Edric Mercer, here. Already. Before me.
His gaze wavered as he took in my companions: a grizzled, flat-capped Coblyn and a buxom woman with blue hair who could apparently last longer than Boromir. Quite tame in the grand scheme of things, but I imagine it’s a sight that becomes outrageous in such a barren, otherworldly setting.
Ang’s face split into a grin. She stepped forward and socked Mercer in the jaw.
“That’s fer me bluecaps, ye rotten coc oen!” she said gleefully.
The dishevelled figure toppled backwards and groaned.
“This is Mercer?” said Peggy sceptically. “The guy you don’t like because he’s better than you?”
“I never said he was better than me!” I objected.
“Well, you sound jealous when you talk about him.”
“I’m not jealous. Who could be jealous of that?”
‘That’ was groggily rubbing his face with both hands as he lay ungracefully flopped like a rag-doll in one half of the broken myrrh shell. The feather in his hat drooped sadly over one eye.
Peggy bent down to him and said kindly, “Hello? Mr Mercer? Are you all right?”
“Dear lady,” he mumbled, “what part of being imprisoned in a rock cocoon could possibly allow one to be feeling ‘all right’?”
She straightened up. “Sod you, then. And it’s myrrh, actually.”
“What are you doing here, Mercer?” I asked, suppressing my rising bile. I felt I already knew the answer, and I felt wholly cheated.
He pulled himself to his feet, joints cracking as he stretched. He dusted down his stupid red overcoat and straightened his foppish hat. He even wore matching knee-high leather boots with some kind of knot-work embroidery on them. Every bit the dandy cowboy. The only thing missing was his trademark smirk. Instead, crow’s feet and a tight, tired frown made for a disconcertingly out of place expression on his features.
Totally ignoring my question, he said, “Do you have any water?”
“Only if you’ve got an answer,” I shot back. “I’m on a job, and you’re an unwelcome distraction.”
He eyed me wearily. “Miss No-Face got to you too, did she?”
“Whassat? He mean Quiet Eyes?” said Ang.
“It doesn’t matter,” I replied, trying to mask the bitterness from my voice. “Let’s just go do the job; we’re wasting time here. Mercer can see himself home.” I waved vaguely in the direction of the benben stone. “It’s over there somewhere.”
Mercer flashed a wry smile. “You don’t stand a chance on your own, Hansard.”
“You can clearly see I’m not on my own. We can handle ourselves.”
“Oh yes, quite an elite company you have there. I expect the Knocker can help dig your grave, at the very least.”
“Coblyn,” Ang and I snapped at the same time.
“Same thing. Little dirt goblin. Far from your hole, aren’t you, goblin?”
Ang flexed her hands like claws. With the way her scowl bared her teeth, she did look horribly goblinesque in the grey half-light. “Not. Goblin,” she hissed.
At her waist the bluecap flared brightly. Ang’s eyes widened.
“Settle down, little one,” Mercer continued to drawl. “You can at least be grateful you aren’t related to the gnomish folk . . .”
Ang grabbed my hand and Peggy’s and at speed pulled us back down the slope we had just climbed. With a deft flick of her wrist she released the latch on her lantern and the bluecap whizzed off ahead. “Follow it!” she ordered.
We tripped and stumbled over the jagged stone until we passed a rocky overhang and found ourselves slipping and sliding over scree instead. We slithered into a dip in the ground and were pulled to the floor by Ang. She gestured for us to stay low. The bluecap flitted about anxiously in front of our noses. Ang reached out and cupped the flame gently, drawing it back to the lantern.
I opened my mouth to speak, but Ang caught my eye and shook her head. The bluecap still danced erratically inside the glass. Obviously it had sensed some kind of danger, but what? And where was Mercer? Had he tried to follow us, or was he still pontificating at thin air?
I raised my head to peer over the edge of our hollow. It was a dead landscape, silent and still. It was pierced, very suddenly, by a shrill cry and a streak of red arcing through the air, followed by a bone-shattering thud as it hit the ground. A red hat with a feather drifted down after it.
We shared a pained wince. That’s not the kind of fall you get back up from.
As I stared at the forlorn body on the rocks, a small, hunched figure shuffled into view. It was probably male, based on the lack of visible lady parts. It was naked from the waist up, sandalled at the feet, and its modesty assured by a wrap of white linen. Quite human, aside from the bird’s head that rested on its shoulders: something long and narrow with an S-shaped neck, like a heron. It advanced on Mercer’s prone body, head bobbing backwards and forwards like a pigeon. It stopped and stared, flicking its head side to side in that juddery way shared by all avian creatures. The head dipped and the beak snapped at Mercer’s red coat.
“What’s it doing?” whispered Peggy. It seemed cautious; poking with its sharp beak as if prodding for movement. Apparently satisfied, it grabbed two handfuls of coat and began to drag the body back up the hill.
Peggy made as if to jump up – Ang and I both yanked her back down.
“We can’t let it take him!” she exclaimed, aghast.
“Yes we can. He’s probably dead.”
“No, look! He’s moving!”
I looked up and saw that Mercer’s corpse was squirming. It startled the bird-creature as much as me; it let go of the struggling cadaver and hopped back a few paces. Mercer sat up, coat wrapped over his head and arms flailing blindly. The bird-beastie bent double, then hopped forwards again, edging around towards Mercer’s back. I realised it had picked up a rock.
There was a sudden void beside me.
“Peg, no!” I leapt up and after her, briefly scrambling on all fours til I found my footing. Peggy raced ahead of me, screaming a war cry that any berserker could be proud of. The heron-head dropped its rock and looked at Peggy open-beaked. I don’t think it knew whether to run or attack. But then it spotted me, charging along behind. I like to think that my coat billowed heroically behind me.
Our valiant charge spooked the hell out of it. It jumped backwards, bent its knees, then unfurled the most ginormous wings I’ve ever seen. That hunched profile was all down to the feathered mass gathered at its back – and now, silvery wings outstretched, at least three metres from wing-tip to wing-tip, the creature looked huge. With one massive downbeat it flapped its wings and took off in one graceful motion, spiralling upwards on a pillar of non-existent thermals. It became a silver speck against the obsidian sky, then veered off towards the distant crag where we had spied the nest.
Ang marched over to Mercer and ripped the coat off his head. He seemed quite dazed underneath. I would be, if I’d just been thrown fifty feet in the air.
She stuck her nose in his face and demanded, “Why ain’t you dead?”
“Thank you for your concern,” he grunted.
“But seriously, why aren’t you?” I asked, watching him stagger to his feet.
He straightened the leather coat and delved into one of the pockets. He pulled out an ornately decorated omamori charm constructed of green silk and gold thread. It was gently sizzling. The embroidered kanji script glowed fiery red, gradually burning away the silk before our eyes. Within moments, only the smouldering characters were left hanging in the air, and then they too dissipated into nothing.
“That was my last one,” said Mercer grimly. “Highly advanced amulets; complete protection against physical harm. I travelled personally to the Itsukushima Shrine to have them prepared to my own unique specifications.”
“Huh,” said Peggy, sending me a pointed look. “So some charms are useful.”
“Mine are useful,” I muttered. In highly specific situations.
“Well, if I need any luck in passing an exam or avoiding strong winds, I’ll let you know,” she replied sweetly. I heard Ang snigger.
Mercer regarded me dubiously. “I suppose you do have some items of use about your person? I must say I’ve eaten through all my resources.”
The three of us exchanged uneasy glances.
“My charms are a decent calibre. Just a bit . . . specialised . . .”
“I got me bluecap.”
“. . . I have a notepad and pen?”
It was a little funny, watching the expression of sublime stupefaction dawn on Mercer’s face. Or, it would have been, were it not a sign of how abysmally unprepared we were. He picked his hat off the floor and ran one hand through his hair, staring into the distance.
“Do you realise,” he said slowly, “I have been attempting to complete my task on this island for . . . about four days now. That does not include the extensive planning beforehand. It took at least a month to discover the location of the phoenix and track it to London . . . a further fortnight to plan the operation and ensure I had taken all the necessary precautions . . . Of course I had to think of food provisions and other practicalities, alongside offensive and defensive measures . . . And you tell me that you all just . . . hopped in without a care?” He shook his head. “I took you for a fool, Hansard, but I see I’ve underestimated the depths of your folly.”
Peggy bristled. “Just what is your task here, Mr Mercer? Whatever it is, you’re obviously not doing it very well.”
“’E’s stealing feenix eggs,” said Ang bluntly. “Quiet Eyes offer you the job b’fore us, pen pigyn?”
“Months ago, by the sounds of it,” I said. “I’m guessing you missed your rendez-vous? I suppose Quiet Eyes figured you must’ve gotten into trouble, couldn’t handle the job after all. Lucky we were in town, so she could send us to . . . save . . . you . . .” I trailed off, smugness suddenly displaced by resentment. It descended like a cloud. We weren’t here to steal phoenix eggs. We were here to find out what had happened to the previous schmuck. Mercer.
He gave me a look of pity. “Surely it must have occurred to you that you wouldn’t be the first choice for any task like this? Now, I’m no fool, Hansard. Once I located the benben stone, I did not divulge this information to little Miss No-Face – or Quiet Eyes, I like that. I have ways of making sure she couldn’t follow me, either; so until now my location, and by extension, the phoenix, has remained a mystery to her.”
“What do you mean, ‘until now’?” said Peggy suspiciously.
“Call it a hunch, my dear, but I suspect you took no measures to cover your tracks. I’m right, aren’t I? As we speak, that woman is probably assembling a reception party for us back at the museum. Stupid. Do you really think she was going to pay you, Hansard? Come to that, do you really think she expected you to actually get your hands on a phoenix egg? I imagine she expected you to find my corpse, maybe a clue as to my cause of death, and then for you to ram your tail between your legs and go squealing back to her with the information. For this you are, might I say, the perfect choice. Your propensity for running away is . . . well-documented.”
My lip curled.
I lashed out, snatched the stupid hat from his stupid head and threw it on the floor and stamped on it. I stamped it down until it was flat and the feather was barely a feather anymore. Then I picked it up, and rammed it down on Mercer’s smug, scheming, soul-sickeningly self-satisfied skull. I rammed it down so hard that he sank right into the rock, and then I stamped him down until there was nothing left but that hat sticking up out of the stone like a sorry crimson weed.
Well, that’s what I did in my head, anyways.
Instead, I said, “That’s where you’re wrong. You and Quiet Eyes. You can go running home if you want, go get some more personalised charms, for all I care. I’m going to get my hands on a phoenix egg, and I’m going to find a different buyer.”
I suppose I was expecting derogatory laughter, but Mercer’s resigned sigh rather took me by surprise. “You can’t, and you won’t,” he said flatly. “Trust me, I’ve used nearly every trick I know, and I am out of juice. The phoenix is powerful.”
“The phoenix being the bird-man we saw a moment ago?” inquired Peggy.
“Of course dear lady. What else? There simply are no other creatures inhabiting this waste of rock.”
“No need to be sarcastic.”
“It don’t exactly match any of the descriptions, does it,” said Ang, scratching her nose. “Seems t’me it could be anyone with a bird head pretendin’ to be the feenix.” She shrugged unapologetically under our combined gaze. “People says I look goblin – even though ye ain’t never seen me eating babes. But if ye put me next to a goblin, ye’d know the difference straight away.”
“To be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you mining coal, either . . . Not-that-I-don’t-think-you’re-a-Coblyn,” I added quickly.
“Allow me to enlighten you,” interjected Mercer. “I know it must be the same phoenix I have been seeking, for it displays the key, unifying characteristic of that mythic bird, i.e. immortality.”
“How could you possibly know it’s immortal?”
“I’ve killed it at least three times already.”
“Ah . . . oh.”
Peggy leaned in to whisper in my ear. “I can’t stand people who say things like ‘i.e.’ out loud,” she said with a grimace. I hear you, Peg.
Oblivious, Mercer continued. “On each attempt it appears to pull itself back together. I have tried crushing it – it merely gets back up, fills out the flesh good as new. I’ve tried burning it – but it walked through the flames until it was crispy, and then kept on walking. I cut off one of its limbs, and discovered it was still attached by a thin thread which drew it back onto the body. I considered cutting it into pieces and locking each segment in a box, but I fear dismemberment would be impossible: I’ve found no way of cutting that thread. I’ve never managed to disable the creature for more than a few minutes at a time . . .”
“O-kay,” I reflected. “And how strong is it?”
“Very strong. I fear that we may be dealing with a creature of deific proportions.”
“It does look rather like an Egyptian god,” mused Peggy, “what with the animal head on a human body. Jack, do you remember reading that the bennu bird was the soul of the sun-god Ra?” Her eyes lit up. “Are we dealing with an actual Egyptian deity?”
I frowned. That didn’t sound good at all. Myths and monsters are one thing; gods are a whole other can of celestial worms that I didn’t want to sample.
Mercer, on the other hand, was apparently willing to eat his fill. “Are you aware of the rich body of Egyptian creation myth?” he asked Peggy.
“Some of it,” she replied hesitantly. “Actually, it did occur to me, what with the link to the Egyptian bennu bird, that this island might, in some way, represent the primeval mound rising out of the waters of chaos. This place is all so . . . blank. It feels like an oppressive kind of nothingness.”
Mercer seemed taken aback with surprise. “Indeed. There are of course many variations of the myth. They overlap with and contradict one another, but a vaguely unified version might be described as thus: In the beginning, there was nothing but the black waters of Nu. There is one god who exists in this realm of nothing, and he is variously named Amun, Atum, and Ptah. This god created . . . everything. But he starts with the primeval mound, and the nine gods of the Ennead. These would be Geb, the ground; Nut, the sky; Shu, the air; Tefnut, water; Osiris, rebirth; Isis, magic; Set, chaos; Nephthys, death.”
Above us and around us, the sable sky and still waters remained conspicuously god-less.
“What does this have to do with the phoenix?” I said impatiently.
“In some stories it’s a sound made by the phoenix that kick-starts creation,” explained Peggy. “Kind of suggests the phoenix was around at the same time as the almighty creator-god.”
“Indeed,” said Mercer. “Let’s not forget that the bennu bird is intertwined with the identity of the god Ra, who is in turn bound up with the names of Atum and Amun.” That pompous smirk was back on his face.
“Hold up,” I said. “You’re not actually suggesting that we’ve just met the god of creation, are you? That this island is the starting point of the universe?”
Now I received the derisive laughter I had been waiting for. Mercer had the gall to sneer at me. “My dear Hansard, that is truly preposterous. Quite frankly one would expect a creation-deity to be somewhat more impressive.” He said this with the aggravating tone of someone inferring that they should know, because they have experience in this exotic territory. “You should know that all myths must spring from somewhere. It is my postulation that this dark realm is the native homeland of our phoenix creature, and that at some time in the distant past it found its way into our world and thus into Egyptian culture, inspiring a rich body of lore that endured over millennia. But a true god? It’s not nearly strong enough. Maybe a demi-god, at best.”
“That makes all the difference,” I said sarcastically.
“Indeed. I battled it for hours on end, and it was able to throw me large distances with little effort. It has also attacked me with fire – issued from the hands, which I find interesting – and most recently I have discovered its ability to encase a particularly persistent enemy in a cocoon made of myrrh. Admittedly, it had knocked me unconscious first. I presume it had given up on trying to kill me or scare me off, so imprisonment was the next best thing.”
“You haven’t made it to the nest, then.”
He waved a hand dismissively. “Getting there is not the problem. It’s a mere matter of putting one foot in front of the other. But the phoenix guards the nest, and has knocked me back every time. I feel we can take no other course of action but to turn back.”
Peggy chewed her lip, looking pensive.
“You can head back,” I told her. “You’ve done more than enough for me already and you certainly didn’t ask to be in this mess. See you later.” I gave her a friendly pat on the shoulder and a roguish smile, then turned and started up the slope.
“What? What are you doing, Jack?”
Ang sighed. “Puttin’ one foot in front of t’other.” She checked the lantern at her waist and straightened her waistcoat. “Someone’s gotta pick up the pieces if he gets hisself killed.”
“You’re going with him?” I heard Mercer say in astonishment.
“Wait for me!” yelled Peggy.
“Fools,” muttered Mercer. Then, grudgingly, “Hold up. I’m coming too.”
* * *
I don’t know why I needed to prove myself so badly. This isn’t me, I thought as I clambered up the ridge. This can’t be me, climbing head first into danger just for the sake of my pride.
I don’t consider myself a coward, but cowardice has its merits. When you know a customer is about to be imminently dissatisfied, scarpering is just common sense.
I’ve been in risky situations before. I’m hardly a stranger to peril. But I usually enter it unwittingly, and my first thought is always towards my exit strategy. A healthy sense of self-preservation doesn’t make a man a coward. I suppose the key thing, the really key thing, is that I’ve only ever done small peril. Brief doses, bite-sized chunks. Talks big, acts small . . . that’s me, when you get right down to the bottom of the rusty barrel of my personality. It’s the fundamental difference between Mercer and me.
Mercer does big.
Mercer came here prepared to kill a god. I came prepared to try and half-inch a piece of poultry.
I’ve done my share of sight-seeing, traversing some of the more peculiar corners of reality – and occasionally unreality – but I can’t profess to have been to Hades, or Nirvana, or Limbo, or countless other dimensions which are apparently a walk in the park for men like Mercer. I’ve one-upped a few beasties in my time, but never done battle with demons. I’m a tupenny merchant of curiosities; he an agent of incredibilities. If this were a film he would undoubtedly be the main character. I probably wouldn’t even get a walk-on part.
‘Little fish’, Mercer had once called me.
It occurred to me, as I stubbed my toe on another black rock, that maybe I was just tired of being treated like a bit player. I’d like to play a different character for a change – one with a speaking part and a place in the credits. Someone owed a little respect. And this, this, is why the business with Baines and Grayle and Quiet Eyes has really gotten under my skin. Because enemies, friends, and acquaintances alike have tried to fob me off in the same manner you warn a child not to touch the oven: That’s grown up stuff. Leave it to the big boys. The bigger fish.
Quiet Eyes thinks I’m a joke. Mercer’s her real lap dog, her first-choice pedigree – I’m the convenient mongrel who just happens to have a working nose. It had dawned on me, with a twinned cloud of anger and gloom, that I could have been any Black Marketeer in the immediate vicinity when Quiet Eyes decided she needed some intelligence gathered on Mercer’s fate. Hell, she probably has a bunch of others on the job, too. Who’s to say I’m the only one?
At least I got here first, I reflected. Or at least, I hope so. Could be we just haven’t found the corpses yet.
“Jack,” said Peggy softly, touching my arm. She pointed ahead to where a large nest of woven reeds rested on a rocky outcrop. The nest was easily twice as big as a man; you could comfortably sleep in it, and from the well-worn impressions it looked like someone did, regularly. In the centre were a clutch of eggs. Each was fist-sized, and a dull amber hue, the colour of myrrh.
“Jack,” said Peggy again, tearing my gaze away. “We need to talk about this.”
“Talk about what?”
“Why is the phoenix guarding these eggs? Haven’t you wondered what the reason is?”
“Don’t all birds protect their young? It’s bound to be a bit pissed off. It’ll get over it – we’re only going to steal one egg.” Unless I can carry more, I thought silently.
“Depends what the offspring is,” breathed Mercer, on my other side. “Some of those ancient creation stories . . . some say it was the phoenix alone who created the whole world. Hatched it, in fact, from an egg.”
We stared anew at the clutch of eggs. Mercer’s eyes were hungry. “I’ve never stolen a whole world,” he murmured.
Ang tugged me down to her level and showed me the lantern. The bluecap was going haywire inside, throwing itself against the glass in every direction.
“It really don’t want to be here, gwas,” she said reproachfully. “Hope you got a plan.”
“I knows that look, gwas. Means you’re about to wing it ‘n’ hope for the best.”
“. . . Sort of.”
“You ever think about the danger ye put others in?”
“Hey, you all followed me. I didn’t ask you to come.”
“Ye gunna do your best t’keep us all alive, then?”
“Good. ‘Cuz the feenix is gettin’ up, gwas.”
A large grey lump, which we had all taken for just another oddly-textured boulder, began to uncurl. Wings the colour of silver and slate spread wide, and a beady heron eye glared at us first from one side of the slender head, then the other.
“Quickly Peg, give me your notebook,” I exclaimed.
“This isn’t the time to be taking notes, Hansard,” hissed Mercer as I hastily scribbled. The phoenix regarded us warily; maybe it was waiting for us to make the first move. If it’s been fighting Mercer for four days straight, makes sense it would be extra wary of more human-shaped creatures joining in. I wondered how Mercer would approach it . . . I bet he’d square up to it, stare it down, face off for a good few minutes like a respectful adversary. So what the phoenix would be least expecting us to do . . . is probably something like this.
I sprinted forward, covering the ground in five strides. The phoenix flinched and raised its hands. I didn’t hesitate; I slapped a paper omamori charm to its crested forehead and rammed the notebook and pen in its hands. Channelling every ounce of focus I had I bellowed into its baffled face, “Good luck with passing your exam!”
Then I left it staring bewildered at the words on the paper in front of it and ducked under a wing. The feathers were soft. I dashed to the nest, vaguely aware of motion and noise behind me. I seized the closest amber egg – I’ve got one! – and stashed it in a pocket. Mercer was beside me, shouting in my ear, “You bloody fool!”
There was a rushing, crackling sound; Mercer grabbed me by the scruff of my coat and hauled me into the nest. Flames screamed over our heads.
There was no time to think. Instinct, in any case, had quite fully taken over all thought processes by this point. As soon as the fire ceased gushing, we darted up and over the lip of reeds and ran, ran, ran.
Peg and Ang joined us at our heels. An almighty cry sounded behind us; it lashed through the air and quaked the ground at our feet. I threw my arms out and came to an abrupt halt as the rocks tore and tumbled away before me. The others barrelled into my back. What was rocky hillside became cliff edge inches from my toes as great chunks of rock crumbled and smashed into the black water below. The phoenix cried again and a crack shot through the stone like lightning. It began to split apart in a jagged circle around us.
“We need to jump!” yelled Mercer over the shriek of tortured stone.
I wobbled on my feet as the ground shuddered and groaned. I took a running leap across the widening gap, cleared it. Mercer and Ang thudded either side of me.
“Jack!” I heard from behind. I turned, and there was Peggy, on her knees and clutching the slowly receding ground. Her face was white with terror.
“Jump, Peg!” I screamed.
“I can’t make it,” she cried. Her pleading eyes locked onto mine.
I looked at the gap and it was wide, very wide, and growing inexorably wider with every second. I panicked. It was too far. Too far. I’d never make that jump. Definitely.
Probably, hissed the little honest voice in my head.
My muscles tensed. I flew across the gap, caught the edge with one foot and threw all my weight forward. I landed face-down on the rock.
“I’m sorry, Jack,” gasped Peggy, helping me up. She sounded like she could hardly breathe. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I froze, it’s so stupid, I’m sorry.” I caught hold of her as the island violently shook.
“Take this.” I thrust a crumpled omamori into her hands. “This one prevents falling, Peg. You can’t not make the jump now!” I pulled her back from the edge. “We run at it together, right?” She nodded mutely.
We ran, hit the edge, we jumped, and I knew, I knew then, I could see that it was too far. My outstretched fingers brushed the stone on the other side, and I continued to fall.
Something cold seized my hand. Enveloped it, in fact, in a white-ish blue light. I stopped falling with a jolt – and then another jolt as Peggy grabbed the tail of my coat. We hung, shell-shocked and overwhelmingly grateful, in mid-air. Then I heard Ang’s voice, and we were hauled upwards, back to solid ground. Ang gave us both a few anxious slaps as we were deposited at her feet.
“No time t’be senseless, gwas, the world’s fallin’ apart! Hurry, hurry!”
“He ran! We got to, too, gwas!”
We staggered upright. Peggy threw the paper charm at me. “I knew you were lying, Jack!”
“No time!” cried Ang. “Bluecap will show us a safe way, follow it down, hurry!”
The bluecap detached from my hand and sped off. The ground was quaking more violently and every other step some part of it seemed to collapse right next to us. Great spikes of stone burst forth when we tried to round a corner; we slid after the bluecap through a narrow gap between two walls closing in on each other. The bluecap would change direction suddenly, send us back the way we’d come – and we’d see over our shoulders that the rock had heaved, thrust upwards or sunk into rubble. I thought I spied silver wings in the sky above us, and the enraged phoenix cry followed as we tumbled over ourselves and ran as fast as our legs could carry. A final drop onto a plateau and our goal was in sight. The benben stone shimmered in the air just yards away.
A dull, feathered thump at our backs had us sprinting. I thought I could hear the roar of flames and heat at my back, but we were at the benben stone, we made it, and now I just had to unfocus shit I had to unfocus . . .
We touched the stone together, I forced myself to think straight. The world seemed to get very hot . . .
And there was the fog, soft and cooling, embracing, and there were the shadows, climbing out of the dark pit inside the mist. Formless claws snaked towards us . . .
The light came rushing back, hit me square in the forehead. I dropped to the floor, dazed.
“You made it,” said Mercer. He was still panting. Probably only seconds ahead of us.
“No thanks to you,” said Peggy.
The blinding glare resolved itself into a spotlight over my head, illuminating the benben stone in the centre of a dark, peaceful room. There were smooth tiles underneath me. I closed my eyes and sighed. I’ve never felt so happy to be inside a museum.
“How did you get out of there?” said Mercer. “I was sure you’d be dead.”
“We gots our ways,” huffed Ang. The bluecap hovered at her side; she ushered it back into the lantern.
“Well, I suppose I am a little impressed. If only because I didn’t think you had it in you, Hansard. Tell me, I must know . . . How did you stall the phoenix long enough to get to the nest?”
“Hmm?” I replied.
“The charm you used, what was it?”
“Oh, that.” I began to pull myself upright, thought better of it, and sat cross-legged on the floor instead. I leaned against the benben’s pedestal. “If you must know, it was a simple good luck charm. For students. Taking exams, you know.”
Mercer’s brow crinkled. “Are you trying to say you attempted to compel it to successfully complete an examination? You compelled it to answer a question on the paper before it could move?”
I shrugged. “Something like that.” Mostly, I just hoped I would confuse the hell out of it.
“What was the question you wrote?” asked Peggy curiously.
“It’s a good one.”
“’What . . . is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?’”
There was a ringing silence.
“I can’t believe you’re alive,” said Mercer icily.
“I dun’t get it,” said Ang. “Why’d you need to know about swallows? Why you laughin’, gwas, what’s the joke?”
“I have a better joke,” said a sly voice. A familiar, but very unwelcome voice. The gloom began to coalesce, and out of it stepped Quiet Eyes. Two other bodies followed her: I recognised the smug countenance of Vincent, but not the other suited goon. How long had they been standing in the dark, waiting for us?
Quiet Eyes smiled. “This is the punch line.”