127. Mask

The crowd parted as I led the Intui shaman into the castle. Cheng accompanied us but everyone else remained outside with their baited breaths, large wasps and huge expectations.

It would be untrue to say I didn’t feel under pressure. Somehow, I had to avert a fight which would most likely result in my death. Talking my way out of a tight spot was nothing new, but all it took for me to fail was for the other person to say, “Nah, don’t buy it.”

There were still a number of methods I could use to avoid getting involved with violence, most of which relied on convincing others to be violent on my behalf, but my preference was to find a method that didn’t require fighting. And that method was called lying.

Lying, when it works, can be better than magic. Poof! The problem’s gone.

“The Worm King is mentioned three times by name,” I said, pointing out the places on the wall, “and a couple of times indirectly.”

The shaman had an awed look on his face. I don’t think he had seen the prophecy before and it was probably akin to a religious experience for him; which was all the better as far as I was concerned. If he was off-balance, he was less likely to spot the flaws in my logic. 

“This line where it says the Worm King will ‘descend on the night’ is referring to the jabberwocky.”

The shaman nodded. The line I had pointed out was the only reference to the jabberwocky, and I only knew that because Cheng had told me. Personally, I thought it was a bit of a leap.

Sure, you could make a case for how the Worm King descending on the night, which was up until very recently the domain of the jabberwocky, was an indication of the Worm King wresting control from the jabberwocky, but tenuous to say the very least.

“But,” I continued, “it also talks about the Worm King bringing Nekromel. Here.”

When I had asked Cheng what ‘Nekromel’ meant, he gave me a list of possible answers. It was the end of the world. It was the birth of a new one. It was the living dead rising from their graves. It was a person, whose name was Nekromel. It was a fountain that granted immortality. And so on.

Of course the true answer was obvious—no one had the foggiest idea what a Nekromel was. Which was perfect for my purposes.

 “After the Bride, the Worm King will bring Nekromel, that part isn’t in question.” I gave the shaman a questioning look. He nodded slowly. “What isn’t clear is the identity of Nekromel, and I’m not going to pretend I’ve solved that particular riddle.”

The trick to a good lie is to not have all the answers. If you put yourself too far above others, they stop caring if you’re right or wrong, they just want to tear you down.

“I have my theories, like everyone else, but that isn’t important right now. What is important is that Nekromel isn’t going to appear here.”

“It isn’t?” said Cheng. He was just as interested in my view of the prophecy as the shaman.

“I don’t think so. There is a place in Flatland where I saw a fairy. A small creature, this big.” I held up finger and thumb to indicate the size.

“Fairies do not exist,” said the shaman. 

What kind of world is it where fantasy creatures insist other fantasy creatures don’t exist?

“I assure you they do exist, and I don’t think my seeing one on the first day I arrived here was a coincidence. Especially when you take into account this line.” I put my finger under a word on the wall and dragged it along as I read the line out loud. “When the Worm King brings Nekromel to the Home of Fate, the Joy of Old will reign once again. Do you see?”

Both Cheng and the shaman looked at me blankly. As expected.

“Fate. In my world, another word for fairy is fay. And the plural of fay is fate.” And the plural of bullshit is?

Cheng and the shaman looked at each other, I think each wanting some kind of reassurance.

“Here’s what I think,” I said, trying to steamroll on before awkward questions could be asked. “After Cheng marries the Bride, the rift will be sealed and the Worm King will travel to the home of the fairies. Which means he will leave this land, and you will be able to return to your home. Since I am the only one who can fetch the Bride—” there was no actual evidence to support this claim, so I swiftly moved on “—if you insist on killing me and it doesn’t work out the way you hope, you will be stuck with the Worm King until someone else comes along to fulfil the prophecy. And who knows how long that will take?”

Yes, it was a stretch. My interpretation required a lot to be taken on faith. But that’s the great thing about holy texts that have absolutely no hard evidence to back them up—faith is considered better than proof.

The shaman stepped forward and reverently placed his hand on the wall. “So you are saying, once you have produced the Bride, the Worm King will travel across the border and leave us be?”   

“Yes,” I said. “And if it doesn’t work out that way, you can always challenge me again.” Assuming they could find me.

The shaman thought this over for a few minutes. Then he turned to Cheng. “Our homes have all been destroyed. Will you let us wait here until he returns?”

Cheng nodded.

When we went back up, the crowds were still gathered, waiting for the results of our deliberations. There was tension in the air but no argy bargy had occurred while we had been away.

The shaman explained the situation to the rapt audience, which he really seemed to enjoy. Are all priests just frustrated showmen? In any case, his yen for performing helped sell my idea to the Intui who were mainly appeased by the idea they could always kill me later.

There was a lot left unsaid, and the details of how I would find the Bride and bring her back weren’t questioned, which was a relief since I still had to figure out a reasonable explanation for why I was the best man for that particular job, but all in all they seemed to have bought into my plan.

That is, the plan I had told them. My actual plan was somewhat similar, but there were a few, shall we say, discrepancies.

The mood turned from tense to optimistic, and when the shaman informed them they would be allowed to stay on the mountain until I returned, it became jubilant. Having to live with the threat of the Worm King and his subordinate worms popping out of the ground and wrecking their homes had obviously been stressful, and they felt safer up here.

The Mezzik were less enthusiastic. The dragons weren’t very keen, either.

As the Intui celebrated, their wasps became excited. They buzzed in what I would assume was their way of expressing happiness, but the dragons reacted aggressively, honking and stamping.

The Mezzik did their best to calm the dragons, but the wing-flapping and challenging growls only served to excite the wasps more until both sides were snapping at each other.

The dragons broke free and came charging forward. The children panicked and ran in all directions with the Mezzik chasing after them. The scene quickly became chaotic. Wasps careened about with their riders trying to maintain control.

The lead dragon, Vikchutni, shot a jet of acid at the largest group of wasps. The wasps immediately spread apart to leave the person behind them in the line of fire. That person was me.

I froze. The acid was headed directly at me. All I needed to do was move out of the way. But I couldn’t. 

I saw the acid. I wanted to move. But my feet refused to function.

And then I was shoved, hard. I fell, turning to see Jenny take my place. The acid hit her in the face and she screamed.

Everyone stopped. The scream had been so piercing and full pain, even the monsters were shaken out of their belligerence. I jumped to my feet and ran to where Jenny lay. Her body was shaking and she was moaning. Half her face was melting.

The right side, from the top of her head down to her chin, was bubbling goo. 

I slammed my hand against the side of her face and poured everything I had into healing her. The acid burned my hand, but I ignored it. The wound sealed over, but it didn’t return her face to normal. It was like cooled lava, a grey scab, thick and uneven. It looked a bit like crocodile skin. 

I kept healing her but nothing changed. I could feel my hair growing, falling over my face. 

Jenny’s moans stopped but her breathing was still ragged. She reached out and tried to push my hand off her face.

“I’m okay,” she said. “You can stop.”

She didn’t look okay. Her hair on that part of her head was gone. The side of her face, including her ear, were gone. The skin had hardened into a scaly mass of ridges. Her eye had been unharmed, but the weight of the scars pulled her skin down so her right eye looked a bit wonky. 

Claire and Floosie came running over and I stood up to let them in. I turned to the silent crowd. The fear that overwhelmed me had begun to change. To rage.

I was a bit dizzy, but my anger cleared my head. Vikchunti, the dragon whose life I had saved, had nearly killed the only person I had ever cared about. The dragon in question was directly in front of me. As I walked towards him, he backed away, head lowered.

Both my hands burst into flame. It was a hot white flame that hurt. The pain only fueled my hate. The dragon could have flown away. Or it could have attacked me. It did neither of these. Instead it made a pitiful mewling sound. It didn’t make me any less enraged. 

I raised my two burning hands, fighting to see clearly through the tears in my eyes. An enormous swell of energy filled me, building to the point I felt I would explode. 

And then it stopped.

Cheng appeared in front of me. He had his hand on my chest. All it took was that one touch and the fire went out. My hand were just two empty hands. The energy inside me was gone. The tears remained.

“Go,” said Cheng. “She needs you. I will deal with this.” His voice, deep as ever, was gentle and calm. 

I lowered my hands. They were shaking. The rest of me was shaking too. All around us, the Mezzik and Intui were kneeling. Even the wasps and dragons seemed to have their heads bowed. It wasn’t me they were showing fealty to. 

Jenny had got to her feet and the girls were all crying as they comforted her. Maurice and Dudley stood awkwardly to the side not sure what they should be doing. That part was at least reassuringly normal. But looking at Jenny’s disfigured face made me want to scream.

Was I being shallow and superficial? I don’t know. She was still a good-looking chick. Half of her face looked completely the same as before. The other half didn’t look real. It was like she was wearing a mask. It felt like if only I could find a way to take it off, I’d be able to see her whole again. 

I wasn’t sure what I should say. Tell her it was going to be okay and I’d find a way to fix everything? Lying can work like magic, but sometimes lying is just lying.

I took a deep breath and walked over to her. She looked up at me, nervously. It occurred to me that she hadn’t actually seen the way she looked, so probably had no idea the extent of her injuries, but she kept touching the scarred skin so she knew her days of porcelain skin were done. Still, at least she wouldn’t have to worry about zits any more.

“Come on” I said, taking her hand. “Let’s go.”

I led her back to our room where a the tub had been filled with water. I removed her clothes. She still hadn’t said anything. Everything was fine until she leaned over the tub and saw her reflection in the water. She screamed and ran away into a corner of the room.

She slid down the wall and sat there in a huddle, sobbing. 

She stayed there for a long time.

Every time I got closer, she flinched and scampered away. I tried to hold her in my arms but she pushed me away, violently. She punched and kicked. You could tell she’d been training. I couldn’t get near her.

“Just go!” she yelled. “Leave me. Leave me.” The pain in her voice was horrible and I had no idea how to alleviate her distress.

What I decided to do—and I’m not suggesting this was correct—was jump on her. 

We fought. I mean, we really fought her. We rolled around on the floor, me attempting to get hold of her, her doing everything to push me away. She did most of the hitting, but I got a couple of blows in. 

You might be thinking that attacking a girl who was traumatised by a near-death experience possibly wasn’t the ideal way to help her process the complicated emotions she was facing. I would say, you have your way of dealing with girls who’ve been assaulted by dragons, and I have mine.

I want to point out, she wasn’t messing around. Once she got into it, she really wanted to do some damage. Just defending myself wasn’t going to achieve anything. Eventually I managed to get on top of her, pinning her with one knee in her stomach and both hands held in mine, our fingers interlaced.

“Get off me!” she spat through gritted teeth.

“Stop it!” I spat back through equally gritted teeth. “Can you for one second stop thinking about yourself.”

That brought her up short. Her eyes searched mine trying to understand what the fuck I was saying. I slid my knee off her, but remained vigilant for an attack to the groin.

“‘I’m in pain. My face is burned. I look like a monster.’ Me, me, me. That’s all you ever think about. Did you for one second consider what would happen if I lost you, Jenny? I was perfectly fine on my own, but you forced me into this fucking relationship. And you think you can walk away? No. I refuse. I don’t care if I have to raise you from the dead, you don’t get to leave. Now stop being so fucking selfish.”

She had stopped struggling but her body rose and fell under me as she gasped for breath. “You still want to be with me? Even though I look like this.”

“Yes, of course.” I bent down and kissed her. “Your vagina still works, right?”

She laughed. There were tears streaming down her face, but the storm had passed.

“I thought… you wouldn’t want me any more.”

I let go of her hands and sat up straddling her. “Would you stop caring for me if something happened to my face?”

She pushed herself up on her hands. “That’s different.”

“Why is that different?”

“You aren’t that attractive to start with.”

She grinned at me. It was a huge relief to see her mocking smile. Still, you can’t let women get too cocky. I dragged her over to the bed and soon wiped the smirk off her face.

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