The thing that separates people from animals is our ability to predict the future based on past events. A lot of fucking good it does us.
Maybe it was a problem peculiar to me. My approach to things from my past was to think about them as little as possible. Whatever I might learn from my mistakes didn’t come close to the comfort I derived from pretending they never happened.
And a good method for achieving that was to fill my head with as much trivia and useless content as possible. That way, when I thought back to my childhood, I remembered the time Rolfe betrayed me to the Nazis, and I had to escape over the Alps with my entire family — which is a lot harder than it looks when you’re sixteen, going on seventeen. My own pathetic history couldn’t complete and stayed in the shadows where it belonged.
As I fell to the ground, it wasn’t the pain that bothered me. It wasn’t the shock of being caught in some kind of trap, either. The thought going through my head was the realisation that entering the portal had been an incredibly dumb thing to do. Not because of what was happening to me here, but because of what was happening to me out there.
I had already discovered that time restarted when I was inside one of these places. That meant my shipmates were no longer frozen in place. But my body was.
Not that I expected them to do anything weird to me. Then again, they were sailors, and probably did weird things to each other all the time.
In any case, this crew was reliable and responsible. They were professionals doing a job. The chance of them deciding to strip me naked and tie me to the mast was fifty percent at best.
My hope was that they would assume I was in some kind of trance, communing with the Almighty, and their respect for religion would stop them from sticking things up my butt.
It hadn’t even occurred to me there were matters I needed to take into consideration when I decided to charge forward like an idiot. My only concern was whether my gamble would pay off, like some poor slob thinking he’s being adventurous for buying the £5 scratchcard.
I’d been doing a lot of short-term thinking of late. I wanted to make the riskiest plays for the highest rewards, so I could stop feeling like I was so far behind everyone else. Feeling like everyone’s got better shit than you is the human condition, I guess. We were built that way, to be forever lacking in satisfaction, to keep us in pursuit of… something.
Personally, I see no problem with sorting out food and housing, maybe indoor plumbing, and then chill. Without Netflix, though, since no one would be bothered enough to invent it.
I lay on the ground, the light I had made by my side, slowly fading.
This was another of Arthur’s prisons. Who did he have trapped here? I mean, apart from me. The light was almost gone. The pain in my chest was spreading and I couldn’t move.
The Elder Frog had taught me how to use my beast magic without having to wiggle my fingers. Well, he had tried. I knew the theory, at least. My consistency wasn’t the best, though.
But I didn’t have to start from scratch with the light. I already had one here, even if it was rapidly disappearing. I ignored the pain, and tried to focus on the light. I stopped it from shrinking, and then I expanded it.
The ball floated, illuminating the area around me. I was in a tunnel, which was different to the other versions of this place I’d visited. Usually the light would only show more darkness. This time, I could see walls.
I could also see the dart sticking out of my chest. How had it managed to interact with me? Everything apart from vines should have been insubstantial.
Arthur clearly knew a thing or two about being in this state. It stood to reason, since it was a requirement of entering the portal. If he could manipulate substance to create a gateway only someone in my current form could pass through, making objects that could hurt me probably wasn’t that great of a leap.
He was the master, I was just a pleb. Sometimes you have to accept your place in the world. Mine was on my back, slowly drowning in pain.
Now that I had taken control of the light, I pushed my mind a little more, imagining the gestures I would normally make with my fingers, and tried to heal myself.
The one advantage I had over Master Arthur was that I could access my beast magic here. He hadn’t made provisions for someone with this ability, which meant I had a slight chance of getting out of here.
At first, I could only stop the pain spreading. It was hard to keep the balance, and I went from having control, to it slipping away. It was a bit like one of those video games where you think it’s impossible to get past all the stuff swirling around the screen ready to kill you, and then… you just can.
The pain eased, and then went away. I could move. The dart was still in my chest. I pulled it out. When I touched it, I could feel the wood. It felt completely solid. The tip had an oily substance coating it.
Whatever the poison had been, I had managed to neutralise it. But I didn’t want to have to go through all that again. I got up and stamped softly on the ground, just to make sure it was there. It was as solid as the dart.
The tunnel stretched into the distance. There were probably more traps ahead. Leaving would be the safest choice. Once I was out, time would freeze again, and I could reclaim my body before the damage to my butt was too great.
But I was here, now. Would it be risking too much to check what was at the other end of this tunnel?
This time, I paused to think things through. If Royn or Captain Somya planned to do something to me, they didn’t need to wait for me to black out. I hadn’t sensed anything particularly hostile from either of them. Reluctantly curious, and decidedly unimpressed were the two big ones I’d picked up (from just about everyone I’d ever met).
There was no reason to race back to save anyone. I was the only one at risk, and I just wasn’t that high value a target, for them or for me.
If I carried on down this passage, I might bump into something worse than a poison dart. But I might also discover one of the magic items Wesley had mentioned. I had tried getting more details out of her about what exactly I might find here, but she hadn’t been sure. She had been powerful enough to not need magi-powered accoutrements, so she hadn’t paid much attention. Arthur, though, had been something of a collector.
Swords that could cut through rock and steel were mentioned. Boots that made you run very fast. A hat that let you breathe underwater. These were things she remembered from her own history — a lot more interesting than mine, although there was that time a girl claimed her kid was my son, but I didn’t believe her. Not until she showed me a photo of a baby crying, and his eyes looked like mine. And then we danced on the floor in the round. Good times.
It wasn’t like I was in a maze. There was the one straight tunnel. I could quickly have a peek down the other end, in and out, bish-bash-bosh, no one’s any the wiser. If it feels like I was trying to convince myself to go a bit further, then that would be correct.
I positioned myself flat against the wall, figuring any more pressure pads that might set off traps would be more likely to be situated centrally, and sidled crabwise down the passage. I sent the ball of light floating ahead of me. It highlighted nothing of concern. Which obviously meant the things of concern were hidden, just waiting for their chance to attack.
With that sort of attitude, I might as well have turned back. Who wants to be on a journey into the unknown with someone who’s constantly griping about how terrible things are going to turn out? Especially when you’re in a party of one.
But I’d already made my decision, and if that meant having to put up with myself, that was the price I’d have to pay. On the plus side, though, my expectations were really low. If I didn’t wind up dead or imprisoned for all of eternity, I’d claim it as a win.
The tunnel led directly to a room. No turnings, no tempting side quests. In the room were two objects. A sword and a shield.
The sword was thin, with a fancy hilt. The shield was round, white, inlaid with gold. Both glowed with a mysterious light that screamed, “Jackpot!”
I didn’t have to roll need, or pretend I was happy rolling greed. There was no one else here to fight with. Solo players get first pick of everything.
Of course, this could still be a trap. The enticing item’s just sitting there, but as soon as you grab it, a giant ball starts rolling after you.
Still, I’d managed to find decent loot. Real magic items. I’m not ashamed to admit I had a tear in my eye. Obviously I am ashamed about a host of other things, but why spoil the moment? I had finally won a prize. The award for most gullible soon-to-be-dead person, probably.
All I had to do was take it.
I looked around the room from the entrance. The sword and shield were lying on the floor. My light hovered over them. The rest of the room was empty. Either side of the entrance I could feel walls made of stone. I’m not a mason — I don’t know much about hewing stone and raising perpendiculars, or about how the Illuminati are running the world’s banks — but, the walls felt pretty solid.
I put one foot in the room. Nothing happened. I was tempted to run in and grab the items, rejoice for a second, and then get crushed under a falling piano. Would be totally worth.
My foot refused to budge. Nothing was stopping it apart from my unassailable belief that there was no way it could be this easy. My hand was out like maybe I could reach them from here.
And then the sword moved. Just a little. I extended my hand a bit more. The sword flew at me, fortunately hilt-first, and I caught it. I reached out with my other hand, and the shield came to me like a dog to its master.
The sword wasn’t that long, but I wasn’t that tall, so that worked. The shield had two loops on the underside which my arm fit through perfectly. I know, too good to be true. Cursed, probably. Or some kind of controlling device that would make me do unspeakable things. Like wear Oxford brogues with tracksuit bottoms.
But none of that mattered. The important thing was that they looked cool. Even when held by me. I know. That in itself confirmed their magical status.
Now I just had to get out of here while avoiding whatever dastardly trap awaited me. I’d have to be smart and sly. I couldn’t afford to let my guard down for a single moment. I turned around and ran down the passage as fast as I could, screaming, “Fuck yooooooou!” as I sprinted for all I was worth.
I reached the portal and threw myself into it.
Not the most elegant of evacs, but it was the quickest for sure. The buildup of tension at the thought of what lay in store for me had been too much to bear. I needed a release, and it was impossible the old fashioned way. Running was the answer to all life’s problems.
I was out, and that meant time was once again on my side. The sword and shield looked even better out in the open. I did a quick look around for any last minute surprises. No one seemed to be about. Then I did a few practice sword swings. I managed to not cut myself. Better than that, it actually felt like I knew what I was doing.
I obviously didn’t know what I was doing, but that was another indicator of how magical it was. If there was more stuff like this on the island, I’d be overgeared in no time.
The shrine sat there, ignoring me. It was a large building, so most likely there was more to it than what I had managed to get hold of. I wanted to get back to Wesley and see if she recognised these items. I tilted the shield back and forth on my arm. It looked nice, but I couldn’t tell what was special about it.
I floated back to the beach, more than impressed by my haul. It would be interesting to see if I could cut through vines with the swords. The islanders wouldn’t be much good as test subjects, they were as unmarred by vines as I was, but there were people on the boat I could randomly cut loose from their loved ones. They’d thank me in the long run.
I was busy admiring my new trinkets as I reached the shore, so I didn’t immediately see the other ship. Which was surprising since it was twice the size of the one I’d arrived on.
The islanders were still staring out to sea. Even though they could have moved while I’d been in the shrine, they probably hadn’t. Would have hurt their image.
I had no idea who the new ship belonged to, or what they wanted, but there was no need to panic. Plus, I was quite keen to try out my new weapons.