“Do you think the girls are playing a prank on us?” asked Maurice.
“That would be an incredibly stupid thing to do,” I said. “So, yes, it’s possible.”
Dudley pulled the dagger out of the tree trunk and grabbed the note as it floated down. We all leaned in to have a look. It was written in the local alphabet. The ink was black and thick, sticky like tar. The script was scratchy and mushed together which made it hard to read, but it was clearly a ransom note. Not for money, though. Our payment for the girls was to be an assassination.
Whoever had taken the girls had done so without waking us, without hurting us, and had left behind instructions for us to kill someone on their behalf. The first two begged the question why they needed us to do the third. If they were able to move around so stealthily, surely they’d be better off disposing of this tower bloke themselves. I had an image of an army of Biadets jumping in and out of shadows.
“The important thing is not to panic,” I said.
“We’re not panicking,” said Maurice calmly. He did seem to be taking all this surprisingly well.
“We simply need to go to this tower and find out why they want to kill this man,” said Dudley, equally composed. “I would assume he knows who wants him dead. We merely follow the trail back to the kidnappers.”
Maurice turned to him. “It’s unlikely they’ll harm the girls, they’re too valuable as collateral.” I might as well not have been here.
“We should have enough time to find them,” said Dudley. “Any minor injuries can be healed,”
Who were these guys? They were speaking so dispassionately about things they should have been freaking out about, it made me want to give them a poke to make sure they weren’t imposters. So I did.
“They’re three girls in the clutches of a bunch of maniacs. Death isn’t the only thing they’re at risk from.”
They both looked at me, cold eyes, no reaction on their faces.
“As long as they’re alive,” said Maurice, “nothing else matters.”
“Once we rescue them, we can deal with anything else as required,” said Dudley. “And then we’ll kill their captors. That should help deal with any lingering trauma.”
“Right,” agreed Maurice matter-of-factly. They could have been discussing the best route from Finsbury Park to Muswell Hill to avoid traffic and roadworks—problematic but manageable.
Personally, I don’t think I’m a sociopath. I have too many emotions. Not the good ones like joy and optimism. I got the Fear & Shame starter pack, happiness only available as a DLC. But I had enough of an insight into compartmentalising my feelings to recognise the signs in Maurice and Dudley. They had gone so deep into shock, they’d come out the other end merciless and empathy-free. I had no doubt they’d kill anyone who got in their way. Men, women, children. Cute animals with human-like hands. No fucks would be given.
Which was all very impressive and chilling, like when comics went all edgy after The Dark Knight Returns, but it was also a sign of terrible things to come , as anyone who read The Dark Knight Strikes Again will agree. Sadly, Frank Miller never recovered, but these two muppets were still salvageable.
“I think we should find out what happened to the girls before we start handing out death sentences.” Colin the Reasonable One, my new persona.
“Of course,” said Maurice. “We’ll only kill them if they deserve it.”
“Society would be better served without their contribution, I suspect,” suggested Dudley quite amiably.
It was Mengele all over again. I had to get the girls back before these two decided to socially re-engineer the local population.
“Let’s focus on the girls,” I said, steering the conversation back to more civilised things like kidnaps and ransoms. “Where’s this Wizard’s Tower?”
There were no directions to the place we were meant to find the man we had to kill. Dudley turned the paper over and revealed a crude drawing. There was a wigwam of lines, presumably meant to represent our fire, and a tower that looked like a rook from a chessboard, drawn by a child and stuck on a fridge out of sympathy.
The only other landmark included in this work of art was a wiggly line between us and the tower. Presumably a river.
If the map was drawn with north at the top of the page, the tower would be to the northeast. But there was no way to know if that was the case, and if it was I still had no idea which way was north.
I did have another way to find Jenny. I had a connection to her I could follow through the other world, the one with tentacles and vines. But I only had the one dwarfstone left and there was bound to be a time when I’d need it.
You might think this was that time. What could possibly be more important or urgent than the welfare of the person who meant most to me in the world? And while that was a reasonable point, I still wasn’t sure what this situation was.
My time in this world had taught me to not take things at face value. Rushing to the rescue without knowing what we were up against wasn’t going to help. The people responsible clearly needed our help with killing this guy. That meant they’d keep the girls alive.
“Wait a mo,” said Dudley. “I’ll just get my bearings.” And then he climbed up a tree.
It was like I didn’t even know these people. Dudley was a big, pudgy blob. I’d never seen him haul arse like that on the ground, never mind vertically. He scrambled up the trunk without any rope or harness and once he got to the lowest bough, he pulled himself up and disappeared into the branches.
“When did he learn to do that?”
Maurice glanced up from his notebook which he was scribbling notes in. New page with its own heading—that should give you an idea of how seriously he was taking this. “He’s been practising. Swimming, climbing and dodging rocks.”
I didn’t bother asking how you practised dodging rocks.
Maurice ignored my astonishment, or didn’t notice it. “If the man in the wizard’s tower is an actual wizard, that means he knows magic.”
“Mm,” I agreed, my neck tilted all the way back, my hand shielding my eyes as I tried to catch glimpses of Dudley, mainly so I could jump out of the way when he fell on top of me.
“Which probably means he’s some kind of beastman, or a Visitor.”
That made sense. We hadn’t seen magic used outside of those two groups. It would make killing him more difficult, but then we had no intention of killing him just because someone told us to. Well, I had no intention. It was hard to know what Batman and Green Arrow would do with their burgeoning sense of vigilante justice.
There was a crack and several twigs fell to the ground. I leaped to the side in preparation of Dudley’s imminent return via gravity. He shimmied down the trunk like a giant squirrel.
“Okay, north is that way.” Dudley pointed over his shoulder. “I didn’t see a tower, but I think there’s a river. The treeline shifts back and forth in a line all the way across.” His hand moved to indicate a line from west to east.
Maurice jotted down the details in his book and then pushed his sliding glasses up his nose. “It’d be easier to see from the air.” He looked over at the dragons. They were working their way through what was left of the vegetation, not interested in our problems or the disappearance of their boss.
The problem with dragons is that they’re not very smart. Flossie could communicate her wishes to them, but that was something unique to her. I couldn’t just ask them to find the chubby girl or let them sniff her clothes. If I got on Vikchutni’s back, he might fly around with me as a passenger, but there was no way to control where he went. Or where he landed.
It was possible my special ability could change that. If I connected myself to him using the vines in the other world, I might be able to form a bond like Flossie’s, but there were a lot of variables to take into account to get it to work. It was how I hoped I could use my ability in the future but I was a long way from being able to do that now. Of course, I wasn’t the only one who could be a test pilot.
“I suppose we could try flying around a bit just to see if we can spot the tower,” I said.
“Okay,” said Maurice. “You go up and we’ll wait here.”
Smart. There was no need for us all to risk plummeting to our deaths. He might have been consumed with a desire to save his girlfriend but he hadn’t lost all his marbles.
And neither had Dudley. “Or we could just head north to the river and see what we see.”
It was agreed this was probably the best course of action, mainly because we all refused to be the man who risks it all to help his friends. And rightly so. That man is an idiot.
The dragons didn’t seem concerned about our leaving. They remained in the glade, perfectly happy to eat, puke, eat and shit. Their life was one long Glaswegian weekend.
We set off through the dappled sunlight, the forest whispering and creaking but making little else in the way of noise. If there were animals about, they kept out of sight.
Maurice and Dudley continued to act like men on a mission. And I mean real men. Determined, focused and violent. Maurice swung the short sword he had acquired, hacking at low branches and defenceless bushes. Dudley shot arrows ahead of us, cleanly striking his designated targets which he would call out before firing.
I found myself slowly falling behind, moving slower and slower. I wasn’t sure why, but since leaving the clearing, a sense of dread had started to overwhelm me. I would soon find out what happened to the girls, and I wasn’t entirely certain I wanted to know.
“Are you okay?” asked Maurice when he noticed I’d stopped moving.”
“Yes. No. I’m not sure. Are you two just pretending to be okay?”
“She isn’t dead,” said Maurice. “You’d know if she was.”
“How would I know?”
“You just would. Same way I would, and he would.” He nodded at Dudley.
What he was saying didn’t make sense. Yes, there were people who could sense others in a special way, like how Jenny could sense me. But none of us had that ability.
“But what if you’re wrong,” I said quietly.
“Then it’s already too late and there’s nothing we can do. So let’s assume I’m not wrong.”
He was right. We’d been through this before and the reason to assume the best wasn’t blind optimism, there just wasn’t a valid alternative. Maurice and Dudley carried on walking, not waiting for me to come to the same conclusion as them, knowing I would. It was weird seeing them as capable of handling even the most stressful situation, and not thinking of them as a couple of dorks.
“We’re like knights,” said Dudley, “on a quest to save the princesses.”
Although the dorks were always there, just under the surface. “You think of them as princesses?”
“Yes,” they said in unison.
Having met a real princess, I didn’t see it as something to aspire to.
“Knights saving princesses, it’s a bit of a sexist stereotype, isn’t it?” Probably also a category on Pornhub.
“No,” said Maurice. “They’d do the same for us. They already have done.”
We reached the river in about half an hour and followed it east. The ground was rockier and we had to clamber over the craggy banks. The water rushed past, oblivious to our concerns.
“There,” said Dudley. “I see something.” He was pointing to the other side of the river.
I couldn’t see anything through the trees, but I trusted his sharp eyes. There was a shallow area ahead with large slabs of rock to use as stepping stones. They were a good distance apart and slippery. It would take a decent athlete to navigate them successfully. We didn’t even bother and waded across.
Dudley led the way to a clearing, in the middle of which was a tower. It looked very much like the crappy drawing, with battlements ringing its top like crone’s teeth. It was made of stone blocks and had the look of a building that had been there for a hundred years, firmly planted in its surroundings. There were no windows that I could see but there was a door.
We approached tentatively but without wasting time. I banged on the door with my fist.
After a few seconds I banged again, and then Maurice used the pommel of his short sword.
“Alright, alright,” shouted a crotchety voice. An opening at head height slid aside revealing two beady eyes. It looked like an old man, although it was hard to tell what he looked like through the slit which only showed the eyes and some bushy white eyebrows. “What do you want?”
Now that we had found our first objective, our simple and clearly worked out plan didn’t seem so clear or all that well worked out.
“Um,” I began, and then faltered.
“What? Hurry up, I’m very busy.”
“They want us to kill you,” said Maurice in a rush of words.
“Who does? Kill me? What are you talking about?”
“They took our women hostage and said they’ll only give them back if we murder you,” said Dudley. Blunt, but to the point.
“Did they? Did they, now?” He didn’t seem all that surprised and no longer asked who these people were. Which suggested he knew. The plan might actually work. I know. I thought there was no chance, too.
“Yes,” I said. “Do you know who they are?”
“Of course I know,” the man shouted through the slot, lifting his mouth to get his words out clearly, showing us a bunch of large white teeth. “Those dumb bastards. Think they can bully me out of my home. You tell them to go to hell.”
“Okay,” I said. “Where are they?”
“Where do you think they are? In their village, sitting around their warm fires and drinking themselves silly. No invite for old Joshaya. Nothing but dirty looks and nasty gossip, that’s all I ever get.”
“Are you a wizard?” asked Maurice.
“Me? A wizard?” He sounded shocked. “What would make you think that?”
“Well, they called this Wizard’s Tower.”
“So, we thought there might be a wizard here,” said Maurice patiently.
The man’s eyes narrowed like he was trying to decipher Maurice’s words. “No, no, no. Not wizard. Wiz Ard. That was my master’s name. He built this tower. Wiz Ard’s Tower.”
“And was he a wizard?” I asked, suspecting I was dealing with an idiot. I recognised the signs from experience. Lots and lots of experience.
“No, not as far as I know. I mean, he could do a few tricks, blow things up and make things move around with his special words, but nothing magical. Although, now that you mention it, he did like dressing up in a big robe and a pointy hat, just to scare off the locals.” He chuckled to himself. “Those were the days.”
“He’s not here anymore?” asked Maurice.
“No, he’s not. He’ll be back though, once he finishes his business in Gorgoth.”
“Is that the city to the east?” I said, keen to get any information.
“Of course. Not any other Gorgoths, are there? You tell them villagers, no one is allowed in the tower until my master returns. Not one foot!” He slammed the small opening shut.
I knocked on the door again. The gap slid open. “Hello, how can I—Oh, it’s you again.”
It was hardly going to be anyone else.
“You didn’t tell us how to get to the village,” I reminded him.
“Oh, that. Just keep going north, you can’t miss the sounds of joy and merriment.” He sounded disgusted by the very thought. “And if you see the mayor kick him in the balls!” The little door slammed shut again.
We stood there for a moment, taking in what he’d said, trying to figure out what it meant in terms of the next part of our quest to save the damsels.
“Maybe we should kill him,” said Dudley.
“He didn’t seem that bad,” said Maurice, considering it. “A bit annoying.”
We agreed to keep it as an option and headed north.
There were no sounds of merriment. We came over a slight rise and looked down on the village. There were thatched roofs with smoking chimneys, whitewashed walls and pretty little gardens. And in the middle was a square with a green. There were three piles of wood, each stacked around a stake in the ground, and three girls tied to each stake. Our girls.
A crowd of people sat in a circle around the girls. Men, women and children, dressed in simple peasant clothes. Among them were armed men holding lit torches, ready to set fire to the wood and burn the girls alive like witches. Knowing the girls as I did, I could understand the mistake.
“At least they’re alive,” I said. “And they look unharmed.”
“Yes,” said Maurice. “We’re still going to kill them.”
“Agreed,” said Dudley, taking an arrow out and placing it on the string of his bow. “They’re all dead.”