As the portcullis went up, the lizardmen gathered behind us jostled for position. They had been told to allow us access to the city without their involvement, but what better time to invade Fengarad?
Storming the city would be too tempting to resist with the gates wide open, and we’d be left as smears in the dirt as they trampled over us in a mad rush.
Hitokag obviously knew what to expect from his ornery cousins. He grabbed the leader of the Vargau, who had been staring at the opening of the entrance while practically salivating, and spun him around to face his troops.
Hitokag pressed his mouth against the side of the elderly Vargau’s head and I assume some harsh words were poured into whatever lizardmen had in place of ears. The Vargau raised his staff and ordered the excited rabble to back down, to which they responded by hurling abuse.
I’m not sure if he would have been able to hold them off for very long, but it gave us enough time to duck under the semi-raised portcullis. As soon as we were on the other side, it lowered again.
A gust of disappointed moans followed us through, but that was all.
Past the portcullis was an open area, the building where we had been taken to when we first arrived in Fengarad—although it appeared to be deserted at the moment—and beyond that, another gate that led into the city proper.
If the Vargau had broken ranks and piled in as they had threatened to do, they would have ended up trapped in here, easy targets for the archers on the walls who currently had their arrows trained on us.
Everyone squeezed in tighter around me, which only made us a more compact target.
“Is Commander Ducane around?” I shouted up to the battlements. There was no reply.
“Tell them you have the Key,” Claire whispered at me. I’m not sure why she felt the need to keep her voice low, but it was infectious.
“I don’t think I have it on me,” I whispered back.
“Where is it?”
“I don’t think we need it.”
“You lost it, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t lose it. I put it somewhere for safekeeping. Probably.”
“Er, guys?” said Flossie.
“I knew I should have taken it off you,” Claire said with undisguised scorn.
“Fuck you,” I countered. “The only person—”
“What?” we both said together.
Flossie pointed at the second portcullis, which was rising. They must have greased this one because it made no noise.
Standing on the other side were Commander Ducane and Corporal Laffi.
“Ah, good to see you back,” said Commander Ducane. Both of them looked pleased to see us, which I suppose was a good sign. They gave Jenny a curious look, but she was wearing a mask. They didn’t mention it, though.
“Thanks for letting us in,” I said.
“No problem,” said Ducane. “To tell the truth we were told to expect you. If you’ll come with us, they’re waiting for you.”
My party, still congealed around me, moved as a single, ungainly unit towards the now open archway leading into the city.
“Waiting at the Palace?” I asked Ducane.
“Oh no,” said Ducane. “Hardly anyone there these days.”
This was surprising news. Where had they gone. “Not even the Princess?”
There was a carriage and a group of soldiers waiting for us. We climbed on board.
“Princess Laney? No, she and her siblings were among the first to leave. They were smuggled out and taken to a safe location. Other than the King, none of the royal family are resident in the city.”
That made convincing Laney to marry the Archfiend a bit of a problem. Ducane got into the carriage with us while Laffi jumped on top with the driver.
“Then where are we going?” I asked Ducane, although I already had a pretty good idea.
“I’ve been instructed to take you to the central spire.” He seemed a little nervous as he informed me of this. “I’m not entirely sure why, but I expect we’ll find out once we get there.” He banged on the roof of the carriage and we set off.
The streets of Fengarad were eerily empty. We rattled over the cobbles without seeing any people and all the shops were closed.
We reached our destination in about ten minutes.
The spire was a big black monolith without doors or windows. It rose straight up from its circular base and seemed to disappear into the clouds.
We got out of the carriage and everyone shuffled about in an attempt to not be in the front. They all looked at me, and I looked at Ducane. He shrugged.
“My orders were to bring you here. After that…”
I decided to be proactive and walked up to the spire. I reached out my hand and knocked. Well, it worked last time.
Maurice followed my example and also knocked, with similar results. Claire tried a different approach.
She cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted. “We’re here! What do you want?” Only she would think to try and start an argument with a building.
Flossie tried next. She tentatively stretched out her hand, touched the spire with the tip of one finger, and then ran away.
Dudley ambled over and leaned in and said, very quietly, “Excuse me, could you let us in please?”
None of these attempts got even the slightest response. Everyone turned to Jenny who hadn’t taken her turn yet. She leaned to the side and pointed. “Is that a door?”
We all shuffled sideways and leaned. On the side of the spire there was a square of blackness in the wall. The spire itself was black, so it wasn’t easy to see, but it was definitely there.
“That wasn’t there a minute ago,” said Maurice. “One of us must have activated it.”
“Maybe we just didn’t see it,” said Claire.
“Yeah,” said Flossie. “Could be Jenny’s special ability is finding doors.”
“That’ll come in useful,” I said. “Maybe she can see through windows, too. I won’t even have to teach her magic.”
Jenny shoved me towards the entrance. “You go first.”
I turned to Ducane who had been watching our finely honed adventuring instincts at work, probably wondering how we’d managed to stay alive so long.
“Do you want to show us the way?” I asked him.
“No, no. Please, go ahead.”
The trouble with leadership is people expect you to lead. If I ever got to a position of any power, I fully intended to be the kind of general who stayed at the rear and sent others into the fray. I wished for a life without fray, if at all possible. Colin the Unfrayed. Not fucking likely.
I created a ball of light and walked into the spire. The light went out. I was in pitch dark, not even the light from the entrance managed to cast any kind of illumination.
Someone bumped into me from behind. There was a litany of complaints and confused questions.
“Is anyone there?”
“Ow, get off my foot.”
I felt a hand slip into mine. “Jenny, is that you?”
“Is that me what?” said Jenny from some distance away.
“Sorry,” said Maurice. “I get nervous in the dark.”
I shook off his hand. “Go hold Claire’s hand then.”
“I would if I could find her!”
“Colin,” said Claire, “make a light.”
“I’m trying,” I said. “It’s not working.” As soon as my light had gone out I made the finger movements to bring it back, but nothing happened.
“Try harder,” said Claire, which really didn’t help.
“If it won’t work there’s nothing I can do about it. Maybe magic doesn’t work in here.”
“I remember a Spider-man movie,” said Dudley from somewhere on my left, “where he lost his powers because he began doubting himself. Maybe Colin just needs to believe.”
“I’m not fucking Tinkerbell. It just doesn’t work in here for some reason.”
There was a low groan.
“Maurice?” said Claire. “Are you alright?”
“Spider-man 2. Horrible.”
“Ah thought that one was quite good,” said Flossie.
“How can doubt take away a genetic ability? And it’s not just that one, all Spider-man movies are terrible. He’s supposed to be a wisecracking teenager, but they always make him this miserable emo jerk with girl problems. Nobody cares about Mary-fucking-Jane.”
This was possibly the most inappropriate place for one of Maurice’s movie critiques, but it wasn’t like we had anything else to do as we stumbled around in the dark.
“He can’t be wisecracking all the time,” I said.
“Yeah, but they give him a couple of funny lines at the start and never again. Have you seen Spider-man 3? Once they go down the emo route, there’s no way to recover. Forget it. Downhill all the way. It would take a miracle to pull out of that nosedive. Never been done. You’d need—”
A light went on. We all stood blinking at each other. And then at the man standing at the bottom of a flight of stairs.
“Hello!” He was dressed smartly. Not like the nobility we had encountered in this world, all frilly shirts and pantaloons, I mean he was wearing a chequed three-piece suit, with a tie and handkerchief in the breast pocket. “Sorry it took so long, these stairs play havoc with my knees.”
He was around fifty, with slicked back silver hair and a slightly clipped American accent. He reminded me of a 1930s Hollywood movie star.
My attention though was somewhat diverted by the source of the light. I pointed to the ceiling. “Is that a light bulb?”
“That’s right. You got it.” He turned around. “Follow me. Really must get that elevator fixed.”
It was an actual light bulb.
We looked at each other and then followed him. It wasn’t like there was anywhere else to go.
“I’m sure you have plenty of questions,” he said as he huffed and puffed up the stairs, “and we’ll see to them in good time, but right now there are other things that need to be addressed.”
The stairs were narrow and made of metal. They curved around the wall, which had a light fitting attached around every turn. A bare naked light bulb sticking out of the wall that looked stranger than any dragon or troll.
“Do you have electricity in here?” I asked him.
He stopped and turned to look down at me. “There’s a small imp in there who keeps a small fire going.” His face cracked into a big smile and he burst into laughter. “I’m joshing you. Yes, it’s electricity, same as back home.”
The bulb flickered and went out.
“Damn it. A darn sight more unreliable, though. Please keep close to the wall on your right-hand side. There’s nothing more dangerous around here than a left turn in the dark.”
His footsteps indicated he was on the move and I gingerly put my foot out to find the next step.
“Are we in a game?” I called out into the darkness.
“No, no,” he called back. “I shouldn’t think so. It all feels real to me.”
The stairs stopped without warning and I as on a flat surface. The others piled into the back of me again. There was a click and the lights came on.
We were in a circular room—although I’m guessing all the rooms were circular in this place. It was well lit by a number of light bulbs, which revealed a mass of writing across the wall.
“The prophecy,” I said, recognising the text.
“Indeed. So, I should introduce myself. My name’s Peter. Some call me Uncle Pete, which you can also, if you have a mind to. Or not, as you wish. It’s nice to finally meet you all.”
Everyone said hello back, nervously, like they were at a comedy show and didn’t want the comedian to pick on them.
“I am American, as you might have guessed, and I have been in this world for something like a hundred years. Give or take. I look pretty good for an old man, huh? You see, time works a little differently in here. And no, I did not build this spire or any of the wonders you will find inside it.”
“Where does the electricity come from?” asked Maurice.
“I do not know. I have looked, but the power source is either well hidden or not of a form familiar to me.”
“This is a weapon, isn’t it?” I asked him.
“It can be used as such, sure. I would not choose to use it thus, if at all possible.”
“But,” I said, “didn’t you kill all the soldiers in the fort at the border to power it up?”
“Killed? Heavens no. They have simply been displaced. As have we all. I myself was born in Manhattan. That’s Manhattan, Kansas, mind you. And now here I am.” He raised his arms wide.
“Where have the soldiers been displaced to?” asked Claire.
Peter shrugged. “Can’t say I know, exactly.”
I couldn’t tell if he was being entirely truthful, but I had a strong inclination not to trust him in general. I have that inclination about most people, admittedly, but in this case it was very compelling.
“And the prophecy?” I said. “You think it’s real.”
“Absolutely. Real as it gets. That’s why you’re here after all. I must say, Gullen was right about you. I tried sending others into what they call Monsterland, though to my way of thinking, monster is such a relative term, don’t you think? In any case, no one ever came back, let alone managed to meet with the Archfiend himself. Colour me impressed.”
“Thanks,” I said. “What exactly do you want from us?”
“Why, isn’t that obvious? You have to kill the Archfiend. It’s that or oblivion for us all.” He smiled. “I thought time was almost up, but you, sir, are the right man for the job. No doubt about it.”
“You want me to kill Cheng?” I said.
“Cheng. Yes. There’s something gorgeous about that kid, isn’t there? When I sent his mother to destroy the temple Under the Mountain, I had no idea he would be the result. But that’s how prophecies work, it turns out. You think you’re doing what’s necessary to stop it, but actually it’s all part of the plan. Prophecies are damn sneaky, let me tell you.”
“Perhaps,” I said, “trying to kill Cheng is also part of the plan?”
Peter nodded. “Could very well be, but something has to be done to prevent Nekromel.”
“And what is Nekromel?” I asked.
“Why it’s the name of the world beneath this one.”
“Where Cheng’s father came from?”
“That’s right. A world of demons and devils and other unpleasantness. When the rift is healed, the world beneath will rise. It will be Hell on Earth, literally. Not necessarily the Hell from the Bible, and this is certainly not Earth, but you get the general drfit.”
“And healing the rift means…?”
“The rift between the two sides of Cheng himself. Once he is whole, the gate will open and Nekromel will be realised in this plane of existence. To heal the rift, he must take a bride. A virgin.”
“Why does she have to be a virgin?” demanded Claire, completely unnecessarily. Like that was the big problem.
“Because the pain of a woman’s first time is a powerful drug to a demon. It can transform them. Or so my research tells me. I am no expert in demonology. They give me the heebeejeebees to be honest.”
“So,” I said, “you want us to find a virgin to be his bride?”
“Oh no. We already have the perfect girl. Gullen has her waiting for you in Dargot. You just have to deliver her to Cheng.”
“So you want me to fulfil the prophecy? Isn’t that what you want to prevent?”
“I know,” said Peter, rolling his eyes. “It’s complicated. The boy-demon has a colossal vitality. Until his two halves are united, he is invulnerable, you see? Once they’re union is consummated, you will be able to kill him.”
“Why don’t we just not give him a bride?” asked Flossie. Good point. Everyone thought so and told each other.
“I wish it were so simple. I have spent most of my life sitting in here trying to stop the prophecy. It has never been a matter of finding the correct interpretation. The prophecy will use any interpretation it can to complete itself.”
He did look tired, there was no doubting that, but I still wasn’t sure I trusted him.
“I am the sedentary champion of this world. I remain in this tower, watching for signs of the Nekromel’s tentacles attempting to influence and interfere. Sometimes I can go days without causing my chair to squeak, so deep am I lost in concentration. I am tired, young lady. More tired than you can possibly imagine. This ghostly heart cannot continue indefinitely. If you do not help me defeat this evil bent on the destruction of this world, maybe of every world, I fear the consequences will be diabolical. Simply diabolical.”
Evil demons and the end of the world, or a smooth-talking American who wanted me to help him make the world a better place. This is why I’ve never been a fan of the two party system.
Author's Note: There are two more chapters to go in Book 4.