In a game, you die, you res, you go again. Whether you go all the way back to the beginning or respawn at a save point, it’s a huge advantage to know what’s coming and to get several chances at beating it.
If real life were like that, we would probably have a very different view of death.
But consider if you were the character in the game. Not some pixels, actually you, a living person. Every time you died, you would come back, but you’d have to experience death over and over again.
Would you become used to it? Treat it as no big deal?
I had experienced death once. Not a near-death experience, an actual-death experience. It didn’t matter to me how advantageous it might be to get killed, I had no intention of experiencing that despair and desolation again.
The axe the boy had dropped lay at my feet. I bent down and picked it up.
“Listen to me,” I said to the woman sitting on the floor, “I’m going to ask you some questions and I want you to answer them like I’m a five-year-old. Like I’ve just arrived in this world and have no clue how anything works. Okay?”
She looked at me tight-lipped, then at the axe in my hand, and nodded.
“You two,” I shifted my gaze from one boy to the other, “I’m guessing you’re thinking of ways to kill us. You probably have a bunch of other weapons hidden around the place. Don’t. If you try anything, I won’t kill you, I’ll chop off your hands and feet.”
The older boy blanched and the younger one tried to squirm into his mother’s armpit.
I turned around to face Claire. “You can shut it, too. You have no idea what’s going on here, so save your judgements until after we get some answers.”
“He’s still a child,” she said, her voice full of self-righteous indignation. Although I felt her position was somewhat undermined by the jacket o’knives she was holding, recently confiscated by me from the ‘child’.
“How do you know? You heard what she said, they don’t die. He could be fifty years old and just very short for his age.”
She bit the inside of her cheek and didn’t say anything. I didn’t think he was really fifty, not unless he used a very high quality moisturiser, but my point was still valid. We didn’t know the rules of this world or how things worked. Until we did, I intended to be a complete and utter bastard to these people.
“Dudley, stand by the door and keep a watch for anyone approaching.”
Dudley moved to the window by the door and peered out. The room we were in was a kitchen. There was a stone stove in one corner, some roughly made cabinets and a large wooden table with four chairs. The number of chairs raised some questions.
There were two doorways leading to other rooms. I poked my head in both. One had a large bed, the other had two smaller ones.
“What’s your name?” I asked the woman.
“Who else lives here with you three?”
“And where is he?”
“Did you kill him?” I asked.
She shot a dark glare at me. “Yes. It was his birthday yesterday. Of course I killed him.”
At first I thought she was being sarcastic, but she wasn’t.
“He’s in the basement. He won’t rise until tomorrow at the earliest, so you don’t need to worry about him.”
There was no indication of how to get into the basement, but that could wait. I told Terry to get up and sit at the table.
She struggled to her feet, babe in arms, and sat down on a rickety-looking chair. Her older son took up position behind her, clutching his arm.
“This place is called Nekromel, right?”
“And nobody stays dead?” She nodded again. “What does that mean? If I killed you now, how long before you came back to life?”
“A day, maybe two. It depends how severe the injuries are.”
“And the wounds just heal by themselves. Like magic.”
She reared her head back like I’d said something offensive. “No, not like magic. It is natural. There are no dark arts involved.”
“What if I did chop off his feet?” I said pointing to the boy in her arms. “Would they grow back?”
“No,” said Terry. She grimaced at the idea. They would have to be reattached.”
“What about his arm?” said Jenny, pointing at the older boy. “Will it fix itself.”
Terry glanced over her shoulder. “No. He will have to die to heal.”
“Not necessarily.” I approached the boy.
He flinched away from me, but I grabbed hold of his arm. He let out a yelp of pain.
“Don’t hurt him,” cried out his mother.
“I’m not.” Once I started healing his arm, the boy stopped struggling.
The pain left his eyes, to be replaced by wonder.
“It… it feels better!”
Terry’s face didn’t express much in the way of gratitude. “You are a sorcerer!”
“That’s right. And don’t forget it.” My hope was she’d assume I possessed a bunch of powers that I didn’t, and consider it useless to fight me. An avoided fight was always a win in my book.
I released the boy’s arm and returned to the front of the table and sat down opposite her. “How many times have you died?”
“One hundred and nineteen.” She said the number without having to think about it, and with a certain amount of pride.
“Wow,” I said. “You must have pissed off a lot of people.” I swivelled around. “Claire, you better be extra careful.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” said Claire, completely ignoring my advice.
“And don’t just stand there,” I said. “Check the cupboards for food.”
“Are we going to rob them, too?” asked Claire.
“Yes, Claire. That’s exactly what we’re going to do. Feel free to starve if you want.”
She clamped her mouth shut and turned around. She and Flossie began going through the cupboards and drawers over by the stove.
“Ah found summit,” exclaimed Flossie. She pulled out a plate of meat. It looked like a leg of lamb, already cooked.
“No, not Uncle Stan!” cried out Terry.
A chill ran through me. “And who was Uncle Stan?”
“Our goat. It’s the last of our food.”
It was a relief Uncle Stan wasn’t a relative. I assumed you didn’t come back to life if you’d been glazed and roasted. “Heat it up,” I told Flossie. “I could do with a hot meal.”
“Can I ask something?” said Maurice. I moved aside to let him take over.
He produced a notebook and pencil from somewhere and sat down. The notebook was dry. How had he managed that when we’d spent all that time in the water? I began to suspect he’s had a utility belt made. It was the sort of thing he’d do. Why hadn’t he got me one? I could use somewhere to keep my spoons.
While I scoured the room for eating utensils I could steal, Maurice started interrogating Terry and taking notes.
“If no one stays dead, wouldn’t you have a population problem? You obviously have kids, so you’re making new people but no one leaves. Where is everyone?”
It was a good point. We hadn’t encountered anyone else, or even seen signs of life. Unless Nekromel was huge, the place should have been crammed full of people.
“After you die enough times, if you are worthy, you ascend to beyond the wall.”
“What wall?” said Maurice. “What do you mean ‘ascend’?”
She rolled her eyes.
“Remember,” I said. “Explain it like we’re five. Complete idiots.”
This seemed to make sense to her.
“Every time you die, your spirit grows. When you achieve fullness, you can pass the walls surrounding Dalada and approach the Palace of Laughter. There, the masters await to greet you. If they choose to join with you, you will ascend.”
“This Dalada,” said Maurice, “that’s the name of the place we’re in now?”
“Hmm,” said Maurice. “And when you say ‘join with’, what do you mean by that?”
“Join with,” said Terry. “ We become part of them, and they us. It is the natural way of things.”
“So, every time you die, you come back stronger?” said Jenny. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”
I turned to her. “You have no idea what you’re saying. Dying isn’t easy. It’s fucking horrible. It’s…” The memory of it made me choke up.
“I can understand why you don’t want to talk about what happened,” said Jenny. “You obviously had a very bad experience you’d rather not revisit, and I respect your decision.”
“Thank you,” I said, relieved she wasn’t going to push it. “I appre—”
“I respect it, but I don’t agree. So I want you to tell me, in detail, what it was like for you to die.”
“I don’t think the word ‘respect’ means what you think it means.”
Jenny had her hand on my chest and a cool look in her eyes. “What was it like to die, Colin?”
“Not fun. And try to remember that when half your face was turned into burnt pizza, I stood by you. I could’ve dumped you and found myself a nice lizardwoman—that Noreen was starting to give me the eye—but I didn’t. So, a little appreciation, please. And a little less with the withering looks.”
I removed her hand from my chest. She put it back there.
“I got this face because I pushed you out of the way, so you owe me, not the other way around. And the only reason Noreen was giving you the eye was because she was thinking of all the ways she could kill you. I spoke to her about it. She had some good ideas. Now, tell me what happened when you died.”
“Jenny,” I said softly, deciding to take a different tack, “it was bad, that’s all you need to know.”
She turned around and took a knife from the jacket in Claire’s hand. “Kill me.” She held the knife out to me.
“Fine, I’ll do it myself.”
I grabbed her wrist which she’d turned inwards and tried to take the knife with my other hand. The knife bobbed and weaved as we both struggled for control. I finally plucked it from her grasp. “Don’t be so stupid.”
“We can’t die,” she said. “If you won’t tell me what you saw, I’ll just have to see for myself.”
“No!” I pointed at Terry. “She’s died over a hundred times and look at her! She looks terrible. Her face is all stretched, her skin is practically grey. And the glassy eyes… Do you want to end up like that?”
Terry burst into tears. “It’s not easy bringing up two kids, you know?” she said between sobs. “Maybe I don’t take care of myself like I used to, but we all get older.”
Claire and Flossie glared at me and rushed over to console Terry, mother of monsters.
“What are you two daft bints doing? She’s a fucking psychopath.”
“She’s not a psychopath,” said Flossie. “She just has a different outlook to us.”
“Different outlook? Are you fucking joking?”
“And… and… please don’t use that kind of language in front of the children,” said Terry.
“Oh, sure. You raise them to murder people, but let’s not teach them any swears, we wouldn’t want them to turn into delinquents.”
“I’m going to do it,” said Jenny. She took another knife from the jacket which Claire had left on the table for anyone to help themselves. “Death is different here. We can’t die.”
I took the second knife from her. “They can’t die,” I said. “We don’t know if the same thing applies to us.”
“But you came back,” she said.
“No, I didn’t. You heard what she said. You die, you heal, you come back to life. That’s not what happened to me. She didn’t say anything about travelling back in time.”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” said Maurice, turning around in the chair and flicking back through his notes. “Uncle Pete said something about how the spires displaced people. I think the weapon was aimed at the vortex when it opened. Colin jumped first, he may have got hit by the weapon.”
“See?” I said. “I shielded you all. Saved you again. Back to the top of the leaderboard for me. The least you ungrateful bastards could do is treat me like your lord and saviour. Which is what I am.”
Maurice ignored my outburst. “When he died he got boomeranged back into his other body. It may be completely unrelated to what these people go through.”
“Even if we did come back to life like them,” I said, “trust me, you don’t want to die even once.”
“Why?” implored Jenny, resorting to whining. “Was it the pain? Did it hurt a lot?”
“No. I mean, yes, it hurt a lot, but…” My body shook at the thought, but I forced the words out. She wouldn’t let it lie otherwise, and the whining was more than I could handle (as she well knew). “There was someone there. Waiting. Laughing. And not in a fun way. Okay? Happy now?”
There was a sharp intake of breath from Terry. “It isn’t possible!” Her eyes were wide and she glared at me with her lips twisted in revulsion.
“What isn’t possible?” I asked her.
“You met the Jester. Your spirit is ready to ascend. It cannot be. How many times have you died?”
“That was my first time, thanks to junior.” The kid in her arms was asleep, probably dreaming of ways to kill me.
“You can pass through the barrier,” she said bitterly. “You can meet the masters. Sorcery, this is foul sorcery.”
“These masters,” said Maurice, “what do they look like?”
“Like angels,” said Terry, a light in her eyes.
“So, wings?” Maurice asked her.
“And horns, and big teeth? A tail?”
“Yes. They are beautiful.”
“They’re demons,” I said to Maurice.
“Yeah. I’m just thinking, you remember what happened to Cheng’s mother?”
“Of course, his dad… Oh.”
Maurice scratched at his chin and looked over his notes. “I thought at first Dalada was like a corruption of ‘the ladder’. You know, how place names get corrupted over time. Like Deptford was a deep ford. She talked about ascending so, it made sense.”
“But now you don’t think so?”
“No. Dalada. The larder. I think these people are food. When they join with the masters…”
He left it hanging, but it was obvious what he was suggesting.
“Is that true?” I asked Terry. “Do the masters eat you?”
“No! We join with them and attain bliss. It is the—”
“The natural way. Yeah, right. Listen, Terry, I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re a huge moron. Hu-uge. Everything you’ve been told is utter nonsense and you’re a fool to have believed it.”
“How is that meant to help?” asked Claire.
“This is what she gets for teaching her kid to stab a stranger in the heart. Plus it makes me feel better.”
“That’s not true,” said Terry defiantly. No hint of doubt in her eyes. “You are an unbeliever. There are others like you, trying to overthrow the masters, but they will not succeed and neither will you.”
So, there was a resistance. That might come in useful.
I leaned down closer to Terry. “The demons you think of angels are monsters who eat people. The eat you like roast goat. Yum, yum. And they make you think it’s your idea. You fucking idiot.”
I’m all for cultural diversity, but some cultures are just stupid.
“Ah get it,” said Flossie. “People don’t die here because they want their food to stay fresh,” She sounded very pleased with herself. For a second. “Ugh. That’s horrible.”
“And,” said Dudley, “there isn’t an overpopulation problem because…”
“Circle of life,” I said. “Hakuna ma-fuckin-tata.”
“Uncle Pete said Visitors provided more fuel for his weapon,” said Maurice, “maybe it’s the same here. Colin’s ready to be on the menu because he’s prime grade beef. We probably all are.”
“I like your theory,” I said. “It makes a lot of sense. With this information I think we’re in a much better position to deal with these demons. We may actually have a chance of survival in this place. I say our first move should be to go back to the beach, try to get in touch with Wyndam, and sail for the other side of the world.”