Chapter 120: King Worm

There must have been twenty wasps, at least. Only half a dozen had riders on their backs, but all had bits of wood held by their six legs. I don’t know what they needed the wood for—something to do with whatever they had planned to do in the Temple, I suppose—but they dropped everything when they saw us.

“Oh ho,” said the lead Intui. Now that I was close enough to see clearly, I could tell this one was Meeth, the one we had encountered earlier. See, I’m not racist, I just have poor eyesight. “Come to rescue your friend, have you?”

The wasps spread out before us ready to attack, but Meeth’s smug leer turned into shock, then rage, when he saw Dudley standing with us, rather than tied to the sacrificial altar.

“How did…” His eyes went beyond us, probably concerned about what had happened in his absence. And rightly so.

It was oddly quiet. I’d have expected all the falling rocks and screaming lizardmen to have made a lot more noise, but for some reason the sound didn’t carry out of the Temple.

“Get out of our way,” said Hitokag. “When Cheng finds out about this—”

“How will he find out if you are all dead?” asked Meeth with excellent logic.

The buzz of wasps began to get more intense. But there was another sound, or at least a vibration, coming from below us. Meeth and his cohorts couldn’t feel it because they were airborne, but the soles of my boots prickled under me.

I looked at the others and it was obvious they could feel it too.

Seeing us exchange glances put Meeth on alert, but he didn’t know what the threat was. Neither did we. It was just as likely to be a problem for us as it was for him.

“What’s going on?” he screamed at us. “What are you up to?

We didn’t have any answers for him, but we didn’t need them as the vibrations turned into a rumble and then the ground shook, knocking us all off our feet.

A jabberwock smashed through the rock and shot into the air. But this worm was a little different to the ones we had seen in the Temple. It was about the same size, but its skin wasn’t smooth and slimy, it was hard like a crust had formed over it. The texture and craggy pattern were very reminiscent of troll-skin.

Another feature of this particular jabberwock was that it had eyes. They weren’t very big, but they were familiar. The whole head, in fact, looked very much like Kungen.

More tremors shook the mountainside and jabberwocky—the regular kind—burst out. Six. Ten. Twelve. They just kept coming, rising around us like a forest.

Meeth and his wasps were surrounded. “What is this? What is this?” Meeth kept shrieking.

Kungen-worm opened its mouth, which peeled back like the worms we had encountered before, and sucked in the air. Wasps tried to fly away but were drawn in, riders and all. The other worms followed suit. They might not have been able to see or hear, but thrashing about like out-of-control vacuum cleaners was very effective in dealing with the wasps.

You might think that this was game over. Wasps had the upper hand for a moment, then the cavalry arrived with the perfect countermeasure, and it’s Goodnight Vienna. However, a mouthful of wasps is still a mouthful of wasps.

The jabberwocky started flailing about like they’d just found out their lucky numbers had come up on the lottery but the wife forgot to buy the ticket this week. They smashed and slapped their swollen mouths against the ground as the wasps stung for all they were worth.

We all dived out of the way to avoid the gigantic bodies flopping from side to side, threatening to crush anything caught in their path.

The only one not affected like this was the Kungen-worm. It watched, very much the worm in charge. If a wasp or Intui managed to somehow avoid the crossfire, he struck like a viper, snatching the escapee out of the air.

Within a few minutes the wasps were all gone, as were the Intui lizardmen. Two jabberwocky lay still and lifeless, the others simply retracted into their holes.

The last to leave was Kungen-worm. I thought he might say something, but he didn’t. Was he the same Kungen in a different form, or a completely new entity? He had definitely controlled the other jabberwocky, and even forced them to come out in daylight, so he could rightly be called Worm King now, but what that meant was hard to tell.

“Kungen?” I said to the towering rock snake. There was no response, not even a flicker of recognition.

Keezy probably would have had a better chance to communicate, but there was no sign of him. I didn’t think the falling rocks would have killed him, and he could dig his way out, but I was in no mood to form a search party.

Despite helping us free Dudley, he had still intended to bring us here knowing it would require a sacrifice. He might have a reasonable explanation, but the Temple was no longer a factor so I considered it best to call it quits and get out of here.

Kungen-worm sank back into the mountain like a train thundering into a tunnel. Dust flew out as he disappeared.

Everyone got back to their feet. We were still on top of a mountain and night was approaching. The Mezzik could probably carry us down the precipitous mountainside, but then we still had to get to wherever Cheng had his castle. What we really needed was another dragon.

Once everyone had confirmed they were alive and unharmed, Flossie ran over to the dragon and wrapped her arms around its head. The head moved.

“Ah think he’s still alive,” said Flossie, turning her watery eyes towards me. She was quickly turning into my biggest pain, and that’s saying something considering the fierce competition.

Still, in this particular case I wasn’t averse to healing the dragon even if it cost me a few months of my life to do it. Having a dragon in my debt could be very useful. Not that I’d be as influential as Flossie, but not everyone gets to be Mother of Dragons. I’d settle for uncle. You don’t get your clothes burned off and have to walk around with your tits out all the time, you just come around on the weekend for a barbecue. Much more manageable.

Mind you, that whole parable where Androcles takes the thorn out of the lion’s paw and then they later face off in the amphitheatre to find the winner of Roman Idol sounds a lot like bullshit to me.

Would the lion really let Androcles off? Or would he see the other lions all looking at him and think, “I know I owe you, but I can’t let you show me up in front of my mates”?

It probably depends on the animal. Dogs, strong possibility. Snakes, not so much. I imagine it would make an excellent reality tv show. Save various animals from certain death, see if they return the favour. Chuck in a couple of celebs you’ve never heard of—ratings gold. Who wouldn’t want to watch a chicken ignore Piers Morgan as he drowned?

At the very least, the Mezzik would be grateful. They had been distraught when they thought the dragon was dead, and rushed to help when Flossie declared the beast still breathing. If you’re the Draconic Guard I suppose it’s poor form to let a dragon die on your watch.

“What are you doing?” said Jenny. She had jumped in front of me as I walked towards the dragon.

“I’m going to heal the dragon,” I said.

“No,” said Jenny. “You can’t. Look how big it is. You’ll have to use up too much energy.”

“Yeah, whatever. Don’t think of it as me getting older, think of it as me maturing.”

I tried to walk past her, but she shimmied across to stay in my way. “No.”

I knew at some point we would come to this situation, I just hadn’t expected it so soon. Jenny would decide what was best for me and then insist I do it her way. For the best of reasons, of course. But once you give into someone like that, even if they’re right, you set a precedent.

We could discuss it and come to a compromise, but fuck that.

“It’s not up to you, Jenny. Now get out of the way.”

Her mouth tightened. Her eyes welled up. I couldn’t tell which way she was going to go, anger or tears.

“I’m begging you, please don’t do this,” she said with great restraint, although whether that restraint was to stop herself from shouting or sobbing, I couldn’t tell.

On some level I’m sure her concern was for my wellbeing. If I kept using up whatever time I had, eventually I would run out. But it was still a form of control. And I didn’t want to be under anyone’s thumb.

“Just because you say, ‘I’m begging,’ doesn’t actually count as begging.” I put my hand on her shoulders to shift her out of the way.

She dropped to her knees. “Please. I’ll do anything you say, just don’t do this.”

Smooth. On her knees, offering to do anything, what would that indicate to you? Classic pretty girl move. She doesn’t actually make any specific proposition, but subliminally there’s the notion that maybe if I do what she wants, I’ll get a bit of the old quid pro quo.

My suspicions about her motives were somewhat undermined by the fact she had already let me quo her right in the quid numerous times already, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t still dangle it like bait.

I bent down and kissed her on the nose. “No. You don’t have to do anything I say unless you really want to.”

Tears fell from her eyes now, but these I recognised. Tears of frustration at not getting your way.

I felt quite pleased with myself as I kneeled down next to the dragon. One-Nil to the home team.

“You think you can heal something this big?” said Hitokag, not sounding very convinced.

“I’ll give it a shot.”

The warmth in my hand spread out across the vast body. The stings had left behind vicious red sores. They receded as I poured my energy into the creature.

My mind went blank. I don’t know how long I sat there, growing weaker and weaker. At some point I must have blacked out

When I came to, Jenny was over me. My head was in her lap. She was crying.

“How bad is it? Do I have a white beard?”

“Shut the fuck up.” She was mad at me. She kissed me. It tasted salty.

I sat up and looked around. It was dark and a fire burned nearby. The dragon was up and being fussed over by the Mezzik.

“Thank you,” said Flossie. “For everything.”

I shrugged. Gratitude never really meant much to me. Show me how thankful you are when it costs you something to help me, then I’ll acknowledge it.

“We should leave,” said Hitokag. He spoke to me in a slightly different tone now. I don’t know if it was full respect, but it was something close to it. I smiled. Got him.

Jenny brushed the long strands of hair out of my face and kissed me again. Then she put her arms around my neck and held me tight.

“Can I get up now?” I asked her.

“No.”

“You’ll have to let go eventually.”

“Never.”

I struggled to my feel with her still clinging on, which wasn’t easy. Claire and Maurice said some pleasant things which I instantly forgot, and Dudley shook my hand and said nothing.

We climbed on board the dragon, which treated me no different to anyone else—fucking cow with wings—and we took off.

Jenny remained very clingy, but I didn’t mind it. The air was quite chilly up there and she was soft and warm. Had she learned her place, or did she consider my attempt at self-determination a challenge? I would probably find out next time we had opposing views.

Can you love someone you don’t trust at all? I’m not sure. I certainly liked her very much. Even though she would probably attempt to crush my spirit and bring me to heel, I kind of looked forward to it. I felt confident I could take her. Mind you, women know all sorts of dirty tricks. I didn’t expect a fair fight.

Compared to Jenny, Cheng didn’t seem that big a deal.

The stars sparkled over our heads as I flew through the night on the back of a dragon, headed for a castle on top of a mountain. Not often you get to say that.

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