Five minutes later, Truman found the strength to stand. By then, the citizens of Ibberton had seen him and ran over to check his condition. He saw Arthry and Tyro running towards him.
“Good job,” Arthry shouted, while Tyro yelled, “You did it! You did it!”
All at once they were upon him, hugging him, jumping up and down, and accidentally scratching his face, in Arthry’s case.
“Why, Sir Lionel,” Arthry said, looking confused. “You don’t seem as happy as you should. You’ve saved a town, and a god.”
Truman looked at the ground. “Zibby…” He couldn’t manage to say anything more, but it seemed that he didn’t need to.
“The turtle girl? A shame, yes. But in order to gain anything in this cruel world, we must lose much.” The tayal took Truman’s hand between his branches. “There is much to look forward to, however.”
Truman looked away at the crowd. They were a happy community once more, crowded all around the shambles of their prison. They began to cheer for him – for Lionel.
There was no way he could make anyone understand. He was Sir Lionel Manx, and his love was reserved for the beautiful Princess Eena, not some half-breed teenager with an attitude like wildfire. Her loss was small: a stepping stone, and vital for his continued journey.
“She died specifically for me,” Truman told Arthry. It wasn’t even a lie. “I wish to memorialize her.”
That was when the mayor appeared. “Lionel,” he said, limping up to him. “I’m so happy you made it out! I badly hurt my ankle and some citizens came in and forced me to leave you. I’m so sorry. If I could have put up a fight, I would have stayed.” Truman nodded at this and thanked him for the help he had offered. The mayor told Truman there would be a memorial for all the souls lost in the fortress, with Zibby marked as a hero. Truman knew It wouldn’t be enough, but it was a lovely thought.
“We shall attend this service,” Truman told the mayor, trying to sound pleased.
Tyro shook his head. “But we have so far to go, and who knows how many people are dying so that the other gods can be trapped in Kingdomia?”
Truman shot him a look. He could have sworn he had been travelling with a child that did nothing but complain about their journey.
“Master Tyro is right. Time is escaping us,” Arthry told Truman in his wispy voice. “Your princess awaits, sir. Never let yourself forget that.”
This irritated Truman. He couldn’t help but recall being in the princess’s bedroom when she thought he was her knight. Eena had tried to convince him to run away with her, destroy the royal order, and go against his knightly vows. How much love did she actually have for the man Truman was pretending to be? How much did it really matter?
Meanwhile, here he was missing a chance at true love with Zibby – real love – to save her royal ass. He wished he had a bottle of booze. Or the opportunity to crack the princess over the head with it. It had been such a sweet feeling, doing it to that guard.
He kept up the act for a moment, though. He turned to face the citizens and took a big breath in, pretending it was out of sheer joy, and not pure exhaustion. “Thank you, citizens of Ibberton,” he told the still-chanting crowd. “I shall have need to speak to my council alone now. To sort out many a matter.” He dragged Arthry through the crowd, with Tyro on his heels.
They came to the very outskirts of the forest. Truman turned to look at his two companions, both of whom had almost died several deaths over the last couple days.
“I’m out,” he told them simply.
Tyro and Arthry blinked and looked at one another. They looked at Truman. They looked at each other again and blinked some more.
Finally, Arthry asked, “Out of … what?”
“I’m not doing this saving-the-gods hogwash any longer,” Truman told him. “I don’t have it in me. I’m not meant for these adventures. We all came so close to death, and for what? The possibility of dying six more times? Why, it’s downright insanity.”
“Lionel,” the tayal said, but Truman cut him off.
“People have died in our names.”
“And more would have died if we weren’t there!”
“We cannot possibly be there for all of them. I’ve seen the power of the wand; I know of Rufus’s resources. The battle is lost. Perhaps not today, or next week, but in a month, or a year.”
There was a sudden, blasting pain in his head. He yelled and toppled to the ground, while Arthry and Tyro ran to him.
He had closed his eyes to the pain, grasping his temples, and an image danced before him. A star, slowly coming into focus, fuzzy, then shining, then solid, with a face that laughed.
“Congratulations on being the whiniest hero of all time,” it – he – told Truman with a snide chuckle. His voice was in his head, as the last god’s had been.
“What?” Truman could barely bother to comprehend the words. His head had stopped hurting all at once, but the pain echoed in his skull.
“Truman, you just saved a god! You just saved a village! And you’re crying because you lost a girl? Have you ever even had a girlfriend? They’re not that great.” His voice was mockingly pleasant.
“I could have lost my life, too, you know.” Truman pointed an angry finger at the god who hovered in his vision. Darkness surrounded the being, but if Truman squinted he could see the forest. “And she died specifically to save me.”
“She died to save me, really,” the god told him, still without a hint of seriousness in his voice. “And the world. She’s much better at being a hero than you are, and she didn’t even want to be one.”
“Nor do I! Not even a little!”
“Yes, yes, you’d rather get drunk in your shack and live a nothingness sort of existence. But why? Because you’re scared to die? What sort of life do you even live, though?” The god sounded genuinely curious.
“A happy one,” Truman said. “I’m happy to live as nothingness.”
“Those are two different answers, I’m afraid,” the god said, laughing some more. He was starting to make Truman uncomfortable with his bliss. “A happy life and living happily as nothingness are two very different things. If you took a moment to think about it, you’d realise you weren’t happy. You were never happy.”
“You don’t know that, and you can’t know that. I don’t care if you’re a god. You cannot know whether or not I was once happy.”
Once again, the god laughed. “I need not be a god to figure that one out, Truman-who-pretends-he’s-Lionel. Tell me about your daily rituals when you were only Truman.”
“No.” He was smarter than that.
“Well then, name me a couple of your friends from back then.”
“Diego and Stevven. And Zeerah.”
“Zeerah is obviously some sort of prostitute. Was one of the other two a bar tender, perhaps?”
“No, it doesn’t. People who feed your addictions first and foremost aren’t your friends, Truman.”
“Fine. But Zeerah isn’t a prostitute. She’s a singer. At the … bar…”
“Worlds of difference,” the god said sarcastically, with an even bigger laugh than usual. “And who is Diego? A kid that sleeps on your porch?”
“He’s my…” Truman sighed. “My brother. I don’t like many people. Family first, right?” All his excuses were escaping his mouth at once.
“Tell me about the amazing people you’ve met on this journey so far,” the god said, this time without even a giggle.
“Oh, you mean like the guard who tried to kill me? Or the brothers who sent their monstrous robot to destroy me?” Truman said snarkily. The god wouldn’t win so easily.
“Like your tayal friend who’s there every second you need him. Or the young boy who’s already changing for the better. Or your friend who sacrificed her very life for you.” This statement was his most solemn yet.
Truman ground his teeth and looked at his shoes. “It’s not fair to use Zibby against me; it’s too soon.”
The god grew closer to Truman. He radiated a soft heat, like a dying fire. “So much good has already come from your adventure, Truman. And you saved me, not just from destruction and torture, but from being used for evil. You realize people were sacrificed and killed to keep me alive down here, right?” He paused and let Truman think about that. “You aren’t Lionel. But I’m a god, and I think you can do this. That has to mean something to you.”
“Even gods can be wrong,” Truman whispered. He finally looked up at the god. He glowed in a soft rhythm, floating in the abyss of Truman’s mind.
“Perhaps,” the god said with a smile. “But we can always change what is and what isn’t.”
Truman didn’t understand, but no explanation would be given. Instead, a soft ball of light drifted from the god towards him. It was a beautiful feeling, and Truman embraced it without a second thought. It found his nose and mouth and seeped into his body. It could almost feel like a hug, or a mother’s touch, or a lover’s kiss.
The light had entered him completely, and Truman smiled. It felt like happiness was radiating out of him. He smiled without realizing it.
“What just happened?” He asked, feeling a little awkward about the abrupt bliss.
“I gave you power, Truman,” the god said. “You bested those brothers as your own man. You were not pretending to be Lionel. You were not trying to be another kind of hero. You were Truman.”
“I was running for my life,” Truman said with a chuckle.
“And you defeated someone evil. I am the god of self-respect and love. You are worthy of my powers, and so I have given you inner strength.” He laughed. “Feels good, doesn’t it?”
“I’ve never known strength. Not like that.” Truman found himself looking at his hands. They were as they always had been, and yet a thousand times different. He flexed them.
“Inner strength is interesting. You feel different, and yet you are the same.” He glowed in a faster rhythm. “I must return to my home in the sky, or I shall fade.”
“Right,” Truman said. “Uh, thanks.” He rubbed the back of his head awkwardly.
“With this power, you are both able and obligated to carry on for us, Truman,” the god told him in his most somber tone yet. “In the desert to the east, a cruel prophecy is nearly fulfilled, and the goddess of wisdom is in the middle of it. Use the powers I’ve given you and save her.”
Truman grimaced. The desert was far. One could only get there by train, and then on foot. It would be awful, with or without inner strength. And hotter than any day he had ever experienced.
“Could you please embrace this?” The god said. He was smiling.
“Embrace scorching heat, getting lost in the desert, getting motion sick on a train?” The god had vanished, though. He didn’t have time for excuses, Truman supposed.
He found himself blinking out of the nether of his mind, into the forest where his comrades and some townsfolk stood over him. As his vision cleared, he could distinctly see the looks of distress on their faces.
“Oh, Sir Lionel,” the tayal screamed. The shrillness of his voice made Truman’s temples throb. “Whatever happened? Why you, you just fell!”
“The god we saved came to me in a vision … More like my vision.” Truman sat up slowly. His world spun. It seemed that having a god in one’s mind caused massive headaches.
Some townsfolk gasped at mention of the god. They had long ago shrugged off their religion.
“Did he tell you we gotta go on with the mission?” Tyro said in a voice Truman thought to be a little too snotty.
“Indeed,” Truman told him with squinted eyes. “He gave me some of his godly powers, told me where we need to go, and helped me reassess the hero I am, and can be.” He wanted to say something epic to finish up the speech, now that he was feeling up to the challenges ahead of him.
A man with dog’s ears and paws grabbed Truman’s hand and forced him to his feet. He slapped him on the back and said, “For Zibby. And all those who dies as sacrifices for the god. Including my beautiful daughter, Idrine.”
“The god feels terrible about that, by the way,” Truman told him. He felt the inner strength flowing through him, keeping him strong, slowly turning him into the hero the world had lost. He looked at his hands again. They had never seemed so small, or so powerful.
“Where are we headed?” asked Arthry. He was smiling, excited for the next leg of their journey, even without the power of a god to make him brave.
“To the desert,” Truman told him, standing tall to see if he could see the sand dunes to the east. He noticed his companions standing taller as well. They had misinterpreted his Truman-ness for Lionel-ness, it seemed. He seized the opportunity. “To the desert: for the gods, for those who died in that fortress, for justice, for our princess, for our kingdom … and for our world.” He let himself get only slightly carried away: heroic speeches were far too much fun.
“To the desert!” cried Arthry in response.
To the desert, and the second trapped god, they went.