When you have a large group of people on their knees, literally begging you for their lives, their sad faces imploring you for mercy, it can make you think you must be a pretty important fellow.
I’m sure there have been many people who have ended up in a similar situation to the one I currently faced and it had given them a massive hard-on (including the women). To have solid proof of your superiority over other people, it’s what people get into politics for.
I was not feeling particularly engorged by my position of power. Not because I was some kind of angel who was above that sort of thing, but because I didn’t believe a word of it.
My life has always been one of little concern to the world around me. No one ever thought it necessary to play up to me or show me deference. The words, “Hey, let’s ask Colin what he thinks we should do,” had never been spoken within earshot of me.
Once I got here, that changed. People were a little more wary of me, and I got upgraded to, “Hey, we better act like we give a shit. Don’t worry, it’s only for now. This dick can’t really think he can take us all on, can he?” And everyone has a good laugh before getting into character and coming out with the forlorn expressions and pleas for leniency.
I would assume there are cases where people genuinely accept their inferiority to someone — usually the guy with the good hair, because we got taught genetics in school and that was the take-home message — and turn into sycophantic followers, but I had not experienced that sort of treatment, except when Laney was around. And that was terrifying.
These people were not showing me the signs of the defeated, they didn’t have the look of those who have accepted their loss. How would I know if I’d never encountered those sorts of people? It’s called a fucking mirror.
I know what it is to give up. To accept fully and completely that there is no one coming to save you, that no one owes you a favour they are eager to repay, that there are no safety nets left. You’re on your own and whatever choices you make, whatever risks you take from now on, all agreements are final and very, very binding.
A strange thing happens when you fall that low. It isn’t quite as despairing an experience as you might think. There’s a strange strength you gain from losing everything. A cold, hollow strength.
It doesn’t give you superpowers or an unnatural resolve that lets you lift a car off a trapped child, but it does give you the strength to not worry about what others think. You can do almost anything if you don’t care anymore.
I don’t mean ‘do anything’ in the ‘be an astronaut’ kind of way. I mean it in the way when people say, “I would never do that.” Now you would.
When you meet someone like that, they aren’t angry. They don’t thrash around trying to fight the injustice of the world with their burning hot indignation. They are calm and quiet, and are grateful for the small respites where they can find them. Humility is a viciously cold state of mind to be in.
These people on their knees were not looking at me like their victor (only Damicar saw me that way). They were willing to take my shit for now, patiently waiting until an opportunity presented itself, and then they would make their move. Even if I had the upper-hand, and their chances were slim, they would prefer to go out that way, because they had pride.
It’s a cruel thing to take that away from people, but it’s the only way to make them truly stop trying to fuck with you. Democracy is a good example. Does the losing side gracefully step aside to let the winners carry out their mandate, or do they try to stifle progress as hard as they can until they can get back in power?
“They’re lying to you,” said Biadet.
The islanders directed terse looks of anger at her. It was their way of denying me even the credit of being able to see through their pathetic sham.
“No shit,” I said. “And I was just about to let them go free in exchange for a lifetime in charge of a giant pot plant. Thanks, that was a close one.”
Biadet was still a bit shaky and pale, which was probably why she didn’t immediately pull my gizzard out of my belly button. I have no idea if humans have gizzards, but you get the idea.
“Then why would you follow them anywhere?” she asked me. It was a reasonable question. My methods have never seemed logical to anyone, including me.
“No one ever takes me where I need to go, but they usually go past there on the way to fucking me over, so they can secretly gloat about how stupid I am. It’s like catching large fish with tiny bait. People think you’re dumb because you’ll only attract small fish, which is true. What they don’t realise is the small fish you catch are the bait for the big fish, and they’re already on the end of your line.”
Biadet looked at me with an intense gaze. “I think you just made that up.”
“Actually, that makes sense,” said Damicar. My man. “Fish in par—”
“Stop trying to impress your friend,” said Laney, cutting Damicar off. “It’s pathetic.”
“Leave him alone. And yes, I made it up, especially for you, Biadet, you little roach.”
“They think you’re soft,” she continued. “That when it comes to the final act of destruction, you will hesitate.”
“And what about you?” I said. “What do you think?”
“You let me live.”
“And that makes me soft?”
“I think that makes you a great leader,” said Laney, “because they’ll never expect your true intentions.”
Damicar took in a large breath as though he was about to make a counter-accusation against the princess, but she gave him a sharp look and he swallowed his words.
“And what are my true intentions?”
Laney shrugged. “If I knew that, I wouldn’t need to pursue you so vigorously.” I didn’t like the emphasis she put on the last word.
The two girls didn’t really understand me and, at the same time, seemed to know me better than anyone. Not that that was much of a claim. My one ace in the hole was that I didn’t really know what I was doing, either. When you’re as much of a self-sabotaging prick as I am, the person you need to stay one step ahead of is yourself.
“Do you know where they took Maurice’s body?” I asked Biadet. She shook her head, her usually bouncy bob refusing to swish for side to side as it normally did. The strands were wet and lank, and stuck to the side of her clammy face. “Then what good are you to me?”
She smiled wanly. “To you? Not good at all. For you...?”
“Hey, hey, hey, disengage your talons,” said Laney, stepping in between us. “Let us remind ourselves that the person who subdued these savages was myself. If you wish to proceed with their annihilation, the person you should speak to is me.”
You couldn’t get very far in a conversation around here without the royal me, me, me pulling focus.
“Do you know where they took his body?” I asked Laney.
“What does it matter? They will all be dead shortly.” Blunt but accurate.
The dragons were doing a superb job of ripping through their park life. I probably couldn’t stop them if I tried. None of them looked familiar, although my ability to tell dragons apart has never been great.
You might think they would remember me, offer me their heads to pat or something, but experience had taught me dumb animals weren’t appreciative of my favours. And neither were dragons.
“We will take you to the heart of the island,” said the acting-president. He sounded a little distraught.
“Like I said, lead the way.” No one moved.
Were they waiting for me to do something? Perhaps they’d come up with a clever plan that involved baiting me with clues I’d think I’d worked out for myself, thus running straight into a trap while thinking I was being the clever one.
Joke would be on them, of course. I never pick up on anything. Nudges, winks, carefully drawn diagrams with notations — oblivious, mate, ob-fucking-livious.
Richina, who had been enjoying a nice rest all this time, groaned.
“We should go now,” said the acting-pres.
“Sure. Someone pick up Fire Bird.”
“Are you sure you wish to take her?” said Laney. “I expect her to attempt an escape.”
“We can’t kill her,” I said.
“Then we should at least remove her limbs.” It’s the casual psychopaths you should watch out for, strolling around with wonderful ideas they’d like to share with you. “And while we’re at it, we should dispatch the short dark one, too. You did your best to save her, but there’s no point prolonging the inevitable.”
“He wants me alive,” said Biadet.
“He wants me alive, too,” said Laney, which was just confusing.
“Just pick her up.”
“We can’t,” said the acting-president. “Not bound like that. The way is too difficult.”
“You carried Maurice’s body, didn’t you?”
There was an awkward silence. I felt like I was missing something. Why didn’t they want to take Richina? Were they hoping if I left her behind, she would get free and come save them?
“Where is this heart of the island, roughly?” I asked. “I mean, the general direction.”
The acting-president looked at his fellow islanders, exchanging nervous glances. Then he pointed down.
“Down? Under us?”
“He’s lying,” said Biadet.
“I could have told you that,” said Laney.
I looked at Richina, who was struggling and failing to get free of her bonds. Laney knew her knots. I bent down and got Richina to her feet. Okay, Damicar had to lend a hand, but I did most of the lifting.
“Try anything and I’ll start cutting off limbs,” I said. “Well, not me, her.” I indicated Laney. “I’m a bit soft to do it myself.”
Richina stopped struggling.
“Right, into the shrine we go.”
A spear came flying towards me. I could see Biadet trying to get to it, but whatever I’d done to her inner-workings with the poison dart, my healing hadn’t cured her completely. Laney was on the other side of me, so she wasn’t even aware of it until it was too late.
The obvious move would be to use Richina as a shield. Which would kill her, and then she’d be free to come back. Probably what they were hoping for. Or, I could tank it and hope I was still alive and able to heal myself.
I did none of those. I raised a hand and the spear turned into ash. Wood was one of the things I was good at disintegrating. Plant-matter in general was my bitch. Poor islanders had no chance against me, it was just everyone else I had to be worried about.
“I can keep this up all day.” I had no idea how long I could keep it up. Not a euphemism. “Out of the way.”
They moved aside instantly. There was genuine fear from them, and it was mostly due to me. Good thing I wasn’t the sort to get off on that sort of thing.
“You guys wait here, I need to check something. Keep your fingers away from any dragonmouths you see.”
We entered the shrine, down the steps like so many times before. This time, though, I knew the little pocket universe through the archway was empty. Arthur had retired to some other corner of his mind. He had placed them all over, so this didn’t have to be the only one on the island.
What I had remembered, though, was what Arthur had told me about taking Richina into one of his little void prisons. It would collapse, or force the one he was in to collapse. Well, he wasn’t in this one, so what would happen if I took Richina inside?
If nothing else, it would give me an idea of what to expect when I took Richina to Gorgoth to release the old gods. That was still on the schedule. It would probably end badly, but if you don’t stick to your schedule, what kind of a man are you?
Richina seemed to sense something was up. She resisted as I pushed her along. Then, Laney came up alongside, smiling.
“She doesn’t need arms to walk, does she?”
Richina became a lot more cooperative after that.
We reached the archway, me, Richina and Laney in front. Biadet following behind with Damicar. There were lots of things I could have asked Biadet about what Peter was up to, what she’d been told to do, how it was all meant to play out, but I didn’t really care. What reason does a shit need to treat people like shit? Sort of self-explanatory, really.
There was one more attempt at resistance as I pushed Richina through the archway. It’s hard for a person like me to hurt a woman under any circumstances. Not because I’m particularly gallant or chivalrous — I think we all know I’m not — but because it’s much harder to look down on people if you’re on the same level as them. I like to have a high horse handy at all times.
Laney stuck her boot in the small of Richina’s back and shoved her through. I didn’t say I had a problem with other girls treating women badly.
As soon as Richina passed through, the archway shattered. It cracked like glass and then crumbled. I instinctively covered my face with my hands, but nothing hit me. There was nothing there, just Richina on the floor, sobbing and muttering something through her gag.
With the archway gone, the path continued. To another archway.
Laney was already getting Richina to her feet. “Next door, next door.” She began eagerly pushing her towards the second archway.
“No, wait,” I said. “All of you, wait here.” I didn’t know what was through the next archway, but it would be better to check using my spectral form.
“Wait,” I said to Laney. “And don’t let Richina escape.”
“And if the Toadstool of Death attempts anything?”
“You can kill her.”
Biadet raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything.
I left my body and passed through the archway. It was dark on the other side, but it was a very green darkness. I expanded my light and found myself in what looked like a mossy cavern. It was crisscrossed with vines and tendrils, but unlike the ones I usually saw in the adjacent world, these were leafy. It was like I was in the 3D web of an aubergine spider.
And hanging in the centre of the web, holding it together, was a figure. Maurice.
Next two chapter are available on Patreon now.Afterword from Mooderino