Everyone went back down into the castle, leaving me alone on the battlements. Some were more reluctant than others, some were already planning their breakfast order. Jenny and Laney were the last ones left.
“Do you wish me to stay and help you strategise?” asked Laney, serious and ready to roll up her sleeves.
“No. Fuck off.”
She moved her mouth around her face but didn’t threaten me with public execution, which I took as a sign of maturity. She spun around on her heels, stamped her foot like she’d been dismissed from the parade ground, and walked off.
Jenny smiled unhappily. “I suppose you want me to fuck off, too.”
“Yes, thanks for understanding.”
She nodded and followed Laney. I took a look around the empty castle roof and then at the roofs in the city beneath me. Or should that be rooves?
It was the start of another day and possibly my last. Not my first time thinking that. We had a giant elf to take care of somehow, and even if I managed to survive that, there were the other parties aiming for global domination.
I took out the gem in my pocket and unwrapped it.
“You must not allow the spire core to be drained,” said Evand as soon as I revealed the white crystal.
“Why not?” I asked him. “It will stop the elf, won’t it?”
“We can return the elf to her proper place. I will help you.”
“What are you, Evand?” There was no reply. “You want me to help you? First tell me what I want to know.”
“And then you will help me?”
I sat down with my back against the castle wall. “Then we’ll see. I know you’re not an elf, so what are you?”
“I am a dwarf. We were the first people. We lived deep under the ground, relishing the dark. We mined for jewels of great power and built homes in the warm bosom of the earth.”
All I heard was dwarves and digging mines. Stereotype much? “Is it dwarves or dwarfs?” I asked him. Might as well get that out of the way now.
“It doesn’t matter. Either will suffice. The important thing is to protect the spires.”
“No, the important thing is for you to answer my questions. Explain why you serve the elfs.”
“That isn’t important. We don’t have much time. You are in an ideal position. You can order them to do as you wish, don’t waste—”
I took out the spike and placed the very sharp tip over the gem in my palm.
“What are you doing?” Evand sounded nervous.
“This is supposed to drain the core. I’m curious what it would do to you.”
“Please don’t do that. No, stop. Stop!”
The tip was hovering over the gem’s surface, a fraction of a millimetre away from touching it.
“We were worms, crawling on our bellies,” said Evand, his voice shaking. “They were the stars in the sky. We chose to serve them. Willingly. We gave them our secrets and taught them our magic, and they created a world of peace and prosperity. Do not listen to these beasts and monsters. None of them would even exist were it not for the elfs.”
“If it was all going so swimmingly, why did they leave? And why force one to stay behind?” I dangled the blade over the gem and let it swing like a pendulum.
“They left because there was nothing left here to interest them. They wished to see what was out there.”
“So they were bored.” I could relate. “And the one they sealed up and left behind?”
“They will return. Soon. One had to remain and provide a bridge, a way back.”
“So, if she dies, they can’t come back?”
“Die? They can’t die. You can only delay the inevitable.”
“Unless the spires are destroyed,” I said. “Then they can’t come back. Right”?
There was a long pause. I was tempted to stick the spike in, whether he answered or not. Would it kill him? Would the gem turn to ash or blow up? Better to find out on a small scale first.
“This world will die if you do that. I can’t prove it to you, but it’s the truth. The elfs are the only choice if you wish for a true utopia.”
I didn’t wish for a true utopia. The only way you could get one of those is if you didn’t let any people move in. “If the elfs are so great, why did the trolls book it like that? They didn’t seem to be big fans of a utopian future.”
The gemstone sighed. It was Evand, obviously, but the gem shivered in my palm. “Some value their freedom more than good sense. The trolls could never achieve greatness on their own, but they would rather fail of their own volition. It is small-mindedness and ego.”
That did sound like the trolls.
“You think it’s better to bow down and do what others tell you?” I asked him.
“If they are your betters, then yes. Humility is a rare and much maligned virtue. We serve them because they surpass our every expectation.”
It was a good sales pitch. If it were true. But he could be just another religious nut. A cult member in love with the dear leader. A plain old suck-up.
I agreed that free will and self-determination were overrated. Give people the choice to do things their way, and they went very quickly from doing what they wanted (usually dumb shit) to forcing others to do what they wanted (even dumber shit). And those who didn’t have the imagination to come up with something, ended up like Evand, fanboying the biggest bully in the playground.
Which didn’t mean I wanted to welcome my new elf overlords with open arms, but I didn’t have much interest in fighting them, either. I held up the sparkling gem in the sun’s early morning rays.
“Swallow it,” said Laney. I looked up and she was standing there, with Jenny beside her.
“Why?” I asked her. There was no one else with them. They had sneaked back up for some reason.
Laney slid out her sword and held it out so the point was under Jenny’s chin.
“I thought I had to swallow it willingly.”
“Yes,” said Jenny, not seeming to mind the sword at her throat. Her smile gave me the impression she would have put a gun to her own head if it would force me to comply. Which it wouldn’t. “Willingly. For her.”
Loopholes and caveats. This is why I trust no one.
“Go ahead,” I said. “If you have access to her thoughts and memories, you should know how effective your threats are going to be.”
Jenny, or whoever was in the pilot’s seat, stopped smiling and pushed Laney’s sword away. I’d suspected Jenny, but Laney too was under some alien control. Explained why they’d been so chummy of late.
“If this life isn’t important enough to you,” said Jenny, “then perhaps you value your own?”
Laney’s sword swung around and pointed at me. I laughed. It’s hard for people to accept someone cares so little for things they think are priceless, even when the proof was right in front of them. Jenny knew what value I placed on my life, so her captor should have known too, but apparently chose to not believe it.
“Before you run me through, let me just check something.” I held up the gem they wanted me to swallow. It sparkled so pretty. I took the spike in my other hand and stabbed it into the stone.
“No!” cried out Evand.
The pointed tip bounced off the crystal without leaving a mark. I tried again and again. I placed it on the ground and jabbed at it, to no avail.
Everyone quietly watched me fail. Awkward.
“It doesn’t work,” said Laney, miffed.
“No,” I said, still trying. “Looks like the Queen sold us a dud.” Typical. When it came to my life, failure wasn’t an option, it was default mode.
“It isn’t a dud,” said Biadet. “It just doesn’t do what you think it does.”
I looked around, and then up. There was a flagpole with the Fengarad flag snapping in the breeze. And standing on top of the post, on the balls of her feet, hands clasped behind her back, was Biadet.
Tweedle Fake and Tweedle Faux both backed away. Biadet jumped from the top of the flagpole and landed lightly on her feet.
“What’s it for, then?” I asked.
“It kills dwarves.”
Laney and Jenny were either side of her, but neither moved.
I held up the gem and spike, and banged them together. “I think this one’s run out of batteries.”
“It can’t reach them once they retreat into a gem. In flesh form, though…”
I got it. If they wanted to avoid death by spike, they had to leave the body and find refuge inside the gemstone, giving up control.
“Careful, though,” said Biadet. “Human life is frail and easily lost. She might not survive if—”
I got up and stabbed Jenny in the stomach, which seemed to surprise everyone.
“Oh,” said Biadet, “so, it’s like that.”
I remember watching a documentary on the BBC about psychopaths. Not one of those crappy docs made by tinpot countries where they tell you Jesus rode around on dinosaurs rounding up gay people. The BBC logo means you can rely on what you’re told. David Attenborough’s got your back.
And when I say tinpot country, that isn’t some thinly veiled attack on the USA. I don’t bother veiling my attacks, I put them right out there. If I have a problem with Belgium, I’ll stick the boot in, no problem (don’t look at me like that, Belgium, you know what you did). America used to be the easy target for fake facts and thinking shouting your views loudest made you right, but when I left home, they had a black president and legal weed. I imagine they’re well on their way to becoming a civilised nation by now.
So, this doc about psychopaths, it wasn’t about crazy serial killers whacking people, it was about brain scans and scientists. See, BBC, teaching you shit that gives you ideas without giving you ideas.
This bunch of scientists took scans of the brains of convicted killers and found they all had something in common. Regions of their brain showed no activity. Dead. A dark pattern where normal people had a spectrum of bright colours.
Those areas were responsible for ethical behaviour, moral decision-making and impulse control. The blackout led to aggression, callousness, narcissism—all much easier to employ when you have no conscience.
So far, so mildly interesting. Mad killers had fucked up brain chemistry, big surprise.
Then, one of the scientists decided to get a few scans of regular folk to use as a comparison, and while he was at it, he did one on himself. No biggy.
Surprisingly, he found his own scan also showed a blank in the same areas as the killers and madmen. Psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?
He had the same condition as the worst humans on the planet. Only he had never killed or hurt anyone.
He went to his family, his wife and kids, and asked them if they found it odd he had this condition. They said, no. They recognised some of those traits in him. He had a tendency to be very dark and cold. Thanks, fam.
He went back and looked at the histories of the killers he had scanned. And he found something they all had, that he didn’t. An abusive upbringing.
His childhood had been a good one. He was raised by a mother who brought him up to be a good man. She showed him love and affection, and even though he had this condition that allowed him, potentially, to ignore the needs and wants of others in favour of his own, he didn’t pursue that line of thinking. He didn’t need to.
The point is, it’s not how you’re born that makes you good or bad, it’s how you’re treated. You aren’t defined in the womb.
My childhood was no tragedy. I wasn’t beaten or fiddled with. But I wasn’t loved or surrounded with warmth, either. I think it had a negative effect.
Jenny’s eyes locked onto mine, wide with fear.
“I think it’s working,” I said. The spike handle was warming up.
Jenny began shaking. Then convulsing and retching. I kept the spike firmly in place. When I looked over, Biadet had somehow pinned Laney’s head under her small boot, where she growled and struggled like a badger having an epileptic fit.
“You always knew?” I asked Biadet.
“Yours, I wasn’t sure about. Mine… I’ve known her since we were babies, and she’s never been anywhere close to this rational.” Laney spat and clawed at her.
“Then why didn’t you do this yourself?”
Biadet looked surprised. “You still don’t understand your power, do you?”
Annoying. “No. Why don’t you tell me?”
“You’re untouchable, Colin.”
Jenny coughed like she was choking and spat out a gem, similar in size and colour as Evand’s. It landed on the ground. Jenny slid off the spike and fell, bleeding profusely.
“Untouchable? What does that mean? I’m invulnerable? Because I get hurt all the time. How am I untouchable.?” Why did people keep giving me crappy powers? Why couldn’t I fly or run at supersonic speed?
Jenny slapped at my leg weakly, trying to get my attention.
“Hold on,” I said. “We still have to do the other one.” I pointed the spike at Laney and she immediately coughed up her gem.
“Look at the spike in your hand,” said Biadet.
I did. It looked the same as before. “I don’t understand.”
“You will.” She took her foot off Laney’s head.
“I will kill you,” said Laney very calmly. “Slowly and with great pleasure.” She smiled like she’d never been happier.
“See,” said Biadet. “Back to normal.” She hopped up onto the castle wall and jumped off.
I bent down and healed Jenny. Her face tightened and then screwed into a grimace. She wasn’t in pain, she was pissed off.
“If you’re mad about me stabbing you, just remember the times you—”
“You cheated on me.”
“With my body when I wasn’t in control.”
She was mad because I’d cheated on her with her? Harsh.
“How is that my fault? I didn’t know. I thought it was you.”
“I was watching. I saw you.” Her face twisted in disgust.
I could see why that would be upsetting but still not my fault. Jenny grabbed the gem she’d coughed up and held it in front of my face.
“You and... him.”
Untouchable? I felt a touch of something then. “Him? What do you mean, him?”