There was a smoking crater where the palace used to be. A lot of people must have died or were in the process. Flowers continued to rain down.
Evand was sitting on the ground next to me, his whole body shaking, his small fists clutching handfuls of grass like he was afraid he might fall off the earth.
“What do you mean, set her free?” I asked, his terror invading my voice even though I had no idea what he was going on about.
“Look.” He pointed at Requbar, not at the city itself but over it.
There was a pillar of smoke which was mostly dirt and debris thrown up by the blast. As I watched, something moved through the smoke. At first I thought it was just the wind, but it was more like something solid in the way of the smoke, only invisible.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It is an elf,” said Raviva. “It is reclaiming its true form.”
“That’s an elf?” Even from the slight signs of its presence, it was huge. “If that’s an elf, what’s he?” I pointed at Evand.
“You said he was an elf,” said Raviva. “In the rat’s body. Is that not so?”
That’s what I’d assumed. That’s what Evand had led me to believe, which obviously counted for nothing. It could be Evand was a different kind of elf, or one able to maintain a less colossal form, but his non-corporeal form had felt entirely different from this thing standing over Requbar.
“Are you an elf?” I asked Evand.
“That fool, he’s doomed us all.” Evand was too distraught to pay attention to me. “This isn’t my fault, this isn’t my fault.”
I was getting the impression what Evand was really worried about was his own neck. And not just from the thing with its head in the clouds, but for being blamed for this. Which suggested it was his job to make sure it didn’t happen.
“Claire, are you back online?”
Claire shook her head. Whatever was dampening our abilities, it was mobile and with us, which suggested it was on Evand. Since all he took from the tomb were some gems, it stood to reason one of them was the cause.
I grabbed Evand and pulled him to his feet. As he was in Nyx’s body, it wasn’t very difficult to shake him around and locate the gems. I gathered them together and gave them to Dudley.
“Take them in that direction and keep going until I tell you to stop.” I nodded down the other side of the ridge we were on, away from Requbar. Dudley took them and set off. Flossie hurried after him, one hand holding the back of his jacket, turning her head to keep an eye on me.
I waited for Claire or Jenny to give me an indication they were feeling that old black magic again. Dudley kept going, further and further away. Possibly my theory was incorrect.
“Yes!” said Claire. She was staring into Maurice’s ear. She grabbed his head and kissed it, much to Maurice’s surprise. I guess he was thinking something she approved of.
“Ugh.” Jenny clutched at her chest. “I’m fine,” she said, waving her hand like she was telling me not to come to her aid, which I wasn’t.
I still had hold of Evand. He was still too stunned to put up any resistance, his attention purely on whatever the Queen was turning into. So far, the smoke had revealed very little other than size, but it made Gargantua, the biggest monster we’d encountered to date, look like a toddler.
I dragged Evand over to Claire and then pushed him down on his back so he had to look at me leaning over him.
“What’s your true relationship to the Queen?” I asked him. He was still trying to look past me so I shook him vigorously. “Tell me.”
“We can stop her,” he said desperately, “if we work together. Let me go, I’ll talk to her. Maybe I can...”
He was so full of shit he couldn’t even get the words passed the turds in his mouth. I looked up at Claire who was standing beside me.
“It’s hard to tell, lots of confusing thoughts and images. I think… I think he was a servant. A butler, maybe.”
I shook him again. “Were you a butler? Come on, Jeeves, out with it.”
“No, of course not,” Evand’s voice vibrated through the shaking. “I was… I’m the only one who can stop her.” More turds.
“No, not a butler,” said Claire. “A jailer.”
The sudden look of guilt on Evand/Nyx’s face made it obvious Claire was on point.
“You were supposed to keep her locked up?” I kept shaking him for some reason.
His head flopped backwards and he began whining. “It wasn’t my fault. It would have been fine if you’d just let her be. How was I supposed to know the spires were active? I couldn’t have known. She promised she’d come right back.”
“But why did you let her out? Was it supposed to be weekend leave? What kind of jailer are you?” I didn’t really need him to answer. The shit kind, obviously.
His head was lolling and he was completely unresponsive. I gave him another shake and then pinched his ear and then twisted it.
“Ow! No, stop, ow, ow.”
“There’s more where that came from, now answer me. Why did you let her out?”
“We’d been trapped together for so long, I thought I could trust her. She just wanted to see the surface again, just for a little while.”
If Stockholm syndrome is where the hostage starts sympathising with their captors, he obviously had the reverse. He was meant to keep her locked up for whatever reason, but she’d got him to feel sorry for her and let her out on a jolly. Idiot.
“Can you put her back? Hey, focus. Can you put her back.”
“I don’t know. Yes. Maybe. If she hadn’t been released. But now…”
He was all over the place. I had no idea how reliable his answers were.
“How long before she reforms completely?” I needed to establish how much time we had before she started doing whatever it was humongous elfs did.
“A day, two at most,” said Raviva.
He seemed to know a lot about it. “And then where will she go?” He shook his head. Not that much, though. But I could tell from his utterly serious tone—which wasn’t like him at all—that things were bad.
I asked the same question of Evand, only more forcefully. More ear twisting was required. “Fengarard!” he screamed. “She will destroy the spires so the others will never be able to return.”
“Can the spires be used to stop her?”
“Yes, but only if… No, no they can’t.”
I looked at Claire.
“I think… I think the spires can stop her, but they’ll be useless for what he wants, then.”
He wanted to protect the spires. If she was left to do what she wanted, she’d destroy them. But if he told us how to use them against her, we’d destroy them. He was hoping if he did nothing, some miracle would save him, like every idiot who wants to solve a dilemma by choosing the non-existent third option.
I let go of Evand and he dropped to the ground, limp and useless. I looked around and caught Biadet staring at me. She was furthest away, behind everyone. She turned and vanished. Gone to report to Gullen, or maybe her master.
“There is no way to defeat an elf,” said Raviva. “We must run.”
“And go where?” I asked him.
“If the elf goes to Fengarad, we should go as far in the opposite direction as we can. The fourth city is our best hope. We will have a little more time that way.” He was being a real downer. “At least there is only one of them.”
Was there? She’d spent a lot of her furlough breeding, and with quite some gusto. Were her offspring some kind of extension of her? Was Nyx?
“We must go to Fengarad,” said Laney, pushing her way past Claire. “We have to warn them. We have to save them. I command you. I order you. I… please.”
I was leaning towards going with the trolls. I wasn’t sure where the fourth city was, but I was up for a road trip.
I turned to Gabor. “Things any clearer now?”
“All outcomes point to us being wiped out. Except one.”
I was all ears, as was everyone else. “And that is?”
“You must come up with a way to defeat her,” he said to me.
“And how do I do that?”
“I don’t know,” said Gabor. “I only know you’re the only one who has a chance.”
“So all options are bad, apart from the one I come up with, which you have no idea what it is? What kind of bullshit calculation is that?”
“I don’t know if you can stop her,” said Gabor. “All outcomes are bad, except when you’re a variable. Then, I can’t see the outcome. It’s not much, I know, but it is still better than every other path.”
This was just getting better and better. “So if I do come up with something, we could still all die.”
“Yes,” said Gabor.
“We are unable to help you,” said Raviva. The trolls gathered around him, ready to leave.
I turned to the Ogre Magi. Her brood looked scared and confused. I couldn’t see them being much use in their condition. “You should go, too,” I said. “Find somewhere safe and hide.”
The Ogre Magi didn’t argue. The ogres lumbered off, growling and making plaintive sounds. Dudley’s fiancée made a break towards him but the Magi grabbed her and dragged her away.
“We wish you well, Colin,” said Raviva, and they left, too. My mighty army had deserted me one by one. Just as well. I was never comfortable in big crowds.
“Where do you want to go?” asked Jenny.
“What about him?” I kicked Evand to indicate who I meant. “What happens if you take him in and out of the equation you put me in?”
Gabor considered it. “Yes. He is necessary, I believe.”
And what could Evand do for me? Defeat the elf? Probably not. Get me inside the spire?
“The way I see it,” I said, “Uncle Peter did this, and he has the means to undo it. We have to go to Fengarad.”
Laney squealed with delight and then jumped towards me. Jenny blocked her off and sent her soaring away to land with a bump. She didn’t seem too upset about it.
“What about you two?” I asked Gabor.
“We are in the same boat,” said Roland. Gabor nodded his agreement.
There was very little chance we would succeed, whatever we did. But we had a day at least to try before Big Bertha got going for real. The thing about having a head start is you need to stop dithering and get on with it.
“Hey Flossie!” I shouted down the hill. “Can you call us a dragon?”