201. Girl Man and Rat Boy

“The One-eyed Devil,” repeated Keezy. “She is preparing to attack Fengarad any day now.”

“Are you talking about Jenny?” 

Keezy gave me a blank look, which on a troll is like looking at a rock wall only not so friendly. 

“Jenny? The girl I was with in Monsterland?”

“I don’t recall anyone with a scar like that,” said Keezy.

“She didn’t have it then,” chimed in Flossie. “She got it off one of the dragons. Spat right in her face. Accidentally.”

“Oh, really?” said Keezy, all interested. “Unfortunately the dragons scattered once the mountain was destroyed. Must be very upsetting for you.”

“Yes,” said Flossie. “Ah miss mah dragons.”

“I don’t get it. How can you take human shape and live among us if you can’t tell us apart or remember our names? Doesn’t that make things tricky? And how come you remembered her?”

To be honest, that’s was what was really niggling. If they couldn’t remember anyone, fair enough. But if they just couldn’t be bothered to remember some over others, that was just rude.

“But she’s the Dragonrider,” said Keezy. “We all know who she is.”

Great. Flossie’s quest to become the most famous person in Flatland was proceeding nicely. A singer, a rider of dragons and a huge twit—your classic triple threat. I should have signed her up to my talent agency and hired her out for parties, got rich on commission. What’s ten percent of give me a fucking break?

“But you are correct, it isn’t easy keeping tabs on who’s who. We have to use a colour coding system. The Dragonrider’s hair is very orange, so that makes her quite easy to identify. Yours is less unique.”

“It’s not orange,” said a pouting Flossie, “it’s strawberry blonde.”

Sure. And marmalade’s the colour of gold bars.

“My apologies, Dragonrider,” said Keezy.

“Fine, whatever,” I said, trying to cut the lovefest short. “Can you get one of your agents to find out what the One-eyed Demon’s name is and maybe write it down before they forget? It would be helpful to the Dragonrider. Right?” I nudged Flossie, possibly harder than I needed to.

“Ow! Yes, please do that.”

Keezy nodded, it might even have been a bow. The last thing I needed was Flossie’s ego all pumped up like a ripe balloon. She was prone to getting too full of herself as it was, I’d have to stick a pin in her when I got the chance. 

If Jenny was in Requbar, she was in danger of being drowned in burning lava. A hero-type would drop everything and take crazy risks to rescue her. But she didn’t need rescuing. She already had her own army, apparently, which would be of far more help to her than me. Plus, they were eunuchs, which was a nice bonus. If your girlfriend’s going to be surrounded by hundreds of men…

But the other thing that made me feel less worried about Jenny’s chances was that she would be heading for Fengarad. Even if she was marching towards a big fight, it would mean leaving Requbar, and it would also take time. I would much rather meet her on the way there than under a shower of flaming magma shooting out of the ground. Assuming it was her and not some other woman with a messed up face and a penchant for telling guys what to do.

“It is agreed,” said Raviva. While I had been trying to get some kind of serviceable information out of Keezy (and failing), Raviva had been talking to his trolls. “We have our team selected.” He rubbed his giant granite hands with glee. He loved playing games and I was very happy not to be the one playing them with him. “Let us proceed.”

“Wait!” a voice called out from behind me.

I turned to find Marv holding her stiletto dagger under Nyx’s chin. She had him positioned in front of her, one hand tightly clasping the tuft of hair on top of his head and pulling it back to expose the throat. The dagger tip was pushed against his skin, drawing a single drop of blood.

Nyx’s beady eyes had grown to twice their size and he looked terrified. Well, he was only two years old.

“Er… what are you doing?” I asked Marv.

“You. You’re in league with the monsters. You’re one of them.”

“No,” I said, not quite able to believe just how terrible a secret agent she had turned out to be. “I’m not one of them and I’m not one of you. I have higher aspirations.”

“No matter! I won’t stay here while you collaborate with the enemy. You’re going to show me the way out of here.”

“I don’t know the way out of here,” I said truthfully.

“Then make one of your monster friends tell you.”

My monster friends watched, mildly amused by my inability to keep my people in check. Nothing I wasn’t used to.

“Do what I tell you or he dies.” 

“He’s a rat. They’re trolls. They don’t give a shit if you kill him. Look at them. They didn’t even bother taking your weapon. You aren’t a threat to them and neither am I.” I paused to let my meaning get through to her, but her head just twitched from side to side as she made sure no one was sneaking up on her. No one was. “They’ve lived down here forever and never bothered Requbar. You know why? You have nothing they want. All the stuff you’re so proud of, that you think is so precious, they think it’s garbage. Even the ones up there causing a ruckus, the only reason they came across the bridge from Monsterland was because the man in the spire blew up their home.”

Marv didn’t seem to be getting it. She tightened her grip on poor Nyx and pricked him under the chin. “I’m not bluffing. I’ll do it.”

“Then do it. They don’t care and neither do I. Go ahead.”

There was a pained expression in Marv’s eyes as some kind of struggle took place inside her and then she pushed Nyx away and lowered her dagger. “You truly are a monster.”

Nyx stumbled to the floor, breathing hard and clutching at his neck.

“No,” I said, “you truly are an idiot. Why did you take him as a hostage? Did you really think all monsters are the same, they all stick up for each other? If you were going to grab anyone, it should have been her.” I pointed at Flossie. 

“Hey!” Flossie complained.

“You really are the worst assassin ever. Why did they even send you? How were you planning on killing Sonny? Old age?”

Marv’s face screwed up tight. “I am a highly trained operative of—”

“Yes, yes, long live the Queen.” It really made no sense why they would send someone this bad if they wanted Sonny out of the way. Was I missing something? “Look, I have things to do, you carry on. Kill innocent rats, go off spelunking, take a running jump into a lava lake, whatever you want. I have bigger problems. Which reminds me—” I turned to Raviva “—do you have any human clothes lying around? These boots are itchy as hell.”

My shoes, which had spent far too much time covered in slime, were in a terrible state and still covered in digestive juices.

It turned out the trolls had a large supply of human clothing left behind by former ‘guests’. Kaceyton took us to a cavern that was more like a department store. I left Marv where she was. The trolls were far too excited about the contest to care what she did, so she could have just left if she wanted. She might have found her way out, eventually. 

I found some clothes that fit, although they didn’t really match. I was tempted by a pair of leather trousers, but I wasn’t quite Kanye enough to pull that off and sadly never will be. I did choose a hat with ear flaps that didn’t suit me, but the colour was the more important thing. Bright green.

“What would yo’ have done if she did take me hostage?” asked Flossie while I looked for a top not covered in blood stains.

“Nothing. My policy is never to negotiate with idiots. Plus, I could always heal you.”

“It would still hurt,” said Flossie, not very pleased with my answer.

“Have you any idea what I went through for you people in Nekromel?” Of course she didn’t. Time travel had reset her memory and I wasn’t about to tell her the things I’d done.

“Yo’ could at least show yo’ cared a little bit. The others are out there, probably in trouble. We shouldn’t be wasting time playing games with trolls. We should be looking for them.”

“That’s what I am doing. Going off half-cocked, running blindly any which way isn’t helping anyone. If we can get a bunch of trolls to help us, track down the Mezzik, maybe get you a dragon, then we can get some shit done.”

“How long’s that going to take?” wailed Flossie. “They might need help right now! Ma Dudley could be knee deep in shit, waiting for us.”

“Yes, but wanting to help and actually helping aren’t the same thing. You have to stop being so impulsive and put some thought into what you’re doing. Seriously, even you, Floss. Think it through. Have a plan. You get what I’m saying?”

Flossie pinched her mouth into a tiny bud and nodded once, a determined look on her face. “Toight like a toiga.”

I had no idea what that meant, and I wasn’t going to ask.

We returned to the trolls, me wearing my new dead man hand me downs, Flossie wearing a frown. I don’t think she was sad, she was just thinking. Can be painful if you haven’t done it before.

The trolls were in small groups having deep discussions. Strategies, tactics, bets—all the usual pre-game hype. I walked up to Raviva and Keezy who seemed much more comfortable around each other now they had their disagreement reduced to a game. 

I pointed at my hat. “Green.” I pointed to my chest. “Colin. Green. Colin. Green. Colin.” My finger went up and down trying to get them to imprint who I was. 

Normally, I would want to remain as anonymous as possible, but this was even better. Get them to learn my name while it was useful, then remove the hat and hey presto, it’s like I never existed. My new brand of magic—the invisibility hat that only works when you take it off.

“Come,” said Raviva. “The labyrinth awaits.”

He took me and Flossie through a tunnel that sloped upwards. It came out on a ledge above a vast cavern. Below us was a maze. From our vantage point we could see down on the walls, which were several meters high, but still far beneath where we stood. It spread out into the distance, forming a mesmerising pattern. 

There were torches attached to walls in some places, glowing slicks of lava in others. Roars and screams of what sounded like wild animals echoed around the chamber. Rushing water, groaning wheels turning, creaking and clanking chains. There was a lot going on down there, all of it making me very happy to be up here.

“The entrances are below us, the contestants will enter from the far sides. The exit is opposite. You are welcome to make an inspection, if you wish.”

Sure, go in to have a look, suddenly there’s a malfunction in the central computer and we’re trapped in there, fighting for our lives. I’ve been to the movies, I wasn’t going to fall for that one.

“I’m fine. I think I can see enough from up here to be able to spot any foul play.”

There was a tremendous crash and part of the cavern wall to my left collapsed. A gush of bright yellow lava flooded through the maze, swamping a large area, knocking down walls and provoking screams from animals that weren’t just wild, they were absolutely livid.

“Oh dear,” said Raviva. “We’ll have to get that fixed.”

The start of the contest was delayed as repairs were made. The trolls treated it as perfectly normal, everyday wear and tear. A professional labyrinth of death required regular maintenance.

We were taken to get something to eat. I didn’t ask what it was because I was hungry. I spotted Marv sitting in a corner, looking miserable. I thought she might have taken her chances and left, but apparently she’d rather take her chances here. What was more surprising was that Nyx was sat next to her. He was apparently more frightened of the trolls than he was of her. Their common enemy had produced some kind of truce between them, although I couldn’t see it lasting long.

Having a few hours to kill, I decided to take a nap. The trolls didn’t bother with bedding, or beds, but the store room where I got my new outfit did just as well. I heaped some clothes into a pile and lay on top of them. My plan was simple and straightforward. Observe the trolls do the maze. Try to get Keezy to win. Get outside with a troll escort. Find a way to Jenny. Get a dragon and find the others.

It was never actually going to be that simple and straightforward, obviously, but every journey starts with a single step. That trips you up flat on your face.

I was exhausted and fell asleep easy enough. I was woken by a strange sensation that I was moving. Maybe even floating. My eyes refused to open and I had to struggle to peep through my unnaturally heavy eyelids. All I saw was the floor passing under me, far too close to my face.

I was being carried, face down. There was a flickering light from a torch somewhere ahead. I couldn’t look up because my whole body was frozen. Nothing responded.

“I think he’s awake,” squeaked a ratty voice from near my feet. 

“Good,” said Marv from near my head. “That’s fine. Means it was the right amount of poison. He’ll stay paralysed for a while yet.”

She had poisoned me. I could heal myself, but I needed to be able to move my fingers to do that and I was unable to move anything. 

You had to hand it to Marv, she knew how to take constructive criticism. This time her hostage was someone I actually cared about.

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