Sometimes you have to pass the baton onto the next generation. Or to the same generation. Or to the person dumb enough to think what you were passing to them was a baton (word to the wise: if someone puts a rod-shaped object in your hand, consider handing it back — unless you’re into that sort of thing, in which case more power to your elbow).
If Maurice and company wanted to take over needless-sacrifice duties, I was happy to give up my seat on the bus. A bus ride would have been quite nice, actually. You would expect once fast travel was unlocked, it was just a matter of walking in through one door and immediately coming out the other end at the desired location. Apparently, the way it worked in reality (for want of a better word) was somewhat more drawn out.
“Do you know the way?” I called out to 288, who was flying into the darkness in what looked like an aimless manner.
“This is the way to Fengarad, Master,” he replied without turning around.
“He knows what he’s doing,” said Maurice, although I wasn’t particularly convinced he was any more reliable than the flying penis. Maurice was also naked, not sure if I mentioned that. A tall, naked black dude with muscles bulging and his own penis on display, not quite flying but swinging about quite a bit. Not that I was looking, but I couldn’t help what entered my peripheral (not a euphemism).
I looked back over my shoulder but Wesley and the others had already disappeared from view. They had let me go without comment, which seemed suspicious. Was I heading into another trap? Probably. Mind you, being ignored wasn’t exactly unusual treatment for me.
“Is it far?” I called out. There was no response from 288. I decided to wait before using my most probing question, which was, “Are we there yet?”
“He’s in a hurry to get back home,” said Maurice, carrying my naked limp body in his muscular arms.
“How will he do that? How did he even get here? Come to think of it, how did you get to Nekromel?”
“I went to Monsterland,” said Maurice, sounding very pleased with himself. “Cheng’s castle is now a big hole in the ground, an open gateway.”
“And you jumped in?”
It was hard to say which was worse, the Maurice who stumbled around talking nonsense, or the Maurice who walked tall and proud, while talking nonsense.
“You weren’t scared?”
“At first I was afraid,” said Maurice.
“You were petrified?” I asked.
“First I was afraid, I was petrified,” said Maurice, allowing me my fun. “Please don’t take this conversation into a disco direction.” I held up my hands in acquiescence. “There was this black hole of terror I had to throw myself into. Who wouldn’t be scared?”
“Black hole of terror?” I had been to Nekromel, too. “Wasn’t it more like a black bin bag of anxiety?”
Maurice shrugged his broad manly shoulders. The body he was carrying, the one meant for me, did not have such manly shoulders, or manly anything else. “Maybe it wasn’t terrifying, but I didn’t know for sure where I was going to come out. It took more than overcoming a little anxiety to jump in.”
“Did Claire push you in?”
“Okay,” I said. “Good for you. I can see you’ve grown as a person and if you lot want to try your luck at the hero game, I wish you all the best.”
I can be magnanimous. I can step aside when others want to rush up the escalators. Some people not only want to succeed, they also want to stop others from getting ahead. Not me. Let others go first, I say. It shows good manners and also, if the monsters have full bellies they’re much less likely to eat me.
“You really think we’re going to cock this up, don’t you?” said Maurice.
“I have no idea,” I said. “It could go either way. You could die a horrible death having achieved nothing, or the universe could turn inside and undo the laws of time and space allowing you to claim victory. Fifty-fifty. “
“Hmm,” said Maurice. “You think death is the worst case scenario?”
“No, I think the worst case scenario would be if I received an iPod for Christmas but it had a free U2 album on it and wouldn’t play anything else.”
“I meant our worst-case scenario fighting the fairies,” said Maurice.
“How would I know? Things can always get worse, doesn’t matter how bad they get, especially if a tax-dodging Paddy twat turns up.”
“I don’t think Bono is going to appear in the middle of a battle between monsters and fairies,” said Maurice.
“I think you grossly underestimate Bono’s need to be the centre of attention,” I said. “In any case, you have to do the best with what you’re faced with. I don’t think you can rely on predictions.”
“Right,” said Maurice, clenching his fists by his side and nodding. I realised he was actually quite nervous. This was a big moment for him, for them. While I was bouncing around from one debilitating mind-fuck to another, they had got themselves into some kind of championship final. They were about to slug it out for the cup, and if they won, they would be bona fide heroes and global superstars.
Obviously, they had no chance, but you had to admire the attempt. You had to. Me, not so much. The whole thing was a poison chalice, first sip to last.
How many people rise to that level of success and turn out to be awesome individuals? How many turn out to be sociopaths and rapists? It takes a certain kind of mentality to climb over everyone else on their way up, and it isn’t a warm and inclusive one, no matter how much their PR people insist it is. I’m not saying only evil can do well in business, but never turn your back on Oprah.
288 had stopped, hovering in place.
“What’s he doing?” I asked.
“I think this is it,” said Maurice.
There was no sign of a door or opening. “I can’t see anything.”
Maurice looked around a studious expression suggesting this what he had expected. It’s great to act like you know what you’re doing, but the talking has to stop at some point and you need to deliver the goods.
“Where is it?” I asked.
Maurice frowned like I was letting the team down. “This is your world, you need to learn how to navigate your way through it.”
“This is my world? A dark void with no one around?” Actually, when I said it out loud, it did sound like the sort of world I would end up with.
“We should ask him,” said Maurice. “That is why he’s here, so he can show us the way.”
“Okay.” I walked up behind 288. “Hey, how’s it going?”
“Very good, Master. My task is nearing completion and then I shall return to my loved ones.” His voice was sombre, in a squeaky sort of way, and he seemed happy to be leaving soon. He may have been a dick, but he was a clever dick.
“What’s the immigration policy in Nekromel at the moment?” I asked. “Accepting settlers and refugees?”
288 looked mildly confused. “If you have useful skills, I’m sure the Masters will make room for you.”
Useful skills. Everyone wants you to jump through the hoops they never had to.
“You’re going to leave?” asked Maurice.
“Thinking about it. Fresh start, new people, giant demons. Sounds pretty chill.”
Maurice made a displeased face “What about Jenny? Don’t you think you should tell her.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Maurice, “out of politeness?” He was questioning my manners. Me, Mr Please and Thank You.
“Manners have nothing to do with it. She made her choice when she decided to start faffing about behind my back. You can’t build a relationship on deceit.”
“You literally told me never to admit anything to Claire and always deny all accusations she might make.”
“That’s different, that’s Claire. You don’t run from a bear, you put your hands as high in the air as possible and try to make it think you’re much bigger than you are.”
“Claire isn’t a grizzly.”
“She ain’t Winnie the fucking Pooh.”
“She isn’t any kind of bear!”
“You say that now, it’ll be a different story after she slashes your stomach open and eats your liver. They always eat the liver first, you know?”
“Bears or girls?” asked Maurice.
“Yes,” I replied.
“You’re crazy,” said Maurice. “You’ll do anything to avoid being tied down.”
“It’s not my fault I have principles. I won’t do what people want me to do just to please them. Either Jenny’s no good for me, or she can do better. I’m willing to do the right thing and let her go. It’s not easy, but it’s the correct choice and I won’t sell out my integrity for some cheap short-term thrills.”
“What if she offered you sex with no strings attached?”
“I’d consider it.”
“Ha! So much for your principles and integrity,” scoffed Maurice.
“I said I’d consider it, that’s all. You should consider all your options, especially the naked ones.” I realised as I said this that Maurice was naked, which could lead to my words being misconstrued. I rapidly tried to change the subject. “Whatever you think of me, you have to admit, no matter what power I’ve gained, I’m still me, right?”
“True,” said Maurice, “you haven’t changed.”
“Change can be a good thing,” said Maurice. “It’s how things get better.”
“Not always,” I said. “Look at you. You might win this fight — I doubt it but nothing’s impossible in this world — but will it really be you? You’ve had to change everything about yourself to do it. You’ve killed Maurice-Classic far more thoroughly than I ever did.”
That gave him something to think about.
“By the way, have you found the way to Fengarad?” I asked 288.
“We are standing under Fengarad now,” said 288. He pointed up. Well, he was always pointing up, in the way doctors suggest you seek medical help if it lasts for more than four hours, but with his hand is what I meant.
I looked up, thinking I might see Fengarad floating over our heads, but there was only more darkness.
“And how do we get up there?” I asked him.
“We fly,” said 288, and took off.
Maurice spread his large bat wings. He flapped them once and shot up after 288.
I didn’t have any wings, but in my out-of-body form I was able to float. I slowly rose into the air, not nearly as impressively as they had. If this place had been especially constructed for me, why was I the least cool person here?
The other two were hovering in place, waiting for me.
“Here,” said Maurice, pointing at a spot no different to any other. “You have to open it.”
When I took a closer look, it did seem slightly darker here.
“How?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” said Maurice. “Maybe use some kind of magic?”
Everyone’s answer to everything.
“I will be leaving now,” said 288.
“Already?” said Maurice. “You aren’t going to stick around for the finale?”
“I must return. The sword?” 288 held out his hand.
Maurice, as I’ve already mentioned, was naked. If he had a sword on him, I wasn’t going to ask where he was keeping it.
Maurice turned to me. If he was going to ask me to pull the sword out of somewhere to prove I was the king, I would prefer to remain uncrowned.
“The deal I made was that 288 would help us, and you would return the sword to Cheng.”
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
“It was the only way to get them to help,” said Maurice. “He only lent you the sword.”
“No, I mean why would you promise something on my behalf when I hadn’t agreed to it? Which I obviously wouldn’t.”
“Then you wouldn’t have got the sword,” said Maurice.
“I’m not giving it back,” I said. “You’ll have to explain your mistake to them.”
It amazes me how sure people can be that everyone will go along with whatever retarded idea they come up with. Something to do with the internet, I suppose. That instant support for anything you say because morons like to gather with their own kind and groom each other with fake internet points.
“I must insist,” said 288, suddenly sounding not so small and weak. If he got enraged and started swelling up, that wouldn’t look good for any of us. “I cannot return without the sword.”
“It’s not like you really need it,” said Maurice. He had an apologetic look on his face. Which either meant he was sorry for what he’d done, or for what he was about to do.
Being a proactive sort of fellow, which I’m sure is how you see me, I took decisive action. I took out the sword and held it aloft, glowing. I thought of shouting, “By the power of Greyskull,” but with a big naked black dude and a floating penis already in attendance, I didn’t want to make things even more homoerotic by bringing He-Man into it.
I brought the sword down, slicing 288 in half. He fell down to the ground.
“Why did you do that?” Maurice yelled at me.
“What? He didn’t have a body ten minutes ago, he’s hardly going to be heartbroken at his loss.”
“They’ll kill us,” said Maurice.”They’ll kill us all.”
“This is your problem, Maurice, you think too many steps ahead. Cheer up, you’ll be dead long before the demons get around to killing you. Now, how do we get through this bloody door?”
I probed the dark with the sword. Maurice seemed quite shaken up, but that only meant he hadn’t expected me to chop 288 in half. Anything that wasn’t part of the plan was a step in the right direction as far as I was concerned.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Maurice kept muttering to himself.
He was probably right, but since when had doing what I was supposed to been of any help?
The sword found a pocket of less resistance. I put my hand against it and it passed through. The other side felt cold.
“Here, I found the way, I think.” I walked through. Why waste time discussing what to do?
I stepped onto the top of one of the spires. On the outside.
There was no wind, no movement of any kind. Everything was frozen in place, the flying ships in the sky, the tiny people far below, all but the vines pulsing and writhing in every direction. It was hard to see what was going on down there, a haze surrounded me. Behind me was a shimmering slit. Not exactly vaginal, but in the way a tower always seems phallic, every vertical slit has a vulvic quality to it. That’s a real word, by the way. A very disgusting real word.
Maurice’s head popped out through the spatial labia and asked, “Is it safe to come out?”
“You can move?” I was surprised he wasn’t frozen like everyone else.
He stepped out with my body in his arms. Now we were both stood on the curved top of the spire. If this had been in the real world, first I’d be afraid, I’d be petrified, but then I would grow strong and learn how to get along.
Maurice dropped my body’s legs and held it up like a coat for me to put on. “I think once you enter this body, time will start again and this... slit will close up.”
Would that really be what happened when I entered the nubile young body he was presenting me with? It could easily be a trap, a puppet that could be controlled by others, or a cell I could never leave.
I turned and looked around. “You were wrong, that isn’t my world in there.” I pointed at the slit. “This is my world.”
Maurice leaned over the edge. “You want to rule over these people?”
“Not that world, this world. Where nothing moves and nothing changes and nothing can get any worse. This is about the only place I ever feel comfortable.”
It was true. When I was in the adjacent world I felt safe. My kingdom. If I stayed here, I would be fine. Nothing to worry about. But what kind of existence was that, just to be?
I let myself float into the body. It didn’t feel the same as when I was in my real body. It wasn’t me, it was just a suit I had on, a vessel I was piloting. Was it like this for Maurice, or did his come with extra features that gave a more human experience. My own body was still number one, which was slightly depressing.
Time restarted and reality punched me in the face. I was standing naked, a hundred metres up on top of a ball on a stick. The world whirled wildly around my head. The wind blasted into my frail, slightly wet body and I grabbed onto the spike that had been a trans-dimensional slit a moment ago.
The haze had gone, as had the vines. The flying ships were gliding in circles around the city. Far below, the people were moving around in amorphous clumps. A large number of them were fairies. Events had developed since I’d been here last, it seemed. It was hard to tell exactly what was going on. Every time I looked down, I felt my body was going to pitch forward and I would be sent tumbling down.
“Are you alright?” said Maurice, spreading out his wings and standing on the edge of the roof of the world like it was no big deal.
I nodded while clinging onto the spike.
“I’m going to go find out what’s going on,” said Maurice. He jumped off the spire and flapped his wings. The wings buckled like an old umbrella being turned inside out by a strong wind, and he plummeted, turned in the air, grasped at nothing, arm flailing like very poor wing replacements, turned again, almost got his wings to open, lost it, and smacked hard into the ground, sending the crowd below scattering in all directions.
I had been about to ask him to give me a lift down, but now I was glad I hadn’t.