“Who are they?” said Maurice, a confounded look on his face as he watched the giant approach on the magical screen. He had made plans for all eventualities, but not this one apparently. Always the way.
“Americans,” I said. “Here to take over. It’s what they do.”
Maurice turned around and glared at me. “You brought them with you?”
I didn’t appreciate his tone. Or his cellulose-based face, or his prize-winning aubergine swinging in the breeze.
“I didn’t bring them. Why would I bring them? Can you imagine me going, ‘Hey, guys, I’m off to a fantasy world, who’s coming?’? Does that sound like the kind of social invitation I chuck around?”
“But you did bring them, didn’t you?” said Claire, ignoring my histrionics.
“They followed me, okay. They know about this place from Peter and they’ve been trying to find a way in for decades.”
“And you opened the door,” said Claire. I didn’t like her tone, either, but with her it was part of a whole package of unpleasantness. “You led them right to us, and gave them their own giant.”
“I didn’t give them shit. If I’d known the giant gave free rides, I would’ve bought a ticket myself” I turned to the Queen, who didn’t look very happy, and asked her, “How are they controlling it?”
“I do not know. Not by magic. I imagine they are using some form of forceful persuasion. To think you people would treat a baby in such a way.”
“A baby?” I said. “That thing is a baby? Where’s the mother?”
“She died giving birth,” said the Queen. That I could believe. Must have been a hell of a labour.
“How do we stop it?” asked Claire, but the question wasn’t aimed at me, she was asking Maurice. I was quite interested to hear his answer.
“I’m not sure. We could… no, a direct assault wouldn’t work. Maybe from the air? Flossie?”
“What?” Flossie looked like she hadn’t been paying attention for the last, oh, let’s say fifteen years. She looked at the screen and the message slowly filtered through the ginger curls and into whatever cavity held her thinking apparatus. “Yo’ want my babbies to go oop against that thing? He’d swat them like flies.”
You had to hand it to her, she knew a dumb idea when she heard it — except when it came out of her own mouth, of course.
“She’s right,” I said, which was the first time those words had come out of my mouth. “This isn’t her fight, or mine, it’s yours. You’re the ones who run this place now. You’ve got control over the city, it’s up to you to defend it.”
There are always people ready to take over when things are going smoothly and no problems need to be taken care of. Then something happens — planes fly into a building, Russians take over the internet, the Chinese put people in concentration camps — and you get to see just how good the people in charge are. Some of them actually turn out to be too good because they were always working for the other side. Smart move.
“Maybe they aren’t here to start trouble,” said Dudley, hopeful as ever.
“I think you must have missed the part where I said they were American,” I said. “Worse still, not the American government — they would just shoot each other by accident and raise a flag to claim victory which, technically, if you kill enough of your own people, that does put you ahead on points. This lot are from a private company. The Orion Corporation. And as it happens I know exactly why they’re here. Potatoes. They’re going to plant them everywhere. GM. Probably destroy the native flora — which, frankly, would be a plus — and then change this place into a copy of back home. Pollution, resource-stripping, rename all the places they ‘discover’ for the first time. It’ll be great. There’s a lot of interest in this place from over there. Not just as a holiday destination for RPG gamers, I’m talking about full-scale invasion, round up the natives, make them live on reservations and kill them slowly over a few decades. Tradition means a lot to these people.”
No one seemed as enthusiastic as I felt they should be. Maybe my sales pitch wasn’t exuberant enough. A lot of people say I lack exuberance. Yeah, well, whatever.
“Are they armed?” asked Maurice. “What kind of weapons did they bring? How many of them are there?” He was getting ready to launch a major offensive, I could tell. He’d changed a lot since being the nerd who could hardly complete a sentence without taking a diversion through a lengthy diatribe about Stan Lee’s tyrannical rule at Marvel comics during the 60s and 70s. Oh, they love him now, but the man was a monster back in the day.
“This is good,” I said. “A perfect chance for the Queen to see what she would be facing over there.”
“No one’s going anywhere,” said Claire. She sounded irritated. No change there, then.
“I don’t think you understand how these things work,” I said to Claire. “They won’t stop until they get what they want. We might have picked up a bit of magic here and there, got past a few monsters without getting eaten, but we were lucky. They’re going to send in every genius they have to crack this place wide open. Magic, monster genetics, time travel, the void… all of it. They’re going to bring in the scruffy guy everyone thought was crazy back in MIT or wherever and he’s going to draw them a diagram on a chalkboard and he — or she, let’s keep this woke — will figure out how this place works far better and quicker than any of us. And then they won’t need any of you so it’ll be down the mines. You think you’ve got slavery sussed? These people are the experts.”
“Why did yo’ bring them here?” wailed Flossie.
“We can deal with them,” said Claire. “Right?” she asked Maurice. Very reassuring when your complete confidence comes by the way of someone else saving you.
“We’ll see,” I said. My plan to send hordes of monsters back home to make a small adjustment in the nature of human civilisation was moving slowly but still in the right direction, I felt. “These people,” I said to the Queen, “they are the ones who fight the wars and kill the enemies back where we come from. They also hold great power, usually by stealing it from someone else. Sound familiar? I’m telling you, this is the ideal chance for you to see what other gods are like.”
“There are no other gods,” said the Fairy Queen. She was a little defensive about it, I thought.
“There are always other gods,” I said in return.
“Then they are pretenders.”
“Only one way to find out,” I said. “After you take care of these guys. If you can’t beat their minions, how will you be able to fight their true power when you meet face to face?”
Setting up a war between the self-proclaimed gods of one world with this bunch of fairies was quite exciting. Especially as I had no intention of being anywhere near it when it happened. Although I might pay for the PPV of this bout. First time for everything.
“It’s dangerous to go into battle not knowing what trump cards the enemy is holding,” said Maurice, all wise and thoughtful. Faker.
“Then we will test them,” said the Queen. “There is no better way to test what men can do than in battle.” Her eyes were all gleaming with anticipation. Whether or not this would work out, I had discovered her weakness — she was a bloody show-off.
“Well, good luck,” I said. “I’ll have to be making a move.”
“Where are you going?” said Claire.
“I’m not sticking around while you all play silly buggers. I’m going to go find a quiet place to waste my remaining years.”
“These people are here because of you,” said Claire, like this meant I was responsible for something or other.
“No, they’re here because you lot tried to get rid of me and I came back to bite you in the arse. Not literally, that would be disgusting, and probably taste like spam, which I’ve never understood how anyone could enjoy. Doesn’t even look nice on the tin.”
“I thought you wanted them to go to our world,” said Jenny. “They’ll need you for that.”
I sighed. She was right. Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy. And by sometimes I mean all the fucking time.”
“Fine, I’ll watch the first half and see if it’s worth sticking around. If they kill you all, won’t really be much point.”
“You aren’t going to do anything, are you?” asked Maurice tentatively.
“Nope. You can count on me to not get involved no matter how bad things get.” I felt confident this was a promise I could keep.
“Any advice?” Maurice was making sure I had nothing to add.
“Sure, Don’t forget to breathe and stay hydrated.”
There’s no such thing as general advice, other than what I told Maurice. There are things that seem true in general but only because no one ever gets into a general situation. If you want to give advice on a specific job, then sure. As long as you know the person intimately and the job on an expert level, then you can hand out all the bon mots you like. Otherwise, you don’t know shit.
Maurice looked over at the Queen. “I will take care of this.”
“Are you going to do this on your own?” I asked him.
“No,” said Maurice. “We’re prepared for this sort of thing. When you have demons and dragons on the loose, you have to have a contingency plan.”
He seemed very confident. Made me miss the old Maurice.
Maurice walked over to the glass doors that led out a pavilion. They opened for him as he approached and then he took off, flying up into the air.
Once he was high and small, I switched to watching him on the Queen’s screen. She had shifted the view to focus on him.
He had what looked like a large ram’s horn in his hand. I wasn’t sure where it came from as he didn’t have any pockets. Thinking about it a little more make me want to think about it a lot less. He blew the horn, a long, wavering note that wasn’t at all tuneful.
The effect wasn’t immediately obvious until the Queen shifted the view to look down at the city. The streets were rapidly filling with the dead. Many of them in aprons or hairnets, all carrying weapons, although some looked like gardening tools. An army of the dead carrying pitchforks. It was like rush hour on Reddit.
The slaves of Fengarad had been conscripted into the army. Their leader flapped his wings above them and sent them out of the city gates to meet their foe. The old question that had perplexed sages through the ages would finally be answered: would you rather fight a hundred duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?
The dead had a lot of advantages when going into battle. Being dead, mostly. Gargantua had his own advantages, mostly being fucking huge. Who would win?
How they had managed to capture the giant was still a mystery but I was sure the Americans had more tricks up their sleeves. It would be interesting to see what they had brought with them to quell the locals.
Gargantua made the first move as the dead came flooding out of the city. He grabbed his own penis tightly in his fist. I couldn’t tell if he was protecting it or about to start pissing. Having been on the end of his last splash and dash, I didn’t envy the approaching army. First they died and now this. Good thing they didn’t have any feelings.
As the two sides met in the field outside of Fengarad I expected a lot of stamping and squishing of people between the giant’s toe, and the giant being swarmed over as the dead tried to bring him down.
That’s not what happened.
One of Jack’s men lifted a cone onto his shoulder and a strange noise came out. It was high-pitched and what I imagine a dog whistle sounds like to a dog.
The dead began listing to one side, walking in circles, barely able to remain upright.
A sonic attack. Something to do with the inner ear? Put everyone off balance and unable to fight. Pretty smart, until the enemy came up with a countermeasure, like earplugs.
The next moment, the skies were filled with fairies, rushing towards the giant. The sound changed pitch and the fairies fell out of the sky, along with Maurice.
The giant kept moving forward, everyone in its path ignoring it as they reeled from the auditory beating they were taking.
So much for the city’s defences.
“Right, time to go,” I said. “We can sneak off on the dragons if we’re quick.” I turned ready to head for the exit and found Jenny standing in my way.
“You saw how well prepared they are,” said Jenny. “They’ve done their homework. The others don’t stand a chance.”
“Okay,” I said. “And that affects me how?”
“What are you going to do?” she said.
“I just told you. Time to leave.”
“You brought them here. You can’t carry out your plan if you let them set up base and start bringing more people over. They won’t leave you alone.”
“So? That’s their problem. And Maurice’s lot are going to keep fighting. They might even win.”
“They need you.”
“No, they don’t. They certainly won’t admit it. No one who ever got to be in charge and fucked it up ever turned around and said, “Oh look, seems I was completely wrong.” No, they all make excuses and blame someone else, and then decide they failed because their stupid idea wasn’t stupid enough. So they do it in an even more pepega fashion and don’t stop until someone dies. Not some innocent bystander — who would give a shit about that? — I mean when the person running things finally dies and we get a new idiot in charge to make terrible decisions of their own. Well, not me, love. I’ll come back when the rubble’s settled.”
The ground shook as the giant came closer.
Jenny stood her ground. “I can take care of the giant. The dead don’t respond to my power, but the giant will.”
“Great. Good luck.”
“I need your help.”
“I’m not asking you to save the world or fight a war. I’m asking for your help. Just me. I’ll owe you. Not that I have anything you haven’t already taken.”
“What does that mean?”
She smiled. “It means I’ve already given you all that I have, even when you didn’t want it. I won’t be able to pay you back because you already own it all. I want you to help me. Because I asked.”
I sighed. Relationships, they never work. They never work the way you want them to.
“Fine. Can we get it over with quickly?”
She grinned. “That’s my line.”