“I already have a group of people I’m…” What exactly was I doing with them? “…tooling around with.”
“Of course,” said Phil, taking a card out of the pack throwing it in the air where it vanished, and then reproduced it in his hand as though it had never left. “We all end up with people in our lives, somehow. But I’ll tell you something, Colin, that’s the first time the masters have sent out a worldwide broadcast looking for one person. Everyone knows about it. Everyone’s talking about ‘The Colin’. Nobody mentioned the rest of your team.”
He tilted his head as though suggesting his point had been made, which I suppose it had. Only I was stupid enough to put myself on the enemy radar.
“No,” said Phil. “Before you start thinking they’re the lucky ones for keeping their heads down, you wouldn’t have been marked out as different if there wasn’t something to mark out. You have the ability—you can choose to use it or you can spread it so thin among all the people you’re trying to keep afloat that you all end up drowning. You get me?”
What he was saying wasn’t wrong, but that didn’t mean leaving them behind and teaming up with someone else would be an improvement. Admittedly, the odds were fairly short.
“It’s your youth that will betray you in the end,” said Phil. “You think there’s going to be time to get things right, to make them better. There never is—and that’s coming from someone who can actually stop time.” He rolled his bug-eyes disconcertingly. “I’m in my thirties now and it’s no fun, I can tell you. Everything thinning out. Thinning chances, thinning enthusiasm, thinning hair.” He brushed aside a stray strand from his face. “It’s the hair that’ll break your heart. I don’t even look like me anymore.”
“Still, pretty amazing what you can do for an old man.” I gripped the levitating spoon in two hands and attempted to shift it from its position in mid-air. I grunted with effort as I tried to drag it towards the bowl. It wouldn’t budge even a millimetre. “Makes eating soup a bit tricky, but still, kind of an OP power to have.”
“You might think so,” said Phil, “but it’s honestly not all that useful. Try getting up.”
I let go of the spoon and pushed my feet against the floor. Normally this would force the chair to scrape back, allowing me space to rise. On this occasion there was no movement. I had pulled the chair in when I sat down to eat and now I was stuck.
“We can move around but we can’t interact with anything. And nothing can interact with us. The only think it’s really useful for is running away. In a tight spot? Freeze everything and get as far away as you can.”
“And you think that isn’t OP? Why couldn’t I have gotten an ability like that?” I tried to swivel my body around so I could slide out from my seat, but something was holding me in place.
Looking down, I saw the dagger Loran had given me. He’d had a small stash of weapons and the blade on this dagger had been the only one with a decent edge on it. I put it in my belt and forgot about it. Now it pinned me in place like an anchor.
“When time stops, everything stops,” said Phil. “It isn’t like in a movie where you can pluck things out of the air and move them around. It’s all locked down.”
“Then how can I breathe. Or move.” I waved my arms about. “Shouldn’t the air molecules be fixed in place, too?”
“Blow on your hand,” said Phil.
I raised my hand and blew on it. I couldn’t feel the air.
Phil waggled his eyebrows at me. “We’re outside of time. Because we aren’t of this universe we can step outside of existence. Or at least, I can, which brings anyone also not of this universe with me. Or perhaps it’s just people from my own universe. Or something else entirely.” He passed the playing cards from one hand to the other in a cascading rainbow.
Half the cards faced the wrong way, showing hearts and diamonds. With a flash, they reversed, showing only spades and clubs. Magic, the kind where a girl in a spangly outfit climbs in a box and hides in a compartment while a douche claims she’s disappeared is, I think we can all agree, shit. But sleight of hand that actually takes skill to pull off right under someone’s nose is truly impressive. And beautiful to watch.
“Wait, how are you doing that with the cards?” I asked, unable to take my eyes off the burst of activity.
“These cards aren’t of this universe, either. I brought them with me.”
From what I could remember, no one had arrived in this world with anything other than the clothes they were wearing. Then again, if clothes could be transported why not other objects? I guess it would depend on what you went to bed with.
My attention shifted to the ace of diamonds hanging in front of me. “What about this one?”
“Yeah,” said Phil. “I had that one specially made.”
On closer inspection, the card didn’t have the glossy plastic sheen of the other cards. The design was good, but had been hand-painted.
“It’s for the effect. Looked cool when I flipped it out of the pack, right? Boo ya! In your face.” He grinned and his eyes bulged.
This actually told me a lot about the kind of person Phil was—a showman. Or possibly a showoff. Either way, he was capable of being devious. Magic was about misdirection. If Phil was any good, he was also not to be trusted. Mind you, the same could be said of everyone, including the people in my own group. Especially the people in my own group.
“If we aren’t breathing shouldn’t we be dead?” I was still having trouble grasping exactly what it meant to be outside of time.
“Well, I’m not a physicist, but death and time seem to be linked. If you are outside of time, you can’t die. Not in the traditional sense. Or perhaps this is death and we’re ghosts.” He shrugged, cards constantly moving between his hand. “I’ll tell you something interesting. If I go to a body of water right now and trying entering it, I’ll walk across the surface like Jesus. But if I’m underwater when I stop time, I can walk through it like its mist. But once I’m out, I can’t get back in. Weird, huh?”
“Yeah, that’s weird.” And I thought time travel was a mindfuck.
“The important thing is that we don’t belong here. I, for one, will be very happy to get the fuck out of Dodge, I can tell you. If you have the same goal, then obviously I’m your man. Simple as that.”
He spread his arm wide and bowed his head slightly.
“What the fuck are you doing, Philip?” said a voice from a shadowy corner of the room. A hooded figure lurched out of the dark recess.
“Hello, Dave,” said Phil brightly. “Wondered when you were going to turn up.”
“Have you lost your mind?” shouted David. He pulled back his hood to reveal a furrowed brow and burning eyes. “Are you trying to get him to come here? Is that what you want? Because that’s what you’ll get.” David was more than a little ticked off, I’d say.
“Him?” I asked.
“Dave’s talking about the Jester.”
A shudder went through me. “He can find us here?”
“The Jester lives in the Void,” said David, like that explained everything.
“Dave likes to name things,” said Phil. “This place out of time is the Void. Cool name, huh? That’s why he dresses like a ninja, because he’s so cool.” Phil’s words were heavily laced with sarcasm, and when I say heavily laced, I mean like the vintage wedding dress of a Jane Austen fan.
“When we step out of time—when Philip forces us out of time—we occupy the same space as the Jester.” David peeled his lips back to show gritted teeth. “Turn it off.”
“Dave also has a lot of theories. When someone talks with great certainty about things it’s impossible to be certain about, it can come across as a bit obnoxious, you know? Especially when it gets your whole party killed.”
Phil’s smile dropped and he glared at David. Then the smile returned and he held out his card, spread into a fan. “Pick a card, any card.”
David slapped the cards out of Phil’s hand, sending them spraying over the floor.
“Touchy! You know, Dave, it’s a big universe. Just because we’re sharing it with a demented demon clown, doesn’t mean he’ll be able to find us.”
“There aren’t usually this many of us,” retorted David. “With so many people out of time, it’ll be that much easier for him to zero in on us, and we don’t want that.”
“Dave thinks the Jester is drawn to emotions. Another of his theories. Although it does make some sense.” Phil leaned his head from side to side like he was weighing the pros and cons. “He can always find you when you die, and that’s a pretty emotional time; for most of us, anyway. Not for Dave, though. He feels nothing when he passes on. He’s like a zen master. Complete nothingness. Empty vessel, aren’t you? If you are right—first time for everything, after all—you should probably chill out, Dave. The person who’ll end up attracting his attention is you. Ironic, huh?”
Phil laughed, which only further annoyed David. He took a step back and breathed deeply. “Obviously I’m right, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to avoid him, would I?” He sounded calmer, but tense with the effort of controlling himself.
Phil shrugged. “That or he just doesn’t find you very interesting.” He leaned across the table and whispered loudly, “Dave has a thing about clowns. They freak him out.”
“To be fair,” I whispered back, “the clown in question is pretty creepy.”
“Oh, you’ve met Laughing Boy have you?”
“Yes,” I said, “and I’d rather not meet him again.”
Phil nodded understandingly. “I can see why you would feel that way, but the thing to remember is that just because he can find you in the Void, doesn’t mean he knows where you are physically. Not unless you tell him. So don’t tell him.”
“He can’t hurt you in the Void?” I asked.
“Oh, he can hurt you,” said Phil. “He can hurt you like a motherfucker, but a little pain won’t kill you. A lot of pain won’t kill you either. In fact, nothing will kill you here.”
An eternity of pain. Great.
“Do you think you could return us to the regular plane of existence?” I asked politely. “Hard to eat my soup when it’s like this.” I tapped the immobile steam. It clinked. I wondered how noise travelled through the air if the air couldn’t move. I guessed the answer was: because Void.
“Don’t worry,” said Phil, “it won’t get cold.” He hiked a thumb in David’s direction. “I just love seeing him like this. He likes people to think he’s rock solid, but when he doesn’t have full control of a situation, this is the result. Total meltdown.”
“Fine, you win,” said David. “You got me, I’m a big fake and a scaredy cat. I admit it. Now, can you turn it off?”
Phil seemed to be revelling in David’s discomfort. They obviously had a difficult relationship and a lot of history together. I wanted to get away from both of them before Laughing Boy turned up, but I couldn’t get out of my chair.
“Shame you weren’t so willing to accept your flaws when an old man convinced you to save the world.” Phil turned to me, shaking his head. “Some people are so desperate to play the hero they’ll kill everyone to do it.”
“That wasn’t my fault,” said David. He didn’t sound like he totally believed it himself.
“They all died, didn’t they? I’m pretty sure it wasn’t mass suicide.”
“They didn’t all die,” I said.
Phil and David stopped their squabbling and turned to me.
“What do you mean?” said David.
“One of the girls survived. I don’t know her name. She did end up getting killed later, but not before she had a child with the demon you summoned. Nice guy, actually. The kid, not the demon.”
The two of them stared at me. Phil’s facade of joviality had gone and his big, bulging eyes were filled with anguish; and there was a lot of space to fill.
“It would have been better if she had died,” said David quietly.
“Shut up!” Phil screamed at him. “You were so ready to lead us to our deaths just so you could be the hero like in some stupid wuxia novel. The hell she must have had to endure…”
They both looked about ready to burst into tears. If the Jester was drawn to large outpourings of emotions, I could only imagine he’d booked himself a plane ticket and was on his way.
“Aren’t you asking me to do the same thing?” I asked Phil. “Trust someone I don’t know.”
“Absolutely!” said Phil, his cheeriness returning. “Which is why you shouldn’t trust me. Not one bit. Nobody gets the benefit of the doubt.”
There was a clatter of footsteps on the stairs as Maurice, Claire and Jenny came running down.
“Colin,” Maurice shouted, “something’s going on. Flossie’s stuck in her shoes and can’t get out.”
Flossie had taken a pair of boots from Loran’s stash of gear; her own shoes hadn’t coped with the sea all that well. It probably wasn’t easy to walk in them once they were stuck in time, and impossible to take them off if you couldn’t undo the laces. I could only imagine the confused, blubbering mess Flossie was right now.
“And everything’s stopped mooo…” Maurice paused as he looked around and noticed how still everything was.
“What’s going on?” asked Claire.
“Are you okay?” added Jenny, as an afterthought.
“This is Phil,” I said. “He can stop time. I mean, really stop it.”
“Oh,” said Maurice. “I get it. Everything’s frozen. How come we can still breathe?”
“We can’t,” I said. “I’ll explain later. Just stay calm. If you get too excited, the Jester will be able to find us, so it’s important not to get emotional. Understand?”
“I don’t appreciate the way you looked at me when you said that,” said Claire.
“Claire…” I said as calmly as I could. “The fact you’re reacting like this is why I was looking at you.”
“The only reason I’m reacting like this is because of the way you looked at me.”
This was clearly going nowhere good.
“Fine. I’m sorry. I’m a dick. Okay?”
Claire nodded, although whether she was agreeing to remain calm or that I was a dick, I wasn’t sure. Hopefully both.
I turned back to Phil. “You said you knew how to get us out of here?”
“That’s right,” said Phil, his mask of merry detachment once again firmly in place. “The other thing this ability allows me to do is explore. Even the masters can’t see me when I’m in the Void.”
“The Jester isn’t one of the masters?” I asked.
Phil shrugged. “I don’t think so. He is something else. He doesn’t appear in the real world and the rest of them don’t have access to this one. What they do have is a portal in the Palace of Laughter. All we need to do is activate it and we can go anywhere we want. You and me Colin. What do you say?”
“Wait, you’re only taking Colin?” asked Claire. “Why can’t we all go?”
Phil let out a long sigh. “It’s a difficult thing I’m proposing. Very tricky. In my experience, limited as that is, the more people you bring along to something like this, the more chance someone will fuck things up for everyone. And, of course, the more people who’ll die if it becomes a cock up. Isn’t that right, Dave?”
David very studiously avoided looking at Phil. “If he’s planning to go into the Palace, you’ll be much safer staying out of it. It’s where the masters are strongest.”
“Strongest?” exclaimed Phil. “What difference does it make how strong you are if you can’t move?”
David rounded on him. “You’ll have to come out of the Void if you plan on using the portal. And that’s if the Jester doesn’t catch you first. It’s a stupid plan.”
“You don’t even know what the plan is. You think I’d share it with you so your reverse-Midas touch can turn it to shit? I don’t think so?”
“I don’t know if I really want to go into the heart of the enemy stronghold,” I said, “but I’m willing to hear you out.”
“What?” said Claire. “You’re actually thinking of going with him.”
Jenny tried to put a hand on Claire’s shoulder but she shook it off.
“No, he’s being a dick again. We’re your friends. We’re the ones who have stuck by you. But the first stranger who comes along and promises you a good time, you’re off!”
She made it sound a lot more sordid than it was. It wasn’t like I was cheating on them, not sexually, anyway. At least, I hoped that wasn’t part of the deal. And exactly how they had ‘stuck by me’ wasn’t entirely clear, either.
“Did you stick by him or was he stuck with you?” asked Phil. “Are you really friends? Or are you just some people thrown together by circumstances. Because that’s how people usually end up together, because they happened to be near each other. And when things get difficult, or a better option turns up… Be real, will you? If you’re really his friend and he has the chance to get away, wouldn’t you want what’s best for him.”
“I do,” spat Claire, “we’re what’s best for him. Even if he doesn’t realise it. You’re just a fucking chancer. He doesn’t trust anyone, he definitely won’t trust you!”
“For fuck’s sake, Claire. I just told you to stay calm five seconds ago, and the first thing you do is start screaming like a harpy. What the fuck is wrong with you? You never fucking listen to me. It isn’t rocket science. Chill the fuck out!”
I may have got a bit worked up. The stress of the situation may have got to me. Maybe, and I say this on a purely hypothetical level, I should have taken some of my own advice and taken a chill pill.
Typical isn’t it? When anyone else acts like a toddler having a tantrum, no repercussions. I lose my rag for one half of one second and, well, never lucky.
Claws scrabbled across the wooden floor. A heavy body slithered closer in haste. It made frantic movements just outside my field of vision.
Something flicked over the surface of my boot and coiled around my ankle. Everything went black.
“Oh Colin,” a voice hissed in my ear, “finally I found you again. How… huhuhu… nice.”