David walked down the ramp looking tired and haggard. He had his hood up but his face was unwrapped making it very easy to guess his mood. Pissed off.
Having confidently told everyone it would be Bibler arriving, David’s appearance was like saying, “Was this your card?” and receiving a resounding, “Nope,” in return.
“Why are you here?” I asked David.
David stood on the ramp, probably because it gave him a height advantage, and glowered at me. “You’re Colin?”
“Yes,” I said with an implied ‘duh!’ which was unfair. This was his first time meeting me, as far as he knew.
“I’m here to give you your instructions.” He took a moment to peruse the assemblage. “You’re to come with me.”
Loran stepped forward. “Do you have news of my brother?”
David reluctantly cut short his glowering (to be continued later) and turned to Loran. “Levrik is no longer in the city.”
This news took Loran by surprise. “You have sent him on a mission?”
David hesitated, probably trying to find a sympathetic way to break the news that Loran’s brother was now a weretic.
“Your brother is no longer human. He betrayed his friends and turned on those closest to him. He is no more than a savage now.” David’s bedside manner left a lot to be desired.
Loran staggered backwards. “I don’t… I can’t believe it.”
Terry came up behind him and put a hand on his back, most likely to stop him from collapsing. The colour had drained from his face and he grabbed onto his wife. Nothing brings a family together like disappointment, preferably in another family member.
A tuneful humming took my attention back to the box as another figure emerged from the dim innards.
“Ah, yes, I think I’ve got the hang of it now,” Bibler muttered as he fiddled with the controller in his hands.
“Really?” I exclaimed. “You couldn’t have come out first?”
My outburst startled Bibler and he nearly dropped the controller. “I’m sorry, do we… have we met?”
I turned to the others, pointing. My prediction had come true, eventually, but no one cared. No one hears the magician go ‘Ta Dah!’ when they’re already on their way home. Loran was too upset about his brother and his family were trying to comfort him.
“Why’s Dad crying? The youngest kept saying.
I was tempted to say, “Have you seen who he’s married to?” but that would have been insensitive and inappropriate.
“We must hurry back to Meet,” David turned back to me, glowering resumed. "There is much to do.” He hadn’t even touched ground and he was already heading back into the box.
“Ah, yes,” said Bibler. “It’ll be a smoother return trip, I assure you.”
Perhaps David’s foul mood was down to airsickness. Perhaps it was down to being a lapdog for an insane monster.
“Hold on,” I said, not very keen to follow orders when I didn’t know where they would lead. “What instructions? What did she say?”
He stopped and slowly rotated to face me again. He really didn’t seem pleased to be here. “We can discuss it on the way.”
“Or you can stop wasting my time and tell me now,” I suggested. “I know this is the first time for you, but we have met before. I know what’s in store for us, I assume you do, too.”
David gave me a blank stare.
“You know about Phil, right?”
David’s brow furrowed. “What about him?”
“He’s planning to attack the Palace with the weretics. With you-know-who’s brother.” I nodded towards Loran, who managed to crack my code and gasped.
David shook his head. “No. He would never do something so foolish.”
“He did and no doubt he will again. And if I know that, so does Yuqi, but apparently she didn’t feel the need to warn you. Why do you think that is, David?”
“I don’t know,” shouted David, giving in to his irritation. “I don’t have her powers, or yours. If Philip is up to something, she will deal with it. If you’re planning to betray her, there’s nothing I can do to help you. She’s too strong.”
“I’m not asking for your help,” I said. “All I’m saying is you can’t trust her. You can’t trust Phil. And you can’t trust me. You have to start thinking for yourself.” I walked past him into the box.
Of course, I was saying he couldn’t trust me because it made me sound honest, in a roundabout way. What I was really saying was you can’t trust anyone, but I’m the one you should not trust the least. Too complicated? Good. If he wasn’t going to help me, he should be as confused as possible. Full contact Colin-fu.
The others tentatively followed me into our winged carriage. They hadn’t been in a flappy box before and were a little freaked out by the feathered appendages stretching and folding on the sides. If they knew how we’d ended up on our last flight, I doubt they’d have taken a single step inside one of these flying coffins. I, on the other hand, had no such qualms. There was only one event I feared repeating, and crash landing in a field didn’t even make it into my top five.
Once they everyone was in, David pulled up the door without so much as a “See ya” to Loran and family. They didn’t seem to mind, the four of them all huddled together. It’s amazing how adversity can bring a couple together. I gave them six weeks, tops.
The box lifted off the ground in several jerks
“Sorry,” Bibler shouted over the squeals and yelps. “Hold on.”
As we rose into the air, we all grabbed onto the straps and each other. We levelled off and soared towards our destination.
“What does Yuqi want me to do?” I shouted at David who looked like he was about to throw up.
“I’m to take you to Dorma. He will smuggle you into the Palace.”
This was pretty much my plan, although for different reasons. “Why can’t we fly directly there?”
David shook his head and immediately regretted it. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. “We can’t. If we’re spotted, we won’t stand a chance. You have to get in unseen.”
“And once we’re in?”
“I don’t know,” said David. “She didn’t tell me. I suppose she wants you to kill the masters. Can you do that?”
“No,” I said very convincingly. “But I don’t think that’s the plan. She wants me to find her body and wake her. I’m not sure I can do that either.”
David’s eyes lit up. “You’ll bring her out of the dark place? That’s good! That’s really good. She’ll be back to normal.”
“She’s insane. She’ll never be back to normal.” I don’t think he heard me. His eyes had glazed over, probably picturing running hand in hand through a meadow with the girl he used to know. It wasn’t such an unlikely dream; she’d need somewhere quiet and out of the way to murder him and the loose topsoil would be great for a shallow grave.
Jenny stuck her chin on my shoulder and dug it in, which made me flinch. She had quite a pointy chin. When I turned she was grinning wolfishly at me. It was these moments when she seemed able to look right into me that I found the most uncomfortable. Did all women have this hungry look, or was it just her?
Maurice was over by Bibler, watching him work the remote. The way they had contained their magic into a box, and thinking about what Yuqi had said about Phil’s power being due to a device around his neck, it made me realise this world had a strange technological twist to its magic. If I could figure out how it worked, perhaps it might come in handy. Plus, a magic sword that worked like a lightsaber would be cool.
We landed outside the city as before, although unlike before, the box remained in one piece and the only injury was to Maurice who tripped on the way out. The city looked the same, unstable and wonky. David led the way followed by Bibler who had Maurice on one side asking him question after question, and Claire on the other staring intently at Bibler’s broad forehead.
Bibler, I was sure, would deflect all questions about the magic of this world and how things like the flappy boxes worked, but Claire didn’t need him to say those things out loud, he just needed to think them. She wasn’t being very subtle, but since no one knew what she could do it probably looked like she was somebody’s crazy girlfriend; which she was.
“I wanted to ask you something,” said Jenny. I knew it was going to be something I didn’t want to answer already. You don’t preface a question with a polite request unless you’re going to ask something unpleasant.
“Yes?” It wasn’t like she was going to back off if I denied her request.
“When you told us what happened the last time you were here, did you leave any stuff out?”
“Something bad happened?”
“Nothing bad… just the minor stuff.” There was one not-so-minor thing I’d left out which was frankly no one’s business but mine. It was what made it worth coming back despite having to endure everything Yuqi put me through. Through all the pain and torment, the one thought uppermost in my mind was that I would get to do this again and NOT speak when Dorma introduced the general of his army. Maybe that moment wouldn’t even happen; didn’t matter. All I knew was it wouldn't include my participation. No one would ever know. Well, Yuqi would know since she could see the different timelines—all the more reason not to let her come back to life.
“Did you make yourself look like a dick?” said Jenny.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Wow. That bad, huh?” She was fishing. She knew nothing. I just needed to play it cool, there was no need to take the bait.
As we entered the city there was an immediate difference. Women. They were everywhere. This time round, Yuqi hadn’t put her ‘no girls allowed’ edict in place. The fact she’d arranged it so well last time showed just how much sway she held over the city. When she gave the order, everyone obeyed. It was as impressive as it was terrifying. It would be very hard to get any of these people to work against her.
David led us to the main square which was filled with people as before. He walked straight into the crowd which parted for him. He held quite a bit of sway himself, it seemed—no standing at the back for us this time. We followed, people staring at us as we passed through.
As we approached the large building at the other end of the square, the doors opened and Dorma emerged flanked by his soldiers. One rather short one looked familiar, the boy who had tried to assassinate Dorma and ended up a kebab on David’s sword. Apparently, they weren’t going to try and pull that trick again.
The crowd cheered Dorma as he stood on a podium and raised his hand in acceptance of the adulation. Unlike the previous speech we’d witnessed here, the crowd were very supportive of their leader.
David took us to the side and the guards standing there moved aside to let us through. We ended up behind Dorma, between him and the doors to his mansion. I would have gladly gone inside and maybe had a sandwich, but David stopped and indicated for us to wait. He left us and went over to the large man standing behind Dorma, the man who would lead the rebel army. The sight of Varg sent a shiver down my spine. Even though I wouldn’t be embarrassing myself this time, the memory of it was enough to make me feel ill.
Time travel was confusing and full of complications, but at least it allowed me this one small respite. I smiled. Whatever problems lay ahead, I could handle them.
Dorma began his speech, but there was no talk of austere rationing or dwindling supplies. No promises of better times if people kowtowed to the masters. His words were full of fight and revolution. The crowd roared their approval.
He was very open in his defiance of the masters. Recklessly so, it seemed. Almost like he was intentionally letting them know of his intentions. It could only be because Yuqi had ordered him to. Just what was her plan?
While Dorma galvanised the people, Maurice and Claire were wittering away in each other’s ears. Maurice turned to me and whispered, “I had a chat with Bibler.”
“Oh?” I said. “Did he say anything interesting?”
“No,” said Claire from my other side, “but he didn’t have to.” She raised her eyebrows at me.
This was good. She had used her ability to glean some intel. But why were they both looking at me like that?
“I asked him about the technology they use for the flying box,” said Maurice.
“There’s a book,” said Claire. “A manual.”
“I also asked him where he lived in the city,” said Maurice.
“He has rooms in there.” Claire pointed at the mansion behind us. “The book’s in his room.”
This was all excellent information. They’d done well. I still didn’t like the way they were looking at me.
“We can get the book,” said Maurice, “only we need to do it now while everyone’s out here.”
This was a bold idea. Risky as fuck. Stupid, even.
“What we need is a distraction,” said Maurice. “Something so big no one notices us sneaking in.”
“What do you expect me to do?” I said.
I felt Jenny’s breath on my neck. “Whatever you did last time.”
“I want to present to you the man who will lead you to victory,” said Dorma. “The man who will defeat the masters. The man who will be your sword and your shield.”
No. No, no, no. Not again. No way. This was my chance to wipe the slate clean. Fucking time travel. Useless.