341: I Am What I Am
Knowledge is power, I think that’s fairly self-evident. But it isn’t a set amount of power. There are different levels as there are different levels of knowledge.
It’s like fantasy football. No, not Orcs United versus Goblin City, I mean the play-at-home version that gives football some level of depth. You choose players for your imaginary team and you get points depending on how well they do in the real world. The fantasy part is that it actually makes you care if Crystal Palace keep a clean sheet.
There’s always one player every season who scores loads of points. You have to have that player on your team to have any chance of winning, but simply having that player won’t give you an advantage because everyone has him. He just lets you stay competitive.
Knowledge is like that. Some things are important to know because everyone else knows them. You don’t gain power from this knowledge but you would be at a disadvantage if you didn’t have it.
What makes the difference is the player on your team who no one else has, and who is scoring points no one thought they would score. The differential is what puts you ahead of the competition.
I was constantly finding myself in situations where other people knew more about what was going on than I did. It often felt like everyone knew more about what was going on than I did.
Case in point, the shrine I had just entered. Was Arthur really down here? It could be someone impersonating Arthur — wouldn’t be the first time. It could be Arthur driven insane by years living under a bunch of cavorting cannibals. It could even be the 100% genuine Arthur I’d heard so much about, but he just happened to be a huge bastard and nobody had bothered to tell me.
And a million other possibilities.
Knowledge is power, and ignorance is bliss. Neither of those sounds right to me. Stupidity is bliss, but ignorance? Walking into a dark hole, not knowing what’s waiting for you down below, that isn’t very blissful.
“Do you think we might die down here?” asked Damicar, his initial eagerness to get on with it fading fast.
I made a ball of light. “Yes,” I said quietly. The tunnel led straight ahead, with walls dripping with water, and a musty smell I couldn’t identify, but which could easily be the scent of being buried alive (by Calvin Klein). “Here, take this.”
Damicar’s eyes widened as he took the onion I was holding out for him. He bit into it and began to tear up out of gratitude, or possibly because the onion had been in my pocket for some time and may have turned a bit rancid.
Knowledge by itself has limited use. You can convince people it has great value and use it to trade with, the way people pretend money and gold are worth something. But the true value of knowledge is what you do with it.
Knowledge doesn’t give you power, it just tells you where to get it.
Even though I often found myself in an unfavourable position, lacking the details of what was going on, who was behind it, why they were bothering, I felt confident that the people holding all the cards had no real idea what they were doing. You can get really far in life, I’ve noticed, if you just keep yourself surrounded by people even more clueless than yourself.
I knew Damicar had a thing for onions. I didn’t know why and I didn’t care, but I had stuffed some into a pocket just in case he needed cheering up or calming down, or ingredients for onion soup.
I didn’t plan this as a way to control or manipulate him — comfort food rarely puts people in the mood for action — it just seemed like what a decent person would do. If I ever met one, I’d be sure to check with them to see if I had assumed correctly.
A couple of munches, and Damicar seemed to grow in height and stature. It was like Popeye eating spinach.
Richina was a little ahead of us. She had no light, but it didn’t seem to bother her. We walked on for a few minutes, the ground crunching under our feet. I didn’t look down.
And then the walls moved further away and we were on a narrow path with only open space around us. Up ahead, there was a stone archway. No walls on either side, nothing through it but darkness. The path stopped.
“This is it,” said Richina. “Arthur’s through here.”
“Is this what it was like last time you were here?” I asked Wesley.
“No,” she said inside my mind. “This is all new. It’s much darker now.”
“This archway wasn’t here?”
“I’ve never seen it before.”
A strange archway in the middle of a dark cavern, and absolutely no idea what was on the other side. Knowing my luck, it was probably a prank to get me to walk through and fall down the side of a cliff.
“I can go through first, if you’re scared,” said Richina. She probably thought questioning my manhood would make me rush to prove myself. Ha, the girl had a lot to learn.
“We could all go through together holding hands,” I said. I see your questioning my manliness, and lower the bar. Don’t bring your poker chips to my limbo dance-off.
Richina looked mildly perplexed by my suggestion, but shrugged. She reached out her hand. I took it and shoved her through the archway. Not in an aggressive way. Just hard enough to send her through, letting her hand go as she sailed into the beyond.
She let out a short yelp and disappeared. Even though you could see through the archway, she didn’t come out the other side. She was probably inside some other dimension where everyone was more powerful than me, and tuna sandwiches were sold at airport prices.
I had my sword and shield. I had powers that made me someone not to take lightly. But Arthur had built this place, and I’d already experienced his ability to affect my abilities. For all I knew, the sword was given to me with the express intention of screwing me over at some point (like right about now). Were my days of avoiding trouble coming to an end? It had been a good run. Okay, it had been a surprisingly long run.
I felt Damicar take my hand in his. He gave me a solidly fraternal nod of support. If we’d been wearing rainbow-coloured Speedos it would have only been slightly more gay, but sometimes you’ve got to swallow your pride. That’s not a euphemism, but it probably should be.
I nodded back, and we stepped through.
“Careful, I—” Wesley’s voice cut off mid-sentence, and then there was silence. I no longer felt Damicar warm and gentle pudding fingers interlaced with mine. The light in my hand had gone out, and blackness surrounded me.
“I hope you’re not too uncomfortable,” said a voice from somewhere nearby.
My hand moved to grab the hilt of my sword, and actually found it. The smooth wooden pommel provided a little reassurance that I wasn’t dead. Yet.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” said the voice. It was male and had an American twang to it, but it was hard to pin it down beyond that.
“I’m fine,” I said. “This isn’t my first time in a dark void with a disembodied voice. Ask Wesley.” I threw the name out on the off chance it might prevent a swift execution. Although I’m not sure a slow execution is anything to hope for.
“So you know my wife?”
“Yes, we’ve met. Did you really cheat on her with Zarigold?” I was doing my best to keep him talking. And it would also be interesting to see if he had the same version of events. I only had Wesley’s word for what had happened between them.
“Oh, I see. You two must be quite close.”
“Not really. We’ve been in some tight spots. You know how people like to talk when they think they’re about to die.”
“Indeed, indeed.” He sounded a little hurt by my bringing up his past. The pain of embarrassment. I had to be careful not to push him too hard. Or not.
“She said she dispersed you to the four corners.” I made a ball of light — at least that still worked — and peered into the darkness. “Do you have a body? Can I see you?”
“Yes, I can form something close to what I used to be.” Particles moved in the darkness, little dots of glitter fell and took shape. These things no longer impressed me. I had started out quite jaded, now I was like a film critic forced to rate CGI effects in a Scorsese movie. Oh, for simpler times.
A man appeared before me. He was a little taller than me, but not by much. He had short brown hair, unlined skin though I’d guess he was in his forties, and clear blue eyes. Not a looker, but I could see him standing next to Wesley. He didn’t particularly look the type to engage in furtive sex when no one was looking, but anyone’s capable of that.
“You’re really Arthur?” I asked.
“I really am,” he said.
“I only ask because I’ve met you a few times, and it’s always been Joshaya.”
He frowned. “Oh. He’s still doing that, is he?”
I wasn’t sure what he meant. Had Joshaya made a career out of impersonating Arthur? I had thought it was only for my benefit. Now I didn’t feel special at all.
“I’m Victor Sifuentes.” I was quite enjoying being Victor. Victor was pretty damn cool. “Wesley thinks she killed you.”
“She did. The only way to save myself was to hide in here. These places I’ve made, they allow me to exist outside of time. I would die the moment I left, but here, I can exist for a while longer.”
“And it hasn’t driven you crazy?”
“Not yet.” He smiled. “How’s Peter, by the way?”
“But apart from that? Up to no good, I bet.”
Death didn’t seem to mean much to any of them. Which made me wonder if Wesley knew Arthur wasn’t really all the way dead.
“What about Richina? Is she your protege?”
“So many questions… you’ll have to forgive me, I’m not used to having guests. That’s an odd-looking sword you have there.”
He didn’t know about the sword, it seemed. Interesting. “I found it in the shrine. I take it you didn’t leave it there.”
“Not me. Can I have a look at it?”
“No. I might need it to kill you. More conclusively, I mean.”
“You’re quite a suspicious young man, aren’t you?” He didn’t seem angry, only a little condescending.
“I was hoping, if you’re not too busy, you might explain what the fuck you and Peter were up to. Why did you lock up the Golden God? Why did you leave Joshaya roaming free? What the fuck is going on with the Elf and the dwarfs? I have more questions, but I thought we’d start slow.”
The idea of being trapped in here (wherever this was) with someone who knew the answers to all the questions that had been gnawing away at me since I’d arrived in this world was actually quite intriguing. My only worry was if he kicked me out before answering me. Or killing me, of course.
“Do you believe in God?” he said.
“You mean the Holy Father, ten commandments, Noah build me a boat, that God? Sure. I’ve always felt there was a presence watching over us like a scientist watching over a petri dish, not giving two shits about the individual bugs, but hoping He can scrape off something useful at some point. It’s not really an institutional faith thing, more spiritual.”
Arthur blinked slowly before speaking. “You don’t look around and sense the hand of grace at work? The beauty of creation?”
“No. I look around and find it hard to believe someone thought this was the best way to create intelligent life.”
“But that only reveals the potential, don’t you think?”
“Running around trying to eat each other? Even I could have come up with a better system than that. I mean, if you can make it so life can exist from sunshine and water, why not just make that the way to absorb energy? We sleep when it’s dark anyway. And you can see it’s possible with plants. The whole things would be a cinch to upgrade to people. Like with the druids…”
It was only as I said it that I realised the druids were a lifeforms very similar to what I was proposing, with the added ability to avoid being controlled by the old gods. Who created them?
Arthur wasn’t asking me about my religious beliefs. He was asking me something altogether more grand.
“You want to be a god,” I said.
“To create life, to decide the path it takes, it is enticing, no? There’s so much that could be done better.”
I wasn’t going to argue with him there, but the thing about people who want to be gods is that they are generally crazy.
“That’s why you rounded up all the old gods? Extract god juice from them, or something?” I was taking the mad scientist route on this. It seemed the most likely explanation.
“Nothing so crude. But you have arrived at a very opportune time. Together, we can leave here, I think.” His eyes flashed to my ball of light. Magic was what I brought with me.
“You mean you want to use my body? I don’t know if that’s a good idea, it’s already a bit crowded. Wesley’s sort of moved in and I get hardly any time to myself these days.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Victor. You sound quite down. Anything I can do to help?”
It’s all very well having a woman to talk to, but it’s just not the same as having a moan with a bloke. Even if he is probably a psycho.
“No, I don’t think so. I just broke up with a girl, and it’s kind of difficult adjusting.”
“She met someone else, did she?”
“What? No. At least, I didn’t think so.” It hadn’t even occurred to me until he mentioned it. Who could she have possibly fallen for? I thought she’d simply come to her senses.
“My apologies. I didn’t mean to darken your mood further.”
“It’s fine, don’t worry about it. Look, do you actually need me for whatever it is you’re planning? Because if I’m just in the way, feel free to kill me and get it over with.”
“She really got to you, huh?”
“This has nothing to do with her.”
Not often you get relationship counselling from the final boss.
“Really, it’s not a big deal. You know what they say, you can fool some of the people some of the time, but your girlfriend will probably realise she could do a lot better at some point.”
“I’ve never heard that before.”
“It’s fairly recent. The point is, you obviously can’t get out of here alone, and if you need my body it would make no sense to damage it first.”
“I wouldn’t harm your body, no,” he said. Which made me realise my body wasn’t here.
Was I in the adjacent world and hadn’t noticed? There were no vines coming off Arthur, but that didn’t mean much. He might be like me, not connected to anyone.
“You know, if you’d like to talk about it, I have time.”
“No, I don’t want to talk about it.” Now he was just being nosy. “She moved on with her life, and so will I. One day.”
“I regret what happened with Wesley every day. Not that there are days in here. I suppose she’s still mad at me.”
“I suppose.” When did this become about him and his problems? Fake empathy, almost as bad as the real thing.
I expanded the ball of light in my hand, and realised there were vines in here after all.
“What the fuck are those?” I said.
“Oh, you can see them, can you?”
“What, the giant hydra tentacles growing out of your back?”
They were huge and unattached to anything, just waving around in the air, and each ended in what looked like a mouth full of teeth.
“I was hoping we could talk some more, but there’ll be time for that later.” They dived towards me.
I drew my sword. Time to find out if this thing had been given to me for a reason.