The assassin from the skies (or some rafter in the dingy ceiling) appeared to be a young man, small and wiry, and now dead. He lay in a crumpled heap at the feet of a number of very surprised guards.
“What’s the point of killing someone when he’ll just come back to life?” Jenny asked in a hushed voice.
I shrugged. “I know. Kind of defeats the whole concept of assassination, so why was he even bothering in the first place? Mind you, we could just ask him when he comes back to life.”
Claire unfolded her wad of papers and wrote something down. She tugged on Bibler’s sleeve. “Doesn’t the fact Mr Dorma was targeted mean the masters know he’s working against them?”
Bibler’s attention, like the rest of the tavern, was on the body on the floor. Even the men standing around it were transfixed by its sudden appearance from above. Bibler slowly rotated his head away from the scene. “I don’t think this has anything to do with the masters. This establishment is a brothel. Most believe General Dorma comes here to avail himself of the amenities. The general has many enemies, especially among those who do not know where his true loyalties lie. A necessary risk. Fortunately, First got there first. ”
I glanced around the place. There were no women to be seen. Not at the tables, not behind the bar. A strange brothel if there were no girls. Unless, of course, the grim-faced men around us were the ones turning tricks.
David, the assassin’s assassin, wiped his sword using a cloth he produced from his belt. It said a lot about him that he kept a red cloth for wiping blood off his weapons. He seemed the least affected by events, even though he was largely responsible for them.
A guard squatted down and reached for the dagger lying on the floor. David raised a boot and nudged the soldier’s shoulder with it, sending him toppling backwards.
Using the cloth in his hand, David bent down and picked up the dagger. A strange, green liquid dripped off the end.
Eyes-widened, Dorma shuddered. “Thank you, my friend. Once again you have saved me from disaster. Utter, utter disaster.”
“What is it?” Claire hissed at Bibler.
“Probably some kind of acid or withering poison. The Cycle can heal wounds, but it cannot regrow limbs. They can be reattached, but once a body part is lost, it is gone forever. It is the cruellest of deaths.”
Dorma fussed over David, singing his praises. David accepted the platitudes with a small nod and then walked back towards us.
One of the guards rolled the body over. The others had their swords pointed at him, just in case. There was a murmur around the room.
“Who is he?” asked Dorma.
“No idea, sir.”
“It’s Cory,” said the man behind the bar, leaning over to let his one good eye get a better look. “His sister works upstairs.”
The guards turned towards Dorma who rubbed his chin. “Little Nee’s brother? Shame. She’ll be upset.”
I got the impression General Dorma would be the one to console Little Nee. Perhaps that was the cause of Cory’s grudge. If so, then I had a pretty good idea which body part had been the target of the poisoned blade.
As far as I could tell, if Dorma was playing the part of military dictator in the pay of the masters, he was playing it to the hilt. Did we really want to get involved with him?
David adjusted his belt and sat back down like he’d just been to the men’s room.
“How many times did you have to do that?” Maurice asked him.
David’s eyes were hidden deep inside his hood, but the shift in his body suggested he was a little surprised by the question. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“I mean you knew exactly where to stand and where to hold your weapon so that guy fell onto it. You must have jumped back in time to be able to prevent it happening in such a specific way.” Maurie leaned an elbow on the table and rested his chin on the heel of his palm. “I’m just wondering how many times it took you to get it right.”
David pulled back his hood and unwound the scarf around his face to reveal a Chinese face. His dark hair was close cropped and his features were small and delicate. “You too?” he said.
“No, just—” I kicked Maurice under the table. I really had to have a talk with all of them about the concept of discretion and the art of shutting the fuck up.
“Ow,” said Maurice. “Careful. No, we can’t do it—just him.” He pointed at me. “But he’s only done it once.”
Honestly, it was hopeless. Not one of them knew how to take a hint.
David’s gaze fell on me, sizing me up, I guess.
“You didn’t answer the question,” said Maurice. “How many times?”
“Four,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d ever meet someone else who could do it. I will answer any of your questions. I have nothing to hide.”
“Claire, you don’t have any questions?” I said, hoping to get Maurice and his enormous mouth off the case.
Claire sat up and pulled out her sheaf. “Did you arrive here alone?”
“No, I had one other person with me. Phil—”
“And where is Philip now?”
“He’s in the city, somewhere.”
“Can he go back in time, too?”
“Has he died? What happened to him? Did he revive like the locals?”
The questions were fired at a blistering pace. David had the same shaky look in his eyes as Bibler had earlier.
“He died once. He came back to life after a day but he doesn’t like to talk about it. He met the Jester.”
Phil, I liked the sound of. He seemed more my kind of guy.
“Didn’t you go back and try to stop him dying?”
“I did, but it—”
“And what about you? Have you met the Jester?”
“You avoided him? How? Can you teach Colin? If it involves running away and hiding I’m sure he’ll be able to get the hang of it.”
“I have no intention of dying, deliberately or otherwise,” I said, “so avoiding the Jester won’t be a problem.”
“Yes,” said Claire, “but you might have to if something happens to the rest of us.”
“If something happens to the rest of you,” I said, “you will be greatly missed.”
Claire rolled her eyes. “Thanks, but since we’ll come back to life, we’ll still be here. Something other than death might happen, something worse. To Jenny. Then what? Going to refuse to go back then, are you?”
I tried to think of a witty comeback, but no words came to mind.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” said Claire smugly, although all she’d proved was that I’d go back for Jenny. “It won’t hurt to learn about the enemy, and he can teach you.”
David just looked glad for the reprieve. Ding, ding. Round Two.
“So you go back in time every time you die?”
“You don’t come back to life like everyone else, you just time shift?” asked Maurice.
“Please wait for your go,” said Claire with a slight edge to her voice.
Maurice raised his hands and backed off.
“Do you go back to the beginning every time? Back to the day you first arrived here?”
“Yes,” said David.
That was insane. He had been here for sixteen years. He had to relive the whole thing every time he wanted to stop one guy from stabbing another guy in the dick! And it took him four goes—that was 64 years!
“And when you go back, do you land in the sea?”
“No, in the mounta—”
“Oh, we arrived in the sea. Where are the mountains?”
“They’re in the n—”
“The north? Okay. So it’s always the same place?” She was writing down all his answers.
As the interrogation continued I began to notice something strange. The questions were coming fast and relentless with lots of talking over each other so it was hard to spot at first, but Claire was asking questions and then moving onto the next without waiting for the complete answer.
In some cases, it was obvious what David was going to say. In some cases it definitely was not. Yet she seemed to know his answer without needing to hear it.
I looked around to see if the others had noticed. Maurice’s eyes were glued on Claire, so he might have picked up on it, too. He leaned towards me.
“She’s amazing, isn’t she? Like Lois Lane.”
Then again, maybe his head was somewhere else entirely.
“You mean because she’s got a big mouth which is probably going to get us in trouble?”
“Yes,” said Maurice with pride which, when you think about it, does pretty much sum up what Lois Lane’s role has always been. “Have you ever noticed how the two women in Superman’s life, Lois Lane and Lana Lang, both have the same initials? The same initials as Lex Luthor.”
You might think this observation had some deep relevance to our current situation. Having known Maurice for all this time, I can assure you it did not. It meant absolutely nothing other than the possible secret love between Superman and his nemesis. Nerd gotta nerd.
Claire turned her notes over. There were more questions on the other side.
David’s eyes bulged at the prospect. “Perhaps we could take a break—”
“Just a couple more. You mentioned sorcerers. What are they exactly?”
“Yes, sorcerers. This you do need to know.”
“I see,” said Claire, ready to move on again.
I place a hand on her shoulder. “Can you let him finish this time. I think we all want to hear what he has to say.”
Claire looked a bit confused by my request, but nodded.
“This world is the current home of the masters but they came here through a portal like everyone else. No one is a native of this planet.”
I had considered the possibility that we hadn’t been transported to a new world. There were enough similarities with the air and land and sea that we could have just been transported to a big island on the other side of the planet. Like Australia. Except this island had vile demons in charge and a strong disregard for human life. Like Australia.
But from what David said, it seemed we really had been transported to another world. Again.
“The masters need us to fuel their portals. We are the power source that enables them to open a gateway between worlds and then feed on the inhabitants of that world. For whatever reason, they can’t stay long in most places. Whether it’s something in the air or something else, I don’t know. Places like this one that can sustain them, are rare, but they have been here so long the resources are running out and they will have to move soon. They are frantically looking for a new home.”
“But there are plenty of people here,” I said. “Can’t they use them to open their portals?”
“Not everyone provides the same level of power. People from our world have an incredibly high level of energy. We are the most valuable source. Sorcerers. If the masters get their hands on too many like us, it would mean disaster for everyone.”
“And that’s why you kill sorcerers?” said Jenny. “To keep them out of the hands of the masters?”
“How do you kill them if no one dies?” I asked him.
He looked a bit sheepish. “There are ways. It isn’t pleasant.”
Claire bristled a bit. “And you get to decide who lives and who doesn’t?”
“Someone has to. If I make a mistake, I can always go back and change it. As I have done many, many times.” He sighed wearily.
“And why do you call yourself a warlock?” I asked.
He looked even more sheepish. “Because it sounds cool.”
During Claire’s interrogation, the one person not too interested in David’s answers was Flossie. Even Dudley was paying attention. Flossie, on the other hand, was staring intently across the room. I followed her gaze to where Dorma and his men were deep in discussion, presumably about what to do with the guy on the floor.
“What are you looking at, Floss?”
She turned to me, slightly dazed. “He’s got really blue eyes.”
I looked back at Dorma but couldn’t really see anything special about his eyes.
“Oh yeah,” said Jenny. “Like chips of summer sky.”
“Mm,” said Claire. “I can see what you mean.”
The three of them just sat there, ogling the man.
“You know,” I said, “they turn out whores upstairs. I can ask them if they have any openings, if you want.”
Claire turned around so fast I thought her neck might snap. “Just because we made an objective aesthetic observation doesn’t make us whores.”
“I can guess how you lot would react if you caught one of us eyeing up some piece of fluff, objectively. Blue eyes? What the fuck is wrong with you. He’s probably a mass murderer. Objective my arse. At least when we do it, we do it to all women. Young, old, short, fat—everyone gets the once over. You’re just shallow. I bet if Johnny Shitface walked in here you wouldn’t even give him the time of day. Fortunately, Johnny Shitface wouldn’t give a fuck. He’s Johnny Shitface. But you should all be ashamed of yourselves. We have feelings too, you know?”
I was about to launch into the further adventures of Johnny Shitface when I felt two hands on my shoulders.
“So, you are the one they call Colin? The one the master seek?” said General Dorma. He began massaging my shoulders, which was disturbing. “You are very welcome here. You have come at an auspicious time. We are about to change this world and your strength will be greatly needed.”
I squirmed out of from under his large, manly hands. That’s an objective observation.
“Actually, we were just passing through,” I said.
He smiled. To be fair, he did have absurdly piercing blue eyes that were hard to look away from, objectively speaking.
“Come with me, all of you. I think you should see what it is we are planning before you choose to walk away.”
He stepped back, an arm raised in invitation.
The rest of the men in the room rose to their feet. They quickly spread out. Some went to the door to keep watch, other to a corner of the room where they lifted up a trap door.
The others looked at me. I looked back at them. What were they expecting me to do?
“It’s okay,” said David. “It’s not like he’s going to kill you. Not permanently, anyway.”
Slowly, I got to my feet and walked towards the trap door. Dorma went down first. Steep steps led into the dark. I had a bad feeling but then I always had a bad feeling.
“Things go bad,” whispered Maurice, “you can always go back and fix them.”
“Yes, but so can he.” I nodded towards David. “In fact, he may already have done. Keep an eye out for anything he does that seems odd.”
We both stared at David as though he might give himself away at any moment. He stared back questioningly. Then Claire approached him and he bucked like a nervous foal and tried to get away before she could ask any more questions. If this was his second time around, he was a hell of an actor.
At the bottom of the steps was a tunnel lit by torches guttering in their sconces. A blast of fetid air hit me in the face. Dorma was already walking away down the far end.
The others arrived behind me, followed by David and Bibler and some of the other men. With so many coming in from behind, it was difficult to do anything other than proceed down the tunnel.
The tunnel sloped downwards, curling around so it was impossible to see the end. After about a minute, there was an opening ahead of us. I could hear a sound like hot iron being plunged into water. It lasted a few seconds and then stopped.
Tentatively, reminding myself I had the chance of a do-over if things went pear-shaped, I stepped through the opening.
I was met by the sight of a huge crowd, even bigger than the one in the town square. They were packed into an enormous cavern lit by torches carried by the people.
Dorma stood on a raised outcrop of rock. “Friends,” he said to the crowd, “you know the Day of Welding approaches. The masters will attempt to claim their sacrifices. They will not succeed.”
The hissing sound rose from the crowd.
“They are cheering,” said Bibler in my ear. “It is how they show their love and support without making too much noise.”
I guess you don’t want to make too much of a hullabaloo if you’re trying to keep your revolution on the downlow.
Dorma continued to make generic comments about fighting the good fight and other nonsense. The crowd lapped it up.
“Our chances may be small, our numbers few, but we shall battle to the last.” More hissing. “And this is the one who will lead us.” He swung around and pointed in my direction.
I looked behind me to see who he was talking about.
“I think he means you,” said Jenny.
The crowd started hissing even louder. Despite Bibler’s claim, I did not feel love and/or supported.