“What would you do?” Jenny asked me.
She stood there, arms wrapped around herself like she was trying to keep warm, biting into her bottom lip.
I didn’t even have to think about my response. “Me? I’d confess. The last thing I’d want to do is spend my final days locked up with this lot. Mind you, I’d probably give a long speech about how they owed their lives to me and how much they didn’t deserve it. Make them feel as shitty as possible. Gratitude is fleeting, but shame lasts forever.”
Jenny’s body sagged. She closed her eyes and and took a deep breath. “It was me. I took the knife. You can all go.” Her voice was steady, but she was shaking. She sank down into a crouch, arms hooped around her knees and rested her head in the little divot between her kneecaps.
“Okay, everyone,” I said, “let’s go.”
They hesitated, looking at each other for support, for permission. I think they knew abandoning Jenny would be a death sentence for her. Even if she had stolen the dagger, they didn’t want to be responsible for that. Guilt kept them from moving. They didn’t want to be the ones to condemn her. They wanted someone else to do it.
I bent down so my head was about level with hers.
“Aren’t you coming?”
Jenny looked up at me, tears in her eyes. “What do you…” The watery sadness in her eyes flipped into confusion, and then tumbled into something far sharper. “You fuck!”
“You were very noble,” I said. “You didn’t make them eat shit or anything.”
Jenny sprang up like a jack-in-the-box. “You fucking fuck.” I had to step back quickly to avoid being headbutted.
“Wait,” said Claire. “So, she didn’t have to confess?”
“Nope. Why should she? She didn’t do anything. Although, it was impressive how you turned on her like that. You guys are some heartless motherfuckers.”
They all looked at each other. Outrage or shame? Place your bets.
Claire’s mouth went from frown to grimace to open bomb bay doors.
“You know,” I said, cutting in before she could start, “she only just managed to get away from her last bunch of ‘friends’. Imagine how she feels now, thanks to you.”
Claire faltered. Her eyes swung away from me and towards Jenny, who was still shaking with rage. I mean, she was shaking with rage at me, but Claire was in her line of sight, too. I didn’t mind sharing.
All four of my original party bowed their heads as they took collective responsibility.
Claire slowly inched towards Jenny. She didn’t make eye contact and her voice was low and mumbly. “Sorry, Jenny. I know I was out of order and there’s no excuse for how I acted, but—”
Sure, there’s no excuse, but… Classic.
“—the truth is after you spend as much time with Colin as we have, he starts rubbing off on you.”
Wait a minute…
“Snapping and lashing out at people feels like the normal thing to do. I didn’t even think about what I was saying, I was all wrapped up in myself, just like him.”
How did this become my fault?
“The truth is...” Tears fell from Claire’s eyes. “I was scared I’d led everyone to their deaths and I just wanted to blame someone else, the way Colin would.”
And what do you think you’re doing right now?
“I... I need help. I know that. If I start acting like him again, please punch me in the face.”
“I understand,” said Jenny. She put her arms around Claire and they hugged tightly. The others swarmed around them, joining in with mumbled apologies and promises to never doubt each other again, blah, blah, blah. A beautiful moment. For them.
I looked over at God who was wiping a tear from the corner of his eye.
Where were my hugs and kisses? I was the one who came all the way down here to get them out, and what did I receive? The blame. I had a good mind to lead them out to the bridge and push the lot of them into the Underland Sea. Then we could rename it the Sea of Ingrates.
The brave thing to do was send the others away and deal with the carpenter’s by myself. The carpenters weren’t looking for them, they were looking for me.
The smart thing to do was send the others away and deal with the carpenters by myself without The Undependables getting under my feet and accidentally shooting me in the back seven or eight times.
But I wasn’t feeling courageous or clever. I was feeling kind of… spiteful.
“Well, I’m really happy you were all able to forgive each other for being massive idiots, very magnanimous of you, but I’m afraid it won’t be a simple matter of going back to the inn and celebrating all night with sex and blowjobs, even though I’m sure that’s what you all deserve. The Carpenter’s Guild has decided they don’t like their ceremonial dagger being stolen, so they’re swarming the Sheaf looking for you. And in case you’re thinking, Oh, they’re only carpenters, there aren’t any carpenters in the Carpenter’s Guild, it’s the name used by the Assassin’s Guild to keep a low profile.”
Concerned I was rubbing off on them? They should be so lucky. If they wanted something to worry about, I was only too happy to oblige.
I gave God a hard stare to make sure he kept his mouth shut.
“But we didn’t take the dagger,” said Maurice.
“It never even left the Treasury,” added Claire.
“I expect they want to make an example of you. Assassin’s aren’t generally known for their relaxed attitude to being fucked with.”
Were they actually assassins? Probably not. More like thugs for hire and utility goons of various sorts. Assassins just sounded scarier.
“So, we have to fight our way out of here?” said Maurice.
“That’s right. Eight floors of relentless battling to survive. Ready?”
There was a collective gulp. The five of them looked nervous and apprehensive. No more bonding and fluffing each other’s egos. No more touchy-feely bullshit. Fear, insecurity, despair. Honest emotions you could count on.
God led us back across the bridge. They were dragging their feet a bit and I had to shout at them to hurry up a couple of times, but I managed to not shove anyone into the drink. Well done, me.
“It’s been very nice meeting you all,” said God as we stood back in the passageway outside his room. “Do come back and visit, if you can.”
“Sure you won’t come with us?” I asked him. “People might leave us alone if you’re with us.”
“Ah, not right now. Have a lot of tidying up to do.” The door came slamming down.
Can’t say I blamed him. Maybe we should have stayed in there with him and waited for things to calm down, but somehow I doubted we’d be allowed to. One way or another we were going to have to get to Gullen.
“Right,” I said to the others. “Let’s try not to die on the way out. And remember, I did just rescue you bunch of clowns, so if you spot an archer trying to pick me off, feel free to throw yourselves in front of me to take the hit.” Yeah, fat chance.
They nodded and drew their weapons. Serious faces and determined expressions surrounded me.
And then, Maurice took out a helmet I hadn’t seen before. No, not a helmet, more like a mask. Or a cowl. Batman was back.
“What the fuck, Maurice?”
It was much more intricate than the one he used to have attached to his onesie. He’d clearly had it made to order, with slits in the side to accommodate his glasses.
“Metal plating.” He knocked on the side of his head, creating a dull, metallic sound.
Fair enough. If he wanted extra protection for his head, reinforced head gear made sense. I wasn’t sure how the bat ears helped, though.
Maurice turned to Claire and gave her a look. Claire seemed to be pretending she hadn’t seen it. He nudged her. She ignored him. He nudged her harder and she reluctantly reached into her bag and pulled out a mask of her own.
It was black, but shinier than Maurice’s, with white stitching and little ears. Cat ears. It was a copy of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman mask from Batman Returns.
She put it on.
Looking at the two of them, a thought occurred to me. A very disturbing thought.
“You two have sex in those, don’t you?”
Claire’s face flushed a deep red while Maurice grinned like The Joker.
“Jesus. I hope you wiped them down.” I turned to the others. “Any S&M fetish gear you lot want to put on? No? Okay then. We have eight floors to get through, each floor is going to be full of hostile killers with only one thought in mind—taking us down. Our only hope is to kill them before they kill us. Aim weapons at the vital points—eyes and balls—and if you lose your weapon... Hai-ya!” I struck the air with the edge of my palm. “Karate chop.”
Claire grabbed the front of her mask and slowly pulled it off. “We aren’t going to fight our way out are we?”
“Of course not,” I said. “We’d last about ten seconds.”
Their faces were a mixture of relief and confusion.
“We’re going with Plan B.”
“I get the feeling we aren’t going to like Plan B, either” said Maurice.
“No one likes Plan B. That’s why it’s called Plan B. Time to go.”
They stayed close behind me as we went up to the seventh floor. I didn’t know if the carpenters had figured out where we were yet, but I was hopeful we could make it up one flight of stairs without dying.
We must have looked pretty odd sliding along the wall, trying to see if anyone was coming down as we went up, but we got to the seventh floor without encountering any large men with exaggerated shoulders. I led them off the staircase and down the hallway
We passed a couple of doors and a few people, none of whom paid us any attention. We got to a junction where four corridors met and I opened the map Kizwat had drawn for me before we’d arrived at the Sheaf. He had been here enough times to know the rough layout, and I only needed to know the location of one place.
It didn’t take long to get to our destination. We all stood outside the beautiful mahogany doors. The plaque next to it said: