Now that I had a dragon and two trolls on my team, I was feeling quite positive about the future. Which immediately set alarm bells ringing. It was the perfect time for the next horror show to appear on the horizon.
“We need to get out of here,” I said. “Where’s the exit?”
“We can go back the way we came,” said Raviva, casually waving a granite hand towards the magma-falls. “Now that you’ve got it flowing freely, it’s just a quick climb back to the labyrinth.”
“We’d burn to death,” I said, in case he didn’t realise. Which he didn’t.
“Really? It’s just a bit of lava.”
Having trolls on my side was better than having them against me, but only just.
I looked up at Flossie. “Can he fly us up there?”
Vikchutni had brought a tree into the cave from somewhere, which meant he knew the way out; unless there was an underground forest down here. Which wasn’t impossible. But the area we were in was narrow and there was no light coming in from above. It might be a long way up and riding a near-vertical dragon could be tricky.
Flossie patted the side of the dragon’s neck. She was sitting astride it looking like a ginger dumpling on a dinosaur. “Ah think he can get us to the surface, can’t yo’, pet?”
“Okay. Good.” It wasn’t like we had much choice. I turned back to the two trolls. “We’ll take the express elevator, you can go jump in a lake of lava if you want.”
“What about me?” said Nyx.
He had been keeping very quiet since we stumbled into the dragons’ lair; actually, he hadn’t said much after we’d encountered the trolls. The adventuring life didn’t seem to agree with him all that much.
“We’ll take you to the surface. Will you be able to find your way back to Ratopolis?”
“Yes, but I’m not going back.” His voice was still meek and nervous, but his snout curled down in what I think was determination. “I started this adventure with you, I’ll see it through.” Which probably would have sounded more impressive if it hadn’t been so squeaky. He was trying his best to live up to his adventurous ideals but it was a lot for him to cope with so quickly.
“Aw,” said Flossie. “He’s a cute little mousey, isn’t he?”
This was just the slap in the face Nyx needed. “I am no mouse, madam,” he chittered, his irritation giving him some of his spine back. “I am the seventh son of the seventh litter of the royal family of Ratopolis. A rat from whisker to tail.” Every word came out like a bike whose brake’s needed oiling. Still, it was better than him cowering and shaking with fear, I guess.
“Where is it you plan to go?” asked Keezy. He addressed the question to Flossie, she was the Dragonrider, after all.
“We’ll head towards Fengarad,” I said, making my way to the back of the dragon.
“Fengarad,” said Flossie. “Right.”
“Good,” said Keezy. “That’s where I was hoping you’d go. The eunuchs will be converging with the Dargot forces and we’ll need help keeping them at bay.”
I wasn’t interested in fighting an army of eunuchs, especially since they were being led by my girlfriend, but that didn’t mean I was on their side either. Everyone was being manipulated into this fight, and the man sitting pretty in the spire was the one I considered responsible. Stop him and the rest would sort itself out. Although I wasn’t at all clear on the best way to get to him—specifically getting to him without dying. He had more power than anyone in this world, and he was very happy to use it.
“It seems we have a plan, then,” said Raviva. “Very well, I shall gather my trolls and meet with you outside Fengarad. Until then.... Weeeeeeee.” He jumped off the ledge, his dive going up and then arcing back down so that he plunged into the magma falls, disappearing into the red hot glow. He reappeared a second later, doing the front crawl.
It’s not often you see someone swim up a waterfall, especially when it’s made of red hot molten rock. He may have actually been clawing up the cliff face behind the orange flow, but it did look like he was swimming. His large, rocky body dipped in and out of the lava, sending yellow sparks flying.
“Let the games begin!” he yelled just before disappearing from view.
“He doesn’t take anything seriously, does he?” I said to Keezy.
“It is not his way, but he is a serious competitor once he joins battle. That is what we’ll need him for.”
“I hope not,” I said. “I don’t intend to kill anyone, Keezy. The fight is between all of us and the man in the spire. He is the true enemy.”
“You may be right,” said Keezy, “but you will find it hard convincing any side to trust the other. The Mezzik are mostly dead and the Intui are hungry for vengeance. There will be much bloodshed before we can confront the spires, I fear.”
Kind of a gloomy outlook, but he was probably right. My first goal wasn’t to get into any confrontations, it was Jenny. She was supposed to be heading for Fengarad which was my only reason for heading there. Once I found her, I intended booking it sharpish. If they wanted to fight, man against monster, they could do it without us. I didn’t know why she was leading an army of dickless wonders, or what she was planning to do with them, but I was sure she wouldn’t mind giving them up for a real man. Or even me.
Of course, if the eunuchs were loyal to her and wanted to join my merry band of oddballs and misfits, I’d be happy to have them. They’d fit right in.
I clambered up the dragon’s tail and onto his back. Keezy followed, and then a very nervous Nyx. He was doing his best to steady his nerves but he still shook like a wet terrier. He wobbled from side to side even though Vikchutni was perfectly still.
“Okay, everyone aboard?” She sounded like she was going to give us a weather report and a flight plan. A bag of peanuts would have been nice. “Hold on tight. It’s going to be a bumpy ride!”
She wasn’t wrong. Vikchutni stretched out his formidable wings and lifted by giving them a sharp snap. We lifted into the air with a jerk, followed by a rapid succession of quick aerial jumps, and then we were suddenly pointing straight up.
I grabbed onto one of the blades running along the dragon’s back and held on as tightly as I could. We were going up like a rocket, and the seating was al fresco. Above us, there was the faintest glimmer of light, only visible now that we had left the glow of the magma-falls behind. It was still some way away.
Flossie, her arms and legs wrapped around Vikchutni’s neck, urged him up with encouraging platitudes. “Go on, boy. Yo’ can do it.”
There was a squeal behind me. I turned to see Nyx lose his grip on the blade beside mine. He fell onto his back first and then slid down the dragon’s body head first, his tail flailing wildly behind him. I did the only thing I could think of (other than letting him plunge to his death, which was a very close second) and grabbed the tail. Now I was holding on to the dragon with one hand and a rat tail with the other. It had a strange texture to it, almost scaly. There was no hair or fur, it was like grabbing a handful of flesh.
“Nooo,” screamed Nyx. “Not my tail. It’s dirty. Dirty.”
I wasn’t sure what he was going on about, his tail looked like the cleanest part of him. I held on as he swayed back and forth, upside down.
I turned to see how far we had to go. If I started getting tired or losing my grip on Vikchutni, I fully intended on introducing the rat to the world of extreme sports. You couldn’t get more extreme than skydiving without a parachute.
The glimmer of light was now a crack in a black sky, or at least it was a crack through which the actual sky was peering in through. We shot out of the ground and I was blinded for an instant by the sudden brightness. We levelled off and I felt the strain on my arm lessen as Nyx slumped onto the dragon’s nearly horizontal body. I reeled him in so he was close to one of the blades. Once he grabbed on I let go and returned to trying to keep myself on board.
“You don’t like to let anyone die, do you?” said Keezy, sitting opposite me with an arm curled casually between two blades like he was lounging on a sofa with his arm stuck between cushions.
It was a strange thing to hear about myself, but then he was basing it on what he had seen me do and not on all the things I had actually done. I had let lots of people die. Some, I had killed myself. Quite recently, in fact. But generally speaking, my instinct was to prevent a death if I could. As long as it caused no harm to me. And I was in the mood. And the person hadn’t pissed me off too much. Kind of a minimum effort hero.
“You… you shouldn’t have done that,” said Nyx, breathlessly.
“Done what?” I asked. “Saved your life?”
“Grabbed my tail. That’s private.” It was hard to tell, but I think he was blushing.
“Smooth sailing from here, Ah think,” said Flossie. She was standing right next to me.
“What are you doing?” My voice pitched up an octave or three. “Who’s flying?”
“He’s a dragon,” said Flossie. “He doesn’t need a pilot.”
I didn’t doubt he knew how to fly, it was more a question of him suddenly deciding to do a loop de loop and dumping us out of the sky.
“Don’t worry, he won’t let us fall.” I think she meant he wouldn’t let her fall, but that was good enough, I suppose. “This is good though, isn’t it? We’re like a superhero team, flying to the rescue. The Fantastic Four!”
The troll did have the whole Thing cosplay down, but the rest of us didn’t really fit the FF brand. X-Men, maybe, if the X stood for ‘wrong answer’.
We had come out in a valley, green and unpopulated. It looked like the canyon between Flatland and Monsterland, somewhere near Probet. We were flying at maybe a hundred feet up or so. Below us, the forests and fields looked quiet and unremarkable. No fighting, no roaming bands of beasts or men. I was relieved to have made it out of the depths of the earth and finally was able to relax.
We flew for several hours, the wind roaring around us and Vikchutni soaring effortlessly. As the sun began to set, the spires of Fengarad appeared in the far distance, catching the last of the rays, and then we were over a large dark patch cut into the field below.
It was an army. Human, judging by their size and armour. Also the lack of horns, tails and wings. They were on foot, around a thousand of them, maybe more. My ability to count large crowds from the air wasn’t great. A smaller group of riders on horseback stood to one side. Their armour seemed more extravagant and their helmets more fancy, like the ones worn by the Queen’s Guard.
As I peered over the side to watch, Flossie’s head appeared next to mine. They were putting up tents and starting fires. There was a lot of activity and I was surprised by how fast they set up their camp.
“Should we go down?” asked Flossie.
“No, land away from them.” It wouldn’t be easy sneaking up on them, but easier if we weren’t on a giant flying lizard.
There was a small wooded area a couple of kilometres away, where we set down. The light had almost gone and I started a fire. The dragon ate some shrubs and leaves and then lay down and fell asleep. Did that mean it would rain tomorrow?
Keezy went off and returned with some small animals that could have been squirrels, if squirrels had green fur and human hands. Nyx dressed them and cooked them over the fire. He was actually very good at it and happy to be of some use. He also kept giving me odd sideways glances.
“Ah think he likes yo’,” said Flossie. She was no Invisible Woman, but I’d have settled for Shut-The Fuck-Up Girl.
My plan was to wait until morning, get closer to the army, maybe even sneak into their camp, and try to locate Jenny.
“Ah wonder what the others are up to,” said Flossie after we’d eaten our fill of delicious cute monkey hands. The fire crackled and spat but the night was mild and quiet. We could have been on a camping trip.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but they’re probably fine. Landed on their feet, just like Jenny and you. As long as you guys continue to annoy the fuck out of me, the universe is bound to keep you all alive.”
“Is it really wise for all of us to try and infiltrate the eunuchs?” said Keezy. He was standing next to a tree, still as a statue. He hadn’t eaten any food and hardly moved since returning from hunting. “It would be better if I went alone. Perhaps Colin would pass, but the rest of you…”
Was that a dig at my masculinity? “We’ll be fine. Flossie’s a girl and they know me well enough to want to capture me alive.” Getting caught and taken to their leader was also fine. “You can change into a girl, right? If things go south, just act like you’re in charge and know how to do everything better than men, you’ll fit right in. It’s just Nyx we have to worry about.”
Nyx looked up from the small bone he was gnawing on. “I can wait here with the dragon.”
He seemed to be over his fear of Vikchutni. Apparently, hanging upside down from the roof of the world had put things in perspective for him. “Great. Good idea.”
He blushed hard and looked away. His perspective on other matters seemed to have become somewhat skewed. Flossie nudged me. I considered nudging her back, hard, right in the tit, but I didn’t.
We slept with Keezy standing guard over us. He was to wake us a little before dawn, but I was woken by something else. Rough shaking and a female voice.
“Up, up, Dragonslayer.”
I snapped awake and tried to get to my feet, but I was being held. It was still dark and the fire was almost out. The woman in front of me was the same one I had encountered when I first arrived back in Flatland, Guardian Telma.
“Why are you here, Dragonslayer? And who are these others?”
I looked around. Flossie was being held up by two soldiers on my left. On my other side was a very attractive woman I’d never seen before. She was wearing the same clothes as Keezy.
There was no sign of Nyx or the dragon.
“Why is she calling you Dragonslayer?” said Flossie. “Yo’ haven’t been killing mah dragons, have yo’?”
“Not now, Floss. We have a bit of a situation.”
“This man belongs to me,” said Keezy, getting into the part. Fucking roleplayer. “Take your hands off him. He is my toy to do with as I please.”
“Is he now?” said one of the soldier women. She was the shortest of them, although her helmet was the most ornate. She took it off. “Is he really?” said Jenny.
“Oh, hello, sweetheart,” I said. “I can explain.”