Dudley hurried over to the stable door to keep watch. Flossie rushed after him because… I have no idea. She was attached to him by an elastic band?
The doorway to the stables was doorless, a large opening looking out across the plateau. I guess boxes with wings didn’t run away if left unattended. Or maybe they liked fresh air. Free-range flappy-boxes probably had a longer lifespan.
Mandy came back carrying a basket of bread and fruit. She’d taken her time and her hair and clothes were back to something resembling her old style, which is to say tarty. I’m not judging—I like looking at tarty girls as much as the next guy.
She was in full hostess mode, swanning around, handing out food, being the belle of the ball, so it took her a moment to realise all eyes were on the imp, which was mindlessly staring straight ahead, not doing anything.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Apparently there is a Death Star,” said Cheng. “I have never heard of such a thing, but it sounds fearsome.”
I looked down at my hand and there was a bun in it that hadn’t been there a second ago. I didn’t recall her handing it to me. I bit into it and my mouth was instantly full of sugar—a doughnut, or near enough. I felt like crying. Keep your gold doubloons and diamond tiaras, this was my kind of treasure.
“I’ll have that back if you don’t want it.” Mandy snatched the doughnut out of my hand and went around taking back the food she had just distributed. No one had reacted to her generosity with the appropriate level of gratitude and she wasn’t having it. Amazing how quickly she had gone from timid and terrified to brassy old fishwife.
All it would take was an apology and a little sucking up and she’d probably give me my doughnut back, but the thought of it was enough to turn my mouth bitter. I licked the sugar off my lips to get rid of the taste.
While everyone made a fuss over Mandy to get their treats back, I crouched down next to 288. His expressionless black eyes stared right through me. “288, I want you to answer some questions. Is there anyone guarding the treasury?”
288 flapped his tiny wings once and then folded them. “We are all guardians of Darkholme Mountain.”
“Okay, but is there a guardian assigned to stop anyone from entering the treasury?” If he wanted me to get specific, I would get specific.
“We are all guardians of Darkholme Mountain.”
I looked over at Cheng.
“I have never heard talk of a treasury,” said Cheng. “I have been in the East Wing and seen no sign of it. There used to be many more living here, once, but now there are only empty rooms in that part of the palace.”
David and Phil were standing side by side, offering no suggestions or information which was strange since they had been here before, or at least so they had claimed.
“How did you get here when you tried to rescue Yuqi?” I asked them. “Did you come in one of these flying boxes?”
The boxes roosting around us made weird creaking noises. When there were so many of them you could smell a distinct odour coming from them. They smelled like varnish.
David and Phil exchanged sheepish glances.
“One of our group,” said Phil, “had the ability to teleport.”
I think this news may have made Maurice come in his pants. He flinched and grabbed onto Claire’s arm so tight she let out a little yelp.
“Really? He could teleport. Could he take things with him? What about people? Did he have to be able to see his destination? Could he go through solid objects? Were there side-effects? Motion sickness? Could he do it multiple times? Did he leave behind a copy of himself?”
Maurice would’ve probably kept going for another ten minutes with the barrage of questions getting progressively weirder if Claire hadn’t raised her hand (the one not clamped on by Maurice) to let him know he needed to calm down. The moment he stopped talking he began gasping for air. He’d been so excited he’d forgotten to breathe.
“He wasn’t very good at it,” said David. “Always missing his target. We practised a lot before we tried rescuing Yuqi, but we still arrived ten feet in the air.” He shook his head at the painful memory. “The fall broke his leg.”
“We were lucky we didn’t end up in the middle of a wall,” said Phil. “It was a stupid plan. Simple—get in, grab Yuqi, get out—but stupid. We weren’t even sure where she was. We jumped around from room to room with a guy with a broken leg barely able to focus because of the pain. The treasury was one of the rooms we appeared in. I have no ideawhere it was.”
“What happened to your friend?” asked Claire. She had her eyes on the two of them so even if they didn’t answer her, there was a good chance she’d be able to see it in their heads.
“We left him here,” said David, his eyes downcast. “We took one of these wagons and left him behind. He refused to abandon Yuqi. He may still be here, for all we know. But I doubt it.”
“Okay,” I said, “you don’t know where it is, but you must know what else is in there.”
David shook his head. “We grabbed whatever was small enough to carry and got out. The room was full of chests and boxes. We couldn’t open most of them.”
I turned back to the imp. “288, have you been in the treasury?”
Finally a straight answer.
“What’s in there?”
“The contents of the treasury.”
I leaned forward expecting an inventory. Nothing else came out of the imp’s mouth.
“You don’t know what the contents are? What exactly are you for, 288?”
“Master is displeased,” said the imp in a matter of fact manner. “288 will be punished.”
The imp turned around and bent over, sticking his small bum in the air, millimetres from my face.
I stood up and backed away. “What kind of punishment is he expecting?” I asked Cheng, not sure if I wanted to know the answer.
Cheng sighed and took a step towards the imp, and then kicked it right up the jacksie. The imp went skidding across the mucky stable floor and landed in a heap. Good thing Flossie was over the other side by the door or she would have probably attacked Cheng on the spot. And then Dudley would be all upset because Cheng had eaten his girlfriend and then everybody would want me to kill myself and go back in time to save Flossie.
The imp got up, seemingly none the worse for wear, and dusted himself off. He wasn’t wearing any clothes, by the way, but didn’t have anything to cover up.
“He won’t reset until he’s been properly punished,” said Cheng, as though that made it less bizarre.
“Is that how you discipline all golems?” I couldn’t imagine it’d be very effective against the larger models. Probably break your foot.
“No,” said Cheng. “288 is… unusual. My father made this one when he was… with my mother.” Something about the way Cheng said it made me think he wasn’t telling me something.
288 had returned to his stand-by position. I felt like there was a lot more information to be had if only I could figure out how to access it.
“Ask him if he knows where Yuqi is,” said David.
“288,” I said, “is there a girl in the Palace?”
288 stood silently, blinking slowly. I half-expected a buffering icon to appear over his head. Then he turned round and bent over.
“Get up, you didn’t even try to answer the question.” I was starting to think he liked getting kicked up the bum.
288 remained in the receiving position.
“I told you,” said Cheng, “he won’t reset until you punish him.”
What could I do? I took a step and booted him in the arse.
“What are you doing?” screamed Flossie. She came hurtling over to scoop 288 off the floor and smother him in her chest.
“What about you?” I asked Cheng. “Have you seen a girl somewhere in the Palace? She’s probably unconscious, maybe in a bed or a cell. She’s the Jester, you know, who invades people’s dreams and generally terrifies the fuck out of them.”
“Oh,” said Cheng, “you mean ________” He pronounced a name that sounded like a cross between a sneeze and a burp, which was what most of their names sounded like. “288, where is the body of _______”
288 pulled his smooth conical head out from between Flossie’s breasts long enough to say, “Lower floor, East Wing.”
The same place as the treasury. The East Wing seemed the place to be.
“We need to get into the Palace and explore this East Wing,” I said. “I don’t suppose there’s a Palace tour.”
There wasn’t. No gift shop, either.
“Tomorrow,” said Cheng, “they will go to Meet to select their tributes. We may have an opportunity to enter the Palace then.”
Claire bristled. “By tributes, you mean women, don’t you?”
“Yes,” said Cheng.
“And what will they do with these women?” she asked through a tightly clenched jaw.
“Use them for the tournament,” said Cheng very plainly, like it was no big deal.
“Use them how? Sexually?”
Cheng gave Claire a quizzical look. “No. They are not sexual beings. They do not reproduce. They do not even have sexual organs. They weld to produce the perfect being. Spreading seed far and wide is antithetical to their ways. It is evolution through a funnel, distilling the most pure, most concentrated lifeform possible.”
“What about your mother?” I asked him. “I thought she gave birth to you. How did she do that if your dad doesn’t have a penis?”
“He made one. I am a special case, an experiment while he was in a new world, far from his own.”
I thought back and tried to recall if I’d seen anything hanging between the legs of the masters when we’d encountered them earlier. None of them wore clothes. Some of them didn’t even have legs, but even the ones that did had an action-figure-smooth crotch. Not that I had paid much attention at the time, because why would I? (That’s a rhetorical question).
“He made one? Is it detachable? Because I don’t remember seeing it.”
“Yes,” said Cheng, “it’s detachable.” His gaze slowly shifted to the imp nestled between Flossie’s boobs.
If you squinted while looking at 288, the way his horns curled around the top of his slightly pointy head, his thin, straight body…
“That’s your dad’s detachable penis?” said Claire, putting words into a sentence they had never been in before.
Flossie squealed and dropped the imp. Just as well, he was a shade more purple and looked a bit taller than before.
“After he no longer needed him, my father adapted 288 for basic tasks around the Palace.”
Nice. Swiss Army penis. 288 returned to his dopey, middle-distance stare. I think I saw a glimmer of a smile on his lips, but I may have imagined it.
Claire dialled her hostility back to DEFCON 3 (eyes still narrowed but tongue back in its holster). So the women who would be brought here from Meet wouldn’t be sexually molested, they would just be killed and eaten. Hooray?
“What about the other cities?” asked Maurice. “Won’t they get tributes from them, too?”
Cheng tilted his head slightly. “What other cities?”
“The other cities of Nekromel,” said Maurice. He opened his notebook and read out the names of the cities Loran had given us.
“Come,” said Cheng and led us out of the stables. He walked around the back, to the far side of the mountaintop.
Fierce white flames shot out of the ground with a dull, thick roar, fueled by some invisible gas flowing out of the ground in jets, carrying the flames high into the air. Dozens of these jets were evenly spaced around the edge of the plateau.
They provided the light that surrounded Darkholme. It would be hard to sneak around with this going all night. If you walked towards them the heat quickly became unbearable and the air shimmered making everything wobble, but at a distance they looked like solid towers of light.
Once the light was behind us, we could see the landscape beyond the mountains. Endless dunes like a frozen sea. No plants, no water. Empty arid grimly beautiful scenery under a dark red sky.
“Nekromel is a dead world,” said Cheng. “A few crazed beasts remain, the most vicious survivors that have managed to evade welding, but they are but a handful. It has taken a thousand years to absorb the nourishment provided by this small world. The power concentrated in the last nine is beyond what you can possibly imagine.The power to cross the barriers between universes and dimensions. All that remains is Dalada. Once that is gone, they will abandon this place and move onto the next.”
There was a certain amount of pride in Cheng’s voice. He obviously saw it as a remarkable accomplishment, which it was.
It was also a chilling sight.
This had been a world full of life, and now it was bones on a plate. It’s not right to judge other cultures just because their values are different to our own, but holy fuck, live and let live. I might on occasion make fun of what passes for German taste in pop music or Scottish cuisine, but it’s hard to think of a less respectful way of treating a culture than annihilating their whole planet.
Heroically speaking, you might think stopping these galactic locusts would be the first order of business. It’s what heroes do. However, speaking as a non-hero, fuck that.
For all I knew, this was how universes came to be. Maybe the masters would eventually purify their essence into one all-powerful being and he’d go off and make a baby universe of his own. Almost sounds cute when I put it like that, doesn’t it?
As much as I’d like to have ‘godkiller’ on my resume, I really didn’t see the need to get involved. I get it. We were transported from our own world, given strange magical abilities, and then presented with beings set on devouring whole planets.
Sounded like someone arranged for us to be here to do what had to be done, to become legends fighting against impossible odds, sacrificing ourselves to save countless others. And boy did that person fuck up. My priority was to get as far away from this transdimensional clusterfuck as possible.