“I will need something from the person you wish to make the doll of,” said Mrs Somya. “Hair, semen, saliva, semen…”
“You said semen twice,” I said.
“Whatever’s easiest for you,” she said.
“I think you have the wrong idea about me.” She had the wrong idea about a lot of things, so at least she was consistent.
“As you please.” She had a whittling knife in her hands, quickly and efficiently reducing a piece of driftwood to wood chips as she spoke. It would have been impressive even if she wasn’t blind.
Once she had a rough clothes peg figure carved out, her fat calloused hands expertly covered it with bits of dried grass and various other natural fibres that happened to be lying around. Winding, weaving, tucking — it was like watching RuPaul’s Drag Race in miniature.
How she was able to make something look so eerily similar in appearance to the person being turned into an effigy was bewildering. She only required a few words of description and she was able to produce a mini-marvel.
Blind people are known for having heightened senses to compensate for the lack of sight, it’s like a fucking superpower, apparently. But just as genius autistic people and schizophrenics with wonderfully diverse and interesting personalities, the reality isn’t quite what the movies would have you believe.
There used to be a blind woman with a black labrador who went past my house on the way to and from the bus stop. She would routinely be led straight up the drive into my front garden and get trapped there until I went out and led her out. The last time I saw her, she went past looking a mess with the dog drenched and the fur on one side missing. Never saw her after that.
People are people. Most aren’t very good at what they’re doing. Sure, there are always going to be exceptional individuals who achieve more than anyone thought possible, but most will fit in the middle, their results mediocre at best. And beneath them, the ones who don’t do well with disadvantages and are too resentful too try.
As a fully paid up member of that group, I’d like to state that adversity does not transform you into a noble soul.
You’d think a fantasy world was where a square peg could fit into a round hole, thanks to the power of magic. Mrs Somya was something else. More than a savant, she was a square peg in a square hole — such a thing was possible in a land where normal rules didn’t apply. It all works out for some people, they find their purpose and it makes them happy despite the drawbacks they might face.
“Hahaha,” she cackled. “He’s a pompous one, isn’t he?”
I hadn’t described Captain Noles’ personality to her, but she had him down cold, in every respect. The doll looked just like him. Now I just needed a sample from him, preferably not a fluid.
“That’s excellent. Thank you. Mrs Somya.” If being British had taught me anything, it was how to suck up to old people.
“Don’t mention it,” she said. “I still expect the world to end and for you to be responsible. At least try to stay a moving target.” It was good advice, backed up with a practical example. She threw the whittling knife at me.
Had I been prepared, I might have dodged. As is was, it hit me in the chest and it fucking hurt.
“Ow. She stabbed me.”
Captain Somya showed no reaction. Just Mum being Mum, as far as he was concerned.
“Stop whining and heal yourself,” said Mrs Somya, no sympathy for the recently impaled. I did as I was told. Some women are good at that sort of thing; common sense, I suppose you’d call it. Most don’t preface it with a knife in the chest. Unless you’re from Dagenham.
She held out her hand for me to return the knife, and held it out in completely the wrong direction. She could hit a gnat at fifty paces, but couldn’t shake hands if you were standing next to her. Maybe her true special ability was that she wasn’t blind at all and a supremely accomplished bullshitter.
“The ship looks in pretty good shape,” I said to Captain Somya. He was looking out to sea with a serene look on his face. The recently risen Eternal Infinite bobbed about on the waves.
“Fine,” he said. I wasn’t sure what that referred to. The thread my life was hanging by?
“Why don’t you take the men, yours and the ones from the other ship, back on board and prepare to depart?”
He turned towards me, a mild look of curiosity forming across his undead features. “They have allowed us to leave?”
“Not as such. We’re still in negotiations. We may be forced to continue to negotiate while sailing away as fast as we can.”
He nodded. “We will be ready.”
I liked him. He wasn’t chatty. He wasn’t trustworthy or friendly or alive, but he didn’t flap his lips unnecessarily, which is a big plus in my book.
“I’m going to go to the shrine, and then I’ll meet you on the ship when I finish. Might take a while, so don’t go anywhere without me.”
“You have no cause for concern, we will stay unless you are killed. Mother will know.”
Would she? How could she tell if I popped my clogs in a pocket universe in a shrine under the island? Why was I even bothering to ask? That was probably one of the least amazing things she could do.
“I am going into a situation where I’m outnumbered, outpowered, and where everyone seems to know more about what’s going on than I do. I don’t particularly fancy my chances to tell you the truth.”
Captain Somya stared stoically out to sea and said nothing. What a man.
It wasn’t like he had much choice in the matter but still, he handled it with style. Probably helped being numb from the brain down. Only a fool or a madman would willingly follow me into the maelstrom I was slowly descending into.
“You keep your eyes off my boy,” said Mrs Somya.
“Madam, you are confused,” I said, which was probably the gayest way I could have denied her insinuation.
“Ready to go, Damicar?”
“Ready to go, Damicar?” Mrs Somya echoed, bursting into a cacophony of laughter. She sighed, wiping a tear from her eye. “We’re all going to die,” she added poignantly.
“Ready,” said Damicar.
We set off back to the shrine, stopping occasionally to pick some flowers, for reasons of herbology. I saw us as an unlikely but well-suited pair, like Han Solo and Chewbacca. I had no idea what I was doing and he didn’t try to tell me how to do it better.
Isn’t that what you want in a partner? Someone you could be around who didn’t piss you off just by being there, and who could also make excellent sandwiches?
Damicar grinned and handed me an orchid he’d picked. I was starting to see where Mrs Somya’s confusion was coming from.
Richina was waiting for me at the shrine entrance. No one else was about, no islanders had stayed to guard this magical portal that everyone was so interested in. If I’d left a nicely roasted human leg over the entrance, fuckers would be lined up with napkins tucked into their collars. If they had collars.
“You’re alone,” she said.
“No, I’m with Damicar.” Bit rude of her to dismiss his presence.
“Yes. Just the two of you, is it?”
I realised she meant Biadet wasn’t with us. I hadn’t seen her since my trip to the Council. Was she still there? Had she snuck back? I had no idea. Of all the variables in play, she was the most unpredictable. And probably the most powerful. If they wanted to take care of the people making trouble, why not send her?
“If you’re worried about where Biadet is, you should be,” I smiled. Richina smiled back. This was clearly the future of our relationship — two smug wankers contesting the world championship.
“I’m not worried. She seems very nice.”
“Well, she doesn’t eat people or force others to, so there’s that in her favour.” You don’t challenge the reigning champion of smug wankery and go unopposed.
Richina’s smile widened, which isn’t endearing when there’s nothing to smile about. It’s kind of creepy.
I was maybe being a tad harsh on the girl. Whatever her role in all this, she was probably under the sway of some higher power. Not really her fault, she was just following orders. A perfectly reasonable defence, if you end up on the winning side.
I headed down the steps into the shrine. Richina and Damicar followed.
“I wanted to ask you something,” I said to Richina, “about Godsbane.”
“The plant?” She sounded like it was a stretch trying to recall.
“That’s the one.” I made a light so I could see where I was going. “Where does it grow?”
“Oh, everywhere,” she said. “I mean, it’s not easy to find, there’s no one particular place, and it only blooms for a few minutes a day.”
“And the Golden Wing?” I asked. “Does the bird live in the jungle, too?”
“Oh, it isn’t a real bird,” she said.
“Not really a bird? Like how you’re called Fire Bird but you aren’t a real bird?”
“That’s just a nickname my daddy gave me.”
A ripple of emotion went through me, a reminder that Wesley was still there.
I was fishing without knowing what I was fishing for, but you have to remember I had become quite a good fisherman. Fish loved to prove they couldn’t be caught by pulling on the end of my line.
“He must have given it to you for a reason. I thought maybe because you have a habit of rising from the dead like a phoenix, but maybe that isn’t the bird he had in mind. It doesn’t matter, we’ll be leaving soon.”
“Yes, I’m looking forward to it,” she said.
I stopped. “No one said you were coming.”
“But I’m part of the team. Arthur said.”
“Arthur doesn’t get to choose who's on the team. He makes suggestions, that’s all. Like the fat guy in a football match up in the stands shouting instructions at the players. That’s Arthur.”
Her expression was that of someone who had no idea of what was being said to her. Some people have no culture.
“Why did you have to mention his weight?” she asked. A brilliant manoeuvre, going from the absurd to the absurdier.
“If you’d ever been to a football match in London, you wouldn’t ask something so daft.”
“Perhaps one day you’ll take me,” she said, thin smile, big eyes, claws out just out of sight, probably.
“I doubt you’ll ever leave this place,” said Biadet, stepping out of the shadows.
“How long have you been here?” I said, pretending she hadn’t just made me jump out of my skin.
“My whole life, it feels like. You took your time.”
“I had things to arrange. I don’t suppose you know what a Golden Wing is.”
“Never heard of it,” said Biadet. She set off ahead of us. I followed.
The crunchy path led us to the archway in the middle of a vast cavern, the same as last time. We paused.
“You can all stay here,” I said. “Won’t be long.”
“You should really consider me for the team,” said Richina. “I can be very useful.”
“I would not disagree,” I said, and then I stabbed her.
The wooden sword was not a great stabbing weapon, but with a little infused energy, it slid into Richina’s chest. There was no blood, of course, just some hissing steam. If I cut her open would I find normal human organs?
She was surprised, her eyes locking with mine for a moment, the enigmatic smile present as always, but the only sound from her lips was a small gasp before collapsing.
“Was that on purpose?” asked Damicar.
“Yes.” I did consider saying it with heavy sarcasm, but then I remembered that he was the last person to kill her, and not of his own volition. “Don’t worry, she’ll be back in a bit.”
I don’t advocate violence against women, but then I don’t advocate violence against anyone. Sometimes it happens, though, and then it should be independent of gender, because feminism. It’s not who you kill, it’s what you gain from the experience that counts (Gary Gygax, 2009).
We waited. The shrine was where Richina had appeared from last time she’d been killed, and there didn’t appear to be anywhere else for her to come from.
I didn’t really see what use Richina could be to me with her currently known abilities. Reusable human shield isn’t how most people would choose to employ their infinite number of lives, I would guess.
A few seconds later, she walked through the archway, looking exactly the same.
“That wasn’t very nice. I saved your life.”
“I wouldn’t brag about it,” I said. “I save my life all the time, and no one ever shows any appreciation. Probably think it’ll only encourage me.” I took another look at the arch. “Your real body is in there, is it?”
“This is my real body,” she said.
“I don’t know if you’re lying or just stupid.”
“How many guesses do I get?” asked Biadet.
“You’re both being very rude.” Richina pouted. “I have a lot to offer. There are difficult times ahead.”
“And I’ll need an immortal bag of flesh?”
“I can do other things.”
“I’m not allowed to say.”
“Then you’re not allowed to go.”
She pouted again. “I’ll have to ask my father.” Then she pulled a funny face and collapsed.
Biadet was standing there, hands behind her back, face completely guilt-free.
“Did you do that?”
Biadet shrugged and elegantly swiped her foot to the side, sliding both bodies off the walkway we were on.
“Don’t worry,” said Biadet, “no one will notice two more down there.”
It was too dark to see what was ‘down there,’ and I wasn’t going to make a light big enough to find out.
“If you go in now,” Biadet continued, “you might catch her on the way out.”
I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for in regard to Richina, but Biadet’s idea was as good as any. If I could find her real body it might tell me something.
“Okay, if she comes out before I do, send her back in.” We had now all killed Richina once. “Your turn,” I said to Damicar. He seemed like he was about to object, but then relented and took out his meat cleaver. Good old Chewie.
Time to return to the void to deal with Arthur. Or at least attempt to grasp what he was after.
The thing about managing several factions at once was that as soon as you got a grip on one, the others took the chance to get the upper hand. You constantly had to play whac-a-mole.
Arthur had solved this issue in Gorgoth by creating a self-correcting system where each of the parties kept the others in check. The Council had used the exact same system to keep the four cities in check. Coincidence?
It could be that one party had seen what the other was up to and copied it. Or it could be the same person behind both. Hard to say. But both systems relied on keeping any interfering forces off the field of play.
What I did know, though, was that a system in balance is easily shifted off its axis. One Jenga brick can be enough to send the whole thing toppling. And if anyone knew how to play the brick around here, it was me.