I reached up slowly. Bald before twenty, that’s what I was thinking. Cool, Jason Statham hardman kind of bald? No chance. More like burns victim with alopecia.
The hair on my head was still there. In fact, there was more of it than I remembered. I didn’t bother too much with my hair. I let it grow and occasionally sliced bits off when they got in my face. But now the strands were noticeably longer than before. My beard, which was patchy at the best of times, also felt heavier.
As I moved my fingers over my face, I also noticed a difference in my fingertips. My fingernails had grown.
“Do I look weird?” I asked the others, who were still staring. They made noncommittal noises. I guess it was a hard question to answer if you thought I looked quite weird to start with.
“Stand up,” said Keezy.
I rose to my feet and walked over to him. He seemed reluctant to come closer to his fallen comrade.
He placed his hands on my shoulder, looked me in the face with his coal-black eyes, and began changing. A few seconds later he had turned into me.
It’s odd standing in front of yourself. Seeing how you look to others is a bit like hearing your voice on a recording. Feels off, although it isn’t. In fact it’s the opposite, it’s too accurate.
It was even odder now that I could see how I had changed. It wasn’t lycanthropy. I had thought with all the extra hair and nails I might have gone wolfman. I was a bit disappointed that wasn’t the case, to tell the truth.
My hair was a bit longer and overall I looked a bit scruffier. That was all. It was as though I hadn’t groomed myself for a month or two.
“I think you aged,” said Jenny. She took my hand in hers and examined my long, dirty fingernails. “The healing made you grow older. You have to stop using it.”
I shrugged. “I expect I’ll be dead long before old age sets in.” It was a bit embarrassing having her be so aware of my lack of personal hygiene, but it’s nice to hold hands with a girl, even under such unromantic circumstances.
“Healing magic shouldn’t drain your life,” said Clone Colin.
“Can you turn back? You’re kind of freaking me out.”
Keezy changed back to his troll form. The troll lying behind me groaned and sat up. Keezy backed away.
“You think he’s still infectious?” I asked the jittery troll leader.
“I do not know. It doesn’t matter. He is no longer one of us.”
Seemed a bit harsh. Other than the shiny knob of brass in his back he didn’t look any different to before. “I don’t know what’s wrong with your eyesight, but he’s very definitely still one of you.”
“You should have let me die,” said Knobby.
“Don’t say that, Kungen,” said Flossie, still quite tearful. Apparently they were on first name terms. They probably all were.
Kungen got to his feet. As far as I could tell, there was nothing wrong with him. He looked down, his eyes darting around like he was seeing himself for the first time.
“I am stuck in… this. Forever.” His voice cracked. The other two trolls looked away. The brass had stopped him from being able to shapeshift and this was a big deal, to trolls anyway.
“Well, your gratitude is overwhelming. Next time I consider giving up a month’s worth of my life to save someone from certain death, somebody please throw me off the nearest piss-soaked bridge.”
“You don’t understand,” said Kungen, distraught. “You don’t know what this means.”
“I think you’re confusing ‘don’t know’ with ‘don’t give a shit’. If it’s so terrible, why did you risk saving Flossie in the first place?”
He scrunched up his big rocky face. “She’s my sister’s friend. Kacey would never forgive me…”
Kaceyton was his sister. Kaceyton, Kungen… I looked over at Keezy. “And you?”
“She is also my sister,” said Keezy.
“So he’s your brother?”
Cold. “I always thought monsters were the same as people. Turns out I was right. You’re just as horrible.”
“What would you have me do?” shouted Keezy.
Flossie stepped out in front of me. “Put your arms around your brother and tell him you love him.”
I’m not sure he would have done that even before his brother had troll AIDS, but Flossie didn’t care. She was on a mission.
“So what if he’s different now? He’s still your brother, ain’ he? Fookin’ stop being such a big babby.”
Insecure girls may not have the confidence to stand up for themselves, but when they find a cause to get behind, they really get stuck in. I guess all those barrels of suppressed emotion they’ve been hoarding for so long are primed to blow the minute you open the lid.
“Are you a babby? Are you?”
The troll tried to turn away, but Flossie followed him round, refusing to let him off. She’d asked a question, she expected an answer. What she’d probably get was a boulder shaped fist in the face.
“He’s your brother. There’s nothing wrong with him. Look.” She put her hand on Kungen and moved them about like she was waxing a car. “See?”
What this proved, I had no idea. Obviously she had no issue with brass, so it wouldn’t make a difference to her in any case.
“Touch him! Touch your brother. See for yourself.”
Keezy did not move. “What good would it do to share his fate?”
“At least he wouldn’t have to face it alone,” said Flossie, issuing a challenge you couldn’t really argue against, other than admitting you wanted to put yourself first. She’d obviously been studying at the feet of the Sorceress Supreme.
Both trolls, and everyone else, looked very uncomfortable. Flossie had one hand on her hip and the other pointed at Kungen, whose face resembled molten lava. No one wanted to make the first move, in either direction.
“As much as I’m enjoying this clown fiesta,” I said, “I am still drenched in giant’s urine, and wouldn’t mind a bath. Is there a river or lake nearby?”
Keezy seemed only too happy to change the subject. “Yes. Follow me.”
He swiftly turned and led the way. We followed, a caravan of the bedraggled. I assumed Gargantua had managed to fend off the Gidiots and we were at least safe from them. What lay ahead of us couldn’t be worse. It could, however, be equally as bad.
Kungen brought up the rear. He wasn’t guarding us as much as keeping his distance from his former colleagues. Flossie insisted walking alongside, endlessly chirping in his ear. She was probably trying to be comforting, but the troll wasn’t paying her much attention. He was lost in his own funk. As a depressive myself, I guessed he would rather be left alone, but it had nothing to do with me so I decided not to get involved.
Light filtered through the branches and the smells of forest floor permeated the air. It was a picturesque setting and would have been quite a nice walk under less awful conditions. The woodland scents could do nothing to stop me smelling my own horrendous odour of sweat and piss.
Keezy brought us out of the woods at the edge of a large lake. We all walked into it.
We didn’t take off our clothes or even out shoes. They all stank and needed a wash, as did we. Doing it all at once seemed convenient and efficient. Plus, we were too knackered to unbuckle and unbelt.
The water made a big difference. The weightlessness returned some of my energy, or at least that’s how it felt.
Slowly we drifted back to the bank and removed our clothes. The girls were down to their underwear, but nobody really cared. The trolls weren’t interested and the other guys were used to it. The only person to be concerned about was me, and I was too exhausted to be lechy. Okay, so I did have a short leer at Jenny, but it was minimal and very tactfully done.
Maurice managed to catch a couple of fish while bathing, which was impressive. We started a fire and cooked the fish while we waited for our clothes to dry.
Flossie continued to berate Keezy for his lack of brotherly love, which he did his best to ignore. Kungen stood at the opposite side of the group, head hung low, misery personified.
There was no way Flossie would ever convince Keezy to reassess his worldview. People who live within a certain culture will defend it to the end, no matter how out of touch their beliefs. It forms their identity, and letting go of even the smallest part, no matter how obvious it is the right thing to do, can take hundreds of years. Just look at chopsticks.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons why chopsticks are fine. They work. They’re easy to make. They’re cheap. But at the end of the day, compared to a spoon or a fork, there’s no contest. Although, admittedly, I’d take chopsticks over a fucking spork, all day, every day.
That doesn’t mean I think Chinese people are dumber than English people (it should be clear by now that I consider all people to be equally dumb) but cultural identity is no excuse for ignoring the obvious.
So what if it’s been like that for a thousand years?
I’m sure when Arabic numerals were introduced plenty of Romans were like, “What is this 1, 2, 3 bullshit? M, X, V.... these are real numbers,” but they were wrong. As they were about togas and vomitoriums.
Once we’d eaten and got dressed (I only slightly peeked at Jenny), Keezy walked to the edge of the lake and shouted, “Asther! Where is the village today.”
He stood there, staring out at the placid lake surface. There was a ripple and two eyes appeared. On stalks. They rose up about a foot. A tentacle appeared next to them and pointed to the left side of the lake. It shimmered between green and purple in the sunlight before sinking back into the water.
“Thank you.” He turned back to us like nothing strange had happened. “This way. We should get there before nightfall.”
We set off again, skirting our way around the lake. I kept one eye on the water, wondering what else might be in there.
“What’s this village?” I asked Keezy.
“It is a place of safety,” he replied without looking back, probably so he wouldn’t have to see his brother.
“I thought you were going to keep us safe,” I said.
“Once the sun goes down, there are things that cannot be protected from.” Ominous.
These unstoppable killers weren't quite as invulnerable as I had first thought. Helpless against brass, afraid of the dark and susceptible to emotional blackmail. Try as he might to act like Kungen was no longer part of his life, from just the sag in his shoulders it was obvious to me that Flossie’s haranguing was getting to him.
The sun started to set and after Keezy’s warning I didn’t much fancy stumbling around in the dark. I raised my hand to produce some light, but Jenny reached out and grabbed my wrist, pulling it back down.
“No magic,” she said.
“We need to see where we’re going,” I said.
“We know where we’re going. There.” She pointed her chin past me.
I turned back and saw the lights. One by one, torches flared up revealing a sprawling mass of tents and shacks. They spread out from the edge of the lake to the trees, and then up the trees into the branches.
Figures scurried about. In the fading light of dusk it wasn’t easy to make out how many creatures populated the shanty town, but it was easy to tell one thing; they very definitely weren’t human.