CHAPTER 22: THE GREY STONE SKY
We will move past Thomas searching Groethuis’ body, gazing with a puzzled eye over the curious, dark room, full of plastics and strange smells and weird constructs that he does not have words to name. We will skip over him pushing open the heavy steel door and stumbling down the dark corridor with walls made of what feels like granite, his legs screaming blue murder as they fizzle with pins and needles. We will instead move ahead to Thomas reaching the door at the end of the corridor and finding that it opens not into a room but onto a balcony. And as he stands on this balcony he sees that he is in a great tower, and as far as the eye can see …
Hundreds of the… Hundreds? No.
Across the plain before him there are tents as far as the horizon, tents and campfires, and he can see dark figures huddled around them, muttering or chatting or even singing. Thomas has been to war, and he knows that what he is looking at is an army camped and resting. An army greater than any nation he knows of could wield. Who are they? The English? The Spanish? The Papal army perhaps?
No, for as he scans the great throng with his cruel grey eyes, he can see people of every race and colour; Moors, Asians, dark Southerners and pale Northerners as well as many peoples he does not even recognise.
And then he looks up and gives a cry. It is a short plaintive cry, like a small child who has been struck for the first time and does not understand why.
The sky is grey. The sky is an immense dome of cold grey stone. There are no clouds. There are no stars.
He cannot see heaven.
And he collapses to his knees and gapes. What is this place, he wonders, what is this thing?
I do not understand and I am afraid.
The word shattered the silence on the balcony. Thomas did not move, but remained knelt on the ground, staring at the grey sky.
“On your feet! Hands in the air!”
Thomas closed his eyes, but did not move.
“I said now!”
The voice was a scream, close almost to panic.
Thomas grunted to himself. Whoever this was, he was no one to fear.
Very slowly, elegantly, like a lion stretching his toes, Thomas rose to his feet.
“Hands in the air!”
Thomas raised his empty hands, their palms facing the great throng, their backs facing the owner of the voice.
“Now turn around! Slowly!”
Slow as you like, Thomas turned around. There was a grim smile on his lips.
Now this, he thought to himself, I understand. This I can deal with.
He found himself looking at not one, but two men.
They were dressed in strange clothing, sandy brown dappled with patches of green and they both wore helmets of the same colour, round and shaped like soup bowls. They both had weapons trained on Thomas. Thomas didn’t recognise them, but he supposed that they might be large muskets. They seemed to have the same basic design, a grip, a trigger and a barrel. They looked far more menacing though.
Both men were large and well-built, and Thomas saw the all too familiar glint of brutality in their eyes.
“Stay right where you are!” the first one roared.
“But of course.” said Thomas, as if the very idea that he might try to escape was ridiculous and quite insulting.
The second one now did something quite strange. There was a rectangular black box attached to his jacket, which he now picked up in one hand (while keeping his weapon trained on Thomas with the other) and he began to speak into it.
“Donovan to Little Bear. We have the frog. He’s on the balcony of the medical tower, over.”
And then, to Thomas’ amazement, the black box answered:
“Do not engage. I’m sending backup, over.”
“No need. We’ve got him. Over.” the soldier answered.
“No you don’t. You just think you do. The chopper is on it’s way. Over.” the box replied coldly.
“Bear, we don’t need the damn chopper! Over.”
“Just shut up and keep your weapon trained on him at all times, this is not a debate soldier!”
“Understood. Over and out.” said Donovan sulkily.
“Yes.” said the first soldier sneeringly “Pretty amazing, right? Bet you haven’t seen anything like that before, huh?”
“No.” said Thomas obligingly “I haven’t.”
“You know why? ‘Cause you’re just some stupid piece of filth from the Middle Ages who don’t know nothing about jack.”
“Shut up and so help me God if you move a muscle the cleaners are going to be cursing my name.”
“Gentlemen, why this animosity?” he spread his arms in a gesture of friendship. This did not go down well.
“Alright, my parrots.” he soothed “I’m not going anywhere.”
“You’re God-damned right you’re not.” Donovan snarled.
Suddenly there was a great rush of wind and Thomas had to lock his legs to prevent himself being blown over. Despite the risk of being shot for his trouble, he could not help turning around and came face to face with a great black dragon, hovering in the sky on thin black wings that spun so fast over it’s head they could not be seen. The noise, the wind, the sheer spectacle of it almost killed Thomas there and then.
And then, as if that was not enough, the dragon spoke, a great booming voice that sounded oddly like the one that had issued from the small black box on Donovan’s jacket.
“STAY WHERE YOU ARE! THESE MEN ARE GOING TO TAKE YOU INTO CUSTODY! IF YOU DO NOT CO-OPERATE WE WILL NOT HESITATE TO OPEN FIRE!”
Thomas was not listening. He was remembering the rules. Remembering everything he had ever been taught about fighting.
Everyone has a weakness. Everyone.
When he’s talking, you should be watching, not listening.
Always do what he least expects.
If you’re going to die, make it a good death.
So by the time the dragon had finished speaking, Thomas had already realised that it wasn’t a dragon because he could see that it was made of metal, he had noticed the two flat lengths attached by struts to the belly and he had reminded himself that, since he had been willing to take on the Devil an hour ago, it would be pretty pathetic to surrender to a mere (fake) dragon.
The two soldiers were approaching him now, their weapons still trained on him. The other one, Donovan, was producing what looked like a length of white wire from his pocket.
“I’m gonna put these on your wrists now.” he said “You move, you’re dead.”
“I already died once.” Thomas said, almost conversationally.
“Join the club.” was the reply “Everybody here is dead, man.”
“Very true.” said Thomas.
The scalpels were already in his hands as the words were said, both throats were slit, both bodies on the ground before Thomas had taken his next breath.
Someone in the helicopter had forgotten to turn the loudspeaker off, as a massive “HOLY…” was heard over the sound of the thrashing rotors.
Thomas turned and gazed at the dragon for perhaps half a second.
Then, before the order to fire had even been given, he had run, he had leapt, he had flown through the air like a black eagle, hundreds of feet up with the ground leering deadly below him and he had grabbed a hold of one of the copter’s landing struts. The chopper began to spin wildly, perhaps due to the sudden increase in weight, perhaps because someone inside the thing had panicked and was trying to desperately shake him off. As it screeched low over the tents below Thomas let go and catapulted into the nearest one, the fabric rough-cushioning his fall slightly before he tore through it and landed on a sleeping trio of Vikings.
They sprang awake, screaming curses in Norse but luckily for Thomas they were too bleary eyed to find anything sharp before he had leapt to his feet and run outside.
Outside, a fire was blazing some way away, and it took him a minute to realise that it was the remains of the helicopter. The nearby tents were in danger of going up in flames, and that seemed to have distracted most of the inhabitants of the camp. So much the better, they’d be less likely to pay him any notice as he ran through the narrow paths and byways that crisscrossed between the tents. Then he heard a rumbling over his head.
Far above him, like a black fly silhouetted against the grey stone sky, was a second helicopter .
Three hundred feet over the camp, the helicopter hovered. Inside were two men.
“I’ve got him. He’s heading into the Mongol quarter.” said the pilot, a thin man with only three teeth, all of them black.
“Stay with him. I’ll drop down on him.” said his passenger.
“Don’t you want a parachute? It’s pretty high.”
He received no reply but a grunt of contempt.
Thomas ran blindly through the camp, bewildered and near to panic. There were knights here, in full armour, there were Moors in battle dress and men decked out in war paint and brightly coloured feathers. This was a madhouse, he was insane, there was no other…
He stopped dead in his tracks as a golden bolt rocketed from the sky and ploughed into the earth in front of him. Earth exploded in all directions, people jumped back and covered their ears.
Thomas held his breath.
Slowly becoming visible in the coiling dust was a figure. It looked like a man who had been dipped in liquid gold and then left to go solid. But as it strode ominously towards Thomas it moved with no more difficulty than if it had been wearing cotton. On it’s chest was an embossed emblem of a scorpion and there were two black lenses on it’s face where eyes would be. The figure spoke.
“You’re paying for that chopper.”
Despite the situation, Thomas could not resist a taunt. He reached into his pocket and took out two copper coins.
“Here.” he said, flinging them contemptuously at the golden figure. They bounced off it’s face without leaving so much as a scratch.
“Will that cover it?” he asked, his sneer masking his great unease. He had a horrible feeling he was about to be killed. Again.
“I didn’t say anything about money. I just said you’d pay.” the figure noted.
“Cole, isn’t it?” Thomas asked.
Cole tilted his head quizzically.
“I overheard you talking with Groethuis.” Thomas said.
“Then you weren’t listening very hard. It’s Golden Scorpion.”
“Well, Monsieur Scorpion.” said Thomas “Would you like to get out of my way?”
“I jumped out of a helicopter just to say hello you’re just going to leave me here?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Fear is a terrible thing.”
“So is being force fed your own arms.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Are you done, or do you plan to talk me to death?”
“Death? Who said anything about death? They’re no fun when they’re dead.”
“I like your costume.” Thomas said “It’s very sparkly.”
“Thank you. Just for that, you get first strike.”
“One thing. Before you attack.” said the Scorpion.
Cole was now only ten feet away from him.
“You should know this. When I was a little boy they took me to a special facility and cut me up and put me back together again and pumped me full of every chemical that’s got more than twelve letters in it’s name and told me they’d butcher my family and set my house on fire if I didn’t become the best. The upshot of all this is that I am the strongest, fastest, most brutal fighter that the human race has ever produced in any quarter of space or time.”
Thomas smirked. He had not expected such obvious bluster.
“Really?” he asked sardonically.
“Well…” Cole sounded embarrassed “No. Not really. You got me.”
Thomas sprang, the last scalpel in his hand, teeth bared, blade glinting…
With a single punch the Golden Scorpion smashed him out of the air and he fell to the ground in a prone heap.
“No, just kidding, I am really.” said Cole to the unconscious Thief’s Son.
“Now what say we get you cleaned up? Mabus wants to meet you.”