There were six men rowing, none of whom appeared to be armed, and Grayson, who had a sword still in its sheath. If they were spearheading the attack, it was going to be a very short fight. They also had Biadet, which would help balance the odds, but she didn’t look like she was here to fight. She was standing at the back of the boat, balanced on the end of the stern. One step back and she’d be in the water.
Laney, the other random variable in the equation, came stomping out of the surf, slashing at the waves with her sword like she was teaching them a lesson. She was soaked through. Her outfit was laden with medals and various unnecessary decorations, so it was probably pretty heavy even before she’d dunked herself in seawater.
“Colin, you look… the same,” she shrieked at me. I couldn’t prove it was an insult, but circumstantial evidence was pretty overwhelming. “Nice sword and shield,” she said with a supercilious grin. “I used to have a set like that when I was a child.”
“You still are a child.” I pulled my wooden sword out from my belt. “And don’t be fooled by appearances.”
I passed a little magic into the hilt, letting it flow along the edge of the dull, plant-based blade. It began to glow with a yellow light that was just about visible in the sunshine.
It was a mistake. It was a big mistake. Laney’s eyes lit up even brighter than the sword.
“Ho ho, the boy has ascended to man. Now you are worthy of a princess.”
I flicked the Off switch and regretted everything (which was easy to do since that’s my normal mental state).
“Don’t get carried away, it’s just a trick,” I backpedalled.
“It is a sign,” said Laney, dripping. “It means together we can fulfil our destinies. You’d like to help me fulfil my destiny, wouldn’t you? I’m sure you could fill it to its fullest.”
“We can achieve so much together, Colin. As often as you like.” The leer on her face was enough to make the sword light up again, ready for danger.
She looked at it like it was another sign. She thrust her own sabre into the sand. It sank in about halfway. “Truce.”
“I wasn’t aware we were at war.”
“No war does not mean no danger,” she said, which was certainly true. “Don’t resist your destiny, Colin.” She licked her lips. “Now that you are free of that two-faced harridan, we can finally be together.”
Biadet had warned me, but like a fool I had ignored her. My hubris had driven me towards my doom. Again.
“He prefers to keep his destiny in his own hands, don’t you, Colin?” said Biadet. The boat was still bobbing a few meters out. I hadn’t seen her arrive, and her feet weren’t even wet. “In his hands and preferably somewhere no one can see him.”
It was a double attack. I was outnumbered and unfairly cornered on an island with no means of escape.
“Biadet, have you met Richina? I think the two of you have a lot in common.” I moved aside and indicated Richina. She was standing quietly next to Damicar, an air of tranquillity around her. Until she locked eyes with Biadet. “You’re a bit like sisters, I think. One from Peter, one from Arthur. Cousins, perhaps.”
Neither said anything. It was like two terminators arriving from different futures at the same point in the past due to an administrative error. As a former time-traveller myself, I can confirm your most vital piece of equipment is a well-maintained diary. It’s a fucking nightmare getting to appointments otherwise.
Which of them would survive the encounter? Their eyes remained locked, like each was trying to force the other to download a computer virus. Although, knowing what a troll Biadet was, she’d probably try to get the enemy AI to download Windows 95 for that extra-slow demise via the blue-screen of death.
The whole beach seemed to be waiting to see what was going to happen. The first one to speak would probably set the tone for the proceeding battle for domination.
Biadet was a little shorter, but both had the blank expressionless faces of mass-murderers with franchise-potential. Psychopaths have become something of a cool anti-hero character in our culture, but there’s nothing endearing about a serial killer with a heart. The first thing you have to ask yourself is, whose heart is it?
“Nice to meet you,” said Richina.
“I might have to kill you,” said Biadet.
“Kill me if you must,” said Richina, smiling innocently. “You won’t be the first.”
“But I will be the last.”
Somewhere in this world was a machine that spat out crazy teenage girls. Never mind the spires, that was the device that needed to be destroyed.
“Okay, great, that’s the introductions out of the way. Ah, Commander Grayson. Thanks for coming.”
Grayson had jumped off the boat and waded onto shore, a grim expression on his face. He looked a little apprehensive of the staring cannibals, something that hadn’t affected either Laney or Biadet in the slightest. The rest of the men remained in the boat, as near to the open sea as possible.
“Colin. Nice island. The stench of death is overwhelming.”
“Thanks. I’ve been thinking of redecorating. Something more ‘holiday home’ and less ‘killing floor’, you know, pastel tones rather than crimson and entrails. It’s a work in progress. How’s the injury?”
“It no longer troubles me. Almost as though you never stabbed me. I bring you an invitation.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Yes. They await you on the ship.”
“Great, I await them on this beach.”
He looked around like he was assessing the facilities. “It won’t be possible, one of their number cannot appear in daylight.”
“Why not? Are they a vampire?”
Grayson looked at me without speaking.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Damicar, do you have any garlic?”
Damicar began searching his pocket like I’d asked to borrow a fiver. “I can get some, I’m sure.”
Laney moved towards Damicar. “What’s this, hmm? New boy?”
“It’s very nice to meet you, Your Highness.” He bowed awkwardly.
“I like him he’s cuddly. Reminds me of the bear I slept with when I was a baby.”
“It wasn’t a toy bear, was it?” I knew I shouldn’t have asked, but curiosity got the better of me.
“Toy? Of course not.” She said it like a child sleeping with a live bear was completely normal. “What can he do? You only recruit people with unnatural abilities.” She prodded Damicar in the stomach with a finger. “Do you have magic stored in there? How does it come out?”
“Please, Your Highness,” said Damicar, wincing and flinching as she kept prodding. “Don’t. Ah. Please. No.”
“He can cook,” I said. “Which is far more useful than anything you can do. Now leave him alone.”
Laney looked offended. Then she looked mildly deranged (her resting face). “You.” She pointed at Damicar, who flinched without even being touched. “You will teach me how to cook his favourite meals. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I usually use a sharp knife through his ribcage, but let’s try the scenic route.”
“Um, yes, I’d be happy to.” Damicar looked to me for help. I abandoned him to his fate.
“The Council come at night, then?” I said to Grayson. “I’m not going to trap myself on a boat with them.”
“I have merely been sent with the invitation,” said Grayson. “You can accept their offer or refuse, it is entirely your choice.”
“What about the third option?”
“Tell them to go fuck themselves.”
“Yes, you could use the third option, but I wouldn’t advise it. It isn’t often they leave their sanctum. It’s unheard of for all four to leave it at the same time. You should be honoured.”
“I should also be dead, but I’m not. I’m not feeling honoured, either. How bad are things that they’re relying on me to help? What happened in Fengarad?”
Grayson didn’t answer immediately, which left an opening.
“If you want to know what your friends have been up to,” said Laney, her playfulness gone, “then you should ask me.”
“Okay, what have they done?”
“They demanded control of the city from my father. They already have Dargot under their rule. They tried to use the spires for some ill thought out scheme and destroyed it.”
“They blew up the spires?”
“One of them,” said Grayson. “Many lives were lost.”
“Did any of them die?” I asked.
“No,” said Laney, mouth tight with anger. “They mean to take over, and there is no one but you who can stop them, even though it may require the ultimate sacrifice.”
“Woah, woah, please don’t use the S word around here, it makes the natives think it’s time for lunch.” People were always so eager to volunteer me for the shit jobs. “Why would I even want to stop them? You never know, they might do a good job of it.”
“No one is asking you to make any sacrifices,” said Biadet. “Keeping you alive will be my main priority.”
“Our main priority,” said Laney. “She will watch over you during the day, and I will take the night watch.” Her eyes half-closed and her smile spread across her face. I didn’t know what that indicated, but I knew it was very bad.
“Really? You two are going to be my bodyguards?”
“I will happily assist,” said Richina. “I enjoy a challenge.”
“Okay, enough of this shit. First, it wouldn’t be a challenge because nothing is going to happen to me. Second, I don’t need anyone watching me, day or night. Especially not night. And thirdly, option three, all of you, option fucking three!”
“You should at least speak to them,” said Grayson with a weary sigh.
“Why are you even here, Grayson? Shouldn’t you be on duty outside a castle or something?”
“I am following orders. They thought familiar faces might make you feel less threatened.”
“Brilliant. I’m on an island full of cannibals, and they’re worried about me feeling threatened. Well, tell them I’m worried, too. I’m worried about their massive incompetence. This whole mess happened under their watch, which means it’s their fault. That’s what being in charge means, right?”
Grayson gave me a reluctant shrug of acceptance. “There were some… internal disputes. Peter was able to act without oversight.”
“They fucked up then, they’re going to fuck up now. When they come with a fucking apology and a resignation letter, then I’ll be happy to talk to them, tell them that.”
I turned to the three girls who were apparently my protection detail, presumably to protect me from each other. “You three, let’s get something straight, the reason they came here was because they’re desperate. I don’t need them, they need me. Now get off my island.”
“You don’t know what they want from you.”
“Yes, and any time someone hides their intentions it means they know it’s going to scare you off. If it was an attractive offer, they’d come with it written on banners.”
Everyone was staring at me. I realised none of them had spoken. Wesley had.
I popped out of myself and the world came to an abrupt halt. The only time I felt like I was in full control was when time stopped and there was nothing to control.
Around me, everyone was frozen in place, covered in vines or completely devoid of them. Laney was a tangled mess. Biadet… Biadet wasn’t there. Was she not visible in this world or had she left? It was peculiar, but most things to do with her were.
I sank into myself, inside my mind. This space was where Arthur had built himself an impregnable fortress. I should have asked him for a blueprint.
“Wesley?” There was only a empty darkness. No sign of little me, no furniture.
“Yes,” said Wesley from behind me.
I turned around. “You were here the whole time?”
“Where would I go?” she said.
Well, this would have been awkward if Biadet hadn’t interrupted me earlier. More awkward.
“What about Arthur’s place? I thought you were moving back in with him.”
“You still need me, I think.”
“You’re going to be my bodyguard, too? I’ve got quite a unit watching out for me. Shame they’re all liars.”
“I didn’t lie to you.”
“Oh, please. This isn’t the Isle of Semantics, Wesley. You knew Arthur was here and wanted me to do his bidding. You know, Arthur, the guy who betrayed you?”
“We all make mistakes.”
“Sure, he left his shoelace undone and accidentally fell into another woman’s vagina. Whoops.”
Wesley frowned. “If I had never betrayed him, I probably wouldn’t be able to forgive him. But we all make mistakes. Forgiveness is something you have to give with an open heart. You should try it.”
“You think I should forgive the people who fucked me over?”
“Them? No. I think you should forgive yourself.”
“For what? I haven’t done anything. Never mind. What happens when Arthur turns on me? Who will you side with then?”
“I won’t hold his past actions against him, that would give us no chance of a future together. But I won’t be made a fool of twice. If he disappoints me again, I will eviscerate him from existence.”
Not a bad answer.
“You’re right,” she continued, slightly less terrifyingly, “I can’t guarantee things will turn out the way I hope. Arthur is a lot like Peter.”
“You’re telling me this now?”
“In that he believes what he’s doing is for the best. It’s a dangerous way to think. That’s why I think you’re the right person to deal with all of this. You never think what you’re doing is for the best.”
Couldn’t argue with her there. “Did you really kill him?”
“Yes. Many times. He kept coming back — forgive me, I’ve changed, I’m not the same man I was — until I lost my temper and destroyed his ability to use others as a vessel.”
“He can’t come here? He can’t take my body?”
“No. He can’t simply jump in. He would have left here a long time ago if he could. This is his prison, which I put him in. But that doesn’t mean I abandoned him. Richer, poorer, in sickness and in health. He will forever be my burden, but I will ensure he will never be yours.”
It was hard not to accept her at her word. Even if someone’s bullshitting you, you have to give it up for them when they do it really well.
“And what about Richina? You didn’t trust her before.”
“She’s… new. Whatever he did to her, she’s just his herald. He can see the world through her eyes. She isn’t a threat to you.”
I was inclined to trust her. Didn’t mean it was a good idea. She could easily turn on me, or be turned against me, but she was like Grayson. He would kill me if ordered to, but he’d tell me first and give me a head start, which is more than most people would do.
I returned to the regular world. Everything was as before, even Biadet was there, technically.
“Fine, let’s go.”
Grayson seemed surprised by my change of heart. “You wish to go aboard the ship?”
“Sure, why not? What’s the worse thing that could happen? Don’t answer, you’ll ruin my appetite. Laney, stay here.”
“What? Why do I have to stay here.”
“To make sure no one attacks the island while I’m gone.”
Her eyes flared with ferocity as she pulled her sword out of the sand and raised it above her head. “This island is under the protection of FENGARAD!” she bellowed.
The islanders looked a bit nonplussed at being suddenly annexed.
I waded out to the boat. The water was colder than I expected, but it felt good once it got to my waist.