The thing about threats is that you don’t want to carry them out. That’s the whole point. If you put a gun to the bank manager’s wife and say, “Do what I say or I’ll kill her,” and then you immediately shoot her in the head... not a very effective strategy.
I had no intention setting fire to anything. I didn’t think I could set fire to anything, other than very dry kindling. When the flames shot out of my hand and into the acid lava, I was as surprised as anyone. When the lake burst into giant flames, it was like the moment in a video game when you realise you don’t have enough health left to fight the boss monster, so you might as well sudoku and restart the level.
Sadly, I didn’t have an extra life to play with in this particular game.
When the lava caught fire with a great whoosh, everyone panicked. They sprinted for the tunnel, getting in each other’s way, knocking one another over in their haste to get as far from the inferno as possible.
The tunnel mouth quickly clogged and pandemonium followed. Those at the other end trying to climb down the ladders were probably having no less of a hectic time.
Marv was dragged off, still held by multiple men. I saw her struggling to get free as she disappeared into the crowd.
“What did you do that for?” screamed Sonny, the only person apart from me standing still.
I could’ve said it was an accident, and looked like an utter retard. Or, I could act like it was deliberate, and look like an utter retard. Decisions, decisions.
“I warned you,” I said in my most emphatic voice, hoping there would be no follow-up questions. I backed away to the far side where there was another tunnel and a number of cowering men trying to work out what the hell had just happened.
The heat from the flames was intense and the fumes made it hard to breathe. A yellow mist formed over the flames and drifted upwards.
The men crawling around on the rock formations hanging from the cavern ceiling were in danger of being roasted alive or, once the fumes reached them, suffocating on acidic mist. Or they might just fall to their deaths.
“You idiot,” shouted Sonny through the haze that had sprung up between us. “Have you any idea what you’ve done?”
While I couldn’t give a definitive answer to that question, my guess would be that I’d killed us all. And possibly doomed the city.
“This is your fault,” I shouted back. “You started it.” Not my finest moment, but I was under a lot of pressure. Jenny said I was at my best when my back was against the wall, but I think she may have got me confused with someone else. Right now, things couldn’t be worse and my mind was a total blank.
“You men over there, grab him. Don’t let him get away.” I couldn’t see him anymore but his voice came through the mist like he was using a megaphone.
I looked at the men around me. They were coughing and spluttering. They didn’t seem too interested in taking prisoners.
“Is there a way out from here?” I asked them. They gave me dirty looks and said nothing. We were all crammed in the tunnel mouth with none of them going deeper, which suggested the answer was no.
Even though there were a lot of us and not much space in the tunnel, I still had a fair amount of space around me. They were wary of me, which was good, and I could hear them muttering, “Wizzo,” under their breaths. If my wizzo status kept them from lynching me, I was a hundred percent okay with my new nickname.
As the mist began to thicken into a choking fog, groups of men darted out and ran blindly towards the other tunnel. Some stumbled and fell, others tripped over the fallen.
There was no point hanging around waiting for the flames to die down. Having established that lava was indeed flammable (who knew?) I suspected there was a never-ending supply of the stuff to fuel this bonfire for eternity.
My first thought was to wait until at least most of the men on the other side had had a chance to get back to the camp, and then try to make it across and follow them down when there was less of a mad rush. Using my years of experience with the London tube system, I knew to let the desperate people go first and crush their faces into each other’s armpits.
But the heat was growing more intense and the smoke more acrid. If I didn’t go now it felt like I might never be able to.
The ground began shaking. There were screams and shouts and a ripping sound from overhead. The largest of the stalactites was quivering. The men who had been crawling over it had disappeared, either back the way they had climbed or more likely knocked off.
Despite trying to convince myself we were all equally to blame for this fiasco, I knew it was most my fault. It was too late to say I was sorry, and the people who deserved the apology were probably too dead to appreciate it.
One of the smaller stalactites, next to the main one, cracked in half, the shearing stone creating a deafening screeching sound, and then it fell through the flames, into the magma with a simple plop.
And then, after what seemed an inexplicably long delay, a wave of magma leapt out of the lake with a roar and splashed across the platform, striking the rock wall and melting it away with a resounding hiss.
Most of it landed between the two tunnels, but it was angled away from where I was standing so it may have struck closer to the other tunnel, maybe even into it. There were more cracking sounds from above us.
If I thought things were chaotic before, I was mistaken. Now the men really lost it.
They ran screaming, out into the mist, deeper into the tunnel. Anywhere but here seemed to be the philosophy.
I was suddenly alone in the mouth of the tunnel. Everyone else had made their choice but I still wasn’t sure. The stalactite that had fallen was only the size of a large wardrobe. There were much bigger ones up there, and they could fall at any moment. And if the big one fell...
Try to get back to the ladders or try to find a way through the tunnel behind me? Two options, neither very good. When was someone going to charge in to save me? I wouldn’t mind a little rescuing, every now and then.
The sound of splintering stone was like an alarm bell telling me time was up. I made up my mind. I would try to make it to the other tunnel. Most of them would have made it down the ladders by now or trampled each other to death. If I could make it back to the rat tunnels I would happily lose myself in the maze. Rat people might not be so bad.
Just as I was about to make my dash, I saw a figure running towards me through the mist. My first thought was that Sonny had decided to make sure I didn’t get away and planned to finish me off himself. But as the figure came closer I realised it wasn’t Sonny, it was Marv.
She had gotten away from her captors somehow and for some reason had decided her best course of action was to run back towards danger. I guess it made it less likely she’d be pursued.
She came stumbling towards me, gasping and coughing. I was tempted to run past her in the opposite direction. I didn’t really see much advantage in teaming up with the world’s worst assassin at this point.
Another smaller stalactite fell and burning lava jumped into the air. Marv dived into a forward roll as the lava splattered over the ledge. She scrambled back to her feet and raced into the tunnel.
“There’s no way out this way,” I said as she ran into me and held on like she was about to fall down.
“Tunnel… collapsed,” she managed to say through her choking. She looked at me with red, watering eyes. “You killed them all.”
Strange way to thank me for saving her life.
“You’re welcome,” I said. “What the hell was that assassination attempt? You’re supposed to take the target by surprise, not shout a warning and then miss.”
She glared at me, all thoughts of the dangers around us forgotten in her rush to deny responsibility. “I only—”
There was a loud crack as one of the larger rock formations started to come loose. We both turned and fled into the tunnel.
We bumped and stumbled into each other and into the walls as we ran blindly across broken floors covered in small crevices and sharp-edged mounds that constantly tripped us up.
There were sounds of crashing behind us and constant tremors but no wave of lava followed us down the tunnel. We eventually slowed as the glow from the flames receded behind us and darkness took hold.
I created a ball of light. There was no need to keep my abilities a secret anymore, but Marv still looked at me like I had just taken a shit in my own hand and started eating it.
“Yes, I can do magic,” I said. “I think we already established that when I set the world on fire.”
“You should have told me,” she said, her mouth twisted with distaste.
“No, I shouldn’t have. And I shouldn’t have saved your life either, you ingrate. You think I’m some kind of freak because I can make things glow?” I tapped the ball of light sending it floating to the roof of the tunnel. Marv flinched away like it might attack her. “What does that make you? You’re coated in magic, head to foot.”
“That’s different. My work requires it.”
“Does your work require you to shout ‘For the Queen’ before you attack, too? Why not just shout, ‘Dodge to the left’?
Marv lowered her head. “I didn’t think he’d move that fast.”
“Oh, that’s okay, I didn’t think you were a useless twat. We all make mistakes.” Which was a lie. I always thought she was a useless twat.
She shot a defiant look at me. “What’s done is done. We still have a job to finish.”
I assumed she meant warning the city they were about to have a delivery of red hot magma at any moment. Even though the tunnels hadn’t been completed, if the big stalactite fell, it was bound to force some acidic lava to the surface.
“We have to find a way out first.”
“No,” said Marv very firmly. “We have to kill Ocean Man.”
“I thought you said everyone was dead.”
“Only the ones caught in the tunnel collapse. Ocean Man escaped.”
“So? Killing him won’t change anything. We have other things to worry about right now.”
I turned to carry on moving but she grabbed my arm. “We… I must kill him. It is my mission.”
I pulled myself free of her hand. “Then go back. I’ll see you later.” I really couldn’t remember why I’d tried to help her. Altruistic acts weren’t my style. It was hanging around the wrong sort of people that had done it. Bad influence.
“You must help me.”
“No, I don’t think I must,” I said. She was acting weird, which only confirmed my desire to get away from her.
“Please.” She stared at me with big puppy dog eyes.
Now I knew she wasn’t to be trusted. If she was willing to go all little-girl-lost to get me to help her, it had to be a job I should avoid at all costs.
“Marv, whatever you think you need to do, you should do. Me? I’m going this way, hopefully to find an exit. Goodbye.”
She grabbed onto me again. “The geas, it isn’t just an illusion. It’s a curse. Unless I complete my mission and kill the Ocean Man, I will forever remain in the guise of a man.”
“So? I have to remain in the guise of a man, too. You’ll get used to it.”
Her features changed from desperate plea to irate disgust. “It’s a fate worse than death.”
“Then go kill yourself.” I shook her free and walked away. Some people just can’t see beyond their own needs. And I was determined to be one of those people.
After a few seconds, I heard her footsteps behind me. I sped up. It was going to be really hard to lose her in a long, straight tunnel, but I was willing to give it a go.
The tunnel began sloping upwards, which felt like a promising sign, but then ended at a rock wall, which didn’t. There was no way forward and no indication how much further it was to the surface, but the curious thing was there was also no sign of the men that had run into the tunnel ahead of us. Where had they gone?
I began looking around more carefully and found a narrow opening to the side. I could feel air coming through it. I slipped through it to find myself in a smaller tunnel with uneven floors and a low roof. I had to get down on my hands and knees and the ball of light went skidding out from under me and then disappeared.
After a few seconds of crawling, Marv scrabbling close behind, the tunnel opened into a cavern. The ball of light had drifted up high and the shadowy chamber was hard to make out other than darker patches in the walls; more tunnels. I stood up and called the ball of light back down to get a better look and was surprised to learn I wasn’t alone.
Huddled together at one end of the cavern were some of the men who had fled ahead of us. They were crouched down and staring at me, not with anger or fear but what I can only describe as sadness. I’d taken away their purpose in life and now they were just lost.
Yeah, well, join the club.
“Which is the way out?” I asked, not really expecting an answer. If there was an exit they would have already taken it.
One of the men stood up.
“You don’t want to go through there,” said Schneed. “Rats and rats and more rats.” The hopelessness in his face changed to anger. “You!”
Marv had arrived behind me. If they were going to tear her to pieces, I wasn’t sure I’d stop them this time. I was beginning to see their point.
“I thought you were my brother,” said Schneed, his voice catching in a sob. “I took you in, helped you, fed you, admired your beard.... and you betrayed me. How could you, Marv? How could you?” He was weeping. Tears soaked into his big moustache and made it all droopy, snot bubbles grew out of his nose. It was pretty disgusting. “You were my brother. My brother.”
I’m all for men showing their emotions, but it’s hard to know how to handle a huge outpouring like this one. What are you supposed to say? Cheer up?
The men around him stood up and patted him on the back, shooting accusing looks at Marv.
“I’m sorry. I did what I had to,” said Marv, head bowed. The men hissed at her like she was a panto villain. “You were threatening the lives of thousands. You’re the ones who betrayed Requbar.”
“Sorry? What good is sorry?” Schneed let out a long sigh and sniffed. “It no longer matters.” He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Leave here. Leave us to our fate and go.”
Sounded good to me. I turned to look at the available routes. There were six openings. Did it matter which one I took? Probably not. I stepped towards the nearest one and then I heard it. The chittering. From every tunnel and every direction, and getting closer.