The big pile of veggie flesh that was Maurice’s new body rose unsteadily to its feet. As it unfolded, the size of the new body became easier to judge. On the ground, it was just a heap. Standing up, it towered over me, imperious and grandiose.
If you were going to build yourself a bodysuit to kick sand into people’s faces, this was the model I’d recommend. You could fit a lifetime’s worth of pent-up resentment into this bad boy.
The face was definitely Maurice’s, that part he’d kept accurate, down to the overbite. Claire had probably told him she thought it was cute and he held onto it as an integral part of his character. People need something to hold onto when they sell out completely, so they can deny the ‘completely’ part, like that’s the problem.
He wasn’t wearing glasses, though. I assumed he had decided to fix his eyesight, which was reasonable enough.
The modifications to the rest of his body were not so reasonable. He had to be over six feet tall. His shoulders were broad and muscular, his chest had pecs like a bodybuilder and his abs were at least an eight-pack.
He was naked and dripping with a sticky-looking liquid that hung from him in elongated strands. The green light gave him an eerie look as he staggered one way, then the other. Frankenstein’s Maurice.
He squirmed and moaned, his body doing a kind of dance, the sort you do when you’re listening to something unpleasant with a catchy beat; mainly head and shoulders while scowling.
My own body, the one Maurice had made for me, did not look like it would be as impressive when it got up off the ground. It looked more like a deflated sex doll with my face. Good thing he didn’t mass produce these, there’d have been unsold boxes piled high in the warehouse.
Was it all buff and statuesque like Maurice’s? I certainly wasn’t going to blow it up to find out — I had no doubt where the valve would be.
“I think… I think I’ve got the hang of it,” said Maurice, his voice strained and his breathing still laboured. He was struggling to stay upright, and judging by the way he blinked and shook his head, also to stay conscious. “I think I can make it there.”
“Great,” I said. “Where is it you’re going?”
Maurice turned unsteadily, small steps like he was on a tiny platform he daren’t fall off. “Fengarad. That was the deal. I get you to face Joshaya, or I do it.”
I turned to Shroom. “If you didn’t think he could beat him before, why send him now?”
“He can’t beat him,” said Shroom, “but he thinks he can with his modifications.”
“What mod—” Before I could finish speaking, Maurice sprouted wings.
They weren’t quite as fancy as the ones Arthur/Richina had, they were more bat-like. A dream come true.
“What good will that do?” I asked. “The fairies can fly, too.”
“This is just one of the changes I made,” said Maurice. “I’ll be fine.”
“Oh, you won’t be fine,” I said, “you won’t be fine at all, but that’s okay. Good luck to you. How do you plan to get out of here? This… this creation of yours isn’t in the real world, is it? If it was created here, how does it get out there?” I hiked my thumb in the general direction of the real world, which was basically every direction.
Maurice made a gesture with his hand in front of his face. It took me a moment to work out he was adjusting his glasses out of habit. He lowered his hand when he realised there was nothing there.
“As soon as you leave here, I’ll be able to re-enter the real world. I mean the real fantasy world. I mean, the world out there.” He hiked his thumb in the opposite direction, which was still correct.
“What if I don’t want to leave?” I asked him.
He gave me a disgruntled look. I had often seen that expression at school, when one of the team captains was forced to pick me. From some knob who thought rugby was a worthwhile endeavour, I didn’t mind it (bruises on the brain at a young age is a terrible thing), but I didn’t like being looked down by someone who should have known better. I especially didn’t like the part where he literally looked down at me.
“Fine,” said Maurice tersely. “Do what you want. When you eventually leave, if you do, then time will restart them. We won’t have lost anything.”
I turned around to where Arthur and Wesley were standing, watching from the front row. Should have got them some popcorn. Probably could magic some up if I tried hard enough. Neither of them seemed inclined to intervene.
I turned back to Maurice. “I don’t get it. You seem disappointed. Wasn’t fighting Joshaya your punishment?”
Maurice was supposed to get me to go into battle, fight the good fight, strike a blow for the forces of justice. If I did well, maybe get an endorsement deal with Nike, get all my capes for free. If he failed — which clearly was the only possible outcome — he would have to pay the ultimate price and go in my stead. Clearly the only outcome.
I looked at him, bat wings extended, torso like a Greek God, a female one if you went by the pec-size.
“Wait, you wanted to be the one to go?” I said. “This is your moment to be the hero?” It was the only reason I could think of. “Are you insane?”
“Do you know what it was like travelling around with you?” he said, his voice carrying a bit of an edge.
“Yes,” I said. “I was there.”
“No, you don’t. You have no idea. We used to stay up all night sometimes, talking, trying to work out what to do, why we were here, what it meant.”
“Did you?” I had no recollection of these all-night sessions. “Where was I? Sleeping?”
“Sometimes. Or off doing your own thing. Sneaking off to do cool stuff by yourself.”
That didn’t even sound like me. Cool stuff? I never did any cool stuff.
“And everywhere we’d go, everyone wanted to know what you thought and what you wanted.” He was speaking calmly, a little sad, but not pissed off. Disappointed. “Even when you weren’t there, they’d talk about you. It was like the rest of us didn’t exist.”
“Are you sure they were talking about me? Maybe you misheard. Callum sounds like Colin. Maybe there’s some guy called Callum wandering around doing all this cool stuff.” It certainly wasn’t me.
“We finally figured it out,” said Maurice. “Why we were brought here. Do you want to know why?”
The answer was obviously a clear and resounding ‘not really’ but that would have come across as somewhat passive-aggressive. “Why?”
“We have to save this world. We’re the useless, hopeless bunch of rejects who are destined to rise up against all odds and defeat the great evil no one has managed to ever defeat. Us. Not you.” He was being passionate. That’s always a bad sign. Passionate people tend to be the hardest to convince they’re acting twattish.
“Okay,” I said. “I can see that maybe being true.” This kind of set up called for the most unlikely heroes to come forward and be transformed, and there was no one as unlikely as them. We were both well aware of this trope, so there was an excellent chance he was correct. “But why was I brought here? The others, they were all cannon fodder to make it look all the more impressive when you guys pulled the sword out of the stone or whatever, but why am I here?”
“To train us,” said Maurice.
“How can I train you? I don’t fucking know anything.”
“But you did it,” said Maurice. “You brought us together, you made us a team, you showed us how to survive, and then…” The word hung in the air.
“Then what? I die and you struggle into the third act with my parting words ringing in your ears? ‘Remember, your strength is in your soul’ or some guff, and then when you’re losing in the final battle to the big bad, you suddenly remember the magic thingy I hid in the heel of my boot which you’re now wearing. Sole, not soul. Third act reversal, big bad explodes, you all get your own castle and slaves. Happily ever after incoming. Something like that, was it, you fucking cliché-jockey?”
Maurice looked down at me — still didn’t like the angle — with a sour face. “Not quite that cheesy, but something along those lines.”
Here I’d been searching for a mentor to guide me, and it turned out I was the mentor, here to pass on my surly wisdom and then do a John the Baptist and make way for the King of Kings. It’s a thankless job being the opening act.
I could see his point. He might even have been right, but shouldn’t someone have mentioned it to me earlier?
“This whole thing, you came here knowing I wouldn’t agree.” I looked around the cavern or whatever this place was. “You came to get this body and then go meet your destiny, right? Haven’t I done what you needed?”
If people are going to use you for their own personal gain, they could at least fuck off after they’ve done it.
“There’s still a lot we don’t know,” said Maurice. “Why are your memories in the spires? Why are you the only one who can activate them?”
“Who put bob in the bop shoo bop shoo bop? Who gives a shit?” If it was my job to train them, they obviously hadn’t been paying close enough attention to the ways of the Colin-Fu. You didn’t train to get better, you trained to get further away. A man shouldn’t walk away from his problems, he should run.
“The answer is obvious, is it not?” said Shroom. “You aren’t the teacher. You are the hero.”
“You don’t really know me, do you?” I said. Talk about way off the mark. “You’re supposed to be the old wise one here. You should be giving us the answers and secret techniques. Why are you even in here? Go out and do something helpful.”
“Do you know how many people we’ve saved?” said Maurice. “How many disasters we’ve averted?”
“Um, I’ll need a hint. Is it more or less than zero?”
“More! We haven’t just been sitting around waiting for you to do everything. We’re capable of doing things. We have valuable skills.”
It wasn’t like I’d ever suggested they didn’t have the skills to defeat the enemies we faced, it was just that they weren’t particularly valuable when we were facing in the other way, which is the correct way to face when you’re legging it.
“So, you’re saying I’ve been holding you back, stealing your thunder, pulling focus. That sort of thing? You find me overbearing and you want to get out of my shadow. Am I in the right ballpark?”
“Yes,” said Maurice. “The right ballpark.”
I really had no idea they were off doing stuff. I guess when they were calling in favours to keep me alive, they were also having adventures of their own. Ones I wasn’t invited to go on, because I would end up taking over. Or something.
It was hard to accept Maurice’s envy. It took away my only solace, the warm bubble of injustice that kept me company when I was alone. But you can’t claim to be hard done by when everyone else is going, “Unfair? What do you mean? You were lucky. We used t’live in shoe box in t’middle of road.”
It would be fine if I had everything I ever wanted and people got mad because they thought I didn’t deserve it, but I had nothing, and they still thought it was more than I had any right to expect.
I was not the Messiah. Nobody looked up to me or admired me or even respected what I had done for them. Which was fine. But acting like I had wilfully used my supposed cache to run a blockade on the others was a bit rich. I was beginning to suspect they had all gone insane. Which would at least explain why Jenny was willing to sleep with me.
I would have tried to think up a magical solution, but that would be very presumptuous. Some people need their mental illness for their art, like Van Gogh or Kanye. Forcing Jenny to come to her senses could do her rapping career irreparable damage.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m happy for you to go ahead and fight to the death, if that’s what you think will make you happy. I don’t hold any grudges,” I added begrudgingly. “Although I would remind you that when we first came here, you lot all paired off and left me to go shag each other senseless. I didn’t have a go at you about that or any of the other stupid shit you guys did.”
“You did have a go at us,” said Maurice. “You told us to only have anal sex so no one would get pregnant.”
“You wanted me to mentor you, that was me mentoring. You’re welcome.” He didn’t look very grateful. “Look, we all make our own decisions in the end. There’s no one to blame but blame itself.”
“That’s a misquote,” said Maurice.
“It isn’t a quote, it’s an original saying I made up.”
“Then it’s plagiarism.”
“It can’t be plagiarism if it’s a misquote.” Where was I even going with this? “If you wanted a mentor, you should have gone with someone who could grow a beard, like him.” I pointed at Shroom.
“He wasn’t interested,” said Maurice. “He only wants you.”
“You make that sound very gay.”
Maurice said nothing in return, which was a worry.
“I had to convince him to make a bet I would lose to get this body,” said Maurice. “It was the only way. We only get stuff by dropping your name.”
“Great. You get free shit by using my name. Meanwhile, I am me, and I get fuck all. How does that seem fair? Did you at least add any new features to my body?”
“No,” said Maurice. “You don’t need them.”
“Don’t need them? What are you, new? I need all the add-ons I can get.” This wasn’t really getting us anywhere. I didn’t even know what we were arguing about.
Maurice put his hands on his hips so he looked like a superhero. “I’m sorry we left you on your own. We just really, really wanted to have sex.”
As excuses went, that was a pretty solid one.
“I know. I don’t mind. You had each other, and I had Nabbo’s weed.” I turned to Shroom. “Nabbo’s a frog-man. We aren’t romantically linked, if that’s what you were thinking. I don’t have gay sex with frogs. Spawning, they call it. Sounds sticky. Although, don’t knock it till you try it. You look like you could use a hug from a frog. Why are you looking at me like that?”
Shroom was staring at me. “Maybe you aren’t the one I’ve been waiting for.”
“You have Jenny,” said Maurice, like he suddenly remembered a winning argument. “She’s willing to have sex with you.”
He made it sound like a great sacrifice. “That’s different. She’s like them,” I waved a finger from Shroom to Wesley and Arthur. “They see the potential and are drawn to it. Claire and Flossie, they love you and Dud for who you are, not what you might become. Jenny’s feelings for me are unsustainable.”
“That won’t matter when you go off, though, will it?” said Maurice. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of her. Introduce her to a handsome prince or something. She’s already been proposed to twice.”
“Has she?” This was news to me. I should have been pleased for her. I wasn’t, but I should have been.
“I need you to let me out,” said Maurice.
“Why do you need me when you have all these people.” I waved my finger at the usual people. “They’re the void realm experts, I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”
“No,” said Maurice, “it has to be you.”
“Why, Maurice? Why me? Why do we have to stop the fairies? Why do you have to play dress up and go all Justice League? What aren’t you telling me? Is it just that with great power come great responsibility?”
“You’re the one with the power,” said Maurice.
“Yes, but I didn’t kill Uncle Ben, so I don’t have a guilt complex about saving the world. And I don’t want to dress up as my own clone, either. You of all people should know how bad a storyline that was in Spider-man. Frankly, I have no idea what you’re even thinking. This won’t work.”
“It has to,” said Maurice. “Now let me out.”
“It has to? Because you’re destined to be the hero?”
“No, because you are.” Maurice stopped, snapping his mouth shut.
“Did any of you ever think to just tell me what the hell was going on. Straight to my face. This idea you have that you have to protect me…” Saying it out loud felt strange. Like I was admitting something to myself.
“Okay,” said Maurice. “I lied to you. We didn’t stay up all those nights wondering why we were here. We wondered why you were here. It was obvious you were going to be important and we were lucky to have bumped into you. And then when it became obvious you didn’t want to be the all-powerful hero of legend, Jenny convinced us to take your place.”
“Jenny did? Why?”
“Because you won’t be able to avoid it. You can’t. It will find you, Colin. A time will come when you have to make the choice, and despite the complaining and whining and insisting you don’t give a shit, you’ll make the choice you always do, no matter how much you hate it. The only way to save you is to do it first. That’s what we’re doing. We aren’t saving the world. We’re saving you.”
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Afterword from Mooderino