“Aren’t sorcerers and warlocks the same thing?” I said. “I mean, they both do magic, right?”
“To some extent yes,” said Bibler. “It’s how they do it that separates them. But I am a mere amateur when it comes to these matters. I just fiddle with knobs.” He waved the box in his hands at me. “There are other people who can explain the intricacies of the dark arts far better than I.”
“Like this guy from our world?” asked Maurice. “What’s his name?”
“We call him First,” said Bibler, “because he always acts before anyone else—it’s very impressive. As for his real name, I should probably leave that to him. He’s very sensitive. Doesn’t like people talking behind his back. And always seems to know when you’ve been doing it. The power of a warlock.” He rolled his eyes dramatically.
It was all very mysterious. And possibly a bunch of lies.
“Shall we go?” said Bibler, like we were all the best of friends. Mind you, he did have the only ride in town (or just outside of town).
“Do you really expect us to get in another of those boxes?” Everything was healed up, but the memory of the crash landing was enough to send a twinge down my spine. Imagined or not, the warning was clear: don’t fly in magic boxes until they at least invent the seat belt.
“Oh, we’re too close to the city to fly. If we’re spotted, it will only make it easier for those who are looking for you. No, we’ll have to walk from here. The exercise will do you good!” He slapped his large belly, setting off a series of jiggles it was hard to take your eyes off.
Bibler set off at a brisk pace, confident we would follow.
We didn’t really have much of an option. Yes, he could be leading us into a trap, and we had little chance of winning any kind of fight, but the city was the only place we knew about, and as he had said, it helps to know a few shortcuts.
We formed a train behind the Fat Controller and stomped through the tall, yellowing grass. Still no signs of birds or even insects.
Claire and Maurice were in the rear. I could hear them discussing something. Eventually, Maurice pulled out his notebook, ripped out a few pages from the back and gave them to Claire, along with a pencil. Apparently, he carried spares.
“She’s really taken your suggestion to heart,” said Jenny. “She’s going to have a list of question for this guy we’re going to see.”
“Great,” I said. “That should annoy the fuck out of Gul’dan, or whatever his name is.”
“Gul’dan was a shaman, not a warlock,” Maurice shouted from the back. How did he hear me? Never underestimate the ears of nerd. “Although he did later become a warlock, so technically you’re right.”
I stopped and turned around. “What do you mean, he turned into a warlock?”
Maurice stopped. “He made a pact with a demon and got a bunch of horrible powers.”
“So a warlock is someone who makes a deal with demons? The guy we’re going to see is in cahoots with the masters?”
“Did you seriously just use cahoots in a sentence?” said Jenny.
“I can assure you,” said Bibler, “First is definitely not in cahoots with the masters.”
“Oh, you can assure me, can you? Because ‘warlock’ means he’s in cahoots with someone. Right?” The last bit was posed to Maurice for confirmation.
“I believe so, although my WoW lore is limited to the now defunct trading card game. It was quite good, as I remember. I never played the video game.”
“We aren’t talking about WoW,” I gently shouted at him, “we’re talking about warlocks. Stay focused.”
“What the fook is wow?”
“Not now Flossie. Bibler, where does First get his power from?”
Bibler shrugged. “I don’t know, but he uses those powers to fight the masters, not serve them. The masters don’t share their power with anyone.”
“You said he killed sorcerers. How does that hurt the masters?”
“It would be best if you asked him yourself.” Bibler turned and set off again.
“I’ll put it on my list,” said Claire, scribbling it down as she raced after him.
Jenny shook her head at me. “Cahoots.”
And they got back in line, like I hadn’t uncovered a massive reason not to go anywhere near this guy.
“Where are you all going? Can’t you see it’s a trap?”
“We don’t have anywhere else to go, Admiral,” said Maurice. “It’s a guy from our world. He’s probably just using the word incorrectly.”
“Ah’m hungry. They’ll have food, won’t they?”
“Has everyone gone nuts?” I said to no one, since they had all left me standing there.
Jenny turned as she walked. “No, they just think if it comes down to a fight between you and him, you’ll win.” She spun around again and carried on walking.
Where had this confidence in me come from? They hadn’t even seen the other guy. He could be able to summon balrogs, while I could put on a nice light show.
On the other hand, they probably would feed us before sacrificing us to Mephistopheles, and I was getting a bit peckish.
After about an hour of trudging, we arrived at the city. There were no wall, not even a gate. Tall, crooked and precariously stacked, the buildings looked like they might fall over any minute. They also gave the impression they would wait until you were within reach before they did it.
The sound hit me first, and then the smell. Raucous and unrelenting, the noise was like a wall you had to walk through. There was so much of it, you couldn’t tell where it came from, you were just in it.
The smell, on the other hand, was easy to identify. It was everything bad. Sweet and sour to damp and unsanitary. If you’ve ever been to a rubbish tip, you could sell that odour as a perfume here.
I pulled up my shirt to cover my nose. Flossie was gagging and retching. Everyone else was randomly naming things they recognised like they were at a particularly horrific wine tasting event (so, any wine tasting event).
“Bananas in vinegar!”
“Oh, oh fish. Do they have fish here?”
“That’s not fish. I think it’s a rotting corpse.”
“Yes, the rotting corpse of a fish.”
“Cheese! Oh dear lord, I believe it’s Limburger.” Only Dudley could be that specific. He took in a deep breath through his nose, savouring the rancid aroma.
“Smells like feet,” said Flossie, hardly able to speak.
“Of course. That’s how you know it’s the good stuff.”
Fortunately for the rest of us, the worst of the miasma seemed to hang around the city’s edges. Once we passed through it, the rest of the city settled down to a typical third world city with open sewers. Almost pleasant in comparison.
The city itself was a maze of narrow alleys that were little more than dirt tracks; gaps more than streets. Overhead, the buildings leaned against each other in a beautiful display of mutual support, and the inescapable threat of imminent collapse.
The people matched their city—they made a lot of noise and they smelled bad. There was also a lot of them and they all had somewhere to go.
Bibler stood out from the crowd, his girth and richly coloured clothes in stark contrast to the thin and shabby people swarming around us in their ragged garments.
Any area larger than a sandpit was cluttered with stalls selling food and drink and various unidentifiable baubles. Money exchanged hands quickly. They were using coins which meant some kind of economy was in place. All I had to do was invent body deodorant and I’d clean up.
Claire came bustling up from the back and tapped Bibler on the shoulder. “Where does all this food come from? We didn’t see any farms.”
Bibler seemed a bit surprised to be interrupted while enjoying his daily constitutional. Despite his large size, he had strolled along jauntily with no signs of flagging and wasn’t even out of breath. He stopped and smiled benevolently at Claire.
“Villages and farms are rare on the south side where you arrived. The land is rough and worn out. Most people live to the north and around the Inner Sea.” He turned to set off again, but Claire grabbed his sleeve and pulled him back.
“So the Inner Sea, that’s where you get fish? There aren’t any giant sea monsters in there, like in the ocean?”
“Fish, yes. Sea monsters, no. Is there anything else? We don’t want to be caught up in the midday rush.” He clearly meant to end the conversation, but Claire was not so easy to blow off.
“Yes, I wanted to know about the flying box. Where did you steal it from? Are there more like it? Do they have a power source? Do you have to refuel them? How does the controller work? ”
Bibler was reeling from the barrage, on the ropes and ready to throw in the towel.
It should have occurred to me earlier that Claire’s relentless nagging didn’t have to be an irritation to be avoided, it could be used as a weapon.
Bibler did his best to not answer any of her questions, which made sense. He was bringing us in to get information from us, not to give away all his secrets. And vice versa. The only difference was that even if we didn’t manage to prise any info out of him, I’d still have the joy of seeing Claire reduce him to a quivering mess.
What saved Bibler was a sudden surge of people that came from behind us and swept us along like so much flotsam and jetsam. When he said there’s be a midday rush, he wasn’t kidding.
There was clear, unified purpose to this mob. Their destination was a large open area, the first we’d encountered. It was currently packed full of people but in their absence it would have made a decent football field. It wasn’t clear why such a large piece of real estate would be left empty in a place like this.
The crowd continued to gather, becoming denser. We were bundled into the middle, Bibler still with us. It was like the Notting Hill Carnival, but without the contact high. The mood grew ugly and fights broke out, although not near us.
We were squeezed together too tightly to get away but there was an air of expectation that made me want to stay and find out what they were here for.
Everyone faced towards the one building that didn’t look like two buildings that had fallen on each other. Sandstone blocks gave it a solidity none of its neighbours could boast. The people all strained for a view of its entrance.
The enormous doors swung open and a phalanx of guards marched out, followed by a procession of nobles decked out in jewels and wearing fine cloth similar to Bibler. He was on tiptoes, as eager to watch as any of the other people, his mission to escort us to his compatriots forgotten for the moment.
Finally, a tall man with closely cropped hair and face like a male model from the 70s—square jaw, thick eyebrows, dimple in his chin, box of Milk Tray under his robe, (probably)—came out and the crowd burst into cheers.
Bibler turned to look at us, just in time to see Claire hold up a piece of paper with ‘Who is he?’ written on it. You don’t escape the Claire Inquisition that easily.
“He is the leader of this city,” said Bibler, his voice raised to be heard over the hubbub. “General Dorma.”
Dorma had climbed onto a podium that hadn’t been there a second ago and raised a hand. The crowd silenced.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if his first words had been, “Kneel before Zod,” but they weren’t.
“Citizens, today I have not much time so my report will be brief.”
A murmur of disapproval ran through the crowd.
“Never fear, the masters are pleased with you and have agreed to increase the rationing to double the daily amount.”
A cheer went up.
“Lies,” Bibler whispered under his breath.
“Do not forget,” continued Dorm, “the Day of Weld approaches. The true believers will be rewarded and brought into the august Palace of Laughter, home of the masters.”
“And because of the need to prepare ourselves for that day, rations will be stopped for two days.”
Cries of rage and anger rang out.
“Citizens, this is a temporary measure. First the famine, then the feast.” He signalled his guards who spread out in a line, presumably to prevent anyone trying to rush the stage. There weren’t enough of them to control the whole mob if things turned nasty, but their spears would be able to pick out any troublemakers.
“I will speak with the masters again, I am leaving soon to arrange the next shipment of supplies. Double the amount!”
The cheers returned, but they couldn’t hide the undercurrent of dissatisfaction spreading through the crowd.
Dorma used the explosion of noise to cover his retreat back into the building, rapidly followed by the nervous nobles. The guards brought up the rear.
Once they had gone, the crowd began to disperse.
“This way,” said Bibler. He led us into a shack. It looked like every other building, no signs or obvious indications of what kind of place it was.
It turned out to be a tavern. Drinks were being served to unsavoury types crowded around small tables. There was the slightest of pauses in the intense furtiveness as we entered, and then normal furtiveness was restored.
It was a dark and dingy establishment, full of shadowy corners and shady characters. Everyone had a weapon of some kind. Blades hung from belts, glinted from the tops of boots or lay within easy reach on the table tops. Many of them had missing limbs.
Bibler went to the bar, had a few words with the barman—a small man with one eye a milky cloud—and then indicated for us to follow.
He took us into the back, through a doorway into an interior that was even darker and dingier. He sat down at a table in the corner. We all took seats, and only then did I realise there was someone already sitting at the table.
Robed, cloaked, hooded and veiled, it was the kind of outfit you’d wear if you were cosplaying an assassin at Comic-Con. I mean, it looked the part, but it didn’t feel intimidating.
“I have brought them as instructed, First,” said Bibler. “They are not as I expected.”
“No?” said a voice from deep inside the shadows, although the voice itself was not deep. “Better or worse?”
Bibler shrugged. “Hard to say.”
“Hey,” I said, in a friendly manner, “you aren’t going to make us call you First are you? It’s kind of a douchey nickname. No offence.”
I couldn’t see his eyes, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t looking at me kindly.
“David.” The restraint was palpable.
“Great. Are you from Hong Kong by any chance? I know Uncle Pete sent a team to the Temple Under the Mountain, so I was thinking you might be one of them.”
“Yes. A long time ago I lived in Hong Kong.” The edge in his voice had been replaced by a soft wistfulness. “I take it Uncle Pete sent you here.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think he tried to kill us and we ended up here instead.”
My guess was that Uncle Pete had done the same to his group as he’d done to ours. Enemy of my enemy.
“Colin’s a sorcerer,” Claire interrupted aggressively. “Are you going to kill him?”
“Claire, you know we spoke about knowing when not to butt in? This would be one of those times.”
“Are you?” insisted Claire.
“You are all sorcerers,” said David.
“We only dabble,” said Claire. “Colin’s the only one who can do impressive shit.”
“Er, Claire, you’re supposed to ask questions, not go around painting bull’s eyes on people’s backs.”
“I’m getting answers. I can’t ask them after he’s killed us all, can I?”
“Why do yo’ kill sorcerers?” Flossie asked.
There was a long sigh from somewhere inside David’s hood. “We have much to talk about, but I have to take care of something first. Wait here.”
He got up. He was refreshingly short and not bulked up. Assuming he couldn’t shoot lasers out of his eyes, I quite fancied my chances. Of course, in this world, he might actually be able to shoot lasers out of his eyes.
He walked across the room to a door with a curtain across it. And then he leaned against the wall and did nothing.
It was a bit like talking to someone at a party and them telling you they had to go say hello to someone but they just walked off to stand by themselves.
“That’s a bit rude,” said Claire.
“Well, you were a bit full on,” I said. “And don’t tell people I’m a sorcerer. Especially when their job description includes ‘killing sorcerers’.”
“I was trying to provoke a reaction. The way you do. Rile them up.”
“Well, don’t. No riling.”
“How am I supposed to improve if I don’t practice.”
“You don’t need practice in that area. You’re already too good at it.”
David was still standing by the door, looking cool. He had a belt around his waist that hung at an angle, like it was weighted on one side. It could have been a sword, or a lightsaber, or a pair of rollerblades. Cool people can carry that stuff off. If I walked around with rollerblades people would assume I’d had a stroke and had forgotten how to be a proper human. But David could whip out a pair of ridiculous footwear with wheels and everyone would be like, “Oh, that’s so clever, always ready to make a quick getaway.”
There was a movement behind the curtain and a soldier, one of the guards from the gathering in the square, walked out and held the curtain aside. General Dorma entered.
He was dressed in less garish clothing and had a less belligerent look on his face. He seemed quite relaxed.
“What’s he doing here?” I asked Bibler.
“He’s the leader of the rebellion.”
More guards followed.
“The leader of the rebels is also leader of the city?” It seemed ridiculous. Why not just let yourself win?
“Yes. It’s the perfect cover. As long as the masters do not suspect him, he is ideally positioned.”
David stepped away from the wall. From his side he drew not, sadly, a pair of rollerskates, but a sword. He held it out, and just stood there.
A dark shape jumped down from somewhere above, a weapon held in its hands, aimed at Dorma. It fell directly onto David’s waiting sword like it was committing honourable sudoku.
There were gasps and shouts from around the room, not least from the guards around Dorma.
“I can see why you call him First,” I said. “It was like he knew it was going to happen before it happened.”
“Yeah,” said Maurice, eyes narrowed. “Or like he'd seen it happen before.”