Flossie refused to have anything more to do with dragons. It was understandable considering she had just been forced to take a flying fuck, and probably thought she was going to die.
Dudley held onto her and they looked like they planned to stay attached for the foreseeable future. Maurice and Claire did their best to calm her down, but Flossie only buried her face deeper into Dudley’s chest.
The Mezzik gathered around and offered congratulations and seemed very impressed with what they had seen. Clinging on for dear life and screaming yourself blue in the face were apparently the signs of greatness among the Mezzik.
The one person I couldn’t see in this throng was Jenny. I looked around and finally spotted her on the far side of the dragon herd, engaged in conversation with Hitokag. Jenny was doing all the talking while Hitokag had a concerned look on his face. His wings opened and closed which, from what I had been able to work out about Mezzik behaviour, was a sign of excitement. Or nervousness. Or possibly hunger. My Mezzik studies weren’t very advanced.
“She did really well, didn’t she?” said Claire.
Dudley was escorting Flossie back into the castle, his arm protectively around her shoulders. Claire nodded towards Flossie, indicating I should say something.
“Hmm? Oh, yeah. Good work,” I said, somewhat distracted. “You should try again later.”
Flossie ducked out from Dudley’s armpit and rounded on me. “You must be fookin’ joking. No way am ah ever going up on one of those things again. No fookin’ way.”
I tried to react with poise and grace, but couldn’t help taking two steps back and flinching like I’d had a hair dryer blown in my face.
“Alright, calm down. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, you mad bint. Dudley, take her inside and calm her down or something.”
Dudley eased her back towards the castle. She shook him off a number of times before finally allowing him to comfort her.
“Fookin’ dragons,” she muttered. “Ah’m not the fookin’ Dragonrider. Let’s see you lot try riding one of them bastards, see how you like it.”
Maurice and Claire followed them in.
“You have some very interesting friends,” said Cheng. I think he actually meant it. “Would you like to see the prophecy now?”
“Sure.” I looked back towards Jenny to find her walking towards me. I waited for her to get closer. “What were you two talking about?” I wanted to sound casual and offhand, but I didn’t.
“Nothing,” said Jenny, smiling. “Why? Are you jealous?”
“No,” I said sounding grumpy. And jealous.
Obviously I didn’t really think there was anything going on between her and Hitokag—physically speaking I don’t think it would even be possible—but it’s hard not to respond to the way the human body acts in situations like this, which is to make you want to drag the girl into a room, lock the door and only allow her out for your own personal pleasure.
Of course, I would never do that. Most of the room in Cheng’s castle didn’t even have doors, for starters.
It was new for me to feel possessive, though. I’d never had anything I’d wanted to lock away and keep all to myself before. It was kind of unpleasant, knowing what I felt was wrong, but being unable to stop myself feeling it. She didn’t owe me an explanation, but there was an urge inside me to demand one.
Jenny smirked. I think she could tell what I was going through and my guess would be she liked it. Maybe that was presumptuous.
She leaned in and kissed me. “I’ve got some stuff to take care of. I’ll see you later.” She walked off towards the castle.
What stuff? Where the fuck was she going?
“Okay. See you later,” I called after, desperately trying not to rise to the bait.
I knew she was trying to wind me up and there was no way she was engaging in any funny business, but that still didn’t stop my guts twisting around my spine like spaghetti twirled on a fork. Imagine if I genuinely had something to be suspicious about—my intestines would probably explode.
Cheng didn’t have any eyebrows, but if he had, they would have been raised. I think he was starting to realise having a Visitor for a bride might be more work than he had bargained for.
He led me back to the castle, but instead of going up the stairs, this time we went down.
It was dark and damp, as you would expect from the basement levels of a castle. Torches lit the long corridors and there was an unpleasant odor.
To get a sense of the smell I was exposed to under the castle I suppose it’s appropriate to at least give you a rough idea about the toilet facilities.
Our rooms each had a small alcove with a hole in the floor. As you might guess, you squatted over the hole and did your business. Where the hole went and how it was kept clean, I had no idea, but the smell wasn’t too bad. Up there. Down here, it was pretty rank.
We were on a mountain, so there wasn’t a river or sewer to carry it all away. The smell was hard to miss. Somewhere, there was a big room full of poo.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the room Cheng was taking me to.
“This is the prophecy,” said Cheng. “The long version.”
We were in a long, thin room. It was very plain, dank and empty. At the far end, the entire wall was covered in marks. The light from the sputtering torched was barely enough to make out that the scratches formed words.
I produced a ball of light and walked closer.
“This is the prophecy,” I read out loud. “This is the future of this world. This is the beginning and the end…”
Your standard prophecy gubbins. The writing was tiny and the wall was big. It was like a novel.
It took me an hour to read the whole thing. There was mention of a Worm King, a Dragonrider and a Bride, but not in any way that made sense. There was no direct reference to what would happen or how it would come about.
It said the Worm King would bring calm to the earth, although no mention of the jabberwocky, and that the Dragonrider would calm the skies, but what did that mean? Better weather? The jabberwocky weren’t mentioned at all. The Bride appeared a number of times in the text, but not whose bride she would be.
The language was very flowery and repetitive. If you’ve ever had to read a poem in English class and were asked to explain what the writer meant, you’ll get the idea.
Personally, I’ve always hated poetry. If you have a point to make, then make it. Hiding it inside a bunch of rhymes is counter-productive. Anyone who thinks there’s great art in being as hard to understand as possible is missing the point. The true purpose of poetry has always been to get in some girl’s knickers. There might not have always been boybands, but there have always been groupies.
Poetry, in short, stinks, and poets are full of shit. The room under the castle was the ideal place for the prophecy, in this regard at least. I made my way out with Cheng, who had stood by patiently waiting for me to finish.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said.
I took some deep breaths of the cool mountain air and conveniently forgot to answer. “The part at the end, about the healing of the rift, what do you think that refers to.”
“Most scholars have considered it to mean the canyon that separates us and the human lands. The border between us appeared with the first Visitors, the same time as the prophecy.”
That made sense. It was a literal rift, but it would take quite some effort to bring the two sides back together again.
“Of course,” continued Cheng, “there are others who think it refers to the separation of the tribes, that we will find peace between the different peoples of this world.”
I could see that.
“Or, it means the utter annihilation of all, leaving only one tribe to live in peace.”
Okay, the doomsday version. Lots of alternatives to consider. That was the trouble with interpreting vague proclamations. You could pretty much make it mean whatever you wanted.
We were standing outside the castle. Dragons and Mezzik ambled about, and then I noticed one of the dragons across the other side of the plateau had a rider sitting on its neck. It was Flossie.
Maurice, Claire and Dudley were running around as Flossie steered the dragon around. It was a female dragon, so no wings. That was probably how they convinced her to give it another go, although they had apparently forgotten what happened when females got excited.
The one person not with them was Jenny. I couldn’t see her anywhere.
Noreen had come outside and stood next to Cheng.
“Have you seen the other girl with us?” I asked her.
She gave me a blank look.
“The one I’m usually with?” Nothing. “My sex partner?” She liked to state things bluntly so I thought it would help to speak her language.
“She is with the children,” she said.
I left Cheng watching Flossie’s dragon rodeo and went back into the castle. The Mezzik children were ‘training’ in the main courtyard, but Jenny was not with them. I kept going, further into the castle. There were a series of courtyards, each with a different age group of Mezzik either fighting or performing exercises.
Right at the other end of the castle, where the youngest of the Mezzik scrapped in the most chaotic manner possible, I found Jenny. She was getting beaten up by toddlers.
It was brutal. The kids were going at it full tilt, tearing into Jenny and each other. Without the benefit of claws, fangs or tough skin, she was taking quite a thrashing. Most of her focus seemed to be on defending and dodging, which she was surprisingly good at.
A female Mezzik instructor stood to the side barking instructions. Occasionally she would kick one of the kids who didn’t do as ordered. Occasionally she’d kick Jenny. If there was some kind of teaching going on, I couldn’t tell what it was. It looked like a massive brawl.
I backed out without saying anything. Seeing the girl I loved getting the crap beaten out of her was hard, but at least I didn’t catch her kissing another guy, which was the important thing.
I spent the rest of the day down in the prophecy room (with breaks for oxygen) trying to make sense of the inscription. If I didn’t know what it was meant to be, I’d have guessed it was the ravings of a lunatic, clawed into the wall with their bare fingernails while giggling maniacally.
Cheng didn’t join us for our evening meal. Everyone was exhausted and we ate in silence. Jenny’s face was battered and she had a nasty shiner, but no one mentioned it. They probably knew the cause already. At least, no one threw suspicious looks in my direction. Clearly, if you are going to beat up a woman, the best time to do it is when she’s training. Perfect camouflage.
When we returned to our room, there was a tub of water waiting for us. Jenny undressed and her whole body was covered in purple and yellowing bruises. I raised my hand to heal her but she pushed it away.
“I saw you watching me.”
“Yes,” I said. “You looked like you were having so much fun, I didn’t want to interrupt. Let me heal you.”
“They respect you more if you have scars.”
Who the hell was this nutter? And why was I getting turned on?
“I think it’s great you want to learn to defend yourself, but they won’t be impressed by the wounds they can’t see. At least let me heal your body.”
She relented and let my hand touch her body.
“I’m not doing this to defend myself, it’s to help protect you.” She winced as my fingers pressed into her flesh. “There’s always going to be someone challenging you. We all have to be able to fight.”
It was true. The Intui weren’t the only ones with a grudge against me, others would follow, no doubt. Although how Jenny repeatedly smashing her face into their fists was going to help, I wasn’t too sure.
I healed her. Then I bathed her and put her to bed.
The next few days followed a similar routine. Flossie rode around on dragons, Jenny went to junior Fight Club, and I tried to get my head around the Ode to a Brick Wall.
After four days I finally felt I had a grasp of what the words meant. That’s not to say I understood the intention of whoever came up with the prophecy—frankly I didn’t care what they had in mind—but I could at least frame it in a way where I could refute anyone else’s version, and back up my own.
I emerged from the dungeon, as I had taken to referring to it, and realised there were no children fighting in the main courtyard. It was eerily quiet.
Outside the castle, a large crowd had gathered. The reason wasn’t hard to see. Over a hundred wasps with riders were hovering in a large swarm. The Mezzik stood by the dragons, holding them back. Cheng was speaking to the leader of the Intui.
I walked over, making my way through the kids who were also watching. The Intui leader pointed at me.
“There he is. He can answer for himself.”
“Hello, again,” I said. “What’s up?”
To be honest I had a pretty good idea what was up. The moment I had offered him a way to fight me there had been a chance he would take me up on it. Either because he believed there was no way he could lose, or because he just fancied it. But I had considered it fairly unlikely he would risk so much purely out of spite. Guess again.
“These are all the wasps we control. They will all be put to death if you defeat me.”
“You really think my life is worth it? You won’t stop the Worm King by killing me.”
The Intui’s eyes flashed with menace. “That’s where you are wrong. Our shaman have told me your death will mean an end to the Worm King’s reign of terror. You created him, your death will uncreate him.”
Sounded to me like the shaman, like all priests, were bluffing. Or maybe it was true. Either way, I didn’t intend to find out.
“Your shaman are lying to you. Let me talk to one.”
The Intui hesitated and looked behind him. One section of the swarm jostled around a bit until one wasp came forward. On its back was a fat Intui.
“I am the Master Shaman of the Intui. I do not speak untruths. Your death will free us of the Worm King’s—”
“Yes, yes, whatever. That’s not what I want to speak to you about. I’ve been studying the prophecy for the last few days and I’ve found how you can stop the Worm King.”
The atmosphere turned from hostile to curious. Well, slightly less hostile and mildly more curious.
“Come with me and I’ll show you.”
The shaman looked at the leader, who nodded.
I was, of course, lying through my teeth. But that’s the great thing about poetry. Made by bullshit artists, to be used by bullshit artists.
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