“You’re saying this was all Jenny’s idea from the start?”
“Does it matter?” said Maurice. He wasn’t making eye contact with me, but then he never made eye contact with anyone. Plus, he was still somewhat flustered by the cannibals. Intolerance reared its ugly head once again.
“They aren’t going to eat you,” I said. “Not until I say they can.”
My reassuring words didn’t seem to help. Maurice began to breathe heavily. He may have been hyperventilating.
“Why would Jenny want me to go through all this?” I said, trying to get him back on track.
“You really need to ask?” he managed to wheeze out.
He was right, it didn’t take much imagination to come up with why. Even if you put the obvious reason aside — a basic desire to fuck me over for the lulz — I could easily believe Jenny would force me to undergo complete and utter isolation if she thought it was for my own good.
Say what you like about her, Jenny took her girlfriend duties seriously, and nothing means more to a woman on the verge of a nervous boyfriend than helping him ‘improve’.
It isn’t easy being a young woman these days. A guy can get by on his own, playing the game as a team or solo. Fuck and move, fuck and move. Girls need to be in a relationship to feel admired in the eyes of others. Other women, of course. They don’t give a fuck what guys think unless it’s in a purely objectifying manner. Then, they have two standard reactions:
- Why isn’t he looking at my tits? I spent all that time making them look like this, I must be worthless.
- Why the fuck is he looking at my tits? I didn’t spend all that time making them look like this for him.
I can’t claim to understand women at the best of times. They are mysterious and confusing. How do the short-sighted ones put on their own eye makeup? Do they all secretly carry around monocles so they can do one eye at a time?
From what I’ve picked up from my time in their presence, women will eventually settle for a bloke they don’t really see as worthy of them. You might not agree, but I’ve got news for you, that disgruntled look you keep getting, with arms folded and bitter disappointment broadcast on all frequencies through the medium of body language is not what true love looks like.
And like any fixer-upper, workmen will be called in at some point to fill in a few cracks.
I don’t blame those women for wanting to attempt a refurbishment. In some cases, it may work out. In others, a lifetime of moaning and nagging is your prize. But doing it on the sly without telling him, that’s just out of order.
Would Jenny really do that to me? If she felt she had no choice, or if keeping me out of the loop was necessary to ensure success, then yes, I could believe it. That didn’t make it any more palatable. What was more galling, though, was that if I confronted her about it, she would not only fess up, she would also accept whatever punishment I deemed fit. And enjoy it. Even more galling than that, I would probably enjoy it, too.
It’s hard to be utterly ruthless with someone who’s into that sort of thing.
Maurice wiped his runny nose on his sleeve and sucked down air in deep sobbing gulps. It was also hard to be ruthless with someone who was a big quivering mess.
“Perhaps he would like something to eat?” said Damicar, eager for everyone to be friends.
“I… I don’t eat people,” Maurice managed to say through the snot.
“I always provide a vegetarian option,” said Damicar, the cultured man of the kitchen.
Maurice looked up and sniffled. “I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Damicar, lately of Gorgoth. Delighted to meet you.”
“He’s my chef,” I said. “I thought I’d start surrounding myself with people who were actually good for something.”
Maurice squinted at Damicar. “He’s a bit like Dudley. Have you started replacing us?”
Damicar looked nothing like Dudley. They shared a certain stoutness but other than that, they were completely different.
“Um, Dudley? I don’t believe I know who that is?”
“He’s one of Colin’s old party,” said Richina. “The ones who betrayed him and left him for dead.”
“You seem to know a lot about it,” I said. Up to this point, there had been no indication Richina had any knowledge of my life before we’d met.
“Wesley has been telling me about your past,” said Richina. She smiled broadly. “It’s a terribly sad story.” She didn’t seem particularly saddened.
“She looks a bit like Flossie,” said Maurice.
“Flossie…” Richina tilted her head and looked upwards.
“She’s the short fat one who’s thick as a pile of shit,” I said, to help jog her memory. “I can see the resemblance.”
Richina gave me a sarcastic look. “I don’t think that’s a very nice thing to say, considering.”
She was right, it was an unkind thing to say. Flossie had been the only one to care what happened to me. All the more remarkable considering how fucking thick she was.
“You’re replacing us all, making your own team,” said Maurice, eyes narrowing. “This is your West Coast Avengers.”
“Fuck you!” There are some insults that cannot be tolerated. “I’m the fucking original, you lot are the West Coast noobs. You even have Hawkeye on your team.”
“Dudley, Flossie… who else? The princess, is she Jenny’s replacement.”
I didn’t have to look at Laney to feel the glee emanating from her. She would have gladly stepped into Jenny’s shoes, I was sure.
“No, she isn’t. None of them are. They’re their own people who do what they want. I’ve given up trying to tell people what to do.”
“You’re president of the island!” said Maurice, which was a fair point.
“Only until morning. They have daily elections to choose their leaders, and I won the last one. It helped me stay off the menu. Tomorrow, someone else will be in charge. It’s a pretty good system, actually — prevents an idiot staying in control too long. Minimises the damage they can do.”
“So, I could become president for a day?” said Maurice, hope rising in his voice.
“Sure, I don’t see why not. You just have to convince them you’ve got some good ideas and some interesting recipes. Before I take you through the nomination process, though, why don’t you convince me not to kill you and turn you into the hors d'oeuvres at my farewell banquet.”
The mention of a banquet recaptured the crowd’s interest. I could see a route to a second term — democracies are so easy to corrupt.
“I can’t tell you anything. Even if it means dying.” Maurice started shaking again. “It’s too important. And Claire would shout at me.” Now there was real fear in his voice.
“Oh dear, so many names,” said Damicar. “I’ll never remember them all.” He took out the notebook he used to jot down recipes. “Jenny, Claire…”
“He’s me,” said Maurice. “He’s replacing me and Dudley. You’re combining our roles.” His face was appalled and impressed at the same time. “So much more efficient!”
“Yes, I’m a genius. I decided to take the traits of all the worst people I’ve ever met, and merge them into one giant retard. The time saved in fucking myself in the arse will be phenomenal. Try to stay focused, Maurice, or I’ll have to put you in a crate and force-feed you corn. Tell me what you thought was going to happen when you got in that metal ball.” I looked over at the capsule embedded in the beach. It was still steaming and the sand around it had hardened to glass.
“I wasn’t sure. I was supposed to find something called a ‘Golden Wing’. I assumed it was some kind of interstellar spacecraft, able to travel between dimensions.” Talk of technical matters of a fantastical nature helped calm him down. The sedative powers of bullshit.
“Why would you think that?” I said. “Did anyone actually mention a spaceship, or did you just hope that that was what it was?”
Maurice looked mildly embarrassed, which told me all I needed to know.
“Flossie, Dudley…” Damicar was scribbling away. He had quite an excellent memory, so I wasn’t sure why he needed to write everything down. Probably helped his thinking process. Same as Maurice.
“Where’s your notebook?” I asked him. He always had it on him, and it would tell me everything I wanted to know.
“Huh?” said Maurice. “Notebook? Oh, I, er, left it behind. Didn’t want to risk losing it.”
Clearly a lie. “Damicar, check the sphere for a book.” I turned back to Maurice. “Empty your pockets, or I’ll ask the Princess to frisk you. Trust me, it won’t be a fun experience, not when Claire finds out.”
“I’ll tell you whatever you want to know,” said Maurice. “Just not here. This many people… it’s making me nervous. Can’t we talk in private? Let’s go to the shrine, and I’ll show you.”
“How did you know there was a shrine?” I asked him.
“This is Shrine Island, isn’t it? Are you saying there isn’t a shrine here?”
Maurice had said he didn’t know where his capsule would take him. There had been no mention of shrines. It made me think Maurice wasn’t as lost as he was making out.
“You came here on purpose, didn’t you? This is where the exit is, you knew that from the beginning. Nice try.”
“No, really, I had no idea.” Maurice backed away from me. “Don’t do this. Don’t make me use my powers.”
It felt like he’d been saving up that line for a while. I was happy to give him the chance to use it.
“Your powers are weak, though. No Peter, no power. And even if they aren’t that bad, they still won’t work on me.” I moved towards him.
“They won’t work on you, but they’ll work on them.” Maurice pointed at the islanders.
The islanders all turned and looked at me. I mean, they looked in my direction, but judging by the drooling, they weren’t seeing me, they were seeing something they wanted to eat.
It was a bit like one of those cartoons where two people are trapped together with no food, and as they get hungrier they start to hallucinate and see each other as giant fried chicken legs walking around just asking to be eaten.
“No, Bill, it’s me. Put away the knife and fork, it’s me, Fred. Bill, snap out of it. Stop seasoning me. Stop!”
Of course, these were cannibals, so they didn’t need to have me take the form of a delicious snack to get their mouths watering, they just needed to see me as a more delicious human being.
“Control yourselves, you bunch of morons. I don’t care what you think you can see, you’ll do what I tell you and eat when I say you can eat. I’m the fucking president.”
That brought them up a bit short. A lifetime of bowing to authority had ingrained a certain level of discipline and a generous dollop of gullibility. Had I been so inclined, it would have been easy to convince the islanders to form a people’s democratic republic where everyone just voted for me. It’s only a very short step from democracy to fascism, usually via one shouty twat. And here I was.
“Laney, please wrestle Maurice to the ground and sit on him.”
Laney looked confused. “Where is he?”
Maurice hadn’t moved. At least, I could still see him. Laney, on the other hand, was looking all around, everywhere except where he was standing.
“He’s right there,” I said, pointing. “It’s an illusion. I thought it was supposed to stop working when someone pointed it out.”
“Anyone but you,” said Maurice. “You’re not affected, but you can’t affect it, either.”
“Okay, I guess I’ll have to do this myself.”
“Why can’t you see this is just us doing what we have to?” said Maurice. “You aren’t the only one who doesn’t want to be told what to do. We wouldn’t have had to keep you in the dark if you’d come to one of our meetings.”
“You had meetings? And you didn’t invite me?”
“We did invite you! You never turned up!”
I had no recollection of any such invitation, but not turning up did sound like something I would do.
“Well,” I said, “we’re going to have a meeting now.”
Maurice did what I expected him to do. He turned and ran, straight into Biadet. I was wondering where she’d got to.
She had Maurice by the sleeve, which made it look like she was holding him in the air while being shorter than him, like some kind of optical illusion.
Maurice, though, didn’t look worried. Quite the opposite, actually. He grinned and waved bye-bye at me. And then he and Biadet both disappeared.
It took me a moment to realise what had happened. Betrayed by Biadet? Would she do such a thing? Of course she would, if she felt like it, but I had her at the bottom of the list of people lining up to fuck me over, and it was a long list.
“I knew it!” said Laney. “That traitor. I’m the only one you can truly trust, Colin.”
“You sold me out to the Queen of Requbar!” I said with some force.
“Ah. I thought you might have forgotten about that. This insistence on holding a grudge isn’t your most attractive quality.”
I should have known better. If they had Biadet on their side, what chance did I stand? I didn’t even have Wesley as backup. Were the Council going to intervene? Had Biadet taken care of them first, or were they also part of this?
On my own, just the way I liked it. I needed to get to the shrine first. At least I had one advantage. I left my body and floated upwards.
The world stopped at my bidding. Biadet might not be detectable here, but Maurice was. Even if Biadet could still get him to the shrine, there was no way to affect the real world from there, not until I restarted things. And I was perfectly willing to keep things like this indefinitely. The amount of stubborn pettiness it would take wouldn’t even put a dent in my reserves.
I drifted across the jungle to the shrine. There was a small figure standing in front of the entrance.
“I can’t let you inside,” she said. She didn’t seem at all affected by the adjacent world. She also had no vines attached to her.
“That wasn’t very nice, Biadet. When you said you were going to pay me back, I didn’t realise you meant like this.” I drew my sword.
“It’s better this way. You know you can’t beat me, not even here. Especially not here.” She pulled out her wooden staff (from somewhere).
I’m a realist. I knew perfectly well Biadet was omega level, while I wasn’t even secret cow level. There was no way to beat her in this world or any other. Except…
I lowered the sword and put my hand in my pocket, acting casual.
“Be reasonable, Biadet. Whatever they’re doing, it’s never going to—” I charged forward, swinging wildly.
She was ready for me, of course. Batted the sword away easily. But she hadn’t expected the dart.
The hand in my pocket, the pockets I filled with whatever I found, just in case it might be useful later, threw the dart that had paralysed me when I first entered the shrine. It had worked against me in this place, so why not against her?
Biadet looked surprised, eyes wide with shock. The dart was sticking out of her neck. “No.” She fell to the ground.
You probably shouldn’t feel pleased with yourself for beating a little girl, but I felt this was the one time worth making an exception for. I drifted over Biadet’s body and entered the shrine.