177. Better The Devil You Know

The first thing I thought was, Oh no, I’m going to have to do this shit all over again. A somewhat self-centred way of thinking when you’re watching someone about to be bitten in half, but in my defence, death loses some of its gravitas when you’re going to see the person again in a bit.

Not that it didn’t upset me to see Claire die—it isn’t a very pleasant thing to witness, especially when it involves chewing—but going through all that palaver only to find myself in exactly the same situation was infuriating.

It’s like having a save point right before the final boss and realising you’re going to have to go back to the beginning of the level. Annoying.

Even though there was no time to reach Claire from where I was standing, or even to shout a warning, every fibre in my body was screaming for her to get down. And she did.

Claire’s eyes locked onto mine and she lunged towards the ground. Her body hit the deck and the weretic’s jaws snapped at the air recently vacated. She rolled over onto her back and began scrabbling away from the deformed brute, its bulbous eyes bloodshot and maddened.

Maurice came hurtling in between them, although I wasn’t sure what he thought that would do other than put more options on the menu.

“Stop!” I called out. “I’m not going to kill myself.”

David raised his hand and the weretic paused, slavering and panting heavily. It was a neat trick. I almost expected him to toss out a treat. Which probably would’ve been a couple of human fingers.

“You’re not going to go back and save all these people?” he said. “You don’t want to play the hero?”

Clearly, he hadn’t read my resume.

“No. I have no intention of going back because I already did. This is my second go around and as you can see, everyone’s still dead.”

Everyone looked around like they had just noticed we were surrounded by death and half-consumed corpses. The other weretics had stopped their feeding and were looking in our direction. If David gave the signal, we wouldn’t last more than a couple of seconds.

“Maybe you’re bluffing,” said David.

“It doesn’t matter. Cheng’s about to come out of the Palace and he’s not going to be happy. You made him eat his girlfriend and he’s going to rip off all your faces.”

There was a tremendous roar and the ground shook, as expected. Cheng shot out of the Palace gates on cue, soaring over the amphitheatre.

David looked up, mouth slightly open as Cheng circled. His new form was dramatically different and much larger than any of the weretics. But more than his new look, he pulsated with energy that suggested a barely contained power. It was like he was on the verge of exploding.

“You can’t beat him.” I didn’t even need to backup that statement. The winged giant in the sky did all my talking for me.

David looked at me, then up at Cheng. He shielded his eyes. “How do I know he won’t attack anyway?”

“Because this is what Yuqi wanted. She has no intention of returning to her body; she never did. She was the one who convinced the masters to turn her into the Jester in the first place.”

It was only as I said it that I realised I had no idea why she would want it like this. Why send the weretics in to stop the masters welding if she wanted them to achieve singularity? And what did she get out of it, other than remaining stuck in the void?

David reached into his jacket and pulled out a small box. The Codex. He’d had it with him all this time. He flipped it open. “Yuqi? Is this true?”

“David, tell the weretics to change back.” Her voice was deep as ever, but it was even and without the hysterical edge she usually had. “There’s no need for any more fighting.”

“You don’t want to come back?” He sounded distraught.

“We can discuss it later. For now, do as I say.” She sounded dismissive.

David raised his hand over his head and the weretics slowly changed back into their human forms. It wasn’t very elegant. It was like watching ice cubes being melted with a blowtorch, revealing shivering bodies underneath. Pools of familiar-looking blue liquid formed around them.

Yuqi was in total control of the situation, which worried me. I had been so caught up in finding a way out of this mess, I hadn’t thought about what Yuqi was really up to. Nothing good, no doubt. It didn’t matter, I told myself. None of my business. Once we were out of this universe, they could do what they wanted with it.

Cheng flew down to land next to me. The ground shook and dust flew up as he closed his wings. He towered over us and waves of some kind of force emanated from him. It made my teeth tingle.

“This world is dead,” he said in a voice that was flat and heavy, yet seemed filled with sadness. “We will leave and make Darkholme anew. Those of you who wish to come may do so.”

Nobody said anything, because what are you supposed to say? “I call shotgun!”?

The first person to speak was Claire. “Just a minute, I need to talk to Colin.”

She let go of Maurice, who had helped her up, and made a beeline for me. I took a step back but bumped into Jenny who pushed me back towards Claire.

“Nice dodge,” I said as she bore down on me.

“I heard you.” She grabbed my arm and dragged me away from the others. “In my head. It was deafening.”

Somehow I had managed to lower my barrier and get through to Claire.

“That’s good, but you don’t have to thank—”

“I know what you did, you piece of shit,” she hissed into my ear. “I saw it when you opened your mind to me. You’re the reason they all died. You killed them all.” Her voice trembled, as did the rest of her.

I grabbed her arm and dragged her further away

“I didn’t kill anyone. They were already dead when we got here.”

“No. You—”

“Be quiet, Claire. You’re not going to say anything to anyone until we get off this stupid planet, you understand? Unless you want to stay here, with the constant threat of being eaten alive hanging over you, and Maurice, and everyone else, you will keep your mouth shut and do whatever I tell you. After that, you can do what you want.”

“It’s not right, what you did.”

“No, it isn’t.” I let go of her arm. “You’re alive because of it, though.”

She closed her mouth very tightly and refused to look at me, but she didn’t say anything to the others.

The first sign things weren’t quite as hunky-dory as I thought was when I was walking through the Palace on the way to the treasury. David and Phil (who was still walking with a limp) had convinced Cheng to help them release Bao from the wall he was stuck in. Once that was done, Cheng said he could open a portal to transport us off this world. Everyone was cautiously optimistic. Well, except for me. I was expecting some kind of surprise attack from Yuqi and walked slower than the others, checking every shadowy corner for a crazy bitch with one horn. As far as I was concerned, the best defence was a quick exit.

My legs went first. They just turned wobbly and I staggered like I was suddenly running downhill. It was only for a couple of steps, and I was fine immediately afterwards, but it was strange because nothing seemed to cause it.

Then, as we went down the shaft, using the handholds on the wall, a wave of dizziness washed over me and I lost my grip. Luckily, I was nearly at the bottom, so I didn’t fall very far and passed it off as an intentional bit of bravado.

Something was definitely going on with me, but I had no idea what it was. My first thought was that perhaps all the travelling through time had side-effects similar to how my healing magic aged me. It wouldn’t be very surprising to learn this magic came with a cost, too.

I didn’t think the others had noticed until Jenny pulled me aside as the others went on ahead.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not,” she immediately countered, not looking very pleased I was lying to her. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing. I’ve just travelled through dimensions. It’s probably just a bit of jet lag.”

The previous times I’d time-travelled, I hadn’t experienced any adverse effects and there didn’t seem to be anything particularly different about my most recent trip, but it could have been accumulative. Cancer, restless leg syndrome, anal leakage—I doubted anyone had done research on the long-term side-effects of screwing with the space-time continuum, and if they had, the big time-travelling corporations had probably suppressed it.

“You don’t seem balanced,” said Jenny.

“What does that mean? Am I tilting to one side?”

“No, well, yes, a little, but I don’t mean it like that. I mean on the inside.” She didn’t normally talk like this and she wasn’t making much sense.

“How can you tell?” I asked her “Magic?”

She had the lapels of my jacket in her small fists, like she was about to nut me. “Yes. Magic.” She yanked me towards her but only planted a kiss on my lips. “It’s never been that strong, and it only really works with you, but when you’re in turmoil, I can feel it.”

This was new. Jenny had always been sensitive to my moods, but I figured that’s how clingy girlfriends were.

“So you know what it feels like inside me? That’s kind of creepy.”

“Why’s it creepy? You know what it feels like to be inside me.”

I wasn’t sure the two were comparable. Or maybe they were.

“It’s interesting. We should definitely look into developing your ability, but you’re wrong. I’m not in turmoil. My moil is completely unturred.”

“Really? Nothing’s happened that’s got you stressed or worked up?”

It was a bit of a broad question. “Just the usual matters of life and death. Same old, same old.”

Jenny looked me straight in the eyes. Was she doing it now? Was she inside me?

“It’s up to you to deal with things the way you want,” she said. “You don’t have to tell me anything.”

Exactly what someone says when they want you to tell them everything.

“What if it was something so terrible it made you look at me completely different? Maybe even made you hate me.”

Jenny pulled back and gave me a lopsided grin. “After the shit you’ve done in the past? You can’t shock me.”

“Oh, really? You think you know what I’m capable of, do you? You’re the one who said I treated people as less important than me. Why wouldn’t I do something so horrific to them I couldn’t even let myself…”

The words wouldn’t come out. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. What had started as playful teasing didn’t seem so funny now. My head was swimming. I had killed millions of people. I hadn’t done it myself, I hadn’t seen their faces or watched them die, but I gave the order. It had been easy. It was like a game. Dots on a map. One minute they were there, the next they were gone.

It hadn’t felt real. It had already happened, long before I got involved. Only it hadn’t. It couldn’t happen without me. I felt like I’d opened a closet with too much stuff in it and now it wouldn’t close.

I realised Jenny was holding me up. My body had gone limp. What I really wanted to do was slide down the wall and slump to the floor in a heap. And stay there. But Jenny wouldn’t let me.

She pinned me against the wall to make it easier to keep me upright. “Whatever it is, you can fix it.”

“I can’t. It’s too late.”

“Stupid. You’re a time traveller. It’s never too late.”

She had a point. I could go back and change it. The idea made me want to lie down until the idea went away.

“You don’t understand,” I whined. “The alternative means we don’t go home. We never leave. Or we get caught up in something even worse. We’ve found the exit. The door’s right there. You want to go all the way back to the beginning?”

“I don’t care.” She was really leaning into me with all her strength. Anyone would think we were fighting (and she was winning). “All I want is for you to stop having this.” She placed her palm on my chest over my heart. “I don’t want you to feel like this.”

“It’s not so bad.”

“You shouldn’t have to live with it. No one should. If I could just…”

Her nails dug into me and I thought I was about to be Mola Rammed. I winced. There was a warmth under her hand. It began to spread, and then… it was gone. All of it. The weight in my chest, in my body, the relentless tightness that accompanied my wherever I went, faded away.

I felt incredibly light and free. Everything was much clearer. I didn’t have that nagging feeling something was terribly wrong, that others were going to turn on me, that something horrendous was waiting around the corner. It was exhilarating. Was this how everybody else lived?

Without all the distractions cluttering my mind, something else suddenly became very apparent. Claire knew what I’d done. The Claire I met in the future hadn’t. She could have been lying, but I didn’t think so—she had been far too relaxed and carefree. Which meant I must have gone back and changed things. It also meant there was another way out of here, although how long it would take to find was anyone’s guess.

It only took a second for me to realise what I had to do. I looked down at Jenny, ready to tell her she was right (which in itself proved something drastic had happened to me), but the sight of her made me forget everything.

Jenny was clinging to me, desperately. She had a wretched look on her face, as though she’d been told the worst news imaginable. There were tears in her eyes.

“I thought I knew how you felt… I never imagined…”

She fell away from me and I had to grab before she hit the ground.

“What did you do?” I asked rather more forcefully than I probably should have. When she didn’t answer, I asked again, even more forcefully.

“I took it from you,” she said in a quiet voice. “The dark, cold part, I took it out of your body and put it into me.” She shuddered in my arms. “I don’t know how you can stand it. I can’t… I can’t… Ahhhh, it’s horrible.”

“Then fucking give it back!” I shook her.

Her head lolled from side to side. “I don’t know how. I don’t know what I did.” Her eyes had a glaze over them and she seemed lost, like she had no idea where she was.

I swung her around and it was my turn to pin her against the wall. I grabbed her wrist and placed her hand on my chest, the same as before. “Just reverse it. Whatever you did, do the opposite.”

There was no response. Her head drooped forward like she was sleepy. I pushed her face up with mine, found her mouth and kissed her. It wasn’t a romantic kiss. It was hard and aggressive and painful. I thought I could snap her out of it, or maybe suck back whatever it was she had taken from me.

There was a slight response, then firmer, and then her hand clasped my head and she went in deep. My lips stung with the pressure. I could hardly breathe, her tongue was so far down my throat. And then, like she was vomiting in my mouth, a deluge of some dark, wet liquid—at least that’s how it felt—gushed into me.

Sound unpleasant? You have no idea.

The weight dropped back into my body and it felt like my feet were sinking into the ground. It wasn’t an odd sensation, like I had indigestion in my head and a headache in my stomach.

And then it levelled out. It was familiar. Everything found its resting spot and was reabsorbed.

“I don’t know how you can walk around feeling like that,” said Jenny, holding onto me and panting.

“You get used to it.”

“No. It’s fucking awful. Holy shit, I wanted to stab my eyes out with a pencil, I just didn’t have the energy to do it.”

“Don’t you think you’re exaggerating a bit? I’m sure there are people worse off than me.”

“I don’t think so.” Jenny pushed herself off me. “I feel like I have a much better idea of why you’re the way you are. You should get help.”

“I do have help,” I said. “I have you.”

“Don’t be so sure.” She patted me on the shoulder. “I am never doing that again.” She took a deep breath and then patted herself on the chest. “This is so much better.”

A person—a sensitive person—could take offence at their inner life being considered so repulsive, but it’s all a matter of perspective. You couldn’t expect someone used to carrying around a purse of minor grievances to suddenly pick up a garden shed of devastation and walk around with it. These things take time. Hang around with me and she’d learn soon enough.

More importantly, even though the gloom had returned to cloud my head, those few seconds of clear thinking had shown me what I needed to do.

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