340: How Was It for You?
Bail early and bail often, that’s my general plan of attack. At the first sign of trouble, assume the worst and get the fuck out.
Obviously, just because something odd or suspicious happens doesn’t mean you’re screwed. You can persevere and succeed. The true heroes never give up, but then true heroes have the advantage of actually being heroic. I, on the other hand, am not a true hero. I’m a realist.
In my mind, there’s no point waiting for the iceberg to hit and then run around like an idiot looking for a means of escape. If I was on the Titanic, and the shrimp cocktail looked like it might be off, I’d be straight into the nearest lifeboat.
Sometimes, that’s going to make you look like a bit of a twat. Alone in the Atlantic in a rowboat while the cruise ship sails merrily away. But you have to use your judgement as best you can.
My judgement had taught me to assume the worst in people. It had rarely led me astray. What had let me down more often than I was proud to admit, was my inclination to wait it out because of the people depending on me. At least that was one problem I’d solved.
Now I was facing the world alone, I could proceed as fear and paranoia dictated. But there was a slight complication. I was powerful enough to actually allow myself to think I could handle myself in difficult circumstances. Dangerous times.
“What do you mean you killed him?” I said to Wesley.
There was no response. I could sense her still there, inside my head, but I had no way of forcing her to talk to me.
“What is it?” asked Damicar. “Are you alright?”
He and Richina were waiting for me to descend into the shrine. They had an eager look about them, it appeared to me. Damicar because his faith in my abilities was way out of proportion, and Richina because… well, who knows? Something terrible she wanted to introduce me to, probably.
“I’m fine. Just need a sec to sort something out.” I didn’t need a sec. I had all the time in the world, and it still wasn’t enough.
I let myself slide into my own head. Amazing how such things can become so normal you fail to be amazed by them. Amazement-fatigue, is that a thing?
“I suppose you want answers all of a sudden,” said Wesley’s voice. She had a point. We had carefully danced around being too pushy with each other. She had a history I could have spent hours interrogating her on, I had a habit of taking the scenic route to a solution when she could have easily stepped in and fixed matters with a wave of her hand. We allowed each other the luxury of being ignored.
“You told me we were coming to find Arthur. Kind of hard to do if you killed him.”
There was an odd smell in the air. Noticeable because usually there were no smells of any kind in here, but also because it was quite delicious. Had Damicar snuck in and set up an impromptu kitchen when I wasn’t looking?
The sofa and chairs that were usually here, were absent. As was the smaller, more irritating me. I realise that’s a questionable distinction to draw when I was as much to blame for his behaviour as he was for mine, but then I consider myself the larger, more irritating me.
It was just dark. I walked forward, my body feeling solid, the ground under my feet pressed firmly against my soles.
The smell was bread and meat. A doner kebab? I walked quicker. If this was some kind of trick to lure me into a trap, bravo and mazeltov. You have found my kryptonite, and I yield to a superior opponent.
The smell turned sweet. Freshly fried doughnuts? You fiend, you merciless brute. What chance did I have? None, absolutely none.
Tongue lolling, I spotted a light in the distance. A fire dancing under a pot. The pot hanging from a spit with meat skewered on either side of the pot handle. And Wesley crouched on her haunches, fussing over the crackling flames.
“Smells good,” I said.
She looked up at me, her hair piled up on her head, but strands falling loose around her cheeks. “Damicar isn’t the only one who knows how to stick a carrot in a pot.”
All this time I had spent fighting off princesses and rescuing monsters — wait, that doesn’t sound right... actually, yes it does — I should have just started up my own little bistro. I already had three excellent chefs on the team. With my knowledge of Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver cooking shows, I knew all the tricks of the restaurant trade and also how to do a fake cockney accent. Michelin stars were guaranteed, as soon as I invented them.
“You seem distracted,” said Wesley.
“Um, yes, sorry. It’s part of my charm.”
She smiled. “It doesn’t work as self-deprecation when it’s true.”
I think I blushed. It’s hard to know when you’re having an out of body experience inside your own body.
“Give yourself a moment,” she said. “Gather your thoughts. I won’t try to evade your questions.”
I took a deep breath in. Most of it was the smell of cooking, thick enough to chew on. “Why are you cooking? I mean, in here. Is it meant to make it harder for me to be mad at you?”
“Is it working?”
“Yes. Can I have some?”
She stood up and held out a bowl. Her eyes peered over the rim at me. There was nothing in them that suggested deceit, but what the fuck did I know? “Don’t forget to chew.”
I took the smooth wooden bowl from her. It was hot, and there was no spoon. Fortunately, there was one swinging around my neck. “I smelled bread.”
“Yes.” She reached behind her and brought out a freshly baked roll. It was still warm.
“You baked this on an open flame?”
“I cheated. I used magic.”
Being able to make a wizard loaf would come in very useful, but that wasn’t what she meant. In here, you could cook up whatever you wanted. The power of the imagination, kids.
“But I think doing it the long way,” —she pointed at the pot on the fire— “does actually make it taste better.”
I sat down on the ground and put the bowl in my lap so I could dunk a broken off piece of bread in it. The taste was seriously good.
“Why didn’t you tell me you killed Arthur?” I asked between bites. “Did you think I’d care?”
“A little,” she said, crouching to needlessly tend the fire and stir the imaginary pot. “You didn’t seem to be in a very forgiving mood when I first met you. But that’s not why I didn’t tell you. Arthur… was a wonderful man. He was bright and enthusiastic and full of life.”
“So when you said I reminded you of him…?”
“I was lying.” She smiled, appreciative of the lay up. “The truth is, it’s not that you remind me of him, it’s that you remind me of me.”
“A middle-aged woman? I get that a lot.”
“The young me. When I was filled with enormous power and a phenomenal disregard for others.”
It wasn’t entirely clear to me if she was suggesting the similarity between us as a good thing or a bad one. “Thank you?”
“I know I’m making this sound terribly convoluted, but perhaps you’re the only one who can truly understand. I was far more powerful than my companions. No one dared to stand against me.”
“You were the leader?” I had always thought of either Peter or Arthur as the leader of the group, you know, because I’m an unrepentant misogynist. And because that’s what I was led to believe, but let’s not let the fact get in the way of your presumptions.
“No, not really. I just did what I wanted, and they tried to keep up.”
That sounded like a leader to me. The kind that bred insane amounts of resentment among unenthusiastic followers.
“I really was a bit of a shit,” she said, “pardon my French.”
“Vive la revolution.” It was nice to see my influence at work. “I guess that’s the part that I remind you of.”
“No. You certainly have some objectionable traits, but they are tempered by a humanity I have rarely encountered.”
“I don’t know what you’ve been drinking, but I hope you put some of it in the stew.” The woman was off her rocker.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Or to make you think I was trying to butter you up. I imagine that’s how you would view any attempt at flattery, but to make you see things from my perspective requires you to see it, whether you believe it or not. I tore through this magical land, doing as I pleased. We weren’t the first to come here from our world, but we were the first with our combination of gifts. Between the four of us, we were able to achieve a kind of synergy that made us impossible to defy.”
“Sounds like you were having a lovely time.”
“I was, but the others started to take issue with my proclivities. I, of course, ignored them. So they began plotting behind my back. Which led to other things. We were two couples. Myself and my Arthur, and Peter and Zarigold; although theirs was always a relationship on the rocks. And then Zarigold seduced Arthur… No, that isn’t really fair. It was both of them.”
“Really? I met Zarigold. She didn’t strike me as the seductive type.”
“I don’t know how she appears now, but she was a shockingly attractive young woman.”
I nodded. “The Abba Conundrum.”
Wesley had a confused look on her face. “I don’t know what that means. I never know when you’re joking.”
“Probably safest to assume always,” I said.
“In any case, I no longer fit into Arthur’s desires. There are many things a man wants from a woman — affection, sympathy, support — but the one he’s least likely to admit to is the one he desires the most.”
“He wants her to be impressed by him,” I said.
She smiled at me, her whole face lighting up. “How wonderfully wise you are for one who has lived such a short time. But then it’s not how long that counts, it’s how hard it gets.” We locked eyes for a moment, I didn’t even need to say it. “I have the feeling you are a terrible corrupting influence on my soul.”
“Thanks very much,” I said. “So you killed him for being unfaithful?”
“I killed him for letting me down, for betraying me, for not living up to my expectations. Meaningless, petty things. We had a very one-sided love, now that I look back at it. After I snuffed him out, only then did I see what a worthless creature I had become. Why did I need him to suffer? Why not leave and do what I wanted, alone and unfettered? I realised I had never really been free at all. I was trying to impress him, which only made him lose interest in me.”
She looked like she regretted killing him, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t do it again. Or do it to me if I disappointed her.
“But who locked you up?” I asked.
“No one. Arthur built it, but I entered it of my own volition. I didn’t like what I’d become, and I didn’t trust myself to fix it. When you are unstoppable, there really is no need to pay attention to what others want. You have to be the kind of person who cares enough to stop yourself, and I never have been. I thought a few hundred years alone would give me time to calm down. Maybe a few thousand.”
“And Peter wanted me to bring you out?”
“I don’t know what his plan was exactly, but he’s tried to reach me before. Many times, in fact. He probably had some use for me. I was never interested. Presumably, he thought you might succeed where he failed. I suppose he was right.”
She was like me. Only, I had gone from a timid shut-in to a sociopath on the cusp of megalomania, and she had gone in the opposite direction. Here we were, meeting somewhere in the middle. I wasn’t sure if we had things we could teach each other or merely pass along the last known location of drifting icebergs.
“Where did you kill Arthur? What happened to his body?”
“Dust carried on the wind.”
“And your body?”
“The void prison consumed it when I entered. I have no body to reclaim. I could take over someone else’s, I suppose. Push them into a corner of their own mind. Any one of these island people would do, although I’d have to make some dietary changes.”
“Then why don’t you? If you’re willing to kill them, why not just take away their bodies?”
“Because of what I’ve learned from you,” she said. “You have all the hallmarks of a despot, just as I had, but you refuse to succumb to the base desires I readily welcomed. No matter how provoked, how incensed you become, you allow people a choice. You let them decide their own fate. I didn’t see it at first, I thought you were striking out wildly because of the pain you were in, but even when you were, you never failed to make the offer.”
For someone aware of my reaction to flattery, she was doing a wonderful job with the butter knife.
“You really think I care what other people want?”
“No, you don’t care, but you allow them to choose, anyway. It’s infuriating to see them squander such a precious gift. Either they don’t realise what you’re offering them, or they think they have it already. They don’t. They have nothing but wind and bluster. How can they be so stupid?” Her eyes were glowing, her hair had fallen to her shoulder and was whipping around on wind and bluster of its own. “And yet you never force them to bend to your will.” She smiled. “You just give them what they think they want.” Her hair settled back down.
She’d done a pretty good job of explaining my approach to life. I couldn’t tell you how accurate it was — it’s not easy seeing things from the inside — but I appreciated the positive spin she put on my lack of success with people.
“Do you plan on staying inside my head forever, then?” I asked. I still had need for a little privacy.
“No. I want to give you what Arthur left behind, and then I’ll leave you to it. I should find my own way in the world.”
“And what about Richina? How does she fit into all this?”
“She must be insane,” said Wesley, very matter-of-factly. “She can’t have met Arthur after I killed him.”
“Not all people who die stay dead around here,” I pointed out.
“No, but there was very little of him to bring back. I dispersed him to the four corners. I have something of a temper, I’m afraid.”
“She’s a nutjob, then?”
“I can think of no better word for her.”
How much did I believe Wesley? Not entirely, but I wasn’t really worried. Even if everything she’d told me was a crock, she didn’t mean me any harm, not at the moment, anyway. I wasn’t really too put out about Arthur’s murder. Not that I thought he deserved it, but I didn’t know if he didn’t deserve it, either. I didn’t really care.
Richina, on the other hand, was something else. She was clearly up to something. I had no idea what, but it was probably under the shrine. Something gruesome with big teeth, probably.
I returned to the world outside of myself. Damicar and Richina were as I’d left them.
“Okay, I’m ready.”
Richina went skipping down the stairs. She stopped when she reached the bottom.
“This way. Try not to slip, you might not be able to get up again.”
“I don’t think she’s all there,” said Damicar, under his breath.
“No, I don’t think so either. Richina! Just so you know, if this turns out to be some kind of trap, I’m going to kill every single one of you. There won’t be any coming back. And if you get me, Wesley will finish the job. I know you’ve never met Arthur.”
“How do you know that?” she said sweetly.
“Because Arthur’s dead.”
“Yes, he was when I found him. But there’s dead, and then there’s dead. Come on.” She went running into the black hole.