Uncle Stan tasted delicious. Terry didn’t look too happy as we scarfed down the meat, even though we did share it with her and the boys. Not my idea, but the girls had undergone some kind of reverse Stockholm Syndrome.
They served our prisoners first, made sure the children got the best cuts and generally undermined any attempt to intimidate the captives.
You will answer my questions or suffer my wrath. More gravy?
“That was supposed to last us for the rest of the month,” said Terry as she munched through a large mouthful of succulent, albeit stringy, goat.
“Where do you get your food from?” asked Maurice as he picked his plate clean. “I didn’t see any other animals. Is there a town nearby?”
“Yes.” She stared at the white bone which was all that was left of her Uncle. “It’s about an hour’s walk from here. But we don’t buy our food from there. Uncle Stan was the last of our goats. He was the boys favourite.” She looked over at her boys stuffing their faces. “We had a large herd once, but times have turned hard.”
“I thought the masters took care of you,” I said. “Don’t they provide you with all the goats you can eat?”
She shot me a nasty look. “Of course they do. They are benevolence incarnate. But times of hardship are a test of our faith. You have to be willing to suffer, to surrender yourself to their will. So begins the Cycle of Replenishment.”
“This Cycle of Replenishment,” I said, “does it involve you starving to death, coming back to life and then starving again, over and over?”
Her eyes widened in surprise. “You know of the Cycle?”
“No, I just thought of the stupidest thing possible and bingo! You people are beyond help.” I addressed the others. “You can see how far gone she is, right? There’s no way we’re ever going to convince her she’s wrong.”
“Yeah,” said Claire, “so?”
“So, we can’t just leave them here. First chance she gets, she’ll report us to whatever authorities they have for rounding up dodgy foreign types—by which I mean us—and it’ll be off to the gulag. Or the goulash, more likely.”
“What you’re trying to say?” said Jenny.
“I’m saying we have to kill them all before we leave.”
There was, as expected, some dissension after I announced this intention.
“We’re not going to kill them!” insisted Claire, flapping her arms up and down like a demented bird.
“That’s murder,” exclaimed Flossie. She tugged on Dudley’s shirttails like she was ringing a bell.
“It does seem a little OTT,” chimed in Dudley.
Maurice didn’t say anything, although mostly because he was studying his notes. And Jenny narrowed her eyes and attempted to peer into my soul, I think. Good luck with that.
“Stop looking at this with your 21st Century sensibilities where you pretend you’re wonderful people by ignoring things you don’t like and pretending they don’t exist. It isn’t murder if they don’t stay dead.”
I pointed at Terry, who still seemed upset about losing Uncle Stan. She scoured her plate for the remnants and swallowed her delicious grief.
“They don’t care. They die all the time, right?” Terry ignored me. “We’d actually be helping them level up, or whatever they call it. We slit their throats, escape out to sea, they come back to life in a few days and carry on with their appalling existence. Everyone’s a winner!”
“There is no escape,” said Terry. “The sea offers nothing but terror from the deep—monsters that will consume your soul. The only safe place is this one. No one leaves Nekromel. It is full of decent people who follow the true faith. You should count yourselves lucky to have found your way here. To ascend is to touch the hem of the divine. Repent your sins and accept your masters. You have been blessed by the Jester of Our Dreams.” Her eyes sparkled like the nutter she was. “Rejoice,” she insisted.
“These unbelievers you mentioned,” I said, “you wouldn’t know where we can find them, would you?”
“Colin,” said Claire, “we aren’t going to kill women and children. It doesn’t matter what it means to them, what matters is what it means to us.”
“That’s racist,” I pointed out. “Just because your ethics and morals don’t match hers, doesn’t mean you can just dismiss her deeply held religious beliefs, like some missionary deciding she knows what’s best for the savages. She deserves the right to live her life the way she wants.”
“Thank you,” said Terry, “I—”
“And you can shut it as well,” I said. “I’ve had quite enough of your insane prattle.”
That’s the trouble with religious-types, they never stop talking. You’ve got to nip it in the bud asap.
Through the window, the sky had begun to darken. It had gone from white to a reddish colour. It would probably start raining blood in a minute.
“Unlike you, Claire, I respect other cultures. That’s why it’s only right we kill her and her children and give them a chance to meet this Jester.”
“What does he look like?” asked Maurice. “Like a jester?”
“I have never seen him,” said Terry bitterly. She glared at me.
“Neither have I,” I said. “All I heard was a laugh, and that could have been my mind playing tricks on me. Believe me, I don’t want your place in the queue. I’m trying to help you get to him quicker.”
“You’re so full of shit,” said Claire. She took out another knife from Chucky’s jacket and tossed it to me. “Here. Let’s see you slice the kid’s throat.”
I looked at the boy who didn’t seem particularly bothered we were talking about his imminent execution. I gripped the handle tightly and visualised running the blade across his throat.
A wave of revulsion rolled through me and for a second I thought I was going to throw up.
It’s hard to kill a child, I can report. Even when the child in question is a little shit. Even when you have a perfectly legitimate reason for doing it.
“Obviously, I don’t mean killing them right now. We need to rest for the night and then move out first thing in the morning. If I did it now, they’d just come back to life quicker.”
“That’s what I thought,” said Claire. She walked over and snatched the knife back.
“When the time comes—”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Claire, not even letting me lie to myself.
“This husband of yours,” Jenny said to Terry, “you said he was in the basement.”
“Yes. It’s better to keep the body somewhere cool.” Very considerate.
“Where is it?” asked Jenny. “I don’t see any stairs.”
She was right. I hadn’t seen any when I’d looked in the other rooms, either.
“You’re standing on the door,” said Terry.
When I looked down, it was obvious there was an area of the floor that was different from the rest. A section of the wooden floorboards had been laid at ninety degrees to the rest.
“Where’s the handle?” I asked her.
Terry sighed and shook her head. “Hanging behind you.”
There was a hook on the crudely carved coat rack nailed to the wall, the kind you’d expect to see on the end of a pirate’s arm. I took it down. It was attached to a bit of wood that acted as a handle.
When I looked more closely at the trap door, I found a groove which the hook fit into. With a great deal of effort—and some swearing—I managed to lift the door about six inches. It creaked and groaned loudly, although not as loudly as me.
Jenny and Dudley rushed over to assist me and between us we got it open and flipped it all the way over to lie on the floor.
Cool air rose out of the dark hole. Steps disappeared into the darkness.
We all stared at the hole, waiting for someone else to volunteer to go first.
“What we could do,” said Jenny, “is lock them in there.”
“There’s no lock on the door,” said Terry. I wasn’t really sure whose side she was on. Not her own obviously, otherwise she wouldn’t be so keen to serve herself up as soup de jour to Demons.
“We could put something heavy on top of the door,” said Jenny.
“How is that different to killing them?” said Claire. “If they can’t get out, they’ll just starve to death.”
She didn’t stop to consider this was going to happen whether we locked them up or not.
“Your husband,” said Jenny to Terry, “is he quite strong?”
“Yes,” said Terry. “If he was here now, he would rip all your arms off.”
“So when he revives he’ll be able to get you out. Right?”
Terry paused to think, then nodded slowly.
“Right then,” I said, “in you go. We can make a final decision what to do with you in the morning.”
Terry and her kids didn’t have any objections and filed down the steps and disappeared into the pitch black.
With Herculean effort, we dropped the door back down. How Terry and the boys had managed it on their own, I had no idea. Then, between the six of us, we turned the kitchen table over and slid it across the trap door. It was very heavy and would require some shifting. If the husband wasn’t in shape, chances were we’d just sealed them in like King Tut.
“We should get some rest,” I said.
I’d barely finished speaking before Claire and Maurice disappeared into one of the rooms and Flossie and Dudley into the other. Both doors closed at the same time.
“And no messing around!” I shouted after them. I turned to Jenny. “Guess we’ve got the first watch.”
There was a squeal from one of the rooms. “Sorry! Ah slipped,” called out Flossie.
They were ignoring my sage advice as usual. “What’s the point of being exhausted from fucking all night? Who knows what we’ll have to face tomorrow.”
“She slipped,” said Jenny.
“Yeah, slipped onto the end of Dudley’s cock.”
There was a small fireplace at one end of the room with firewood already in place. I lit it.
“Like you said, we don’t know what we’ll face tomorrow,” said Jenny. “You can’t blame them for wanting a little happiness in the meantime. You’d like a little joy in your life, wouldn’t you?” She smiled at me in a way that made my throat go dry.
“Yes, but we don’t have a bed.”
“Colin, you’re such a dork. We don’t need a bed.”
An hour later, the sky had turned a deep maroon. There were no moon or stars and it was impossible to tell if there was anyone headed our way, so not much point in keeping watch.
One of the bedroom doors opened and Maurice came out with his nose in his notebook. Claire followed, looking a little disappointed.
“It’s amazing when you think about it,” said Maurice. “Once you take away death’s finality, it changes everything. The whole way we view life.” He looked up from his notes, down at our legs, noticed neither I nor Jenny were wearing trousers and kept going regardless. “Imagine what it’s like in the larger populations. Do they judge each other by how often they’ve died? Is it a mark of superiority if you can revive quicker than most? There’s so many questions.”
“You might as well get some rest,” said Claire. “He won’t be able to sleep when he’s like this.”
I didn’t need to be asked twice. They’d taken the room with the double bed. It wasn’t the softest bed I’d ever lay on, but as soon as my head hit the pillow, I was out.
Darkness surrounded me. I could see my hand, even though there was no light source, but everything beyond that was empty nothingness.
A shudder ran down my spine and cold sweat formed on my brow and along my nose. I recognised where I was. This was how it had been when I died. This was the place I came to before being sent back to my body. Even though there was nothing to see, there was an unmistakably familiar quality to the blackness.
And then I heard the laugh.
It started out as a snigger, and tittered its way up to a convulsive guffaw.
“Oh Colin, it’s so nice to see you again.”
The hairs on my arms stood up. The voice was deep and jagged, like a rusty saw grinding against bone.
“I thought I’d missed my chance, you know... the one that got away. But here we are once more, together forever. Here’s hoping, anyway.”
The laughter returned. I jumped. This time it felt much closer. And behind me. I spun around but there was only a continuous nothingness. I stared hard into the dark, trying to make out if someone was there.
The darkness seemed to be moving, coalescing. At the edges of my vision were flittering movements, like a cloud of flies, but when I turned to look, there was nothing
“Where is this?” I asked the empty air.
“You don’t recognise the inside of your own mind? It’s very cosy, I must say. Are you still moving in? Only, I noticed a lot of unpacked boxes on the way in.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. “Where are you?”
“Right here,” said a whisper at my ear. I skipped two quick steps to the left. Good thing there was no one there to see me mince around like a ponce. No one, save for the thing in the dark.
I steadied my voice and tried not to sound like I was scared out of my mind. “Are you the Jester?”
“You’ve heard of me? How wonderful. Indeed, I am the Jester of Your Dreams. Messenger of the masters. Nobody’s fool, and everybody’s fool. I’ve come to invite you to the Palace of Laughter, where you will be the beloved of the masters and all you desire will be yours.”
Clearly, I was being sold a bill of goods. The fact this thing thought I would just swallow his line of bull was annoying enough to take the shiver out of my spine. A little bit. “And what do I have to do in return for all this generosity?”
“Your presence is enough.” The voice swooped in a circle, like I was being surrounded by one person. “The masters have been looking for someone like you for a long time. All their other plans have been put on hold, perhaps forever. All other worlds have lost their lustre now that you’re here.”
Words to turn a fellow’s head.
“Well, I appreciate the offer, but there’s nothing I want right now, so maybe some other time?”
“Really? Nothing? Gold? Diamonds?”
“Yellow metal and shiny rocks aren’t really my thing.”
“But what about sex? You like sex, don’t you?”
“I already have a demon for a girlfriend. It’s about all I can handle.”
“Demon’s such a pejorative word. All those negative connotations. I’m sure she’s not really a demon.”
“You haven’t met her.”
“Oh sweetie, does she make unreasonable demands and refuse your reasonable charms? I could be your woman, if you’d like. I wouldn’t refuse to do anything.”
“You’re female?” I had assumed the voice was male, but it could have been a huskier version of Lauren Bacall. Or Linda Blair.
“Does it matter? It all feels the same in the dark. Come creep with me at the Palace of Laughter.”
“You know, I have this strange feeling there’s a big sign on the front of the palace spelling out its name, but there’s a gap where a letter’s fallen off in front of ‘Laughter’.”
There was a pause, followed by a long peal of giggling.
“I see. Very good. No, no, it’s nothing like that. The masters look after their flock. They feed the needy.”
“And the needy feed them?”
More laughter. “Come. Come. For you, the gates will be wide open. Or tell me where you are and I will send a winged carriage to collect you.”
It didn’t know where I was. This was the first good thing to come out of this conversation. The relief calmed me. “I would but I’m planning to go away for a while. Maybe when I come back?”
“But there’s nowhere to go. All portals lead to Nekromel, as they say.”
I’m not sure who ‘they’ were but every portal that led here hopefully also led away from here.
“That’s alright, I like exploring. There has to be something on the other side of the ocean. There always is.”
“Ohhh,” said the Jester in a way I didn’t like. “You’re by the sea. That narrows it down considerably.”
“The people from your world can be so shy, but I simply won’t take no for an answer. I’ll send a flock of the masters’ own personal guard to fetch you.”
Double shit. However, he had said something that did catch my attention. “There have been other people from my world here?”
“Surely. They are still here. Somewhere. So very shy. Now, is there anything else you’d like to tell me? ”
Two eyes suddenly appeared. They weren’t glowing red, or with vertical slits for pupils. Just two, large, lidless orbs that appeared inches in front of me, unattached to any face.
I screamed and stumbled backwards.
There was a faint crackle of blueish electricity that lit up two curved arms of what might have been a jester’s cap. Or they could have been large horns, curled downward. The darkness below the eyes began to split open.
I felt something warm and smooth under my left hand. I grabbed onto it and held tight. My mind was drawn to it, as it always was whenever that familiar softness came under my touch.
I woke with a start. I raised my head and looked over at Jenny lying beside me. My hand was inside her top, squeezing her left breast. Her face was screwed up in a wince.
“Uh, sorry.” I let go of her. How I’d managed to navigate my way through her clothes while I slept, I had no idea.
Jenny let out a rush of air. “Ow.” She rubbed her tit.
“You should have woken me.”
“I didn’t mind. It’s not the worst thing you’ve done in your sleep.”
Her words put thoughts of my recent encounter to one side. “What do you mean? Like what?”
“It’s probably best you don’t know. I saw this documentary about Katharine Hepburn once. She was an actress.”
“I know who Katharine Hepburn is.”
“Well, she used to live with Spencer Tracy. He’s—”
“Yes, an actor. Does this have anything to do with—”
She held up a finger to indicate I should be patient. “Spencer Tracy was a terrible drunk and when he was completely plastered, he hit her. She covered the bruises with make-up and he had no recollection of what happened. She never told him because she knew if he found out it would destroy him.”
Now I felt really uncomfortable. “What did I do, Jenny?”
Jenny sighed. “Well, if you really must know… You curl your fists and put them up to your face and make mew-mew sounds.” She showed me.
I dropped my head. I’d been sure she was going to tell me I’d beaten or forced myself on her.
“See, I told you it was better not to know.” She grinned at me. Demon. Foul, foul demon.