Firm hands grabbed me by the arms and lifted me to my feet. Feminine hands with red nail varnish. The hands encircled my biceps and remained tightly clasped. I really had to start working out.
The six female warriors towered over me. I’m not the tallest of people, but I’ve always consoled myself with at least being above average height for a woman. Not today.
They were dressed in very form-fitting leather armour with shiny metal plates covering their neck and shoulders, elbows and forearms, knees and shins. Thighs were completely exposed for some reason. Seemed like an odd design choice.
“Don’t stare at their legs,” said Laney in a loud whisper. “They might take it the wrong way.” She stuck out her tongue and wiggled it at me. I had no idea what that was supposed to mean.
“I wasn’t.” I clearly had been, but when in doubt, deny everything.
The women all wore helmets that covered everything except for mouth and chin, so it was hard to tell how annoyed they were. They weren’t smiling, though.
“What are you doing here, Laney? Are we near Fengarad?”
“You will address the princess as Her Highness, or I will cut your tongue out and slice off your ears,” said one of the women. She bared her teeth at me in a very aggressive manner; which wasn’t really necessary after already threatening to maim and disfigure me.
“It’s alright, Guardian Telma,” said Laney with a sweet smile that was far more worrying than any of the grimaces. “I know him. He’s a Visitor. And he’s going to help us.” Her eyes twinkled. Very worrying.
The last time I’d seen Princess Laney, she’d given me a sound beating under the guise of sword training. We had made plans for more beatings, I mean, lessons, but I ducked out of Fengarad before she could teach me the many different ways to lie on the ground, crying. Hopefully, she wasn’t mad I’d stood her up. Maybe she didn’t even remember.
“He’s part of a group called The Losers. He’s the head Loser.”
“That’s not what we’re called.” No one was listening to me.
“A Visitor? Him? Are you sure?” The tallest of the woman removed her helmet, I guess to take a better look at me. She had a square jaw with a dimple in it, which always looks odd on women. She had very blue, very unimpressed eyes. Her mousey blonde hair was pulled back and tied into a plait. I’m guessing it was a French braid, but I’m not up on my hairstyles and French is the only braid variant I’ve ever heard of. Other countries don’t seem to get a look in.
“His arms feel like they’re made of chicken bones,” said the woman on my right giving me a squeeze that made me wince.
“I think I could fold him up and put him in my pocket,” said the one on the left.
“Yes, yes,” said Laney, “I know he doesn’t look like much, but he’s the type who keeps his talents hidden. Deep, deep, deeeeeep.”
My life was a never ending funfair ride. The kind where a loose screw leaves fifteen teenagers with their legs amputated at the knee. And no one knew more about having a screw loose than Princess Looney.
“Laney, wh—” The hands around my arms tightened, crushing my biceps. I should probably start with pushups, maybe some squats. “Your Royal Highness, could you tell me where I am?”
Laney smiled. “Of course. We’re just outside Requbar, Jewel of the South, the Garden City.”
Never heard of it. I looked around. The field we were in was surrounded by trees on all sides. There was no sign of any buildings. “We’re not near Fengarad?”
“Fengarad has fallen,” said Laney, shaking her head slowly. “The monsters breached the walls and took my father prisoner. Dark times, Colin. Dark times.” She lowered her head, eyes on the ground. Then her head snapped back up, eyes bouncing around like ping pong balls. “But we shall free my father and destroy the evil brutes who dare place their filthy claws on my precious city. Won’t we, Colin, hmm?”
She peered up at me, the only girl here who needed to do that. She was waiting for an answer.
“La—I mean Your Highness, I’ve only just got here, and I have no idea what’s been going on, but first I need to find the rest of my party. Have you seen them? And how did you even know I was out here?”
“We should take him back to Requbar and let the Inquisitor question him,” said Guardian Telma. I didn’t like her. I wasn’t too fond of this Inquisitor person, either. “It isn’t safe out here, Your Highness.”
“Yes, you’re right,” said Laney. “Come on, Colin, we can catch up and you can explain why you missed our appointment. Hurry up—I do so hate to be kept waiting…” She let it linger in a way that made me think training would be resumed, and I wouldn’t be given a sword this time.
“Hold on,” I said, resisting the push from either side of me as the grips still locked onto my arms urged me forward. Resistance was futile. I was lifted and my feet scraped along the ground. “Can we just take a second to let me get my bearings. I was in Nekromel a moment ago, now I’m back here, it’s—”
They released my arms and backed away, forming a circle around me, hands on the hilts of their swords
“What?” I said, unsure what I’d done this time.
“You have been to Nekromel?” said Guardian Telma. “You have been to the fabled Underworld, home of demons and the living dead?”
“Yeah, I passed through. It’s not really how you think of an underworld, though. Not so much under as off to one side, if you know what I mean.”
The looks I was getting suggested they had no idea what I meant.
“If you’ve been to Nekromel,” said Laney, sounding doubtful, “how did you get there?”
“Well, we were in Monsterland with the Archfiend when—”
There was the sound of scraping metal as six swords were drawn in unison.
“Easy. I’m not even armed.”
“Are you sure he is the one you know?” said Telma. “He may be a shapeshifter.”
The pointy ends of the swords were now aimed at me.
“Hmm,” said Laney with a finger tapping on her chin. “I don’t know. The Colin I knew was madly in love with me. This one seems a little… indifferent. They don’t bleed, the shapeshifters. Perhaps cut a bit off?”
“With pleasure, Your Highness.” Telma moved towards me.
I moved back. “Woah. Chill a minute. You don’t have to cut anything off, you can just scratch the back of my hand or something.” I held out my hand. It was shaking in a very unmanly manner.
Telma placed the tip of her sword against the back of my hand and flicked it. A line of blood appeared. I hissed and got 360 degrees of disapproval, which I thought was a bit unnecessary. Even a papercut stings.
“He seems to be a man. Technically.” She lowered her sword. “He may still be a traitor. To come back from Monsterland alive is unheard of.”
It was bad enough having to deal with macho posturing from men, it was even more absurd getting it from women.
“Have you been to Monsterland?” I waited for an answer but only got shifty looks. “No, so you don’t know what you’re talking about. And Nekromel isn’t full of the living dead… well, in a way it is, but not really. And there were a grand total of nine demons, ten if you count the Archfiend who we left there. I don’t know where you get your information from, but—”
“You left the Archfiend in Nekromel?” said Laney, her playfulness gone. “When did this happen?”
“I’m not sure. My sense of time has been pretty messed up. Which is why if you tell me what’s been happening maybe I can give you a few answers.”
There was an exchange of looks, then Telma took a deep breath. “Three days ago there was a large explosion in Monsterland—a giant cloud could be seen from as far as Fengarad and Dargot. It was followed by a huge exodus of monsters. They came streaming across the border and quickly overran Fengarad. Dargot is already besieged and won’t hold out much longer. Their skies are filled with winged lizardmen and once they fall we will no doubt be next.”
Had it really been only three days since we’d left? It felt like much longer. I guess that’s time travel jet lag for you. At least the mention of flying lizardmen suggested some of the Mezzik survived. They might come in useful, assuming they didn’t think I’d betrayed them.
Laney stared pensively at me. “If the Archfiend is no longer in Monsterland, that would explain why the monsters are all running around out of control. This is all your fault, Colin. It’s only right you help me fix it.”
“How is it my fault? I didn’t blow up his mountain and send us to Nekromel. That was your wonderful Uncle Peter and his spires of doom. Go take it up with him.”
“Uncle Peter would never…”
“Never what? Risk all our lives? Sounds exactly like what he’d do. You want to know what happened? Ask him.”
“All the more reason to retake Fengarad,” said Laney. “The spires still stand, you can ask him yourself if you help me. I am raising an army. Think of it, Colin, think of it.” She grabbed hold of my forearm and dug her nails in. “You could charge into battle beside me. Hohoho. Victory will be ours.” Her eyes rolled upwards like she was having some kind of seizure. Or more likely a psychotic episode.
“What are you talking about, you mad pixie? I don’t even know how to ride a horse. Anyway, your friends look better equipped for that sort of thing.”
I waited for her troops to jump in with some rattling of swords and proclamations of imminent victory. There was an awkward silence.
“They are the Queen of Requbar’s personal guard,” said Laney, releasing my arm. “They are only here to watch over me. Like babysitters.” She smiled ruefully. “I will have to find my own army to liberate Fengarad. I have gold.” She perked up a little. “And I have recruited a few already. But not enough.”
The warrior women who were so aggressive a moment ago, now looked a bit sheepish.
“I don’t understand. If they’ve already taken over Fengarad and Dargot, and Requbar’s next, shouldn’t you all be preparing for war.”
“We will be ready when the time comes,” said Telma. “The women of Requbar are the most fearsome and feared fighters in all of Flatland.”
I thought the alliteration was a bit much, and I also felt like there was something going on they weren’t saying. Politics, probably. I didn’t really care. Whatever they did it would end up being a disaster for someone. And I think we all know who that someone would be.
“Is the whole Requbar army made up of women?” I asked.
It was a simple question. Not deserving of the vicious stares I received.
“What’s wrong with an army of women?” asked Telma, her eyes pinpoints of endless darkness. “You think we lack courage? You think we lack strength?”
“I think you lack a sense of proportion. I asked a question, that’s all. I’ve seen the Monsterland armies, I just want to get a rough idea of what sort of fight you’re going to put up.”
“Why?” asked one of the women to my side. “So you can report back to your inhuman masters?”
“You want exact troop numbers and armament details, do you?” said another. There was a general murmur of agreement from all sides, now. I sensed things could quickly get out of hand. Here we are, faced with an impossible enemy set to destroy us all and we feel helpless, so let’s take it out on this little shit.
“The Queen’s personal guard is all female,” said Laney calmly. When Princess Looney sounds like the only reasonable person out of seven, you know you’re in trouble. “The rest of the army is made up of eunuchs.”
I had a whole bunch of other questions on the tip of my tongue that suddenly dissolved into nothingness.
“Eunuchs?” My voice may have squeaked as I asked.
“We find our men easier to control once they aren’t obsessed with sexual gratification,” said Guardian Telma. I really did not like her. Not one bit.
Just on a practical level, an army made up of women and eunuchs was a retarded proposition. I’m not saying either shouldn’t be allowed into the military—a woman is just as adept as any man at sipping on a Starbucks latte, pressing a button and blowing up a shepherd on a mountain three thousand miles away—but the kind of fighting you had here, running after each other with sharp sticks, that really benefitted from a shot of testosterone. And guess which two groups have really low levels of the old T hormone.
“Okay, then. You seem to have things well in hand. I’ll be off to look for the rest of my party.” I’ve never wanted to see those losers more.
“You should come with us to Requbar,” said Laney. “The other search parties may have found your friends.” It was posed as a suggestion, although the swords still pointing at me were a little more insistent.
“Search parties? What were you searching for?”
“For you. Uncle Peter sent word that you would be arriving around here. He just wasn’t too sure exactly where. But we found you.” She clapped her hands together, delighted with herself. “We found you, we found you,” she sang.
I did not feel the same sense of delight. If Uncle Pete knew I was back, no doubt he would come up with some way to make things miserable for me. Even more miserable.
“You will come with us,” said Telma.
I was about to think up another excuse for why me and my private parts didn’t fancy a trip to the City of Lost Ballas when I noticed their eyes were no longer on me. They were staring up. I followed their gaze.
High in the blue sky, a large shape flew in a wide, sweeping circle.
“What is it?” said one of the women.
“It’s too big to be a lizardman,” said another. “It’s… it’s huge.”
I knew what it was. I had seen many in Monsterland. “It’s a dragon,” I said. But it was more than that. It was my ticket out of here.