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Chapter 8 Troll

 ROOT leaned forward, roaring into the microphone. 'Mulch! What's happening? What's your status?'

 

Foaly was tapping a keyboard furiously.

 

'We've lost audio. Motion too.'

 

'Mulch. Talk to me, dammit.'

 

'I'm running a scan on his vitals ... Woah!'

 

'What? What is it?'

 

'His heart has gone crazy. Beating like a rabbit ...'

 

'A rabbit?'

 

'No, wait, it's ...'

 

'What?' breathed the commander, terribly afraid that he already knew.

 

Foaly leaned back in his chair. 'It's stopped. His heartbeat has stopped.'

 

'Are you sure?'

 

'The monitors don't lie. All vitals can be read through the iris-cam. Not a peep. He's gone.'

 

Root couldn't believe it. Mulch Diggums, one of life's constants. Gone? It couldn't be true.

 

'He did it too, you know, Foaly. Recovered a copy of the Book no less, and he confirmed Short was alive.'

 

Foaly's wide brow creased for an instant. 'It's just that...'

 

'What?' said Root, suspicion aroused.

 

'Well, for a moment there, just before the end, his heart rate seemed abnormally fast.'

 

'Maybe it was a malfunction.'

 

The centaur was unconvinced. 'I doubt it. My bugs don't have bugs.'

 

'What other explanation could there be? You still have visuals, don't you?'

 

'Yep. Through dead eyes, no doubt about it. Not a spark of electricity in that brain; the camera is running on its own battery.'

 

'Well, that's it then. No other explanation.'

 

Foaly nodded. 'It would seem that way. Unless ... No, it's too fantastic.'

 

'This is Mulch Diggums we're talking about here. Nothing is too fantastic.'

 

Foaly opened his mouth to voice his incredible theory, but before he could speak the shuttle's bay door slid open.

 

'We have him!' said a triumphant voice.

 

'Yes!' agreed a second. 'Fowl has made a mistake!'

 

Root swivelled on his chair. It was Argon and Cumulus, the so-called behavioural analysts.

 

'Oh, we've finally decided to earn our retainers, have we?'

 

But the professors were not so easily intimidated. United by excitement. Cumulus even had the temerity to wave Root's sarcasm aside. This more than anything else made the commander sit up and take notice.

 

Argon brushed past Foaly, pressing a laser disk into the console's player. Artemis Fowl's face appeared, as seen through Root's iris-cam.

 

'We'll be in touch,' said the commander's recorded voice. 'Don't worry, I'll see myself out.'

 

Fowl's face disappeared momentarily as he rose from his chair. Root lifted his gaze in time for the next chilling statement.

 

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

 

Argon pressed the pause button triumphantly. 'There, you see!'

 

Root's complexion lost any final traces of pallor.

 

'There? There what? What do I see?'

 

Cumulus tutted, as one would at a slow child. A mistake, in retrospect. The commander had him by the pointy beard in under a second.

 

'Now,' he said, his voice deceptively calm. 'Pretend we're pushed for time here and just explain it to me without any attitude or comments.'

 

'The human said we couldn't enter while he was alive,' squeaked Cumulus.

 

'So?'

 

Argon took up the account. 'So ... if we can't go in while he's alive ..."

 

Root drew a sharp breath. 'Then we go in when he's dead.'

 

Cumulus and Argon beamed. 'Exactly,' they said in perfect unison.

 

Root scratched his chin.

 

'I don't know. We're on shaky ground here legally.'

 

'Not at all,' argued Cumulus. 'It's elementary grammar. The human specifically stated that entry was forbidden as long as he was alive. That's tantamount to an invitation when he's dead.'

 

The commander wasn't convinced. 'The invitation is implied, at best.'

 

'No,' interrupted Foaly. 'They're right. It's a strong case. Once Fowl is dead, the door is wide open. He said it himself.'

 

'Maybe.'

 

'Maybe nothing,' blurted Foaly. 'For heaven's sake, Julius, how much more do you need? We have a crisis here, in case you hadn't noticed.'

 

Root nodded slowly. 'One, you're right. Two, I'm going to run with it. Three, well done, you two. And four, if you ever call me Julius again, Foaly, you'll be eating your own hooves. Now, get me a line to the Council. I need to get approval for that gold.'

 

'Right away, Commander Root, your worship.' Foaly grinned, letting the hoof-eating comment slide for Holly's sake.

 

'So we send in the gold,' muttered Root, thinking aloud. 'They send out Holly, we blue-rinse the place and stroll in to reclaim the ransom. Simple.'

 

'So simple it's brilliant,' enthused Argon. 'Quite a coup for our profession, wouldn't you say, Doctor Cumulus?'

 

Cumulus's head was spinning with possibilities. 'Lecture tours, book deals. Why, the movie rights alone will be worth a fortune.'

 

'Let those sociologists stuff this in their collective pipe. Puts the kibosh on the deprivation-breeds-antisocial-behaviour chestnut. This Fowl character has never gone hungry in his life.'

 

'There's more than one kind of hunger,' noted Argon.

 

'Very true. Hunger to succeed. Hunger to dominate. Hunger to -'

 

Root snapped. 'Get out! Get out before I strangle the pair of you. And if I ever hear a word of this repeated on an afternoon talk show, I'll know where it came from.'

 

The consultants retreated warily, resolving not to call their agents until they were out of earshot.

 

'I don't know if the Council will go for this,' admitted Root when they'd departed. 'It's a lot of gold.'

 

Foaly looked up from the console. 'How much exactly?'

 

The commander slid a piece of paper across the console. 'That much.'

 

'That is a lot.' Foaly whistled. 'A tonne. Small unmarked ingots. Twenty-four carat only. Well, at least it's a nice round weight.'

 

'Very comforting. I'll be sure to mention that to the Council. Have you got that line yet?'

 

The centaur grunted. A negative grunt. Very cheeky really, grunting at a superior officer. Root didn't have the energy to discipline him, but he made a mental note: when this is over, dock Foaly's pay for a few decades. He rubbed his eyes exhaustedly. Time lag was beginning to set in. Even though his brain wouldn't let him sleep because he'd been awake when the time-stop was initiated, his body was crying out for rest.

 

He rose from the chair, swinging the door wide to let in some air. Stale. Time-stop air. Not even molecules could escape the time-field, much less a human boy.

 

There was activity by the portal. Lots of it. A swarm of troops gathered around a hovercage. Gudgeon stood at the head of the procession and the entire bunch was heading his way. Root stepped down to meet them.

 

'What's this?' he inquired, none too pleasantly. 'A circus?'

 

Gudgeon's face was pale, but determined.

 

'No, Julius. It's the end of the circus.'

 

Root nodded. 'I see. And these are the clowns?'

 

Foaly's head poked through the doorway.

 

'Pardon me for interrupting your extended circus metaphor, but what the hell is that?'

 

'Yes, Lieutenant,' said Root, nodding at the floating hovercage. 'What the hell is that?'

 

Gudgeon bolstered his courage with a few deep breaths. 'I've taken a leaf from your book, Julius.'

 

'Is that a fact?'

 

'Yes. It is. You opted to send in a lapsed creature. So now I'm going to.'

 

Root smiled dangerously. 'You don't opt to do anything, Lieutenant, not without my say so.'

 

Gudgeon took an unconscious step backwards.

 

'I've been to the Council, Julius. I have their full backing.'

 

The commander turned to Foaly. 'Is this true?'

 

'Apparently. It just came through on the outside line. This is Gudgeon's party now. He told the Council about the ransom demand and you springing Mister Diggums. You know what the elders are like when it comes to parting with gold.'

 

Root folded his arms. 'People told me about you, Gudgeon. They said you'd stab me in the back. I didn't believe them. I was a fool.'

 

'This is not about us, Julius. It's about the mission. What's inside this cage is our best chance of success.'

 

'So what's in the cage? No, don't tell me. The only other non-magical creature in the Lower Elements. And the first troll we've managed to take alive in over a century.'

 

'Exactly. The perfect creature to flush out our adversary.'

 

Root's cheeks glowed with the effort of restraining his anger.

 

'I don't believe you're even considering this.'

 

'Face it, Julius, it's the same basic idea as yours.'

 

'No, it isn't. Mulch Diggums made his own choices. He knew the risks.'

 

'Diggums is dead?'

 

Root rubbed his eyes again. 'Yes. It would seem so. A cave-in.'

 

'That just proves I'm right. A troll won't be so easily dispatched.'

 

'It's a dumb animal, for heaven's sake! How can a troll follow instructions?'

 

Gudgeon smiled, newborn confidence peeping through his apprehension.

 

'What instructions? We just point it at the house and get out of the way. I guarantee you those humans will be begging us to come in and rescue them.'

 

'And what about my officer?'

 

'We'll have the troll back under lock and key long before Captain Short is in any danger.'

 

'You can guarantee that, can you?'

 

Gudgeon paused. 'That's a chance I'm willing ... the Council is willing to take.'

 

'Politics,' spat Root. 'This is all politics to you, Gudgeon. A nice feather in your cap on the way to a Council seat. You make me sick.'

 

'Be that as it may, we are proceeding with this strategy. The Council have appointed me Acting Commander, so if you can't put our personal history aside, get the hell out of my way.'

 

Root stepped aside. 'Don't worry, Commander. I don't want anything to do with this butchery. The credit is all yours.'

 

Gudgeon put on his best sincere face. 'Julius, despite what you think, I have only the interests of the People at heart.'

 

'One person in particular,' snorted Root.

 

Gudgeon decided to go for the high moral ground.

 

'I don't have to stand here listening to this. Every second talking to you is a second wasted.'

 

Root looked him straight in the eye. 'That's about six hundred years wasted altogether, eh, friend!'

 

Gudgeon didn't answer. What could he say? Ambition had a price, and that price was friendship.

 

Gudgeon turned to his squad, a group of hand-picked sprites loyal only to him. 'Get the hovercage over to the avenue. We don't green-light until I give the word.'

 

He brushed past Root, eyes looking anywhere except at his erstwhile friend. Foaly wouldn't let him go without a comment.

 

'Hey, Gudgeon.'

 

The Acting Commander couldn't tolerate that tone, not on his first day.

 

'You watch your mouth, Foaly. No one is indispensable.'

 

The centaur chuckled. 'Very true. That's the thing about politics, you get one shot.'

 

Gudgeon was semi-interested in spite of himself.

 

'I know if it was me,' continued Foaly, 'and I had one chance, just one chance, to book my behind a seat on that Council, I certainly wouldn't entrust my future to a troll.'

 

And suddenly Gudgeon's new-found confidence evaporated, replaced by a shiny pallor. He wiped his brow, hurrying after the departing hovercage.

 

'See you tomorrow,' Foaly called after him. 'You'll be taking out my trash.'

 

Root laughed. Possibly the first time one of Foaly's comments had amused him.

 

'Good man, Foaly.' He grinned. 'Hit that back-stabber where it hurts, right in the ambition.'

 

'Thanks, Julius.'

 

The grin disappeared faster than a deep-fried pit slug in the LEP canteen.

 

'I've warned you about the Julius thing, Foaly. Now get that outside line open again. I want that gold ready when Gudgeon's plan goes awry. Lobby all my supporters on the Council. I'm pretty sure Lope's one of mine, and Cahartez, possibly Vinyaya. She's always had a thing for me, devilishly attractive as I am.'

 

'You're joking, of course.'

 

'I never joke,' said Root, and he said it with a straight face.

 

Holly had a plan, of sorts. Sneak around shielded, reclaim some fairy weaponry, then cause havoc until Fowl was forced to release her. And if several million Irish pounds' worth of property damage happened to ensue, well, that was just a bonus.

 

Holly hadn't felt so good in years. Her eyes blazed with power and there were sparks sizzling below every centimetre of skin. She had forgotten just how good running hot felt.

 

Captain Short felt in control now, on the hunt. This was what she was trained to do. When this affair had started, the advantage had been with the Mud People. But now the boot was on the other foot. She was the hunter and they were the prey.

 

Holly scaled the great staircase, ever vigilant for the giant manservant. That was one individual she wasn't taking any chances with. If those fingers closed around her skull, she was history, helmet or not, assuming she managed to find a helmet.

 

The vast house was like a mausoleum - .without a single sign of life inside its vaulted rooms. Spooky portraits though. Each one with Fowl eyes, suspicious and glittering. Holly determined to torch the lot of them when she recovered her Neutrino 2000. Vindictive perhaps, but totally justified considering what Artemis Fowl had put her through.

 

She scaled the steps swiftly, following the curve around to the upper landing. A slot of pale light peeped from under the last door on the corridor. Holly placed her palm against the wood, feeling for vibration. Activity all right. Shouting and footsteps. Thundering this way.

 

Holly jumped back, flattening herself against the velveteen wallpaper. Not a moment too soon. A hulking shape burst through the doorway and hurtled down the corridor, leaving a maelstrom of air currents in his wake.

 

'Juliet!' he shouted, his sister's name hanging in the air long after he had disappeared down the stairs.

 

Don't worry, Butler, thought Holly. She's having the time of her life glued to Wrestlemania. But the open door presented a welcome opportunity. She slipped through before the mechanical arm could close it again.

 

Artemis Fowl was waiting, anti-shield filters cobbled on to his sunglasses.

 

'Good evening, Captain Short,' he began, confidence apparently intact. 'At the risk of sounding clichéd, I've been expecting you.'

 

Holly didn't respond, didn't even look her jailer in the eye. Instead she utilized her training to scan the room, her gaze resting briefly on each surface.

 

'You are, of course, still bound by the promises made earlier tonight ...'

 

But Holly wasn't listening, she was sprinting towards a stainless-steel workbench bolted to the far wall.

 

'So, basically, our situation hasn't changed. You are still my hostage.'

 

'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' muttered Holly, running her fingers over the rows of confiscated Retrieval equipment. She selected a stealth-coated helmet, slipping it over her pointed ears. The pneumatic pads pumped to cradle her crown. She was safe now. Any further commands given by Fowl meant nothing through the reflective visor. A wire mike slotted down automatically. Contact was immediate.

 

'... on revolving frequencies. Broadcasting on revolving frequencies. Holly, if you can hear me, take cover.'

 

Holly recognized Foaly's voice. Something familiar in a crazy situation.

 

'Repeat.Take cover. Gudgeon is sending in a ...'

 

'Something I should know?' said Artemis.

 

'Quiet,' hissed Holly, worried by the tone of Foaly's usually flippant voice.

 

'I say again, they are sending in a troll to secure your release.'

 

Holly started. Gudgeon was calling the shots now. Not good news at all.

 

Fowl interrupted again.

 

'It's not polite, you know. Ignoring your host.'

 

Holly snarled. 'Enough is enough.'

 

She pulled back her fist, fingers curled in a tight bunch. Artemis didn't flinch. Why would he? Butler always intervened before punches landed. But then something caught his eye, a large figure running down the stairway on the first-floor monitor. It was Butler.

 

'That's right, rich boy,' said Holly nastily. 'You're on your own this time.'

 

And before Artemis's eyes had time to widen, Holly put an extra few kilos of spring in her elbow and whacked her abductor right on the nose.

 

'Oof,' he said, collapsing on to his rear end.

 

'Oh yes! That felt good.'

 

Holly focused on the voice buzzing in her ear.

 

'... we've been feeding a loop to the outside cameras, so the humans won't see anything come up the avenue. But it's on the way, trust me.'

 

'Foaly. Foaly, come in.'

 

'Holly? Is that you?'

 

'The one and only. Foaly, there is no loop. I can see everything that's going on around here.'

 

'The cunning little ... He must have rebooted the system.'

 

The avenue was a hive of fairy activity. Gudgeon was there, haughtily directing his team of sprites. And in the centre of the melee stood a five-metre-tall hovercage, floating on a cushion of air. The cage was directly before the manor door, and the techies were securing a concussor seal to the surrounding wall. When activated, several alloy rods in the seal's collar would be detonated simultaneously, effectively disintegrating the door. When the dust settled, the troll would have only one place to go into the manor.

 

Holly checked the other monitors. Butler had managed to drag Juliet from the cell. They had ascended from the cellar level and were just crossing the lobby. Right in the line of fire.

 

'D'Arvit,' she swore, crossing to the work surface.

 

Artemis was propped on his elbows. 'You hit me,' he said in disbelief.

 

Holly strapped on a set of Hummingbirds.

 

'That's right, Fowl. And there's plenty more where that came from. So stay right where you are, if you know what's good for you.'

 

For once in his life, Artemis realized that he didn't have a snappy answer. He opened his mouth, waiting for his brain to supply the customary pithy comeback. But nothing arrived.

 

Holly slipped the Neutrino 2000 into its holster.

 

'That's right, Mud Boy. Playtime's over. Time for the professionals to take over. If you're a good boy I'll buy you a lolly when I come back.'

 

And when Holly was long gone, soaring beneath the hallway's ancient oak beams, Artemis said, 'I don't like lollipops.'

 

It was a woefully inadequate response, and Artemis was instantly appalled with himself. Pathetic really: I don't like lollipops. No self-respecting criminal mastermind would be caught dead even using the word lollipops. He really would have to put together a database of witty responses for occasions such as this.

 

It was quite possible that Artemis would have sat like that for some time, totally detached from the situation at hand, had not the front door imploded, shaking the manor to its foundations. A thing like that is enough to knock the daydreams from anyone's head.

 

A sprite alighted before Acting Commander Gudgeon.

 

'The collar is in place, sir.'

 

Gudgeon nodded. 'Are you sure it's tight, Captain? I don't want that troll coming out the wrong way.'

 

'Tighter 'n a goblin's wallet. There's not a bubble of air getting through that seal. Tighter 'n a stink-worm's -'

 

'Very well, Captain,' interrupted Gudgeon hurriedly, before the sprite could complete his graphic analogy.

 

Beside them the hovercage shook violently, almost toppling the container from its air cushion.

 

'We better blow that sucker, Commander. If we don't let him outta there soon, my boys're gonna spend the next week scraping ...'

 

'Fine, Captain, fine. Blow it. Blow it for goodness' sake.'

 

Gudgeon hurried behind the blast shield, scribbling a note on his palmtop's LCD screen. Memo: Remind the sprites to watch their language. After all, I am a Commander now.

 

The foul-mouthed captain in question turned to the hovercage's cab driver.

 

'Blow 'er, Chix. Blow the door off its damn hinges.'

 

'Yessir. Off its damn hinges. That's a roger.'

 

Gudgeon winced. There'd be a general meeting tomorrow. First thing. By then he'd have the commander's icon on his lapel. Even a sprite might be less likely to curse, with the triple acorn logo winking in his face.

 

Chix pulled down his shrapnel goggles, even though the cab had a quartz windscreen. The goggles were cool. Girls loved them. Or so the driver thought. In his mind's eye he saw himself as a grim-faced daredevil. Sprites were like that. Give a fairy a pair of wings and he thinks he's God's gift to women. But Chix Verbil's ill-fated quest to impress the dames is, once again, another story. In this particular tale, he serves only one purpose. And that is to melodramatically push the detonate button. Which he does, with great aplomb.

 

Two dozen controlled charges detonated in their chambers, driving two dozen alloy cylinders out of their mounts at over a thousand miles per hour. Upon impact, each bar pulverized the contact area plus the surrounding fifteen centimetres, effectively blowing the door off its damn hinges. As the captain would say.

 

When the dust settled, the handlers winched back the containment wall inside the cage and began hammering the side panels with the flats of their hands.

 

Gudgeon peeped out from behind the blast shield.

 

'All clear, Captain?'

 

'Just a damn second, Commander. Chix? How're we doin'?'

 

Chix checked the cab's monitor.

 

'He's movin'. The hammerin' is spookin' him. The claws are comin' out. My, he's a big sucker. I wouldn't wanna be that Recon babe if she gets in the way of this.'

 

Gudgeon felt a momentary pang of guilt, which he dispelled with his favourite daydream - a vision of himself sinking into a beige-velour Council seat.

 

The cage heaved violently, almost dislodging Chix from his seat. He held on like a rodeo rider.

 

'Woah! He's on the move. Lock and load, boys. I have a feeling that any second we're going to be gettin' a cry for help.'

 

Gudgeon didn't bother locking and loading. He preferred to leave that sort of thing to the foot soldiers. The Acting Commander considered himself too important to be risked in an insecure situation. For the good of the People in general, it was better he remain outside the op zone.

 

Butler took the stairs four at a time. It was possibly the first time he had ever abandoned Master Artemis in a crisis. But Juliet was family, and there was obviously something seriously wrong with his baby sister. That fairy had said something to her and now she was just sitting in the cell giggling. Butler feared the worst. If anything were to happen to Juliet, he didn't know how he'd live with himself.

 

He felt a dribble of sweat slide down the crown of his shaven head. This whole situation was shooting off in bizarre directions. Fairies, magic, and now a hostage loose in the manor. How could he be expected to control things? It took a four-man team to guard the lowliest politician, but he was expected to contain this impossible situation on his own.

 

Butler sprinted down the corridor into what had until recently been Captain Short's cell. Juliet was sprawled on the cot, enraptured by a concrete wall.

 

'What are you doing?' he gasped, drawing the Sig Sauer nine-millimetre with practised ease.

 

His sister barely spared him a glance. 'Quiet, you big ape. Louie the Love Machine is on. He ain't so tough, I could take him.'

 

Butler blinked. She was talking gibberish. Obviously drugged.

 

'Let's go. Artemis wants us upstairs in the situations room.'

 

Juliet pointed a manicured finger at the wall.

 

'Artemis can wait. This is for the intercontinental title. And it's a grudge match. Louie ate the Hogman's pet piggie.'

 

The manservant studied the wall. It was definitely blank. He didn't have time for this.

 

'Right. Let's go,' he growled, slinging his sister over a broad shoulder.

 

'Nooo. You big bully,' she protested, hammering his back with tiny fists. 'Not now. Hogman! Hogmaaaan!'

 

Butler ignored the objections, settling into a lopin............

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