351: The Benefit of Doubt

I was living alone by the time I was eighteen. I had a job, I had enough money to take care of myself, after a fashion, and I had very few expenses other than the basic utilities — water, electricity, internet.

Boo hoo, poor Colin on his own. Trust me, it was fine. When your life has been a nightmare of being stuck with the wrong people, being alone is a step in the right direction.

It would have been nice to go to university, but more for the opportunity to have some kind of restart among people who had yet to form an opinion about me. I don’t know what I would have studied, nothing ever struck me as worth devoting my life to.

You can hardly be considered an orphan at eighteen but, in my mind, I had been one even when my mother was alive. I got by.

Looking back now, I probably had some sort of psychological issues. Trauma after my mother’s death, fear of being on my own, the endless despair of being a Tottenham Hotspurs supporter — we all have our crosses to bear.

I don’t like to think I had a particular issue with trusting women — no more than I distrusted men — but a boy’s view of the opposite sex is largely based on his relationship with his mum. If the maternal figure in your life is batshit crazy, it can leave a mark.

Being aware of this, I did my best to not project the sins of my mother onto innocent bystanders, but who can guarantee their motivations aren’t hiding small chunks of unprocessed rage?

You try to judge people on their merits. By their action shall you know them, although the original quote from the bible talks about knowing a good tree from a bad one by the fruit it bears, and my mum always kept a lovely bowl of fresh fruit on the dining room table, so thanks for fucking nothing, Matthew.

Unfortunately, if you do judge people by their fruit, they tend to reveal a lot of overripe bananas. And if you keep getting your worst fears reinforced, it can start to sway your thinking. We all have that urge to chip away at the people around us, I think. It’s much easier to see their flaws than our own, and much more fun to point them out on social media.

I don’t see that in myself, but I’m also aware that if it were true, I’d probably be oblivious to it.

All in all, it’s best to steer clear of the problem whenever possible, that way no one gets hurt.

Of course, all that was a lifetime ago, or at least that’s how it felt. My problems in this world were very different, although some issues never seem to get resolved.

The people in my orbit recently seemed to be almost exclusively of the female persuasion, young and old. Guys never saw much value in hanging out with me, and still didn’t. Damicar was a rare exception, and he was even odder than me.

If I was going to have to rely on others, it was going to be a woman. My track record wasn’t impressive. But that’s the thing about prejudice, you can’t let past experience colour your future ones.

That’s why they don’t let you know someone’s criminal record in a court case. The sixteen prior offences of a similar nature don’t emphatically prove that Jack the Toothbrush robbed your house and left a picture on your phone of your toothbrush up his arse. That could be anyone’s arse (no, they’re not like fingerprints,  many identical arseholes can be found all over the world).

Mrs Somya was a good example. She wasn’t someone I’d ask advice from, normally. Not because she was a liar,  but because she was deranged. Nothing to do with her femininity (I was assuming she had some somewhere). Mind you, women do tend to get battier the older they get.

Nature played a very cruel trick on women. It gave them something men don’t have — a distinct purpose. Have a baby, feel accomplished.

It’s all a lie. It’s just hormones in your body making you feel smug and superior to women without kids, the sense of fulfilling your destiny is chemically induced. And when the drugs stop working, the purpose goes away. You’re faced with the rest of your life, children gone, with nothing.

I’m generalising, of course. Not all women have a maternal instinct. Some women are broken.

Those of us who never had a purpose don’t find it too bad, but if you had the meaning of life at your fingertips for more than a decade, and then it was suddenly gone… well, it can drive you a bit mad.

That’s the thing most people don’t understand. It isn’t the things missing from your life that fuck you up. It’s getting what you want, and then going back to having nothing.

I entered through the archway, ready to face Richina on her way out. Darkness enveloped me, but no girl in a sarong appeared. That didn’t mean she wasn’t around here somewhere.

Could I trust Richina? Clearly, not. But that wasn’t really her fault. She was under someone else’s control, and whether it was willingly or not, once you give up the right to self-determination, you aren’t really trustworthy.

“How big is this place?” I said out loud.

“As vast as the human imagination,” said Wesley, who was suddenly standing beside me.

Could I trust Wesley? I wanted to, she had a fantastic ability that would come in useful, I was sure. As long as it wasn’t aimed at me.

What do you choose? Keep the WMD to help win the war? Get rid of it in case it goes off in your own face?

The answer tends to be how desperate a position you’re in, and what the other guys are up to. Both in terms of WMDs and trusting women.

“The Council,” I said, “you know them?”

“Not personally,” said Wesley. “I know of them. I know what they’re capable of. You would probably fare better with them on your side than against you.”

“Don’t you think they’re interested in their own agenda more than what happens to me?”

“Undoubtedly,” said Arthur. Everyone was popping out of the darkness willy-nilly now.

“So you aren’t a member of the Council?” I said to Arthur.

“I’m afraid I was never invited. We have had communications in the past, but nothing face to face. They’re very private people.”

Very smart people. I should have put on a mask the first day I arrived here, and a cape. Then I’d have jumped out a window and never been seen again. Wouldn’t achieve anything, but it would have confused the fuck out of everyone.

“You don’t have any information you can share? Their powers, their likes and dislikes, favourite colour?”

He went over some of their abilities, but it was more or less what I had already picked up. A healer, a telepath, an ability to predict and maybe even guide the future, and Legion, whose ability was apparently the power to control the weather.

I shit you not, that was what Arthur claimed. Legion, named after the armies of hell, could make sure it didn’t rain the day of your barbecue.

I expect he could do other stuff, lighting bolts and hurricanes and what-have-you. Maybe he needed the suit of armour to stop him being electrocuted. It also made me wonder if he couldn’t take on the elf, who was a massive cumulus nimbus. There was a pay-per-view fight that might actually be worth paying to see.

“Are you planning to take up their offer?” Arthur asked. He hadn’t been there, but I assumed Wesley had filled him in on what had happened.

“Not really. The whole idea of going up against the others, mano e mano, doesn’t really appeal very much. It’s a trust issue, mainly. I don’t trust any of you fuckers.”

“But you have your team,” said Arthur. “They will follow your orders to the letter.”

“What team? Wesley and Biadet?”

“And Richina,” said Arthur.

“What can she do, apart from drop dead repeatedly?”

“I’m sure you can find use for her talents if you put your mind to it. In many ways, she is like you. She can’t be coerced or manipulated. She can’t be stopped and she won’t be swayed from doing as instructed.”

“By you,” I pointed out. “She’ll do what you tell her. Not much good to me.”

“Only because she is the product of my mind. If I give her to you, she will be the product of your mind.”

It was not an instantly appealing idea. The last thing I wanted was another lodger in my noggin. At this rate, I’d have more people inside me at once than the most enthusiastic porn star.

Fun fact, your porn name is the name of your first pet plus the street you lived on as a child. Mine would be Pepper Pevensey. Most people know that. What fewer people know is your arsehole name, which is your first name plus your last name.

“No, fuck that. I don’t want her inside my head, it’s crowded enough as it is. And I don’t want to take on a new team, either. You know what I want, Arthur? I want you to tell me how to release the old gods from their prison in Gorgoth.”

“I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” said Arthur.

“And I don’t give a fuck what you think. You have to understand something, I’m not here to form a partnership or a team. If you want me to do something about what’s going on, it means giving me complete control. You can’t give orders to the person in charge and pretend you trust them. You don’t trust me? Fine, don’t involve me. Otherwise, shut the fuck up and do as I ask. How do I get them out?”

“I understand what you’re saying,” said Arthur, “but we tried that tactic, and it didn’t work out very well.”

“Yes, you tried it. And you failed. I don’t see what that has to do with me. I think we’ve already established I’m better than you. Better at getting what I want. Better at not ending up a disembodied spirit trapped in his own mind. Better at not cheating on people because of physical urges that couldn’t be denied. Don’t judge me by the failings of your penis. I am your superior in every aspect, so when I say I want to go with the previously unsuccessful god squad, the benefits of your experiences are worth to me about as much as the fluff between your toes.”

Telling someone how much better you are than them is considered quite rude. Not very English, certainly. Crass and vulgar, even when it’s true. Unfortunately, people forget the other half of that equation. I don’t shove my superiority in your face, and you don’t take my silence as some sort of tacit acquiescence for you to act like my equal.

Which doesn’t mean I think I’m perfect or even wonderful. You don’t have to be sitting on a cloud to look down on someone in a hole in the ground. A chair next to the hole is enough.

For most people, pretending to be as good as everyone else is the scab that’s formed over the wound that used to be their self-esteem. It’s easily picked off, and underneath is something no one wants to see. I don’t want it out in the open, you don’t want it out in the open, let’s leave it alone.

But sometimes you can’t leave it alone. You know you should, but pick, scratch, pick.

“Arthur, you’re a piece of shit. Wesley is willing to wait until you fuck up before condemning you, I guess that’s what love is. I don’t love you and I don’t care what you would like to happen. Now give me the key to the gods or leave me the fuck out of it.”

Arthur had suffered through my tirade with a pained expression on his face. He sighed.

“Very well. The key is Richina. If she enters the realm where the gods are imprisoned, it will collapse.”

“The gods seemed to think I would do that.” From what I could recall, the Golden God was happy to let me come and go as though that would weaken their prison.

“You have similar properties, but it is my mind, not yours. She can’t exist in two places at once. Entering another part of my mind will force it to be destroyed, or this place must stop existing, which would not be good for my health.”

Did I believe him? Obviously not. See? Women aren’t the only ones I have trust issues with.

“Okay, I’ll take Richina back to Gorgoth and we’ll see how reliable you are, Arthur.”

Pretty dumb move, right? Probably exactly what he wanted me to do. I’m not new to this, I realised the odds weren’t good that he was being straight with me. I wasn’t planning on actually telling him what I was intending to do. I’m not a fucking Bond villain.

Arthur didn’t look very happy with my decision, but Wesley was giving him that look wives give their husbands when they’re being told to act nice to the neighbour they hate.

“Very well,” said Arthur.

“I’m going back to the ship. I’ll speak to the council and then leave in the morning. Wesley, stay here overnight and make sure both of you have a solid understanding of what the other is thinking. It might also be the last time you see each other.”

I turned and left, which isn’t easy when there are no walls or doors. I passed through the archway in any case, along with Richina. She didn’t look too upset at having been killed twice. Maybe more since I’d been gone.

“Done?” asked Damicar.

“Yep.” I felt triumphant. I had won.

Won what? you might think. There was a long way to go until anything was resolved.

True, but I’d gotten Wesley out of my head for a night. Alone, in my own cabin, unobserved. I was going to lock the door and go to town on myself.

Don’t judge me, or do. I don’t care.

The only fly in the ointment (oh, how I wish I had some ointment!) was Biadet. She had a penchant for popping up at inconvenient times.

“Biadet, I’ll need you to watch for assassination attempts on me tonight.”

“You want me to spend the night in the same room as you? So, it’s—”

“No!” I was a bit too enthusiastic in my refusal. “No, they won’t try anything if they know you’re in there. You need to be outside, out of the way. Watch for anyone trying to get in.”

Was I expecting late night killers? Not really, but it would keep the dreaded minx busy.

We left the shrine and made our way back to the ship. Rowboats were ferrying the men from the island in groups, so we were able to cadge a lift. I was greeted by Captain Somya as I boarded.

“Ready to depart when you are,” he said.

The Council had said they would let me leave if that was my decision, but we would see. I would speak to them after I’d slept on it. I expected to have a long and deep sleep.

I decided to go down to the cabin with orders not to be disturbed. Maybe get in an early start. The cabin was empty and the bed looked inviting. I locked the door and lay down, eyes closed. I scoured my mind for signs of Wesley and found none.

Whatever was going to happen in the future, I would be able to face it a lot better once I’d relieved the tension. Alone at last, I fell asleep.

When I woke it was dark. I was a bit upset with myself for wasting an opportunity, but all hope wasn’t lost. I still had all night to take care of business. I began to undo my belt and get comfortable.

“Any chance we could have a chat,” said Cowdrey. He was standing at the foot of my bed in a cloak and mask, which would have been scary if I wasn’t so annoyed.

“Don’t you people have to be invited in?” I said, exasperated.

“You people?”

“Vampires.”

“I keep telling you, I am not a vampire.” He took off his mask. He wasn’t a vampire. No pointy teeth, no slicked back widow’s peak hairstyle. In fact no teeth and no hair, at all. He wasn’t even human.

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