“Aren’t they the ones who are after us?” asked Claire.
We were in an empty corridor, all bunched up in front of the door to the Carpenter’s Guild, with no one keen to go in.
“Yes. Most of them will be out looking for us, so chances are there’ll only be a few of them in here. If we can get to their boss, maybe we can sort this without having to fight.”
Claire’s eyes narrowed as she processed my logic. She looked over at the others who didn’t exactly brim with enthusiasm either.
“One sec,” said Claire, and they all huddled together. Intense discussions followed, but in whispers I couldn’t hear. If I had a watch, I would have looked at it impatiently.
“Okay,” said Claire. “We don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Mm hmm,” I said. “Who gives a fuck? You’re the guys who went on a zero-risk mission and ended up on death row. If you don’t think it’s a good idea, it’s probably a brilliant idea.” I was a little irritated.
“We’re not trying to tell you what to do, but even we might have some suggestions worth considering, once in a while,” said Claire, defiantly sticking her chin out.
“Like what?” I was genuinely curious, for the comedy value. My sudden interest in what she had in mind seemed to throw her.
“Well…” She spun around and reconvened the UN Insecurity Council.
“Okay, enough,” I said. They all paused in their deliberations to look at me. “If we managed to somehow get out of this alive—I know it’s a big if—but assuming we did, I had planned to dissolve our band of merry adventurers. Quit while we’re ahead. But it’s pretty obvious you lot have reached a point where you have the confidence to make your own decisions and do things your own way. Which is great. So, why don’t we just end it right now? I’ll go in here and deal with the carpenters, you lot make your way to the surface and then go live a life devoid of common sense. I have no doubt that somehow you’ll make it work.”
“But what about the men looking for us?” said Maurice.
“The truth is, they aren’t looking for you, they’re looking for me. I’m the one they want. Go, try not to get into too much trouble, and I’m sure you’ll be fine. Better than fine, probably far in the future, when you’re walking down a street, with your kids and your happiness and your double chins from eating too many cream cakes in your mansion, you might see me begging in the street, one leg missing and an eye patch. Just drop a couple of coins in my wooden bowl and pretend you don’t recognise me, and you can consider us quits.”
They all stared at me. Flossie raised her hand.
“How did you lose the leg.”
It was a fair question. Inane, but fair.
“A dragon ate it. There was a princess who promised me half her kingdom if I saved her, but after I killed the dragon, she changed her mind. And before you ask, the eye’s fine, I just wear an eye patch to impress the other beggars.”
“Don’t you think you should stop this,” said Jenny.
“That’s what I’m trying to do.”
“No,” said Jenny, “I mean stop feeling sorry for yourself. This idea you have that the world is against you and nothing ever works out in your favour, it’s getting a bit old.”
I didn’t really know how to respond to that. It was like the teacher announcing to the class you’d wet yourself. Which never happened to me, of course. Mrs Maxwell, Class 2B. Bitch.
“You’re probably right,” I said. “It’s hard to get up in the mornings without at least one slice of self-pity and a hot cup of bitterness, but I’ll try. Assuming I don’t die in here, first.”
“Colin, just stop.” Jenny sounded angry. “You’re our leader. We don’t follow you because there’s no other choice, we follow you because we believe in you.”
I looked at Jenny like she might be having some kind of breakdown. The others were looking at her in much the same way.
“Do you really think if some smooth, good-looking smart-arse came along and offered us the chance to team up with him and his friends, we’d all jump at the chance and leave you behind?”
“Yes!” I said.”That’s exactly what you’d do. Right?”
The others made non-committal head bobs. I don’t think they knew which answer they were supposed to give.
“And I wouldn’t blame you.”
“No” said Jenny very firmly. “We wouldn’t do that. Right?”
She got the same indecisive head-bobbing reaction.
“You’re the leader,” she insisted. “You can’t just offer suggestions and then say, “But, hey, do what you want.’ You need to be firm. With all of us. When you give us an order, you should expect us to do it. And if we don’t, then punish us.”
The irritation I felt a few moments ago had gone, to be replaced by mild confusion. Not that I didn’t agree with what she was saying, but why was she the one giving this speech? And why so aggressively? It was like someone offering their surrender by shoving a white flag down your throat.
“Discipline doesn’t appear out of thin air. You have to enforce it. Especially early on.” She turned to the others who looked horrified by what she was saying. “I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I’m going to follow him to the end. Even if that’s five minutes from now.”
I’d say the general atmosphere was one of ‘Forget the off button, take out her batteries!’
“Do you really think this will work?” said Claire. It wasn’t so much a question as a stunned request for confirmation.
Jenny shrugged. “Even if we go in fully committed, success isn’t guaranteed. But if we do this half-hearted, I think we’ll definitely fail. All I know is that only he would think to come here when anyone else would try to get as far away as possible. And that sort of insane thinking has saved my life more than once. He is the leader, even if he doesn’t believe it.”
Claire looked at Maurice who looked at Dudley who looked at Flossie who looked at Claire. They could have quite easily kept this going for a couple of hours.
“Okay,” I said. “You guys take a vote or form a caucus or whatever and let me know.” I pushed the door open and walked into the guild office. A quick death had started to seem quite appealing.
Inside, there was a large desk that took up half the room, behind which sat a small woman with a lot of hair. I mean big hair, piled up high and wide. It was a wonder she didn’t tip over.
“Yes?” She sounded like she had better things to do, even though she was just sitting there.
I looked around the room. It was fairly large and nicely designed—lots of wood panelling as you’d expect in the Carpenter’s Guild—but it was hard to miss the main feature, which were two enormous men, holding enormous spears, armed to the teeth, standing either side of large double doors.
“Ah, hello.” My mind was suddenly blank. Why had I thought this was good idea again?
There was a rush of air behind me as the door opened and the rest of my party joined me. Had anything been resolved? Probably not. If we did get out of here alive, I still expected them to go off to do their own thing. But I did feel strangely comforted by having them there.
“Is the Guildmaster available?” I asked the secretary.
She gave me a curious look, like she was deciding whether or not to press the button under her desk that would drop us into a shark tank. She looked over at the men by the door, who didn’t move or react in any way. If this was a real carpenter’s guild, I might have suspected they were carved out of wood.
“She’s very busy. What’s this in relation to?”
The Guildmaster was a woman. I had assumed it was a man because either it was statistically more likely for the person running a violent criminal organisation in a pre-industrial society to be male, or I’m a sexist twat. Feel free to apply your own preconceptions.
“It’s, um, a contract for the removal of some… trees.”
“I think you want the Lumberjack Guild.”
I seemed to have chosen the wrong metaphor.
The secretary stared at me. She had a serious face and her outfit was all business. A fitted black jacket with large shoulder pads like an 80’s power suit.
I looked over at the men by the door. Their exaggerated shoulders and pinched waists also had an 80’s feel to them.
“The Guildmaster, she isn’t by any chance a visitor, is she?”
The secretary narrowed her eyes. “Maybe. Why?”
“So are we!” My voice suddenly got high-pitched with excitement. I calmed myself. Just because she was a visitor didn’t mean she wouldn’t want to kill us. “Could you tell her we’d like to meet her. We have lots of news from back home. I’m sure she’d be interested.”
The secretary seemed to take this request a lot more seriously than the arboreal murders I’d tried to arrange.
“One moment, I’ll see if she’s free.” She got up and walked over to the double doors. A look passed between her and one of the guards, and then she slipped into the office.
We only had to wait for a couple of seconds before the doors were flung open and a middle-aged woman with the biggest hair I’d ever seen appeared. She made the secretary look like she had a crew cut. But the crown of black curls was only the topper. Her sequined dress had shoulder pads you could float out to sea and land planes on.
She threw her arms wide. “Darlings, I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you. Come in, come in. We have so much to talk about.”
She spun around and walked back in, leaving the secretary to hold the door open.
It was quite an entrance, but the thing that had made the biggest impact wasn’t the outfit, or the coiffure. It was the accent. She was South African. A white South African from the 80s. Finally, someone I’d have no guilt about killing.
We followed her into a plush boudoir. There was no desk or normal chairs. There was a giant egg which our host had climbed into, and a mass of cushions on the floor. And two large men. Large men seemed to be the design motif.
“Please, call me Dana, and what should I call you?” A bejewelled hand waved in my direction, with fingernails Wolverine would have been proud of.
“Could I just ask first, which year did you arrive?”
“Ah, 1984. I have heard about many of the changes, but I take it you are from this year’s batch.”
“Yes. Ah… I984. So you’re a racist?”
She looked shocked. “What? Of course not. You mean because I’m South African? As I understood it, apartheid ended a long time ago.”
“Yes, but not when you were there. You must have supported the regime.”
“No, no, no. Please, don’t think that. I can’t help the time and place I was born, but I never supported that kind of thinking. Times change and people move on.”
She did seem genuinely hurt by the accusation. Which wasn’t surprising. Try finding a modern-day white South African who ever believed in apartheid. Apparently the whole thing was a bad dream the world had.
“You still wear shoulder pads. You can’t have moved on that far.”
Now she looked really shocked. “Are you saying shoulder pads aren’t in fashion anymore?”
“They haven’t been in fashion since 1986.” I grabbed Maurice and pulled him out of the crowd behind me. “If you kill him, it will only prove you hate blacks.”
I didn’t know if using white guilt would have an effect on her, but she was South African, the guiltiest of all the whites, so I figured it was worth a shot.
“Why would I want to kill him?” she implored.
Maurice was trying to squeeze out of my grip, not too keen on being the focus of racial tensions. I held on tight.
“Because that’s what Gullen ordered you to do.”
Her eyes widened. “You… you’re him!” She pointed at the others. “You’re them!” Not the most articulate when she was being accused of hate crimes, but it was clear she knew who we were (‘him’ and ‘them’).
“I just want you to understand this has all been arranged by the Lord Administrator. He’s been using you to test us, see if we’re worthy of his patronage. If you kill us, you’re just doing his dirty work for him.”
Dana, the reformed South African, stood up. “Other people’s dirty work is what we do here.”
Slight miscalculation on my part. I had just accused her of doing her job.
She looked at Maurice. “I want you to know, I won’t be killing you because you’re black, I’ll be killing you because you’re with him.” She pointed a beautifully manicured three-inch fingernail at me.
The men beside her drew large wooden clubs with elegant carvings down the side. You could really see the workmanship. At least the didn’t have swords, I thought to myself. Then they also drew swords. Dual-wielders. Nice.
I let go of Maurice and both my hands burst into flame. I was a dual-wielder myself.
The two men took a step back.
“You use magic!” said Dana, impressed. Not that I could do much damage. Usually.
“Yes. And judging by your hair, you use a lot of product. Is it flammable?”
Her face went from impressed to panicked. “You wouldn’t!”
“I fucking would. And a lot more besides. Now tell me, where’s the way out.”
“What are you talking about? It’s behind you.”
“I mean the secret way out you use. Come on, you’re the head of bunch of killers for hire, you must have an escape route if things go pear-shaped.”
“Just because you can set fire to things doesn’t mean you’ll leave here alive. My instructions are to capture you, nothing more. Put out those flames and let’s talk about this. I’m sure we can come to an understanding. You, me and the Lord Administrator.”
I almost fell for it. If she was going to turn us over to Gullen anyway, why fight it? But then I caught the look she gave her guards. It didn’t feel she was giving a restraining order. And would Gullen even bother with half-measures like that?
“Did you ever see Raiders of the Lost Ark?” I asked her.
The question caught her a bit off guard. “What?”
“The movie, Raiders, did you see it?”
“No, I can’t say that I did.”
“Good. When I say Marion, I want you to do like in the scene where they open the Ark.” This last bit was said to the people behind me. Whether they’d understand, I had no idea.
I slapped my burning palms together and the flames went out. When I pulled my palms apart, a ball of light floated between them. I gave it a nudge and it floated towards Dana.
“It’s beautiful,” said Dana, mesmerised by the streaks of colour playing across its surface.
“Marion!” I snapped my fingers. The ball popped, releasing a brilliant flash of white light—one of the tricks I’d developed while messing around in my room. Solitude has its advantages.
I opened my eyes. Dana and her men were staggering around, blind. I turned around. My party all had their eyes tightly shut.
“You can open your eyes.”
They did as instructed, blinking and stretching their eyes, but otherwise fine.
“Guards!” screamed Dana.
Shit. I’d forgotten about the guards outside. I drew my sword and prepared to fight, but Maurice and Dudley were ahead of me. They stood either side of the door, each holding the end of a piece of rope. As the guards came running in, they lifted the roped and tripped them. They jumped on the guards and began hitting them with saps very similar to mine.
I hadn’t told them to do any of that, and I hadn’t shown them how to make a sap.
I looked over to where Jenny and Claire had Dana pinned to the ground.
“Them!” Jenny was pointing at the two remaining guards, who were flailing about with their weapons.
I took care of them with my sap, although it took some ducking and weaving and a number of hits before they dropped.
Breathing hard, I looked around to see where Flossie had got to. She was in the outer office, chasing the secretary around her desk. Everyone had come out of it unscathed, but we still had to find a way out. Reinforcements could arrive at any moment.
“Where’s the escape hatch?” I asked Dana.
Her face was shoved into a large cushion. We probably needed to find a less comfortable torture device if we wanted to make her talk.
“Go to Hell!” she mumbled.
Jenny grabbed her hair and yanked. It came off, revealing clumpy blonde tresses under a hair net.
She had been properly afraid when I threatened to set her on fire, but for a wig? “Why was she so worried about me burning her hair if it wasn’t even hers?”
“It is mine! I paid for it!” Dana squealed as she tried to wriggle out from under the two girls.
“Just tell us how to get out of here,” I said, my head lowered so it was nearer hers. “Or I’ll set fire to your real hair.” I produced a single flame from the end of my finger.
There was the sound of stone scraping against stone and a large section of the wall slid aside.
“How wonderful. Real magic. I’m amazed.” Gullen stood there with Biadet by his side. He slapped his gloved hands together. “I knew there was something about you.” He wagged finger at me. “Special boy. Perfect.”
He walked in like he’d been invited to a garden party and was looking for the cucumber sandwiches.
I stood up. Sitting in the secret passage were two giant dogs, like Dobermans but heavier, and about the same height as Biadet. They made no noise, I couldn’t even hear them breathing. They looked a bit bored. Then one yawned and I nearly crapped myself. Its teeth were solid metal.
“I must thank you, by the way. You were right about the trolls—whole army’s riddled with them. Took us forever finding them all.” Gullen looked down at his feet. “Oh, hello, Dana. I told you he was a tricky one, didn’t I? Is that a new haircut?”
“Mmf mff,” said Dana through a mouthful of pillow.
“Very nice. Suits you.” He turned back to me. “So, shall we go?”
“Go where?” I asked, not really wanting to know the answer.
“Oh, I have plans for you, my boy. Such plans. For all of you.”
The others looked around nervously.
“Initially, I had thought this was a one-man operation, but now I see you really are a team. A very hard to figure out, unusually unstable team, but somehow you make it work. That’s why you will make the ideal envoys to send over the border to convince our enemies to negotiate a peace.”
“Over the border to…?”
“Ah. And as envoys, we will be protected under some truce or…?”
“No, no. No protection. But I’m sure you’ll manage to stay alive long enough to get to the Archfiend’s castle.”
“Yes. Terribly fearsome fellow, by all accounts. Not that we have many. He always sends back our envoys in pieces. But you, I have a good feeling about your chances.” He wagged his finger at me again.
The best thing to do would be to take the deal and then make a run for it. He’d come after us, but it had to be better than the alternative.
“Of course, I’ll need to secure your loyalty by keeping one of you behind. Now, let’s see… What about the girl in the back?”
We all turned around. Flossie had the secretary cornered by the filing cabinet. The secretary seemed to be whimpering. Or possibly giggling.
“She’d probably be safer here,” I said to Dudley. The way his whole body shook, I don’t think he agreed. I turned back to Gullen. “How about this… You let us keep Flossie, and we promise to go on this mission for you. Word of honour.”
“Mm. Tempting, but I don’t think so. How about I keep Flossie and you give me your word, and if you don’t come back, I’ll hang her?”
I could feel waves of deadly intent rolling off Dudley. Normally, this would be a good thing, but in this case I was pretty sure it wouldn’t turn out well. Biadet had taken up position next to him and was staring like she’d found a fly in a web. And she was the spider.
“Interesting,” I said. “If I could suggest a small amendment, you give us Flossie, I stay here, and you send the others to Monsterland.” I turned to the others and gave them a thumbs up. They didn’t look very impressed by my great sacrifice.
Gullen smiled with his lips, but nothing else.
“I’m afraid that won’t do. You are the lynchpin of this party and you will go as our representative to meet with the Archfiend. And please don’t suggest we keep all of them and let you go on your own.” Damn, my next ploy foiled. “Without them to act as your conscience, I’m not sure you would ever come back, whoever I threaten to kill.”
There was a murmur of agreement from behind me.
Where was the trust? Claire was right, I had started rubbing off on them.
“One of them will stay here. Who would you suggest?”
Why did they have to call it Monsterland? The name was just so off-putting. But there seemed no way to avoid it. We were going to the land of monsters. As soon as I chose someone to leave behind.
End of Volume 3
Thanks for reading the third book in the HTADDB series. You can pick up the eBook at Amazon or any outlet that sells epubs (iBooks, Kobo, Smashwords etc.).
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