“What about Terry?” said Claire. “She was a woman. I mean, she still is. I suppose she’s come back to life by now.”
It was difficult to know what tense to talk about people in when they were constantly killing themselves.
“Yes, you’re right,” I said. “I guess it’s only in this city that women are missing. Or hiding. Or something else.”
“Yo’ don’t think the men are going to do summit to us, do yo’?” Flossie was sitting up on the bed, momentarily distracted from her hunger pangs.
A shiver ran through everyone. If this was a world where women were in high demand and low supply, it didn’t bode well.
“I don’t know,” I said. “If they were desperate for girls, you’d think someone would have made a move already. When we were in the crowd, no one looked at you like that, did they?”
The girls paused to think about it.
“No,” said Jenny. “If anything, it was the opposite. They went out of their way not to notice us.”
“Even if there is a reasonable explanation for why there aren’t any women,” said Maurice, “they’d still react to seeing three girls suddenly walk into town, wouldn’t they? Them ignoring you feels like....”
“Part of a plan,” I said.
An uncomfortable silence followed as we tried to work out what it could all mean or where it was leading, but none of it made any sense.
I walked over to the window which overlooked the square where we’d listened to Dorma’s speech. It had sounded genuine, as had the reaction. Could they all be part of an elaborate ruse? It seemed unlikely. It was hard enough to organise six people to meet for brunch; getting an entire city to roleplay a civilian uprising would be a logistical nightmare.
“Look,” I said, “we’re just taking shots in the dark here. We don’t actually know if any of what we’re thinking is true. Let’s stick to what we definitely know. Phil can clearly stop time. We’ve seen him do it.”
“What about David?” said Maurice. “Do you think he can really go back in time?”
“Maybe. Or he could be lying. If he set up the assassination attempt it might all be a fake out. But that would mean he knew about my ability to go back, and how would he know that without being able to do it himself?”
I gave Jenny a hard stare. “Maybe killing me to force me back isn’t such a good idea until we’re sure it actually works like that. We only have David’s word for it, and there’s an excellent chance he’s a lying sack of shit.”
Jenny pursed her lips and nodded/shrugged, which wasn’t exactly agreeing with me.
“We should still keep an eye on him for any clues. I’m going to assume he can time jump, for now. Better than underestimating him. The feud between him and Phil might also be a fake. Make us think we’re choosing a side, when there’s only one side to choose from. Democracy in action.”
“If David killing the assassin was a setup, you’d think they’d do a better job of keeping Cory hidden,” said Maurice. “Him standing in the courtyard as we walked past… Did they want us to see him?”
“This is so confusing,” moaned Flossie. “Can’t we just run away?”
“I wish,” I said. “But we don’t have anywhere to run to. We don’t even know if there are other cities. The one advantage we do have is Claire.”
They all stared at me.
“What do you mean?” said Maurice. “Why Claire?”
“Ah,” said Claire nervously, “it turns out I have an ability after all. I can sort of read minds.” She did her old woman move, palms upturned.
“What? Like Professor X?”
“Sort of,” said Claire.
Maurice’s reaction was a mixture of stunned and outraged. “Why couldn’t I get that ability? Everyone’s got powers except me.”
I guess Maurice was due his turn on the gripe wheel.
“Batman doesn’t have superpowers,” I said in an effort to ease his rancour.
“Yes, he does. He was born a billionaire. That’s pretty fucking powerful.”
Maurice was quite upset, which might seem a bit self-centred. His girlfriend had just revealed this amazing discovery and rather than be pleased for her, he was acting like an envious prick. No one blamed him, though, least of all Claire. She’d expressed the same petty sentiment to me just recently, so she was hardly one to judge.
“I don’t have any powers, either,” I said. Maurice looked at me incredulously. I raised a hand to stop him before he could contradict me. “Yeah, I can do magic, but we all can, to some degree or other.”
“Yo’ can attract fish,” Flossie offered.
“So can a worm,” said Maurice bitterly.
“It’s still pretty amazing,” I said. “If we were back home, you’d be famous. Then you’d be kidnapped by the FBI and they’d do experiments on you. But you’d escape and go into hiding, travelling from town to town, helping people with their fish-related problems.”
Maurice grimaced, like he was working a kidney stone out through his pipes, and then his shoulders slumped, the storm blown out of him. “Sorry.” He turned to Claire. “It’s amazing. You’re amazing. I’m just a jealous twat.”
“No,” said Claire. “You’re not. I can read minds, so I should know.” She put her arms around him and they kissed.
Ah, how lovely, you might think. You would be wrong. Kissing is like skiing—fun to do, tedious to watch, and if left unchecked would escalate quickly to something even more gruesome to watch (like snowboarding). I moved between them and the bed. The last thing I needed to see was them fucking in front of us.
“We still have things to sort out, so if you could…”
They unclinched, reluctantly.
“Even if David can go back in time,” I said, “I think it’s pretty obvious he hasn’t, so far.”
“How do you know that?” said Jenny.
“Because they don’t know about Claire. They’re going to work it out eventually and if he repeats the time loop, the first thing he’s going to do is take her out. They can’t have someone who can read their minds on the loose.”
“Couldn’t he have gone back without finding out?” said Claire.
“Really? You think you can keep it a secret?”
“Yes,” said Claire confidently. “Probably,” she added, a little less confidently.
“Well do your best. For now, pick up what you can, but be patient. Try to figure out who that Yuqi girl is and how she split Phil and David up. It might help us figure out what they’re up to and what it is they really want from us. I’ll ask them about their party and what happened to them, that’s the sort of thing people would ask about, right?” I wasn’t the best at small talk so I needed to check. The others shrugged and kind of nodded. They weren’t the best at small talk either so why the fuck was I asking them? “I know talking to strangers isn’t our strongest skill, but we need information. We need to know what the fuck is really going on here.”
Everyone nodded like they knew what they had to do. Clearly they didn’t because I didn’t, and it was my idea. The whole thing felt very much like we were being carefully manipulated the whole way through. Even if David couldn’t travel back in time, he seemed to know an awful lot about us and how to keep us off-kilter.
My personal feeling was that they were all in on it. Dave, Phil, Dorma, Varga, the hardcases in the tavern, the kid waiting tables—every single one of them. I had no proof or even a suspicious look or sideways glance to back up my assertions, but assuming the worst had never let me down.
“I’ve been thinking,” said Maurice. “David can go back in time, Philip can stop time, what if there’s someone who can see the future? That’d make it easier for them to know what we were going to do. Maybe this Yuqi chick?”
“Chick?” said Claire. “Since when do you call women chicks?”
“No, I was just, er, you know…”
“No,” said Claire, “I don’t know? What?”
You’ll remember these two were lip-locked in love’s eternal embrace a moment ago. I turned to give Jenny an eyeroll at the antics of these two, only to find her glaring at me.
“If this Yuqi chick—” apparently it was alright for her to say it “—turns out to be another attractive girl who makes a play for you, I don’t want the plan to involve any breast that aren’t attached to me.”
“Don’t worry,” said Claire, “you’ll know the moment the idea occurs to him.”
Holy fuck, the thought police were real. George Orwell was way off. It wasn’t the government you had to watch out for, it was your unreasonable girlfriend. Every time an innocent, slightly perverted thought crossed your mind, she’d know. Talk about a dystopian future! As soon as we used Claire’s power to get us out of whatever mess we’d landed in, I planned to do everything I could to take it away from her.
I focused my attention on Maurice, giving him a look that said us guys needed to stick together.
“You got something in your eye?” he asked with heartfelt yet oblivious concern. “You know, if they can see the future, we’re in big trouble. How do we fight that?”
“I think the same thing applies,” I said. “They’d know about Claire and do something about it. In fact let’s all keep an eye on her and make sure someone doesn’t try to separate us. She’s our best chance at winning, so she’s also our biggest weakness. We lose her, we lose our only advantage.”
Claire smiled. It was an evil, satisfied smile (that’s how it looked to me, anyway). Finally, she was necessary to the group. Well, she would soon find out being necessary wasn’t the position of reverence she thought it was, as I knew only too well. Rewards tended to be dick-shaped and arse-bound.
Flossie raised her hand. “Ah’ve a question.” As usual, she awaited permission she didn’t need.
“Shouldn’t they have brought us some food by now?”
This was actually a reasonable point. Bibler had said he would send up food but it had been some time and nothing edible had materialised.
“Ah have another question,” said Flossie, hand still raised.
“Why can’t I move my feet?”
“We explained this already,” said Jenny.
“No, ah mean, why can’t I move them now.” She pointed at her feet which were hanging off the end of the bed.
I tried to take a step but the dagger in my belt held me in place. I squatted down so it slid out, remaining hanging in mid-air.
“Phil must have stopped time,” said Maurice. “Why would he need to do that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Can’t be anything good.” I went over to the door and tried to open it. It didn’t budge.
“You can’t—” said Maurice.
“Yes,” I said like I knew already, but I’d only realised once the handle wouldn’t even turn.
Dudley was over by the window. “I can see a few people down there. They aren’t moving.”
Whatever Phil was up to, we couldn’t do much about it trapped in here.
There was a clatter as my hovering dagger fell to the floor. Flossie jumped to her feet.
I grabbed the dagger and pointed it at Flossie. “Take off your shoes.”
There was a scream from somewhere and then a series of thuds and crashes.
“Should we go out there?” asked Jenny.
“Better than waiting in here,” I said.
Jenny grabbed the door handle, took a breath and pulled it open. There were no guards. Everyone turned to look at me. I was the only one with a weapon—how they’d managed to leave theirs behind, I couldn’t tell you—plus I was the leader, so meat-shield duty fell to me, obviously.
I stuck my head out of the door. The passageway was empty, apart from the shrieks and shouts of terror.
“Let’s go, and keep it quiet.” I headed in the opposite way to the one we’d come.
“Aren’t the stairs the other way?” whispered Jenny, making it hard to hear her over the screams.
“There has to be more than one staircase in this place,” I said. “Our goal is to listen for the sounds of people being eaten, and move in the opposite direction.”
This seemed to be an acceptable plan and they all fell in line behind me. We scurried along the corridor keeping close to one wall. My heart thumped in my throat as the sound of innards becoming outards filtered up from below.
We found a smaller staircase, perhaps for servants, and descended as quietly as we could. Why do stairs always creak and groan even louder when you try your hardest to step lightly down them?
We made it to the bottom without encountering anyone and found ourselves within sight of the door we had come through from the catacombs. If we could get down there, we would at least have a chance of finding our way out, even if it took a couple of weeks. Better to live in a cave than die on a plate, was my new motto.
The noises were louder and more unpleasant. There was definitely squishing and munching.
I ran across the hall to the door and pushed it open. I clattered down the stairs two at a time, no longer caring if we were heard. The secret door in the wall was wide open. I was pretty sure David had closed it when we came up this way. There wasn’t time to double back, and nowhere else to go.
The others were behind me in a tight group. I lit a ball of light and charged into the darkness, and almost tripped over David.
He was lying in the middle of the tunnel, back propped up against the wall. One arm was missing and blood flowed freely from numerous wounds.
His head fell forward and then jerked across to look at us. His face was uncovered and badly bruised on one side, his left eye little more than a giant welt.
“You—” He coughed up what I assumed was blood, although it was thick and black like oil.
“What’s happening up there?” I asked him.
“Phil… ip. He… weretics. Kill… every…” He began coughing again.
“Claire, try to read his thoughts.”
David’s eyes flashed at me. “She can…”
Shit. If he could go back through time, he’d now know she could read minds. Nice one, dickhead.
Claire knelt down beside him, wincing at the sight of all the blood.
I crouched down, too. “Can you go back in time, David?”
His body shook. I think he was laughing.
“No,” said Claire. “He was bluffing.”
That at least was a relief. “What’s going on, David? Don’t speak, just think.”
“Philip,” said Claire. “Yuqi. Plan.” Claire turned to me. “I can’t… it’s all jumbled.”
“Keep trying. Who is Yuqi, David?”
“She’s…” Claire turned her head, like she was listening harder. “Friend. She was in our party. She betrayed… Made a deal with the masters. We are her puppets. She controls… Philip thought we could save her. Still thinks… Made a deal with the weretics. With Yuqi. She won’t keep her…”
“Ah, here you all are!”
I spun around, rising to my feet. Phil was standing in the opening. Without thinking, I threw the dagger in my hand. It stopped inches in front of Phil’s face. He leaned to one side and it carried on, hitting a wall somewhere.
“Is that really any way to say hello?”
A dark figure rose behind him. It stooped to get its head through the opening. It moved in jerks, like a Ray Harryhausen model.
Its face was human. Ish. If a human put a grenade in his mouth and Phil stopped time just as it exploded.
It barely fit in the tunnel, its extended limbs stuck out at weird angles, its hands and feet disproportionately big.
Dudley pushed Flossie, who was frozen with fear, behind him and shielded her from the thing. It reached over Phil’s head and closed a hand over Dudley’s head, and then plucked it off like ripe fruit.
Dudley’s body fell, blood spurting from the gaping neck. The creature popped the head into its mouth and swallowed.
Flossie screamed. It wasn’t a scream of fear. It was pure heartbreak. Tears filled my eyes for reasons I can’t explain. I’ve never heard anything so full of loss.
“We only need you, Colin,” said Phil. “Opening portals requires a lot of power. You’re the source we need.”
Flossie screamed again. This time it was overflowing rage. She ran at Phil, and was swatted into the wall by a flick of the giant hand. She crumpled into a heap.
Claire, who had pushed her head against David’s, suddenly stood up. She had David’s sword in her hand, but she wasn’t aiming it at Phil or his friend. She pointed it at me.
“Maurice, buy me a few seconds.” Without responding, Maurice ran at Phil. The creature made a grab for him, but he dodged.
“You have to go back. Stop Yuqi. Find Yuqi. Kill Yuqi. Don’t let her see you.” Claire put both hands around the hilt and raised the sword.
“Wait, wait,” I said. “Find Yuqi, hide from Yuqi… it doesn’t make sense. This could all be a trick. David could be part of it. We don’t even know if dying will send me back.”
“It’ll work. I saw.”
“How does he know? You said he can’t travel back.”
She hesitated. I could see doubt in her eyes.
Jenny snatched the sword from her hands. She turned and plunged it into my chest. The explosion of pain was so huge I felt myself expand like a balloon. Then there was something pressed against my lips, so hard the sensation overwhelmed everything else. Then darkness.
The pain in my chest was gone, although the memory of it surrounded me like a fuzzy cloud. My lips tingled like static. I wondered if this was how Alfredo felt.
I don’t know how long I stood there (wherever there was) but slowly I remembered why the girl I loved had stabbed me in the heart, other than it being inevitable. I had to go back and fix all this. Or at least, not fuck it up so bad.
“Colin…” a familiar growl whispered to me.
It’s never easy, is it. I had to get past Laughing Boy first.
“I don’t really have time for this,” I said. “I don’t suppose you want to show me the way out?”
“Oh, you won’t be going anywhere this time. You’re going to stay with me. We’re going to be best friends for ever. And ever.”
“No,” I said. “We aren’t.” I started walking.
A breeze brushed past me, sweeping over my face so I could taste it. Hot and sweet. Then cold and sour. It whipped around me with such force I stumbled.
“Get away from me, fuckface.”
“Oh, Colin,” the voiced purred deeply, “can’t we at least try to be civil? You could at least call me by my name.”
Everyone would be dead by now. Eaten alive, or worse. There’s always a worse. I had to get back. Find Yuqi. Kill Yuqi.
I looked behind me. The voice was right in my ear, but it felt closer than before, somehow. “Okay, what’s your name?”
A blue light crackled in jumps and starts. Curves glimmered in the dark. Tentacles twisted together like vines growing out of the earth, towering over me. Legs and arms took shape. A head with horns curled like a shower of sparks caught in a cyclone. Eyes opened inches from my face, lidless and barking mad.
And then a mouth ripped open, stretching the fabric of existence apart to reveal an endless expanse of stars. From it came a voice so heavy, each word slammed into my brain and slid down into my chest.
“You can call me Yuqi.”