“They’re trolls,” Nyx whispered urgently. His tiny fingers dug into my arm, but at an angle I recognised as the ‘ready to push you into harm’s way’ hold.
“Monsters,” whimpered Marv. I really couldn’t tell what kind of training they’d given her at assassin school, she didn’t seem to be good for anything.
“I know they’re trolls,” I said as I pulled my arms out of their terrified grips, only for them to clamp on again. “Don’t be so freaked out. They won’t kill you unless they can think of an amusing way to do it.”
“This guy,” said a troll leaning against the tunnel wall trying to get his breath. “He gets it.”
“That wasn’t funny,” I said, somewhat annoyed at being driven to the point of hysteria by these knuckleheads. “This is hardly the time or place for your gags.”
The trolls continued to rock with laughter. “Can’t think of a better one,” said the one who’d been covered in blood. He wiped a quartz tear from his face. “Your face… priceless.” He burst out laughing again. It sounded like a hallway full of doors slamming shut one after the other.
Nyx and Marv were still hiding behind me, not sure of what was happening. I wasn’t all that sure myself. Why were the trolls here? Just coincidence? Seemed a bit unlikely.
A tremor, only a mild one, rumbled through the chamber.
“Is all the ancestors and ghost moaning stuff you lot then?” I asked the nearest troll.
“‘Course it is,” he said. “You don’t think there’s really ghosts down here, do you? We’ve been winding up the rats for years—so gullible.”
“Wait,” said Nyx, trembling from anger more than fear. “You’ve been keeping us out of the haunted zone by pretending to be ghosts? That’s… outrageous.”
“I know,” said the troll. “And hilarious. Oooooooh.” His ghostly moan echoed around the cave until it changed into a peal of laughter.
Nyx crossed his arms and looked livid. I decided it would probably be best to get things moving along before things got more heated. There’s nothing to gain by arguing with a troll.
“Do you think you could take us to Raviva before things start collapsing and exploding? It’s all falling apart, in case you hadn’t notice.” I didn’t bother explaining why it was all falling apart, or who had set it off.
“Oh, it’s just a bit of lava,” said the troll, finally collecting himself. “Nothing to worry about.”
Sure, if you happened to be made of solid rock it probably wasn’t a big deal. I finally shook off Nyx and Marv and stepped away from them before they could reattach themselves. They were both reluctant to let go of their human shield but I had moved towards the trolls and they were even more reluctant to follow me. They should have realised we weren’t in any danger from the trolls, if we had been, I’d be the one using them as a shield.
“Raviva is still in charge, right?” I didn’t know how things worked in the troll world, it could all be different since the last time I’d been here. If Raviva was around, then I was pretty sure he would remember me, but even that didn’t mean he’d want to help.
“Oh, yes,” said the troll. “We’ve been keeping an eye out for you and your friends ever since the girl turned up.”
“Girl? What girl?”
“You know, soft things with squishy parts.”
“I know what a girl is. What’s her name?”
“Hmm. Let me think. What was it?” He turned to his fellows who shrugged. “Sorry. Human names are a bit hard to remember. They all sound like Barry or Larry. Impossible to remember.”
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
Rolled off the tongue. Like a fucking boulder chasing after Dr Jones.
The river of lava behind me surged and splashed against the wall of the cave. I scurried towards the tunnel. Even Nyx and Marv overcame their fear of trolls and hurried to join me, thanks in no small part to their ever greater fear of being melted alive.
“I’m Colin. Can we go see Raviva now?”
“Colin? You’re the leader, right?” I was surprised he’d managed to remember that, what with Colin sounding so much like Harry and Gary. “She was right. She said you’d look like you were about to shit yourself.”
It’s a sad commentary on the kind of people I associate with that this description didn’t help me narrow down which of the girls he was referring to. They were all more than capable of such a slanderous characterisation.
“This way then. Try not to step on the slimes.” The trolls, all still chortling to themselves at their wonderful sense of humour, set off down the tunnel. It was dark and I lit up a ball to see better. Slimes swarmed around our feet.
“Where are the slimes going?” I asked. “Are they trying to escape from the lava?”
“Why would they do that?” said the troll. “Slimes love lava. Love it. This lot are off to the kitchen. It’s nearly dinner time.”
I had assumed the march of the slimes was due to the earthquakes but apparently troll cooks had a method of summoning food like pizza delivery.
“You eat slimes?”
“Very tasty when they’re cooked.”
“How do you cook something impervious to heat?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“Poached,” said the troll.
We walked through the larger, better constructed tunnels and I almost felt safe. Even when the tremors hit, the walls barely shook and the trolls didn’t notice at all. Perfectly normal as far as they were concerned. I began to think maybe the disaster I was expecting wouldn’t materialise, but who was I kidding? Between Sonny’s evil machinations, and my wayward magic, there was bound to be a reckoning in Requbar. I was more than happy to be moving in the opposite direction.
Marv and Nyx were right at the back, apprehensively tiptoeing through the slimes to keep up. If Raviva did want to make things tricky for me and he was king of the trolls, so it was more than likely), I could at least use these two as bargaining chips. Which would be cruel and unpleasant, but I’d get over it.
Within a few minutes of walking, the tremors had subsided and the smell of sulphur had faded away leaving an earthy, damp tang in the air. A new sound emerged. A rhythmic beat—thrum, thrum, thrum—like the pounding of distant war drums. And over it a voice sang in a high falsetto:
We're leaving together,
But still it's farewell
And maybe we'll come back
To earth, who can tell?
It was wistful and sad, but clear as a bell and made it obvious which of the girls had found their way to the trolls. Only Flossie could hit those high notes. The song sounded familiar but I couldn’t quite identify it sung with such melancholy, until the chorus kicked.
It's the final countdown
BADA BAM BAM BADA BAMBAMBAM
The final countdown
It sounded like a huge choir had joined in, one with a terrible case of industrial laryngitis. The walls really shook now as the earth itself objected to being forced to listen to a shitty soft rock classic. I’m pretty sure I even saw a couple of slimes turn around and go back the other way.
I almost lost my footing as the ground gagged on cheeseball Euro rock. Luckily, these tunnels were solidly built and only a little dust and dirt fell, my soul, however, was permanently damaged.
I sped up. I had to get to her before she started on the complete works of Bon Jovi and brought an end to all hope and beauty in this world.
We left the march of the slimes to carry on their way and took a left into a large cavern filled with trolls sat in front of an impromptu stage on which Flossie was standing.
“Colin!” she screamed. She jumped off the stage and ran at me, throwing herself forcibly into my arms. She wasn’t a dainty chick so I had to brace myself to not get bowled over.
“Colin! Colin! Ah knew yo’d come.” She stopped hugging me and eagerly looked past me. “Where are the others?”
I peeled myself off her. “It’s just me. You haven’t seen anyone else, then?”
She shook her head sadly. Her joy had quickly changed to disappointment. Not that I held it against her. I’d be put out if the special guest on a show turned out to be me.
“Well, at least two of us made it,” I said. “Probably means the others are around here somewhere.”
She perked up a bit. “Right. We can find them. We can find mah Dudley.”
I imagined she’d had a hard time being separated from her soulmate. She seemed to be bearing up quite well. Hadn’t lost any weight.
“Is there anything to eat?” I asked her. “Apart from boiled slime?”
“Sorry,” interrupted Marv, “but you two aren’t sexual gratification partners, are you?”
It’s not just the fabled creatures that tell you you’re in a fantasy world, it’s the romance of the language.
“What? No!” said Flossie, horrified.
“Sorry, sorry, no, no, I didn’t think you were,” said Marv, waving her hands about clearly aware of how vile an accusation she’d just made. “I was just checking. You see, he’s already declared his affections for me and I didn’t want you to think I was a rival. If you were interested. Which obviously you wouldn’t be.”
For someone not interested in my affections, she didn’t waste time telling people about it.
“What she talking about?” said Flossie, which confirmed that she could see through Marv’s geas, and also that she was an idiot.
I shook my head to indicate the chick was talking out of her neck. Flossie’s glare darkened. I shook my head again, faster. Flossie pursed her lips and closed one eye. I didn’t even know what that meant.
I flicked her on the forehead. “Stop being daft. This is Nyx and this is Marv. He’s a rat adventurer and she’s a confused assassin.”
“Yo’ recruited a new team?” said Flossie pouting with disbelief.
“No. I didn’t even recruit the old team. People just follow me wherever I go. I think the technical term is shit magnet.”
“It’s very nice to meet yo’,” said Flossie, shaking both their hands. “Ah apologise for whatever he’s said or done to yo’.” She leaned towards me. “Is the rat clean?”
“That’s racist,” I informed her.
“I assure you, I’m spotless. Usually.” Nyx rearranged his ragged clothing.
A large troll made his way through the crowd to the front. “Ah, it is you,” he rumbled in a voice like two millstones grinding against each other. The trolls looked quite similar to one another, but this one was definitely Raviva. “I remember you… Don’t tell me…”
“Colin,” I said. Nice to know my ability to make a strong first impression hadn’t deserted me. Still as anonymous as ever. “You know, the leader.”
“Of course,” said Raviva. “I knew that. You match the description Flossie gave perfectly. Like you’re permanently shitting yourself”
He could remember her name, then. “I’m not shitting myself right now.”
“Really? You aren’t apprehensive about being surrounded by so many trolls?”
“No. This is my regular face.”
“Ah, well, in any case. Nice to see you again.” I don’t think he had any recollection of meeting me before.
It didn’t matter that he wasn’t thrilled to have me back, as long as he didn’t want to smash my head in I was happy to be here, away from immediate danger. A chance to rest and catch my breath was all I wanted.
“When do we leave?” said Flossie. “Ah’m ready right now.”
“Give me a chance, will you? I only just got here.”
“But the other’s could be in trouble.”
“I think it’s more than likely,” I agreed.
“So we have to go save them.” She was being very pushy.
“We will. Once we figure out a plan. We don’t even know where to start looking.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Colin, yo’ don’t want me to tell Jenny about your new girlfriend, do yo’?”
Blackmail? I wasn’t sure if this was Flossie speaking out of desperation or if she’d been paying too much attention to my methods. Either way, she was crap at it.
“Floss, if you really thought I was stepping out on Jenny, why would you even think of keeping it from her? What kind of friend are you?”
Flossie’s eyes watered and her head dropped. “Ah know you’re not like that, but they could be in real danger. Mah Dudley and the others. Every second we wait…”
“Bugging out isn’t going to help. Just chill out for a minute and stop nipping at my heels. Okay?”
“No. We have to go now.”
“We aren’t going anywhere.”
“I’ll make it worth your while.”
I was curious what that meant, and slightly concerned. “How?”
“Ah’m the Dragonrider. Me and mah dragons will do whatever yo’ tell us.”
“You and your dragons already do what I tell you.”
“But we won’t if you don’t find mah Dudley!” she wailed. She was getting quite worked up.
It was worth keeping her on side. Her dragon riding ability would come in useful getting around. “Do you have any dragons at the moment?”
“No,” she mumbled. “But Ah can get one when we get outside. Find mah Dudley and Ah promise I’ll follow any order. Even when yo’ tell me to do something horrid and evil that Ah don’t want to do, just say, “Remember that time yo’ said you’d follow any order?’ and Ah’ll do it.” She scowled defiantly.
It was a decent offer. It was very likely I would need her and her dragons at some point, and probably for something unpleasant she wouldn’t want to do.
The earth shuddered and a large crack appeared in the cavern wall. It was the big one. Some chain reaction from deep below had finally reached us. The crack grew, then circled around. A large chunk of the wall fell forward to reveal a hole. From which emerged… more trolls.
“Raviva!” called out the largest of the trolls. “The time for hiding and playing games is over.”
“Keezy!” bellowed Raviva. “The only one who has run out of time is you.”
The trolls lined up facing each other. I could see both sides quite clearly as I was standing between them.
“Fine,” I said to Flossie. “I agree. Time to leave.”