Just because I was pumped up and ready to take on the main contender didn’t mean I wasn’t shitting myself. Even with a solid belief in my ability to handle myself and with a good bunch of powers at my disposal, I knew full well that I was capable of screwing this up. Or being screwed over by those around me.
My encounter with Gideon had shown only too well that I was vulnerable. I wasn’t the only one who had powers.
I did, however, have an army of the dead. They were particularly good at not being coerced and manipulated. The only way they would turn on me was if Joshaya turned them against me, which I assessed as a 40% chance.
That might seem a bit low, but I was constantly reevaluating the numbers. I figured Joshaya was far more likely to pull some shit after I’d dealt with Peter. People aren’t self-serving, untrustworthy gits all the time. Mostly they wait until they can get something out of it.
I hadn’t actually seen Joshaya in a while, which wasn’t a great sign. Then again, maybe he was making life difficult for someone else. If things didn’t go as planned, perhaps I should try to get my allies to join forces with my enemies.
I got back down to ground level with my troops meandering around behind me. What they needed was a good old-fashioned target to focus on. If for some reason Peter was still able to affect them in some way, I would do some hacking and slashing in the adjacent world where no one could fight back, the way an aRPG was meant to be.
There was still a sense of futility and an urge to surrender that was more pronounced than my usual level of futility and my persistent urge to surrender, which meant Claire’s powers were still affecting me even though I’d cut off every vine sprouting out of her body. I was missing something. I’d done the same to Peter before and it hadn’t worked then either. I’d put it down to Maurice’s power, but maybe there was more to it than that.
The one person I hadn’t shorn of their connections was Jenny. If Claire was reaching me through her, then that was the obvious snip to make. I was reluctant to do it unless I had to. Claire’s influence was still only encroaching slightly on my self-control.
“We’re going to have to get into that spire over there.” I pointed at the spire furthest from where we were. “And then I expect it will be a fight to the death with no quarter given by either side. This is what it comes down to.”
Flossie raised her hand. “Can we get something to eat first? Ah’ve been on my feet all day and haven’t had a bite since breakfast.”
This was plainly untrue. Damicar had been feeding her at regular intervals of about five minutes.
“Yes, good idea. Dudley, take her back to the palace and ask Damicar to sort something out.”
Despite the unnecessary calories, I preferred to leave Flossie and Dudley out of this. If they were turned against me, I would find it hard to do what was necessary. It would be fine if I had to kill both of them, but if it was only one, the surviving member would never stop whining about it.
“Are yo’ sure?” said Flossie.
“Yeah, sure, off you go,” I said. “Caim, you take point. You and your druids shouldn’t be affected by Peter’s ability.”
“Wait,” said Flossie. “Yo’ sound like you don’t want us to come.”
Not only was I supposed to let her off any Battle of the Planets duties, I had to make it seem like she was doing me the favour.
“I need you out of range so Peter can’t mess with you,” I said. “If he takes control of you or Dudley, my chances of winning are greatly reduced.” Like fuck they were. “Plus, we might need a quick getaway. See if you can find out where your cowardly dragons disappeared off to.”
Flossie sucked in her lips and nodded curtly. Everyone worked better when they knew what they were doing and why, even when it was complete bollocks. And the harsher you were about how you told them, the easier it was to get them to play along. It comes down to clarifying roles. You may not like the role you’ve been given, but you’re far less likely to complain while doing it.
Nice and friendly get you nowhere. Honest and helpful, likewise.
I should point out, just because I understand that’s how the system is optimised, doesn’t mean that’s how I play the game. One of the reasons I dislike being in charge is knowing the lengths I have to go to in order to get things done. And by lengths, I mean depths.
Nevermind separation of church and state, it’s the separation of decency and efficiency that bothers me. The fact I was no longer on the receiving end didn’t make it any better.
Flossie and Dudley went off, secure in the knowledge they were important and valued. Knowledge is power, just as electricity is when you lick your finger and stick it in a socket.
We marched across the city — well, I sort of shuffled and everyone kept time with me — and reached the spire in about twenty minutes. I held Jenny’s hand on the way because who knew if I would ever get to again after what I had planned.
The door to the spire was open. We were expected. While that made the open door feel a bit ominous, I would always take that over having to break my way in and ruin my manicure.
“You first,” I said to Jenny.
“Me? Why me?” She was naturally suspicious of my motives, as she had every right to be.
“They’re using you to get to me, so it’s best if you confront Claire directly. Maybe there’s still a chance you can get through to her and I won’t have to kill her.”
Jenny’s eyes narrowed. “Are you really hoping to avoid killing her, or do you just want to use me as a human shield?”
“As they taught us in that one lesson at school where they explained how to do finances, a little from column A, a little from column B.” Jenny seemed uncertain if she should trust me. Some people might take that as an insult, but I saw it as proof that the girl had her head on straight.
That didn’t mean I was going to treat her any nicer, though. One of my failings (even though I saw it as a positive) was my desire to be kind and generous. Don’t laugh. The problem was that it usually rebounded on me in some way, so the lesson I’d learned was to be very careful how I used my powers of good. Powers of evil are much more reliable.
For example, I might be in a cafeteria eating lunch, and a chip falls off my plate onto the floor. My natural instinct is to pick it up and put it on the side of the tray. There are people whose job it is to clean and pick stuff up, but it’s not nice to leave litter, and I was raised the proper way, with shame and belittling.
But without fail, later on during that same meal, I will look up from my empty plate and go, “Oh, look, I missed a chip. My lucky day!” And then I’ll eat the floor-chip.
This is the pattern I ended up recognising after the fifty-millionth time. Mind like a sharp knife, me.
You learn that if you just do the least possible in terms of making the world a better place, you’re far more likely to have an easier time of it.
It’s not that no good deed goes unpunished, it’s that no deed goes unpunished. Don’t do deeds.
If you leave the chip on the floor, you’re much less likely to absent-mindedly pop it into your mouth. Unless you’re a Scouser, of course.
Bit uncalled for, that. Why have a go at a resident of Liverpool for no reason?
The strange thing about prejudices is that if you spend time with the people you make fun of and deride, you find it much harder to mock them. Blacks, gays, Jews. Hang out with them and you find they don’t really live up to their stereotypes any more than any group does. Although, if you want to make really accurate and hurtful jokes about someone, spend even more time with them. We hurt the ones we love because we have the most ammunition on them.
So, I don’t really have anything against Scousers. Mind you, they did do an experiment on a TV show once where they left an open envelope next to a letterbox in cities across the UK, as though someone dropped it, and put a ten pound note in it with a letter to Timmy on his birthday. Some people sealed and put the letter in the letterbox. Others pocketed the cash. What does that tell you? Not very much. But Liverpool was the only city where people took the money, turned the envelope over and peeled off the stamp.
“You don’t think the guy with the lightsaber should go first.” She pointed at Caim.
“No. We might need him later. You guys stay here in case of an attack from the rear.”
She frowned, possibly because she sensed something off about the way I was acting. No gay joke following an ‘attack from the rear’ comment? I’d have to be more careful in the future.
She seemed to be about to say something, then turned to face the spire.
“Okay,” said Jenny. “If you want me to go first…” She took a breath stepped through the dark and foreboding doorway.
“Guys, wait here in case of attack from the rear,” I told Caim and his boys. I stepped into the spire right behind her.
“Ooh, you’re very close,” she said.
“No point holding a shield away from your body,” I said. “You’ll never feel the benefit.”
“You seem angry.”
“Well, Claire and Maurice have made quite a cock-up of things. I’m not in the best mood I’ve ever been in.”
We kept walking up the stairs. There were small electric lights set in the wall that flickered as we climbed past.
“You seem angry at me,” said Jenny.
“I suppose I am. You said you would never let me go, and then you did. I guess I’m disappointed.”
“You’re the one who cut me off,” she said, a little spikily.
“You could have stopped me.”
“That’s not… And you waited until now to bring it up?”
“I would have brought it up earlier,” I said, “but I’m a terrible coward.”
“I wouldn’t say you were terrible,” she said.
“It’s the part where you all thought you were doing what was best for me that I find hard to take,” I said. “Why couldn’t you have just told me and gone down with the ship?”
“I wanted what was best for everyone,” said Jenny, “not just what would be best for us.”
“Because… What do you mean, why? Isn’t that a decent thing to want?”
“Not if it risks everything we had. I’m not saying I wouldn’t want to help the others, but why didn’t you put me first? I would have put you first. Hell, I would have let the others go even if it wasn’t necessary.”
Jenny stopped and looked down at me. “I don’t know why you’re saying all this. It’s not like I can change what happened.”
“No, you’re right. But I’d like to think you would do things differently next time. Not allow Claire inside your head, for starters.”
“Are you saying I shouldn’t let other people control me, or that I should only let you control me?”
I gave her question some serious consideration. “I think you should only let me control you.”
Her face twisted into a scowl. She hadn’t expected me to say that.
“You would want me to be that sort of a girlfriend?”
“Look, you’ve always said you’d do whatever I asked of you, and I responded by never asking you to do anything you didn’t want to do. A perfectly lovely arrangement, and see where it got us. Why not cut to the chase and follow my orders explicitly. I’m usually right almost half the time.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
“Then I can cut the connection between us again and we can go back to our separate lives, with occasional sex, you know, if you have an itch that needs scratching.”
“No,” said Jenny.
“To be honest, I’ve been thinking maybe this would all be a lot easier for everyone, for the best, if we cut it off between us permanently. I’m sure there are other men you could form some kind of attachment to.”
“And you?” she asked, still perplexed.
“Well, men aren’t really my type, but you never know. Worth considering. The cutting it off part, not the men.”
“No, it isn’t,” said Jenny. “Either of them. I know I said I wouldn’t allow you to leave, and you’re right, I messed up. I regret letting it happen, even if it was for the best. I won’t let it happen again.”
I took out my wooden sword. “Sure. But right now Claire is using our reformed connection to get to me through you. The only way to stop her is to break it so I’m untouchable again.”
“No,” said Jenny.
“There’s nothing you can do to stop me,” I said. “Once I phase into the adjacent world, my word is final.”
“No.” Jenny backed away up the stairs.
“You can’t run, Jenny. Time freezes when I leave my body.” My sword began to glow.
There was real fear in her eyes now. And pain. “NO!” she screamed, tripping backwards, hand held up to deflect my blow. “No! No! NO!”
My sword rose into the air.
If I was going to really do it, I would have to be in the other world. Jenny wasn’t really thinking straight. She was quite worked up. You know how women get, all emotional. Although, in Jenny’s case, these feelings are somewhat amplified.
As I brought my sword down, Jenny let out a piercing shriek. You have to know someone really well to get them where they’re weakest.
There was another shriek from above us.
“Claire…” said Jenny. She was sitting on the step, tears in her eyes. “You used me to get to Claire.”
“Connections work both ways,” I said.
“You weren’t going to cut it.”
“Not today, no.”
She nodded slowly, understanding. She got to her feet. “If you ever do, if you decide that’s what’s best and take the necessary steps to cut me off, I will kill you.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so serious. She turned around and walked up the stairs. I followed her. Love is a horrible, cruel, evil thing when you really look at it. But what’s the alternative?
Next two chapters are up on Patreon nowAfterword from Mooderino