“What happened?” asked Phil. “Have you been like this the whole time?”
“I don’t… know,” wheezed Bao in a voice brittle as dry leaves. “It won’t work anymore. Why won’t it work?” There was a sadness to his question, and an infinite weariness.
It was amazing he could speak at all considering the lack of water. You’d think his throat would have seized up, but the regeneration effect that kept him alive also kept him hydrated, it seemed. His face and his hands, which were all that showed, looked almost healthy. If they hadn’t been sticking out of a wall, that is.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get you out.” Phil sounded desperate. He turned to look at us for help but no one knew what to do. Even David hung back.
Bao opened his mouth like he was going to say something else but only let out a long breath which ended in a shuddering choke. His eyes closed and he stopped moving.
“Bao? Bao?” Phil touched Bao’s face but there was no response. Bao was dead.
I put a hand over my mouth and did my best impression of sad. Then I pulled Claire closer to me and put my arms around her and hugged her. I’m not sure if that’s how normal people show grief, but it was my best approximation. Fortunately, Claire realised what I was doing and didn’t knee me in the groin. “What’s David thinking?” I whispered into her ear.
“Mostly about the girl, how to get her out of here. But he’s not that upset about the guy in the wall. I think he might even be happy about it.”
I patted Claire on the back and released her, wiping an imaginary tear from my eye. And the Oscar goes to…
When I turned back around, Jenny was practically standing on my shoes. For a moment I thought she was going to let me have it, but she just smiled and put her hand in mine. I think she knew I was pretending and the hug with Claire was a means to an end, but I also think she wanted to remind me she was watching me; always. It was like a judge on a TV show: “I’ll allow it, but watch yourself, counsellor.”
Bao suddenly opened his eyes and noisily sucked in air. There was a squeal of surprise. My immediate assumption was that it was Flossie, but she was already too freaked out to look at the man in the wall and had her face buried in Dudley’s chest.
“Sorry,” said Maurice, breathing hard from the shock.
“Philip, quickly, save her. We have to save Yuqi!” Bao’s strained voice was whispers and gasps but when he spoke her name it came out crackling like a blaze. “Quickly, before it’s too late. Everyone’s here. Together we can… What? No, we can’t leave her... No!... Yes, we will…. So what? We promised each other. You promised!”
His face twisted with anger. His eyes shone with life that hadn’t been there a moment ago as he argued with himself. No, not himself, with people only he could see.
Phil turned to the rest of us. “Can’t any of you do something?”
He was met by silence. I felt eyes slide towards me.
It was definitely a terrible thing. He had been stuck in a wall for the last sixteen years, alternating between life and death. And clearly he’d gone insane. We could’ve probably found a way to excavate him if we had the time. He would heal, or at least his body would. But his mind?
“We don’t have time,” I said.
There was a stunned silence. They all looked at me like they couldn’t believe what I’d just said.
“You want to leave him like that?” said Claire, too awash in disbelief to even be mad at me.
“I don’t want to, but did you bring your hammer and chisel with you? No? Me neither. If you want to dig him out, David’s the only one with a serviceable tool on him. Ask him.”
Frankly, it would be more merciful to just put him out of his misery. That’s what I would want someone to do for me if I were in his place, and make it permanent. Eat me if you had to. But some people consider life to be a sacred thing that you shouldn’t let go of under any circumstance. A bit narcissistic, if you ask me.
The focus shifted from me to David, who looked very uncomfortable in the spotlight. Welcome to my world.
“Shouldn’t we check the treasury first?” he said. “There might be something in there that could help both of them.”
Phil promised to come back, not that Bao heard him. We left him raving and ranting to his invisible friends. The good thing about being insane is you’re never short of company.
288 led us back to the other passage and into another chamber. This one was full of chests of varying sizes, all with a coating of the ever-present dust.
I put an arm out and stopped everyone in the doorway, wary of traps and alarms. There didn’t appear to be any, but maybe that’s what they wanted us to think.
Phil and David pushed past me, eager to find something to help their friends. They had been here before so I guess they knew there weren’t any booby traps.
The chests were somehow sealed shut. They didn’t have keyholes or obvious locking mechanisms and even being bashed with David’s sword proved fruitless.
“How did you get stuff when you were here before?” I asked David.
“We only had time to grab the things lying out in the open.” He looked shifty as he said it, although I think that about most people.
Around us there were some items on the floor and leaning against the walls. They didn’t look like magical artefacts of myth and legend. They looked more like bits of junk. Jars and vases and broken crockery.
I picked up a wooden sword and dusted it off. It was similar to the ones I’d practised with when training with Princess Laney. It did not give off a mystical aura. It smelled vaguely of damp.
“What exactly did you take from here? Apart from the device that stops time.” I didn’t even bother directing this at Phil, he’d just deny it.
“The Codex was the main one,” said David. “It was sitting on one of the chests.”
“And you didn’t take anything else?”
David gave something approximating a shrug and then returned to trying the chests. There were dozens of them and I guess he thought one of them might have been left unlocked.
Phil anxiously watched him. There was definitely something going on between the two of them, but even Claire’s ability had given me little insight into what it was.
“288, open the chests,” I commanded. 288 flew down from his perch on top of one of the larger chests, turned around and bent over. “You know, a simple apology would do.”
He remained bent over. I let him stay like that and turned my attention to Cheng standing in the doorway, looking a bit anxious himself. It was like we’d convinced him to let us open his Dad’s drinks cabinet and now he was regretting it.
“Why don’t you try opening one of the chests?” I suggested to him. “You’re a lot stronger than us.”
“I wouldn’t want to damage them,” he said. Daddy issues.
“You think he’d admire your reticence to get your hands dirty? We already plan to cheat, a little vandalism isn’t going to save you.”
Reluctantly, Cheng entered the room and picked up a small chest. He opened it without effort.
“Hmm,” said Maurice. “Must be some kind of genetic matching technology.”
“Could be,” I said, “or it could be magic.”
Maurice fiddled with his glasses. “Yeah, I suppose.”
Inside the chest there was a glass globe. A magic crystal ball? An oversized marble? It didn’t come with instructions so it was hard to tell.
Cheng went around the room opening chests and everyone dived in after him to see what they’d won. Christmas come early. Or late. Or not at all. I wondered if people gave each other presents to celebrate the Day of Welding, before they got eaten.
I found something,” said Maurice. He was bent over a particularly small chest. He pulled out a crucifix.
Now, a cross isn’t necessarily specific to our world as a symbol. It’s not very sophisticated—two sticks bound together—but this crucifix also had a small figure attached to it in the traditional pose.
Everyone was slackjawed. It was the first time we’d seen something from our own world and it was a religious icon. What did it mean? The masters had been to Earth? They were bible bashers? They were going to force us to read copies of The Watchtower?
You might think it was possible it wasn’t from Earth, maybe other worlds shared the same creation myths as our culture. Suggesting, perhaps, they weren’t myths at all.
Unlikely, though, since the crucifix was made of cheap plastic and had ‘Made in China’ printed on the back. If the masters had visited Earth, all they’d come back with was tacky tourist crap.
The rest of the chests contained a broad range of items, some weapons, some trinkets that may have been valuable, some unidentifiable objects that looked like toys. Nothing stood out as magical or powerful.
“I want to try something,” I said. “Phil, stop time for a sec.”
He did so with a snap of his fingers.
“Okay. See if any of them can move.”
Everyone tried to pick up one of the items we’d found. They all stayed firmly in place except for the crystal ball and my wooden sword. And of course the crucifix.
Could one of these three be a cunningly disguised super-weapon? Didn’t seem likely. I could maybe use the wooden sword to rap someone on the knuckles.
I took the globe from Jenny. What would it show me? The future? Next week’s lottery numbers? I emptied my mind and peered into it. All I saw was my own face upside down with my nose spread from ear to ear. Not a good look.
On a whim, I decided to pour a little magic into it. Perhaps that would give it a jump start.
The world shrank until I was the only one in it. I no longer felt the air around me or the ground beneath my feet. I heard nothing and no light reached me. I floated. There was a spark of light and my mind rushed towards it.
There was a slithering sound.
“Ah, Colin, finally you come to visit your old friend.” Horns lit up in the dark. They crackled with blue light. I was back in the darkness surrounded by the void.
“So,” said Jenny, “aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?” She was standing next to me smiling the cold smile girls give each other when they’re about to start some shit.
Mental note: always be nice to your girlfriend, even when she’s being a pain. You never know when she might come in useful.