136. Lay Of The Land

“What were you dreaming about?” Jenny asked me. Her mocking grin had slipped aside to reveal a degree of concern. “It didn’t sound very pleasant.”

I shook my head to clear it, but still felt quite groggy. I rolled off the bed and went over to the window. Outside, the sky was a light pink. Morning?

“No, it wasn’t pleasant,” I said. “Did I say anything in my sleep?”

She shook her head. “You just screamed and then grabbed hold of my tit like you were trying to stop yourself falling off the world.” She rubbed her breast again.

“Sorry.” Squeezing her breast had been comforting, but my dream-self forgot to consider there might be someone on the other end of my groping hand. “The Jester spoke to me. Offered me whatever I wanted if I came to the Palace to serve the masters. It was a tempting offer, you know, if it hadn’t involved being eaten by demons.” 

I wiped the side of my face which was sticky with dried drool. When you sleep with someone, they get to see you at your most disgusting. Which in my case is very.

“He’s really taken a shine to you, then?” said Jenny.

“Lucky me. I don’t know if I’d call it a ‘him’, though. It looked like…” The memory of what I had seen, despite only getting a glimpse, sent a chill through me.

“We should get out of here as soon as we can,” said Jenny.

“Yeah.” It occurred to me I should tell her there was probably a squadron of flying monsters on their way, but that would mean having to admit I’d given away our location, and did she really need to know that?

“What is it?” said Jenny, her eyes narrowed. “You have that look when you’re hiding something from me.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said, swiftly moving towards the door. “We better see what the others are up to.”

“At least put your trousers on.” She threw them at me and pulled on her own.

The other four were already up and ready to go. Dudley was at the window, keeping watch, while Maurice was writing in his notebook. I had no idea what he could possibly still have to write about, although it may have been unrelated to our current predicament. Perhaps he was writing the screenplay he’d never found the time for.

“Are you alright?” said Flossie. “We heard a scream.”

“You heard a scream but didn’t rush in to save us?” I asked.

Claire tilted her head at me. “If we came running every time we heard you scream, Colin, we’d all be dead from exhaustion.”

“How do you know it was me screaming? Could have been her.”

“You think we don’t know what your scream sounds like?” said Claire. “We’ve heard it often enough.” 

Everyone nodded. Smug shits.

I told them about my dream encounter with the Jester, which got their attention, and put the willies up them. Especially the part about the masters’ personal guard being sent to find us. They weren’t quite so chirpy then. 

“It didn’t say what these guards looked like?” asked Maurice.

“No. Just that there’d be a flock of them which makes me think they’ll be airborne, or some kind of demonic sheep. Either way, best not to hang around here waiting for them.”

“They don’t know where we are though, right,” said Maurice. He flicked through his notes. “From what I can tell, it can get in your head when you’re asleep, or presumably when you’re dead, but it can’t read your mind or tell where you are. If they have to search the whole of Nekromel, we should be relatively safe here.”

When had Maurice turned into Detective Deduction? 

“They may know we’re near the ocean.”

“And how would they know that?” asked Jenny.

“I don’t know. The Jester’s some kind of supernatural being, it probably has magical abilities. And… I may have let slip that I was planning a sea voyage.”

“Colin!” exclaimed Claire like this was the worst thing I’d ever done, which I felt was unfair. I’d done far worse.

“Chill out, will you? It’s not like everything was peachy and now it’s fucked. We were pretty much fucked to start with. There’s still a lot of coastline for them to scour, even if it is from the sky. We need to remain calm and get some more information from the Manson family.”

I moved over to one side of the upturned table and grabbed a leg. “Help me move this out of the way.”

Dudley grabbed one of the other legs and we pushed the table across the floor, the two surfaces grinding against each other to make a loud rasp.

I took the hook from where it was hanging. “Right, I’m going to open the trapdoor, but there’s a chance the husband’s come back to life and is going to come charging out and rip all our arms off. So be ready and prepared.”

The others did an excellent impression of five people not ready and unprepared.

I gave the hook to Dudley. “Okay, new plan. You open the trapdoor.” I picked up the axe. “I’ll deal with what comes out.”

Jenny took the kid’s jacket which someone had hung up on the coat rack. Looking around, it looked like there had been quite a bit of tidying up. I guess it would have been impolite to invade someone else’s home and leave it a mess. 

The knives were all back inside the jacket, arranged in order of size. Jenny handed out a knife to each person and kept one for herself.

She nodded at Dudley who heaved the door open.

Nobody came rushing out. The black opening just sat there, gawping. 

“Hello?” I called down. “Are you there?”

There was no answer. We stood waiting, but nothing happened.

“Terry?” shouted Flossie. “Can yo’ hear me?” No response. “Ah think they must be asleep.”

Everyone closed in around the hole and peered in. 

Maurice pushed his slipping glasses back up his nose. “There may be another exit down there. We probably should have checked.”

Very true, if a bit late. They might have escaped through a tunnel and already be on their way back with an army of pitchfork-wielding villagers. Even if they were just keeping quiet, they might have a store of weapons down there.

“Right,” I said, relaxing my grip on the axe handle, “one of you go down and see what they’re doing.”

Claire edged towards the hole and peered nervously into the darkness. “Why don’t you go down?”

“Oh, it’s all equality and complaints about the wage gap when things are tickety-boo, but as soon as someone has to climb down into a dark basement full of psycho-killers, it’s a different story then, isn’t it? Suddenly that’s ‘man’s work’.”

“That’s not what I meant,” said Claire. “And if it was man’s work, I certainly wouldn’t send you.”

I turned to Jenny, expecting her to jump to my defence. Nothing.

“The only reason I think you should go,” said Claire, “is because you can create light. You’ll be able to see better than the rest of us. And if there is something scary down there, you can just stand in a corner and pretend you’re a Christmas tree.”

Her ability to laud my magical powers and simultaneously belittle them was truly impressive.

I summoned a ball of light and tossed it into the hole. It bounced down the steps like a ball, although it made no sound. 

“There you go. Now anyone can see it all in glorious Technicolour. Who’s first?”

No one moved. 

“Fine,” said Claire. “I know we expect a lot of you, Colin, so it’s only fair we do our share.”

Maurice stepped forward. “I’ll—”

“No,” said Claire. “I don’t need a man to hold my hand.” She grabbed Flossie. “We can do this.”

“Wah!” said Flossie. “Why me?”

Claire didn’t offer an answer and dragged Flossie with her as she took a step into the dark, small knife held out in front.

“It’s not fair,” wailed Flossie as she reluctantly followed Claire one hesitant step at a time. “It’s Colin they want, not us.”

“That’s true,” said Maurice. “The Jester never mentioned the rest of us. Probably doesn’t even know we exist.”

“Which means,” said Jenny, “if we do end up in a fight, Colin can hold them off while the rest of us get away.”

She seemed very pleased with this plan. I shoved her towards the hole. “Here, take her with you.”

Jenny stopped herself tumbling down the stairs. Before she could say anything, there was a scream and Flossie and Claire, who had barely gone down three or four steps, came running back out.

Everyone had weapons at the ready, waiting for some machete-wielding maniac to come out.

Nothing happened.

“What?” I asked Flossie.

She was bent over, gasping hard. “Spooder.”

Claire nodded, ashen faced.

“A spider? We’ve fought ogres and trolls for fuck’s sake!”

“Fuck you,” shouted Claire. “We ran from the ogres and only sang songs with the trolls. It was nearly the size of my hand!”

“Yes, I’m sure it was huge. Did you see anything else?”

Flossie and Claire exchanged guilty looks and then shook their heads.

“Useless! The lot of you. Get out of the way.”

“No,” said Claire. “We’ll do it properly this time.” She turned and took Maurice’s arm. They tentatively descended into the basement.

Flossie grabbed Dudley and followed. Both couples disappeared.

Jenny sighed. “They grow up so quickly, don’t they?”

“No,” I said. “They don’t fucking grow up at all.”

Claire’s voice came drifting out of the hole. “You better come down here.”

I climbed down the steep steps with Jenny behind me. I nearly yelped when a cobweb swept across my face and a spider the size of the Isle of Wight scuttled into a crack in the wall, but I managed to keep it together.

Claire had picked up my ball of light and it illuminated a large room with a low ceiling. There were four wooden tables, with a person laid out on each. All four were dead.

Terry and the two boys had gashes across their throats, the blood dried to black crust. The fourth body was that of a large man, bearded and a little on the plump side, although his muscular arms suggested he was no couch potato.

“They must have decided to use their time productively,” said Claire, passing the glowing ball over Terry’s face. Her eyes stared lifelessly and her mouth hung open as though in mid-scream. There was a knife gripped in her cold, dead hand.

“Ah don’t care what the benefits are,” said Flossie, clinging onto Dudley, “they’re all fookin’ crazy.”

There was a moan. We all turned to see the father slowly sit up like Frankenstein’s monster jolted to life. Flossie screamed and jumped into Dudley’s arms. Maurice also screamed and jumped into Claire’s arms. 

I didn’t scream, although I may have stepped behind Jenny for strategic reasons.

The father blinked a couple of times, rubbed his hands across his throat where there was a large, pink scar and then licked his lips. 

“I could do with a drink.” 

He looked at the other tables where his deceased family lay. His gaze passed across the room, taking in each of us until it finally came to rest on me.

“I don’t suppose your name happens to be Colin, does it?”

I hesitated for probably too long before saying, “No, I’m Kevin Turtle. Nice to meet you.”

He swung his legs off the table. “You’ll have to be more convincing tha—” As his legs hit the floor his knees buckled and he only just managed to stay upright by clutching the edge of the table. “Damned dead leg. No matter how many times I die…” He shook his leg out like a very heavy-set ballerina.

“We didn’t do that,” said Claire, pointing at Terry.

“Oh, I know. I recognise my wife’s blade strokes.” He walked over to her and passed a hand over her face, closing her eyes. “Wonky as ever.”

“How did you know his name?” Jenny asked, blowing my Kevin Turtle cover.

“The masters speak to us in our death dreams when they wish to tell us things. Sometimes it’s words of wisdom or promises of joy. In this case, it was news of a special soul. His name is Colin and glory will be heaped on whoever brings him to the Palace.”

“And a lot of people will have heard this, will they?” I asked.

“Of course. All those who are in repose or who will be. Word will pass onto the living, too. You must be very important to the masters.”

He looked like he could handle himself, probably wouldn’t go down easily even if we all attacked at once, and that would probably only mean us getting in each other’s way. 

“They want to kill me,” I said. “Where we come from, you only get one shot at life. When you die, it’s game over. Hardcore mode. We don’t get infinite lives like you pussies.”

He laughed. “You remind me of the ones who came before. They were as dismissive of our ways as you.”

“There were others?” said Claire. “Like us?”

“Indeed. Many years ago it was.”

“About sixteen?” I asked.

He looked surprised. “About that.”

Cheng’s mother and her party had tried to open a portal to Nekromel around then. The demon they released took her as his bride (and later for his dinner), but we didn’t really find out what happened to the rest. It would be easy to assume they had been killed, but perhaps they had crossed over to this world.

“It was they who started the uprising, united the unbelievers under the flag of heretics.”

“Heretics?” asked Claire.

“Aye. There are three main groups of this world. The fanatics, like my good wife, who believe to the point of wilful stupidity. The heretics, who believe the masters are evil demons. And the weretics.”

“What are weretics?” I asked.

“Do you understand how the cycle of death and rebirth works?” We all shook our heads. “Well, every time we are revived, our spirit is refined. We change, little by little. When the spirit reaches a certain intensity, we are summoned to the Palace of Laughter to join with the masters. But there are those who refuse the summons. They continue to change.”

“Change into what?” asked Maurice who was furiously making notes.

“It varies, but they are no longer human. Of course, they are hunted and brought to the Palace by force, but there are those who have managed to remain free.”

“Why are you telling us all this? Are you going to turn us in?” I asked.

“My brother was one of the heretics. The rebellion failed, of course. It was a massacre. The survivors are hidden throughout Nekromel. If you are truly as important as it seems, perhaps there is still a chance to overthrow the masters.”

“But you aren’t a heretic,” said Jenny.

“No, I am part of a fourth group. Those who wish to simply be left in peace. We don’t make much noise and mostly get ignored, which is fine by me. But my brother always took care of me—we had no parents—and I do not disagree with his aims, even if they are unlikely to reach fruition. I will send you to him, perhaps it will repay some of the debt. Perhaps it will get you all killed.”

“Where can we go where the masters won’t be able to find us?” I asked.

“Meet. It is the city to the north. Hard to find anything in that colossal gathering of souls.”

Meet or Meat, I wondered.

I turned to the others. They were all staring at me without offering suggestions or thoughts. So no change there, then.

“We’d be grateful for any help you can give us,” I said.

“I am Loran. It is good to meet you, Kevin Turtle.” He winked and shook my hand. “Come, we don’t have much time.”

He headed up the steps with us close behind.

“You will be safer once you reach Meet, but getting there will take most of the day.”

He went over to the stove and moved it aside. The stove was made of heavy stone, and he just picked it up. Was this an effect of dying?

“How many times have you died?” I asked him.

“Three hundred and twenty-three times.” 

Moving the stove revealed a hole. He bent down.

“And you haven’t been summoned or turned weretic?” asked Maurice.

“No, but I think I am close to it.” He reached in and pulled out a large bag. He dropped it on the floor with a clang and emptied it.

Inside, there were weapons and various bits of armour. He handed them over.

“They aren’t much, but they will help you blend in. If anyone asks, you are scavengers from the Eastern Swamps. It is an unpleasant place most choose to avoid so little is known of it.”

He shoved roughly at the assorted bits and pieces before him, clearing a small space which he swept smooth with his hand. He grabbed a piece of charcoal that had fallen out of the stove and with quick strokes he drew the coastline and marked the shack we were in.

He gave us a rough geography lesson of the surrounding lands and showed the route to the city. Once there, we were to find a tavern called Derren’s Sauce where a contact would lead us to the heretics.

The sky was back to implacable white by the time we were ready to leave. 

“Thank you,” I said again. We had all offered him our thanks numerous times already.

“Tell my brother he is missed. Not that he should return any time soon.”

We stepped out of the shack, ready for a long trek north. I turned to say goodbye to Loran but he wasn’t looking at me. 

“Perhaps you will not be going anywhere after all.”

He was looking up. I followed his gaze.

Flying towards us was what I could only describe as a box with wings. Not fixed like an aeroplane, huge feathered wings beating the air in long slow flaps. Whatever was in the box, I doubted it would be a pleasant surprise.

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