261. Grotto Life

Despite ragging on the girls for the mass stupidity of their actions, I wasn’t completely oblivious to why they’d put me in this position. Whatever Claire had seen or Jenny had felt, it was obvious to them that we had to be separated, and quickly.

I don’t know why, or how they thought we’d react—maybe they didn’t have time—but they wouldn’t have done what they did if it wasn’t the only choice they had. 

That still doesn’t stop it from being retarded. But you can’t blame them for that (or you’d never be able to stop). I had to figure out what to do, regardless of the restrictions. And if I failed, I wanted my epitaph to read: This was your fault. It didn’t matter who read it, they’d know I was right.

I spent the next couple of days staring at the blueprint of the castle drawn in the sand. I would throw out a question to the forest every now and again, and occasionally I would get an answer. Life in a fantasy world was a million different types of crazy, plus talking trees. You got used to it.

“Could you dig a tunnel under the castle?”

“You would disturb the life under the soil?”

“Is that a big deal? It’s not like there aren’t tunnels and caves and lakes of lava down there already.”

“And they caused great pain. The connection beneath the soil must not be disturbed.”

I could try threatening the forest again, but I didn’t want to have to do that unless absolutely necessary. Mainly because I’d been practising and couldn’t get my flame up to that temperature since the last time. Never happened to me before, honest.

Now that I had the location of the girls it was very frustrating not being able to just grab them. A couple of trolls would have got them out in no time. Never one around when you needed one.

“So, things falling over and dying is fine up here, but underground, nothing can be moved? What about the topsoil? How do plants grow if they can’t push their way through?”

“That’s different,” said a very pompous palm tree. The forest wasn’t so different to everyone else. Looking out for number one.

“What if we used more natural means? Roots and worms and moles and things? We could ease the earth apart gently. Like a big hug, just squeeze it out of the way. Would that work?”


I wasn’t expecting it to be that easy. “Great. How long would it take?”

“Twenty years.”

That would be far too long. The girls would be forty by then and hardly worth saving. That’s a joke. I’m sure someone would want them.

“Is he really a god? I mean how do you know?” He could do magic and stuff, but just because he called himself a god didn’t mean he was omnipotent, no more than calling yourself a DJ meant you were talented. At anything.

“Yes. He is a god. He was here before us. He gave us life.”

The forest came over all willowy when talking about him. Fear, respect, awe. It was all in there. Like the child of a dictator after they’ve won an election (by 96%) but before the death camps. That special sweet spot for denial.

It’s all relative, though. If you went back thousands of years and showed them your iPhone, they’d think you were a god. Then they’d find out the old charger didn’t fit the new model and realise you were actually the devil.

“But there were others like him?” Joshaya had mentioned the reason he was the One True God was that he had killed the rest. He may have been lying, though.

“There were others,” said the forest. “They left.”

“Oh? Where did they go?”

“We don’t know. A long time ago, they all went away. The elfs came and they no longer belonged here.”

“You remember the elfs?”

“Part of me does. They left, too. Everyone leaves.” A forest that made puns, was there no end to the cruelty of this world?

“But not him.”

“No. He stayed, to give us life.” 

It didn’t sound like the forest really believed that. Not completely. The dictator’s child had started to hear about the gays and gypsies being rounded up, and even though it was for their own protection, it didn’t feel quite right. I just needed to keep working on that sliver of doubt until I got what I wanted. Manipulative and overbearing, I know, but that’s what the children of despots respond best to.

I didn’t believe Joshaya had stayed behind because he loved to grow things in his garden. I know a thing or two about hiding from the world, and this was definitely a hidey hole. He grew the forest to keep away prying eyes. He placed guards here to keep people out. And like all shut-ins, he got bored. Boredom leads to unhinged, unhinged leads to not showering often enough and, in extreme circumstances, the Star Wars prequels.

Life wasn’t too bad in the grotto. When I got tired and felt cramped, I went for a swim in the pool, which was fed by a hot spring. Very relaxing. When I got hungry, I ate some fruit. That might seem a bit awkward, what with the forest being sentient, but I asked first. And got treated like an idiot for it.

“Of course you can eat it. That’s what it’s there for.”

That’s the problem with the whole ‘Do unto others’ philosophy. It sounds alright on paper, but it reality it’s total bullshit. Why would they like what you like? Kind of a narcissistic way to act. 

On a simplistic level it’s fine. Don’t be a shit to others; you wouldn’t like it if they treated you like that. Makes sense. But people take it too far. As though they can do whatever they want as long as they’d enjoy it if someone did it to them.

You can see the problem. Some people enjoy terrible things. Often things they think are good for the world and so should be forced on others, whether they want them or not, leading to vile unnatural acts, like forcing your dog to be a vegetarian. Some people are just sick.

Trees make fruit to be eaten. They want to tempt you into eating them. And they want your faecal matter all over their seed. They like it. Stop judging, you over-evolved fuck.

I tried my best to convince the forest it could dig a small, skinny little tunnel into the room where the girls were being held without causing any permanent harm, but it was like trying to convince a mother who believed vaccinations caused autism that there was a now a cure for autism—she just needed to inject her kid with the vaccine. Fact and fear just don’t work together well.

It was such a simple, elegant solution that I was loath to abandon the idea. Sneak in, grab the girls still in the prime of their youth, and get out before Gozer the Gozerian realised what had happened and went all Stay Puft. I just had to make it worth it to the forest. Only, it’s hard to know how to tempt a forest. What’s on a forest’s Amazon wishlist? (See? Now I was doing it. Evil is contagious).

“Don’t you ever miss the old days when you were free to do what you wanted? Drink cool water, reach for the sun.” Weak, I know, but give me a break, I didn’t have much to work with.

“There is no reason to disturb the soil for this purpose. It will not help release your friends.”

“Why not?” I demanded to know.

“Because the One True God will detect the change within his domain before you reach them.”

“Oh.” She couldn’t have said that before? And yes, I was assuming the forest’s gender. “I see. We need another plan, then. Isn’t there anything else you can tell me about the One True God? Isn’t there something he’s afraid of? Something he’s told you never to bring near him?” 

I was clutching at straws, but maybe he had his kryptonite. That would certainly make things easier. A magic dagger, an aversion to salt, an allergy to garlic. Big powerful, unbeatable bosses always had a giant vulnerability so you could beat them, because everyone wants you to beat them. It makes people all fuzzy inside to overcome impossible odds. On a screen or in a book. 

“He is a god. Only he can choose to let himself be beaten. You cannot make him leave this place if he doesn’t want it.”

Which meant I’d have to make him want to leave.

“Tell me what you remember about the elfs. And the dwarfs.”

After four days in the wilderness (well, you can’t really call it wild when you’ve got your own hot tub) I returned to where I’d left the others. I was met by the sight of the frogmen all covered in bluish mud, chanting with spears held aloft. They were packed into a tight circle, dozens of them, with Dudley in the middle. He was also daubed in mud, spear held high, chanting along with the rest. I go away for a couple of days and they turn into Lord of the fucking Flies.

“You’re back,” said Maurice.

“Yeah. Of course. What are you so surprised about?” At least he was fully dressed.

“We didn’t think… Sorry.”

I wasn’t sure what he was apologising for, doubting me or for allowing the frog chorus to get so out of hand. “What’s all this?”

“When you didn’t come back after two days, we decided we needed to have an alternative plan. We got the frogmen ready for war.”


“There’s an ancient bonding ritual. It involves unnatural acts with a frog. Flossie must never know about this.” He sounded very serious. 

I looked about, wondering which of the frog females it was. Then I noticed Maurice’s eyes had drifted up towards Pogo. There was a rosy tint to those giant frog cheeks that hadn’t been there before.

“But… how?”

“It’s not what you think,” said Maurice, which was a relief. “It’s far worse.”

I didn’t ask any more questions. “Hey!” I tried to get the war party’s attention but got ignored. I fired a ball of light over their heads. It exploded in a shower of sparks which did the trick.

They were all worked up and ready for a fight. I didn’t know how the two of them had convinced the poor gits to go all out for death and glory, and I hoped I would never find out. Although, to be honest, it looked more like they were having a bit of a knees up to relieve the tedium. 

It took a few minutes for them to calm down and realise where they were. It was like the moment when they turn on the lights in a nightclub and you’re faced with empty beer bottles and sticky floors. And you get a good look at the person you were dancing with. 

Pogo made a loud ribbit sound and Dudley blushed through his mud face mask.

“We’ll be going in tomorrow,” I told them. “Just us three.”

The frogmen didn’t seem too broken-hearted to hear this news.

“You’ve got a plan?” asked Maurice

“I don’t know if you’d call it that. We can’t fight him. We have to convince him to leave, to go where the other gods went. I don’t think he’s that interested in beating us to a pulp. If he was, he wouldn’t have accepted my challenge. I think he wants to drag this out as long as possible.”

“But you’ve got a way to make him want to leave?” asked Maurice.

I shrugged. “Maybe. He’s already trapped himself with three girls who never stop yapping, if that doesn’t make him want to do a runner, I’m not sure I’ve got anything to top that. But we don’t have much choice. Hey, forest, show them the map.”

The grass around my feet bent and flattened in lines running to form the castle map. It grew outwards from me and everyone jumped back to avoid getting in the way of the passages growing in the miniature hedge maze. 

I dropped three pebbles in a room in one corner. “They’re here.”

Maurice took out his notebook and began sketching the map. “And where’s he?”

“Everywhere,” said the One True God. Everyone turned to face him, standing at the far end of the clearing. He still looked like Joshaya, although his voice had the gravitas of a James Earl Jones speaking through a gas mask.

The frogmen were confused. They had their spears out and warpaint on. It gave a certain kind of impression. A lot of them were hiding their spears behind their backs.

“We were supposed to come to you,” I said. 

“I grew tired of waiting,” he said.

“We aren’t going to fight you,” I said. There was a palpable sense of relief around me.

“You think you could turn them against me?” He sounded a little hurt. I was expecting the old Vader throat pinch any minute.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re against you or not, does it? You’ll always be alone.”

“Yes. Always.”

“Maybe not. You know, I think there’s a way I can help you. Here.” I took the dwarfstone out of my pocket. It contained the last of the three dwarfs. It was my only way I knew to enter the adjacent world where my power lay, but there was bound to be another way. Right now, I wanted to get rid of the problem in front of me, and from what the forest had told me, this was the only thing that would do it.

Joshaya looked at the gem in my hand. Then his eyes lit up in recognition. And then he screamed, “Get that away from me. You bastards, I’ll kill you all.”

Just for the record, not the reaction I’d been hoping for.


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