The vision in the distance gave us all a boost. We set off again with renewed purpose, eyes fixed on our goal, although I couldn’t help but occasionally glance backwards to see if there was anyone on our tail.
Whatever Sonny was up to, we didn’t seem to be his main priority as there was no sign of him.
The trees remained as belts on either side of the road, but the forest had faded away and now we were flanked by farmlands. Farmhouses appeared at regular intervals and we even saw people working in the fields.
By the end of the day, the city’s outline had become clear and distinct. A high wall with turrets, behind which rose an assortment of tall buildings, dwarfed by a series of spires. Rather than rest for the night, we excitedly pushed on.
By sunrise the next morning, we were exhausted but within a stone’s throw of the city walls. The most noticeable feature from this distance, however, wasn’t the architecture, it was the huge line of people. As we got closer, I realised they weren’t just waiting for the gates to open—the gates were already open. It wasn’t like a line at the supermarket checkout, it was like a line outside a phone store waiting for the new iPhone to be released.
The people looked like they’d been waiting there for days, maybe longer. Many had little camps set up and were making breakfast around small fires.
“Should we get in line?” said Maurice, anxiously pushing his glasses up his nose. It was a massive queue that went all the way along the wall and disappeared around the corner.
“Let’s check the front first,” I said.
There are some people who can go to the head of a line with a swagger, loving the feeling of being more important than the plebs. And then there are others, like us, who feel horribly embarrassed to be cutting ahead of people who have been waiting for much longer.
We made our way to the gates, heads down, avoiding eye-contact with any of the people to our right, although I could hear them grumbling as we passed.
The entrance was a large archway with a raised portcullis. Four soldiers, their chests covered by leather scale and wearing rounded metal helmets, high boots and baggy shorts, guarded the entrance with long pikes. The soldiers looked pretty relaxed, using the pikes to lean on rather than intimidate.
An officer of some kind—I assumed this from his fancier uniform and the fact he had a clipboard—was talking to the man who was first in line. After a brief conversation, the man and his family picked up their gear and followed the officer through the archway.
At the same time, a wagon, loaded with barrels and pulled by large dray horses, rolled past us. The driver waved at the guards and rode through the gates without fuss.
I took out the card Grayson had given us. On our journey here, we had all attempted to learn how to read, which had been surprisingly easy. Grayson had also given us a kids’ alphabet book and we quickly worked out it wasn’t all that different from our own language. Their alphabet used different symbols, but they matched our own letters one-to-one. So, while we used ‘A’, they used a small spiral. For ‘B’ they used two curves on top of each other. But in every other way they followed the same rules we did; made the same sounds, formed the same words. This seemed very suspicious to me.
Anyone who’s seen Planet of the Apes (the good version) knows the scene at the end where the Statue of Liberty rising out of the sand reveals to our hero that he is in fact on Earth. But this shouldn’t have been a surprise, since the apes he’d encountered all spoke English. Bit of a giveaway.
Since arriving in this world, I’d noticed that when people spoke to us, the words didn’t seem to match the movements of their lips. Some kind of magic that allowed us to understand them, I figured. But their alphabet being a simple coded version of our own seemed too simple to be anything other than a cheap way to make this world seem alien while keeping it easy to understand, like you would in a game.
Although I still hadn’t found any concrete proof this world was some kind of VR simulation, the circumstantial evidence was continuing to mount; in my mind at least. I definitely felt someone out there was pulling the strings, although it could just as well be a Sauron as a pizza-guzzling software engineer.
The card Grayson had given me said we were visitors and were to be allowed full access to all cities under the Treaty of the Four. Considering how we had attacked Grayson, I had been worried it might contain instructions for our immediate imprisonment, but it was a very short statement we had been able to decipher easily, despite Grayson’s terrible handwriting. Although that may have had something to do with me stabbing him just before he wrote it.
I walked up to one of the soldiers holding a pike, and held up the card. “Can you tell me if we have to wait in line?”
He casually glanced at the card, and then his eyes widened. “Wait here.” He turned and ran through the archway.
A moment later, the officer with the clipboard came jogging out, followed by the same soldier.
“Ah, hello. Right this way. Follow me, please.” The officer, who was younger than I’d thought he’d be, spoke in a bright, cheerful voice.
There was a bit of a commotion along the line as people watched us receive special treatment, but it was more out of curiosity than animosity, I’d say. A bunch of hobos in rags suddenly getting whisked past the velvet rope would raise a few eyebrows in any world.
We were led through the archway where there were a number of low buildings. We weren’t actually in the city as there was another wall ahead of us, with another archway. Through that, I could make out numerous buildings.
The officer, who hadn’t introduced himself, showed us into one of the buildings. The room was full of benches and a number of people, including the family we had seen enter earlier.
“Please wait here while I inform the Commander of your presence,” said the officer. He nodded to the soldier who remained with us.
We sat down, all glad to have a chance to rest. We’d walked through the night to get here, and the adrenalin rush of finally reaching our goal had worn off. We were too knackered to do anything other than sit there.
“I hope you have something to offer the great city of Fengarad,” said a large man with a painted face. I don’t mean he had makeup on, I mean he had paint on his face. Black panda eyes, bright red cheeks, and a white strip from his nose down to his chin.
“I hope so, too.” I smiled politely and looked at the others. They were all very studiously looking elsewhere.
“I’m Cordibar the Tremendous, magician and sage. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”
On hearing the word magician I suddenly perked up. For someone like me with poor fighting skills and a terrible physique, there was only one way to become OP, learn magic.
I shuffled along the bench. “You can do magic?”
“Of course. Birthdays, parties, functions of all sorts—Cordibar will keep your guests entertained!” He twirled his hands and produced a rather limp bouquet of flowers out of nowhere. Or possibly from his voluminous sleeves.
Disappointed, I again smiled politely, and slid back down the bench.
The officer returned and I looked up expectantly, but he rushed past me. He stopped in front of Cordibar the Tremendous. “We’ve checked the records and have a report from the City of Dargot about a children’s entertainer called Candimar the Terrific.”
“Never heard of him,” said Cordibar.
“If you think we’re going to expose our children to a pervert like you, you’re sadly mistaken. Guards!”
Four guards appeared. Cordibar leapt to his feet with surprising agility considering his large girth.
“This is a travesty. You have no proof. No proof!”
There was a puff of smoke and Cordibar disappeared. Everyone was left baffled, until Cordibar appeared from behind a bench, crawling towards the exit on all fours like no one could see him.
The guards grabbed him and man-handled him out of the door.
“This is an outrage! I’m not a pervert, I’m an entertainer!”
“I do apologise,” said the officer. “The Commander will see you now.”
We followed him down a corridor into a large office. Behind an impressive desk sat a stern-looking soldier with a walrus moustache, a bald head and a monocle. He rose as we entered and came over to shake out hands.
“Commander Ducane. Charmed. Delighted. Charmed. Please sit. It’s an honour. A great honour.”
He retook his seat and we sat down on the chairs provided. The officer handed the Commander the card from Grayson, and then the Commander did something very surprising. He unfolded it.
The card was quite thick, but there had been no indication it could be opened. The two sides separated like book covers and the Commander read what was written inside. There must have been quite a lot of writing because his eyes remained on the card for an inordinately long time, his eyebrows climbing further and further up his hairless pate until the monocle fell out.
I didn’t know what Grayson had written about us, but I really wished I had one of Cordibar the Tremendous’ smoke bombs on me.