“What’s wrong?” asked Jenny.
Everyone else followed 288 towards the Palace while I stopped to consider what to do about our possible infiltrator.
“I think 288 might be a spy. If he knows we can stop time, he’s probably going to tell his masters about it. I mean, his real masters. The big ones who eat people.”
Jenny thought it over. The consequences of our secret getting out would be disastrous. “Are you going to kill him?”
It was certainly one option, although not particularly easy to pull off. “We don’t have any weapons.” We did have some weapons in the stable but when Phil stopped time we couldn’t move them so they were still in there.
“You could choke him. You must have quite a lot of experience with that sort of thing.”
It took me a moment to realise she was referring to 288’s previous occupation. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’d be very messy and probably just make him sleepy. The only way to stop them reforming is to cut them up into small chunks and bury the pieces far apart from each other.”
“You could use David’s sword.”
David’s sword was unaffected by the time-stop. He was carrying it with him and he’d already demonstrated how effective it was at cutting up golems. If it could slice and dice a big one, it would have no trouble with a tiddler like 288.
“Yes, I guess so. He still won’t be dead, though. If they dig him up he’ll be able to rat us out.” Problems, problems. “We should catch up to the others before they do something stupid.”
“Look at me!” shouted Flosse. “Ah’m flying.”
She had hold of 288’s feet as he flew above her, lifting her a few inches off the ground. The others were staring at her, not able to find the right words. So I had to be the one to tell her.
“You’re holding onto a flying penis,” I shouted back.
She squealed and let go, landed in a crouch and rubbed her palms on the short grass like that would remove the shame. You can’t wash off unclean. She was a bit ditzy, but you’d think she’d remember something as basic as not grabbing onto any cock that happened to be floating past.
288 himself had no idea what the fuss was about and continued his flight towards the Palace gates.
The gates were enormous, as you’d expect, and made out of horns. The previous owner must have been huge. The gates were also closed and we couldn’t open them with the time-stop still active.
“If I restart time,” said Phil, “we might be able to get the gates open and go inside before the golems reach us.”
We were about a hundred metres from where the golems stood on guard. They were big and bulky, but they could fly and it wouldn’t take them very long to cover the ground between us. There would also bound to be any number of other obstacles we’d need to restart time to get past.
“Maybe they won’t look over here,” said Flossie, hand in pockets.
As dumb as that sounded, I sort of agreed with her. Golems were very literal. They’d been told to not let us out. If we were already out, what would they do about it?
“Okay, trying restarting time and let’s see if they noticed we’ve gone.”
“Really?” said Flossie, suddenly doubting her own idea.
No one looked particularly confident it would work, but Phil nodded and snapped his fingers.
We all looked around apprehensively.
The only change was a slight breeze. The golems hadn’t moved, remaining exactly as they had when frozen. Whether they were following orders to the letter or just hadn’t seen us, I didn’t know.
“Let’s try to stay quiet,” I said. “No point attracting their attention.”
Dudley and David pushed the gates open. They swung open without making the loud creaking sound stairs and doors always make when you want them to be quiet.
We all hurried inside and pulled the gates shut. Since we hadn’t been discovered, and no one appeared to be about, there seemed no point in stopping time again. We followed 288 down the long, straight passage.
It was a plainly furnished interior. The walls were white stone, as were the ceilings. The floor was covered with finely ground gravel that crunched satisfyingly, like walking on bubble wrap.
There were no carpets or rugs. No tapestries hanging on the walls; no portraits of beloved ancestors (or perhaps delicious ancestors would be a more appropriate way to put it). No knick-knacks. No clutter.
Certain parts of the walls had been chiselled into a lattice to let in light and air, but other than that there no decorations. It was entirely missing a woman’s touch. I liked it.
“This place is horrible,” said Claire. “So cold and empty. It’s supposed to be a palace, isn’t it?”
From the outside it looked very palatial, but the interior was quite stark. When you’re a ten-foot demon of indeterminate shape, you probably don’t want a bijou hallway table getting in the way of your swinging tail or expansive diaphanous wings. Sure, it’s a handy place to display that decorative plate with the picture of that thing you liked from that place you visited (in my Mum’s case, a hand painted Cutty Sark from the Greenwich Maritime Museum), but sometimes an empty hallway is just better.
We followed 288 down the long alabaster passageway. Occasionally another imp would appear, sweeping the gravel with a coarse broom or dusting the corners of the ceilings with a rag. They ignored us.
We walked quickly, speeding up without meaning to until we were practically running. The passageway led to a vast hall with a blue dome, empty except for a large stone throne. The blue came from gems covering the interior of the dome, so many it could have been a summer sky.
To the left and right passageways stretched until their walls were lost to sight, although it was merely the lack of light that hid them. 288 seemed to know where he was going. He flitted right and we hurried after him. The fear of being discovered hung over us like thick jelly and was hard to outrun.
We passed a number of doors, some closed, some standing open. On doors and walls alike symbols had been carved and painted. I had no idea what they meant.
“This is the East Wing,” said Cheng. “As you can see, no one has lived here for a long time.”
288 still moved with purpose, entering the final room. It looked as empty as the rest but 288 sank into the floor and disappeared from sight.
We all rushed to where we last saw him to discover a hole in in the ground. By some strange optical illusion the hole was hidden from the doorway. The floor was on two levels but the difference was imperceptible until you walked into the room.
The hole was a shaft that went straight down. Easy enough to navigate if you had wings like 288 and Cheng.
“How are we supposed to get down there?” asked Claire, peering down at 288’s decending head.
I dropped a ball of light down the shaft revealing a series of niches for steps and grips carved in the side of the short shaft. It seemed arrangements had been made for those without the power of flight.
It wasn’t as far down as I’d initially thought. You wouldn’t kill yourself if you fell, twist an ankle at worst. One side of the shaft joined with the wall of the chamber below and the holds went down nearly to that lower floor.
Cheng picked up Mandy and flew down. Cheng could have ferried us all down like that, but he didn’t offer and none of us had the nerve to ask him. When we were busy running for our lives it was easy to forget just how awkward we could be with something as simple as asking someone for a favour.
We climbed down with varying degrees of ineptitude. David shimmied down in seconds; Flossie dithered, first choosing one handhold, then changing her mind for another. It wasn’t very difficult but you wouldn’t have guessed that by our combined performance.
It took about ten minutes to get everyone down (it felt longer) and we found ourselves in a chamber with more passages leading off it.
288 waited for us next to one of the passages.
“Is the treasury down there?” I asked him. There was a part of me that expected this to be a trap.
“Can you ask him where Yuqi is?” David said.
I hesitated. Was it really a good idea to go wake the crazy bitch? But before I could think of a reasonable excuse to put it off till later, Cheng had already asked 288.
“Through there,” he said, pointing at another of the passages.
David didn’t wait to discuss things with the rest of us. He sprinted down the indicated tunnel.
“Shouldn’t we go with him?” Jenny asked me. There was an air of statement more than question to it.
Perhaps it would be best to see what kind of state Yuqi’s body was in. We didn’t want to be taken by surprise while we were in the treasury.
“Okay, we’ll take a quick look.”
Everyone filed into the passageway. It quickly opened up into another chamber in the middle of which there was a bed. A big four poster with a canopy. David was standing beside it, his hand over his mouth.
We all crowded around him. On the bed was a girl, eyes closed.
Phil gasped. “She hasn’t aged at all.”
Both Phil and David were in their thirties. The girl looked in her late teens. She had black hair, dyes blue at the tips. Her skin was as white as the walls and weirdly mottled. This turned out to be because her naked body was covered in a layer of dust.
“This is the Jester?” Jenny asked, suspicion in her eyes. “You didn’t mention she was so beautiful.”
I shrugged. “I guess so. She didn’t look like that when I last saw her. What? Don’t tell me you’re jealous.”
A quick glance at the other girls revealed Jenny’s glare was contagious. Even Mandy was doing it! What had I done? (Answer: nothing).
“Alright, fingers off triggers. Your problem is your all too fixated on the surface. It’s all make-up and hair-dos. Yes, she may not be a bad looking bird when she’s unconscious, and it’s kind of impressive how her—” I looked over at Yuqi’s body “—double D breasts stand up like that when she’s on her back, but trust me, I’ve seen what she’s like on the inside, and it ain’t pretty.”
Although to be fair, the breasts were spectacular.
The glares softened and mumbled protests mingled with sneezes and coughs as the disturbed air, heavy with dust, swirled around us.
“Let’s all be a little less shallow, shall we? And give me some credit for taste.”
Oh, my address? Bullshit House, Blaggingit Lane. Take the high road, you can’t miss it.
Everyone stopped talking. The voice had come from behind us. A wheezing, gasping voice on the edge of death, perhaps beyond it.
We all turned and at first saw nothing. Then, when he spoke again, we all saw him at same time, in the wall. There was a collective gasp.
“You came back for… us.”
He was covered in dust, matching the wall like perfect camouflage, his face and hands exposed like Han Solo frozen in carbonite.
“Bao!” said Phil, and rushed over to him, brushing dust off his face.”You’re alive!”
“Am I?” his voice was faint now, hardly above a whisper. “I’ve died and returned so many times, it’s hard to tell.”
“How do we get you out?”
“Philip,” said the guy who I assumed was the teleporter who’d come to rescue Yuqi with Phil and Dave. “Do something for me.”
“Yes, anything.” Phil frantically felt around the wall as though looking for a release button.
“Philip… Kill me.”