Chapter 306: Paywall
Despite Flossie’s unconditional delight at Maurice and Claire’s reunion, I wasn’t feeling the love. Not that I was feeling the hate, either.
Betrayal is never a good thing. On the amusement park fun scale it ranks right up there alongside roller coaster gone wrong amputating thirty teenagers at the knees. But it hadn’t exactly taken me by surprise.
To be honest, I had expected all of them to have left by now. The only reason they hadn’t, as far as I could tell, was that we kept getting into some awkward situation or another that no one felt confident about, so they relied on me. I didn’t feel confident about any of it, either, but I had the advantage of being too numb to be appropriately paralysed.
It was a short-term fix. Like trying to run away from a virus. I could keep you alive, but I wasn’t going to cure the illness.
If we’d had a moment’s peace, I had no doubt the others would have held a meeting (probably with beverages and those trays of small sandwiches) and voted to dump me. And I’d have made the vote unanimous.
I’m not saying it wouldn’t have made things harder for me being on my own — it would be a lot harder — what I’m saying is it would still be preferable.
As it was, the longer we stayed together, the stronger and more confident they all became in themselves and their abilities. Clearly, they could take care of themselves. If we went back to the first day we’d arrived, and they were who they were now rather than the dorks I’d first encountered, then I’m sure things would have gone very differently. At this point I was only holding them back.
Would they agree with my assessment? Probably not in public. They still suffered from the kind of social issues that made people not want to own up to being selfish and greedy. They would eventually overcome that, too.
For Maurice to be the first to strike out on his own was understandable. He’d probably been planning this for some time. Not intending to fuck me over, but being ready in case it seemed like the best option. In my experience, it always ends up being the best option, eventually.
The Elf had arrived. It was standing in the graveyard, one misty foot on either side of the church. The druids had retreated into a huddle and were too freaked out to even run away. The rest of the city must have been aware of it, too, but there was no way of knowing what they were doing about it. They might be sending an army, or they might all be in on it. Either way, I was sure Peter or Maurice or someone had taken measures to keep things under control. Not something I needed to worry about. Which was good, seeing how long the list was already.
The Elf kneeled on one knee and lowered her hand like a cloud elevator. The arrival of the Gidiots.
“Ah don’t like it,” said Flossie. “Why are they smiling like that?”
They all looked very pleased with themselves, no mistaking those looks. I can’t say I wasn’t concerned. Even if Claire had deceived me, I had taken steps to cut off their connections to each other and to Peter. It should have had some kind of effect. Unless, of course, I only thought that was what I did.
Maurice’s power made it very hard to be sure which way was up. If I was him, and I wanted to incapacitate me, what would I do?
I looked at the wooden sword in my hand. This was the most obvious target, now that I was actually thinking about it (impeccable timing, as ever). If he could take this away, but let me think he hadn’t, I’d be going around slicing off things without actually doing any damage.
The sword faded away. I was looking at my closed fist.
No sword. No severing of ties. When had he done that? After I’d cut myself off from everyone, I would guess. That had been his idea, too.
“Where did the sword go?” asked Jenny.
“Maurice,” I said. She nodded.
“Yo!” said Gideon, stepping off the Elf’s hand. “I think we should ta—”
I left my body. It was the only backup plan I had. The dreaded Plan B. I floated up to take a good look at what I was dealing with. It was doubly difficult because I had no idea what was real and what was Maurice’s handiwork. He knew what I could do, and would have taken steps to counter me in some way. It was a pain having to second guess myself like this.
I floated over to the group still on the Elf’s hand. They were surrounded by vines again. The ones between Claire and Maurice were as firm and healthy as ever. At least I had a better idea of how much effect my actions had had. None.
Unless, of course, that was what Maurice wanted me to think. Ugh, so annoying
I tried using my hands to rip apart some of the less girthier vines, but had little joy. They were too sturdy. There were also the vines leading back towards Fengarad, so at least that part was consistent. Peter wasn’t here.
As I tried to bite through one of the vines, Claire’s head turned to look at me. Her eyes were glowing.
“It won’t work, Colin.” She left Maurice’s side to drift over to me.
I ignored her and kept trying, just to see how far I could get. I was working on the vine coming out of Gideon’s head. It tasted like pompous ass.
“He knew you’d try this.”
I stopped and looked at her. Was this Claire or True? Did True even exist? She was able to move around as freely as me, which indicated she was some godlike being (like me), but the other godlike beings hadn’t been able to move around with such ease. Joshaya had only barely been able to keep up, and the Elf had only moved her head.
Hardly conclusive. She could be an Elf-variant, or something else I hadn’t encountered yet. Goblins, orcs, Nazgul… there was the whole Tolkien glossary to get through.
Or, it could all be fake. Maurice’s power had a giant weakness, but it also had the ability to change the world. If he wanted me to see Claire as a supernatural being capable of engaging me like this, then so be it. As long as I didn’t doubt it, that would be the way the world worked.
Claire was still talking, but I had stopped listening. That at least was a power no one could take away from me.
I had to stop thinking about what I could or couldn’t do, and start thinking more like Maurice. He was a planner. He liked to do his research and make notes. But planning ahead had a disadvantage. It didn’t matter how meticulously you prepared, you could never take into account all possible eventualities. The unforeseeable circumstance was by definition unforeseeable (the clue was in the name).
Claire was still talking. To annoy me? To distract me? The world hadn’t stopped, but it had been reduced to a pace so slow it was hardly noticeable. While I was in this place, nothing would get done.
How long could I make it last? Would I eventually get kicked out? Would we all die and turn to dust? I was willing to wait and see. If time was all I had, I might as well use it to my advantage.
“Join us,” said Claire. “You don’t have to be on your own. You know the others will come over to our side eventually.” She kept on, but I tuned out.
Perhaps I could go back to Nekromel. They liked me there. Sort of. I wasn’t even sure why we left. Yes, there were all the horrible memories of people dying, and maybe some uncomfortableness in how I had been involved in a number of those deaths, but nothing a little light therapy and some concerted denial couldn’t take care of.
Was the portal still open? Did I have to get my real body over to Monsterland to use it, or could I go like this? I was sure they’d let me stay, whatever form I arrived in. I could live with Cheng and Mandy as their lodger. They would probably need a babysitter. I could be the cool uncle without a girlfriend or a proper job. Of course, the cool uncle often turns into the weird uncle who you don’t really want to leave your kids alone with, but seeing as how their kids would probably be eight-foot demons, I was sure the risk to them would be minimal.
“COLIN, LISTEN TO ME.”
“Cut it out, Claire. I can tell you aren’t possessed by any supernatural spirit.”
She looked surprised for a moment, and then disappeared. I looked over and she was standing next to Maurice, still as the rest of them.
Well, that was a step forward. Both in establishing that she had been a Maurice construct, and, more importantly, in getting her to shut the fuck up. I was feeling more upbeat already.
But if she’d been faking this whole time, what had happened back at the crypt? And now that I thought about it, why had the crypt shaken like that? Last time the Elf had been on the move the world hadn’t fallen apart.
If that had also been part of Maurice’s illusion, to what end? I could only think it was a way to get me out of there, and why would he do that? So I wouldn’t look at what was through the wall?
It could be a double bluff, but it did seem like something worth investigating. If I had already lost this fight, what difference did it make to take a peek now?
I floated off towards the church to have another look. Time was on my side, if no one else was. The others would still be here when I got back. As I floated by Jenny, I wondered if she was part of this too? I couldn’t really blame her if she’d decided to make the best of her situation, but I remembered her reluctance to join the Cool Kids back when we first arrived. Did she still feel the same?
Her eyeline was aimed at Gideon, walking towards us with whatever offer he had to make. There was no expression on her face that I could read. She might think he was a giant douche, she might be imagining herself swinging from the end of his cock. It wasn’t really for me to decide how she lived her life, but it did make me throw up a little ghost-sick in my mouth thinking of her as Queen of the Cool Kids.
I returned to the crypt and created a ball of light. It was handy I could use magic in this state, although not particularly useful. If I could use it to destroy the vines, perhaps there was still a chance to ruin everyone’s day. Hope springs eternal. I’d try it after I failed in whatever I tried down here.
The crypt looked as we’d left it. There wasn’t much sign of the passing earthquake, but it had mostly been implied. Some dust falling, some rumbling and shaking. Real or not real?
I made my way to the wall and stared at the inky blackness. If I went through, I might never return. There could be something in there that was even worse than what I was stuck with out here. The thought made me shudder.
“Don’t do it,” said a voice behind me.
I turned to find Joshaya standing next to the sarcophagus. “What do you care?”
“We can stop him. Together.”
“Oh? And how would we do that?”
“Release the other gods. Once we’re free, we can defeat Peter.”
“I can’t be the only one who can do that. Why not get the person who put them in there to let them out?” I had a strong feeling they were put in there for a reason. Simply letting them out could be disastrous, so I wouldn’t do it unless I had to. Or to piss people off.
“I can’t. He’s no longer here.”
The mysterious Arthur who was never around when you needed him. “Where is he?” I asked.
Joshaya slowly turned his head and looked down into the sarcophagus. Curiosity got the better of me and I came closer to have a look. There was a skeleton inside. I wasn’t too worried about it coming to life. Skeleton’s are always the weakest mobs in an RPG.
“What happened to him?”
“Nothing,” said Joshaya. “He got old.”
It was possible he was telling the truth, but he probably wasn’t. “Peter didn’t stab him in the back?”
“He did, but that’s not what killed him.”
“And he put your friends in jail? Why?”
“Because Peter told him to. They planned to rule in our stead. Only, Peter had no intention of sharing power.”
Very, very plausible. But also well within Maurice’s ability to fuck with me.
“And you want me to let them out? Won’t Peter be expecting that?”
“He doesn’t think you’ll trust me. That’s how he works, keeping everyone at each other’s throats. But if you do this, I promise to help you.”
What was his word worth? About the same as mine, I would guess. “Can you promise me that if I help you, you’ll never lie to me.”
“Such a small request? Yes, I give you my word.”
It was fairly inconsequential as far as boons from gods go, but you know they’d never let you have anything really good. It’s always devils or genies that welch on deals in stories, but it’s pretty much everyone in the real world, so why not in the fantasy world?
“And how do I know I can trust you?”
“On my word of honour. If I speak an untruth after you release the other gods, my existence and that of all the gods, is forfeit.” He sounded very sincere. I almost believed him.
“Not after, starting now. No lies. I want to test your reliability.”
He nodded. “Very well. I will agree if you agree.”
“Oh, I agree. I’ll let them out.”
“Then we have a deal.” He smiled menacingly, although I might have been projecting. Everyone looked menacing to me when the smiled.
“Okay. After I see what’s in here.”
“No!” he cried out, moving inexorably slowly towards me. “We had a deal.”
“Yes. But I didn’t say when I’d do it, did I?” I turned to face the portal.
Truth or bluff? Second guessing gets so tiring. “Why not? What’s in there?”
“I… I don’t know. But Peter wishes you to release it, so it would be best not to.”
He was probably right, but I still felt inclined to make the mistake and sort it out later. “ I thought we agreed you weren’t going to lie? See, you failed already.” I couldn’t say for certain he didn’t know what was behind there, but come on. What kind of god doesn’t know what’s going on in his own church?
“You do not know that I am lying.”
“I don’t need to know. I’ve seen how you use people to get what you want. And how you allow yourself to be used by others. Neither makes me want to trust you. But I will keep my word. Gods out next. Stay tuned.”
I floated towards the portal and passed through it. A terrible mistake? Quite likely, but they say you learn the most from your mistakes. Although I tended to learn the same thing over and over — what a huge idiot I am.
There was a tingling sensation and then darkness. And then a bright, youthful voice.
“Oh, hello there. You’re a sight for sore eyes, I must say. You look good enough to eat.”