“What do you mean, how did I die?” John got to his feet, just in case. None of the trolls he’d met so far had been dangerous, but they’d insisted that their species was usually violent. Maybe the girl’s question was some kind of threat. “I’m not dead. I guess you could’ve misunderstood, since I did just pop out of nowhere, but I promise there is no need to call the ghost busters on me.” Even considering the way he’d appeared, it was a big assumption to jump to. John took a closer look. He hadn’t noticed before, but dark blue blood soaked the troll’s middle, seeping from a tear in her chest. Her whole body looked distorted, like someone had drawn a convincing 3-D illustration on paper and then left it to fade in the sun. If you looked at her from a different angle, she might be two-dimensional. “Wait, are you dead?”
“Obviously.” She rolled her eyes. One of those looked funny too, but he didn’t think it was from being dead. It had too many pupils. “No, this mortal wound is a fashion statement.”
“What happened to you?” John had been on Alternia when it was ripped apart. Was this were all the victims of collapsing worlds ended up? Did that mean his dad was here?
“Stabbed in the back by a so-called friend. A real shady customer, can’t give her an inch or she’ll use it to hang you with.” She shrugged. John thought most people would look more upset discussing their own murder. “That’s old news by now. I’m over it.”
“Sorry for disturbing your eternal rest. I’m just passing through. Or, trying to.” John loosened his stance and jumped. Color was seeping out from where he stood, transforming the flat white expanse into oily gravel. “What’s happening?”
“Everything here is what you bring with you.” The troll – or the ghost of the troll – stepped closer. “You’re really not supposed to be here, huh? People don’t usually come wandering through. It’s invitation only, if you count a knife in your gut as someone rolling out a welcome mat.”
John shifted again as more landscape spilled out from beneath his feet. He recognized it now: the shimmering oil slicks and dark dirt of The Furrows. “I’m looking for someone. Or, first I’m trying to rescue my friends. Then we’re going to defeat the guy destroying all the worlds. Do you know about him?”
She snorted. “You’re going to beat him? Give me a break. I get it now, you travel around telling hilarious jokes to lift people’s spirits. Nice one.”
“Listen.” The girl sat down. As she did, a weathered treasure chest rendered itself out of sketchy lines and then solidified for her to rest on. “How much do you know about the guy?”
“Um…” John didn’t want to admit it to the stranger, but his group had begun their latest mission without exchanging much information. He wasn’t sure if no one knew much about whatever bad guy they were facing, or if he’d been left out of the loop, again. “I know he’s looking for his sister, and that he’s bad news. Probably final boss material, if this was a video game.”
“That’s it, huh? Well, human —”
“Well, John, it’s time to get a clue!” She crossed her arms. From beneath the chest, color leached into her surroundings, resolving itself into what looked like the fine paneling of a fancy floor. “Clearly you have a lot to learn. It’s lucky for you that you ran into me before you got yourself killed for real.”
“What, are you some kind of ghost expert? Like an expert who is also a ghost,” John clarified, “not an expert on ghosts, like Tangina Barrons in Poltergeist.”
“Ghost expert? I’m way too high caste for anything like that. I worked for a guy who kept an ear to the ground,” she said, as the ground beneath her continued to change. Some of the wooden flooring had reached John’s gravel, and the two blurred together to create an indistinct middle zone. “This destroyer is immensely powerful. He can even kill the dead, which is bullshit if you ask me. You’re not wrong about his final boss status; only a really accomplished gamer could hope to tangle with him. But that’s nothing compared to the treasure he’s headed for.”
“I heard something about that,” John interrupted, determined to prove he knew something. “It’s at the center of the worlds, right?”
“Yeah, maybe, if you could put it on a map, which we can’t. Maps don’t work here, by the way. Nothing works the way it’s supposed to. It’s one of the many shitty things about being dead.” For a second her expression looked less casual, but then she shrugged and tossed a lock of hair over her shoulder. “There are lots of rumors. The dead don’t have much to do except gossip, it turns out. Most of them are boring, but a few have something worth listening to, which is a good thing, or I would’ve gone out of my thinkpan a few perigrees after I got here. People say the treasure can rewrite reality or make new worlds, blah blah. The important part is that it can bring people back to life. That makes it a hot commodity around here, I can tell you. Maybe that’s even why the big guy wants it. I don’t care. He can do whatever he wants rampaging around, but I’m on his trail, and he’s going to lead me right to it. Then it’ll be mine.”
An epic quest, a race against a powerful monster, a magical treasure with amazing powers… those were the kinds of things John had hoped for when he first wandered into the Furrows, before he realized his “adventure” wasn’t much fun at all. Slick pebbles grated under his feet. Things never worked out that way in real life. There were always complications. “What about his sister? She’s hiding there, and he wants to kill her.”
“Who cares? If I got choked up over every nobody he blew up I’d never get done bawling.” She jerked a thumb toward the hole in her chest. “You’re talking to a dead person, remember? Nobody bothered to worry about me.”
John thought a good person would want to protect anyone in danger, even if they didn’t know them. That was how you identified heroes in stories, wasn’t it? They got establishing character moments rescuing puppies or helpless old ladies. Still, he and his friends could use more information on what they were up against. If this troll could give them that, he should find a way to get it. “If we want to rescue Calliope, and you want this treasure, maybe we can work together to both get what we want. Some of my friends are pretty smart. We could help each other.”
“And have you getting in my way? I don’t think so. Although…” She drummed her fingers on the lid of the treasure chest. “I guess there’s something to be said for a bunch of idiotic do-gooders charging him from the front while I get my hands on the loot when his back is turned.”
Idiotic do-gooders? “Hey, that’s not very nice.”
She sighed. “John, I’m bending over backward here to include you. Try to be a little more appreciative.”
“Oh.” John blinked. The conversation had left him behind at some point, but he wasn’t sure how. “Sorry.”
“If you are going to work with me, you’ll need to get your act together. I can’t be seen associating with someone who doesn’t measure up.” She gave him a once-over and shook her head. “Who’s going to know not to mess with you if you don’t look the part? And you won’t last long if you’re this clueless about how the worlds work. You need a mentor. A seasoned veteran willing to show you the ropes.”
That sounded promising. “Do you know someone like that?”
She scowled. “I meant me, dumbass. Jeez, some people can’t take a hint.”
“I guess that could be helpful.” John wished he’d worn a watch. The others would be waiting for him to come back and tell them he’d found a way out of Confection, even if that route did include sales pitches from pushy ghosts. All sorts of bad stuff might have happened to them while he was gone. “Although first I should —”
“If you insist, I guess I can spare some of my valuable time. Not right now though. I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. I’m sure you can understand.” She hopped off the treasure chest, which collapsed into nothing. “See you around, John.”
“I never got your,” he started, but then the girl faded and vanished. John guessed he should have seen that coming, since it was typical ghost behavior. “Bye.”
Alone again, he watched the colored portions of ground continue to spread. His… memory? of the Furrows kept moving, and a few of its sickly blue trees had even sprouted, but the wooden paneling had stopped as soon as the girl vanished. It hadn’t disappeared, though, which was interesting. Rose would like to hear about this place for sure. They could all explore it together once he rescued them.
John reached out a hand again, but this time he didn’t feel anything – familiar fizz or slippery curtain. He tried again, and again, and then panic began to swirl in his stomach. It leaked out of him in the form of candy-wrought stonework replacing the gravel by his feet, replicating the cell he’d come from.
It had been tricky getting here. Now how did he get back?