I’m sure you, like me, have seen your fair share of horror movies. And you’ve been dumbfounded by how stupid the people in them have behaved.
It’s almost like the people in those movies have never seen a horror movie themselves. Never been to their local multiplex and sat down to watch a bunch of teenagers go, “Hey, what’s that noise? Sounds like someone sharpening knives in the attic… I’ll go take a look.”
If you had managed to catch the occasional scary movie, or one of the deluge of sequels relentlessly being fed into cinemas like corn forced down the gullet of ducks and geese, you might consider leaving your house if the walls start bleeding.
Perhaps not going down to investigate when you hear a scratchy voice singing nursery rhymes in the basement.
Maybe politely asking the naked woman with slit wrists who suddenly appears in your bathtub to leave because you need to use the toilet and you can’t take a shit with somebody watching.
There always seems to be a much better way to deal with the problem than the one the idiots in the movie end up choosing. It’s so obvious when you’re sitting in your seat, eating popcorn because that’s what you do when you go to the movies, even though you don’t like popcorn and would never pay even half the price for a bucket of buttered polystyrene in any other setting. Those idiots.
But when you find yourself in the movie, things are a little different. The obvious thing to do is the one thing absent from your list of options. All you have is a bunch of equally terrible choices, and a grim fate closing in.
It was dark. One second I was standing in the tavern with the others, the next, surrounded by blackness.
I rubbed my thumbs across the tips of my fingers, slapped my palms against the side of my legs. I was still here. Everything felt real. Nothing felt real.
“Oh, Colin,” whispered the voice in my ear, “oh, oh, oh, Colin.”
Leave the house, call the police, record it on my phone to post on YouTube and pull in that sweet ad revenue… none of these options were available. Pissing myself and bursting into tears though, top two on the list.
“What’s this?” crooned the Jester. “ Not even a hello for your old friend? Come, come. Why so quiet?”
The voice was practically inside my head, but I sensed no presence near me. I listened hard, straining to catch the exact position of the voice. If I could pinpoint where it was coming from, I would know which direction to move in. The opposite one.
My focused search picked up a sound I did not a welcome. It slithered, wetly. Something was approaching. And getting closer all the time.
I raised my hand in front of my face. I could see it even though there was no light source. It was trembling but it was definitely my hand. I looked down and could see myself. I was dressed the same, looked the same. I tried taking a step forward.
It felt like I was moving, but I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Hard to tell when there’s nothing around you. Blindly and stubbornly I pressed on. This is the part in the movie you think, Where the fuck does he think he’s going? At least, that’s what I was thinking.
“Where are you going? Don’t leave when we’ve only just been reunited.”
The slithering got louder, like it was rushing to catch up. I didn’t want to speak in case my voice gave away my location. Perhaps it already knew where I was and was toying with me. Not being able to see where it was made it impossible to know. Not being able to see it was also a great relief.
“You’ve been listening to the stories about me, haven’t you?” It said with a chiding lilt. “You shouldn’t believe such lies. Do you really think I would slice open your stomach and rip your intestines out to drag you around like a dog on a lead? Ridiculous. Think of the mess!”
It’s disconcerting when someone denies accusations far worse than any that have actually been made. No one had mentioned intestinal dog walking to me. The image now sitting in my head made my steps gather speed. For all I knew, I was running towards the damn thing.
“Who would clean it up? Me, that’s who. No, no, that isn’t the sort of relationship we’re offering you. We want you to be one of us. Join the team. Be a member of the club everyone wants to join.”
Running was pointless. I didn’t know where I was going or what I’d find when I got there. I had nothing on me to defend myself with.
Wait, how was I moving when I’d been stuck in my chair? Where was the dagger that had pinned me in place? Everything felt real, but was it?
“Where are we?” I asked. My throat was dry and I swallowed half the words as I spoke them.
“You know where we are. We’re inside your head. Nothing can hurt you here. Unless you’d like it to. Is that what you like? Are you a bad boy, Colin? Don’t worry, I like bad boys.”
Yeah, that didn’t sound worrying.
“Can you cut out the kinky stuff? It makes me very uncomfortable when you talk like that.”
The slithering stopped. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. No more kinky stuff. Unless you ask for it.” Then the voice dropped down an octave. “Which I suspect you will, eventually.”
“Okay, good. And why don’t you show yourself? If you want to make me an offer, shouldn’t we talk face to face.”
It was a risky move. If he did reveal his appearance there was a good chance I would collapse into a heap of quivering terror-jelly.
“It’s hard to take shape in this place. Tell me where you are in Nekromel and we can meet. Man to man. Although, technically I am not a man. But you are right, we should meet. It’s what a man would do and you are a man, aren’t you?”
“Technically, yes. Fine, I’m in the mountains to the north of the city. I don’t know exactly where but I’m sure you can find me.”
“Ho ho, Colin, you really are a slippery one. So you have been to a city? Which city would that be?”
“I, er, flew over a big, sprawling city in a box with wings.” I thought if I sprinkled in some details it might make my lies more convincing. “I didn’t see any major landmarks. Sorry.”
“No, please don’t apologise. That helps narrow it down considerably.”
Did it? Shit.
“It may have had a lake nearby. And a waterfall.” Meet had neither but maybe no other city had, either, which would only make it obvious I was lying. Maybe Meet was the only city in Nekromel. I really should have listened when people talked about these things. If they had talked about them. I wouldn’t know, I wasn’t paying attention.
“You must have stopped at this city. The boxes can’t fly that far without a break.”
“Oh. Yes, I think we did.”
“Did you see any signs? Any names over stores?”
“No.” This part didn’t require any subterfuge.
“You entered a new city and didn’t wonder where you were?” He sounded quite incredulous.
My lack of interest in my surroundings was paying off. Sure, I felt like an idiot for not picking up on such obvious details that any other person would have, but you can’t give up information you don’t have. Ignorance FTW!
“My, my you are the strange one. Cheng said you were an unusual young man.”
The name brought me up short. “You… you know Cheng?”
“Of course, he is the one who recommended you. He does nothing but sing your praises. Sings like a bird.”
“He’s here, in Nekromel?”
“He is waiting for you in the Palace of Laughter. Did I not mention it before? My mistake. We are all just so excited about his arrival, it’s very distracting.”
Had Cheng come through the portal with us? There had been no sign of him. Mind you, he could fly, so avoiding a drop into the ocean may not have been a problem for him. It also raised another question.
“Did he arrive alone?”
“Alone, yes. Why, were you expecting him to be with someone else?”
“No, no, just wondered. He was always surrounded by people whenever I saw him, that’s all.”
“Come to the Palace and see him for yourself,” said the Jester. There was a flicker of light somewhere on my right. “You’ll find things are not as you have been told.”
“You don’t eat people?”
“Define ‘people’.” As ripostes go, this one was not very comforting. “We all consume sustenance one way or another, do we not? There is only a finite amount of energy available. In order to grow, someone else needs to be deprived. Bread, water, human souls… it’s all the same when you think about it, isn’t it?”
My first thought was, No, it isn’t all the fucking same, but then I’m biased.
When faced with a madman making you a crazy offer you can be assured rejecting it will only produce an even worse counter-offer.
“You know, I’m not sure what it is you want from me. I’m not saying no, I’m simply not sure what’s on the table.”
“We don’t want anything from you!” He sounded amazed at the very idea. “We want to give to you. Anything you desire. Wouldn’t you like to fly? Be as strong as a giant? Rip your enemies apart with your bare hands. Oh. Oh. The power, think about the power. My lips are moist at the thought of it.” There was a slobbering sound like a tongue running over lips. At least that’s what I hoped it was.
His list had started off in quite a tempting manner but by the end, I’m not sure him creaming himself over the idea of ripping people apart was a winning sales strategy.
“I like your ideas, plenty for me to think about. Why don’t we go back to our respective corners, have a think about it, and I’ll be in touch?”
“Time, Colin, it is such a nebulous thing. Even here, where nothing changes, it is impossible to prevent the universes continuing their inexorable journey towards the end. A few billion years is all we have left… no time for dilly-dallying.”
Something slid up the inside of my leg. Fear washed over me and my only thought was, please don’t be a tongue.
A light glinted in the distance. White and square-shaped. A doorway? I headed towards it. Now that I had a point of reference I could tell I was moving. The light was getting bigger.
“Yes, yes, that’s right. Go towards the light. Quickly, now.”
His encouragement made me falter. Did he want me to go to the light or was he trying to bluff me?
It didn’t matter. There was nowhere else to run, and running was definitely going to be involved no matter what.
“Wait, Colin. Wait for meeeee.”
The square of light got bigger and brighter. I didn’t know what was on the other side but I was about to find out. I launched myself through it…
Something had hold of my leg, wrapped around my left ankle and was jerking me back. My fingers grabbed the edges of the opening and barely managed to cling on.
I held on as my legs were stretched out behind me, floating like a hurricane was blowing me away. The writhing appendage attached to me began curling upwards. Was it trying to pull me back or come through with me? Always two horrible choices, always the only two on the list.
I banged the heel of my shoe into the grasping limb and missed, slamming it into my own ankle instead. A white-hot pain fizzed through my mind and the Jester’s grasp loosened with a grunt that sounded like he had suffered some pain, too.
I took one hand off the frame of the glowing gateway, nearly losing my grip entirely, and bit my hand.
There was a scream. Of pain? Of fury? Of frustration? I couldn’t tell. My leg was released and like a snapped rubber band I whiplashed through the light, tumbling and unsure which way was up.
A soft warmth enveloped me.
“I’ve got you.” This voice was different. Female, for a start, and familiar. I gladly fell into it.
I opened my eyes in a daze to find myself lying on top of Jenny. Not the worst outcome.
“You’re shaking,” she said.
“I know, it was fucking terrifying. Although the effect is a little different when I’m pressed up against your—”
Jenny coughed and nodded over my shoulder. I turned my head and realised we had an audience.
I sat up. We were on the floor of the tavern. I looked around. Everyone was staring at me, including the regular patrons. Time had been restarted. Slowly the room returned to its normal business of seething with barely suppressed hostility and reeking of strange brews.
“What happened?” I asked the people standing over me.
“You passed out,” said Maurice. “That’s what it looked like. Jenny caught you.”
“I’ll always be there to catch you,” said Jenny.
“Oh, is that a promise?” I said getting to my feet.
“Think of it more as a threat,” said Jenny as she stood up and brushed herself off. “Try to get away from me, and I will hunt you down.” She gave me a look so cold and sincere I couldn’t help but grin. It was a look that said, don’t forget who your true opponent is.
“Was it him?” asked David. “Did he find you?”
“Give the boy a chance to catch his breath,” said Phil.
“Why don’t you let him speak,” said David. “It’s your fault this happened.”
“Yes, he found me. Wanted me to come with me to the Palace.”
“Did you give him our location?” asked David, concern etched into his face.
“No,” I said, “of course not. I’m not a total idiot.”
Claire, who had her hand over her mouth, let out a stifled sob, turned and ran away.
“What was that about?” I asked Maurice.
He shrugged. “Maybe you should ask her.”
“Maybe you should ask her,” I suggested.
“No,” said Maurice, “maybe you should ask her.”
“Or, alternatively,” I said, “you—”
“Go talk to her,” said Jenny. “Please.”
You’d think after what I’d been through they’d let me take a break from facing horrors and ghastly apparitions, but apparently not.
Maurice suddenly pulled me into a rough embrace and pounded me on the back, which was awkward. “I’m glad you’re not dead.”
Normally I would have refused to pander to Claire’s mood swings, but getting away from Hugs McGee was enough to send me after Claire. At least she wouldn’t try to cop a feel.
I followed Claire round the corner to where she was leaning against the wall, crying.
“Why the fuck are you crying?” I said in my most sympathetic voice. I’m not saying I showed any sympathy, just that it was the closest you could reasonably expect from me.
“Go away,” she said in the way people say when they mean ‘stay and ask me more’.
“I’m the one who just went through a living nightmare, not you.”
“I know that. You think I don’t know it was my fault?” Tears streaked down her cheeks and snot poured out of her nose. “I tried, I really wanted to be like the rest of you but I can’t. I always fuck up.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Really? You don’t think I’m useless? A burden on the group?”
“Sure,” I said. “The whole group’s useless. You’re all a burden. On me.”
“No,” snarled Claire. “Dudley can shoot the eye of a man in a helmet, Maurice is like a walking encyclopaedia, Flossie’s the fucking Dragonrider!”
I was starting to see the problem. “I’m not sure why you think Maurice the human compendium of pointless facts is any more useful than you. And Jenny doesn’t have any special abilities.”
Claire stared at me. “Are you blind? You can’t see what Jenny… It doesn’t matter. I’m the only one who contributes nothing. All I do is lose my temper and put everyone else in danger.”
She did have a point. “What about the mind reading thing?” I asked her.
“What are you talking about?”
“You know, when you’re asking questions you know the answers before the person says anything.”
“No, I don’t.” Claire looked completely baffled by what I had just told her. She stared intently at a spot just above my eyes.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m trying to read your mind. I’m not getting anything. Maybe I should try on someone with an actual brain.”
Old Claire was back. Was this a good thing?
“I don’t think it works like that. Ask me to think of a number.”
“Think of a—why do boys always think that number’s funny?”
“It’s just a number, for God’s sake, no different for sixty-eight or seventy.”
“Claire! I haven’t said sixty-nine yet.”
“Yes, you did. Didn’t you?”
I shook my head. Her eyes widened.
“See? You aren’t totally useless. If you work on it, who knows, maybe you’ll be able to see all the things going on in my head. It’s quite the show.”
Claire shuddered. “I’m not sure I’m ready for that.”
“Well, just remember it’s not what people think you should judge them on, it’s what they do.”
“Yes,” said Claire. “I understand. Thank you.” She smiled through the snot and tears.
This time it was my turn to shudder. A grateful Claire would take some getting used to. Fortunately, I was sure it wouldn’t last.
We returned to find David and Phil arguing while the others stood around. Flossie and Dudley had come down and looked lost.
“By the way,” I said, “how did you guys manage to open that doorway?”
“What doorway?” said Phil.
“We didn’t call you back,” said David. “We thought you were lost for good.”
“But then who—”
There was a terrific crash, a thump that sent a tremor through the building. The ceiling above my head buckled. I leapt out of the way, pushing Claire aside as the ceiling collapsed.
Two, large, taloned feet smashed through sending wood and plaster flying in all directions. The feet were followed by a massive body with leathery wings attached. The wings snapped open, shielding their owner from the falling debris.
It rose from a crouch and was so massive it couldn’t stand up straight. But enough for me to get a good look at the hideous face and the cruel, twisted mouth full of teeth and eyes that burned like lava. In every sense a demon. Compared to Cheng, this thing was the fully-loaded model. All extras included, your imminent destruction thrown in for free.
It roared. And then froze. As did everything else. The dust and debris hung in the air. Bits of demolished masonry levitating around us. The startled onlookers gawped in perpetual shock.
David ran towards the demon with sword drawn. Phil had his hand up. As David struck, slicing his sword across the demon’s torso, Phil snapped his fingers and normal time resumed.
The demon was unable to react quick enough and the blade ripped its chest open.
Phil snapped his fingers again. Time stopped.
David ran behind it. And jumped with sword raised.
Phil restarted time as David’s blade came arcing down. The demon’s arm was separated from its shoulders in one clean blow. The arm stopped before it hit the floor, black blood in the process of gushing every which way.
David was already on the other side. When Phil restarted time, the other arm was cleaved away from the body.
From the perspective of someone other than those of us able to observe the time stops, it must have seemed like David was popping out of thin air to slice off limbs and disappearing just as quickly.
David jumped and spun. The sword flashed and the demon’s head flew off. Again and again, the two of them worked in concert until the demon had been reduced to mere chunks. If this was what they could do if they worked together, why the fuck did they need us? Why hadn’t they ripped the masters to shreds already?
Phil staggered. “That’s it. I can’t…” He looked like he was about to fall over.
“Everyone,” shouted David. “Quickly, you know what to do.”
The men sat at their tables suddenly leapt to their feet. They rushed forward and each picked up one of the sticky demon-pieces on the ground and ran for the door.
“As far as you can take them and bury them deep,” David shouted after them. “None less than a hundred paces from the others.”
As a man ran past me carrying half a head, the ruby-red eye swivelled to look at me and blinked.
Within a few seconds the tavern was empty. No demon, no clientele. Just a pool of sticky ichor on the floor and splattered across the walls. The Jester was right about one thing, it was a messy business and someone would have to clean this shit up.