While I was dealing with all this fate of the world stuff, Sonny and his ragtag band of lost boys had emerged from the tunnel. When we had dug our way to the surface, they had nervously followed, not really sure they wanted to return to the real world and their responsibilities. I certainly didn’t blame them.
But they emerged, blinking and uncertain, to be met by their city blowing up.
For them, it wasn’t just their home, it was the home of all the people they knew and loved. Their families, their friends, their neighbours. As blasé as I am about my feelings towards others, I still recognise that normal people are defined by their attachments. The happiness and sadness relationships bring them are real and valuable, to them.
They hadn’t said anything while I ran around trying to make sense of what had happened and what to do next. They hadn’t made any sound at all. The palace was a smoking crater, surrounding it were heaps of rubble, and standing over the remains was a creature no one could quite make out, but that everyone could sense. Its presence was that split-second when you open a closet door and realise the contents are about to fall on top of you. A fleeting moment turned into a being a mile tall.
By the time I noticed them, they had begun staggering down the hill towards Requbar. I couldn’t tell what they planned to do once they got there—look for survivors, bury the dead, point fingers—but their need to return reeled them in.
“This how you were planning to sort out the city, were you?” said Sonny. He had obviously gone with the ‘point fingers’ option. Which was rich coming from him, since his plan had been to bury the place in molten acid.
It’s an odd thing that in times of trouble, people will come together to help each other, and then afterwards go straight back to being the self-centred douches they’ve always been. Sonny was just taking out the middle man.
“This has nothing to do with me, Sonny. The throne is empty, though, so feel free to apply for the job.”
I had bigger problems to deal with than a devastated city. Not often you get to say that. If Uncle Peter had decided to go all out in his attempts to bring peace to the world, using the old fashioned method of blowing shit up, he probably wasn’t going stop at Requbar. I had no idea what his ultimate goal was, but waiting for him to write his memoirs and skipping to the end wasn’t really an option. We had to go to where he was and stop him.
Which might not sound like the kind of thing I would normally consider (because it sure as fuck isn’t) but if I could do it in a way that didn’t involve me running into the jaws of death like Rambo with an AK in each hand, then I was willing to give it a go. Preferably from a distance.
“Is there a way to destroy the spires?” I asked Evand. He was on the ground, as much in shock as the men of Requbar.
“You can’t. You mustn’t do that. It will only make it worse for all of us.”
“Fine, but is there a way?”
Evand refused to say anything. I looked at Claire who was grimacing and pulling faces. Not an attractive look, so no change there.
“I’m not sure. It’s strange, like there’s more than one person’s thoughts in his head.”
What she said made sense since there were two people inside Nyx at the moment. Which at least meant there was a chance Nyx could get his body back, although why that occurred to me I have no idea.
“Will hurting him get results?” I asked Gabor.
“No. He will resist pain. He will give his life for what he believes.”
It only took him a second to calculate that, but his predictions hadn’t been very accurate lately. I kicked Evand in the stomach, just to check.
I’m not a fan of torture, particularly when I’m the recipient, but there are people who fall apart as soon as they realise normal rules of polite society no longer apply. Sadly, Evand wasn’t one of them; he just curled up and waited for the next blow. He wasn’t the soft rat he appeared to be. Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure what he was. Not an elf, by the looks of things—certainly not one like the Queen—but he had been her jailer. He was expected to keep her locked up, which meant he had the means to do it.
“Hey, listen. I’m not going to hit you, just tell me how you were supposed to keep her in check.” I pointed at the swirling air and dust that hinted of a goliath at the far edge of our vision.
“She is unstoppable in this form. The fool broke her free of the gem holding her inside the rat queen’s body.”
“Can we put her inside another gem?” The gems seemed to be key. They had got her in the Queen, and Evand into Nyx. I just needed to know how to use them to get the genie back in the bottle.
“It has to be willingly consumed. Don’t you see?”
“Willingly, but not knowingly,” said Maurice, notebook out. “If Nyx swallowed the gem without realising the consequences, doesn’t that mean we can trick her, too.”
“It’s too late,” said Evand. “There is only one gem large enough to contain her in this form.”
“So, let’s use it.” Seemed the obvious solution to me. “Where is it?”
Evand didn’t say anything.
“The spires?” I asked him.
“No.” Evand almost shouted it at me. “It is far away, too far from here, in the mountains to the north.”
Yeah, wasn’t buying it. I turned to the others. “Who here thinks he’s lying.”
One by one, everyone’s hands went up.
“I don’t think anyone believes you,” I said.
“What difference does that make,” said Evand, becoming more cocky as he realised we had no clue how to deal with the current situation. All he had to do was keep his mouth shut and leave us to it. “Whether you believe me or not, the facts do not change. You cannot reach the gem in time.”
He was right about one thing, voting didn’t change facts. Nine out of ten people could vote the world was flat and it wouldn’t change anything. Which might seem obvious, but only because you already believe the earth isn’t flat.
Think of it like this, though. If a vote on the greatest band of all time put Led Zeppelin at number one by a hefty margin, are they the best? You might not like them that much, and feel they stole a lot of their best tunes from other people, but if millions say fuck those losers, they never sounded as good as Jimmy Page on his two neck, then isn’t that just how we define ‘best’?
It’s subjective and not obligatory for you to personally agree, but the power of consensus is not something you can easily ignore. It’s not just something that shines a light in a particular place, it also changes the thing it illuminates.
How is this relevant to the current situation? Well, if you catch someone in a lie, and then tell them they’re a liar, and wait to scrutinise their next words, it is very hard for them to keep their cool and style it out.
And the more people holding you under their constant gaze, the harder it is to bullshit your way out of trouble. The true power of democracy isn’t to choose wisely or correctly, it’s the ability to hold the chosen to account. If the mob wants to. Mobs tend to be easily distracted, though. You have to keep them focused somehow. Imagine how much good could get done if only there weren’t cat gifs on the internet.
I bent over Evand, carefully watching his reaction. “If we destroy the spires, will it stop the Queen?”
“No!” His voice was resolute but his eyes were panicked.
I looked over my shoulder; hands were up. “Looks like you’ve convinced everyone that we should make that our plan.”
This made him even more distraught. “You can’t! It would mean the end of everything.”
“We’re already going to lose everything. If you don’t want us to focus on launching a full attack on the spires, you need to offer us an alternative.”
“Yes, I can do that. Yes, yes, if we hurry to the mountains, perhaps there is time…” His voice faded as he watched the hands go up again.
“Nobody likes a fibber, Evand. We have dragons, you know. They have this really harsh acid they puke up. Will that destroy your gems, do you think?”
His mouth twisted in horror. “No, you mustn’t… That won’t work. The gems won’t be destroyed so easily. We have to go to the mountains. I can take you.” His voice was high and strained. More hands raised.
“Excellent,” I said. “So we know where to go and we know how to get rid of the gem. You’ve been very helpful.”
My smug sarcasm was possibly a little too much. Evand scrambled to his feet, his sudden burst of energy making me back off, even though he was half my size.
“You think this is some game? Destroy the spires and save the world? You will be damning us to a far worse fate. You will pray for death and your prayers won’t be answered.” No hands were raised. He was being pretty convincing. “You really want to stop her?” He looked up. High, high up, there was a ring of white clouds coming together like a crown. “You want to stop a power older than this planet? Then there is only one way. Sacrifice. Give your life, willingly. Take her into yourself and then return with me to the pit where you found me, to guard her for the endless centuries we have to wait. Are you willing to do that, hero?”
I believed him. There was a cold and chilling sincerity to his statement. Was I willing to go that far to save everyone? A good question to which there was a very simple answer.
When he put it like that, it became clear to me the trolls probably had the best idea. Get as far away as you can and make the best of the time you had left. Even if the elf turned this part of the world into her personal slaughterhouse and made life miserable for everyone, we’d get by.
I didn’t choose to come here, and I certainly had nothing to gain by helping anyone. If anything, they’d just resent me for forcing them to feel indebted.
“We could take the dragons and go as far east as possible,” I said to the others. Before they could say anything in return, Laney was standing in front of me.
“I won’t order you or threaten you. I will merely beg. Please, save my city and my people. Gabor says you are the only one who can and I believe him. Whatever you wish in return, I will give you.”
There was no madness in her eyes, only desperation.
“There’s nothing I can do, Princess. I’m the only one with a chance, but that’s all it is. A very small, unlikely chance. You might think that’s better than nothing, but I don’t. Nothing is highly underrated.”
“Please.” She fell to her knees, looking to Jenny and then back to me. “Whatever you wish. Just try.”
I could sense the start of something unpleasant. The mob turning on me and forcing me to do the ‘right thing’. I needed to pinch it right in the bud.
“No, Princess. This isn’t a fairy story where the knight’s good intentions lead him to victory against the odds. We’ll lose. Valiantly, but we’ll still lose. I don’t fancy going out in a blaze of glory. I don’t care if it’s a small chance at winning, it’s terrible odds and a bad bet.”
“Please. Do you want me to kiss your boot? Beg with more fervour? I will. Please. Please. You’re the only chance we have.”
It was upsetting watching her. Upsetting she was being such a manipulative little bitch. Did she think big wet eyes and the promise of riches would send me running towards a glorious death? A true knight would, of course, but then a true knight would have a magic sword and a patron deity to help him out. I didn’t even have my own spoon.
“Get up, Princess. I don’t care what happens to your city any more than they care about what happens to me.”
Her expression lost its shape, going from pleading to something flatter and more neutral. I expected the rage-monster living inside her to make an appearance, but she just burst into sobbing. Cheap.
Jenny came forward and helped Laney to her feet. She buried her face in Jenny’s chest like a little kid, which she was. It took a second for her to calm down and then she stood up straight, wiped her eyes and looked at me with quiet defiance. Not aggressive, not coercive—an acceptance we would be going in different directions and hers would probably end in death.
“Then this is where we part ways, Dragonslayer. Tell me, is there nothing you would be willing to die for?” she asked, more curious than accusatory.
“No,” I said. “I’m not that sort of man.”
Jenny looked at me, but she didn’t say anything. She just raised her hand. And then so did everyone else.