I wasn’t scared. I had upgrades unlocked. I’d put all my points into not giving a fuck. Whatever was coming out of the dark hole below the shrine, I was pretty sure I’d be able to handle it.
A bold claim. Pride comes before a fall, they say, but I wasn’t feeling prideful. I was feeling OP as fuck. And about time, too. If anyone deserved an easy win, it was probably some hard-working hero who did his best but never caught a break. But second was probably me. Top five, definitely.
Everyone stopped to watch. They weren’t thumping footsteps. They didn’t reverberate around the clearing. It was more of a crunching. Twigs breaking. Bones cracking, maybe.
The top of a head appeared. Curly dark hair. Then a face. A girl. Richina. Apparently she hadn’t been trying to get into the shrine, she’d been trying to get out.
It was definitely her. Not the skeleton version, obviously, but I’d seen her in the adjacent world. This was that girl. She was even wearing the same sarong. Okay, that didn’t really prove anything, you can buy more than one of the same sarong, but it was still a bit spooky. Only, she wasn’t all ghostlike and ephemeral. She was very real. Maybe even a bit on the plump side. It’s not a judgement, it’s an observation.
She walked up the steps, arms out slightly for balance. I didn’t know what was on the steps making all the noise, but I would assume the hollow carapaces of a million dead bugs.
She reached the top and looked around. “Hello, there. Which of you is Victor Sifuentes?”
It took me a moment to remember I’d been using that as my nom de guerre. “Me,” I said.
She looked me up and down. “No. I don’t think so. You don’t look like a Victor.”
“Well, I am, and what the fuck is going on? Aren’t you supposed to be dead. I saw your skeleton in there.” I pointed at the overturned shrine.
“Yes. It’s a long story. Thank you for letting me out, though. I really do appreciate it. I’m sure my father will be very grateful.”
I could feel an important reveal coming up. I was tempted to bypass it just to annoy her. There was something not right here, and I was bound to be the one who ended up suffering for it.
But I couldn’t resist. “Who’s your father?”
“No. Liar!” The words jumped out of my mouth, even though I wasn’t the one who had thought them.
I could feel the turmoil in my head. Wesley was not happy to hear Arthur’s happy news. Richina could be lying, but there was also every possibility that she wasn’t. Arthur could have met someone else after he locked Wesley up behind a brick wall.
Of course, we all say we want our significant other to find happiness after we’ve passed on (or been bricked up), but do we really mean it? That isn’t a rhetorical question, the answer is no.
“Does she look like him?” I asked.
“No, she does not,” said Wesley, very clearly and loudly, the way words travel on a crisp cold morning. “Not even a little.”
“Wesley says you don’t look like him,” I said to Richina.
“No, I wouldn’t,” said Richina. “He adopted me.”
There was a noticeable lessening of pressure between my temples. But even this adoption could have been a lie. A trick to win me over so that the attack from behind was all the more unexpected. Well, good luck with that. All attacks are expected in this meta.
There was a lot of stuff going on here. Exactly how she had just popped out of the depths of the earth needed some explaining, but I wouldn’t have trusted her answers even if she’d been forthcoming. Especially if she’d been forthcoming.
It would have been really great to have a telepath with me at a time like this. Maurice and company had a mind-reader and a truth detector. To be fair, I had two professional cooks on my team, so while I might not have the advantage of being able to foresee the intentions of my enemies, I could be sure any battle would be fully catered.
“Is Wesley’s body down there?” I asked. “You didn’t eat her, did you?”
“I’m not a cannibal,” said Richina. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
“Yes, there is,” I said. “There’s a lot wrong with it. Didn’t they eat you?”
“It isn’t as bad as it sounds.”
“Yes it is. It’s exactly as bad as it sounds, if not worse. I would guess worse. But let’s not get bogged down in details. I wouldn’t want you thinking I was trying to mansplain why being eaten isn’t good for you. How are you here like this? Eaten people tend not to have so much meat on their bones.”
A lesser man would have gotten awkward in case his words were misconstrued as fat-shaming, and you don’t do that because women don’t like men to be needlessly accurate.
I wasn’t bothered by my faux pas, though, because my social anxiety had never been based on what people might wrongly assume, I was much more concerned with what they assumed correctly. Plus, you should feel shame if you’re fat, and not be too bothered if you’re just not rail thin. Get a grip.
“Are you a Visitor?” I asked. If she had some sort of regenerative power, that might explain it, but how the hell do you come back from being an all-you-can-eat buffet?
I was waiting for the juke, but she simply said, “Yes.” Holy fuck, a straight answer.
“Where are you from?”
“Lots of different places.”
Shortest honeymoon period, ever. Although she may have been quoting from Highlander, in which case I’d be obliged to get down on one knee and propose.
“Who is today’s president?” she asked, switching tack. The cannibals, who had formed a ring around me suddenly didn’t want to speak up. Even the President didn’t seem keen on stepping forward.
“Him,” I said.
“Not really. It’s almost daybreak.” He seemed a bit nervous. They all did.
“Who did that to you?” she asked, pointing at the hand in his hand. He’d picked up the severed appendage and was holding it like a wounded pet.
“He did,” said the President, pointing at me second-hand.
“Hey,” I said, “pointing’s rude. Put that away before I decide to reattach it to the back of your head.”
He sheepishly put the hand behind his back.
What was with the big threats? Trying to show-off in front of the new girl? Possibly. It’s only human nature to want to impress people, after all. But that wasn’t really it. Not entirely. She was an unknown quantity as of yet. You don’t survive in a sealed off chamber deep underground for who knows how many years and walk out like you’d just had a spa day. There was more to it, and while there was a good chance I would never get to the bottom of it, that didn’t mean I was going to sit back and let the mysteries keep piling on top of each other. Fuck that.
“You’re a Visitor, aren’t you?” said Richina, walking towards me.
I kept one hand on my sword, and one in my pocket. That way I’d seem casual and unsuspecting, but ready for action.
“Yes. I’m from England. Do you know it?”
“We’re here! We’re here!” Damicar came running back, leading a group of my men. I say my men like they belonged to me… because they did.
There was at least half the number I’d originally had, although whether the rest were dead or just lounging around I couldn’t say (they were unionised, so mandatory tea breaks).
On one side were the cannibals, maybe thirty or forty, some of them quite young. Yes, I’d poisoned children, in addition, fuck you. Every serial killer, paedophile and mime artist was once a child. They don’t get a pass for not having fulfilled their dreadful potential.
On the other side were the crew of the Eternal Infinite, some of Royn’s men, and some of Captain Edman’s crew. Captain Somya was beside Damicar, his mother on his back like she was riding a donkey.
And me in the middle with the girl who’d crawled out of a pit.
I say crawled, swanned out would be more like it.
“It’s fine,” I said. “I’ve got everything in hand. Right, Mr President?”
He scowled, then thought better of it, and nodded. There was a moment of calm. I was juggling a lot of balls, but I was keeping them in the air.
“No, no, no,” screamed Damicar as he came racing towards me with a large butcher’s cleaver in his hand. That was one thing I had to give him. No matter what kind of scrape we found ourselves in, you could count on Damicar to have his kitchen knives on him. It was a love affair for the ages.
“What are you doing?” I shouted at him.
His mouth clamped shut, but I could tell from his eyes this was not of his doing. I hit the eject button.
Once everything froze, it became immediately clear who was controlling Damicar. I had thought maybe Richina was the culprit, but from the angle he was taking it was evident that she had been Damicar’s target.
It was like one of those cop shows where they take blood, gunpowder residue and semen samples from a crime scene, and then build a 3D model of the crime scene in a computer that proves the suspect couldn’t be the murderer because he was busy jerking it to porn on his phone at the time of death. A modern alibi for modern times.
I had earlier cut off all of Damicar’s vines, so the one he now had sticking out of his head wasn’t hard to spot.
I followed it to the source — Mrs Somya.
Or, to be more exact, the doll in her hand. It was a perfect replica of Damicar, down to the double chins. Even more remarkable considering she was blind. Someone must have helped her make it, probably the captain.
It only took a flick of my wrist to cut the vine and leave Damicar once more bereft of connections. Welcome back, brother.
I returned to my body and Damicar’s run faltered. He slowed to a stop, a bit bewildered, looking at the cleaver in his hand like he had no idea how it got there.
“Mrs Somya, why?” I said more exasperated than angry.
All eyes turned to the old woman straddled across her son’s back. “That girl. You can’t trust her. She’s trouble.”
“How do you know? You only just met her, plus you’re blind! And what have you got against poor Damicar? Are you jealous because he’s a better cook than you?”
A gasp went up. Slaughter and feasting on human flesh got hardly any reaction, one suggestion of a kitchen rivalry, and it was handbags and tiaras. That’s sailors for you.
“That don’t mean nothing. Eyes or no eyes, I can see things. Things from the future.”
“No you can’t,” I said very confidently. I know bullshit when I hear it. The trouble with the kind of self-delusion we had here was that if you let it slide and didn’t put your foot down because you didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, your silence would be taken as agreement. And that’s a slippery slope, with a pit of spikes at the end. I knew a thing or two about batty old women.
“I can see many possible futures,” she said, downgrading her forecasting abilities instantly.
“So can I. So can everyone. That’s no reason to hijack someone’s soul. And why did you make him vote for us to be eaten?”
Everyone else was watching with rapt attention. They expected her to come up with some stunning revelation, probably. I didn’t. The only thing I was expecting to be revealed was a case of undiagnosed bipolar disorder. That’s the usual cause for women her age acting half a cup of sultanas short of a fruitcake.
“It would keep them busy. They get sleepy after they’re full. Give the rest of us a chance to get away.”
I looked over at the president. He gave me a slight shake of the head.
“That isn’t true,” I said.
“Don’t trust him,” she screamed at me. “He’s one of them. Trust my intuition. Who agrees with me.”
Damicar put his hand up. He looked as surprised as the rest of us.
“Stop doing that,” I said as I walked over to her.
Captain Somya put her down. He was as dead as a walking corpse could be, emotionally vacant and only ambulant through the power of a god of death, but he looked a bit embarrassed of mum. Not even death is powerful enough to negate that universal emotion.
“Hand it over.” I put out my hand.
Slowly she held out the doll of Damicar. Nowhere near me, but then she was blind. I reached across and took it.
It was made of straw and grass and some mud. I gave it a squeeze and Damicar squealed. The connection was back already.
“Sorry,” I said. “Now, please, no more.” I couldn’t really be too mad, I had told her to make some more dolls, although I had meant in case of an emergency, not to amuse herself with. “Do you have one of me?”
She fumbled about in her skirts and gave me a straggly looking thing that looked like it was about to fall apart. The likeness was uncanny.
“That one don’t work. I think you might be broken.”
She didn’t have to tell me. “What do you think’s wrong with the girl?” I asked her in a lowered voice. She might have been crazy, but that didn’t mean she was wrong about Arthur’s adopted daughter.
“She’s a wrong’un.” Female intuition, so insightful.
“You might be right. But let’s wait until she does something first, okay? It’s not like death means very much around here. We’ll just have to make sure there’s no snacking between healings.”
Mrs Somya didn’t look like she was entirely convinced by my soft European position on recent arrivals, but she begrudgingly agreed to ease off with the murder attempts. Not verbally, but through a series of tics and shrugs.
“Right, Richina, the stairs…” I pointed into the dark hole. “What’s down there? Any useful items of a magical nature?”
“Oh, yes. Dad loved to collect artefacts.”
Good news. Possibly. “And you just left them there?”
“I don’t need them,” she said. “Would be a waste. You can have them.”
Very suspicious. Wanted me to waltz down there and take whatever I pleased. Was she really so powerful she didn’t want them for herself?
“What about this sword and shield?”
Richina shrugged. “Never seen them before. Where did you find them?”
“Oh, I can tell you where they come from,” said Mrs Somya.
I turned to listen. This would be good.
“Demons,” she said. “Demons from the underworld.”
My heart jumped. I couldn’t help it. Maybe she was just spouting random nonsense, but if she was right, if the sword and shield had been put here by the only friends I had left… It was too much to hope for, too crushing if it was just an old lady’s wishful thinking.
I turned to face Richina. She was going to cut the shit and tell me everything she knew about this place, even if I had to put salt on her and eat her myself.
“You,” I said, sticking out my hand. Damicar’s doll was in my fist. His little arm flew off. “Shit.”
I turned to look at Damicar, expecting the worst. Both arms were still attached to his torso. I only saw the blade flying at me at the last moment. It was spinning sideways so the thin edge was hard to see. I could have stopped time or jumped out of the way, but my mind was too stunned. I was about to kill myself by self-inflicted voodoo.
There was a shove in my back. I fell, turning in mid-air to see Richina take my place. The supremely sharp knife sliced through her neck without pause.
It wasn’t nice and clean like how I decapitated people. The head popped off like cork, and a geyser of blood erupted. The body staggered back and forth for a bit, and then toppled over.
We all just stared. Why did she do that? She didn’t know me. She didn’t owe me anything. Certainly not her life.
Could I heal her? I doubted it. I felt like I should say something.
“Do not eat her.” It wasn’t the most moving eulogy ever given, but it captured the moment, I felt.
“It slipped,” said Damicar. “I didn’t mean…”
It wasn’t his fault, of course. I was the one who had set this chain of events in motion. I got to my feet. We were in a world where the dead rose all the time. As longs as they weren’t sliced and diced first. There had to be a way. I was OP. I could do anything. The blood gushed from her neck stump, spreading out into a thick black pool. She shouldn’t have saved my life. Anyone else’s, I’d have understood. But mine...
“I mean it. She’s not on the menu.”
The cannibals weren’t listening. They were looking at the hole in the ground. The sound of footsteps, again.
Someone was coming. A head, curly hair. Richina walked up the stairs, same sarong up to her chest, same hapless smile. “Hello, again.”