Maurice had said very little so far. It was obvious he knew he was in the wrong from the guilt plastered all over his face. That didn’t necessarily mean he was going to accept his punishment.
“We should talk about this,” he said, pushing his glasses up his nose. They immediately slipped down again.
“No, I don’t think we need to,” I said
I was being remarkably sanguine about the whole thing, even if I do say so myself. From the moment I realised Maurice had been working for the other team, things became much clearer to me, which had a calming effect. I liked it much better when I understood what was going on.
Obviously, I usually assumed trouble was in the offing, but confirmation always helped. Once you knew for a fact where the problem was, you had a much better chance of dealing with it.
That chance might still be very low, but it’s not like the options in life are between terrible and perfect. You have to be realistic. Terrible and slightly less terrible is still worth differentiating between.
It also helped that I’d cut myself off from the rest of the group. Made everything seem less upsetting.
I raised the wooden sword in front of me, hilt gripped in both hands. My plan was very straightforward. I cut off Maurice’s connection to Peter, maybe chop off a few extra vines just to be on the safe side, and then we’d be protected from any more shenanigans.
I closed my eyes.
“Wait, wait,” said Maurice. He was backing away, but there was no way he could get away from me once I entered the adjacent world. His ability might have been pretty OP in this world, but mine was godlike in the other one. “We can use this to our advantage. We can build up my powers to the point I understand how to use them properly, and then we can use them against Peter. I’ve got it all planned out.”
In some ways it wasn’t a bad idea. If Maurice could master his ability to the point where he didn’t need Peter’s help anymore, I had no doubt he’d be happy to turn them against his mentor. It was how the Dark Side worked.
“We don’t have time,” I said. “Elf’s nearly here, and there’s no way Peter will ever let you off the leash. He’s done this before, lots of times. Once he’s got his hooks in you, it’s over.”
I couldn’t say for certain that was how Peter operated, but it was pretty likely. Maurice was bound to have come up with various plans to get the upper hand sometime in the future — working out other people’s strengths and weaknesses was something of a hobby for him —but Peter would most likely have done the same. And he had a bunch of other turbocharged tweekers to help him. Maurice would have to get very lucky to outmanoeuvre all of them.
“Don’t worry, I’ve gotten pretty good at telling the different vines apart. Shouldn’t be too hard to spot Peter’s connection to you. You won’t feel a thing. I did it to myself, and I’m fine.”
Maurice’s face expressed deep concern. Perhaps using myself as a positive example of disconnection hadn’t been the way to go.
He shook his head. “No, no. Not like this.”
The sword in my hand disappeared. One second it was there, next it was gone.
“Okay, nice try,” I said, “but kind of obvious you did that. Which means if I don’t believe my sword just disappeared, then it didn’t.”
The sword reappeared in my hand.
It wasn’t as simple as realising it was Maurice’s power at work, and that was enough to neutralise it. You had to believe it. My rejection of randomly teleporting swords had been immediate and whole-hearted, but I could see it being more tricky if he got more subtle about how he went about using his gift.
The thing was to not give him the chance to get creative. I closed my eyes, and suddenly felt very cold. I opened them again to see I was naked, as was everyone else in the crypt, apart from Maurice.
He was trying to keep me distracted so I wouldn’t be able to slip away into the adjacent world. Not a bad idea, but everything unusual that happened would be his doing. I looked at Jenny. I hadn’t seen her naked for a while. There was no hint of warmth in her eyes, which made it all the more annoying that Maurice was using this method to keep me off-balance. I had intended to make the whole process as smooth and unobtrusive as possible, but I was starting to think I might just hack and slash my way through his connection to the world. As petty and childish as vindictiveness is, you can’t deny that it feels good.
“You’ve got them wrong,” I said, pointing at Jenny’s breasts. “This one’s slightly bigger.”
Jenny looked mildly irritated, but she didn’t say anything. Our clothes returned. It wasn’t like they were popping in and out, it was more like we thought we were naked, and then on second look, we weren’t.
“I’m not going to let you do it,” said Maurice. “Better to let me go.”
Even though I could spot his interventions easily enough, they were distracting enough to stop me from focusing. If I couldn’t shift out of my body, I couldn’t enact my plan. But he couldn’t do much else, either. We were at a bit of a psychic standoff, which meant we would have to take a more physical approach. Not really something any of us were particularly good at.
“Let him do it,” said Claire. “At least show some remorse for what you did.”
Maurice pursed his lips. “I am sorry, I really am, but I can’t—
His words cut off with a gagging noise as Claire lunged forward, hands grabbing him by the throat. Maurice raised his arms in surprise, but Claire’s momentum took his legs out from under so he slammed down on the dusty ground, her landing on top of him.
Maurice’s eyes were bulging as she strangled him, his arms flailing. He’d never been the most athletic person, but our time in this world had toughened all of us up. Without a doubt, we were fitter and stronger than we’d been when we first arrived. Which you have to take in context. As much as we’d improved, the other people who had started off ahead of us, physically speaking, had also improved, so it wasn’t like we were boss of the gym. But Maurice should have been able to get away from Claire’s death grip. He could have struck her, shoved her off, bit her on the nose, but he didn’t. For her part, she was using her full strength, no friends and family discount, straddling his chest and squeezing the life out of him.
“You did this,” Claire hissed, leaning in close. “You’re going to do what I tell you.”
Maurice squirmed and looked about frantically. We were all stood watching, not really sure how to participate in this title bout. Give a score for each round?
Claire finally eased her hold on his neck, allowing him a gasping breath.
She leaned down further. “You’re going to do what Colin tells you, and then we’re going to start over new. This is the only chance you’re going to get. It doesn’t matter what you end up doing in the future, now is the only thing that counts. Understand?”
Maurice nodded slowly and Claire let go of him. He disappeared.
He vanished from under her, and she was sitting on the floor. Claire stared at where he’d been a moment ago, and then leaned back and screamed. It was frustration, it was pain, it was her heart breaking, but mainly it was fucking annoying.
Maurice had used his ability to escape. Exactly how he’d done it, I wasn’t sure. He could have made it so he’d never been here, but realising that would bring him back. It didn’t. He could have just made himself invisible and run away, which meant by the time I negated the change he could already be out of the church. Or Joshaya might have returned and whisked him away.
There wasn’t really a simple way to figure it out, but it didn’t matter. The new reality was that we were screwed.
“I want you to do it to me,” said Claire.
She got to her feet, eyes red, snot running freely from her nose. “I want you to cut the connection between me and Maurice. He’s made his choice. I don’t want to feel like this.”
“Hold on,” I said. “You having a connection to Maurice might be useful. You’ll be able to tell us what he’s going to do.”
Claire shook her head. “I tried that when he got rid of your sword. I couldn’t tell, I was too worked up. Emotions only get in the way. I can do better without the distraction.”
It was a reasonable point, although I still felt like having a stronger connection would be an advantage.
“If he goes back to Peter,” I said, “we can also get intel on what they’re planning.”
“I can still do that. I don’t need a special connection to read his mind.”
“No, but it’ll be easier, like how Jenny ability was much more pronounced with me, back when she gave a shit.”
“I can still feel what you feel,” said Jenny, very dispassionately. “Only, now it’s not overwhelming. I think Claire’s right. It’s easier to function without distractions.”
Who knew the day would come when the only one standing up for love would be yours truly?
“Well, as much as I appreciate the input of the Ice Cold Sisterhood, I still—”
“Do it and I’ll do what you want,” said Claire, which was chilling on many levels. “I’ll see what’s behind the wall.”
I was relieved that was what she meant. “And if it hurts?”
“I don’t care. I’ll suffer it gladly.” She said it like she would welcome the pain.
It was a decent offer. I wanted to know what was behind the wall, and she was right, she could still use her ability on Maurice. It might be a little less effective now, but it would still work.
“Okay, deal.” I closed my eyes and drifted out of myself before she changed her mind.
For a moment I was in the dark recesses of my mind, and then I was floating in the room. Vines abounded.
It wasn’t hard to spot the one between Claire and Maurice. It looked rotten. Black and putrid, it would probably wither away on its own given time. I slashed it to pieces.
It took a while. It was still thick and meaty, and required several blows. There were some smaller ones with similar afflictions. They were sliced off, too. There might have been more, minor ones, but I felt confident I’d got most of it. One relationship excised.
When I returned to the regular world, everything was as I’d left it. There was a cold look in Claire’s eyes, but that had been there before. Possibly always.
“How do you feel?” I asked her.
She shrugged. “Better. Let’s do this.” She turned to face the wall, closed her eyes and pressed her hands against the stone. She raised her head, inhaling slowly. “Ready.”
It felt like something bad was about to happen, although that could have been my imagination. It was how I felt most of the time, although this had an extra veneer of unpleasantness glossing over it.
Being paranoid was generally a good thing, but you had to keep it in check. Yes, things could always go pear-shaped, but once you committed to a course of action, there was no point fretting about what might or might not happen.
“Okay” I said, “try to reach my mind.”
Claire’s face took on a look of extreme concentration and I phased out again.
She was frozen in place, hands against the wall which had turned black. Even though it was no longer a solid barrier, her hands remained in place. I prodded the dark with a finger, which sank into it. I yanked it back.
There was a loose vine floating around, trying to reach me from Claire. Her attempt to read my mind. I grabbed it and shoved it through the aperture. It jumped from my hands as it was sucked in.
I returned to my body to see the results of my handiwork. Claire had her hands pressed against the wall like she was holding it up. She grunted with effort, but kept going.
The rest of us watched and waited. Whatever Claire was experiencing, it appeared to be taking everything she had. Her whole body was shaking. And then the whole crypt was shaking, like it was being pounded with a giant hammer. The rhythm was familiar
“It’s the Elf,” I said. “She’s here.”
Dust and bits of stone fell around us. There was an excellent chance the roof would fall on our heads any moment, which would at least get it done and over with.
Claire fell back from the wall. Dudley and I grabbed her by an arm each and we ran for the stairs, the other two running ahead of us.
“What did you see?” I bellowed over the noise of stonework falling apart.
“Nothing,” she yelled back. “There was nothing there.”
“Are you sure?” I said.
We reached the church and found it empty. The druids had vacated the premises.
“Yes,” said Claire. “I felt something before, but it’s gone. I searched everywhere. Whatever it was, it isn’t there anymore.”
What did that mean? Had it escaped? Had Maurice taken it with him? I still didn’t know what it really was he and Peter had been after. We could have already lost and not know it.
We hurried out of the church. The druids were outside, looking up at the giant approaching, looming over the city walls.
It looked about the same as last time. Big; cloudy features. It had one arm extended, bent at the elbow, palm up. There were people standing on the palm. I recognised the Cool Kids, fully decked out in their fancy armour. They would be happy to see us, for all the wrong reasons. And standing with them was Maurice.
“This isn’t good,” I said. I needed to come up with an exit strategy, fast.
“Don’t worry,” said Claire. “I’LL TAKE CARE OF IT.”
Her voice had suddenly dropped a couple of hundred octaves and it had a steely, malignant edge to it that wasn’t there before. Mind you, it was Claire, so she might have just reached maximum pissiness and evolved to her final form. Although the glowing blue eyes and the fact she was floating six inches off the ground suggested there may have been more to it than that.