“I know you will have many questions. I wish I could answer them for you, but we’re under the gun. Time passes quicker than you think while you’re in here with me, and there may not be a world to return to if you don’t get moving right quick.”
Uncle Pete, as his name suggested, was avuncular to a fault. That fault being his excess of charm and warmth. I wanted to believe him. I wanted to rush into action and save the world. But I am not the sort of person who wants to please others, so where was this desire coming from?
“What about the weapon?” I asked him. “Do you intend to use it?”
“As a last resort,” he said with a weary sigh. “If Nekromel attempts to break through into this world, I will have no other choice. It happened once before, and the devastation was severe.” He rubbed his chin.
Maybe he was being sincere and I was the arsehole seeing shadows in the corners where there weren’t any. The deaths of many seemed to weigh heavily on him, as you would expect.
“I think you’re lying,” said Jenny.
“Oh?” said Peter, not in the least upset by the accusation. “Why do you say that, my dear?”
“You said the soldiers from the fort aren’t dead, just displaced. But if you don’t know where they are, how do you know they’re still alive?”
It was an excellent point.
“She’s a bright one, eh?” said Peter, sounding pleased. “It’s always good to be sceptical, especially when it comes to people asking you to risk your life, so good for you. The truth is I cannot lie. Not in here, anyway. Try it yourself. Say an untruth.”
Jenny said, “My name is <beep> <beep>.” Her mouth moved but only the sound of an electronic beep, like a censored movie, came out.
“As far as I can tell,” said Peter, “it is some component of the translation system. I do not know why, but in here it operates within very tight parameters. My height is <beep> <beep>. You see? While I’m in here, I am George Washington. And as you can tell, since I am not actually the first president of the United States, it is able to tell the difference when I am not being literal.”
“It’s like God’s ability,” I said.
“Yes. I found a way to transfer a limited version into people with the right... compatibility, such as Godfrey. There was another young lady whom you met recently, I believe, to whom I also imparted this ability, although in her case I am not sure it took as fully.”
“But why doesn’t it work on Biadet?” I asked.
“Ah, Biadet.” He sighed. “Once I attempted to transfer the power of the spire into a native, but the results were... unexpected. Although we appear to be more or less the same as the people of this world, our construction is very different. That she lived is most surprising of all. One day I hope to investigate her further, if we survive Nekromel that is.”
His expression suggested some fondness for Biadet.
“But you want to send her to be Cheng’s bride,” I said.
“Who, Biadet? Oh no. That wouldn’t do at all. The Bride has to be a virgin and a Visitor, and I don’t believe she is either.”
This raised all sorts of questions which were probably none of my business but hard to ignore.
“The young woman I’m referring to is called Roona,” said Peter. “Gullen has been keeping her safe and secure, waiting for you.”
Roona was one of the Cool Kids. The one who had been kept hostage to ensure the cooperation of the others, or so I had assumed. Apparently she had been separated from her group for other reasons.
“To answer your point,” Peter said to Jenny, “the reason I believe the soldiers are alive is because I am able to bring them back. The spires are primed by their life force, but there have been close calls before where I have felt the need to prepare to use their power and subsequently matters have been resolved through other measures. When I powered down, those lives were returned. I do not know where from, and neither do they, but no harm came to them. Of course, if I am forced to use the spires in a destructive capacity, there is no coming back from that. In many ways, their lives are in your hands.”
Peter looked apologetic as he laid this weight firmly on my shoulders.
“But if you fire the weapon, the lizardmen will attack the city,” I pointed out.
“Yes. It is a high price to pay, but there I see no alternative. Many lives lost is better than all lives lost.”
We questioned him some more but the answers all pointed to the same conclusion. Cheng’s transformation would bring about the end of this world. Assuming, of course, Uncle Pete hadn’t found a way to fool the spires lie detector. For all I knew, the whole thing could have been a setup.
We exited the spire into raw sunshine that hurt my eyes. Two soldiers leaned against a wagon, half asleep. They jumped to alertness as we exited. One of them even saluted.
“How long were we gone?” I asked the saluter.
We were all taken aback. It had been a couple of hours at most from our perspective.
One of the soldiers rushed off to inform Ducane of our return. It took another half an hour before Ducane turned up with the carriage. We were taken back to the city gate and let out.
It was early and the lizardmen weren’t morning people. The camp was quiet and no one even noticed us leave Fengarad.
This was slightly worrying. If some random Vargau spotted us and didn’t recognise who we were—or did recognise us but didn’t care—we could be attacked and the adventure would be over. Off to save the world, died before we got off the doorstep.
We weren’t quite as unobserved as I thought. Hitokag came swooping down and landed in front of us.
“You are ready to return?”
“Yes and no. We need to go to Dargot.”
He didn’t react like he was all that excited by the news, but he nodded and signalled another of his team who was circling overhead.
Within a few seconds, Vikchutni had arrived and joyfully reunited with Flossie. The Vargau started to become aware of our presence and were gathering, but we quickly boarded and were airborne before the Vargau could cause any trouble.
The flight to Dargot took less than an hour. The tree tops passing under us turned into rolling fields and the city rose ahead of us.
Unlike Fengarad, there was no army laying siege to the city walls. We circled once. And then landed in a field of wheat which the dragon immediately set to demolishing. If the owner of the field was watching, he didn’t raise any objections.
“You don’t want to know why we’re here?” I asked Hitokag.
“My task is to deliver you back to Cheng when you have collected the Bride. There is much to suggest you truly are the heralds of prophecy as Cheng believes you to be, and much to suggest you aren’t. However things turn out in the end, my hope is that Vikchutni lives to see the offspring he has sired.” He patted the munching dragon.
A carriage hurtled out of the city gates towards us. A diminutive figure dressed in black drove the horses with wild abandon into the field.
Biadet brought the carriage to a skidding stop a few metres from the dragon and the horses reared up, eyes popping out of their heads and frothing at the mouth. I’m pretty sure she made them do that for dramatic effect.
“The Lord Adminstrator awaits you,” said Biadet. She turned to look at the Mezzik who were standing around the dragon. There were six of them, but Biadet didn’t seem very concerned. “You will stay here.”
I held the door open and everyone piled into the carriage. Just before Jenny was about to get in, Biadet said, “Wait!”
She looked at me with an intense squint, then at Jenny, then back to me.
“So, it’s like that?”
“Yes,” I said. “For once, it is like that.”
She tilted her head. “I like the mask.”
The streets of Dargot were not deserted like those of Fengarad. The shops were open and the people went about their business as usual, apart from having to dive out of the way as Biadet thundered across the cobbles at break-neck speed; the necks in question probably being ours.
We arrived outside Gullen’s residence shaken and only too happy to return to solid ground. No one had spoken on the trip because we had all been too busy clenching our teeth in an effort not to throw up.
When I stepped out of the carriage, Biadet was already gone. I went to knock on the front door but it opened just before my hand reached it. Biadet stood there in her maid outfit.
“Is Gullen here?” I asked her.
She raised a single eyebrow. “There are snacks in the main dining room.”
I was practically mowed down as the others pushed me out of the way.
The dining room Biadet took us to was already occupied. There were five people, four of whom were the Cool Kids who watched us come in with cold, hard stares. The fifth was Mandy, who looked nervous and fidgety.
My lot were too fixated on the food to be bothered by the dark looks sent their way. The Cool Kids were suited and booted, ready to go to war. The cocktail sausages were in big trouble if they started anything
“We know you’re here for Roona,” said Gideon, not sounding too happy about it. “The Lord Administrator has explained what’s going on, and frankly, we think it’s disgusting.”
I had no idea what they’d been told, but if it was anything close to the truth, I could see why they’d be upset.
“Doesn’t she want to go?” Claire asked him while she stuffed her face with some small pastries. The others were doing likewise.
“She volunteered,” said Gideon. “That doesn’t make it okay. I’m not even sure whose side you’re on.”
“Not yours,” said Flossie through a mouthful of something green. “Fookin’ weirdos.”
Biadet had watched this interaction with her usual total lack of emotion. She turned around.
“You aren’t going to leave us alone with them, are you?” I said to Biadet.
“No need. We’ll be the ones leaving,” said Gideon. They headed for the door.
Mandy got up and followed. She glanced at me and then down at the floor.
“Something you want to say, Mandy?” I asked her.
She sprang back at the mention of her name. She looked at Gideon who had stopped by the door and then back at me. There was wildness to her eyes that was disturbing.
“Mandy,” I said, “you remember our little chat, don’t you?”
“Don’t say anything, Mandy,” ordered Gideon.
Mandy kept her head down and tried to walk past, but Jenny got in her way. “Don’t make him angry, Mandy.” She took off her mask.
Mandy looked at Jenny’s disfigured face and her mouth fell open. She backed away, shaking.
It was a mean trick to play on her, but underlined just how dark Jenny could get. Mandy clearly thought I had done that to Jenny’s face.
The Gidiots only say the back of Jenny’s head so had no idea why Mandy was freaking out.
“They know about your dragon,” said Mandy.
“Mandy!” yelled Gideon. “Shut up!”
“You shut up!” Mandy yelled back. “He killed my entire party. You think you can stop him?”
It was a bit of an exaggeration, but it gave Gideon pause for thought.
“They plan to catch the dragon and do their experiments on it.”
“Fookin’ bastards,” said Flossie, spitting food.
“It’s not like that,” insisted Zane, their chief experimenter if I remembered right. “If we can figure out its weakness, we’ll all be safer.”
“You’re mistaken,” said Dudley, holding on to Flossie to prevent her flying at them. “It’s a harmless beast.”
“It’s a fucking dragon!” pointed out Gideon.
Even though there were six Mezzik guarding the dragon, the Gidiots knew the lizardmen’s weakness and would probably pick them off from distance. I didn’t know how they intended catching a dragon, but I wouldn’t put it past them to already have a method thought out.
I turned to Biadet. “The dragon is the only way back to Monsterland. If anything happened to it... that’s the end.”
Biadet nodded. “You aren’t to leave these grounds,” she told Gideon.
“And who’s going to stop me? You?” He reached for his sword, and found nothing there.
Biadet leaned on the large sword that was suddenly in her hands. Where had that come from?
The expressions on the faces of everyone else suggested they were as miffed as me, but how could she have possibly grabbed Gideon’s sword without anyone seeing her do it? And even more inexplicably, why the hell were we being sent to deal with Cheng when Assassin No.1 was available?
If she had some kind of weakness like the other monsters in this world, it would be very useful to know what it was.
The door behind Gideon opened and Gullen walked in.
“Ah, everyone’s here. Good, good.” He must have noticed the tension in the room, but ignored it. A girl followed him in. “And this is Roona.”
She was short, had black, wavy hair and striking blue eyes; almost violet. I sort of remembered her from back in Probet, but I never paid much attention to people who ignored me, which had been all the Cool Kids.
“Hello, everyone,” said Roona in a low, purring voice. “Something going on?” She put her hands on her hips and pushed her chest out.
It was a bit like a flick knife. One moment there was nothing there, the next you were in fear for your life.
Claire’s face screwed into attack mode. “Do you want to put those away before you take someone’s eye out?”
Roona swiveled her head towards Claire. “And who are you? President of the Itty Bitty Titty Committee?”
You could feel all eyes switch to Claire’s chest, and her shrivel under the scrutiny. Some girls are expert at finding the weak point in other girls, and exploiting it mercilessly. I’d say Roona was a Class S marksman.
Having dealt with Claire, she turned her attention to me. “So you’re the special one they’ve all been talking about. You don’t look so special.” Her bazookas were pointed right at me.
“Don’t bother,” said Mandy bitterly. “They won’t work on him.”
She was right. Roona was undoubtedly a pretty girl, with an amazing rack on her slight frame, but she couldn’t be more obvious in her attempt to win me over. When you never have to try that hard, you never get really good. She’d have to do a lot better before she got me thinking with the wrong head.
Cheng, on the other hand, had little experience with this kind of woman. He’d probably end up putty in her hands.
Roona, not appreciating the interruption, turned her attention to Mandy. “I don’t think—”
“I don’t care,” said Mandy. Her measurements weren’t quite up to Roona’s, but they weren’t far off. In any case, she was experienced with this sort of mindfuck-female. She was one. “Just get lost, all of you.”
She sat down at the table and began eating. I don’t know what had happened to her since we last met, but she seemed angrier and more bitter. It made me like her a bit more. A very small bit.
Claire had retreated behind Maurice. Flossie didn’t look like she fancied messing with Roona either—a heavy set girl would be easy pickings. And Jenny watched from behind me and behind her mask. Would she be able to handle the new girl? I wasn’t sure.
“Okay,” I said. “Enough of this shit. Time to go.”
“Excellent,” said Gullen. “Glad to see you all getting on so well already.” It was hard to tell if he was trying to smooth things over or just taking the piss.
“I also want to take her,” I said, pointing at Mandy.
“Uh?” said Mandy through the large slice of cream cake she had just shoved into her mouth in one go.
“You want to stay here with them?” I asked her.
The rest of the Gidiots were staring daggers in her direction.
“Do as he says,” said Jenny ominously.
Mandy chewed twice and swallowed. “Fine.” She picked up the rest of the cream cake. “Let’s go.”
Author's Note: One chapter to go.
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