I didn’t trust Peter and I didn’t trust Queen Zarigold. Peter was a slippery slimeball and what kind of name was Zarigold?
Being told they were working together wasn’t all that surprising. I imagined it was one of those partnerships where you combine your resources to attain a common goal, and as soon as that goal is achieved, you both run around in circles to see who can stab the other in the back first.
The bigger question was why they were working together, and how did they plan to shaft me?
The spike I’d been given caught the light like a shard of mirror in my hand. I could see my elongated face in it, scowling. Peter had his hand held out.
“You want this?” I asked him.
Peter smiled, his teeth all perfect white and his slicked-back hair glistening with oil or wax or whatever old men used to mould their hair into shape like a Lego hairpiece.
“It’s isn’t a matter of want, kiddo. I need it to make sure we don’t lose our lives to the elf threat.”
The elf threat. He made it sound like they were creeping across the border to steal our jobs and women.
“What kind of threat?”
“The kind that kills half of us and enslaves the rest. We have to fight, and we have to win. The elf has to die.”
There was a warmth against my thigh and a distant muttering. I placed my hand in my pocket, a very casual, relaxed move considering the situation, and muffled Evand.
“And how will this stop the elf?” I waved the spike about a bit.
Peter lowered his hand. “It’s complicated.”
“The elf is more than a big monster who might stamp on a few houses. She is a being of immense power who requires power. The spires are her way of feeding. We can eliminate that food source using that rod you’ve got there.”
He paused and looked at the king who put his arm around Laney.
“What Peter says is true,” said the King. “We must stop the elf before she reaches her full strength. We managed to keep her at bay for as long as we could, but…”
“Then why did you release her?” I asked.
“We didn’t,” said Peter. “The venting pipe you have there will help release the charge building up in the core without having to fire the spires. I’ve been having to do that more and more recently.” He shook his head like it was a great burden on him.
“What happens if you don’t?” I asked him.
He sucked in a sharp intake of breath and pursed his lips. “What happens is what you saw at Requbar. The discharge was automatic. The target, I believe, no accident. I can only think one of her agents arranged it, somehow. I don’t know. It shouldn’t have been possible.”
“Wait,” said Maurice, notebook at the ready. “You’re saying you only fire the spires to discharge the build up of energy?”
“That’s right,” said Peter. “We can’t let the spires get to full power. Unfortunately, it’s been getting quicker and quicker these last few days. Some sort of disturbance under the crust.”
Was he referring to my ever so slight intervention in the flow of magma under Requbar? Probably not so no point bringing it up, I decided.
“So everything you’ve done,” I said, “blowing shit up, has been because you needed to let off some steam?”
“That’s one way of looking at it. Of course, it served other purposes too, I won’t deny that.” He put his hands in his pockets, matching my casual stance, and rocked back and forth on his heels, showing not the least sign of concern. “I mean, I couldn’t have herded so many monsters over to our side of the border if I hadn’t zapped their little mountain.”
“You wanted them to come over to this side?” I had never considered the mass exodus from Monsterland had been intentionally provoked. Cheng probably wouldn’t have allowed it, but he wasn’t around. Very convenient.
I was starting to think Peter was operating a much more detailed plan than the ones I usually came up with. Run and/or hide was as sophisticated as mine got.
“Yes, we need all the help we can get,” said Peter. “Of course, I still had to convince them we were all on the same side once they got here—took a little longer than I’d hoped, have to admit to that, but we got there in the end. With them joining forces with the Fengarad and Dargot troops, we might have a chance. With the right leader.”
It was a lot to take in. It was even harder to believe. So mainly I didn’t. But it did explain why there were no soldiers here. And why lizardmen were allowed to sleep in the castle stable. I’d have to find the right time to mention the slight misunderstanding that led to a few of those lizardmen ending up unavailable for active service. I looked over at Gabor who closed his eyes and softly shook his head.
Queen Zarigold had presented a vulnerable, kind facade; a little old lady who wanted to do what she could before passing on. Only, she’d survived a hundred years in a gladiator pit. Excuse me for presuming, but sweet old ladies don’t generally do so well in mortal combat situations. She survived so long because she was hard as nails, I would guess.
And Peter put on a whole range of can-do vibes. We were facing a menace that had to be stopped for the sake of our freedom and liberty. We had to be wary. We had to watch our neighbours, our friends. The menace was everywhere, even under the bed.
Both Peter and Zarigold struck me as the types to lie when it served the greater good. And what could be greater than what was good for them?
“Should I give it to him?” I asked Gabor.
He was standing next to Roland, both had their arms crossed. Neither looked thrilled to be here.
“Come on, Gabby,” said Peter. “You know this is the only way.”
Gabor’s face was like stone, not a glimmer of a reaction. “I told you,” he said to me, “I cannot see outcomes that involve you.”
“What if I gave it to him and took no further part? Ran off and joined the circus.” For a moment I wondered if they had circuses here, and what kind of fucked up shit they’d have to do to impress people used to ogres and mouse people.
Gabor gave the question some thought. “I see many possible paths, but most contain smoking ruins and burning fields. And many dead bodies and carcasses. Man and beast.” His eyes flickered. “I have yet to encounter a positive ending.” Story of my life.
Flossie gasped and put her hands to her mouth. “Mah dragons.”
“And women,” said Claire under her breath. “Man, woman and beast.” Some people have no sense of poetry.
“And if I am involved? Let me guess, you don’t know.”
I turned back to Peter. “And this spike will save the day will it?”
“On its own, no. We have to fight. You have to fight. But don’t take my word for it. Think with this.” He pointed fingers on both hands at his head. “Feel here.” He pointed at this heart. “And act!” I had the horrible premonition he was going to point at his groin, but he held up both fists and shook them. “You want me to spill the beans, explain it all,” said Peter. “I get that, but it’s hard to say these things out loud. There are ears listening and eyes watching, even if you can’t see or hear them. That’s why we had to go through this rigmarole to get the venting pipe here. We knew your special skill was our only hope.”
“My special skill? Which is?”
“Why, the ability to succeed when you should obviously fail.” Peter looked at me benevolently, like he’d bestowed me with rare praise.
“That’s not much of a skill, is it?” I said, getting annoyed. Why did everyone assume I had shitty powers? “I still have to come up with an idea and make it work. I don’t magically get a pass, advance to go, collect $200. I can’t walk through walls like Biadet.”
Peter grimaced at the mention of the name, the first crack in his genial mask. “It’s not a special ability in that sense, no. But it is a gift in its own way.”
I didn’t agree and I didn’t appreciate the backhanded compliment. Sure, I got things done, but not through my own efforts, it was magic.
What it was, was bullshit. I used the same approach to problems I always had. Back home, good ideas failed because people did their best to make sure they did. Some have a very strong need to not let others succeed, even if it’s beneficial to the majority, if it doesn’t suit them personally.
Invent an engine that runs on water and provides cheap, plentiful energy and what will happen? We all know the answer and why. Being a good idea isn’t enough.
In this world, they hadn’t got to that advanced level of organised thuggery. I could get away with stuff here because it took them longer to notice and longer to do something about it. And I didn’t stick around to deal with complaints.
No phone, no cars, no banks. It was a blagger’s paradise. If that was my special ability, that was everyone’s special ability. They just didn’t bother using it.
“We are surrounded by enemy agents,” said Peter. “They could be stood right next to us, for all we know.”
He glanced around the room and everyone did likewise.
“We have had many setbacks because we didn’t know who to trust,” he continued, dropping his voice to a more ominous, deeper tone. “That venting pipe in your hand is the third that’s been sent from Dargot but only the first to arrive. Doesn’t that tell you I’m right about you?”
I looked at the spike. Number three. I wondered who had made it. The Cool Kids? They had been playing around with using metals to kill monsters, it would seem reasonable to assume this was their handiwork, too. How many experiments on living things had it taken to make three of these?
Peter coughed lightly to attract my attention. “That’s why you should be the one to lead our combined forces.”
There it was. A generous and well-intentioned shove in the back at the top of a cliff.
I was, of course, more than prepared to give the offer short shrift, but it’s all very well leaving others in charge of the ship if you can get in a lifeboat and paddle off in the opposite direction. It’s another thing entirely if you hand over control of the steering wheel and have to remain on board for the rest of the trip.
“I need to think this over.” I put the spike in my belt. Concerned looks burrowed into me from various directions. “What? You just said I’m the guy with the good ideas. If I say I need to think it over, shouldn’t that make you feel relieved? I might magically come up with an even better solution to our elf problem.”
If they wanted to pronounce me the kid with the mystery success rate, I was happy to use my powers against them.
“Have something to eat and get some rest,” I said, like I was the one in charge. “I need a quiet place to think.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” said Jenny.
“No,” I said. “You need to stay here.”
She looked surprised. Did she know I suspected her of being one of those agents Peter had spoken about? Could she sense my lack of trust and general belief that she was capable of turning on me? And if she could, was it any different to what she sensed from me on a daily basis?
The elf queen had the ability to cast spells, but they didn’t work on Visitors. Jenny had been under the control of another mind, but it needn’t have been the Queen herself. It could have been a gem like the one in my pocket. Evand had taken over Nyx’s body and then the little dragon’s. Each time, the gem had been ejected.
Jenny hadn’t pooped any precious stones. She might still be under the influence of a being similar to Evand. If the urges of the host could be shared, why not the memories. This Jenny could be faking it, or maybe didn’t even know she was being manipulated. And if the gem had to be swallowed willingly, why would she have agreed to do it in the first place?
Lots of questions, and one obvious person to ask. My hand tightened around the stone in my pocket. What I also needed was a strong threat to get him to talk. A pointy thing that drained gems of their power sounded ideal. Peter may have needed the spike to save the world, but I had better uses for it.