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Chapter 6 Siege

 ARTEMIS leaned back in the study's leather swivel chair, smiling over steepled fingers. Perfect. That little explosion should cure those fairies of their cavalier attitude. Plus there was one less whaler in the world. Artemis Fowl did not like whalers. There were less objectionable ways to produce oil by-products.

 

The pinhole camera concealed in the locator had worked perfectly. With its high-resolution images he had picked out the fairy's tell-tale breath crystals.

 

Artemis consulted the basement surveillance monitor. His captive was sitting on the cot now, head in hands. Artemis frowned. He hadn't expected the fairy to appear so ... human. Until now, they had merely been quarry. Animals to be hunted. But now, seeing one like this, in obvious discomfort, it changed things.

 

Artemis put the computer to sleep and crossed to the main doors. Time for a little chat with their guest. Just as his fingers alighted on the brass handles, the door flew open before him. Juliet appeared in the doorway, cheeks flushed from haste.

 

'Artemis,' she gasped. 'Your mother. She ...'

 

Artemis felt a lead ball drop in his stomach.

 

'Yes?'

 

'Well, she says, Artemis ... Artemis, that your ...'

 

'Yes, Juliet. For heaven's sake, what is it?'

 

Juliet placed both hands over her mouth, composing herself. After several seconds she parted spangled nails, speaking through her fingers.

 

'It's your father, sir. Artemis Senior. Madam Fowl says he's come back!'

 

For a split second, Artemis could have sworn his heart had stopped. Father? Back? Was it possible? Of course he'd always believed his father was alive. But lately, since he'd hatched this fairy scheme, it was almost as if his father had shifted to the back of his mind. Artemis felt guilt churn his stomach. He had given up. Given up on his own father.

 

'Did you see him, Juliet? With your own eyes?'

 

The girl shook her head.

 

'No, Artemis, sir. I just heard voices. In the bedroom. But she won't let me through the door. Not for anything. Not even with a hot drink.'

 

Artemis calculated. They had returned barely an hour since. His father could have slipped past Juliet. It was possible. Just possible. He glanced at his watch, synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time by constantly updated radio signals. Three a.m. Time was ticking on. His entire plan depended on the fairies making their next move before daylight.

 

Artemis started. He was doing it again, pushing family to one side. What was he becoming? His father was the priority here, not some money-making scheme.

 

Juliet was still in the doorway, watching him with those enormous blue eyes. She was waiting for him to make a decision, as he always did. And for once, there was indecision scrawled across his pale features.

 

'Very well,' he mumbled eventually. 'I had better go up there immediately.'

 

Artemis brushed past the girl, taking the steps two at a time. His mother's room was two flights up, a converted attic space.

 

He hesitated at the door. What would he say if it was his father miraculously returned? What would he do? It was ridiculous dithering about it. Impossible to predict. He knocked lightly.

 

'Mother?'

 

No response, but he thought he heard a giggle and was instantly transported into the past. Initially this room had been his parents' lounge. They would sit on the chaise longue for hours, tittering like school children, feeding the pigeons or watching the ships sailing past on Dublin sound. When Artemis Senior had disappeared, Angeline Fowl had become more and more attached to the space, eventually refusing to leave altogether.

 

'Mother? Are you all right?'

 

Muffled voices from within. Conspiratorial whispers.

 

'Mother. I'm coming in.'

 

'Wait a moment. Timmy, stop it, you beast. We have company.'

 

Timmy? Artemis's heart thumped like a snare drum in his chest. Timmy, her pet name for his father. Timmy and Arty. The two men in her life. He could wait no longer. Artemis burst through the double doors.

 

His first impression was light. Mother had the lamps on. A good sign surely. Artemis knew where his mother would be. He knew exactly where to look. But he couldn't. What if ... What if ...

 

'Yes, can we help you?'

 

Artemis turned, his eyes still downcast. 'It's me.'

 

His mother laughed. Airy and carefree. 'I can see it's you, Papa. Can't you even give your boy one night off? It is our honeymoon after all.'

 

Artemis knew then. It was just an escalation of her madness. Papa? Angeline thought Artemis was his own grandfather. Dead over ten years. He raised his gaze slowly.

 

His mother was seated on the chaise longue, resplendent in her own wedding dress, face clumsily coated with make-up. But that wasn't the worst of it.

 

Beside her was a facsimile of his father, constructed from the morning suit he'd worn on that glorious day in Christchurch Cathedral fourteen years ago. The clothes were padded with tissue, and atop the dress shirt was a stuffed pillowcase with lipstick features. It was almost funny. Artemis choked back a sob, his hopes vanishing like a summer rainbow.

 

'What do you say, Papa?' said Angeline in a deep bass, nodding the pillow like a ventriloquist manipulating her dummy. 'One night off for your boy, eh?'

 

Artemis nodded. What else could he do?

 

'One night then. Take tomorrow too. Be happy.'

 

Angeline's face radiated honest joy. She sprang from the couch, embracing her unrecognized son.

 

'Thank you, Papa. Thank you.'

 

Artemis returned the embrace, though it felt like cheating.

 

'You're welcome, Mo Angeline. Now, I must be off. Business to attend to.'

 

His mother settled beside her imitation husband.

 

'Yes, Papa. You go, don't worry, we can keep ourselves amused.'

 

Artemis left. He didn't look back. There were things to be done. Fairies to be extorted. He had no time for his mother's fantasy world.

 

Captain Holly Short was holding her head in her hands. One hand to be precise. The other was scrabbling down the side of her boot, on the camera's blindside. In actuality her head was crystal clear, but it would do no harm for the enemy to believe her still out of action. Perhaps they would underestimate her. And that would be the last mistake they ever made.

 

Holly's fingers closed around the object that had been digging into her ankle. She knew immediately by its contours what was concealed there. The acorn! It must have slipped into her boot during all the commotion by the oak. This could be a vital development. All she needed was a small patch of earth, then her powers would be restored.

 

Holly glanced surreptitiously around the cell. Fresh concrete by the looks of it. Not a single crack or flaky corner. Nowhere to bury her secret weapon. Holly stood tentatively, trying out her legs for stability. Not too bad, a bit shaky around the knees, but otherwise sound enough. She crossed to the wall, pressing her cheek and palms to the smooth surface. The concrete was fresh all right, very recent. Still damp in patches. Obviously her prison had been specially prepared.

 

'Looking for something?' said a voice. A cold, heartless voice.

 

Holly reared back from the wall. The human boy was standing not two metres from her, his eyes hidden behind mirrored glasses. He had entered the room without a sound. Extraordinary.

 

'Sit, please.'

 

Holly did not want to sit please. What she wanted to do was incapacitate this insolent pup with her elbow and use his miserable hide for leverage. Artemis could see it in her eyes. It amused him.

 

'Getting ideas, are we, Captain Short?'

 

Holly bared her teeth, it was answer enough.

 

'We are both fully aware of the rules here, Captain. This is my house. You must abide by my wishes. Your laws, not mine. Obviously my wishes do not include bodily harm to myself, or you attempting to leave this house.'

 

It hit Holly then.

 

'How do you know my -'

 

'Your name? Your rank?' Artemis smiled, though there was no joy in it. 'If you will wear a name tag ...'

 

Holly's hand unconsciously covered the silver tag on her suit.

 

'But that's written in -'

 

'Gnommish. I know. I happen to be fluent. As is everyone in my network.'

 

Holly was silent for a moment, processing this momentous revelation.

 

'Fowl,' she said with feeling, 'you have no idea what you've done. Bringing the worlds together like this could mean disaster for us all.'

 

Artemis shrugged. 'I am not concerned with us all, just myself. And believe me, I shall be perfectly fine. Now, sit, please.'

 

Holly sat, never taking her hazel eyes from the diminutive monster before her.

 

'So what is this master plan, Fowl? Let me guess: world domination?'

 

'Nothing so melodramatic,' chuckled Artemis. 'Just riches.'

 

'A thief!' spat Holly. 'You're just a thief!'

 

Annoyance flashed across Artemis's features, only to be replaced by his customary sardonic grin.

 

'Yes. A thief if you like. Hardly just a thief though. The world's first cross-species thief.'

 

Captain Short snorted. 'First cross-species thief! Mud People have been stealing from us for millennia. Why do you think we live underground?'

 

'True. But I will be first to successfully separate a fairy from its gold.'

 

'Gold? Gold? Human idiot. You don't honestly believe that crock-of-gold nonsense. Some things aren't true, you know.'

 

Holly threw her head back and laughed.

 

Artemis checked his nails patiently, waiting for her to finish. When the gales had finally subsided, he shook his index finger.

 

'You are right to laugh, Captain Short. For a while there, I did believe in all that under-the-rainbow crock-of-gold blarney, but now I know better. Now I know about the hostage fund.'

 

Holly struggled to keep her face under control.

 

'What hostage fund?'

 

'Oh, come now, Captain. Why bother with the charade? You told me about it yourself.'

 

'I-I told you!' stammered Holly. 'Ridiculous!'

 

'Look at your arm.'

 

Holly rolled up her right sleeve. There was a small cotton pad taped to the vein.

 

'That's where we administered the sodium pentathol. Commonly known as truth serum. You sang like a bird.'

 

Holly knew it was true. How else could he know?

 

'You're mad!'

 

Artemis nodded indulgently. 'If I win, I'm a prodigy. If I lose then I'm mad. That's the way history is written.'

 

Of course, there had been no sodium pentathol, just a harmless prick with a sterilized needle. Artemis would not risk causing brain damage to his meal ticket, but nor could he afford to reveal the Book as the source of his information. Better to let the hostage believe that she had betrayed her own people. It would lower her morale, making her more susceptible to his mind games. Still, the ruse disturbed him. It was undeniably cruel. How far was he prepared to go for this gold? He didn't know, and wouldn't until the time came.

 

Holly slumped, momentarily defeated by this latest development. She had talked. Revealed sacred secrets. Even if she did manage to escape, she would be banished to some freezing tunnel under the Arctic Circle.

 

'This isn't over, Fowl,' she said at last. 'We have powers you can't possibly know about. It would take days to describe them all.'

 

The infuriating boy laughed again. 'How long do you think you've been here?'

 

Holly groaned; she knew what was coming. 'A few hours?'

 

Artemis shook his head. 'Three days,' he lied. 'We've had you on a drip for over sixty hours ... until you told us everything we needed to know.'

 

Even as the words came out, Artemis felt guilty. These mind games were having an obvious effect on Holly, destroying her from the inside out. Was there really a need for this?

 

'Three days? You could have killed me. What kind of ...'

 

And it was that speechless quality that sent the doubt shooting through Artemis's brain. The fairy thought him so evil, she couldn't even find the words.

 

Holly pulled herself together.

 

'Well then, Master Fowl,' she spat, heavy on the contempt, 'if you know so much about us, then you know what happens when they locate me.'

 

Artemis nodded absently. 'Oh yes, I know. In fact, I'm counting on it.'

 

It was Holly's turn to grin.

 

'Oh really. Tell me, boy, have you ever met a troll?'

 

For the first time, the human's confidence dropped a notch.

 

'No. Never a troll.'

 

Holly showed more teeth.

 

'You will, Fowl. You will. And I hope I'm there to see it.'

 

The LEP had established a surface Op's HQ at E1:Tara.

 

'Well?' said Root, slapping at a paramedic gremlin who was applying burn salve to his forehead. 'Leave it. The magic will sort me out soon enough.'

 

'Well what?' replied Foaly.

 

'Don't give me any of your lip today, Foaly, because today is not one of those Oh-I'm-so-impressed-with-the-pony's-technology days. Tell me what you found on the human.'

 

Foaly scowled, securing his foil hat on his head. He flipped the top on a wafer-thin laptop.

 

'I hacked into Interpol. Not too difficult, I can tell you. They might as well have put out a welcome mat ...'

 

Root drummed his fingers on the conference table. 'Get on with it.'

 

'Right. Fowl. Ten-gigabyte file. In paper terms that's half a library.'

 

The commander whistled. 'That's one busy human.'

 

'Family,' corrected Foaly. 'The Fowls have been subverting justice for generations. Racketeering, smuggling, armed robbery. Mostly corporate crime last century.'

 

'So do we have a location?'

 

'That was the easy bit. Fowl Manor. On a two-hundred-acre estate on the outskirts of Dublin. Fowl Manor is only about twenty klicks from our current location.'

 

Root chewed his bottom lip.

 

'Only twenty? That means we could make it before first light.'

 

'Yep. Sort out this whole mess before it gets out of hand in the rays of the sun.'

 

The commander nodded. This was their first break. Fairies had not operated in natural light for centuries. Even when they had lived above ground, they were essentially night creatures. The sun diluted their magic like bleaching a photograph. If they had to wait another day before sending in a strike force, who knew what damage Fowl could achieve?

 

It was even possible that this whole affair was media-oriented, and by tomorrow evening Captain Short's face would be on the cover of every publication on the planet. Root shuddered. That would spell the end of everything, unless the Mud People had learned to coexist with other species. And if history had taught him any lessons it was that humans couldn't get along with anyone, even themselves.

 

'Right. Everyone, lock and load. V flight pattern. Establish a perimeter inside the Manor grounds.'

 

The Retrieval Squad roared military-type affirmatives, coaxing as many metallic noises from their weapons as possible.

 

'Foaly, round up the techies. Follow us in the shuttle. And bring the big dishes. We'll shut down the entire estate, give ourselves a bit of breathing room.'

 

'One thing, Commander,' mused Foaly.

 

'Yes?' said Root impatiently.

 

'Why did this human tell us who he was? He must have known we could find him.'

 

Root shrugged. 'Maybe he's not as clever as he thinks he is.'

 

'No. I don't think that's it. I don't think that's it at all. I think he's been one step ahead of us all the way, and this is no different.'

 

'I don't have time for theorizing now, Foaly. First light is approaching.'

 

'One more thing, Commander.'

 

'Is this important?'

 

'Yes, I think it is.'

 

'Well?'

 

Foaly tapped a key on his laptop, scrolling through Artemis's vital statistics.

 

'This criminal mastermind, the one behind this elaborate scheme ...'

 

'Yes? What about him?'

 

Foaly looked up, an almost admiring look in his golden eyes.

 

'Well, he's only twelve years old. And that's young, even for a human.'

 

Root snorted, jacking a new battery into his tri-barrelled blaster.

 

'Too much damned TV. Thinks he's Sherlock Holmes.'

 

'That's Professor Moriarty,' corrected Foaly.

 

'Holmes, Moriarty, they both look the same with the flesh scorched off their skulls.'

 

And with that elegant parting riposte, Root followed his squad into the night air.

 

The Retrieval Squad adopted the V goose formation with Root on point. They flew south-west, following the video feed e-mailed to their helmets. Foaly had even marked Fowl Manor with a red dot. Idiot-proof, he'd muttered into his mouthpiece, just loud enough for the commander to hear him.

 

The centrepiece of the Fowl estate was a renovated late-medieval/early-modern castle, built by Lord Hugh Fowl in the fifteenth century.

 

The Fowls had held on to Fowl Manor over the years, surviving war, civil unrest and several tax audits. Artemis did not intend to be the one to lose it.

 

The estate was ringed by a five-metre crenellated stone wall, complete with the original guard towers and walkways. The Retrieval Squad put down just inside the boundary and began an immediate scan for possible hostiles.

 

'Twenty metres apart,' instructed Root. 'Sweep the area. Check in every sixty seconds. Clear?'

 

Retrieval nodded. Of course it was clear. They were professionals.

 

Lieutenant Gudgeon, Retrieval Squad's leader, climbed a guard tower.

 

'You know what we should do, Julius?'

 

He and Root had been in the Academy together, brought up in the same tunnel. Gudgeon was one of perhaps five fairies who called Root by his first name.

 

'I know what you think we should do.'

 

'We should blast the whole place.'

 

'What a surprise.'

 

'The cleanest way. One blue rinse and our losses are minimum.'

 

Blue rinse was the slang term for the devastating biological bomb used on rare occasions by the force. The clever thing about a bio-bomb was that it destroyed only living tissue. The landscape was unchanged.

 

'That minimum loss you're talking about happens to be one of my officers.'

 

'Oh yes,' tutted Gudgeon. 'A female Recon officer. The test case. Well, I don't think you'll have any problem justifying a tactical solution.'

 

Root's face took on that familiar purple hue.

 

'The best thing you can do right now is stay out of my way, or else I may be forced to ram that blue rinse straight into that morass you call a brain.'

 

Gudgeon was unperturbed. 'Insulting me doesn't change the facts, Julius. You know what the Book says. We cannot under any circumstances allow the Lower Elements to be compromised. One time-stop is all you get, after that ...'

 

The lieutenant didn't finish his statement. He didn't have to.

 

'I know what the Book says,' snapped Root. 'I just wish you weren't so gung-ho about it. If I didn't know you better, I'd say there was some human blood in you.'

 

'There's no call for that,' pouted Gudgeon. 'I'm only doing my job.'

 

'Point taken,' conceded the commander. 'I'm sorry.'

 

You didn't often hear Root apologizing, but then it had been a deeply offensive insult.

 

Butler was on monitors.

 

'Anything?' asked Artemis.

 

Butler started; he hadn't heard the young master come in.

 

'No. Nothing. Once or twice I thought I saw a flicker, but it turned out to be nothing.'

 

'Nothing is nothing,' commented Artemis cryptically. 'Use the new camera.'

 

Butler nodded. Only last month, Master Fowl had purchased a cine-camera over the Internet. Two thousand frames a second, recently developed by Industrial Light and Magic for specialized nature shoots, hummingbird wings and such. It processed images faster than the human eye could. Artemis had had it installed behind a cherub over the main entrance.

 

Butler activated the joypad.

 

'Where?'

 

'Try the avenue. I have a feeling visitors are on the way.'

 

The manservant manipulated the toothpick-sized stick with his massive fingers. A live image sprang into life on the digital monitor.

 

'Nothing,' muttered Butler. 'Quiet as the grave.'

 

Artemis pointed to the control desk.

 

'Freeze it.'

 

Butler nearly queried the order. Nearly. Instead he held his tongue and pressed the pad. On screen, the cherry trees froze, blossoms trapped in mid-air. More importantly, a dozen or so black-clad figures suddenly appeared on the avenue.

 

'What!' exclaimed Butler. 'Where did they spring from?'

 

'They're shielded,' explained Artemis. 'Vibrating at high speed. Too fast for the human eye to follow ...'

 

'But not for the camera,' nodded Butler. Master Artemis. Always two steps ahead. 'If only I could carry it around with me.'

 

'If only. But we do have the next best thing ...'

 

Artemis lifted a headset gingerly from the workbench. It was the remains of Holly's helmet. Obviously, trying to cram Butler's head into the original helmet would be like trying to fit a potato into a thimble. Only the visor and control buttons were intact. Straps from a hard hat had been jury-rigged to fit the manservant's cranium.

 

'This thing is equipped with several filters. It stands to reason that one of them is anti-shield. Let's try it out, shall we?'

 

Artemis placed the set over Butler's ears.

 

'Obviously with your eye span, there are going to be blind spots, but that shouldn't hamper you unduly. Now, run the camera.'

 

Butler set the camera rolling again, while Artemis slotted down one filter after another.

 

'Now?'

 

'No.'

 

'Now ..."

 

'Everything's gone red. Ultraviolet. No fairies.'

 

'Now?'

 

'No. Polaroid, I think.'

 

'Last one.'

 

Butler smiled. A shark that's spotted a bare behind.

 

'Gottem.'

 

Butler was seeing the world as it was, complete with LEPretrieval team sweeping the avenue.

 

'Hmm,' said Artemis. 'Strobe variation, I would guess. Very high frequency.'

 

'I see,' fibbed Butler.

 

'Metaphorically or literally?' smiled his employer.

 

'Exactly.'

 

Artemis shook himself. More jokes. Next thing he'd be wearing clown shoes and turning cartwheels in the main hall.

 

'Very well, Butler. Time for you to do what you do best. We appear to have intruders in the grounds ...'

 

Butler stood. No further instructions were necessary. He tightened the hard-hat straps, striding brusquely to the door.

 

'Oh, and Butler.'

 

'Yes, Artemis?'

 

'I prefer scared to dead. If possible.'

 

Butler nodded. If possible.

 

LEPretrieval One were the best and the brightest. It was every little fairy's dream that one day he would grow up to don the stealth-black jumpsuit of the Retrieval commandos. These were the elite. Trouble was their middle name. In the case of Captain Kelp, Trouble was actually his first name. He'd insisted on it at his manhood ceremony, having just been accepted into the Academy.

 

Trouble led his team down the sweeping avenue. As usual, he took the point position himself, determined to be the first into the fray if, as he fervently hoped, a fray developed.

 

'Check in,' he whispered into the mike that wound snake-like from his helmet.

 

'Negative on one.'

 

'Nothing, Captain.'

 

'A big negatori, Trouble.'

 

Captain Kelp winced.

 

'We're in the field, Corporal. Follow procedure.'

 

'But Mummy said!'

 

'I don't care what Mummy said, Corporal! Rank is rank! You will refer to me as Captain Kelp.'

 

'Yessir, Captain,' sulked the corporal. 'But don't ask me to iron your tunic any more.'

 

Trouble zeroed in on his brother's channel, shutting out the rest of the squad.

 

'Shut up about Mummy, will you? And the ironing. You're only on this mission because I requested you! Now start acting like a professional or get back to the perimeter!'

 

'OK, Trubs.'

 

'Trouble!' shouted Captain Kelp. 'It's Trouble. Not Trubs, or Trub. Trouble! OK?'

 

'OK. Trouble. Mummy's right. You're only a baby.' Swearing very unprofessionally, Captain Kelp switched his headset back to the open channel. He was just in time to hear an unusual sound. 'Arrkk.'

 

'What was that?'

 

'What?'

 

'Dunno.'

 

'Nothing, Captain.'

 

But Trouble had done a Sound Recognition in-service for his captain's exam, and he was pretty sure the 'Arrkk' had been caused by someone getting a chop across the windpipe. More than likely his brother had walked into a shrub.

 

'Grub? Are you all right?'

 

'That's Corporal Grub to you.'

 

Kelp viciously kicked a daisy.

 

'Check in. Sound off in sequence.'

 

'One, OK.'

 

'Two, fine.'

 

'Three, bored but alive.'

 

'Five approaching west wing.'

 

Kelp froze. 'Wait. Four? You there, Four? What's your situation?'

 

'.................' Nothing except static.

 

'Right. Four is down. Possibly an equipment malfunction. Still, we can't afford to take any chances. Regroup by the main door.'

 

Retrieval One crept together, making slightly less noise than a silk spider. Kelp did a quick head count. Eleven. One short of a full complement. Four was probably wandering around the rose bushes, wondering why nobody was talking to him.

 

Then Trouble noticed two things - one, a pair of black boots was sticking out of a shrub beside the door, and two, there was a massive human standing in the doorway. The figure was cradling a very nasty-looking gun in the crook of his arm.

 

'Go silent,' whispered Kelp, and immediately eleven full-face visors slid down to seal in the sounds of his squad's breathing and communications.

 

'Now, nobody panic. I think I can trace the sequence of events here. Four is skulking around outside the door. The Mud Man opens it. Four gets a whack on the noggin and lands in the bushes. No problem. Our cover is intact. Repeat intact. So no itchy fingers, please. Grub ... Sorry, Corporal Kelp, check Four's vitals. The rest of you make a hole and keep it quiet.'

 

The squad stepped back carefully until they were standing on the manicured grassy verge. The figure before them was indeed impressive, without doubt the biggest human any of them had ever seen.

 

'D'Arvit,' breathed Two.

 

'Maintain radio silence, except in emergencies,' ordered Kelp.' Swearing is hardly an emergency.' Secretly, however, he concurred with the sentiment. This was one time he was glad to be shielded. That man looked as if he could squash half a dozen fairies in one massive fist.

 

Grub returned to his slot. 'Four is stable. Concussed, I'd guess. But otherwise OK. His shield's off though, so I stuffed him in the bushes.'

 

'Well done, Corporal. Good thinking.'

 

The last thing they needed was for Four's boots to be spotted.

 

The man moved, lumbering casually along the path. He may have glanced left or right, it was difficult to tell beneath the hood pulled over his eyes. Odd for a human to wear a hood on such a fine night.

 

'Safety catches off,' ordered Trouble.

 

He imagined his men rolling their eyes. Like they hadn't had their safeties off for the last half an hour. Still, you had to go by the book, in case of a tribunal later on. There was a time when Retrieval blasted first and answered questions never. But not any more. Now there was always some do-gooder civilian banging on about civil rights. Even for humans, would you believe it?

 

The man mountain stopped, right in the middle of the squad. If he had been able to see them, it would be the perfect tactical position. Their own firearms were virtually useless, as they would probably do more damage to each other than the human.

 

Fortunately the entire squad was invisible, with the exception of Four, who was safely secreted in what appeared to be a rhododendron.

 

'Buzz batons. Fire 'em up.'

 

Just in case. No harm in being cautious.

 

And when the LEP officers were switching weapons, right at that moment when their hands were fumbling with holsters, that's when the Mud Man spoke.

 

'Evening, gentlemen,' he said, sweeping back his hood.

 

Funny that, thought Trouble. It was almost as if ... Then he saw the makeshift goggles.

 

'Cover!' he screamed. 'Cover!'

 

But it was too late. No option but to stand and fight. And that was no option at all.

 

Butler could have taken them from the parapet. One at a time with the ivory hunter's rifle. But that wasn't the plan. This was all about making an impression. Sending a message. It was standard procedure with any police force in the world to send in the cannon fodder first before opening negotiations. It was almost expected that they would meet with resistance, and Butler was happy to oblige.

 

He peeked out through the letter box and, oh happy coincidence, there was a pair of goggled eyes peeking right back at him. It was just too fortuitous to pass up.

 

'Bed time,' said Butler, heaving the door with a mighty shoulder. The fairy flew several metres before alighting in the shrubbery. Juliet would be devastated. She loved rhododendrons. One down. Several to go.

 

Butler pulled up the peaked hood on his field jacket, stepping into the porch. There they were, spread out like a squadron of Action Men. If not for the array of very proficient-looking weaponry hanging from each belt, it would have been almost comical.

 

Sliding his finger casually under the trigger guard, Butler strode into their midst. The bulky one at two o'clock was giving the orders. You could tell from the heads angled his way.

 

The leader gave a command and the squad switched to close-quarters weapons. It made sense, they'd only cut themselves to pieces with firearms. Time for action.

 

'Evening, gentlemen,' Butler said. He couldn't help it, and it was worth it for that one moment of consternation. Then his gun was up and blazing.

 

Captain Kelp was the first casualty, a titanium-tipped dart puncturing the neck of his suit. He went down sluggishly, as though the air had turned to water. Two more of the squad were dropped before they had any idea what was going on.

 

It must be quite traumatic, thought Butler dispassionately, to lose an advantage that you've held for centuries.

 

By now, the remains of Retrieval One had their buzz batons fired up and raised. But they made the mistake of hanging back, waiting for a command that was not forthcoming. This gave Butler an opportunity to take the fight to them. As if he needed another advantage.

 

Even so, for a second the manservant hesitated. These beings were so small. Like children. Then Grub clipped him on the elbow with his buzz baton and 1,000 volts spread across Butler's chest. All sympathy for the little people vanished instantly.

 

Butler grabbed the offending baton, swinging weapon and bearer like a set of bolas. Grub squealed as he was released, his new-found momentum carrying him directly into three of his comrades.

 

Butler continued the swinging motion, driving punishing punches into the chests of two more fairies. Another clambered on to his back, stinging him repeatedly with the baton. Butler fell on him. Something cracked and the stinging stopped.

 

Suddenly there was a barrel under his chin. One of Retrieval had managed to get his weapon cocked.

 

'Freeze, Mud Boy,' droned a helmet-filtered voice. It was a serious-looking gun, liquid coolant bubbled along its length. 'Just give me a reason.'

 

Butler rolled his eyes. Different race, same macho clichés. He slapped the fairy open-handed. To the little man it must have been like the sky falling on his head.

 

'That reason enough for you?'

 

Butler scrambled to his feet. Fairy bodies were scattered around him in various stages of shock and unconsciousness. Scared definitely. Dead, probably not. Mission accomplished.

 

One little chap was faking though. You could tell by the way his tiny knees knocked together. Butler picked him up by the neck, finger and thumb easily meeting around the back.

 

'Name?'

 

'G-Grub ... er, I mean Corporal Kelp.'

 

'Well, Corporal, you tell your commander that the next time I see armed forces coming in here, they'll be picked off by sniper fire. No darts either. Armour-piercing bullets.'

 

'Yessir. Sniper fire. Got it. Seems fair.'

 

'Good. You are, however, permitted to remove your injured.'

 

'Most generous of you.'

 

'But if I see so much as the twinkle of a weapon on any of the medics, I might be tempted to detonate a few of the mines I have planted in the grounds.'

 

Grub swallowed, his pallor increasing behind the visor.

 

'Unarmed medics. Crystal clear.'

 

Butler set the fairy down, brushing his tunic with massive fingers.

 

'Now. Final thing. Listening?'

 

Furious nods.

 

'I want a negotiator. Someone who can make decisions. Not some no-ranker who has to run off back to base after every demand. Understood?'

 

'Fine. That is, I'm sure it will be fine. Unfortunately I'm one of those no-rankers. So, you see, I can't actually guarantee it will be fine ...'

 

Butler was sorely tempted to drop-kick this little fellow back to his camp.

 

'Very well. I understand. Just ... shut up!'

 

Grub almost agreed, then he clamped his mouth shut and nodded.

 

'Good. Now, before you go, collect all weapons and helmets and make a little pile right there.'

 

Grub took a deep breath. Ah well, may as well go out a hero.

 

'I can't do that.'

 

'Oh, really? And why not?'

 

Grub drew himself up to his full height. 'An LEP officer never relinquishes his weapon.'

 

Butler nodded. 'Fair enough. Thought I'd ask. Off you go then.'

 

Hardly able to believe his luck, Grub scurried back towards the command tower. He was the last fairy standing. Trouble was snoring in the gravel but he, Grub Kelp, had faced down the Mud Monster. Wait until Mummy heard about this.

 

Holly sat on the edge of her bed, fingers curled around the metal base. She lifted slowly, taking the weight on her arms. The strain threatened to pop her elbows from their sockets. She held it for a second, and then slammed the frame into the concrete. A satisfying cloud of dust and splinters swirled around her knees.

 

'Good,' she grunted.

 

Holly eyed the camera. Doubtless they were watching her. No time to waste. She flexed her fingers, repeating the manoeuvre again and again, until the steel base left deep weals in her finger joints. With each impact more and more splinters popped from the fresh floor.

 

After several moments, the cell door burst open and Juliet fell into the room.

 

'What are you doing?' she panted. 'Trying to knock the house down?'

 

'I'm hungry!' shouted Holly. 'And I'm fed up waving at that stupid camera. Don't you feed your prisoners around here? I want some food!'

 

Juliet's fingers curled into a fist. Artemis had warned her to be civil, but there was a limit.

 

'No need to get your knick ... or whatever in a twist. So what do you fairies eat?'

 

'Got any dolphin?' Holly asked sarcastically.

 

Juliet shuddered. 'No, I don't, you beast!'

 

'Fruit then. Or vegetables. Make sure they're washed. I don't want any of your chemical poisons in my blood.'

 

'Ha ha, you're a riot, you are. Don't worry, all our produce is grown naturally.' Juliet paused on her way to the door. 'And don't you go forgetting the rules. No trying to escape from the house. And there's no need to break up the furniture either. Don't make me demonstrate my full nelson.'

 

As soon as Juliet's footsteps had faded, Holly began smashing the bed into the concrete. That was the thing about fairy bonds. The instructions had to be given eye to eye, and they had to be very precise. Just saying there was no need to do a thing wasn't specifically forbidding an elf to do it. And another thing, Holly had no intention of escaping from the house. That wasn't to say that she didn't mean to get out of her cell.

 

Artemis had added yet another monitor to the bank. This one was linked to a camera in Angeline Fowl's attic room. He spared a moment to check on his mother. Sometimes it bothered him having a camera in her room; it seemed almost like spying. But it was for her own good. There was always the danger that she could hurt herself. At the moment she was sleeping peacefully, having swallowed the sleeping pill that Juliet had left on her tray. All part of the plan. A vital part, as it happened.

 

Butler entered the control room. He was clutching a fistful of fairy hardware and rubbing his neck.

 

'Tricky little blighters.'

 

Artemis looked up from the monitor bank.

 

'Any problems?'

 

'Nothing major. These little batons pack quite a punch though. How's our prisoner?'

 

'Fine. Juliet is getting her something to eat. I'm afraid Captain Short is going a bit stir-crazy.'

 

On the screen, Holly was smashing her cot into the concrete.

 

'It's understandable,' noted the manservant. 'Imagine her frustration. It's not as if she can tunnel her way out.'

 

Artemis smiled. 'No. The entire estate is built on a bed of limestone. Not even a dwarf could tunnel his way out of here. Or in.'

 

Wrong, as it happened. Dead wrong. A landmark moment for Artemis Fowl.

 

The LEP had procedures for emergencies like this one. Admittedly these did not include the Retrieval Squad getting hammered by a lone enemy. Still, that just made the next step all the more urgent, especially with the faintest of orange tinges creeping into the sky.

 

'Are we good to go?' roared Root into his mike, as though it wasn't whisper-sensitive.

 

Good to go, thought Foaly, busy wiring the last dish on a watchtower. These military types and their catchphrases. Good to go, lock and load, I don't know but I've been told. So insecure.

 

Aloud he said, 'No need to shout, Commander. These headsets could pick up a spider scratching in Madagascar.'

 

'And is there a spider scratching in Madagascar?'

 

'Well ... I don't know. They can't really -'

 

'Well, stop changing the subject, Foaly, and answer the question!'

 

The centaur scowled. The commander took everything so literally. He plugged the dish's modem lead into his laptop.

 

'OK. We're ... good to go.'

 

'About time too. Right, flip the switch.'

 

For the third time in as many moments, Foaly gritted his horsy teeth. He was indeed the stereotypical unappreciated genius. Flick the switch, if you don't mind. Root didn't have the cranial capacity to appreciate what he was trying to do here.

 

Stopping time wasn't just a matter of pressing the on button: there was a series of delicate procedures that had to be performed with utmost precision. Otherwise the stop zone could end up as just so much ash and radioactive slop.

 

While it was true that fairies had been stopping time for millennia, these days, with satellite communication and the Internet, humans were liable to notice if a zone just dropped out of time for a couple of hours. There was an age when you could throw a blanket stoppage over a whole country and the Mud People would simply think the gods were angry. But not any more. Nowadays the humans had instruments for measuring anything, so if there was any time-stopping to be done, it had better be fine-tuned and precise.

 

In the old days, five elfin warlocks would form a pentagram around the target and spread a magic shield over it, temporarily stopping time inside the enchanted enclosure.

 

This was fine as far as it went, provided the warlocks didn't have to use the bathroom. Many a siege was lost because an elf had one glass of wine too many. Warlocks tire quickly too, and their arms get sore. On a good day, you had maybe an hour and a half, which was hardly worth the trouble in the first place.

 

It was Foaly's idea to mechanize the whole procedure. He had the warlocks do their thing into lithium batteries, and then he set up a network of receiver dishes around the designated area. Sounds simple? Well, it wasn't. But there were definite advantages. For one thing there were no more power surges. Batteries didn't try to show off to each other. You could calculate exactly how many power cells were needed, and sieges could be extended for up to eight hours.

 

As it happened, the Fowl estate was the perfect location for a time-stop - isolated with a definite boundary. It even had elevated towers for the dishes, for heaven's sake. It was almost as if Artemis Fowl wanted time stopped ... Foaly's finger hesitated over the button. Could it be possible? After all, the human youth had been one step ahead throughout this whole affair.

 

'Commander?'

 

'Are we on-line yet?'

 

'Not exactly. There's something -'

 

Root's reaction nearly blew out the woofers in Foaly's earpiece.

 

'No, Foaly! There isn't something! None of your bright ideas, thank you very much. Captain Short's life is in danger, so push the button before I climb that tower and push it with your face!'

 

'Touchy,' muttered Foaly, and pushed the button.

 

Lieutenant Gudgeon checked his moonometer.

 

'You have eight hours.'

 

'I know how much time I have,' growled Root. 'And stop following me. Don't you have work to do?'

 

'Actually, now that you mention it, I have a bio-bomb to arm.'

 

Root rounded on him. 'Don't annoy me, Lieutenant. Having you pass comments at every turn is not improving my concentration. Just do whatever it is you feel you have to do. But be prepared to back it up at tribunal. If this one goes wrong, heads are going to roll.'

 

'Indeed,' muttered Gudgeon under his breath. 'But mine is not going to be one of them.'

 

Root checked the sky. A shimmering azure field had descended over the Fowl estate. Good. They were in limbo. Outside the walls, life continued at an exaggerated pace, but if anyone were to somehow gain access to the manor in spite of the fortified walls and high gate, they would find it deserted, all occupants trapped in the past.

 

So for the next eight hours, it would be twilight on the Fowl estate. After that, Root could not guarantee Holly's safety. Given the gravity of the situation, it was more than likely that Gudgeon would get the go-ahead to bio-bomb the whole place. Root had seen a blue rinse before. No living thing escaped, not even the rats.

 

Root caught up with Foaly at the base of the north tower. The centaur had parked a shuttle by the metre-thick wall. Already the work area was a mess of tangled wires and pulsating fibre optics.

 

'Foaly? Are you in here?'

 

The centaur's foil-capped head emerged from the belly of a disembowelled hard drive.

 

'Over here, Commander. You've come to push a button with my face, I presume.'

 

Root almost laughed. 'Don't tell me you're looking for an apology, Foaly. I've already used my quota for today. And that was to a lifelong friend.'

 

'Gudgeon? Forgive me, Commander, but I wouldn't waste my apologies on the lieutenant. He won't be wasting any on you when he stabs you in the back.'

 

'You're wrong about him. Gudgeon is a good officer. A bit eager, certainly, but he'll do the right thing when the time comes.'

 

'The right thing for himself maybe. I don't think Holly is at the top of his priority list.'

 

Root didn't answer. He couldn't.

 

'And another thing. I have a sneaking suspicion that young Artemis Fowl wanted us to stop time. After all, everything else we've tried has played straight into his hands.'

 

Root rubbed his temples. 'That's impossible. How could a human know about time-stoppage? Anyway, this is no time for theorizing, Foaly. I have less than eight hours to clean up this mess. So what have you got for me?'

 

Foaly clopped over to an equipment rack clamped to the wall.

 

'No heavy armament, that's for sure. Not after what happened to Retrieval One. No helmet either. That beast of a Mud Man seems to collect them. No, to show good faith, we're going to send you in unarmed and unarmoured.'

 

Root snorted. 'What manual did you get this from?'

 

'It's standard operating procedure. Fostering trust speeds communication.'

 

'Oh, stop quoting and give me something to shoot.'

 

'Suit yourself,' sighed Foaly, selecting what looked like a finger from the rack.

 

'What's that?'

 

'It's a finger. What does it look like?'

 

'A finger,' admitted Root.

 

'Yes, but not any ordinary finger.' He glanced around to make sure that no one else was watching. 'The tip contains a pressurized dart. One shot only. You tap the knuckle with your thumb and someone goes sleepy-bye.'

 

'Why haven't I seen this before?'

 

'It's a covert kinda thing ...'

 

'And?' said Root suspiciously.

 

'Well, there have been accidents ...'

 

'Tell me, Foaly.'

 

'Our agents keep forgetting they have it on.'

 

'Meaning they shoot themselves.'

 

Foaly nodded miserably. 'One of our best sprites was picking his nose at the time. Three days on the critical list.'

 

Root rolled the memory latex on to his index finger, where it immediately assumed the shape and flesh tone of the host digit.

 

'Don't worry, Foaly, I'm not a complete idiot. Anything else?'

 

Foaly unhooked what appeared to be a false bottom from the equipment rack.

 

'You're not serious! What does that do?'

 

'Nothing,' admitted the centaur. 'But it gets a great laugh at parties.'

 

Root chuckled. Twice. That was a major lapse for him.

 

'OK, levity over. Are you going to wire me?'

 

'Naturally. One iris-cam. What colour?' He peered into the commander's eyes. 'Hmm. Mud brown.' He selected a small vial from the shelf and removed the electronic contact lens from a fluid capsule. Plucking Root's eyelid with thumb and forefinger, he slotted in the iris-cam. 'That might irritate you. Try not to rub or it could end up in the back of your eye. Then we'd be looking into your head, and there's nothing interesting in there, heaven knows.'

 

Root blinked, resisting the urge to knead his watering eye.

 

'That's it?'

 

Foaly nodded. 'That's all we dare risk.'

 

The commander agreed reluctantly. His hip felt very light without a tri-barrelled blaster dangling from it.

 

'OK. I suppose this amazing dart finger will have to do. Honestly, Foaly, if this blows up in my face, you'll be on the next shuttle back to Haven.'

 

The centaur snickered. 'Just be careful in the toilet.'

 

Root didn't laugh. There were some things you didn't joke about.

 

Artemis's watch had stopped. It was as though Greenwich wasn't there any more. Or perhaps, mused Artemis, we're the ones who have disappeared. He checked CNN. It had frozen. A picture of Riz Khan jittered slightly on the screen. Artemis could not hold back a satisfied smile. They had done it, just like the Book said. The LEP had stopped time. All according to plan.

 

Time to check out a theory. Artemis wheeled over to the monitor bank and punched up the Mam Cam on the seventy-centimetre main monitor. Angeline Fowl was no longer on the chaise longue. Artemis panned around the room. It was empty. His mother had gone. Disappeared. His smile widened. Perfect. Just as he'd suspected.

 

Artemis switched his attention to Holly Short. She was banging the bed again. Occasionally she would rise from the mattress, pounding the wall with her bare fists. Maybe it was more than frustration. Could there be method in her madness? He tapped the monitor with a slim finger.

 

'What are you up to, Captain? What's your little plan?' He was distracted by a movement on the avenue monitor.

 

'At last,' he breathed. 'The games begin.' A figure was advancing down the avenue. Small, but imposing nonetheless. Unshielded too. Finished playacting then.

 

Artemis punched the intercom button.

 

'Butler? We have a guest. I'll show him in. You get back here and police the surveillance cameras.'

 

Butler's voice came back tinny through the speaker.

 

'Ten four, Artemis. On my way.'

 

Artemis buttoned his designer jacket, pausing at the mirror to straighten his tie. The trick to negotiation was to hold all the cards going in and, even if you didn't, to try to look as though you did.

 

Artemis put on his best sinister face. Evil, he told himself, evil but highly intelligent. And determined, don't forget determined. He put a hand on the doorknob. Steady now. Deep breaths, and try not to think about the possibility that you have misjudged this situation and are about to be shot dead. One, two, three ... He opened the door.

 

'Good evening,' he said, every inch the gracious host, albeit a sinister, evil, intelligent and determined one.

 

Root stood on the doorstep, palms up, the universal gesture for Look, I'm not carrying a big murderous weapon.

 

'You're Fowl?'

 

'Artemis Fowl, at your service. And you are?'

 

'LEP Commander Root. Right, we know each other's names, so could we get on with this?'

 

'Certainly.'

 

Root decided to chance his arm. 'Step outside then. Where I can see you.'

 

Artemis's face hardened. 'Have you learned nothing from my demonstrations? The ship? Your commandos? Do I need to kill someone?'

 

'No,' said Root hurriedly. 'I only -'

 

'You only meant to lure me outside, where I could be snatched and used to trade. Please, Commander Root, raise your game or send someone intelligent.'

 

Root felt the blood pump through his cheeks.

 

'Now you just listen to me, you young ...'

 

Artemis smiled, in command again. 'Not very good negotiation techniques, Commander, to lose your cool before we even get to the table.'

 

Root took several deep breaths.

 

'Fine. Whatever you say. Where would you prefer to conduct our talks?'

 

'Inside of course. You have my permission to enter, but remember, Captain Short's life is in your hands. Be careful with it.'

 

Root followed his host down the vaulted hallway. Generations of Fowls glared down at him from classical portraits. They passed through a stained-oak doorway to a long conference room. There were two places set at a round table, complete with pads, ashtrays and water jugs.

 

Root was delighted to see the ashtrays and immediately pulled a half-chewed cigar from his vest.

 

'Maybe you're not such a barbarian after all,' he grunted, exhaling a huge cloud of green smoke. The commander ignored the water jugs, instead pouring himself a shot of something purple from a hip flask. He drank deeply, belched and sat.

 

'Ready?' Artemis shuffled his notes, like a newsreader. 'Here is the situation as I see it. I have the means to expose your subterranean existence, and you are powerless to stop me. So, basically, whatever I ask for is a small price to pay.'

 

Root spat out a shred of fungus tobacco. 'You think you can just put all this information out over the Internet.'

 

'Well, not immediately, not with the time-stop in effect.'

 

Root choked on a lungful of smoke. Their ace in the hole. Rumbled.

 

'Well, if you know about the time-stop, you must also know that you are completely cut off from the outside world. You are, in effect, powerless.'

 

Artemis jotted a note on the pad. 'Let's save some time here. I grow weary of your clumsy bluffs. In the case of an abduction, the LEP will first send a crack Retrieval team to get back what has been lost. You have done so. Excuse me while I titter. Crack team? Honestly. A Cub-Scout patrol armed with water pistols could have defeated them.'

 

Root fumed silently, taking out his anger on the cigar butt.

 

'The next official step is negotiation. And finally, when the eight-hours' time limit is about to run out, and if no solution can be reached, a bio-bomb is detonated, contained by the time-field.'

 

'You appear to know an awful lot about us, Master Fowl. I don't suppose you'll tell me how?'

 

'Correct.'

 

Root mashed the remains of his cigar into the crystal ashtray.

 

'So let's have it, what are your demands?'

 

'One demand. Singular.'

 

Artemis slid his notepad across the polished table. Root read what was written there.

 

'One tonne of twenty-four-carat gold. Small unmarked ingots only. You can't be serious.'

 

'Oh, but I am.'

 

Root sat forward in his chair. 'Don't you see? Your position is untenable. Either you give us back Captain Short or we will be forced to kill you all. There is no middle ground. We don't negotiate. Not really. I'm just here to explain the facts to you.'

 

Artemis smiled his vampire smile. 'Oh, but you will negotiate with me, Commander.'

 

'Oh, really? And what makes you so special?'

 

'I am special, because I know how to escape the time-field.'

 

'Impossible,' snorted Root. 'Can't be done.'

 

'Oh yes it can. Trust me, I haven't been wrong yet.'

 

Root tore off the top page, folding it into his pocket.

 

'I'll have to think about this.'

 

'Take your time. We have eight hours ... excuse me, seven and a half hours, then time's up for everybody.'

 

Root said nothing for a long while, tapping his nails on the tabletop. He took a breath to speak, then changed his mind and stood abruptly.

 

'We'll be in touch. Don't worry, I'll see myself out.'

 

Artemis pushed his chair back.

 

'You do that. But remember this, none of your race has permission to enter here while I'm alive.'

 

Root stalked down the hallway, glaring back at the oil paintings. Better to leave now and process this new information. The Fowl boy was indeed a slippery opponent. But he was making one basic mistake - the assumption that Root would play by the rules. However, Julius Root hadn't got his Commander's bars by following any rule book. Time for a bit of unorthodox action.

 

The videotape from Root's iris-cam was being reviewed by experts.

 

'You see there,' said Professor Cumulus, a behavioural specialist. 'That twitch, he's lying.'

 

'Nonsense,' huffed Doctor Argon, a psychologist from below the United States. 'He's itchy, that's all. He's itchy so he scratches. Nothing sinister in it.'

 

Cumulus turned to Foaly.

 

'Listen to him. How can I be expected to work with this charlatan?'

 

'Witch doctor,' countered Argon.

 

Foaly raised his hairy palms.

 

'Gentlemen, please. We need agreement here. A concrete profile.'

 

'It's no use,' said Argon. 'I can't work in these conditions.'

 

Cumulus folded his arms. 'If he can't work, neither can I.'

 

Root strode through the shuttle double doors. His trademark purple complexion was even rosier than usual.

 

'That human is toying with us. I will not have it. Now, what did our experts make of the tape?'

 

Foaly moved slightly to the side, allowing the commander a clear run at the so-called experts.

 

'Apparently they can't work in these conditions.'

 

Root's eyes narrowed to slits, bringing his prey into sharp focus. 'Excuse me?'

 

'The good doctor is a halfwit,' said Cumulus, unfamiliar with the commander's temper.

 

'I-I'm a halfwit?' stuttered Argon, equally ignorant. 'What about you, you cave fairy? Plastering your absurd interpretations on to the most innocent of gestures.'

 

'Innocent? The boy is a bag of nerves. Obviously lying. It's textbook.'

 

Root slammed a clenched fist on to the table, sending a spider's web of cracks scurrying across the surface.

 

'Silence!'

 

And silence there was. Instantly.

 

'Now, you two experts are on handsome retainers for your profiling work. Correct?'

 

The pair nodded, afraid to speak in case that broke the silence rule.

 

'This is probably the case of your lives, so I want you to concentrate very hard. Understood?'

 

More nods.

 

Root popped the camera out of his weeping eye.

 

'Fast-forward it, Foaly. Towards the end.'

 

The tape hopped forward erratically. On screen, Root followed the human into his conference room.

 

'There. Stop it there. Can you zoom in on his face?'

 

'Can I zoom in on his face?' snorted Foaly. 'Can a dwarf steal the web from under a spider?'

 

'Yes,' replied Root.

 

'That was a rhetorical question actually.'

 

'I don't need a grammar lesson, Foaly, just zoom in, would you?'

 

Foaly ground his tombstone teeth.

 

'OK, boss. Will do.'

 

The centaur's fingers prodded the keyboard with lightning speed. Artemis's visage grew to fill the plasma screen.

 

'I'd advise you to listen,' said Root, squeezing the experts' shoulders. 'This is a pivotal moment in your careers.'

 

'I am special,' said the mouth on the screen

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