I stood in front of Gullen Santan, Lord Administrator of Road Planning and Maintenance and considered my options. I seemed to have very few, all of them bad.
He wanted me to go into enemy territory, make my way to the boss monster, and convince him (or her, or possibly it) to give peace a chance.
As flattering as it was to be considered suitable for such a mission, I got the distinct impression my triumphant return had not been pencilled into Gullen’s diary. If we succeeded, great. If we didn’t, meh, try something else.
What I needed to do was offer him a better alternative. Or at the very least, a reason why this plan would work better without my participation.
“Ag, man. Look at this!” screamed Dana. She had managed to get out from under Jenny and Claire—who had both shifted their focus to our impending foray into the exciting world of international affairs—and was holding her wig under Gullen’s nose. “Do you know how hard it is to find good quality centaur hair in this stupid world? I had a farm in Africa!”
The mention of centaurs provoked a barrage of whispering behind me.
Ooh, centaurs… Will we get to see one?
Do you think they let people ride them?
I wonder if they wear clothes.
They’d need help putting on their trousers.
Do you think the girls go topless?
Why do you want to know that? Er, no reason.
Not even being forced into the wilderness to die at the hands of savage beasts was enough to waylay their mindless prattle.
Gullen pulled his glasses down and stared over them at the ball of black hair thrust at his face. “Feel free to put it on the bill. We’re currently trying to save the world from catastrophe. A little consideration for important matters would be appreciated.”
“Ag. I give rocks about your problems.” She threw the wig on the floor and stormed out, kicking a prostrated henchman on the way. “Out of the way, useless.”
“Now,” said Gullen, “are you ready to depart for new lands and new adventures?”
“Thank you very much for the offer,” I said, “but I don’t think so.”
“Oh?” Gullen said. “What do you mean?”
“I mean I’ll have to decline the chance to visit the King of Monsters in his castle full of monsters deep in the heart of Monsterland. I don’t know, something about it feels a little… risky.”
Gullen squinted and pushed his round glasses closer to his round face. “Still not following you. Could you elaborate?” He didn’t seem upset with me. On the contrary, he seemed relaxed and willing to listen.
His genial attitude only made me feel more agitated as I desperately tried to come up with a good reason why I shouldn’t be sent to my death. Not as easy as you might think.
“To put it as simply as I can, me no go. You go if you want. Me no go.” I know, hard to believe I could be so eloquent under pressure. It’s a gift. “You’re sending us off to find this Archfiend—the name doesn’t help, by the way—with no real plan or anything to leverage against him. I’d rather rot in your prison. Meals delivered daily and a warm place to shit, sounds good to me. Or just kill us and have done with it. In which case, and I know I’m in no position to ask for favours, but please, please, execute me first. But me no go.”
Gullen’s shoulders scrunched up and he smirked. It was the first time I think I’d seen him genuinely amused. Probably not because he thought I was being funny, more likely because he enjoyed seeing people squirm.
“As expected of our wild card, you do not react as expected. In your own way you are quite fearless.”
How had he come to that conclusion? “No, not fearless,” I insisted. “I have plenty of fear. A surplus. What I don’t have is hope. I’m hopeless. Wait, that didn’t come out right. Or maybe it did…”
“There’s nothing you have hope for?”
“Well, there is one thing…”
“Colin?” Claire had appeared at my shoulder. “What are you doing? At least if we go on this mission we have a chance. If you refuse, he’ll just torture us until you agree.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I won’t cave, no matter what he does to you.”
“Actually,” said Flossie, “ah’d rather you did cave. Ah think we all would.”
There was a general murmur of agreement.
“Guys, come on,” I said. “Once he sees how unaffected I am by your suffering, I’m sure he’ll stop. You’ll probably only lose a couple of toes and they aren’t even that useful.”
They looked about ready to start doing some torturing of their own. If they stopped to think about it, they’d see I was just stalling. Obviously I didn’t want them to be tortured. Not unless it was completely unavoidable. But it was hard for them to focus on anything that didn’t have a human head on a horse’s body.
“I don’t know where you got this idea I plan to torture people,” said Gullen. “We aren’t barbarians, you know. They live up north in the mountains.”
“What about Kizwat?” I exclaimed. “The blacksmiths didn’t mangle his arm, so I’m guessing that was your handiwork. Your orders anyways.” I glanced at Biadet who was doing a wonderful rendition of wide-eyed and blameless.
“No, no,” said Gullen. “That was his own fault. He couldn’t hold his liquor and injured himself. I wouldn’t harm the poor boy.”
Gullen did a neat impression of Biadet, innocence personified. I wondered who had taught who.
“And you’d be willing to say that in front of God, would you?” I asked him
“Oh, I try not to say anything in front of God if I can help it. He’s terribly judgemental. Rest assured, though, I have no intention of torturing your friends. Not right now, anyway.” Gullen let this hang in the air for a moment. “I’m more interested to hear your thoughts on why you won’t take this assignment. You see no merit in convincing the Archfiend to negotiate a peace?”
“I think it’s a great idea, if you had something to offer him in return. The Archfiend obviously wants to take over the world, like all good Archfiends. Simply asking him not to isn’t going to do anything, is it? And really, I’m fine with you torturing them if you want. I might even have a few suggestions.”
Somebody kicked me in the back of the leg. Definitely not how you win my sympathy.
Rather than be upset, Gullen seemed delighted with my refusal to take up his challenge.
“The more I listen to you complain, the more sure I am you are the man for the job.”
I couldn’t quite follow his logic. Mainly, I think, because he wasn’t using any.
“You are right,” he continued, “my plan is wanting in many respects. But that is where you come in.”
“You want me to come up with a better plan?”
“As you have said, you have the ability to look at things in a different way to other people. It is your gift, perhaps. That’s why you’re here, after all.”
Now it was my turn to be confused. “What do you mean ‘That’s why you’re here’? Are you saying you know why we were brought here?”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say I know, but Visitors such as yourselves aren’t like the rest of us. You have the potential to do things we cannot. Sometimes it is a small thing that serves little purpose, and sometimes it can change the world. Unlocking that potential, is the tricky part. Most Visitors never do. Most Visitors die long before they get the chance.”
“You mean like me being able to do magic?”
“Well, yes, I suppose. But I don’t think that is where your gifts lie, although it is impressive that you’ve managed to acquire such an ability so quickly. It only makes me more convinced that you will be one of those to be of use.”
Great. It was pretty obvious who would be using me. “So, Godfrey’s ability to know the truth, that’s an example of somebody who was able to develop their ability?”
“Yes. Exactly. “
“Then it’s kind of strange you keep him locked away down here watching over other people’s junk.”
“It would be, if that was what he was doing. His gift is far more complex than you might think, I assure you. Being able to tell when someone is lying is merely the tip.”
This was the first time someone was willing to talk about these things with me. Suddenly the question of how to avoid getting sent to Mount Doom to save the world seemed a lot less important than squeezing Gullen for as much information as possible. “What do you think my ability is?”
“It’s hard to say. It is clearly yet to develop fully, but I think whatever it is, it enables you to solve problems that would otherwise seem to be unsolvable. I have no idea how you do it, but the results so far have been impressive.”
Really? If he’d actually seen how we’d overcome the Mouse King or escaped from the trolls, I didn’t think he would be quite so impressed.
“Fine. If you think I have this aptitude for solving problems, I’ll be happy to do a little brainstorming for you. We can form a think tank, put some coffee on and really apply some quality time to coming up with a solid strategy. Shouldn’t take more than a week or two.”
“Sadly we don’t have that sort of time,” said Gullen. “The Archfiend’s forces have already established a foothold for their invasion. Once they take Fengarad, no doubt we’ll be next. And in any case, the one thing we do know about Visitors is that their talents work best under pressure. Whatever your ability might be, it will emerge much faster when you are in stressful situations. Life threatening ones tend to work best.”
“So torturing him might help,” said Claire all excited.
“Maurice, help Claire, she’s fallen.”
“What are you talking about?” said Claire. “I haven’t fwaaa—” She collapsed in a heap. I may have kicked her legs out from under her. Stalling tactics.
“What about Gideon’s team?” I said. “You sent them to see what was happening on the border, right?”
“Yes,” said Gullen. “They reached the border fort and reported it was deserted. Our force of over five thousand men have disappeared without trace. It is quite perplexing.”
“Then it’s obvious what you should do. Send her.” I pointed at Biadet, who responded with a single raised eyebrow. “She can get in and out of places without being detected better than anyone. Seems to me she’d be the ideal person to do a quick recce behind enemy lines.”
“Ah, I would love to, but sadly it is not permitted by her Master. She is to remain in this city until orders dictate otherwise.”
“I don’t do camping,” said Biadet.
I was running out of ideas. I looked around for some way out of here that didn’t involve travelling, fighting or murder (especially mine). Through the Sheaf would take too long and there were probably guards waiting at the exit. The secret passage behind Gullen was full of dogs. One of the dogs yawned. There was no way he was tired; son of a bitch just wanted to show me his teeth.
“Her Master, is he this Uncle Peter? Can’t he help?”
“Uncle Peter is not someone to rely on. He is… difficult to get hold of.” Gullen didn’t look like he was going to say anything else on the matter.
“What about the trolls? You said you caught a few.”
“Yes, thanks to my dogs. They are the only ones able to distinguish between us and them when they are disguised as humans.”
“Like Terminators,” muttered Maurice.
“Haven’t you been able to get any information out of them?”
“They are somewhat resistant to pain, being made out of mud.”
“Couldn’t you use God’s ability on them.”
“We could and we have. To little effect, unfortunately. His ability isn’t very useful on subjects who don’t say anything.”
I was starting to get desperate. At this rate, I’d be halfway to Monsterland before I came up with a legitimate excuse not to go.
“The trolls are obviously the key.” The key to what? I had no idea. “Get them to talk. They love a good chinwag. The ones we met wouldn’t shut up.”
“Is that right?” Gullen’s face lit up. “You have a natural rapport with them, do you?”
“Hey, easy now. I don’t think these trolls are the same as the ones we encountered. I mean, they attacked us and left one of us for dead.”
“Yes,” said Gullen. “They are quite dangerous. It would be risky to have you spend time with them. Life threatening, even.”
And there it was, my way out. Why go all the way to Monsterland to get killed by monsters when you could just get killed by monsters right here?
AN: Hey! Good to be Back. Welcome to Book 4 (Books 1-3 now available on Amazon).
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