The flappy-box took quite a liking to Maurice. Last time, he’d just twiddled his knobs and the box had flown where he’d told it to. This time, the box made a muffled sound like the squeal of an ungreased axle as Maurice told it what a good boy it was and stroked its sides.
The thing didn’t have ears, as far as I could tell, and what stroking a wooden box achieved I had no idea, but it did seem to respond to him.
While Maurice bonded with the box (don’t judge), I had a quick look through the manual he and Claire had acquired. It was a big book, lots of pages, lots of small writing. As expected, it was not written in a language I recognised.
“Can you read this?” I asked Phil.
“Sure,” he responded confidently. He took the manual from me, scanned the first couple of pages and handed it back. “Boring as fuck.” He walked off.
General Dorma offered to arm us with whatever weapons we required. I accepted but only because not doing so would raise awkward question. I certainly didn’t want anyone carrying equipment from this world, weapons or anything else. They’d just get in the way when time stopped and we needed to be free to move. And by move I mean run.
“The Day of Welding is in two days,” said Dorma, chest puffed out, in full lecture-mode. “The Masters will come for their tribute tomorrow.” The tribute he referred to were the three women they would take back to their mountain, although I wasn’t entirely sure what they intended to do with them.
Those who saw the masters as their genuine betters, considered being eaten alive (if that’s what it was) a great honour and a chance to ascend to a higher plane.
“What about the tournament?” I asked Dorma. What part of a fighting competition required women to be present? Holding up the round cards?
I got a blank look in return. “What tournament?”
Evidently, the contest held among the masters was not widely known about. Either that or Yuqi had lied to me.
Speaking of Yuqi, the Codex which provided a hotline direct to the crazy bitch had to be returned to Dorma. It could have come in useful, but it more likely would have caused problems. I’d rather it stayed here so she could boss Dorma around than give her another chance to lose her rag with Phil and get us all killed out of spite.
Not that being killed was a problem. It was hard making yourself think in terms that didn’t see death as the ultimate fail. Getting caught was the number one thing to fear; death wasn’t even in the top ten.
“We will wait for your return,” said Dorma. He fully expected never to see us again, I didn’t need Claire’s mind reading ability to know that. He had refused to tell me about any of the plans he had for his own insurrection, reasoning that if we got caught we might give away vital information.
It was a fair point, although we had David with us who must have known a fair amount of the plan. If we were caught, he would be the one the masters would squeeze information from, but this didn’t seem to bother Dorma.
Yuqi had absolute faith in David, and Dorma also gave the impression he had every confidence in him. What was it about this guy that appealed to psychos? He was a great swordsman for sure, but it felt like there was more to it than that.
It was late afternoon by the time we were ready to leave. According to Dorma, we wouldn’t arrive at Darkholme, as he called the masters’ stronghold, until after dark, which suited me fine. I didn’t want to attract attention so slipping in under the cover of night was exactly how I wanted to do it.
We piled into the box and I got everyone to dump the weapons we’d been given in one corner. Maurice lifted the box up in a fairly smooth take off, and we headed towards the mountain range on the horizon.
Once we left the city behind, the land was flat and devoid of any buildings. Tall grass and occasional groups of trees. There was still no sign of wildlife.
As soon as we levelled off and were in a more or less fixed flight path, I started asking Phil and David all the questions I had been saving up. Claire was next to me, giving them both the eye. I really should have warned her about how her penetrating gaze was being misinterpreted, and I planned to as soon as it stopped being useful and/or hilarious.
My first question was about David’s sword. “How come you can use it when Phil stops time? Shouldn’t it be stuck like everything else?”
David, wrapped up tight in his veil and ninja headgear, looked at Phil. There was a shrug, but not quite. A lift of an eyebrow, almost. Something unspoken passed between them.
“When Yuqi was taken by the masters,” said David, “we tried to rescue her. There were more of us then, and we had some special abilities that made us think we had a chance. But we didn’t. As we tried to find a way out, we stumbled into what I’d call their treasury. It was a room full of various items from I don’t know where. Other worlds, maybe? Finding that room was the only reason we were able to get out alive.”
“Were there other items?” I asked, unable to resist the lure of finding a store of magic artefacts.
“Yes, many. I don’t know what they all did, we didn’t have time to take an inventory, but I’d guess they were all capable of something impressive.”
I tried to put the idea out of my mind. Sure, it would be great to break into the treasury and grab a legendary weapons each, but the attempt would most likely be enough to scupper any chance we had to keep our presence a secret. It felt very much like a honeytrap.
Still, it was a tantalising prospect. Get kitted out in BiS gear and wreck everyone.
“Is that where you got the device that stops time?” I asked Phil.
“What device?” said Phil.
I hadn’t expected him to admit to it—we all preferred to say as little as possible about our abilities—but Claire would know what he was thinking.
“Yuqi told me you had some kind of necklace that gave you the power to stop time. I was just curious how it worked.”
Phil pulled down the neck of his top to show his bare throat. No necklace. “Is that why you were so keen to get the manual?” he asked. “It only tells you about the care and maintenance of magic items from this world. Like these boxes.” He whirled a finger to indicate our vehicle.
“And where do the boxes come from?” I asked.
“The masters make them. They combine two things to make a third one. Welding. It’s what they do.”
I continued to pepper them with questions. Yuqi, the masters, their time in this world… It was a long flight with not much else to do. David was more forthcoming, but most of my questions were for Phil who deflected and evaded them with great skill. Made you wonder who the real ninja was.
“Why did you two agree to come with us?” I asked when all other inquiries had proved fruitless. They probably thought I was incredibly nosy, but I was trying to give Claire every opportunity to glean something useful. “You don’t know us. You don’t even know why we want to go to Darkholme. Aren’t you curious?”
“I’m here because of Yuqi,” said David. “If we can bring her back… I think it’s worth trying, whatever the risk.” He sounded like Dorma, except in this case I believed him. I suspected some kind of relationship between Yuqi and Phil, but there was something between her and David too. Perhaps something even deeper.
“Do you know where they keep her?” I didn’t want him to know I had no intention of reviving Yuqi. He shook his head.
Jenny slid into the conversation and then took it over, asking mostly inane questions about the state of women’s rights and what kind of man Dorma was. She wasn’t doing this because she felt chatty, she did it so Claire and I could move away and talk without being overheard.
We stood next to Maurice as he piloted towards the ever-growing mountains we could see through the grating in the box door. He was having a great time.
“Did you get anything?” I asked Claire in a low voice.
“Lots,” said Caire.
Before she could say anything else, Maurice interrupted. “Looks like we’ve got company.”
I stepped closer to the opening, air rushing through it fast enough to make my eyes water, and tries to identify the object flying towards us.
The wings weren’t the leathery draconic type we’d seen before, they were more like insect-like, large like those of a moth or butterfly. The body was sort of humanoid. Two legs, but it looked like there were four arms, at least. Everyone closed in around me to get a look. Maurice frantically twiddled his knobs, I assumed so that the box wouldn’t tip forward with everyone standing at one end.
“Is that one of the masters?” asked Claire.
“No,” said Phil.
“No,” agreed David. “It’s too small.”
“War golem?” I asked.
Phil and David both shook their heads and said, “Too small,” in unison.
“Then what is it?” asked Jenny. Everyone was transfixed by the sight of the winged creature rapidly growing in size. It didn’t look too small to me.
“I don’t know,” said David. “Possibly a new creation of the masters, sent to destroy us. We should set down. It will be easier to fight on the ground.”
I turned and nodded at Maurice who started our descent.
If we’d been discovered already, our mission was severely compromised, although sending only one of their soldier wasps, or whatever it was, to intercept us seemed a bit overconfident. Or the exact right amount of confidence if it ripped us all to pieces.
It didn’t take long for us to hit the dirt. We landed softly, not smashing into the ground at full speed this time. We quickly exited from the box and looked up. The creature had its wings tucked in and was falling towards us at great speed with its arms stretched out ahead of it, obscuring its face.
“Leave this to us,” said David unnecessarily. He turned to Phil. “Stop it before it lands so we can see what it is.”
This seemed like a reasonable plan. If they’d never encountered this sort of monster before, it made sense to try and spot any vulnerabilities before the fighting began.
Phil snapped his fingers. Nothing changed. The dive bomber continued to bomb, divingly.
“Why isn’t it stopping?” yelled David.
“I don’t know?” Phil shouted back. He snapped his fingers again and again. His face registered a growing level of panic that did nothing to raise morale.
This was bad. I’d seen what Phil and David could do when they worked together. The way they’d dismantled a war golem had been an awesome thing to behold, but if this creature couldn’t be held in place like the golem, we were going to die.
“I thought you said the masters weren’t immune to your ability,” I shouted (everyone was doing it, so why not me?).
“They aren’t,” said Phil. “And I told you, that isn’t a master.”
Our weapons were still inside the box. I hadn’t wanted them to encumber us, and now it seemed we’d need them after all. Was it even worth getting them? Or should we just run?
The creature pulled in its wings even closer to its body and was in a vertical dive, practically a blur. There was no indication of it planning to slow down. It almost felt like we weren’t its target at all, instead it meant to drive straight into the ground and tunnel its way to the other side of the world.
Then the wings snapped open with a loud crack, iridescent green and blue that was startlingly bright, the dive went from vertical to horizontal in an instant, and it flew over our heads.
Well, I say our heads, but it would be more accurate to say their heads. I felt hands grip me by the shoulders and I was tugged out of gravity’s grasp so fast I think I blacked out. When I regained my senses I found myself being carried no more than a metre or two above the tall grass.
The talons, huge clawed fingers, at least eight on each hand, clutched my shoulders painfully. I didn’t feel secure. I felt like I was going to be dropped any second.
I was facing away from the direction we were travelling, so I had no idea where we were going. I looked up but couldn’t see past the creature’s chest. Broad and armour plated like a rhino, but dark red.
The wings beat unevenly. My captor was having difficulty gaining altitude while carrying me. This at least was good. If I could slip out of its grasp, I might not die. If I could dazzle it with light, perhaps it would release me.
My escape plan was put on hold as we encountered trees, which I only became aware of as their branches brushed against me as we swerved to avoid them. We slalomed through them.
Then we were above the treetops and I very definitely did not want to be released from the agonising claws that dug into me. I envisioned it gaining enough altitude to drop me like an eagle dropping a turtle to crack its shell open.
That wasn’t a fun image (thank you, David Attenborough).
The wing beats slowed and our ascent stabilised. I felt myself being pulled upwards. A face loomed into view. There were a lot of eyes in a row. Six, maybe more. The mouth was closed but very wide. The whole head was enormous, like a hippo all swollen with the mumps.
“Colin,” it said, “what took you so long?”
The voice was familiar. “Cheng? What the fuck happened to you?”
And then he dropped me.