The search for Biadet proved fruitless. Not really surprising—she could have been five feet away and we still probably wouldn’t be able to see her. If she planned to make life difficult for us, I had no doubt she would succeed. She could also go back to Dargot and report us to Gullen, which would have unpleasant ramifications.
My instinct, though, was that she was still around. I didn’t think she was going to let Laney get away with sucker punching her like that. And as long as her focus was on her rival, it gave the rest of us a chance.
At least, that was my thinking. I could have been wildly off the mark.
“We should leave,” said Gabor. “There is no point looking for the dark girl. If she does not wish to be found, she will not be.” He had only just met Biadet but he’d already sussed her ability. His own ability was no joke, either.
The thing about this world was that it killed most of the people brought here, but the ones who survived managed to do so because they learned how to be deadlier. Tutorial mode was over.
“Let’s go sort out the rest of your army,” I said to Jenny. “Can you get back into Generalissimo mode? You know, act bossy and like you’re in charge, even though you aren’t.”
Jenny gave me a lopsided grin. “I think I should be able to manage that.” I didn’t doubt it, she’d had enough practice.
My plan was to convince the Ogre Magi and her family of hulklings to throw in with us and help take Requbar. With their added muscle, I couldn’t see the Queen’s Guard being much of a problem. What would be a problem was getting the Magi to agree. I was sure she’d much rather hang out in the woods with her kids and play with bunnicorns.
She might not have been the most eloquent monster I’d encountered, but I had the impression she knew something was up and that the quiet life was not going to last long with all the people running around with weapons. Her reaction towards me had been quite relaxed. She’d treated me like she knew I didn’t have harmful intentions towards her and her brood, which was true. Kind of. Would that mean she’d go into battle with us? Probably not.
Still, that didn’t mean she wouldn’t help us in some way or other. And I wasn’t necessarily the one who could make that happen. For some reason, they had taken Dudley in like he was one of their own. How he’d ended up as an ogre’s betrothed, and even picked up some of their language, was a complete mystery.
Dudley and Flossie returned from getting reacquainted (which took Dudley a lot longer than what Maurice and I had needed) and I asked him how he ended up as the local mascot for the ogres.
“Yes, well…” he stared up at the sky. “It’s a bit of a long story.” Another long pause. “I don’t know where to start, that is, not really.”
“No? Okay, nevermind then.” I’d forgotten what it was like getting Dudley to talk about himself. Whatever route his journey had taken, I could wait until he told someone else and let it filter through to me. “But you can speak in the ogre language, right?”
He grimaced. “I wouldn’t say I’m fluent. Just a smattering. It’s not dissimilar to Esperanto, actually. I’ve always had a facility for languages.”
Why did Dudley know Esperanto? It was the UN of languages (a good idea that turned out to be of use to no one) but I would guess it’s the sort of thing expensive schools teach their students because what do you give the child who has everything? Something they don’t need, obviously.
I didn’t go any deeper into Dudley’s past. Wise men know their limits.
“Do you think the ogres will come with us to Requbar?” I asked him. He was now our resident ogre expert.
Dudley seemed flummoxed by the questions, stammering and blushing.
“If you don’t know, you can say you don’t know,” I reminded him.
“Oh?” he said like I’d revealed the answer to a great mystery. “I’m afraid I do not. Do you want me to ask?” He said it so nervously I didn’t have the heart to make him do it. He’d probably have a nervous breakdown. The more I talked to him, the less I understood how he’d managed to survive on his own out here.
Jenny had got the eunuchs into formation. They looked much happier being ordered around. Jenny looked happier doing the ordering. Alarm bells rang in the distance, or so it seemed for a second. I decided I’d have one crack at the Ogre Magi, see if I could talk her into coming with us. I didn’t get the chance.
As I approached her, the ringing in my ears, which I had thought was my imagination, grew louder. The others didn’t seem to notice, but the trolls were all looking at each other warily. And then the ogres lost their minds.
They began roaring and swiping at trees, knocking them over. The Magi pounded the ground with her fists and violently shook her head. All around us, the ogres were going rogue. They began attacking each other, wrestling and trying to take bites out of flailing limbs.
“What’s happening?” I shouted at Keezy.
He had his hands covering his ears and a pained look on his face. “The spires.”
The spires were back online and the effect on ogres wasn’t very healthy. Not for them and not for us if we got in their way while they went berserk. Our best bet was to get away from them, quickly.
Maurice had other ideas. He ran into the middle of the clearing, ducking and weaving between rampaging ogres, and planted the stick we’d taken from the female soldiers in the ground. The top started spinning and there was a pop in my ears.
The ogres stopped raging. They looked around, confused. The eunuchs, on the other hand, were stood to attention, ready to fight.
The Ogre Magi, back to her semi-bestial self, lumbered towards Maurice, patted him on the head with a giant paw like she was about to flatten him, and then sat down next to the stick. The other ogres joined her, huddling together, scared and whimpering. Maurice stood there as more and more ogres surrounded him, boxing him in. He looked nervous until Claire stomped her way through the group, treading on fingers and not giving a shit, and took up position next to him.
I moved away from the ogres—because what kind of dumbass moves towards a group of recently rogue ogres?—and by the time I reached the edge of the clearing, I could hear the ringing again. The stick covered a limited area.
“How long does it usually last?” I asked Keezy. I assumed he had experienced this before.
“Sometimes a few minutes, sometimes days.”
“We need to stop that bastard,” said Flossie. She was right, but Uncle Peter setting off fireworks to freak out the neighbourhood pets was the least of our problems. That didn’t mean we couldn’t use it to our advantage, though.
“Will they have more of those sticks in their camp?” I asked Jenny
She nodded. “I’ve seen a whole rack of them. We use them as a standard, to identify different groups during battle.”
I went over to the Ogre Magi, stepping in between the ogres more carefully than Claire. Even sitting down they towered over me.
I pointed at the stick. “This stops the sound.” I pointed at my ear. “We have to take it with us.”
The Magi shook her head and pointed at the stick. “Stay.”
“We can’t. We need it to stop the spires.” I raised my hands into a point. Miming Spires for Ogres, the name of my autobiography. We didn’t really need this one if we had more, but it wasn’t like the ogres would know how to operate it. So technically not a total lie. “We only have this one and we can’t leave it here.” Okay, that one was total hooey. “Come with us and we’ll keep you safe.”
And, hopefully, they would keep us safe.
The Ogre Magi slowly nodded. “Safe.”
Having signed up the ogres, I felt we were moving in the right direction, although with the spires operational again, we probably didn’t have time to dawdle.
“Flossie, you and Dudley go back to the dragon and wait for my signal.” We had been together long enough that I didn’t need to explain what the signal would be. If a ball of light went up, that meant come here. If I was running while screaming, “Fuck, shit, fuck,” that meant things hadn’t gone exactly to plan. Tide goes in, tide goes out, never a miscommunication.
“Maurice, you and Claire wait here with the ogres.” Maurice nodded. He didn’t really have much choice, the ogres weren’t about to let him leave. “We’ll be back in a bit.”
Jenny and the troll maidens took up position at the head of the eunuch platoon, and me and Keezy came up the rear. Get your minds out of the gutter. And tagging along behind us were Laney and her two mercenaries. Laney had a gleeful look on her face, like this was all part of her plan. Soon she would take control…
Gabor and Roland, on the other hand, looked very comfortable, not so much marching into battle as strolling. They continued to view everything I did as an amusing diversion.
Keezy had decided to also transform into a female. He had taken the form of Marv. While I’m very good at compartmentalising the terrible things I’ve done and then not thinking about them, that’s much harder to do when the person you murdered, for example, is standing next to you.
“Did you have to choose her?”
“She is not accurately portrayed?” asked Keezy, a professional inquiry.
“No, very accurate. Nevermind. Let’s go.” Giving orders from the back, my speciality.
The eunuchs knew where the rest of their army was camped and we set off, marching through the trees, which is hard to do in formation. The eunuchs were still in attack mode, grim determination painted on their faces. Until, that is, we got out of range of the stick and they returned to their regular soft, bloated versions. It was a transformation worthy of a troll.
We got to the camp in about twenty minutes. There were several hundred men sitting around fires, outside their tents, eating, polishing armour. Your basic army waiting for the order to fuck up yo’ shit. There were guards posted around the perimeter, but they didn’t try to stop us. Why would they? A single female soldier came running towards us as we approached.
“General,” said the woman. “You’re back.” She looked very happy to see us. Then her expression changed. She looked at the other women and I could tell, even from where I was standing some distance from them, that she knew something wasn’t right.
“Grab her!” I yelled out. One of the trolls did as instructed, just as she drew her sword.
Well, that’s her dead, I thought. But Jenny intervened with a roundhouse punch that was very impressive. Caught the woman on the chin, sending her falling backwards.
The soldiers around us all stood and reached for their weapons. They didn’t know what was going on but they knew enough to be ready for a fight.
“Stand down,” bellowed Jenny. The eunuchs didn’t question the order, they went back to what they were doing like nothing had happened. I was starting to see the advantages of eunuchs in uniform. Obedient as fuck. Jenny turned around. “Fall out.”
The eunuchs with us did a smart turn to the left and then walked away like they’d just finished a flash mob. All these men were now under my control, to do with as I pleased. Men fought and died for this kind of power. My only concern was to get them to do what I needed before they turned on me.
I didn’t even want them to fight if I could avoid it, I mostly needed them as a show of strength. If I actually had to fight a battle with them, I wasn’t sure I’d know what to do. Jenny on the other hand, seemed to have a knack for giving out orders. I expected to hear more alarm bells, but I realised the distant ringing sound was gone. Whatever Uncle Peter had been doing with the spires, he had stopped.
“Can you heal my hand?” said Jenny once we were in her private tent. It was bigger than everyone else’s because she was the big boss. My girlfriend the tyrant.
I took her hand which had a nasty cut across the knuckles and healed it. “Nice punch,” I said.
“Thanks. I’m working my way up the weight divisions.” She said it so drily, it took me a moment to get the implication. I looked up and was met by twinkling eyes. Trolls everywhere. Figuratively and literally.
“That went remarkably smoothly,” said Raviva. Surprised and impressed, the backhanded compliment combo.
“Yes,” agreed Gabor. “You are a statistical anomaly, my friend.”
“Very nice,” said Laney, licking her lips. “Now we have an army.”
I didn’t like the ‘we’ part, but I let it go. She was doing what she was told for now, and as long as she stayed visible, she worked well as a Biadet decoy.
“What now?” Gabor asked me.
Things had indeed gone very smoothly. The ogres were onboard. The eunuchs were ready to march. Trolls were waiting on my orders. But I wasn’t going to be fooled. I had to act like we were about to be attacked by enemies unseen at any moment and turned on by those closest to me. Paranoia, the only strategy you’ll ever need.
And a good thing, too. A eunuch soldier came running into the tent. “General, an army approaches from the east.”
“What kind of army?” asked Jenny, like it was just another message.
“Lizardmen. We counted at least a thousand.”
Everyone turned to look at me. I wasn’t worried. It was hardly unexpected and nothing I couldn’t handle. If the lizards wanted a fight, they weren’t prepared for what I had in mind.