Inside the box, the golem’s wings were trying to make a break for it. Somehow they knew they were being separated from the rest of their extremities and they slapped desperately against the walls in an effort to find a way out.
Flossie squealed and ran around Dudley to avoid getting flapped on. Maurice and Claire waved their arms like they were herding sheep and Phil and David watched. I don’t think they’d ever seen a special ops team quite like this one.
As I walked up the ramp into the box, the golem had already got its feet attached to its legs. More chunks of flesh slithered towards the rapidly reconstituting body.
“We should go,” said Cheng. “If you follow me we should be there by nightfall.” He spread his wings and lifted into the air.
He hadn’t actually agreed to my plan, at least not verbally. His hesitation was enough to convince everyone he had accepted this was the only way forward and I think he preferred it that way. If he’d had to say it out loud it would have felt like a betrayal, but simply going along with us made it an undefined action. Guilt deferred.
No one knew his true intentions towards his father, maybe not even him.
Of course, the flipside of letting him leave the words unsaid meant a possible change of mind. If you promise nothing, you’re not obliged to follow through. For some people, that kind of distinction is important. Sure, you could just break your word, but it’s much easier to live with yourself if you let yourself off the hook on a technicality.
I could have tried to force a commitment out of him but the fact he was willing to not refuse was enough for now. I knew it wasn’t for our sake; Mandy was the one he wanted to protect. I had a feeling she was going to be an important factor in getting us out of here. A terrible thought occurred to me—I might have to be nice to her.
Before I followed Jenny into the wagon, I looked up. The sky was its usual flat white nothingness. Cheng hovered above me, his wings vibrating so fast they were barely visible.
“Why are there no birds or animals here?” I asked him.
“Because of the barrier,” he said, and then he shot upwards.
What barrier was he talking about?
I got in the box, took a wild kick at a leathery wing that had dodged past Claire sending it crashing against the far wall, and pulled up the door.
The flappy-box rose, creaking like an old windmill. The wings on the outside beat a steady rhythm as we chased Cheng. The last glimpse I had of the golem was of two legs standing with no torso.
Maurice had the helm, or at least he peered through the grating with controller gripped like a gamepad.
Dudley was sitting in the far corner, on top of the golem’s wings, keeping them pinned down. Every now and then he would suddenly jerk slightly into the air but he responded with a firm counter bounce that served to remind Wing 1 and Wing 2 who was in charge.
Phil and David muttered together, probably regretting coming with us (I knew the feeling well). I took the opportunity to go over to Claire.
“Did you pick up anything interesting from those two?” I asked her in a hushed voice.
“Phil thought about his shoes when you asked him about the time-stopping device. I guess that’s where he keeps it.”
I stole a quick glance at Phil’s footwear. They were leather boots and looked quite a snug fit. If the necklace was in there it would have to be quite small and shoved in tight. Wouldn’t be easy getting it without Phil noticing. The boots looked quite new. Certainly not sixteen years old. If they hadn’t come with Phil when he first arrived, that meant they were from here.
I grabbed Claire’s hand, which she immediately snatched back. I took hold of her by the elbow, this time more firmly, and dragged her with me over to Phil.
“Hey, how come you can move when you stop time?” I asked him.
Phil looked confused. “The same reason you can. I’m not from here.”
“Yeah, but your clothes are. And his.” I pointed at David. “There’s no way you’ve kept them like this for so long without replacing or repairing them. Even new stitching would make you immobile.”
Phil didn’t reply, he just looked at David.
“It’s better you don’t know,” said David.
“Okay,” I said. “No problem.” My casual acceptance of his refusal took David by surprise. He was probably expecting me to start an argument. “What about the treasury? Do you think you’ll be able to lead us there?”
“I don’t know,” said Phil. “It was a long time ago.”
“Can you try to remember?” I urged him. “I feel like it’s going to be important.”
Phil’s eyes lost focus for a moment as he thought back. He turned to David who shrugged.
“It’s vague,” said Phil. “Maybe when we get there it’ll jog something loose. Assuming we aren’t killed immediately.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Easy to be super-confident when you’re bullshitting. “We’ll just do it all again.”
“Yuqi had the same ability as you,” said Phil. “It didn’t turn out so well for her.”
“True,” I said, “but I have one major advantage over her. I’m not insane.”
Phil raised a single eyebrow in a way that suggested the jury was still out.
I turned to Claire. She nodded. I let go of her and we walked back to where Maurice was standing.
“Well?” I mumbled out of the side of my mouth.
“I saw a flash of a room full of junk. I don’t know where it is, though.”
It seemed like Phil really didn’t know where the treasury was. A room full of junk, as Claire put it, that probably contained Thor’s hammer, Stormbringer, the One Ring, Excalibur and the Ark of the Covenant—okay, maybe not a bunch of fictional artefacts, but there was bound to be something in there that would be useful. And cool.
“Anything else?” I asked Claire.
“They both had the same thought when you asked about their clothes—Codex.”
Interesting. So the Codex was more than just a communicator. Now I just had to work out how to operate it.
Claire looked up at me and sucked in her cheek. “I’m not sure you want to know.”
“Just tell me.” Like there was anything worse than what I’d already been through.
“David thought about killing you. So did Phil. And when we were back in Meet, Dorma also considered having you killed. And Varg—”
“Okay, okay, I get it. I’m on everyone’s to-do list.” Popular at last. “Isn’t anyone planning to kill the rest of you?”
“No,” said Claire. “Just you.”
“Fine, whatever. Thinking it isn’t the same as doing it, otherwise I’d be dead a hundred times over by now.”
“Yeah,” agreed Claire a bit too readily.
“Okay, keep at it. We need as much information as possible. Does it use up energy? Make you feel tired?” Claire shook her head. “What am I saying? You probably love it. I imagine it’s every girl’s dream to have access to so much gossip, direct from the source.”
“No,” said Claire, “it isn’t every girl’s dream, you arse. The inside of people’s heads can be quite disturbing. I made the mistake of looking inside Jenny’s head once. She was picturing you naked.” She shivered. “Won’t make that mistake again.”
I looked over at Jenny talking to Flossie who had taken up residence on Dudley’s lap, the wings beneath them had no chance of moving under their combined weight. Jenny held onto one of the straps hanging from the roof, swaying back and forth as our transport flew improbably through the sky. She turned her head like she instinctively knew I was watching her and smiled.
“Ugh,” said Claire. “That’s the exact face she made that time, too.”
The sky had turned a pinkish hue indicating night was fast approaching. Cheng flew ahead of us towards a mountain range. One mountain stood out in particular, partly because of its size—easily the largest of the peaks—and partly because it was lit up with what looked like floodlights.
As we closed in on it, the mountain bore a strong resemblance to Cheng’s place back in Monsterland. The same flattened top with a building in the middle, but instead of a stone cube, this had many domes and turrets all polished to a mirrored sheen. It sparkled and twinkled like a jewel on display.
Cheng landed well before us, in between what looked like a series of statues which turned out to be more golems. They didn’t move, just stood there forming two rows leading up to the palace.
A large figure emerged from the palace, dwarfing Cheng and the golems. It was similar to Cheng’s demon form, but much bigger. As Cheng walked up to it, wings sprouted from its back. They stretched out and upwards. Then more wings opened, followed by a third pair. They formed a wall behind the monstrous figure, fanned out like a peacock’s tail.
Maurice landed as far from the meeting as possible without falling off the edge. The golems turned so instead of facing each other, they looked down the row at us as we emerged from the flappy-box. Other than that they remained in place. I did a quick head count—thirty-two of the fuckers. Put the odds slightly in their favour.
There was a clatter behind us. The severed golem wings rolled down the ramp flip-flopping end over end and then skittered across the plateau, the memory of Dudley’s giant bum indelibly imprinted across their stretched membranes, as well as the actual imprint of his giant bum. They made straight for the edge, and then fell off. Can’t say I blamed them.
“Do you think that’s his Dad?” asked Maurice.
Cheng was doing all the talking. The dynamic did feel very reminiscent of parent and child with Cheng asking to borrow the car keys and Dad waiting for the spiel to be over so he could say no.
“I never thought I’d be back here,” said Phil.
“He isn’t going to recognise you two, is he?” I asked. “That would scupper our plans pretty hard.”
“That only just occurred to you?” said Claire, nostrils flaring in outrage (and they were substantial nostrils so the flare was profound).
“It’s fine,” said Phil. “They never saw us. We wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
Cheng was walking back towards us and he wasn’t alone. The ground shook with each footstep.
“This is my father,” said Cheng. “He is called ______” The name was unpronounceable, but sounded a bit like ‘Biscuit’, which didn’t really do justice to his terrifying appearance, but that’s the closest I could get, so that’s what I called him.
I had to crane my neck to look at his face. It was at least ten feet up. “Hello, Mr Biscuit.” I waved.
There was a chorus of ‘hello’s and ‘hi’s from behind me. There’s no better way to ruin a tense atmosphere than a bunch of retards shouting greeting in sing-song voices (and yes, I count myself among the retards). Mr Biscuit’s serene face twitched, like Clint Eastwood realising he was going to have to teach kindergarten dressed as a pregnant woman (did they make that movie in the 80s? Feels like they should have).
“Welcome to Darkholme Mountain.” The voice was surprisingly mellow, although incredibly deep. “I have agreed to allow my son to challenge for the leadership, as is his right. A foolhardy ambition, but magnificent.” He sounded enormously proud.
“This is Colin,” said Cheng.
“So you are the one who will be my son’s teacher. I am _______, he who is above all, but I cannot even begin to guess what he hopes to learn from you, which make it all the more intriguing. You must have a lot of confidence in yourself.”
The enormous face bent down to inspect me. I felt like a worm being eyed by the early bird. He snorted and shook his curled horns like a bull preparing to charge.
“I’ve got a couple of ideas,” I said feebly. “Just have to suck it and see.”
He might have been expecting a more belligerent response. Or, at least, a slightly less odd one. He pulled back. “You have two days until the Day of Welding. You have until then to do whatever it is you think will help my son become a true warrior. We have ten thousand years of knowledge, but he believes you can provide him with something we cannot.” There was a barely noticeable shrug of the shoulders, maybe the slightest roll of the eyes. “After that there will be a great feast. You are all invited.”
The way he said it, I didn’t feel like we’d be there as guests.
“If he wins, though, we can leave.”
“If he wins, his word will be the word of the masters. But first you have to defeat those who stand in your way.”
Mr Biscuit’s wings folded shut in a rapid cascade to reveal eight of the biggest, ugliest horrors I’d ever seen (and I’d seen quite a few). If you wondered where the wild things were, they were right here.