My initial thought was to get out of the city. Flossie had dragons under her command, so that seemed a pretty straightforward solution.
The ship was still a fair way off, a black spot in the blue sky, so I’d be able to set my escape plan in motion with plenty of time to spare.
What if I couldn’t get away for some reason? Who would I be facing? Someone who could get a ship in the air, which suggested a great deal of power. They may have even made improvements, put a spoiler on the back and go faster stripes down the sides. If they were a real fuccboi, LED lights under the hull.
Why had they come now? It probably wasn’t a random timing. It never was. What had I done recently? Gone into the spire and found Maurice’s notebook. Was that what they were after?
Worst case scenarios rolled through my mind.
I don’t consider myself to be a paranoid person. Sure, I have anxiety issues that make me dread the horrible fate waiting for me around every corner, but it’s at a very low level, thrumming away in the background like a bus’ engine vibrating your seat as you wait for the traffic light to change.
What I do have, however, is a very keen sense of possible futures and how they might negatively impact me.
For example, if I’m about to walk down a flight of stairs it might suddenly occur to me that I could trip and fall. And if that were to happen, my neck might get broken and then what would I do?
I’m in a car crash and can’t get the door open, while flames rise from the engine, what are my options?
I’m arrested by the police and don’t have an alibi, how can I prove my innocence?
At this point you might think, actually, mate, you are paranoid. But that’s not it.
We all occasionally have that fear we might fall down the stairs, but it isn’t the falling and being crippled part that weighs on my mind, it’s the coming up with possible escape routes that obsesses me.
What if I’m lying there unable to move and no one’s around to help me? What would I do? At which point, I start thinking of all the possible ways I could get out of such a predicament.
I tend to do this a lot. It doesn’t usually prepare me for anything since those situations are rare and thinking about them makes them even rarer — I am very careful walking down stairs when I’m alone.
My point is, I spend a lot of time thinking about this sort of shit. I guess I enjoy it in a morbid kind of way — the solution often resolves into finding a way to kill myself rather than hanging around until I starve to death. I know, I have a lot of fun hobbies.
The main reason I began to think like this was that when you live alone at a young age, with no family to speak of, falling down the stairs can be a death sentence. No one’s going to miss you. No one is going to check up on you. But there’s usually a way to save yourself, at least in theory. There’s no reason to give up just because you’ve reached the end of your rope. You at least have a rope to work with.
The ship approaching the city triggered that response in me. I had no idea who was flying it or what they wanted. Could be reinforcements coming to my aid for all I knew. More than likely, though, it was someone with bad intentions and they had a flying ship to back them up.
“Who do you think it is?” asked Jenny.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but my guess would be the Council of Four. It was their ship, originally, so they would be the most likely to reclaim it and have the ability to get it in the air. It could be the fairies, but they don’t seem the type to need airships to get around.”
I didn’t even have to think before I answered, my natural inclination to assume the worst possible outcome did the work for me.
“What do you think they want?” asked Jenny.
“Probably this book.” I waved Maurice’s notebook at her. “Peter’s the only one who’s managed to get inside the spires so far. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Council wanted the same sort of access and a way to work out what the spires can do. And then probably use them to do it.”
“Should we destroy the book, then?” said Jenny.
I was loath to do it, even if it was the easiest way to prevent the book getting into the wrong hands. To have so many answers after all this time, and be forced to destroy them before I’d had a chance to go through them was more than I was willing to give up.
“You don’t know if any of that is true,” said Caim. His face was doubtful, but unable to hide his begrudging admiration. I don’t think it was my insight he was impressed by, more the ease and speed with which I was able to come up with answers. Obviously, he didn’t know I’d been thinking these things from well before this moment. When and why the Council would openly turn against me was one of my favourite topics to toss around.
“Flossie, can you call any dragons?”
She grinned. “Can Ah?” She put her fingers in her mouth and let out a piercing whistle that set my teeth on edge. It’s a horrible sound when someone lets out a really loud two-handed, four-fingered whistle, and all the more grating because I can’t do it. I just get wet fingers.
Within seconds, dragons rose around the city. We had only brought one with us, but there were dozens of them in the air. Had Flossie left a few here for emergencies? Did they just happen to be grazing nearby? It didn’t matter, just that they were here was enough.
As they flew towards us, there was a shift in the air above us. The ship, which was clearly visible now, shimmered and changed. It became a dragon, far bigger than any of Flossie’s, and let out a mighty roar that was even more jarring than Flossie’s whistle.
Our dragons paused, their wings flapping slowly to allow them to hover, and then turned tail and fled.
They might have been unwaveringly loyal to the Dragonrider, but you have to draw the line somewhere.
“Where’re yo’ going?” shouted Flossie, waving her arms and jumping up and down. “Yoo hoo.” She whistled again but they weren’t having any of it. Can’t say I blamed them.
Not exactly the outcome I’d envisioned, but my ride out of Dodge getting nixed had been a distinct possibility, so I wasn’t really taken by surprise.
The monster dragon vanished just as quickly as it had appeared and the ship was once again the only thing in the azure sky. Some kind of illusion? Or maybe a ship that could turn into a dragon. Either way, my move had been easily countered What it did confirm was that whoever was controlling the ship were both ready and able. The navy would be proud. As would the airforce.
Everyone was waiting for me to tell them what to do, which was very gratifying. They had accepted me as their leader, just in time for me to take the blame.
Perhaps I was being too pessimistic (Me? Pessimistic? I know, hard to believe). This could be a messenger with good news.
The easiest way to tell would have been to slide into the adjacent world and go have a look. I was reluctant to do so. If it was the Council who sent the ship, they knew what I could do and would have countermeasure ready, as they did with the dragons. I knew from my recent tussle with Gideon that my abilities weren’t immune to interference. Going up there for a quick recce was what they would expect from me, and a trap of some kind was what I would expect from them. Only a fool would go have a look.
“Dudley, can you have a quick look?” It was different for Dudley. He would only be sending up one of his eyes, and I was pretty sure he had three. “Don’t get too close, just close enough to see who’s on board.”
“Ah, yes, of course.” Dudley sat down on the ground in the lotus position and closed his eyes. After a few seconds he said, “I see no one. It seems to be deserted. Do you want me to look down below?”
The obvious answer would be yes. The more information we had the better, but I was leery of getting any closer. I wouldn’t risk it myself at all, and I’d only risk others to a point. Which is fair, I think, since others would put me at risk whenever the opportunity presented itself and with enthusiasm.
The reason I would take the more kind and caring option to not put others in harm’s way isn’t because I’m a kind and caring person, but because I enjoy making it clear to people that even though I’m an unmitigated shit, I’m still more kind and caring than them.
“No, come back,” I said. “Something feels off.”
“It’s coming in a bit steep, isn’t it?” said Flossie.
She was the aviation expert, so she should know. The ship did seem to be pointed down a bit too much. Was it going to make a swooping landing? I didn’t think so. It wasn’t slowing down, either. Speeding up if anything.
An unmanned ship with no intention of landing. It suggested we were about to be rammed from above, which isn’t what a city’s defences are built for. Was the ship loaded with explosives? They hadn’t been invented yet, as far as I knew, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t some fantasy equivalent. Exploding coconuts or something.
“What do we do?” said Jenny. I could tell she was forcing herself to remain calm so as to not put too much pressure on me, but she could also tell the ship was going to crash into us.
“Give me a minute.”
“I don’t think we have a minute.”
“That’s alright,” I said. “I do.”
I hit pause and everything froze. I floated over my body with all the time in the world to work out what to do. It might still not be enough.
The first thing that occurred to me was that if this attack was to get hold of Maurice’s book, that would be hard to do if they destroyed it. Was I wrong about their intentions? Did this have nothing to do with the book after all?
The second thing that occurred to me was that the book shouldn’t have still been in my hands.
It was not only in my ghost-like grip, I was able to open it. How? Only very special objects could move here, like my sword. The book was just a book, wasn’t it?
Had Maurice found a way to allow it to exist here? How? And what exactly was it made of?
These questions could wait. I now had plenty of time to read the thing, maybe even take notes and do the suggested worksheet. If I memorised it all, I could destroy the original. No, that wasn’t going to happen. I couldn’t even remember my own mobile number, two hundred pages of Maurice’s musings weren’t going to find much purchase in my brain.
Around me, everything was stuck in place. Vines grew everywhere, even from the ship. In fact, there was one big vine coming out of the back. If I cut it off, the ship might lose contact with its remote control driver. Unfortunately, the ship would still fall on the city and make a terrible mess.
I began the slow plod through Maurice’s notes, skipping the parts that I couldn’t make out clearly. It took me until about page three to start getting bored.
Not that there wasn’t some interesting stuff in there, but it had that dry, factual feel to it that only textbooks can produce. I woke up a little when I hit a section on Shrine Island. There was mention of godsbane and something called a grim mushroom. There were some diagrams that looked vaguely like the small shrine where I’d found Richina.
He had a clear picture of the island, but not very clear handwriting and extremely poor focus. There was a page about a gate that could be opened on the island, followed by two pages about why the TV show Stargate shouldn’t have been cancelled and how crap the follow-on series were. It made me smile to have him back, if only in written form.
It seemed you needed to fire up all seven spires to activate the gate, and one of them was inoperative, as I’d seen. This was the main problem in getting the gate to work, and what Maurice had been working on. There wasn’t an answer, at least not in his notes.
The rest of the book contained the list of runes. If I could have got the spire to work, I might have been able to do something about the ship. In this form, I might be able to pass through a spire’s walls, but then what? I needed my actual body to press things and even my ability to manipulate objects with black goo wasn’t going to be of much use applying pressure.
Still, it was worth testing if only for science. I floated off with the ship pointing down like a missile and everyone looking up aghast. The nearest spire was the broken one, but it had the same walls as the others, so it would prove if I could phase through them or not.
I passed through the thick black walls with no problem. This was good to know. Even if I couldn’t get my body inside, I could still have a look to check everything inside was intact and in working order.
I floated up in order to see where the nearest spire was. As I passed through the room at the top of the spire, I noticed the runes were glowing. They were very much active, and humming slightly. I reached out to touch one, and it grew even brighter.
Sometimes, wandering around and poking about is the best way to find answers, and also old pound coins no longer in circulation and broken pens.
I opened Maurice’s book and looked up the instructions for Nuke. It took me a while to find the correct runes without Dudley there to help, but there was no rush. When I finally pressed all the runes, a screen appeared showing the city. I could move it by using my finger like on an iPad, and zoom in and out by pinching. I could probably take the image anywhere, but my target was already on the screen.
I touched the ship, which did nothing apart from put it at the centre of the shot. Then I tapped it twice and a countdown started. Ten seconds. And it had already started.
If it worked here while time was stopped, would it still affect the real world? I wasn’t sure, but I left the spire and headed back to my body, counting as I went.
I got back with three seconds left. The ship began its final descent, the people looked panicked. I raised my finger and pointed at the ship like I was aiming a gun and said, “Bang.”
A white light fell from the sky and the ship disintegrated into a billion splinters over the city. Everyone looked at me with disbelief, unable to process what had just happened.
It would only take a second to explain what I’d done, but where was the fun in that? I knew a far better way to handle it. I put my finger to my lips and blew.
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.
Afterword from Mooderino