By this point I considered darkness to be an old friend. Considering how my friends had been treating me of late, my buddy darkness was probably hiding monsters that would eat my face.
I wasn’t scared. Intellectually, I knew I should be, but convincing me to cut myself off from everyone was probably the best thing Maurice could have done for me. I was comfortably numb. Which, in practical terms, meant I would go into the next life without having shat my pants, which I’m sure would be appreciated.
The voice I’d heard had sounded feminine, although I wasn’t about to assume gender. These days, that sort of thinking can get you in all sorts of trouble. If it was a woman, my track record with females in dark places wasn’t good, but I wasn’t about to generalise about that either.
Yes, women had treated me poorly, often trying to kill me, torture me and nag me to death. I didn’t hold a grudge. Women aren’t all the same. I never think, Oh, yes, she’s just like all the others. They’re all individuals. They each have their own preferred method for ruining your life. Some of them even do it by ignoring you. They’re my favourite.
I listened for any follow-up threats. There were always follow-up threats. Everyone had too much fun arranging my demise to not announce their plans.
Nobody spoke. They were probably busy making a list. I put one foot in front of the other. I wasn’t floating, I was walking. It felt different to when I’d entered the other portal, the one with the old gods. I had remained in ghost mode there. I felt more like my regular-self here. That was rarely a good thing.
“Hello?” Might as well get it over with.
“Hey, there. Nice to meet you.” It was definitely a feminine voice. American. Not a girl though. Older. “So nice to see a friendly face.”
I tried to get a sense of where the voice was coming from. I couldn’t see a thing, but apparently she could see me. “My name’s Colin. And you are…?”
“The name’s Wesley. Weren’t you sent in to fetch me?”
Wesley was the name of the fourth member of Peter’s original party. According to Joshaya, she’d been Arthur’s wife. But then, according to Joshaya, Arthur had been a rich hermit, a lich, hung himself from the tree outside and died of old age. I was beginning to think Joshaya wasn’t completely trustworthy.
“Oh, are you a friend of Peter’s?” I asked, trying to sound like I was new and had no idea what was going on. Not as hard to do as you might think.
“Something like that.” She sounded terse and not very happy to hear Peter’s name. Which was a good sign.
“And Arthur? You knew him?”
“Oh, yes, of course. My husband. How is he?”
“I don’t know. These are just names I’ve heard. I only arrived recently, it’s still quite confusing.” Playing the ignorant newb was great. Right in my wheelhouse.
It was tiring playing the male lead, learning all my lines, turning up in every scene. I wasn’t lead material, as I’m sure no one would dispute. A good hero wants to take credit for his victories. A good villain wants to take credit for his crimes. I’d rather people not know what I’d done, good or bad.
I was born to play the clueless side-character whose questions helped the audience grasp the way the world worked. Every fantasy story had one.
“You can do magic? But how?” Cue explanation of magic system for readers. Once everyone knows the rules, everyone can follow the twists and turns.
“So, you just wandered in here by accident?” She sounded a little incredulous.
“Not exactly. Peter’s trying to kill me and this was the only place I could think to hide.” Telling her the truth, more or less, seemed like a reasonable risk to take. If she was on Peter’s side, then I was fucked anyway. Might as well gamble.
“I see. So no one sent you in to release me?”
“Um, no. I don’t mind helping, if I can, though. Is there a way out?”
I waited for further clarification. None came. How was I supposed to be the audience’s avatar if no one ever explained anything to me? I was beginning to suspect I was the comic relief. My job was to set myself on fire when I tried to cast the spell the wizard had expressly told me not to. Hilarity would no doubt ensue.
“How did you end up in here, if you don’t mind me asking?” I was being polite and respectful. My expectation was to be lied to, taken advantage of and accused of sexual harassment.
“Arthur put me in here. He felt it would be for the best.”
There were two reasons why he might have done that. “To protect you?”
“No, not really.”
Which left the other, slightly more worrying option. To protect everyone else. “He didn’t leave you a way out? In case of emergencies?”
“There is a way out, but only he can open it, and it requires a great sacrifice. Frankly, I didn’t expect to ever leave here. Sadly, you won’t be able to leave either. Looks like we’re both stuck here, now. I hope we can get on.”
Either I was reading too much into it, or that was the most ominous thing anyone had ever said to me. I hope we can get on. Chilling.
From what she’d said, there was a way to get out, although I wasn’t sure I’d get a very warm reception on my return. But while I was out of my body, everyone would be stuck waiting for me.
“I left my body outside,” I said. “Everything stops when I leave my body.”
“Same here!” She sounded like she just found out we had the same alma mater. “But you don’t have to worry about your friends. Once you enter this place, you no longer have an effect on the real world. You don’t have to worry about them. They’ll be able to continue with their lives.”
Well, thank fuck for that. At least everyone else could carry on being marvellously happy without me. A great weight off my mind.
If it was true, though, it made it much more likely that getting me in here had been the plan all along. If time had restarted once I’d entered, they could do what they wanted with my body. I didn’t imagine it would be anything pleasant. When the best option is that they just kill you and cremate your remains, you know things aren’t going your way.
Still, at least I was stuck in a dark room with a disembodied voice. When it comes to the age-old question of seeing the glass half-empty or half-full, I like to see the glass as easily broken and the jagged shards used to slice your neck open.
We’d probably become fast friends and have lots of interesting philosophical debates, right? Not like being in isolated confinement for decades would have driven her insane or anything.
The other thing that occurred to me was that if being in here severed the connection to the outside world, wouldn’t that have happened when I entered the other portal? Everyone had been in the same positions when I came out. Which might mean it worked differently. Or that Wesley was lying. Or that Maurice had got the others to pretend, and they were all working against me and had been since the start.
Paranoia that arrives too late is the worst kind of paranoia. Fucking useless.
It was a moot point, though. They were on their own, and I was on my own. Well, not exactly on my own.
“I’m sorry about this. I’m sure Arthur never intended to trap anyone else in here.”
“Why did he put you in here? Are you that dangerous?”
It did seem implied that if you imprison your wife in an inescapable inter-dimensional prison that she had some kind of monstrous power that could cause untold harm. Then again, he might have just wanted her out of the way so he could shag his secretary.
“No, not really. Not intentionally. I sometimes have difficulty controlling my temper. But it’s been a great help spending time here. I’ve been able to really think things through, put it all in perspective. It’s very calming, sitting in the dark, pondering over the things you’ve done in your life.”
It didn’t sound very calming to me. It sounded excruciating. Everytime I recalled an event from my past, it was usually accompanied by a shudder of revulsion and deep self-loathing at my unrivalled ineptitude.
On the other hand, I’d read plenty of stories where the hero cuts himself from the world and goes sits in a cave to cultivate his chi or whatever. I could emerge from this place in a hundred years, all my friends sadly passed away (I’d get over it), with my powers fully developed. I wouldn’t have a body, but perhaps I could borrow one. A better-looking one would be nice. Perhaps with muscles that worked properly.
I know, someone would probably be using it already, but the way it works is that they would have just killed themselves, and I could slip in and take over. Everyone wins. I was already quite looking forward to it.
In the meantime, it wouldn’t be so bad having Wesley as a companion. She seemed to be quite a reasonable person. It probably helped we couldn’t see or touch each other. That’s when the problems start.
Two abandoned souls stuck in a closet with no lights. Sure, there was no Netflix, but there was also no need to eat, shit or sleep. I was content to let go of worldly worries and just hang out here. Immortality beckoned.
It took me about ten minutes to get bored of eternity. I mean, it’s all very well finding your zen and reaching Nirvana, but people like that are never as happy as they make out. If vegans genuinely believed in what they were doing, they wouldn’t try to make their food taste like meat. Shaving your head and saying Namaste to everyone isn’t a sign of enlightenment, it’s trying to distance yourself from someone you don’t like. Usually yourself. Or your parents.
“Are you really sure there isn’t a way out? An escape hatch into another dimension?”
“You can leave the way you came in, if you could see the exit. But light doesn’t exist here.”
I created a ball of light.
In front of me stood a middle-aged woman. I’m not good with guessing how old women are, especially when they’re right in front of me daring me to say anything over forty. But she would be around there, physically speaking. Her real age would be the same as Peter’s. I didn’t bring it up, though. I’m pretty sure even the most secure woman would be upset if she asked you to guess her age and you said, “A hundred and sixteen?”
“How did you do that?” she said, shocked. “That isn’t possible. Our abilities don’t work here.”
“It’s beast magic,” I said. “I picked it up from an old frog. Do you think it could help us escape?”
She stared at my ball of light, blinking slowly. She was shorter than me, had a round face with dainty features, and curly brown hair. She could be someone’s mother or a teacher or someone wandering around the supermarket with a trolley. Not a MILF, not an dominatrix, just a regular housewife. She probably knew how to make a decent sandwich. I stopped thinking about it before I became aroused.
She slowly moved her gaze from the light to me. “You can leave. I’ll show you.”
“And you can’t?”
“I don’t have a body to go to. The only way to release me is for you to stay here, and give me yours. Would you want to do that?”
I wouldn’t, but mostly because it would be horribly embarrassing to loan someone a body like mine. I wasn’t even convinced I wanted to go back to it. We might both be better off here.
“No,” she said. “I wouldn’t even ask it of you. Go back to your friends. Live a good life. Have fun.”
If she knew what my life was like, she wouldn’t make such stupid suggestions.
“And if you see Peter, punch him in the face for me.”
I couldn’t deny I liked her, though. She had zero interest in me, for or against, and that felt appropriate. And she didn’t like Peter, which was more than appropriate. Perhaps I would let her have my body, along with an apology for the condition I’d left it in, and I could stay here. It didn’t seem so bad. Let someone else play the lead.
“Could you handle Peter if I gave you my body? Even if he had an Elf and some dwarves and a few gods helping him?”
“Sure. I was never very good at playing with others. I enjoy breaking other people’s toys too much. But then you would be on your own.” Lady, you don’t even know... “I don’t think you would like it very much. It gets quite lonely in here.”
“It gets quite lonely out there,” I said. “I’m sure I’d manage. What’s your ability?”
“I’m a vibrator.”
“I make things vibrate. Unfortunately that tends to make them fall apart.”
“Oh, yes. I suppose they would.” Was that a great power? I wasn’t sure. I guess it could be quite destructive, like an opera singer who could smash a wine glass with her voice.
“I thank you for the offer, but I really couldn’t deprive you of something so precious.”
“Can’t we both use my body? Share it?”
“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose it’s possible… You wouldn’t mind?”
Precious it might be, but half a bag of shit was worth the same as a whole bag.
“No. I don’t mind.”
It was just an idea that probably wouldn’t work, but I also had to keep in mind that this is what they wanted. If I brought her out and my body was tied up or incapacitated in some way (they could have cut off my arms and legs and sewn my mouth shut), they would have us trapped and Peter could do what he wanted. He was always looking for living batteries, perhaps we would be used to power another of his doomsday machines.
Whatever I did, there would be plans to counter me. Only by coming up with something truly unexpected could I hope to outmanoeuvre them. Could I come up with something that retarded? It was time to rise to the challenge.