the implications and the seemingly endless possibilities.
A sudden, irresistible desire for a cup of steaming hot tea compelled him to climb into the ring again. But as he raised it he found himself standing on a shore of blue sand by a sluggish, black sea. The air was thin and harsh to breathe. A strange, almond-shaped vessel, gleaming like gold, cut across the cobalt-blue sky.
He put his ear close to the ring, turned a gear-wheel a notch and heard the faint, ominous click. A cold hand squeezed his heart. He got down on his knees and began drawing numbers in the sand. When he was finished he stood up and stared in dismay at the calculation.
Eight wheels and twelve possible positions for each meant four-hundred and twenty-nine million nine-hundred and eighty-one thousand six-hundred and ninety-six possible combinations.
Since he’d traded his watch for the ring he couldn’t tell the exact time, but he had a strong suspicion he’d be late for his afternoon tea.
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