Part 15: A Forked Path
I had one chance as far as I could see: that the forest dwellers would be reluctant to fire at me if it meant possibly hitting the Iron Queen's head as I held it in my hands. But her head was poor cover to shield myself behind. I honestly expected nothing more than the surprising sensation of a bullet passing through my skull.
What happened instead was almost as shocking to me. The three forest dwellers - eyes wide - lowered their rifles. One of them lifted its weapon up by the barrel, raised its elongated head to the sky and let out a triumphant, exuberant warble.
I was unarmed, and they were stronger than me. If I had not been too astounded to even think of resisting, I would still have been unable to prevent them from grabbing me with their hairy, long-fingered hands and pulling me out onto the street, pushing up my arms so I held the Iron Queen's head over me like a sporting trophy.
Cold rain fell on me from above, coalesced into fat droplets as it filtered through broad purple leaves. Around me, forest dwellers taking cover behind the overgrown ruins of an old town threw down their weapons and looked at me with bright, thankful eyes.
It had never occurred to me that the forest dwellers might not be following the Iron Queen willingly. That they might be grateful towards me for having separated her head from her body.
Above me, the Iron Queen remained silent.
I sat on the crumbling stone steps of a wrought iron war monument, its inscription long since eroded away by the harsh elements of the Twisted Forests. A soldier of pitted metal stood on the stone, legs apart to support the weight of his wounded comrade. Unearthly vines entwined themselves around his legs, and bright flowers hung from his chest like medals.
Emerging from white mist beyond a spiked fence, Lady Una and EON-4 approached me.
“I'm not sure what happened,” Lady Una said.
I looked up at her and smiled. “What happened is that things are okay. Relatively speaking, at least. Where are the others?”
She shook her head. “Thurlow won't come near this place. The riflewoman disappeared some time ago.”
“She's around,” I said. “I think she saved my life earlier.”
Lady Una made a point of ignoring EON-5's head sitting by my side. “I still have your shoe,” she said.
I looked down at my new tree bark moccasins. “I've got a new pair, but thanks all the same.”
EON-4 knelt down in front of the Iron Queen single eye and looked up at me. “Still functional?”
I laid my hand on her steel crown. “Yes. As functional as it was before, at any rate.”
The Iron Queen's eye clicked and rotated. “Who are you?” she asked. “That is the question of prime importance. Who are you?”
EON-4 picked her up and examined the ragged tear at the bottom of her neck, then held her eye level with his own. “I am EON-4. We are alike, you and I.”
“No,” the Iron Queen said. “I am solid. I am me. You are a mirage. Who are you really? Not shimmering water. Not for this fish.”
EON-4 affected a sigh. “This is not as I had hoped it would be.”
“So it's as we feared,” Sigrid said, stepping out of the fog, her rifle resting on her shoulder. “They've all gone... bananas.”
EON-4 rotated his cylindrical head in an approximation of a shake. “No. EON-2's telegram was lucid. Not at all like this.”
“I was about to say that myself,” Lady Una said. “We've had bad luck with EON-5, but there are still three more left. If we absolutely must, we can journey all the way north to find EON-2 itself.”
“EON-1 is the next nearest,” I said. “Except for EON-3, of course, in Unity City.”
“We should return to Fortress City,” EON-4 said. “It may still be possible to extract sense from... from the 'Iron Queen'. We should not gamble her knowledge, but instead be sure to provide it with adequate protection.”
Lady Una put her hands on her hips. “I disagree. From here, we can easily reach EON-1 while avoiding Unity City, while we'd have to make a significant detour to get there from the fortress.”
Thurlow skulked up to the monument, his rifle butt pressed tightly to his shoulder. “I'm with her,” he said, crouching down near the relative cover of the spiked fence.
Lady Una produced a crooked smile. “Two votes, then.”
I laughed. “So it's come to democracy has it? A new low.”
“I vote for Fortress City,” EON-4 stated, tucking the Iron Queen's head securely into his pack.
Thurlow looked at Sigrid and tweaked his moustache. “Phenice?”
She shook her head. “Leave me out of it. I'm not here to make decisions.”
“This affects you as much as anyone,” Lady Una pressed.
“Okay,” Sigrid said, smoothing back her dew-dotted hair. “I vote the same way as the doc.”
Everyone looked at me.
“Great,” I said. “Thanks for that Sigrid. So it's up to me then? Fortress City or the Poison Wastes? Both places of such opulent luxury that it's hard to choose.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: What will Peregrine decide? Back to civilisation? Or further into strange lands? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!