The fish were screaming. There was a time when such a thing would have disturbed me. Now it barely registered before thumping each fish on the head with the bough I’d found nearby. That’d give them something to scream about.
Or it would have, if it didn’t kill them.
I walked along the bank of the lake we’d stopped at and bonked each shrieker with a quick, sharp, well-aimed strike. Abattoir Colin, new character skin.
The girls were lounging about like they were on holiday, half-dressed and soaking up the sun which was high overhead. We had flown east for the whole of the night, borne on the backs of dragons, eager to get as far away as we could from elfs and dwarfs and any creature capable of doing us harm.
It could be said that group included every living thing on this planet, but there had to be somewhere in this world where the murderous beasties were too busy killing, maiming and devouring each other to bother with small fry like us.
We were a thin, weedy bunch who offered not much in the way of sustenance or nutrition. Apart from Flossie, obviously, who had those deposits of subcutaneous fat that women derisively call cellulite, and hungry predators call delicious. It’s all a matter of perspective.
There was some consideration to be made in regards to hanging around and seeing how things panned out in Fengarad. War had been averted and there was a good chance man and monster would find a way to cohabit in peace. Or it could be a massive clusterfuck. I planned to deal with it the same way the UN dealt with the Middle East—in no way whatsoever.
I had enough influence with the elf and Uncle Peter (the Peter under the control of dwarfs, that is) to sort out some benefits for us. A place to stay, provisions and supplies, maybe even positions of power within whatever form of government took control. But my instinct was to forego any rewards and get the fuck out of Dodge.
Call me a pessimist, but as soon as people (and not-people) realised the situation had resolved itself, I had no doubt the fucktards would be out in force, trying to screw each other over for a piece of the pie.
While some people enjoy that kind of tussle, finding self-worth and validation in proving themselves to be a bigger piece of shit than every other turd in the fight, I’d rather find my own quiet corner of the world where I could beat fish to death in peace and quiet with a pretty view. I’m a pacifist at heart.
Maurice stood in the water up to his thighs, gently calling to the fish with the magic the frogmen had taught us. That seemed like a million years ago. He didn’t bother with a spear, he waited until a curious but trusting fish swam between his legs and scooped it up with his hands, sending it soaring into the air, howling like someone pretending they were enjoying their first rollercoaster ride when they secretly hated every moment. Believe me, I know exactly what that sounds like.
I could have yanked the fish out of the water myself, my fish-summoning having reached a level of mastery that could make them literally leap into the fire we’d built, but Maurice wanted to practice his magic. Which put me on kipper-bashing duty. Not a euphemism.
While Maurice and I delivered lunch, Dudley had made himself an ad hoc archery range and practised his skill with the bow he’d taken from the Fengarad armoury. He was still remarkably proficient and rarely missed.
Everyone had kitted themselves out before we’d left for our big battle that had failed to materialise (thanks to me) and their clothing and weaponry was of the highest quality. They looked like a bunch of nobles on a weekend break. Well, they looked like a bunch of something, but at least they’d managed to get an upgrade from the peasant garb we started out with.
Apart from me, of course. I had the same crappy clothes, barely hanging together. Which was absolutely fine by me. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was worth fighting for my stuff, not when I was surrounded by so many richly adorned companions.
“How far is it to this place?” asked Claire as we ate roast fish, their severed heads lying on the turf, mouths agape in screams forever silenced. Delicious.
“I have no idea,” I said. “East, that’s all I know.”
The plan was to head for the fourth city of Flatland, Gorgoth. I didn’t know much about it other than it was the home of one of the people who had arrived in this world with Peter and Zarigold. The city was probably similar to the other three (full of bastards) and the man we were looking for probably couldn’t be trusted, but every journey needed a destination.
My goal was to find out how to use this newly discovered ability of mine and Peter had intimated this was the guy to help me.
To be honest, I didn’t really expect things to go smoothly and there was an excellent chance we’d have to run for our lives the moment we found him (assuming we did) but there was so much to learn about the mysterious other world I had access to, so much power to gain, that I was willing to take risks in finding out how to utilise the ability to manipulate… everything. If I could make changes in that world, there was no limit to what I could do in this one.
“So, yo’ want us to keep heading east until we see a city?” asked Flossie.
“Pretty much. Unless we spot something better on the way. If we find an abandoned castle we can claim and stay off everyone’s radar, I’d be all for it.”
“A castle’s aiming a bit high, isn’t it?” said Claire. “A cottage or something would be fine.”
There were general murmurs of agreement. I could tell this was something they’d already thought about, an idyllic home with roses running up trestles. A burbling brook and a herb garden. The fantasy equivalent of opening your own cupcake shop.
“Yeah, whatever. I only said castle because I saw a future where we lived in one.”
They all stopped eating and stared at me. Apparently I hadn’t mentioned this to them before, not in the current timeline at least, and had to face twenty minutes of questions about the castle, most of the answers to which were variations of “How the fuck would I know?”, “I wasn’t paying attention” and “No idea.” It passed the time.
We had planned to stop for something to eat and a short rest before continuing our journey east, but we were all too relaxed and stuffed to move. It was a nice, peaceful glade we’d landed in and the dragons were very happily demolishing it one bush at a time. You have no idea just how lit nature is until you see a dragon puke on his lunch and eat it.
We decided—and when I say we, I mean the girls told us—to spend the night here, stock up on more fish and head out in the morning. None of the boys, myself included, bothered arguing because we didn’t care either way. This was a dangerous precedent to set. Even if you don’t care in the slightest about an outcome—where you’re going to eat, what movie you’re going to watch, what to name your children—giving up your right to influence a decision quickly erodes your right to influence any decision. This is why you should always insist on having things your way at least fifty percent of the time no matter what the other person is suggesting. Women figured this out millennia ago.
The day drew to a close and the fire burned brightly next to a huge pile of freshly cut lumber. We didn’t have any axes, but we did have a herd of dragons that could eviscerate any form of vegetation. Getting them to not devour the trees after they cut them down was the tricky part.
Being hidden away in whatever nook of this world we had landed in made everyone feel very safe and secure, so naturally I was extremely nervous and uncomfortable. There was bound to be some horrendous encounter waiting for us around the next corner.
“Nothing’s going to happen,” said Jenny, sensing my discomfort. “We can relax for one night.”
“One night’s all they need,” I said.
“Who’s they?” she asked unnecessarily.
“I have no idea. But they’re out there, waiting.”
The dragons mooed in their deep, rumbling voices as they settled down for the night.
“This ability of yours,” said Maurice, “do you really think you’ll be able to control it?”
This was something that had been concerning me, too. From what I’d seen, it was extremely complex and there was no telling what side-effect even the smallest change would have. The connections between people, between all things, wasn’t something to meddle with lightly. It would be far wiser to leave well alone.
But the potential was so great it was hard to resist having a go. I could become the most OP Visitor Flatland had ever seen. And while I generally kept to myself and held little interest in getting people to do what I wanted, it’d be pretty dumb to turn down the chance to go all Super Saiyan. Not to rule the world or beat the shit out of people I didn’t like, just to ensure they left me alone.
Because in the short time I’d been in this world, the one thing I’d learned was that fuckers never left you alone. And the more you tried to convince them to, the more they persisted. Because they were fuckers.
“I think it’s worth investigating,” I said. “Enough to get an idea of what it would take and who it would piss off. For all I know, it could take a thousand years of cultivation before I get to see Mount Tai.”
“Ah don’t know what the fook you’re talking about,” said Flossie, her grating Brummie tones drifting across the twilight.
“These vines and things,” said Maurice, “they connect everything?”
“I think so,” I mumbled contentedly, making myself comfortable with Jenny.
“People, too?” I could hear him scratching away in his notebook and Claire grumbling as she tried to get comfortable on top of him as he scribbled away.
“So we’re all connected. To each other. By our relationships and emotions and whatever?”
“Yeah. That’s what it looks like.”
“But not you. You’re untouchable.”
I felt Jenny push herself off my chest. “You’re not connected to anyone?”
I couldn’t see her face with the fire behind her, but I didn’t need to. “I have one connection, very thin and threadlike.”
“Unbreakable. I tried, nearly broke my fingers.”
She rested her head back down on my chest. I could feel the smile formed on her face.
“Wait,” said Claire, “you have no connection to any of us apart from Jenny?”
I could see this line of questioning had the potential to go very badly, but there was no point lying about it. “Not as far as I could tell.”
“But, these vines and tentacles,” Maurice cut in before things got ugly, “you saw them form and dissolve.”
“Yeah. Quite quickly in some cases.”
“So you may be forming temporary connections all the time.”
“I suppose so.”
There was a slight shift of mood, a lessening of tension.
“I can see that,” said Claire. “Unable to maintain proper relationships.”
“Sounds about right,” joined in Flossie.
Maurice’s theory could have been correct. Or not. It didn’t really matter, I was just grateful he’d given me an out. It wasn’t that they’d have been angry with me for not being close enough to them to have a connection, it was that they’d no doubt try to get closer to force the connection where none should exist. The thought made me shudder.
We should have taken it in turns to stand guard, but everyone was knackered and we were in the middle of nowhere. It seemed unnecessary. When it was just the six of us, everything felt much more optimistic. An insipid side effect of being surrounded by dweebs. Even though that wasn’t my normal mindset, it was hard to resist the lure of a soft, warm body by a fire on a pleasant evening. I drifted off to sleep, my anxiety over how well things were going a distant nibble in the far reaches of my mind.
I woke well past dawn, the early sun yet to warm the air. The grass was wet with dew and the fire had gone out, the unused woodpile next to it excessive and redundant. There was no girl in my arms. Something that would have been quite normal once, but not anymore.
I sat up and looked around. Maurice and Dudley lay near me, both alone. There was no sign of the girls. This wasn’t necessarily cause for alarm, they may have just gone off to take care of early morning ablutions, and there’s nothing unusual about girls going to the bathroom together.
But that niggling worry that things had been going too well resurfaced.
The other two woke at the sound of me getting up and, once they noticed their missing partners, reacted with greater panic than was necessary. I tried to calm them down with reasonableness and common sense, but neither had much effect. They weren’t going to be satisfied until they saw the girls in the flesh.
We began looking around, calling out their names, which got no response other than to wake the dragons which began farting loudly, which didn’t help.
“Here,” shouted Dudley. “I’ve found something.”
He was standing by a tree, pointing at a piece of paper pinned to the trunk by a dagger. There was a message on it.
If you want to see the girls again,
go to Wizard’s Tower
and kill the man within.
We had let our guard down and the thing I feared the most had happened. It was terrible and horribly upsetting to think what the girls were having to deal with, but I have to say, now that trouble had found us, I felt a lot better.