I was seriously tempted to take Arthur up on his offer. Stay here, let the rabble outside do whatever it was they were so intent on doing, and then sift through the wreckage for any useful items for life on a tropical island. Someone had to have a pair of sunglasses on them I could nick.
“But if we stay in here,” I said, “won’t time remain frozen?”
“Not at all,” said Arthur. “I can turn it on or off as I please, always could.”
“So all those times I entered one of these black holes you built…”
“I’m afraid you’ve never been the one in control,” said Arthur, sympathetic at an am-dram level. “Don’t feel bad about it. What you have to bear in mind is that you’re dealing with people who are older, smarter and who have been at this a lot longer than you have. How could you possibly hope to compete against us? I mean, seriously, did you think you could suddenly catch up in a few months when we’ve been plugging away for years?”
He was being a bit condescending, but I suppose you have the right to be when you’re talking to someone who really is beneath you.
In my arrogance (or petulance, or maybe ignorance) I had just assumed I had a knack for this magic stuff. I was doing well — and by doing well, I mean I wasn’t dead — because my sense of self-preservation and the nature of this world just happened to go well together.
“Born to be someone special, Mr Potterrrrrrrr?”
But the thing about a prodigy is that they’re really only impressive compared to others of the same age. If you can play the piano like a thirty-year-old virtuoso when you’re five, there are still actual thirty-year-old virtuosos out there, and they have the added benefit of more than six months of experience and fingers that can reach all the keys.
You have to put your head start to some use. Otherwise, the pack will catch up to you on the bend and pass you on the home straight.
Then again, it was also important to remember that Arthur could be lying through his big fat mouth.
“So you could start and stop time whenever you pleased? Or is it just while I’m in here?”
“Ah,” said Arthur, pointing a feminine finger at me. “Ah… You catch on quick. No, you’re right. Time stops when you leave your body, but I can restart it once you’re in here. Or I can choose not to. Both avenues have their advantages in different situations.”
He seemed to be enjoying explaining things to me, which made a nice change. Most of it was pointing out what a dumb idiot I was, but that was okay. You’d be disappointed if you went to a concert and didn’t hear the classics.
Wesley watched our conversation with a slightly pained look on her face,
“And is time running outside at the moment?” I asked the resident time lord.
“Currently, no,” said Arthur. “I wanted to see what you would do first. There’s always the chance you might have a better plan we could put into effect and speed things along.” He smiled, but it was with Richina’s face. Either way, it was smug and annoying.
I wondered where Richina’s consciousness had gone. Buried inside her mind while Arthur took control of the steering wheel? There was a strong suggestion, in my mind at least, that Arthur had an inclination to use people as he wished to further his own ends. Which meant if Wesley was committed to him, she wasn’t just a loyal wife, she was a fucking idiot with very poor judgement.
I realise I’m not really one to talk. My own judgment has been very questionable at times, I’ll be the first to admit that. But at least once I realise the person I’m with is evil incarnate, I do my best to not carry on supporting them in their villainy. And failing that, I leave them to it.
Complicity was not one of my failings. I’m not sure if that’s the grandest claim ever made, but it was all I currently had to go with.
“Okay,” I said, “since we have some time, perhaps this would be a good time to clear up a few loose ends.”
Both Wesley and Arthur looked at me with non-committal expressions.
“I think it’s only fair to warn you,” said Arthur, “that I consider you to still be a competitor of sorts.”
He almost managed to pay me a compliment, right up to the ‘of sorts’ part. I guess it’s hard to treat someone like you respect them when you don’t. When you need their assistance, what choice do you have but to offer up half-hearted platitudes that might flatter a gullible fool? It was a method I both abhorred and had used often.
“You mean you don’t trust me?” I said reading between the lines (which wasn’t hard when the lines were spaced wide apart and had ‘fuck you’ written in bold and underlined between them). “That’s fine. Obviously, I don’t trust either of you, but we can still both maybe get something useful out of this.”
Wesley’s pained expression intensified a little, or maybe I imagined it. I’ve found, in my limited experience, that once a woman decides to throw her lot in with a complete arsehole, she tends to go all in. It’s the same with men and bad business decisions — if you back out it just makes you look like you had no idea what you were doing to begin with. Which you didn’t, and everyone knows it, but ego is ego. They can move on with their lives, but you still have to live with yourself.
“So, first things first,” I said, eager to get at least a little information out of them before some emergency or other came conveniently knocking and shoving a ‘to be continued…’ pamphlet under the door, “you and Peter and whoever else trapped the fairies in this Void prison you made so you could take over. Something along those lines, right? That’s why they’re so mad.”
“A simplification of what happened to be sure, but more or less.”
A simple yes would have been fine, but whatever.
“And then you fought among yourselves, backstabbing and betraying one another, because that’s the kind of people you are. More or less.”
There was a pause as Arthur considered another, less accurate way to put it.
“More or less, yes.” He apparently gave up when he realised what a horrible bunch of people they all were, but equally so, which meant he could admit to it without being directly held to account.”
“And then the Council of Four came into the picture and tried to… what did they try to do?” Here’s where it started to get a bit foggy.
“They wanted to let the people of this world govern themselves,” said Wesley.
“And that’s a bad idea because…?”
“It’s not inherently a bad thing,” said Arthur, while his wavering tone hinted at the exact opposite, “but why not do what’s best for this world rather than what will face the least resistance?”
There was that idea again. It was okay to do all sorts of heinous shit if it was for the best of reasons. Best intentions. The greater good.
I’m not against the greater good; that would be stupid. It’s like good, but it’s greater — what’s not to like? What I’m against are the people who think they know what the greater good is. I’ve seen the other choices they’ve made in life (starting with the shoes they’re wearing on up) and their judgement in all things great and small (including those socks) does not inspire confidence.
I am not against religion, but the people who preach it with the most fervour are invariably the most vile and cruel.
I don’t think war is always bad, but those who are surest it has to be declared are the most cowardly and malicious.
I don’t think being a boy scout is a bad thing, but the scout leaders are all child molesters, which is worth taking into account before you join.
Any activity meant to do good will attract people determined to do bad. The ones who support it the most passionately, while doing the exact opposite. It’s a winning strategy that has survived the test of time. Flourished, even.
And if those people find a way to reach a position of authority (spoiler alert: they will), they will recruit others of their kind to join and be protected. Team Dick is a very loyal organisation.
Arthur and Wesley were both keen proponents of something or other. I didn’t really care what their goal was, to be honest, I just knew it was a bad idea. It might still be the best option available, but there was no way it was objectively good.
What I was wondering was, why had Maurice sent me here?
To kill these two? To join forces with them? Get them to adopt me and start a very unpopular sitcom, probably on Fox?
I had no doubt my presence here at this time with these people was intentional, and arranged by him. The spires, the book, the way this was all playing out, there was no way it was all coincidence and happenstance. Maurice had put me here. Maurice had also made sure I had no idea why.
While I was in the dark on his reasons, I had come to a couple of conclusions. Maurice had never been the type to be overbearing and pushy. He also considered me to be a decent person, so he wouldn’t fuck with me unless it was unavoidable.
The only real reason to not tell me what was going on was because there was someone close to me (by which I mean in the vicinity, not dear to me — that would obviously be a ridiculous suggestion) who couldn’t be allowed to know what was going on.
If I received the information, they would too, and that would be bad.
Who, though? With the ability of people to hide inside other people, there could be a spy anywhere, maybe even inside me, hiding in one of those places in the back of my mind where I never go for fear of some horrible memory lurking there. I had a few of those. A few hundred.
The even bigger question was, how did Maurice figure any of this out? How did he know to put me here?
His Visitor ability had nothing to do with knowing what was going to happen. Maybe he had sussed me to the point where he could predict my reactions, but how could he know what everyone else was going to do? His social skills were on par with those of a pencil case (good for dealing with pencils). He couldn’t read people. But somehow he knew the future well enough to move me around like a chess piece (no, not a pawn, more like a queen — wait, that didn’t come out right).
Had Maurice found a way to see the future? Something to do with the spires?
Maybe that clip of Claire on the castle walls wasn’t an indication that she’d found the place I’d seen in my vision — not yet, anyway.
I probably should have asked her about it.
“Are you alright?” asked Wesley, showing concern the way someone does when you look ill and you’re their ride home.
“I’m fine,” I said, the way you do when you know you aren’t going to take them home even though you said you would. “I’m just trying to figure out what you guys really want from me. I mean, it would be nice to think I just had something special about me that you recognised as worth having around, but we both know that can’t be it.”
She looked over at Arthur and grimaced. Although, he was currently in battle angel mode, so what the grimace was about exactly was hard to know.
“I can only think it must be something I have that I don’t know about.”
The other conclusion I’d come to was that someone had slipped the secret microfilm into the lining of my coat and the world’s top intelligence agencies were desperate to get their hands on it.
Arthur spread his arms invitingly, while spreading his wings threateningly. “Your abilities make you more valuable than you give yourself credit for.”
I’ve always considered credit to be less like getting a 1up in Mario, and more like collecting rings in Sonic. Eventually, you will hit a spike and lose them all, and then madly try to gather them up again, but you end up with two of the eighty-seven you once had. True story.
However I got here, I was here now, and had to deal with what was in front of me.
“Tell me, are all these places connected? Can I get to the island from here?”
If I could unlock quick travel, then maybe this wouldn’t be a waste of time after all. Who doesn’t love it when they don’t have to enjoy the scenery anymore?
“There are ways to pass from one site to another, yes,” said Arthur. “But it’s rather complicated, and well....”
“And you don’t trust me,” I said. Which was perfectly fine and understandable. I certainly wasn’t to be trusted.
“But…” said Arthur, “if perhaps we began to share our knowledge, we could build up our trust in one another.”
The first part where he pointed out we were all devious bastards, that part I was on board with. Now, with this idea that we could prove our sincerity to each other by exchanging sensitive information, that sounded more like the prelude to a backstabbing.
“What kind of knowledge are you talking about?”
“I believe you have a book about how to control the spires,” said Arthur.
“What, this?” I held up Maurice’s notebook, not to give it to him, but to see if he started drooling or going all Smeagol.
His reaction was the opposite. He recoiled in horror. “How could… How dare you?”
He seemed upset.
I looked at the book. It was leatherbound, a bit tatty, nothing really stood out as garlic for vampires (the emo band I never got to be in) about it. The binding was soft and supple, warm to the touch.
“What’s the matter? I thought you wanted to see it.”
Arthur’s wings had flared out and he was leaning away from me, which only made me want to wave the book in his face more.
“The book, the hide it’s bound in,” said Wesley.
“It’s made from the skin of fairies.”
“Is it?” I took another look at the cover and brushed my fingertips across it. “It’s very soft. Why is he reacting like that?” I pointed at Arthur. I pointed with the book in my hand, making him recoil even further.
He really was taking great offence, which suggested he was either a fairy, or a massive SJW getting offended on their behalf. Neither was a good thing.
“He isn’t a fairy, no,” said Wesley, her voice quavering slightly, which suggested there was a but coming, “but he does have some fairy artefacts in him.”
What did that mean? Did he identify as fairy? There was a politically correct minefield I didn’t fancy walking into. In any case, the book he was so interested in reading was unavailable to him, it seemed. Maurice had planned ahead, as usual. Where had he got fairy skin from? And who the hell turned it into a book? The best way to find out was to ask him.
“Well, I’ll read it to you some time. I’ve bent the page corners where the sexy parts are.” I put the book away, and Arthur calmed down a little, his wings folding and his breathing slowing. “In the meantime, let’s go to the island. I don’t suppose you know where we can find a grim mushroom, do you? Maurice mentioned it in the book, but I’m not sure what it is. I can show you the passage, if you like.”
Arthur backed away from my helpful suggestion.
“He found out about the shroom?” said Wesley. “Impressive. Yes, we can show you where it is. What’s left of it.”
“Wesley, no…” Arthur wasn’t so keen, which I saw as a good sign.
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