When you’re caught between a rock and a hard place, the sensible thing to do is move. I backed away from the two troll armies. Both sides were big and tough and made of solid stone. I was none of those things and if things kicked off, my participation would be in the form of paste.
A sharp pinch on my arm told me where Flossie was. It would be difficult to run away with her clinging to me but then she was quite popular with the trolls, so having her as an armband might actually work in my favour.
“It’s Keezy,” she whispered at me. Not really much of a revelation as Raviva had just shouted out his name loud enough to bring dust sifting down from the roof of the cave.
“I know,” I whispered back. “I think they’re going to fight. We should get out while we can.”
“No,” said Flossie, which was a little confusing. I thought I must have misheard her. Unfortunately, I hadn’t. “They’re our friends. Yo’ should help them.”
I suddenly realised she wasn’t holding onto me to make sure I didn’t leave her behind, she was holding onto me so I wouldn’t be able to leave at all. I tried to work my way free, but her other hand clamped on my arm, too.
The last time I’d seen Keezy was in Monsterland. He, and his brother, Kungen, had taken us over the border bridge and introduced us to the lovely world of giant worms that ate you whole. Good times.
The last time I saw Kungen he had transformed into a giant rock snake and I couldn’t say for certain he retained much of his former self, but he did aid us against the Intui lizardmen and their giant wasps.
“I am your king,” boomed Raviva, “yet you defy me. When you left, I told you there would never again be a place for you here. No longer could you call this your home. But it has been many years and I am not without a heart. Swear your loyalty to me once more, and I will consider allowing you to return.”
It was a grand speech full of passion and emotion. Very king-like. I was pretty sure Raviva was more interested in getting a round of applause than healing old wounds, but the offer of conciliation seemed sincere.
“We did not return to bow to you, you old ham.” Keezy seemed to have a pretty good idea of what Raviva was all about.
“I am your king,” said Raviva again, this time a little hurt. Although, in his booming voice the effect was like slamming a heavy door with slightly squeaky hinges. “Be nice or I’ll grind that flat head of yours into dust.” Not so king-like.
“Where’s Kungen?” called out another voice. A troll came out from behind Raviva. This one I recognised only because of her smaller size. It was Kaceyton who had battled with Flossie in a singing contest, and who was also Keezy and Kungen’s sister.
“I do not know,” said Keezy. “He is the Worm King and no longer considers us his kin. It is said…” Keezy’s head dropped and his voice lowered. “It is said he helped the man in the spire destroy the castle on the mountain.”
“No!” cried out Kaceyton. “That cannot be.”
It was true one of the lizards saw the Worm King in the Prophecy Room, or claimed to, just before the portal to Nekromel opened. I never actually saw the Worm King or any giant worms—they’re kind of hard to miss—but I have no reason to doubt he was involved. I would have actually quite liked to know why Kungen had been there and what he did, but now didn’t seem the time to open the floor to questions.
Did he really think Kungen had intentionally aided Uncle Peter? I didn’t find it likely. Monsterland was the jabberwocky’s home. Helping to destroy it made no sense, unless Peter had forced them into service against their will.
“I cannot say for certain,” said Keezy, “but he was seen at the castle just before the blast. The mountain was destroyed and he hasn’t been seen since.”
Kaceyton gasped and covered her face with her hands, sobbing.
“None of this concerns us,” said Raviva. “If you are here to ask to return, do so in the proper fashion, on your knees.”
“King Raviva,” said Keezy, sounding a little short, “chaos reigns above. Cheng has disappeared, vanquished by the man in the spire using one of his vile unnatural contraptions, and war is raging. How can you stay down here when you are the leader our peoples need?”
“Our peoples bore me. They are no fun and neither are you, Keezy. Leave.”
“Wait,” said Flossie. My heart sank. “Kungen wouldn’t betray yo’.”
Eyes from both sides turned to Flossie. And since she was firmly attached to me, I was caught in the crossfire. I really needed to get a tee shirt made that said I’m not with stupid.
“You knew my brother?” said Kaceyton, her shaky voice sounding like a mud slide.
I hadn’t asked Flossie how long she’d been here, but I would have thought it long enough for her to mention she’d seen her troll bff’s brother turn into king of the giant worms. Isn’t that what girls do when they see each other after a break? Catch up on all the latest gossip and compare the size of their boyfriends’ penises? I’m just guessing—I don’t get invited to many pyjama parties. They have pyjama parties every weekend and paint each other’s toenails, right?
“Yes,” said Flossie, not even slightly flustered by the attention focused on her. Who am I kidding? She was lapping it up. “He were very brave and a hero. We didn’t just know him, this is the guy who created the Worm King.”
Somehow she swivelled her fat arse behind me and pushed me forward. This is what happens when Dr Jones doesn’t get out of the Temple of Doom fast enough. He gets outmanoeuvred by Short Round.
All eyes were on me now, exclusively.
“You!” said Keezy. “I think I know you. C… C... Cary?”
It’s hard to stay focused on escaping certain death when people keep irritating the hell out of you. “Really? You think you know me?”
Usually I’m happy to remain anonymous. People not being able to remember you or your name makes it much harder for them to put your face on a wanted poster. Hard to hunt down a fugitive when you’ve got no idea what they look like.
But you’d think being in a life and death situation with someone, and that someone being key to you surviving that situation, might earn you a tiny bit of credit.
“Close,” said Flossie sticking her head out. “It’s Colin.”
“Oh, Flossie,” said Keezy. “Nice to see you again.”
What the actual fuck. “Oh, her name you remember. Chiselled into your marbled brain like the names of fallen heroes. Me, I’m just that guy you owe your life to.”
I realise I was being foolish. Drawing attention to myself was never a good idea, but I guess it’s easier to take being ignored when that’s all you’re used to. My bump up in status had evidently got me thinking I deserved better treatment.
“Is he a friend of yours?” said Keezy to Flossie.
Like one body blow after another. “I know you find it hard to remember our crazy names and we all look alike to you, but I did save your life a number of times, and your brother’s. Remember when Kungen was about to die from brass poisoning? And when we nearly got washed off that bridge by Gargantua’s piss? Think you know me? Think you know me? What do I have to do to get a little recognition around here.”
“Oh, that Colin.” Keezy’s eyes lit up, and then turned very dark. “Yes, I remember you now. If my brother has truly turned evil and become a tool of the man in the spire, then this is the one who is responsible.” He aimed an unwavering granite finger at me. “He is the one to blame.”
Death was staring right at me. From all directions. Squabbles and disagreements untangled and reformed into a beam of solid hate pointed in my direction. There was nothing I could do to avoid it, or even deflect it. They had found their scapegoat. My next move would very likely seal my fate.
“Oh, why don’t you all go fuck yourselves?” That’s the beauty of surrendering to the inevitable early. You get plenty of time to tell people what you think of them.
The clenching of jaws sounded like an SUV doing doughnuts on a gravel drive.
“You’re like fucking children fighting over sweets while your teeth fall out of your rotten heads. I was there when the man in the spire blew up Cheng’s mountain. He didn’t even have to leave Fengarad to do it. Pew pew, everyone’s dead. You think you’re safe down here? Or your beast armies stand a chance? What’s the plan? Sharpen claws and howl at the moon. You have no idea what you’re up against or how to defeat him. He’s more powerful than any of you, and he hasn’t even gotten started. Once his machine charges up again, he’s going to wipe all of you off this planet.”
I didn’t know if that was what Uncle Pete really planned to do, but I was enjoying painting them a picture. Probably about as much as they were going to enjoy painting the cave walls with me.
“And don’t think just because you’ve got him surrounded or you have human hostages that it’ll make a difference. He’s like me, he isn’t from this world and he doesn’t care in the slightest for the people, human or otherwise. Play games, play war, it doesn’t matter. I’ve seen what his weapon can do. I’ve been inside his spire. His magic isn’t from this world and nothing you can do will stop him.”
“If that is so,” said Raviva, “there is no purpose in fighting, is there? Better to find amusement while we can.” He seemed to have lost interest in his returning subjects and, more importantly, in me. I just needed an opportunity to make my exit.
Keezy scowled at me. “You don’t know—”
“Leave, “ said Raviva. “Take your renegades and don’t come back.”
This was it. Go with Keezy, he’d at least get me outside. But I believed what I said about Uncle Peter. He wouldn’t care if he killed everyone and a few trolls wouldn’t be able to stop him. A lot of trolls, however, might.
“Challenge him,” I said to Keezy. He looked confused.
Raviva turned to me. “There is no contest he can defeat me in.”
“What about the labyrinth? You said it was a true test last time I was here. I realise you probably don’t remember saying it or that it was me you said it to, but I assume you still believe it.” He nodded slowly. “Send a team of your finest against one of Keezy’s. Whoever completes the maze first, wins. If it’s your side, banish them forever. If it’s theirs, take it as a sign you need to improve your skills by facing stiffer competition.”
Keezy’s face softened, if you can say that about solid rock. Something approaching gratitude spread across his features, a lot of good it would do me when he forgot who the hell I was.
“But you said we cannot defeat the man in the spire,” said Raviva, although there was a hint of interest in his tone. Gamblers can’t resist making a bet.
“Probably not, but who doesn’t like a challenge?”
Raviva nodded again, a little more enthusiastically. He turned back to Keezy. “Of course, first you’ll have to beat me.”
“One more thing,” I said. “You might think failure is impossible, but anyone can lose. And if you do, no welching. Wagers must be honoured.”
“Of course,” said Raviva, giving the impression he was mildly offended at the suggestion, but unable to hide his excitement at the prospect of some fun. “That goes without saying.”
“No, it doesn’t. High stakes mean high temptations. This needs to be above board and no funny business. I don’t give a shit about either team, which makes me the ideal impartial judge.”
Which was a lie. I wasn’t impartial, I was fully behind one of the teams in play. Team Colin. Although the main reason I wanted to be a neutral observer was so I couldn’t be forced into joining in. My keen sense of self-preservation was already highly aware of the possibility I’d get pulled onto the field of play. Not from the commentary box, I couldn’t.
“Then let us get started,” said Keezy. “My agents have informed me forces from Dargot and Requbar are preparing a counterattack.”
Somehow I doubted Requbar would be much of a factor once the acid magma burst out of every orifice. Whatever happened next, the one thing I was sure of was I wouldn’t be going back there anytime soon.
“The eunuch army is being deployed,” said Keezy, “and they have a new general. They call her the One-eyed Demon. She is ruthless.”
“Is she a cyclops?” said Flossie.
“No, she has two eyes,” said Keezy. “But a large scar over one of them. It covers half her face.”
Nope, never going back to Requbar. Only death and exploding lava to be found in that terrible place. I turned to Keezy. “Sorry, what did you say?”