“Are you okay?” Jenny called down. No one rushed to check when I yelped—why would they? It might be dangerous—they just offered their vague concern.
“I’m fine.” I lit up a ball of light and looked around. I hadn’t done this before descending because I didn’t want to reveal what I could do in front of Terry; they were freaked out enough as it was. I could handle a few steps into the dark, it wasn’t like there was nothing dangerous down here. Nothing except for tarantulorus rex.
There was no sign of any spider, which meant it had either scuttled back into its hidey-hole or it was currently residing somewhere on me. After randomly brushing and flicking various parts of myself, and shuddering at the thought of what might be crawling around inside my shirt, I continued to the bottom of the stairs.
Loran was lying on one of the tables, grey, pasty and corpse-like. Black gunk had congealed across his throat and pooled on the tabletop. It was a strange way to celebrate your birthday although it made people very easy to shop for.
My plan was to heal him. Normally, healing a dead person wouldn’t achieve much, but in this world things were far from normal. Since his body would heal itself in order to come back to life, it seemed a reasonable assumption that my healing powers would speed things up.
I placed my palms on his chest and moved my fingers to start the process. My hands warmed up and I directed the flow into the cadaver. Healing didn’t come free and there was a chance bringing someone back to life might age me by years, but the other thing about looping back in time was that it returned me to my old body, which meant any ageing would also be reversed. If I succeeded, it would be worth it to save time, and if I failed, no charge.
It only took a couple of seconds before I felt something move under my hands. A heartbeat.
Loran opened his eyes and sucked in his first noisy breath. I jumped back, a little startled by the sudden reanimation.
“Everything okay?” shouted down Jenny. Still no one coming to my aid.
“Yes,” I shouted over my shoulder. “It’s alive!”
Loran sat up and shook his head clear. It took him a few seconds to get his bearings, then he squinted to get me into focus. “You’re the sorcerer the masters are looking for?”
“Yes,” I said. “What did they say about me?”
Last time, they’d sent out a message through the dead warning people about me. I wanted to know if things were any different this time. According to Yuqi, they were able to detect people messing with the timeline, but it took them some time to catch her. I hoped it would be the same in my case.
“That you’re dangerous and intend to destroy the world. Is that your aim?”
“No. I intend to destroy them, the world will carry on regardless.”
Loran frowned. He eased himself off the table and wobbled unsteadily. “Damn dead leg.” He leaned on the table and shook his legs out. “How can one man defeat the masters? They are all-powerful.”
“If they were that powerful, why would they tell everyone to look for me? There’s no need to fear something that can’t hurt you, is there? Which means they must, ah, wah, get it off…”
I leapt around flapping at the hairy legs I could feel creeping down my neck.
Loran grabbed me by the arm and raked his hand through my hair. “It’s just a spider.” He held up the little monster. It waved its legs at me threateningly.
“Yes, I know. I, er, it just tickled. I don’t like being tickled. We should go upstairs.” I turned around and headed back up, cringing. Hard to convince people you’re going to win a war against demons when you lose your shit over Incy Wincy.
I reemerged into the kitchen to find Jenny holding the older boy’s arm twisted behind his back and his face pressed against the tabletop.
“Are you going to stop?” she demanded.
“Yesh,” he mumbled.
“He’s thinking about going for a knife,” said Claire. There were a number of knives on the table. She pushed them down the other end, closer to where Terry sat with the younger kid on her lap. Brilliant idea.
Maurice was seated with his notebook out and was scribbling something down. When Claire moved the knives, they ended up interrupting his flow. He absentmindedly shoved them even closer to Terry, so she wouldn’t have to reach too far when trying to kill them all.
Flossie and Dudley were working a skillet over the stove, feeding each other little tidbits and complimenting each other on the taste.
Yes, these were the people chosen to defeat the evil in the world. This is why evil people always have that ridiculous laugh. Evil people aren’t happy, so why are they always laughing? Now you know.
When Loran appeared, Terry jumped to her feet. “Who are these people? You said there’d be no more of this nonsense.”
“Calm yourself,” said Loran. “They’re nothing to do with me.”
“They said they were friends of yours.” Her face twisted in anger.
Loran looked at me questioningly. As a guy, I didn’t want to drop another guy in shit with his woman. Doesn’t matter if you like him or not, you don’t throw someone under the bus if the driver of the bus happens to be his wife.
“Not exactly friends,” I said trying to smooth the waters. “More like I know of him. Through his brother.”
Terry went from annoyed to apoplectic. “Levrik! This is his doing? I should have known.”
Loran swallowed his lip and gave me a ‘please stop helping me’ look.
“Terry, it’s not what you think,” he pleaded. “I promised you—”
“And why were there weapons behind the stove? Is that not what I think, also?”
Loran turned to me again, upgrading the look to ‘what the fuck, bro?’
It was too late not to intervene, so I doubled down. “Stop. Terry, I’m not here to get Loran involved in anything. All we need is information and then we’ll leave.”
“You can leave and you can take him with you,” said Terry bitterly. She pulled her son tighter into her bosom.
Loran stepped forward, fists clenched by his side. Jenny let go of the boy she still had pinned to the table and drew a dagger she had stuck in her belt.
“I think you should sit down,” she said to Loran. He was taken aback by the fierceness of her tone.
Claire put a hand on Jenny’s shoulder. “It’s okay, he isn’t going to hurt her. It’s the boys he’s worried about.” She turned to the older boy. “Take your brother and stand by the window.”
He nodded and did as he was told. Terry seemed confused as the child was taken from her, but she didn’t resist.
“If you aren’t happy with the choices you’ve made,” said Claire, “then you only have yourself to blame.” It was strange seeing Claire face down another woman. Usually, it was a guy getting the hard stare and cold words. Usually, the guy was me. “It’s up to you to change things.”
They locked eyes with each other. Finally, Terry looked away. “What can I do? I’m just a woman.”
“Yes,” said Claire, “and he’s just a man. You’re in this together.”
Reason with an upset woman. Yeah, that was going to work.
Terry did seem to be considering Claire’s advice, for like two seconds. Then something snapped in her. “He’s the one who brought me here, to the edge of nowhere. The Day Of Welding is almost here. If we were still in Meet, if we hadn’t had to leave, I could have been chosen, I could be going to the Palace to join with the masters.”
I looked over at Loran. His shoulders slumped in defeat.
Who do you blame in a situation like this? Terry was convinced the grass was greener anywhere but here, and since she happened to be standing knee-deep in shit, she was probably right. Meanwhile, Loran had probably told her things would get better and he’d do whatever was necessary to make sure of it—which I’m sure he wholeheartedly believed at the time. Empty promises can buy you time, but eventually you have to make good on your word or things will end up even worse.
“So, this is very depressing,” I said. “Perhaps we should talk about something more cheerful, like fighting demons and end of the world.”
I was making a joke, obviously. Everyone glared at me, apart from Loran and Terry who glared at each other.
“Do something,” said Claire.
I’d already tried making a joke to ease the tension, I wasn’t sure what else Claire expected. Used to be, my biggest problem was not getting eaten by a rogue ogre. Ah, the good old days.
“What am I supposed to do? You get transported to a fantasy world to fight dragon and giants, not fix bad marriages. He’s given up and feels like a failure because he’s given up, which makes him feel like a failure—Catch 22. She can only win by defeating her worst enemy, which is herself—also Catch 22. They’re both fucked. Done. No hope for either of them. And their kids will grow up and probably be exactly the same. I can’t do the impossible. My magic isn’t that powerful. Nobody’s is.”
“You’re wrong,” said Loran angrily, fixing me in his sights. “She’s the strongest woman I know. She has carried me on her shoulders and kept this family together despite forces that would have driven any other person to their knees.”
“Look,” I said, “all I’m—”
Terry stood up and scowled at me. “He isn’t a failure. And he hasn’t given up.”
“I was only—”
“You know nothing of what it means to be a man,” she continued. “Your sorcery and silly tricks will never replace a good heart and a strong back.” She turned to Loran. “Tell them what they want to know and get them out of here.” She turned around and went over to where Flossie and Dudley were cooking. “Out of my way, you’re going to overcook Uncle Stan.”
They hurried out of the way as Terry took over.
Loran sat down at the table. “Tell me what you wish to know.”
“Oh, er, we need a map. Not just of Dalada, the whole of Nekromel. The major cities. The Palace. All of it.”
Loran nodded. “I will do as you ask and then you will leave.” I nodded back.
Maurice turned over his notebook and pencil and watched closely as Loran set to work.
Jenny came over and stood next to me with a smirk on her face. “Nicely done,” she whispered out of the side of her mouth. “Unite the people by giving them a common enemy to hate.”
I kept quiet. No point in shattering her illusions.
“If you’d done it on purpose, it would have been quite impressive.”
Loran drew us four pages worth of Nekromel. Dalada and Meet were a tiny part. Mountains, seas, a dozen cities and numerous towns. We ate Uncle Stan and peppered Loran with questions about the various places and what we could expect there. Maurice wrote it all down.
Loran’s knowledge was limited to names and basic political standings. Which regions were rich and powerful, which were unstable and dangerous. Dalada appeared to be the only place the masters treated like their personal pantry, although all cities paid tribute and feared reprisals if they didn’t worship their demonic overlords and offer up the appropriate sacrifices.
It was all very complicated, as you would expect from a world full of people who couldn’t die by normal means. The relationships between regions, the position of various leaders, the influence of the masters—I fully intended to have nothing to do with any of it. The mountains that contained the Palace of Laughter were my only goal, and the method of transportation to get us there would be arriving soon.
“The Royal Wagons do not come to Dalada,” said Terry when I told her how we would be leaving (and why we hadn’t left already, which was more her concern).
“They will this time. Bibler is bringing one for us.”
“That oaf?” She really didn’t have a nice word to say about anyone.
“How do you know he will come?” asked Loran.
“I know a lot of things,” I said somewhat pompously. If you have the power to travel back in time, you should at least be allowed to show off a little. “Sometimes before they even happen.”
“Only The Jester can see the future,” said Terry.
“She isn’t the only one,” I said, perhaps a little smugly.
Terry stared at me. “The Jester isn’t a woman. She can’t be.”
“Why not?” I asked. “You know, you have a very warped opinion of women. There isn’t anything a man can do that a woman can’t match.”
I had the strangest feeling, like lasers were burning into my face. I turned to see Jenny, Claire and Flossie all with their mouths hanging open in disbelief. As were Dudley’s and Maurice’s.
It’s not easy trying to live a righteous life while being so misunderstood.
“What? That’s always been my position. Men are unreliable, vicious and selfish, and women are exactly the same. No one has a more firm belief in equality of the sexes than me.”
As predicted, the flappy box arrived first thing the next morning. Everyone waited outside to watch it approach. I could see Terry and Loran looking at me with awe. The power to predict the future was not to be taken lightly. Unfortunately, my power to predict the future wasn’t entirely reliable.
The door to the box fell open to reveal its occupant.
“I thought you said Bibler was fat,” said Maurice.
“He is,” I said. “That isn’t Bibler.”