The atmosphere was one of relief and jubilation. We had gone up against an indomitable foe and won. Or rather, they had.
I considered their actions to be incredibly stupid, but there was no doubting their victory.
As I watched them hug each other and laugh about being sucked into the mouth of a giant worm, they looked like heroes. Not the type with muscles and loincloths and big swords. More like the teacher who stands between her kids and a madman with a knife, even though she knows it’ll probably get her killed.
Was this why we were brought to this world? So people like this could band together and save lives in the most ridiculous way possible? It wasn’t so far-fetched. The no-hopers who get their shit together and accomplish amazing things are often the heroes of a story, why not this one?
They still weren’t a team you would call on to save the day unless you had absolutely no other choice, but if you told them what they needed to do, they’d be willing to do it. Because it was the right thing to do.
And the person leading them on this insane path to becoming legends wasn’t me, it was Jenny.
It had been her idea to jump down the jabberwock’s throat and her instructions the other’s had followed without hesitation.
I still had no idea why we had been transported to this world, but perhaps the special ability that really counted wasn’t making fire or healing people, it was the willingness to do whatever it took to save the day.
Whenever I’d had to lead the party into a volatile situation, I’d done so racked with doubts, regretting every decision as soon as I made it. My greatest wish had always been to avoid trouble if I possibly could and go off quietly on my own. I thought Claire would be the one to take over, but maybe her role was to be number two. And Jenny was destined to be number one.
This was good news. They didn’t need me any more. But rather than look forward to finally walking away from the group I’d been stuck with since the first day, I felt a bit sad.
With the confidence they’d gain from this success, and their desire to do the right thing, I imagined they would be prepared to take on even greater challenges. Obviously, they’d be dead in under a week.
Actually, maybe now was the perfect time to get out.
“My brother is hurt,” said Kungen, “we need to get him back to the village.”
Keezy did look pretty bad. His raw skin glistened in the dim light. Surprisingly, no one suggested I heal him. Whether they didn’t want me to risk using up more of my life force, or they just forgot I existed, I don’t know.
“Will you be able to walk back?” asked Jenny.
“I shall,” said Keezy. “Nothing will stop me from returning to tell the others the Worm King has come.”
“Will they really be nice to Kungen now he can scare off the big worms?” asked Flossie.
“The Worm King was foretold in prophecy. The one who will reclaim the night. No one really knew what it meant or even if it was anything more than a story to tell children. I certainly never thought it would turn out to be my own brother.” He spoke with great pride and put his arm around Kungen.
Nobody thanked me for making all this possible. Was I mentioned in the prophecy? And lo, an unparalleled scruffbag will emerge from the east and bestow on the Worm King a great power. Make sure you treat the scruffbag poorly and think of him as trash.And so it came to pass…
With Kungen supporting Keezy we headed back to the village. I created a ball of light to show the way. I felt like I should say something, explain my actions back when we were running at the jabberwock and I chose to bail. I had any number of reasons primed and ready to go, some of them even quite valid, but no one mentioned it. Me suddenly bringing it up would have just sounded like I was making excuses. Which is exactly what it would have been.
The village was not the slumbering hamlet we had left. Torches and fires were ablaze and the entire population seemed to be crowded at the boundary. Perhaps they heard the commotion all the way back here and were preparing for a jabberwocky attack.
When they saw us, a hush descended. Furtive looks were exchanged and they were in no hurry to move aside and let us through. Kungen’s presence may have had something to do with it.
The other troll, whose name I still didn’t know, came rushing out of the crowd. He tried to take Kungen’s place but Keezy pushed the troll away.
Keezy, still leaning on his brother, told the gathering what had happened and how Kungen had defeated the jabberwock. The inhospitable glares changed into wonder and surprise. Shocked muttering soon became shouts of joy and celebration.
Keezy also told them about the role Jenny and the others played. The crowd was aghast at the audacity of the rescue plan. The whole party were hailed as heroes. Well, apart from me.
Cries of “Worm King! Worm King!” broke out and the whole thing got a bit chaotic.
I slipped away, which was easily done since no one was paying any attention to me, and found my way back to the tent where I’d been sleeping. It had been a long night and I was exhausted. Not that I’d done much other than conjure up some pretty lights, but I could barely keep my eyes open.
I crawled into the small tent and fell asleep.
When I woke up, I was alone. Not very surprising. I crawled out into bright sunshine with the lake shimmering not very far away. And not much else.
The village had gone. The whole thing—the tents, the shacks, the inhabitants—all gone. As were my party.
I stumbled around a bit. There was no sign of them. And the only indication there’d been a settlement at all were the remnant of a few fires and some vines tied to various branches.
The way they were being treated last night, I didn’t worry to much for their safety. They were with the trolls for a start. And they were saviours of the universe. They were probably at a special after-party for celebs and VIPs.
Still, I did feel a little put out at being left behind. I know, it’s what I’ve always insisted was my goal—to be on my own—but even the lucky guy who finds out he was the only choirboy in the choir not to be sexually abused by the priest will wonder,“What was wrong with me?” It’s human nature.
I stuffed thoughts of inadequacy and abandonment into the part of my brain I keep for these matters—always full yet always room for more—and walked down to the water. After I washed and got the world into a slightly clearer focus, I looked around again. I didn’t know how long I’d be on my own (forever?) so scavenging any useful items left behind seemed like a good idea.
It was while I was wandering around the bushes, scanning the ground for anything I could use, that I discovered I was not as alone as I had thought.
Sitting on a crate was a small, dog-like creature who looked kind of familiar.
While it’s probably racist, or speciesist, to suggest everyone with a dog-head looks the same, this one actually did look a lot like May-May, only smaller. Same white and black markings, same terrier-like face.
He had seen me but didn’t seem too concerned. He bounced his heels—they were too hairy for me to tell if they were actual feet or paws—against the box. He gave off the impression of someone slightly bored.
I walked over to him. “Hey. I’m Colin.”
He looked me up and down and didn’t seem to impressed by what he saw. He didn’t say anything.
“Where’d everyone go?” I asked in a friendly tone.
He cocked his head. You’d think he might be more wary of a human, but perhaps he had heard about what happened last night and considered me to be one of the heroes. Then again, maybe he was choosing which bone would be tastiest. Is intimating a dog-person has a thing for bones a sign of prejudice?
I decided to give it one last go. “Are you waiting for someone?”
“I’m waiting for my Da.” When he spoke it became obvious he was very young. Maybe five or six. I’m not sure what that is in dog years. “He’s the best tracker in these parts. And the toughest.” He gave me a look that suggested I better watch myself.
I had a horrible feeling I knew who his Da was and that the kid was in for a long wait. If it was May-May, though, had no one thought to tell him? They just left him out here?
“Your mother around here somewhere is she?”
“My Ma was eaten by a manticore.” He didn’t sound very bothered about it.
“Okay, well, see you around.” It wasn’t my job to inform kids they were now orphans. If leaving a child to fend for himself was how they handled things around here, then I guessthis is Sparta! He was probably better equipped to deal with whatever was out here than I was.
I continued foraging and found a branch that I whittled down to something vaguely resembling a spear. I sharpened the end as best I could and made way back down to the lake.
I waded out until the water was up to my knees. With a little fish-calling magic and some half-arsed spearing I eventually managed to catch breakfast. As I returned to the shore, the kid was standing at the water’s edge watching me. He was probably hungry.
I got a fire going and cooked the fish. The kid stood to the side all puppy-eyed, although that was probably unavoidable. I offered him some of the fish. He darted forward and snatched it from my hand, stuffing it into his mouth like he hadn’t eaten in a week.
“Keep the fire going while I catch some more.”
Yes, he was cute, and it was hard to resist picking him up and patting him on the head, but more importantly he was familiar with life on this side of the border. If I could win his trust there was a lot of useful information I could get out of him. And also I was still hungry since he’d eaten most of my breakfast.
Of course, catching fish isn’t always easy, especially when your homemade spear isn’t of the finest workmanship. Or any workmanship.
“You aren’t very good are you?” The kid had left the fire unattended and sat on the bank paddling his feet in the water. “I think the first one was a fluke.”
The fact he was probably right didn’t make it okay to talk to me like that. Kids these day… “What’s your name?”
“Well, Attica, skills like mine are hard to acquire and even harder to master.” I placed a hand in the water and made various finger movements. The water glowed and a large fish darted towards me. I raised the spear and thrust it into the water, missing him by a good margin. The fish swam off.
If I’d speared it I would have looked hella cool. Damn it.
“How do you call the fish like that?”
“You do this.” I held up my hand and quickly went through the movements. I saw no reason not to show him. It wasn’t like he’d be able to copy me with his stubby fingers.
“Like this?” He repeated the moves back to me flawlessly. Quick learner.
“Yes. Now do it in the water.”
He stuck his hand in the water and moved his fingers. Nothing happened.
“See? Not so easy. Keep practising.”
Maybe I could trade fishing lessons for information. I had visions of passing on my knowledge to my young student who would call me Sensei and treat me with reverence.
I returned my attention to the fish. I focused my mind and steadied my breathing. This was a good opportunity for me to practise both my fish-magic and spearing. If I really applied myself I could have enough fish for lunch and dinner within a few minutes.
It took me an hour before I managed to catch another one.
He was quite big although he looked fairly grizzled. He may have actually died of old age just before I snagged him. I turned around with my prize, ready for the respect and admiration a hunter of my calibre deserves, to find Attica lying on the bank, his hand hanging in the water and his fingers moving at great speed, creating a purple glow.
Dozens of fish swam around his hand, leaping out of the water and making him giggle when they nibbled on his fingers. God damn show off.