“So who is your master?” I asked Biadet.
“You’ll have to come and find out.”
“What if I don’t want to just follow you into the night.”
“Then stay here.”
Trying to bait Biadet wasn’t going to work like it did on Evand. The others were waiting for me to decide but I got the feeling they were just as curious as me. It wasn’t like we had a plan to put into action, and her master might have some of the answers we needed.
Or it could be a trap.
I looked up at the elf, still no more substantial than a mist, and decided I’d rather not be here when she finished turning into Optimus Prime or whatever her final transformation was.
“Okay, so it’s off to Dargot, is it?” Biadet didn’t say anything. “We can’t get there if you don’t give us directions.”
“Yes,” said Biadet. “Dargot. You will find help there.” She walked off towards the dragon.
Laney walked past her as she came towards me. “You are going to Dargot, and then Fengarad?”
“I don’t know. Depends what happens in Dargot.”
“This is your moment, Colin.” Her dander was up again. The whirlpool of madness was back in her eyes. Crazy people often have a lucid moment, but then it’s right back to Looney Town, express train, no stops. “Today you find out if you’re a real man. I can help you check.”
I wasn’t sure if she was offering me support on the field of battle or a medical examination. Neither was very appealing. A hand on her collar pulled her away.
“We should get going,” said Jenny. “It’ll be getting dark soon.”
“You realise we’ll probably die doing this,” I told her.
“Then we’ll all die together,” she said.
“That doesn’t make it better.”
Her smile made me think maybe this would be our last adventure together. Not because we’d go out in a blaze of glory, but because when we made that final, insane, suicidal push for victory, I might just hang back a bit.
We boarded the dragon. Vikchutni snorted in my face and Flossie pursed her lips, but neither tried to stop me. Bertie, on the other hand, came up to me and lay down next to where I was sitting. He curled himself into a doughnut pressed up against my legs and fell asleep. At least he understood the basics of gratitude: you don’t stop owing someone just because they’re a dick to you.
I hardly noticed the takeoff. Flossie had gotten so good with the whole Dragonrider thing, she could easily have claimed the title of most impressive talent in the group.
We steered clear of the giant elf. She might not have been ready to take down Tokyo, but she was still very intimidating. I didn’t envy the people in Requbar the next couple of days.
It was early evening and the flight to Dargot would take a couple of hours. Maurice sat down on the other side of the sleeping dragon and opened his notebook.
“I’ve been talking to Nyx. He says the Queen had fifty-three children in total.”
Nyx was sitting opposite me looking dazed. Occasionally he sniffed at his clothes and pulled a face. He’d been told what had happened to his mother and made a point of not looking up. He didn’t seem able to take it all in. Even fantasy creatures have a limit to how much crazy they can handle.
“Even if elves can’t have kids the normal way, what if the Queen made them to store part of her energy?” he said.
I leaned over and shouted over the rush of wind, “It’s elfs, not elves.”
He ignored me. “She might be keeping herself protected by not having her energy all in one place.”
“You mean like a lich keeping its soul in a jar?”
“Sort of. I was thinking more like a horcrux.”
“What’s that?” I asked, not sure I’d even heard him right.
“You know, like in Harry Potter. What Voldemort did.”
“Never read it,” I said.
Maurice’s mouth fell open and his glasses slid right down his nose to the tip.
Claire leaned out from his other side. “You never read Harry Potter? Any of them?”
“No. Well, I tried the first one. Though it was long-winded and poorly written.”
They were both staring me down. They’d followed my instructions and trusted my judgement without question, until now.
“She’s arguably the greatest writer of the 21st century,” said Maurice.
“A rather fine author, I must say,” joined in Dudley out of the blue.
“She’s responsible for an increase in global literacy,” insisted Claire.
“No and no,” I said. “And the movies can fuck off, too. The ginger kid wasn’t bad, but who the fuck cast Hermione?”
“Emma Watson is an angel,” said Flossie, who was standing over me all of a sudden. I hated it when she let the dragon do the steering.
“Sure, but she can’t act. ‘Mondo Retardoso. Oh Harry, I’ve made myself sound like a posh girl from the 1930s for no reason.’ Look at a decent child actor like the kid in Sixth Sense, then look at midget Mary Poppins. What the actual fuck?”
Whatever Maurice’s point about the horcrux was, it got lost in the barrage of abuse I fought off for the next hour. Sometimes it’s good to let people vent a bit.
It was starting to get dark by the time we reached Dargot, a red streak on the horizon the last signs of the dwindling day. We flew over the walls and into the palace grounds with Biadet up front, guiding us in.
There was a platoon of men waiting for us. Gullen Santan stood casually in front of them, impeccably dressed like a fashion model for the Schutzstaffel spring collection. If we were going to be attacked and thrown into a dungeon, now was the time.
“Welcome, welcome,” said Gullen, cheerfully terrifying as ever. “Queen Zarigold awaits you.”
“Yes,” said Biadet. “My master.”
“We’ll wait here,” said Laney, looking quite uncomfortable. Rivalry between cities?
We were escorted into the palace and taken to a bed chamber. It was very dark with a crowd of people around the bed. They were all wearing masks. Not the Eyes Wide Shut, let’s have an orgy type of masks, I mean the surgical, let’s not contract anything that will make our eyes bleed kind of contraptions.
Lying on the bed, barely clinging to life it seemed, was a woman. Biadet ran to her and hugged her, which looked liable to break all her bones. It was strange seeing Biadet express emotion so openly.
“And these are the ones I’ve been waiting for.” Her voice was full of scratches and clicks, as though she was lipsynching to a recording on vinyl. An American accent, it sounded like. “Come closer.”
We were at the other end of the room. The crowd moved away to let us get closer, which we did. Very slowly.
“What if she’s a vampire?” whispered Flossie. “And we’re here to feed her.”
Very possible. The Queen looked deathly white and in need of a transfusion.
“What if that white dress is an old wedding gown,” I whispered back, “and she’s been waiting for her bridegroom all this time.”
“What a bastard,” said Flossie.
“Great Expectations,” explained Claire.
“Not really,” said Flossie. “Ah’m just hoping for the best.”
Thank you, Ms Rowling, for teaching them so well.
I got to the Queen’s bedside first. No surprise there. She didn’t look like a vampire. No red eyes or pointy overbite. To be honest, she looked like a little old lady. Emphasis on the old. She had a sweet, round face, long white locks spread out on her pillow and thin spindly fingers.
“My Biadet tells me you are the one to stop that madman, Peter. Isn’t that right, dear.” She took Biadet’s hand in hers, one small and childlike, the other elegant and almost translucent.
“Yes, Master,” said Biadet.
“I do wish you wouldn’t call me that.”
“You’re her mother?” I asked a little incredulously. The age gap would mean she’s have had to repeal a couple of menopauses to squeeze her out thirteen years ago.
“Not biologically. I bought her from Peter. She was his… property. I made her my daughter.”
“And you want me to help you defeat Peter?”
“Oh no,” she said. “I want you to kill him. He isn’t a good person.”
“Are you?” I asked.
She laughed and then broke into coughing. All the masked people who had backed off came rushing in to attend to her. She brushed them away. “No, no, leave me be,” she wheezed at them. They reluctantly returned to their stations. “As you can see, I am not long for this world. Where to next? Fantasy heaven, perhaps.”
“You came here with Peter.”
“Yes. Me and Peter and.. and… I forget. You must be careful. He is a bad, bad person. Can’t be trusted.” Her voice was drifting off. “But I will help you. Help you drain the spires of their power. Biadet.”
She waved a feeble hand and Biadet went to a drawer and took out something shiny. She held it out for me.
It was a spike. Exactly like the one I’d had made for myself. A simple, sharp point with a curved handle, but the metal was like a mirror, reflecting all the colours of the rainbow.
“I thought you’d prefer it like this,” said Biadet. “A local blacksmith made it.”
The spike felt good as I moved it around. “What’s it made of?”
“Chrome-plated steel,” said the Queen.
I had expected unicorn tears or manticore talons, but steel was just as exotic here, I suppose.
“You must insert it into the core under the spire,” said the Queen. “It will drain the gem of all its power.”
“What about the elf?” I asked.
“Once the gem is empty, the elf won’t be able to complete its transformation. It will be powerless. Without the spires, Peter will be helpless.” She began coughing and her attendants rushed in again, pushing us out of the way.
Biadet ushered us out. “You have what you need now. The rest is up to you.” She left us at the door and went back to the commotion around the bed.
Gullen and his men took us back to the dragon.
“Ah liked her,” said Flossie.
“Shame she’s so ill,” said Claire. “Maybe you could heal her?”
“Let’s see if we survive this first,” said Jenny.
“Reminds me of my old grandmama,” said Dudley.
Maurice was the only one not praising our new weapon supplier. He was busy making notes, probably for his Harry Potter fan fiction.
“And how did you find Her Majesty?” Laney asked me with cool disdain.
I looked at the shiny new spike in my hand, my own personal magic weapon. About time. “I wouldn’t trust her as far as I could drop kick her.”
A smile filled Laney’s dour face. “Every day, Colin, I like you a little bit more.”
I swiftly moved Jenny from my left to my right to act as a buffer. She looked at me no less madly than Laney. “Me too.”
That’s the trouble with life. Not enough buffers.