I was having to process a lot of new information, a lot of it probably half-truths or wishful thinking. There’s this thing people do when they want to convince you of something, they state it in the best possible light. AKA, they lie.
Not the bad kind of lie meant to fuck you over — this is more of a benign lie, that will unintentionally fuck you over.
The great thing about the benign lie (and no, it isn’t a white lie, that would be racist, like calling a chalkboard a blackboard) is that it’s the easiest of the lies for the liar to believe themselves. Being certain your lie is so justified it’s practically true is one of the paths to the Dark Side of the Force, or Tumblr, as it’s known nowadays (obviously the Dark Side rebranded after all the negative publicity over the whole Death Star fiasco — you just can’t go that shockingly over-budget in the current economic climate).
Shroom’s suggestion to execute me on the spot and be done with it wasn’t really meant in malice, it would only speed up the inevitable. Cut out the middleman and we could all turn in early.
“I don’t disagree with you,” I said to Shroom, “but I think that’s more of a last resort.”
“Sometimes, the last resort is worth considering first,” he said.
“No,” I said, “it isn’t. Otherwise it would be called the first resort.” He seemed a bit overly keen on the ‘dump Colin’ idea.
He shrugged, his long white hair covering most of his face so it was hard to see just how eager he was to pursue my demise. I didn’t know anything about him, so he could be a complete psycho who tried to get others killed for his amusement. I was probably being unfairly harsh, though.
“Fair enough,” he said. “It’s just that it would save a lot of time, and it’s probably what we’ll end up doing anyway. The condition you’re in, you’ll probably fall apart before anyone has the chance to stick a knife in you.”
Or not harsh enough.
From what Maurice had told me, my body was being held together with spit, string and duct tape. They had managed to keep me in one piece using a range of temporary measures, but my use of magic had left me a mere husk of a man. And I wasn’t exactly a prime specimen to start with.
I spread out my arms and looked down at myself. “I don’t feel like I’m that much of a wreck. Well, no more than usual.”
“You aren’t a wreck,” said Maurice. Faint praise, but you take what you can get when you’re in the sacrificial lamb business. “You have a remarkably resilient frame.” He sounded mildly impressed, but then he didn’t have a body at all. “We did our best not to put any additional strain on you while I worked on a fix. That’s why Jenny had to stay away from you.”
“What do you mean? What’s she got to do with it?”
“With your life force at such a dangerously low level, any… excessive stimulation would bring you closer to a total collapse.”
It took me a moment to understand what he meant. “She wasn’t allowed to bang me?”
“I wouldn’t say she wasn’t allowed,” said Maurice. “It’s not like we could order her to not do it. But I made her aware of the consequences.”
“So… if she did have sex with me, that would mean her desire for me was so intense it was beyond her control?”
The lighting flickered again, suggesting more shrugging. “I guess. That or she wants you dead.”
I try to put a positive spin on life, I really do, but people are just so cynical, and pretty persuasive while they’re doing it.
“How long until these new bodies are ready?” I asked.
Above my head, the two bodies, one for me and one for the great and powerful Oz, hung with their limbs wrapped around themselves. It was difficult to tell what they would look like once they were stretched out. I wasn’t entirely sure it would be an improvement on my current housing.
“Soon,” said Maurice. “I don’t know the exact timing. Shroom’s the expert.”
I turned my attention to Grim Mushroom. There was a lot to learn about this guy, like what the hell kind of name was that?
“Are you some kind of gardener?” I asked him.
“No. I am also a product of this garden.”
I wasn’t sure claiming to be a prize vegetable was anything to be proud of. I leaned closer and suddenly waved the notebook in Shroom’s face. He didn’t even flinch.
“You don’t feel anything? No mild revulsion? No slight uncomfortableness like when a stand-up comedian does an Asian accent as part of a joke? Nothing?”
“No,” said Shroom. He looked at the book I was holding up, and then back at me. “Why would I?”
I turned around and waved the book at Arthur, who reared back like I was holding a dog turd on the end of a twig.
“Apparently, this is made of the tanned hides of dead fairies,” I explained. “And he’s repulsed by it for some reason.”
A thoughtful look passed across Shroom’s face, what I could see of it behind the curtain of hair. “That is a female,” he said, heavily intimating that he thought I wasn’t very familiar with the opposite sex. A common and fairly accurate misunderstanding.
“I know that. I’m talking about Arthur who’s inside her. Not in a pervy way… actually, it is a bit pervy however you look at it.”
“Yes. Well, so I’ve been led to believe. I have a hard time working out who anyone is these days. And that’s Wesley. You remember her?”
“Not really. I don’t socialise much. I seem to recall the names, but the faces all merge into one after a while.” He seemed to be lost in thought.
“Are you a Visitor, then? From Earth?”
“Earth? Hmm. The name rings a bell…”
“How old are you?” Forward of me, but he was in danger of drifting off into a dream if I didn’t prod him a bit.
“In this body?” he said. “Oh, about three years, give or take.”
“This isn’t your original body?” I asked. “Did you grow it here? Like one of those?” I pointed up at the bodies Maurice was nurturing in his greenhouse.
Shroom looked up at where my finger was pointing. “Hmm, yes.” I couldn’t tell if he was answering my question or a completely different one in his head.
At least if he had grown this body, it gave me an idea of what to expect. The showroom model did not look like it had aged well. But that was the problem with modern manufacturing, always making things to be replaced, not long-lasting. I get that it helps the economy to force people to buy new stuff all the time, but holy shit it’s getting like you buy a new phone Monday, and there’s a new one out on Wednesday.
“Do they normally wear out so quickly?” I asked, examining him closely.
Shroom looked offended, sniffing at me contemptuously. “It’s the hair, it makes me look older than I am.” He swept his hair away from his face and I got my first good look at him.
I wouldn’t say he was a handsome man, exactly, but he wasn’t as old as I’d thought. There was a stretchy kind of youthfulness about him. Like when Hollywood actors get cosmetic surgery and they look ten times worse, but smooth, very smooth.
“Has the process improved in the last three years? Any technical advancements?”
“Are you suggesting there’s something wrong with the way I look?” asked Shroom.
I was in danger of offending the person in charge of this place. Then again, I was in that danger with everyone I ever met, so nothing new.
“No, no, you look fine,” I said in a slightly high-pitched voice that gave away my true feelings. “You might need a little sun, you know, vitamin D, to help put a little colour in your cheeks.” Saved?
“Yes, well, you could be right. Hold on…” he looked past me at Arthur. “You… I remember now. Arthur… don’t you owe me some money?”
Ah, the one thing that will always bring old friends together — debt.
“What?” said Arthur, high-pitched giving him away, too. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Yes, I’m sure it was you. A big bag of gems. I remember clearly, they were purple.”
“They were orange,” said Wesley.
“That’s right,” said Shroom, “they were orange.”
“Oh, yes,” said Arthur. “I’ve been meaning to… I just need a few more days...” He gave Wesley a dirty look, she smiled back sweetly.
“These gems, they didn’t have dwarves inside them, did they?” I asked.
“That’s right,” said Shroom. “Dwarfstones. I had a whole pile of them. Useless things. I sold them to him, and I was supposed to get…” He paused to think about it. “Twelve, was it? Yes, twelve little girls.”
I had a weird uncomfortable feeling in my stomach, like when a comedian does an impression of a mentally ill person for the laughs.
“Little girls?” I said.
“Yes,” said Shroom, like it a was perfectly normal form of currency. “They were going to make an improved version of these things.” He knocked on the top of his own head. “More compact, more versatile.”
“No, not twelve,” said Arthur. “Peter only managed to make one, and she didn’t really come out as planned. I’ve been working on something much better. More resilient.” He spread out Richina’s wings and tilted to the side. “It’s a prototype.”
Was Biadet the little girl he was talking about? How was she involved in all this? And if Shroom was expecting twelve of her, did that mean there was a production line somewhere? I wasn’t sure I could handle that many of them. The sarcastic quips alone would be devastating.
Everyone was busy making fake bodies, it seemed. Shroom had his pod people, Peter had Biadet and who knew what else, Arthur had made the druids and Richina, and Joshaya had the resurrected dead. Everyone wanted to control someone else. Even the council had puppets they used.
Did no one just want to be themselves? I guess I was a fine one to talk, it wasn’t like I’d ever valued the body I’d been born with.
What to do? The problem was there was so much going on, it was hard to think straight. What I really needed was some space to myself to sort this all out, but I was already in the adjacent world. Was there an adjacent-adjacent world I could slip into? Somewhere I could get enough distance from my problems to ask the really important questions, like why am I here? What’s the point? Who let the dogs out? And most importantly, who ate all the pies?
“Hold on. Let me just try to get this clear in my head,” I said. “Joshaya can’t get to us here, and he’s the final boss, right?”
“I think so,” said Maurice.
“What do you mean? Who else is there?”
“No one,” said Maurice. “But you never know. There could be someone hiding behind the curtain.”
He was right, there was always the possibility you defeat the big boss and then the even bigger boss comes out of the wings, going, “What have you done to my son?”
It could very well be Shroom.
“Why are you called Grim Mushroom, by the way? You don’t look like a mushroom. Or are you controlling this body remotely and your real brain is trapped inside a giant fungus somewhere?”
“That’s preposterous,” said Shroom. “I’m as real as you are.”
That was hardly reassuring.
“That’s, er, good, then. Since we’ll be here a while, you know, while we wait for our take-out to be ready, maybe you can give me some tips. Pass on your wisdom.”
I was hoping Old Ben Kenobi would magically turn into Obe-Wan. Lay some of that Jedi knowledge on me.
“Wisdom? Hmm. Well, I have been here a long time. I’m not sure if what I have to tell you is still relevant.”
“I’m sure it is,” I said. “Any insights you have are bound to come in useful at some point.”
“Let me see. You know the spires in Fengarad?”
“Yes?” I perked up at the possibility of some secret about to be revealed.
“Well, it may not seem possible, but you can in fact see the spires from Dargot. If you stand on the rise just east of the palace, you can see the top of the westernmost spire in Fengarad.” He looked inordinately proud of this revelation.
“Sorry, I don’t follow. Why is that important?”
“Well, most people don’t believe it’s possible. The distance, the forest and hills in the way and so on. You can win quite a lot of money if you bet on it with anyone who hasn’t found it out.”
I stood there nodding. I had asked him for advice, and technically it was something that could prove useful. “Thank you,” was all I could think to say.
Who was he really? A Visitor who had swapped bodies so many times he could hardly remember the answer himself? Was that the future that awaited me?
“I think something’s happening,” said Maurice.
I looked up. One of the pods had begun to split open and liquid was dripping out. What I’d thought was a misshapen wax model of me was actually just the casing. Inside was the real fruit of this enterprise. A naked body slid out and landed on the ground with a wet slap.
We all stood there, not knowing what to do. I took a step closer.
The thing had my face, poor bastard. Nothing moved, it just lay there without the will to do anything. It really was a very good likeness.
“How am I supposed to switch bodies?”
Before anyone had the chance to answer, the other pod peeled open and another, darker pod-person fell to the ground. This one was definitely bigger. More muscles, much taller.
“Fuck you, Maurice, why is yours all buff? He’s even got a six-pack.”
When you get down to the last two pizza slices, and they’ve been cut unevenly, trouble is bound to follow.
“No, no,” said Maurice. “It’s water retention. Once it dries out, the bloating will reduce by quite a lot.”
It sounded plausible, but didn’t explain why his was so much bigger than mine.
“Okay, so we have to wait for them to dry. Then what? How do we even get them out of here?”
“We don’t have to,” said Maurice. “You’re already outside of your body. You just have to climb into this one.”
“And leave my other one behind?” That didn’t seem right. For starters, there was part of me inside my body that hadn’t come with me. What would happen to him? “Why don’t you get into yours first?” I suggested.
“I can’t,” said Maurice. “While you’re in this form, the outside world is frozen. You have to restart things first.”
“Yes, but Arthur can restart time while I’m in here, right?” I turned to face Arthur.
“Actually not from here, only from inside my own construction.”
The old spidey-sense was tingling. Actually, it was itching like an outbreak of herpes. My STD-sense was tingling — someone was trying to fuck me.
“The thing is,” I said to them all, “I’ve never been able to understand this idea you guys have that I’m going to do something in the hope it might turn out to be for the best. History has shown that I assume it will turn out to be for the worst, so I need to be convinced with hard facts, and failing that, some sort of humorous objective. I’ll do it for a laugh, I won’t do it because you bunch of retards think it’s a good idea.”
There was, as was usually the case when I spoke my mind, an awkward pause.
“Maurice, get in your body.”
“He can’t,” said Shroom.
“Because I won’t let him.”
I turned around to face Shroom, who didn’t seem as absent-minded all of a sudden.
“You’re the one pulling the strings, are you?” I asked him.
“Once you enter that body,” he said, “you will no longer be untouchable. You won’t have your powers, you won’t be able to stop time. Then we can talk.”
“About real power, and what you will do with it once I show you how to control it properly.”
He stood there waiting for me to make a decision. He’d already suggested killing me to save time, I didn’t really think it would be to my benefit if I did as he said. Trusting strangers wasn’t really my thing.
“No, I’m not going to do that.”
“I told you,” said Maurice.
“You were right,” said Shroom with a resigned nod. “Are you ready to pay the price?”
“Yes,” said Maurice. He began screaming in pain, the lights flickered, and then the body on the ground, his one with all the muscles (drying hadn’t done shit), slowly started to get up.
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.
Will be taking a break over Xmas. Next chapter will be on Monday 7th January, and will be back to a three days a week schedule.Afterword from Mooderino