On the positive side, I was still alive. On the negative side, I was still alive, surrounded by people who lied to me, betrayed me, befriended me under false pretences, tried to manipulate me and use me to further their own agenda, and had no concern for my wellbeing or mental health.
So, you know, six of one, half a dozen of the other.
For those who find it hard to accept that evolution is a thing, here you could see it happen in real time. Used to be people would try to fuck me over first chance they got. Not anymore. You have to adapt to your environment. You have to wait in the long grass with your stripes and your reasonable behaviour keeping you camouflaged. Find your moment.
“I’m not killing anyone,” I said to Arthur, slowly getting back to my feet. “Well, apart from maybe you. And her.” I didn’t even look at Wesley, I just waved the tip of my sword at her. “Come to think of it, why not save us all some time and kill me instead? Here.”
I tossed the sword up so it spun around and the pointy end — which was as tough as balsa wood and not very pointy — landed in my hand. I offered the hilt to Arthur.
“You can use this, if you like.” It seemed the most fitting way to end this sorry saga, hoisted on my own petard. I don’t actually know what a petard is, but magic swords need names, so I’d decided that was what I’d call mine — Petard. The shield would be Qetard, which would make me…
“No, no, you’ve got it all wrong,” said Arthur. “This is good. It’s all good.”
“Really? Did I pass the test? Was it important to keep me in the dark for my own good? Do I get an achievement and a medal for my collection? No, wait, is it a key? It’s always a key, you can’t get to the next level without a key. For some reason, no one knows how to kick in a door in these sorts of games. Or how to jump over a small fence.”
“This isn’t a game,” said Arthur.
“Could’ve fooled me,” I said. There was no bitterness in my voice, it was all nicely pre-packaged in my words.
“Really, Colin, it isn’t,” said Arthur.
I flipped the sword back the other way and stuck it in the ground. Arthur wasn’t going to take it, and I had little use for the damn thing.
“You even know my name, huh? Figures. You’ve been locked away in a hole in the ground for who knows how many years, and you still know everything while I haven’t got a fucking clue what’s going on.”
Arthur winced. “I’m sorry about that. I’ll do my best to answer your questions, but do you think you could tone down the swearing a little? There is a lady present.”
“No, I fucking couldn’t. And which lady are you talking about? Lady Macbeth over here?”
“Now, I can see you’re upset, but there’s no reason—”
“No reason? No reason? Do you want a recap of recent events?”
“It’s alright, Arthur,” said Wesley. “It’s fine. This is just how he is.”
“Because of the girl?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“No, not because of the girl.” I don’t know what you call the opposite of the Bechdel Test, but these two would fail it, hands down. “Not everything is about love and death. I don’t give a shit about the girl. I’m untouchable, I don’t suffer from feelings, what I suffer from is far more painful — clarity. I see people for what they are. I see the reason for their poor behaviour. You have no idea how crushing it is to know someone’s being nice to you so they can take something from you and not feel bad about their crime. I’m not upset about the people who don’t care about me, I’m upset because I’m better than them and yet they’re happier than me. It’s fucking infuriating.”
Sometimes words just come out of your mouth and you don’t know where they came from. You get that feeling of resentment when someone tries to tell you how you feel about something, only that person is you.
“Maybe you should take a few deep breaths,” said Wesley. Neither of them was getting worked up or reacting to me the way I would have expected. It made me look like the crazy one — for the record, I was not the crazy one here.
I would have snapped back at her but I was actually finding it hard to breathe. It’s not easy ranting and maintaining a regular breathing pattern. I needed to get back into training, running 5K every day while screaming obscenities.
I placed my hands on my hips and leaned forward to take a few breaths while trying to act like it was what I had planned to do anyway, and her suggestion had no influence on the matter. Not very convincing.
“You’re going to answer all my questions, are you?” I said, my voice heavy with doubt and disdain. That part was totally convincing, even if I do say so myself.
“Yes,” said Arthur.
“This place,” I said, waving a hand about, “what is it?”
“We are currently inside part of my mind. All the places you have visited that have been like this have been a space created within me, where I control all things and no one can better me or escape my control unless I allow it.”
This actually sounded like a real answer. Maybe it was more lies, most probably there were details he was withholding from me, but it struck me as having validity to it.
“All the prisons like this have been you? The one in the temple and the one Wesley was in, all different areas of your psyche?” And I thought I was good at compartmentalising. “So you’re aware of what’s happening in them?”
“Yes. I watched you enter and leave. I heard your conversations.”
“This is your special ability?”
“Yes. Part of it.”
“It’s similar to when you are able to enter the space in your mind,” said Wesley. “Only with greater control.”
That felt like a jab, but I let it go. For now. “Why? Why trap people inside your head?”
“That’s slightly more complicated. It would require me to give you a fuller explanation about why we’re here.”
“Oh, take your time,” I said. “I’ve got all day. And all night. And the rest of eternity. I don’t normally bother with listening to people on account of everyone lying to me like they’re training for the bullshit Olympics, but I’m going to make an exception for you. As long as there isn’t any time travel involved. I fucking hate time travel, it’s cheap and it’s narratively flawed. Let me just get comfortable. This place is just like mine, right?” Wesley nodded. I pointed at an empty space. “Chair.” Nothing happened. Wesley could make furniture appear in my head, so I should have been able to do the same here. “Chair.” A chair appeared.
It was a big armchair with frilly bits and a paisley cover. It looked like an antique.
“Did you do that?” I asked Wesley. She shrugged and kind of nodded. I couldn’t really complain. I’d wanted a chair and I got one.
Arthur had been quietly watching me have a meltdown until now. “I have to say, I’ve seen him like this before, but it’s very different watching a live performance in person. Very visceral. You can really feel the lack of regard he has for me, and that he has even less for himself. I can understand why people have found him so confounding, I really can.”
Great, at least my life was going to be ruined by a fan.
But there was an actual chance I could find out how the fuck I ended up here. I needed to pay attention, spot the obvious lies and pick up on the important stuff. It didn’t mean I was going to go along with whatever these two had in store for me, but I might find out the whole point of this involuntary excursion, and who to blame for it.
I settled into the comfy chair, prepared myself mentally to take in every scrap of information, no matter how trivial — deep analysis mode — and gave him a raised finger “Okay, go.”
Arthur let go of Wesley’s arm and stood in front of me. “We were very young when we first arrived here.”
“Alright,” I said, “I didn’t ask for your life story. Can you speed it up a little?” Old habits die hard.
“Not everything can be reduced to newspaper headlines,” he said.
“Just keep to the relevant stuff.”
“It’s all relevant.”
“Hardly any of it is ever relevant. You just want to add the details that make you look less like the bad guy. It won’t make a difference, the votes are already in. Carry on.”
“We weren’t the first Visitors, but we were the first in some time. We were welcomed as heroes, so we did our best to live up to being what they expected. And we were quite good at it.” He exchanged a smug look with Wesley. “There were monsters, there were people, it wasn’t very hard to choose sides, and we were very successful. But after a few years, it all settled down. The monsters were driven back, the rewards were used to buy fancy dwellings and fine horses. We had servants and land and peasants to rule over as we wished. A few years of that and the novelty wore off.”
I was doing my best not to yawn, but it was hard work. They came, they saw, they got cosy. Hollywood bidding war inc. I sat on my hands to prevent myself from giving the ‘wrap it up’ signal.
“Our thoughts turned to returning home.”
My interest resurfaced. “Home? You mean Earth?”
“Yes. Home. We wanted to go back, so we obviously turned to the ones who had brought us here, the elfs.”
“The elfs were here, too?”
“Yes. They were very much here, and in charge.”
“It’s not that simple. We could do as we pleased, but it was with their permission. They were these titans that walked the earth, not really interested in what we did. We were beneath them, in every sense. We knew they had been responsible for bringing us here, we tried to talk to them, start a dialogue. We wanted to know why, and how to get back. But they were barely aware of us, they only expressed an interest to prevent us accessing their machines.”
“The spires?” I said, starting to believe he really was telling me the truth. Dangerous to be taken in, but it’s hard to not have a nibble when you’re starving. I did my best to remain sceptical.
“Yes, the spires were our primary goal.”
“What was the secondary goal?”
“You’re in it,” said Arthur, “or your body is. But I’ll get to that. We couldn’t get them to talk to us and we couldn’t get in the spires with them stopping us, so we decided to get rid of them. Which we did.”
“I feel like you just missed a step.” Not like me to ask for more details, but for once it felt warranted.
“Yes. Well, we convinced them there was a signal from a distant planet calling them, and they left.”
“When you say ‘convinced them’, you mean… you tricked them?”
“Yes. But we didn’t expect them to leave one of their own behind. It was very unlike them. We didn’t think anything could split them up, but they surprised us.”
“Back up a bit. How did you trick them into leaving in the first place?”
“Ah, we had a little assistance, there. Before the elfs, there were—”
“The gods,” I finished for him.
“That’s right,” he said like a pleasantly impressed school teacher. “The gods had been sidelined for many years, centuries, before we arrived. The elfs and their dwarf helpers swept them aside to languish forgotten. But heroes come across these sorts of beings in the course of their day to day activities. We made contact, made a pact. Together, we would rid ourselves of our elf overlords. But as soon as we succeeded, the gods turned on us.”
“Hold up, when you say the gods turned on you, was that before or after you turned on them?”
Arthur nodded at me, top marks to the class clown. “You’re right, of course. We were planning the same. We both attacked each other at the same time. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it was who we were. It felt like the natural thing to do. We didn’t believe they could be trusted, and we were right. They plainly felt the same and were also correct.
“I sprang the trap I had already prepared,” he continued, “and captured them, but they were too strong to leave unsupervised. It took everything I had to keep them restrained. And then the Peter problem reared its ugly head.”
“He wanted to go solo?”
“Right again. He wished to return the sole survivor of the expedition. As I’m sure you have already guessed, there were also constant battles within the group. Arguments, accusations… betrayals.” He looked at Wesley with an apologetic smile. She placed a forgiving hand on his arm.
I snapped my fingers at them. “Hey, hey, focus.” It was a condescending thing to do and bound to annoy them. I started doing it with both hands at once. “Don’t bother looking for absolution in the eyes of the one you love. The only sympathy and understanding that counts for anything is mine, and so far you’ve earned zero pounds and zero pence.”
Arthur straightened up and continued. “I was able to hold the gods, but Peter needed them to activate the portal home. The only way to weaken me in this place was to threaten the only person that truly mattered to me.”
Wesley took hold of his hand. I would have shouted at them again, but it would only prolong storytime.
“Imprisoning her kept her safe. Peter had no way to get to her, and without her, no way to get to me. So he decided to find someone who could do it for him. He used the spires to increase the frequency of new Visitors, hoping for the right ability to either attack me directly, or hold my wife against me. And eventually he did. He probably would have acted sooner if he’d understood how your abilities worked, but it was the combination of your Visitor power and beast magic that enabled you to do what no one else had been able to.”
It was a lot to take in. How much of it was true? What did it mean if it all was?
“Why didn’t you just imprison Peter? Wouldn’t that have shut him down?”
“I can’t. He’s too powerful to force, and I have no way to convince him to do it voluntarily, so it was the only way.”
“The only way you could think of,” I said. “Do you think Peter’s still alive? I saw him killed.”
“If you saw it, that’s what he wanted you to see,” said Arthur. That was the easiest part to believe. The others might not even realise he was still pulling their strings.
“And the way back? It’s through the spires?”
“No, it’s here. The island is the way home, for all of us.”
A way home. Did I want to go back, though? Would any of the others want to return to their drab lives? I certainly had nothing to go back to. And no one would believe us.
Every story is about reaching a goal that is so desirable it justifies every sacrifice. We lost Timmy and Erica and that one black guy in the party, but we found the Golden Child, and when you join up the zits on his back with a Sharpie, it shows you the location of the island of Atlantis. Worth!
What is it about lost civilisations we deem so important? Sure, if Indiana Jones stumbled onto a society more advanced than anything we had previously conceived of, maybe he’d find a weapon to defeat the Nazis, you know, like a bomb that could level a city. Oh, wait…
It doesn’t matter how advanced their steampunk tech is, be honest, are we really likely to find anything more impressive than the iPhone? Oh, but think of the wealth they’d have accumulated.
People don’t get rich by finding treasure, you noob. They do it through insider trading, embezzling pensions and cheating on taxes. It’s like any game, if beating everyone else to the prize is your goal, hacks and cheats are your legendary weapons.
The game’s been beaten, and the winners have billions in digital currency. They can buy islands and a fill their garages with classic sports cars. You know what that’s called? Cosmetics. They reached the endgame, max level, and all they can do now is buy cosmetics. Imagine how pissed you’d be if you’d spent hundreds of hours grinding a game like a mofo, and endgame rewards were bloody cosmetics.
That’s why paintings suddenly sell for hundreds of millions. People don’t turn into art lovers when they become rich, they have nothing else to spend their money on. Levelling up was all they had, and suddenly it’s gone. You think the most vicious businessmen in the world start charitable foundations because they have an urge to help people? Philanthropy is what you do when you have no more challenges left. Quest bar is empty.
People want more, they want a reason for all the levelling up. They want items that continue progression. And there isn’t anything. They had to invent heaven as some sort of DLC that’s coming soon, but people eventually realised they were being strung along, like waiting for a new Elder Scrolls game from Bethesda. ETA: Never.
“So you see,” said Arthur. “We can’t allow Peter to go back.”
“That’s it?” I asked. “You want to stop him going home because you can’t? What is it that Peter will do when he gets back to Earth? Run for president? Who cares? I don’t. I’m glad for him if he’s found his purpose in life, let him have his return ticket. Who gives a fuck? ”
“You don’t understand,” said Arthur. “He’ll have the powers he has here. We all would. And his plans for the human race are very troubling.”
Of course, sometimes the endgame content surprises you. It unlocks secret power ups that make you far more powerful than every monster in the game and you can run through packs of mobs, punching dragons in the face. It makes the game fun again. It gives it something very few games achieve; replay value.