The empty tavern looked like a building site. The hole in the ceiling went all the way up to the roof to reveal a dull, white sky. I wondered if there was a girl working in the room above when the demon came through. The earth certainly would have moved for her and her customer.
I patted my leg. A strange sensation lingered where the Jester had wrapped part of himself around me. Even though it had been in my mind, I still felt the touch.
“It’s amazing how the Jester found us,” said Phil. He looked pale and unsteady on his feet. “He shouldn’t be able to do that. You must have a very special relationship.”
“Well, he has offered to be my girlfriend a number of times.”
“Did you lead him on?” asked Jenny.
“That’s right. You know me, incurable flirt when it comes to monsters made of fear and shit-yourself dust.”
David rushed back in from the street where he had been making sure everyone went in different directions. Each of the regulars had picked up a chunk of bloody demon flesh, stuck it under their shirt (which can’t have been pleasant), and peeled out of the place like they had rockets tied to their shoes. I got the very definite impression it wasn’t the first time they’d done this.
“We have to get you out of here,” said David. “Get you somewhere safe.”
“I thought this was the safe place,” I said. “No one could possibly guess the headquarters for the revolutionary army would be here, where all the disgruntled guys with limbs missing meet up.”
David grimaced. I think he was biting his tongue, possibly literally, to not say something equally sarcastic back to me.
“My offer still stands,” said Phil. He tottered slightly and placed his hand on a rubble covered table to steady himself. “I can get you out of here if you’re willing to come with me.”
He looked like he would have difficulty leaving the building, never mind the planet.
“I don’t understand,” said Maurice. “If you two can work together like that, take down a demon between you, why do you need any of us? You were amazing. Amazing.”
My thoughts exactly; apart from the flagrantly inappropriate fangirling, obviously.
David and Phil exchanged looks. Neither looked keen to address the subject; both looked guilty about something.
Claire suddenly shook her head like someone had slapped her (wishful thinking on my part). Her eyes bore into first David, then Phil. “Who’s—”
“Never mind that,” I cut in, “we have to get out of here, right?”
“Okay, then. Phil, I still don’t know what your plan is. Why don’t you come with us, at least part of the way, and give me some idea of what it is you want me to do? My involvement will be based on how dumb I think your idea is. Fair enough?”
I turned to Maurice. “First, though, I need to borrow your girlfriend for a sec. Cool?” I grabbed Claire by the wrist.
“No problem,” said Maurice.
“Don’t just lend your girlfriend out like that,” Claire complained as I dragged her around the corner.
“It’s alright,” said Maurice. “I’m sure he’ll give you back.”
“Count on it,” I shouted over my shoulder.
Once we were out of sight I spun Claire around. “What was that?” I hissed.
“What?” She turned up her palms and hunched her shoulder like an old woman. It gave me a glimpse of what Maurice had to look forward to in a few years. “What did I do?”
“You were about to ask them something. Something you saw in their minds.”
“Yes.” Her mood switched to excited. “Someone called Yuqi. She must be why they fell out. Probably a love triangle.”
“Alright, Stephenie Meyer Fan Club, take your oestrogen off the boil. If you’d asked them something you couldn’t possibly have known, they’d have figured out you can read minds. The whole point of having that ability is not letting people know you can do it.”
“So what if they know? It’s not like they can stop themselves thinking.” Her tone was triumphant; like she’d already won the argument.
“You don’t know that. They could feed you the wrong information. Or just kill you, chop you up and bury you in a hundred different locations. Wouldn’t feel so smug then, would you?”
Claire crossed her arms and pursed her lips. “I didn’t think of it like that. This is my first time having an ability. How am I supposed to know how to use it properly?”
“How about using your common sense? No, forget it. I realised how stupid that was as soon as I said it. Just be subtle—ah, no, that’s also not going to work. Keep your mouth shut and… shit, this is harder than I realised.”
“I can be discrete, you know. And subtle.”
I leaned back and took a good look at her to try and decide if she was joking. Claire was a girl who liked to speak her mind. Loudly. Discrete and subtle applied to her the way it applied to a Michael Bay movie.
“Look, unless we’re in a desperate situation where we need answers fast, don’t say anything that’ll give away what you can do. Just gather what information you can quietly.”
Claire nodded once. “Okay. For now. But just because you’re the leader, don’t think you can order me around.”
“Then what’s the point of being the leader?”
“You get to lead.” She waved me back towards the others. “Go on, lead the way.”
I wasn’t sure I agreed with her definition—sounded more like she considered me a human shield.
When we returned, Jenny and Flossie were deep into a discussion I was very glad not to be part of.
“Ah don’t fookin’ get it. How could Ah move but mah shoes couldn’t? That’s stupid.”
Some men had returned and were clearing up the debris. They threw dark looks in our direction, like they thought this was our fault. It was, but the building had a falling-down quality to it even before it had been wrecked. It probably wouldn’t take long to patch it back to its former glory.
“If you’re ready, we should leave,” said David.
I nodded. “What about you?” I said to Phil.
“I’ll tag along for a bit,” said Phil. “If that’s okay with you?”
David shrugged. “Do as you please.”
David led us through the trapdoor and back to the cavern, the site of my greatest fuck-up. Or, at least, my most recent. It was very different now that it was empty; a vast echoing chamber. David carried a torch that offered a little light, but the darkness itself felt massive.
I lit up a ball of light to make it easier to see where we were going. David and Phil seemed impressed. Normally, this would be the moment where the guys with cool abilities recognised me as one of their own. They’d welcome me into their club and make me a membership card and give me a nickname like ‘Baller’. Finally, I’d be accepted.
Well, that’s not how I felt. Showing them what I could do only made me a more appealing prospect for them to get their hands on and use for their own self-serving intentions.
David led us into one of the tunnels on the far side of the cavern.
“So, what is your plan?” I asked Phil.
“Yes, Philip, I am also dying to hear your plan,” said David pointedly.
Phil sighed. “I have secured some help. We won’t be going into the Palace alone. With a suitable distraction, our chances of slipping through and activating the portal are that much greater. Almost guaranteed, I’d say.”
“Help?” scoffed David. “Who’s going to help you?”
“Levrik and his clan.”
David stopped so we all banged into each other. “Are you insane!”
“Who’s Levrik?” I asked.
“Weretic,” said Claire. I punched her in the arm.
“Yes,” said Phil, sounding surprised. “Not that they like that name. Guess who came up with it.” He nodded towards David. “I guess you heard about him from his brother, Loran.”
“Er, yes,” said Claire. “He mentioned him.” She rubbed her arm and mouthed ‘sorry’ at me.
“Who were the weretics again?” said Flossie.
“They’re the people who reject the summons from the masters,” I said, “and change into something else.”
“Change into what?” asked Flossie.
“Good question,” I replied. “Phil?”
“It’s true they change, but—”
“Change?” shouted David. “They’re monsters. Of course they’ll help you break into the Palace. And as soon as they get what they want, they’ll abandon you. Or worse...”
“What do they want from the Palace?” I asked.
“They want meat,” said David. “They believe the flesh of the masters makes them stronger. And they have been known to feast on human flesh when the mood takes them.”
“Lies!” barked Phil. “Vicious slander. They’ve never so much as licked their lips in my presence.”
“I don’t really want to get eaten, Phil,” I said.
“I doubt they’d eat you,” said Jenny. “You probably taste really bitter.”
Claire burst out laughing, joined by the others. “Yeah, bitter on the outside, bitter on the inside.” I thought they were all going to start high-fiving. I ignored them.
“Great. The masters eat humans, the weretics eat masters, and I don’t even get to finish my soup.”
“You had soup?” said Jenny, her laughter dying on her lips . “We haven’t eaten either, you know?”
The others started griping about my failings as a leader who couldn’t even sort out soup for his party. I think they, like Claire, failed to understand what the leadership position entailed. They seemed to view it as some kind of maitre d’.
“Yes, I had soup and it was delicious. Hot and creamy with crunchy bits floating in it.”
“Croutons?” said Dudley plaintively. “I love croutons.”
“No, not croutons. Big chunks of crusty bread soaking up the flavour and then bursting in your mouth. I would have called you all down, but then there would be less for me. It’s better if you lot stay a little hungry, keeps you sharp.”
The soup had been quite watery and without much flavour, but then they wouldn’t be quite so outraged. You might think me petty, but there was no TV in this world. You had to make your own entertainment.
They glared at me with greater hostility than they’d ever shown any of our opponents in battle. Then again, most of the time the only thing we showed our opponents were our backs as we ran away.
Flossie’s stomach growled. “Ah’m not going to vote for yo’ next time we choose a leader,” she grumbled. “Fookin’ knob gobbler.”
Girls are mean when they haven’t eaten.
“Is there any soup where we’re going?” she asked David. They’re also fickle as shit if they think they can get dinner out of someone else.
“I’m sure there’ll be plenty to eat, if we ever get there,” said David. He set off down the tunnel again.
“These weretics,” I said to Phil, “are they unstable psychos who could turn on us?”
“No,” said Phil. “They’re very nice people. When they aren’t eating demons. Then things can get a bit messy.”
I don’t think he was referring to their table manners.
The tunnel wound its way through the catacombs beneath the city. The smell of musty earth filled up the back of my throat making it hard to talk, even to breathe. The walls were rough and sharp bits cut into your skin if you put your hand on them. We would have easily got lost without a guide.
We finally came to some stairs which ended in a large door carved out of the rock. David had to use his shoulder to heave it open.
He wrapped his face with a piece of cloth and pulled up his hood before entering a dark room, small and dank. It felt like a cellar. More stairs led up to another door, a regular wooden one.
Voices could be heard in the distance. Arguing. David didn’t seem bothered by it, nor did he act cautiously as he walked down a hallway with paintings on the wall and thick carpet on the floor.
Large windows revealed a large courtyard with soldiers in large numbers. They were dressed the same as the guards who had escorted Dorma out into the Town Square.
We were in a big house with rich furnishings. Opulence dripped from floor to ceiling. Soldiers stood to attention ahead of us in full armour with helmets and spears.
They clutched their spears with both hands as we approached but David waved them aside with a dismissive flick of his hand. They retook their positions either side of large double doors.
I sensed something change behind me and I turned around. Maurice and Dudley had stopped and were having an intense discussion in low whispers. There seemed to be a lot of these recently among the group, although maybe there always had been and I never noticed.
“Something up?” I called back to them.
“No, nothing,” said Maurice not very convincingly. They jogged to catch up.
David stopped pushed the doors open and waved us through. Inside a large room was the source of the arguing. General Dorma was standing next to a desk, pounding it with his fist while the man-mountain Varg stood next to him.
“How could this happen!” Dorma raged. “It puts everything in jeopardy. It puts me in jeopardy!”
I was pretty sure the second jeopardy was what worried him most.
Dorma looked up as we entered. “Why have you brought them here? And where have you been? Do you have any idea what I’ve been through?”
David had regained his composure and his voice was once again steady and emotionless. “I am here now. Is there a problem?”
“Yes! Yes, there’s a problem. He was here. A damn war golem. In my home. Demanded to know where the brothel was. That’s all he wanted to know. I thought he was going to eat me.” Dorma was shaking. His confident public persona was nowhere to be seen. He looked like a scared, old man. Who did some modelling work on the side.
“Did you tell him?” asked Phil.
“Of course I told him. You think I had a choice?”
“That explains how he found us,” said Phil.
“It doesn’t explain how he knew we were in the brothel,” said David.
“He found you?” said Dorma. “What did you do? You didn’t… Oh no, you did. How am I supposed to explain this?”
Dorma slumped into his chair and put his head in his hands.
“General,” snarled Varg. He had a gruff voice and spoke with little respect. “You have to pull yourself together. If you fall apart now the men will follow suit. I barely have them under control now. Convincing them to attack the masters was no easy task, if we lose them now we won’t get them back.”
“Screw the men,” Dorma screamed. “I’m the one who has to sit with the masters while your men sneak around in the shadows. I’m the one who’ll face their fury if you fail.”
“All the more reason to make sure they do the job properly.” He grabbed Dorma with one hand and lifted him out of his chair and brought his other hand down sharply.
The slap cracked noisily off the walls. Dorma head snapped back, then jerked forward again.
“Good,” he said. “Again.”
Varg peeled back his lips to show angrily clenched white teeth and struck Dorma again. He raised his hand for a third blow.
“Enough,” said Dorma. Blood trickled down his chin. “I’m fine.”
Varg let him go and he dropped back into his seat.
“They’re risking their lives, too,” said Varg. “We all are.”
“Yes, I know,” said Dorma. “I’ll do what has to be done. Promise them gold and fill their ears with pretty words. They will be brimming with confidence, you have no need to worry on that score. The plan will work. It has to.”
Back in the cavern, Varg had given a speech about how his elite unit would infiltrate the Palace of Laughter on the Day of Welding, but I had been a little preoccupied at the time and missed the details. I expected Maurice had them written down, though.
There was a silence as Dorma and Varg locked eyes. Varg was by far the bigger man, but Dorma didn’t seem intimidated. I guess, when you have to deal with ten-foot demons, a guy with a few muscles isn’t that big a deal.
The silence was interrupted by Flossie’s stomach making its feelings known.
Dorma turned and the tension left this face. He looked incredibly tired. “Forgive me, it is a burden I find difficult to bear, being reviled by half the city as a traitor and expected by the other half to run into a burning building to save them. But my troubles are not your concern and I am being a poor host. Bibler!”
Bibler came strolling in, as relaxed and carefree as ever. “Ah, my friends, you are still alive. How surprising.”
“Show them to a room and get them some food, “ said Dorma. “We can discuss what to do with them once they have had some time to rest. They cannot, however, stay here. Who knows when the next visitor will arrive.”
“Thank you,” said David. “It will give me time to make other arrangements. Unless you wish to take up Philip’s offer.”
Phil was at the back inspecting a painting of a stern woman on the wall. “Mm? Oh, we have time, the Day of Welding isn’t for another two days.
David’s eyes, the only part of his face visible, flashed with anger. “You’re planning to go to the Palace the same day as us?”
“Of course. It’s the best time, obviously.”
“Please,” said Bibler, “come with me. I’m afraid they’ll be at each other’s throats for some time.”
Bibler swiftly guided us out of the room and up a curling staircase. We were shown to a room and told to wait there while food was prepared. There was one large bed and Flossie fell onto it face first. “Fooooood.”
“You want to to tell me what you were whispering about downstairs?” I said to Maurice.
He crept to the door and opened it. There were two guards stationed outside. “Hi. Just checking.” He closed the door and called me over to the other side of the room. Everyone except for Flossie followed us into the far corner.
“I’ve been thinking,” said Maurice. “When that Cory guy jumped out of nowhere to kill the General, kind of strange David had to kill him. I mean, if he could travel back sixteen years to stop him, why wait until the last possible moment? Why not take care of it earlier?”
I shrugged. “He can’t kill him. He’d just come back to life.”
“But David has a lot of influence here. He could have had him locked up. There are any number of ways to deal with him that don’t require leaving it so close.”
“Maybe he wanted Dorma to feel like he owed him?” said Claire.
“That makes sense,” said Jenny. “Saving his life right in front of him would make more of an impression.”
“That’s what I thought, at first,” said Maurice. “Until a moment ago when I saw a short guy across the courtyard. He was hanging out with the soldiers. Didn’t look like he was a prisoner.”
“Are you saying it was Cory?”
“I asked Dudley to take a closer look, just in case,” said Maurice.
“It was definitely him,” said Dudley. “Or his twin.”
“Even if it was his twin, the General would have recognised him,” said Maurice.
“So it was all a scam? Why?” I asked.
“The only thing I can think is it was done for our benefit. We were meant to think David was able to go back in time. Maybe he can’t. Or maybe he can and this is his second time around. They could all be in on it. Something fishy’s definitely going on.”
“There’s something else,” said Jenny. “Where are all the women? Do you remember seeing any?”
“Yes, of course, I mean…” But when I thought about I couldn’t recall seeing a single one since we arrived in the city. I’d assumed there were some in the crowds we’d passed through, but I hadn’t been paying attention (as usual). And as for those gathered during Dorma’s speech, both in the Square and in the underground cavern, now that I thought back… not one female face came to mind.
“Even in the tavern,” said Jenny. “They told us women were working upstairs, but did you see any?”
It was obvious from their faces that no one had. I thought of all the cold hard stares we’d received since we’d arrived. The atmosphere of barely checked aggression.
I looked at the three girls standing there—well, two standing and one rolling around on the bed crooning, “Soooup, soooup,” to herself.
What if it wasn’t me everyone was so interested in? What if it was them?