Joshaya, God of Death, pain in my arse, old man with a beard who probably didn’t look like that in real life, did not look very happy to see me.
He looked even less happy that he was about to have a roommate. I could empathise. I wouldn’t want someone just popping in and informing me they’d be sharing the same space for an indefinite amount of time. Rude.
“It won’t be so bad,” I said, looking around at the vast nothingness. “This place is pretty big. I’ll take that side and you can stay over here. We probably won’t even see each other more than once a week.”
“Week? You intend to stay that long?” Joshaya had always presented a carefree attitude, a sense that nothing could stop him. Now he looked a bit worried. It was the kind of effect I was known for.
“I don’t know how long I’ll stay for,” I said, trying to put a positive spin on things. Not that I cared but if we were going to live together, it would probably be better if we had an amicable relationship. Might need to borrow a cup of sugar at some point. “And it’s not like you have any choice in the matter.” Then again, you can’t let people assume they have a say in what you do.
“I was here first,” said Joshaya.
Gods these days don’t seem to have the old fire and brimstone gravitas to them. No flood, no plagues of insects, not even thunder and lightning to add a little atmosphere. It’s all me, me, me. Worship me, paint me on a cloud, make sure I’m represented as the highest-status racial group — that goes for my son, too.
“I think it would be better if you found your own space,” said Joshaya, wringing his hands nervously. “I make a lot of noise, you know. Night terrors, screaming in my sleep, really horrible indigestion.”
“This is the only space available,” I said. “And there’s plenty of room. You can always leave if you want.”
I could see the heat rise in his face. He might not be the deity he once was but he still wasn’t going to take any backchat from a mortal pleb like yours truly. But then the light in his eyes faded. He was a spent force.
“You have no idea what it’s been like for me,” he said. “Do you think the dead are fun to be around? They aren’t. They’re miserable and they complain about everything. And they require constant supervision, always wandering off. I just want a little time to myself.”
“If they’re that much trouble don’t bring them back to life.” It didn’t seem that hard a problem to deal with.
“I’m the God of Death. It’s my job.”
“According to who? And you’re not really a god, are you? Not a proper god. You’re a fairy with lofty ambitions, that’s the truth of the matter. The rest of you, the Queen and the others, they have a bunch of powers and no real idea what to do with them. You should go back out there and have a big fight. Cut each other’s heads off until there’s only one of you left.”
Joshaya looked appalled at my suggestion of a battle royale. And not because he’d seen Youtube videos of people playing Fortnite, which was certainly reason enough.
“Why would we do that?”
“Give yourselves something to do.” I shrugged. “Maybe every time you kill one of your own, you take their power until the last fairy standing is an all-powerful superbeing.”
“And then what?”
He had me there.
“Better than hiding in here because Queenie won’t let you do what you want.”
He bridled at the accusation. “And why are you here? Don’t you have women troubles, also?”
“Me? No.” I looked up and shook my head. “No, can’t think of any.”
“Your woman is the one who convinced the others to take my powers away from me and to use them to put the dead to work. Housework, sweeping the streets, cooking dinner. Menial labour — what kind of life is that for the dead?”
“The same as it is for the living, I expect.” He made it sound like there was so much more to life, but everything that wasn’t you taking care of your basic needs was generally to the benefit of someone else. Wars, jobs, watching TV, it all put money in someone else’s pocket. “Jenny just thinks she’s helping me. It’s like a compulsion with her.”
“She wants to change you into a better man,” said Joshaya.
“No, she wants me to be the best version of me I can be.”
“No, it isn’t, but it doesn’t make any difference since I have no intention of being anything. That’s why I’m staying here. With you. I’m going to learn to make cakes and maybe take up painting, and do no work of any value. The Great British Bunk Off.”
“Go back, Colin,” said Joshaya, his voice full of depth and wisdom. “Show them what you’re capable of. You will be powerful, you will be king, they will fall at your feet and do what you tell them. The women and the men.” His hooded eyes peered at me with lascivious implication.
“What was that?” I said. “Your attempt at seducing me to the dark side? Get the fuck out of here. It’s not claiming power that’s the problem. It’s all the shit you have to put up with once you have it.”
Joshaya’s shoulders sagged. “I know. No one tells you about that part. The burden of power.”
“Oh, shut up. You’re the one who started all this. Had to meddle. I was just sleeping in the woods, minding my own business. Couldn’t leave it alone.”
Joshaya looked at me gravely. “That, too, was their idea.”
It all came back to Jenny and Claire — two women in search of a purpose. Are the problems of the world really about people having too much time on their hands? Should never have let them sit together at the back of the class.
“Well, they can’t do anything to either of us in here, can they?” I said. “I’d say we’ve managed to outfox them in the end. A couple of thousand years and then we can pop out and see what’s left of the world. Apocalyptic wasteland, I expect. Which would be a marked improvement. And anyway, this is all probably a hallucination. Maurice has reality-bending powers. I’m not generally susceptible to them, but with Jenny to help him and Peter boosting him from the shadows, I’m probably sitting in a padded room, drooling and having a wonderful time in the Matrix. I might even learn kung fu.” I peered into Joshaya’s weary face. “Are you even real, you spoon?”
“Whatever Maurice is capable of, he did it without Peter’s help.”
“How do you know that? Because they say he’s dead and trapped in limbo?”
“No,” said a cheerful American voice from behind me. “Because I’m right here, kid.”
I turned to find Peter strolling up to us, dressed in a pinstripe suit, flower in the buttonhole, hair slicked back and a David Niven moustache neatly occupying his upper lip.
“Joshaya, you should have told me we were having guests. How smashing. The three most powerful men in the world, together at last.”
The three powerhouses of Flatland, huddled together in a black hole. Sad lonely men who raged against an uncaring world. We were like the Bilderberg Group, only with fewer paedophiles.
“This is how he stopped you interfering?” I said to Peter. “Stuck you in here?” It was beginning to look like this was the Guantanamo of the fantasy world. An orc would come around later and waterboard us for lulz.
“I’m afraid so. Cut me off from everything. I’m sure all my houseplants are dead by now. As well as my other pets.”
A realisation dawned on me. “That’s why Biadet died. They cut her off from your power.”
“Did she? That’s a terrible shame.” Peter shook his head the way you might if you found a goldfish floating at the top of the tank. “But it’s not all bad news. Don’t you see? We were destined to end up together. We can form the most devastating threesome in history.”
I flinched at his use of the word threesome. They say it ain’t gay if it’s a threeway, but it bloody is if all three of you are guys.
“Count me out,” I said.
“Me too,” said Joshaya. “But the two of you should definitely form a duo and head back out.”
“No,” I said. “I think you two make the ideal couple.”
“Sadly,” said Peter, “none of us can leave. But we can use this time to come up with some devilishly good ideas. Won’t that be fun?”
“Firstly, no. And secondly, I can leave whenever I want. I have no idea what’s keeping you here, but I’m only staying to avoid the embarrassment of not being able to remember most people’s names back in Fengarad.” I put my hand out and pulled on the thin silver thread stretching from my chest out into the dark. It had been there since I got here. It felt even thicker than before, like there were two of them intertwined. “Jenny might throw me into these situations to teach me a lesson, or whatever, but she can’t leave me alone, not even if she wanted. I can follow this out any time I want.” I pulled on it and was then yanked a couple of steps forward as I was pulled in return.
“But my dear boy,” said Peter, “then there’s nothing to stop us. Let’s go and show those rascals what’s what.”
“Thanks but that’s what I don’t want to do,” I said.
“Listen, we can make it worth your while,” said Peter, putting an arm around me and using the same voice as Joshaya earlier. “Whatever you want, we can make it come true. Right, Joshaya?”
Joshaya shrugged. “I suppose. If it will get you to leave, I’d be happy to grant you any wish in my power.”
“Sure, sure,” I said, brushing Peter off. “You two just happen to be here and willing to grant me three wishes.”
“Three’s a bit steep,” said Peter.
“How’s it work?” I said. “Is it monkey’s paw rules or genie in a bottle?”
Joshaya looked at me blankly.
“With the monkey’s paw,” I explained, “you get what you wish for, but not the way you wanted it. With the genie, you technically get what you asked for, but not what you meant.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?” asked Joshaya
“No,” I said. “Let’s say I ask for a fortune. The monkey’s paw will give me the money, but it’s the life insurance payout because my child died. I get the fortune but I can’t enjoy it because of how I got it. With the genie, I get the money, but I’m teleported inside the tomb of a dead pharaoh, trapped with the fortune for eternity. One method makes me too depressed to care and the other makes me powerless to enjoy.”
Joshaya pulled a face. “Why go to all that trouble just to toy with someone? Would be easier not to grant the wish in the first place.”
“Because people are dicks.” My life was spent going over the basics with noobs. “Just like you two. You’re right, I shouldn’t be here with the two of you. You’re a bad influence. I’m leaving.” I sat down on the floor.
“You are?” said Peter. “Now?”
“Yes, right now.” I closed my eyes and left.
I didn’t go out, I went in. They might have put me inside the Void with two people even more irritating than me (well played), but I could still find a quiet place of my own. I sank into my consciousness, into the dark part of my mind.
“You’re back,” said the small version of me, his hair drooped across his face. “Hoo-fucking-ray.”
You’re never really alone, of course. Wherever you go, there you are.
“Watch your language, bitch. I’m here for some rest and relaxation. Don’t bother me with your childhood traumas, I don’t care.”
“Oh, Jenny, Jenny, Jenny. She isn’t your mother, we had one of those already. One was enough.”
Little-me sighed. “Did she upset you again?”
“No.” I sat down on the sofa that was still here from the last time. There was an old TV in front of it now. “What’s on?”
“Movies from your memory. They aren’t very good. You don’t remember most of them properly. There’s are a lot of sex scenes in ET that I don’t think were in the theatrical cut.”
I started sniggering. “Should have been. That finger...”
“You’re not staying, are you?” asked Little-me.
I have a kind of a reverse spider-sense that tells me when I’m not wanted. It goes off constantly and then occasionally stops. It hadn’t stopped in a long time.
“Fine, I’ll go. Enjoy your movies. The sex scenes in Star Wars might be more to your liking, you little freak.”
“I’ve seen it and the Wookie was too tall to get in that position.”
Everyone’s a critic.
I closed my eyes and went deeper. I wasn’t sure where I was going but there had to be another level I could try. One without anyone there to annoy the shit out of me.
I opened my eyes to a stiff breeze slapping me in the face. I was on castle battlements, the same castle as before. But this one didn’t have emergency exit signs or guardrails. No health and safety here.
The surroundings were also a lot more plain. Rolling hills and fields.
Was this where my castle home was, in my imagination? Was this where I’d spend the rest of my existence? But then why had Claire been here in that vision I’d had? She wasn’t here now. I checked.
I went inside, down a stone staircase. The rooms were large and nicely furnished and devoid of all life. I sat down and took off my shoes. This was okay. I could stay here and just chill out. If I thought of what I wanted to do, I could go do it. No rush.
I sat there, thinking. It was very quiet. It was nice. My Fortress of Ineptitude.
They say people in general are good, but they aren’t. Technically, most people aren’t bad. But that doesn’t make them good.
There are good people, bad people and the indifferent. Most people aren’t good, because they’re outnumbered by the bad and the indifferent. If you have a third of each, even if thirty-three percent are good, that’s not most.
It’s the middle third who are the problem, the ones who don’t care enough to help the good stop the third doing the bad: the holocausts, the concentration camps, the next season of Love Island. Those are the ones who hold the balance of power and they’re the ones enabling evil to flourish by not being arsed to stop it. I should know, I’m one of them.
Every now and again, someone comes along and motivates us middlers to get off our backsides and we achieve something of note, but then the charismatic guy gets a bullet in the head and everything falls apart again.
If you’re one of the bad guys, and you know the other side are a one-man team, then you know how to stop that movement in its tracks. Took a while, but now they nip that nonsense in the bud.
I think Jenny wanted me to be that guy. I wasn’t that guy, but I could be. And then I’d be the one with the bullet in my head. I mean, she could be that guy herself, but she preferred to have sex with that guy until he was so delirious he agreed to anything. It was her kink and I wouldn’t shame her for it. Pretty sure that’s not how Gandhi got into the game. MLK, maybe.
So the eternal struggle continued. Bad vs Good, middle child not wanting to get involved. Bad had the advantage because Good could only react after bad had already made its move, and it was too late by then. I think that’s why all our superheroes are guys who act outside the law. The law is owned by the bad guys.
Even if I got involved, whatever I did would only be temporary. All that effort and then back to the same ol’ same ol’ as soon as I take my foot off the gas. What’s the point even trying.
I don’t know how long it took — hours, days, maybe years — but eventually the answer came to me.
“You again,” said Little-me when I returned.
“How long was I gone?” I asked him.
“About ten minutes.”
“I’m leaving. Don’t touch anything while I’m gone.”
Little-me blew the hair out of his eyes and glared at me.
Next stop, Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dumber.
“Your powers,” I said to Joshaya (who seemed even less pleased to see me this time), “the Queen took them.”
“Yes. She’s welcome to them. Never brought me any happiness.”
“Okay, good. I’m going back.”
Joshaya looked delighted.
“I’ll come with you,” said Peter, running out of the dark at me.
“No.” I stood up and brushed myself off. “Wait for my signal.”
“What sort of signal?” said Peter.
“You’ll know it when you see it.” I had no intention of sending any signals. I yanked on the cord connecting me to Jenny, really tugged on it. The next moment I was twanging back to the real world.
I popped directly back into my body. They expected me to try to come out of the portal, so were busy trying to wrap up the table in some kind of white goo.
“How long was I gone?” I asked, making everyone jump.
“About ten minutes,” said Jenny.
“How did you…” Maurice looked disappointed. “I made so many calculations.”
Everyone was staring at me, not sure what to do or how to do it to me without getting in trouble.
“I’ve come to a decision,” I said.
“What?” said Maurice.
“You’re all going to have to go.”
“Go where?” said the Queen, not looking like she had any plans to go anywhere.
“To my home planet. You go there with all your fairies and dead people, and do what you want. They don’t have magic over there, so you should have no problem taking over. There’ll be some rich people who want to kill you and failing that, make a deal with you. I think you’ll know what to do. They like to fight with a big advantage over there. The biggest weapons, the biggest arsenal, the biggest armies. That’s their thing — claim to be the hero, fight like the villain. Only pick on the smallest opponents they can find, award themselves plenty of medals for it. That’s where you come in. Instead of a few OP bad guys picking off the weak, it’ll be all bad guys. No one will be safe, no one will be able to gang up and hide behind skewed laws and corrupt officials. The dead don’t give a fuck, and fairies don’t obey the rules. You can have the most amazing battles for the greatest prize. You’ll love it. And the only way for them to win is to actually live up to the bullshit they’ve been spouting for decades — by becoming real heroes. All the cowards in charge because of Daddy’s money won’t be able to rally the troops behind a message of greed and hate. They’ll be too busy running for their lives. It’ll be vicious, it’ll be terrifying, but most of all, it’ll be hilarious.”
They were all looking at me like I’d gone crazy. So the usual.
“I know, I know,” I said to their doubting faces. “But the good things is this is non-negotiable. I’m going to start to use these powers to make people do things they don’t want to. And those people are you. Trust me, it’ll be fun. For me.”
The ground shook. Only a little, but noticeably. I paused to pay closer attention. There it was again.
“Anyone else feel that?”
There were nods all around me.
The Queen lifted her arms and the air shimmered. Then an image appeared. It was a large man walking, A large naked man. He was walking over the tops of trees. It was the giant from the bridge to Monsterland.
The ground continued to shake in time with the footsteps.
“Why is Gargantua…” I stopped when I noticed the figures on the giant’s shoulders. “Can you zoom in on those people?”
The Queen gave me a look suggesting she didn’t like being told what to do but the image closed in.
It was Jack and his men. They were riding the giant.
“Always have to have the biggest weapon,” I muttered to myself.
HTADDB is on Xmas break. Chapters resume on Patreon from Tuesday 7th January and here from the 14th.Afterword from Mooderino