It was very warm. Even more so than usual. Eastern Flatland hummed with the heat radiating from its stony ground. But it was a dry heat, so good for the respiratory system. The cloudless sky offered no protection from the sinking sun which refused to cool any, even on its way down. Its rays glinted off the armour jogging towards us.
The five guards approaching were dressed in the typical neo-Roman style. A chest plate that was a combination of leather and metal. A shirt that was long enough to form a kind of skirt. Long boots that laced up to the knee. Every soldier in Flatland wore some variation of this getup, from the very first ones we’d encountered in Probet, to the ones in the various cities we’d visited.
Their swords weren’t drawn, so that was a good sign. But it was immediately obvious the druids weren’t happy to see them. Which meant there was going to be a problem of some kind in a minute, and we would be dragged into it. I eyed the exits. Even outdoors, there are routes that are open and ones that are blocked.
“Dereel, Deneel,” called out the lead guard. “What have I told you about interfering with traffic? We’re in the middle of the harvest delivery, and you’re clogging up the thoroughfare.”
He was a short, stocky man with heavy eyebrows and a prominent nose. All the guards had tight-fitting leather helmets like a boxer’s head guard, but the one in charge had a slightly taller one with a fancy metal plate at the front. Hierarchy-defining hats seem to be a universal thing.
“Sergeant Glick, please,” said Brother Deneel in a wheedling voice. “We aren’t interfering with anything.” He used both hands to point at the slowly passing animals, then at his own feet, and then back at the animals to demonstrate how far apart they were. He kept doing this over and over, Brother Dereel joining in like some sort of synchronised dance routine.
Glick stopped and readjusted his sword belt. It kept slipping down like it didn’t quite fit him. He straightened his helmet as well, which was a bit on the large side.
“According to article two of the New Charter, you are prohibited from plying members of the public with promises, temptations or lures of a religious nature.” He was clearly a jobsworth, but I liked him. Especially the way he was focusing on the two druids and ignoring us completely.
“This is religious persecution, plain and simple,” said Brother Dereel. “We have rights.”
“No,” said Sergeant Glick, “you don’t.”
“We used to,” said Brother Deneel rather forlornly.
“Take them into custody,” said Glick to his men who came around from behind to grab the druids. “According to the New Charter—”
“New Charter?” screamed Brother Dereel. “What about the Old Charter?”
“The Old Charter is no longer valid,” said Glick.
“Says who?” demanded Brother Dereel.
“The Department of Charters,” said Glick. They would know, I guess. “Now stop bothering people or it’ll be more than a fine next time. Search their pockets.”
“We don’t have anything,” wailed Brother Dereel. He wriggled as the men went through his robes. “We took a vow of poverty.”
“That’s what they all say,” said Glick.
“We aren’t bothering them, they’re our friends,” said Brother Deneel pointing at me. Him, I wasn’t so fond of.
The guard turned towards us. I had been slowly backing away, hoping to get a good angle to slip past the guards while they sorted out their business with the druids. A place where they taxed religions—seemed like a good idea. I was somewhat hampered in my attempt to leave by my party clumping up behind me and getting in the way.
“Are you with these druids?” asked the guard, peering at me more closely. “Maybe we should take you in, too.”
“No,” I said. “We only just got here. Look at our clothes. Do we look like druids?”
As I said it, I realised I was dressed in very basic, drab clothes that weren’t too far removed from the simple garb of the druids. I did a quick half-turn to reveal the others in their much more elaborate getup.
It was only then that I had a really good look at what they were wearing. They had gotten fancy new duds in Fengarad, but I hadn’t bothered giving them more than a cursory glance.
Now that I was pointing them out, I noticed just how ridiculous they were. Gold braids and sequins and intricate beading on the cuffs. And matching. Claire and Maurice were in turquoise and orange. Dudley and Flossie had red and chocolate as their theme. Jenny stood out in her green and gold outfit. If she had a matching set put aside for me, I’d probably have to dump her. I mean, sex is very nice and all, but a man has to draw the line somewhere.
“As you can see, we’re part of a travelling circus.” I pointed at the others. “Clowns.”
Sergeant Glick didn’t look totally convinced, but he didn’t dismiss the idea as preposterous, either.
“Where’s the rest of you?” he asked.
I pointed towards the rear of the endless convoy entering the city. “At the back.”
“On your way, then,” he said, waving us through.
The druids gave me a desperate look, which I ignored with gusto. I made sure to stay between them and the rest of my group, lest they do something stupid like speak or act or think.
Just as we were about to leave them to it, I remembered the point of coming here.
“By the way, are there any Visitors who live in the city?”
It was a simple yes or no question, but their reaction would have been more suitable if I’d asked them if they knew anywhere I could buy pigshit-flavoured ice cream. Even the druids were taken aback, no longer clamoring to be friends.
I wasn’t sure what the big deal was. Visitors weren’t generally seen as a bad thing, not in the rest of Flatland, at least. Clearly, things were different in Gorgoth.
“I’m only asking because we heard there were some of them in the area and we didn’t want to bump into any.” It was a valiant effort, but didn’t really neutralise the effect of my original question as well as I’d hoped.
Brother Deneel pointed a long, skinny finger at me. “He’s a Visitor.”
This proclamation, based on no facts (even though it was true) shifted the focus onto us. My fondness meter was at an all-time low.
“Are you Visitors?” asked Sergeant Glick slowly, like he was asking a suspect to confess to a murder.
“Who, us? No.” It’s really hard to act natural when you’re lying to someone who knows you’re lying. The others shook their heads in perfect unison, which didn’t help.
“We should tell the Commander,” said one of the guards from behind. They were all jittery and shuffling away from us, shoulder to shoulder with the druids, all on the same team now.
“Come with us. Commander Grayson will know what to do with you. He’s dealt with your kind before.”
The name struck a bell. It took me a moment to place it.
“Wait, this commander, he wouldn’t be Lari Grayson, would he?” The look on the guard’s face suggested he would. “Oh, this is Gorgoth.” I slapped myself on the forehead. “My mistake. We were headed for Fengarad. Sorry.”
I turned to walk off into the barren landscape. The guard produced a thin piece of metal which he put to his lips and blew into. A shrill whistle sounded and within a few seconds a dozen more guards came running towards us, weapons drawn. The guards with us also drew their swords.
“What’s going on?” said Jenny. “Isn’t Grayson the one who found us in Probet? He’s supposed to help Visitors, isn’t he?”
“Only the ones who didn’t stab him in the stomach,” said Claire, making what I did sound worse than it was. Or exactly the same as what it was, if you want to get all accurate about it.
“I didn’t think we’d see him again,” I said as we were quickly surrounded.
“Is that a good reason to stab someone?” asked Jenny.
“It’s one of the more practical ones,” I said.
Everyone was looking at us with distaste and revulsion. Clearly some Visitor had come here and done something to ruin it for the rest of us.
“Burn them,” cried out Brother Dereel.
“Hey,” said Flossie. “Ah thought yo’ loved everyone.”
“Only creations of the gods,” said Brother Deneel. “You are not creatures of this world.”
That was certainly true. We were aliens, and undocumented. Here to do the jobs no one else wanted.
“Don’t make this any harder than it has to be,” said Sergeant Glick, sounding quite nervous. It was nice to be treated as though we were some kind of threat, but it was still scary having so many sharp objects pointed at you at the same time.
“Maybe he won’t remember who we are,” said Flossie as we were marched into the city surrounded on all sides by a reverse porcupine formation. “No one remembers Colin.”
She had a point. For once, my natural anonymity might come in useful; which made me sure this would be the one time I would be instantly recognised. Which I was.
We were led through the main gates. Glick stopped the rush hour traffic, much to people’s annoyance, and ushered us through the giant archway. The city was even hotter than the parched land outside. The square yellow buildings seemed to radiate heat from all directions. People swarmed about but the rest of the city was hard to make out past the animals milling about.
Commander Grayson came out of a squat building—barracks, I would guess—leaning heavily on a walking stick. He looked more or less the same as I remembered him. His hair was maybe a bit longer, his face slightly more weary. He still looked like he could kick a bear in the balls and make it say thank you.
“You,” he said, looking at me with a grim smile. “You’re still alive. Welcome to beautiful Gorgoth, the Yellow City in the Sand.”
It was mildly irritating to once again be treated with surprise for managing to still be breathing, but to be fair, we were always the party most likely to fall down dead for no reason.
“Commander Grayson,” I said, trying to sound upbeat. “They promoted you.” He had only been a captain last time we met.
“It came with the desk.” His tone suggested he didn’t appreciate the change in his duties.
“Commander of the city guard,” chimed in Claire. “That’s pretty important.”
“Commander of the East Gate,” he corrected her. “Not very important at all, I’m afraid. I’m glad to see you, though. All six of you.”
That sounded like a reprieve. Best to take it and keep my mouth shut about past indiscretions.
“So yo’ ain’t mad at Colin, then?” said Flossie the fucking human Death Note. “For stabbing you in the tummy?”
He winced slightly, rubbing the side of his hip. “Twinges a bit when I laugh, so hardly ever bothers me.” He stared at me, stony-faced. “Bring them in. They look like they could do with a meal and a bath. Probably two. Of both.”
Their commander’s relaxed attitude eased some of the tension around us. I noticed the druids quietly slipping away while all the attention was on us, which at least got rid of one variable. The fewer people around you, the less chance someone’s going to piss on your shoes. That’s an old Swiss Cottage saying, where they squeeze into public urinals in surprising numbers.
We were led inside the barracks to an inner courtyard, where we were given the chance to wash up from a spigot very similar to the one in Probet. We’d been all around the world and had ended up pretty much where we started.
It was only after we’d spent half an hour washing ourselves and been taken to the mess that we found out we could have a proper bath later once they’d heated some water for us. Still, doesn’t hurt to get your junk clean when you can.
The food was the same anonymous slop we had those first days in Probet. We weren’t required to heat it ourselves, although we were much better able to do that sort of thing nowadays.
The long table where we were seated was empty apart from us and Grayson, who watched us eat. It tasted pretty good and we all gladly accepted the offer of seconds.
He waited until we’d finished before asking what we’d been up to. The subtext was clear: ‘How are you not dead yet?”
It was a stammering, awkward, clunky retelling of various bits and pieces of our journey. The main parts involved Monsterland and Uncle Peter. I did most of the talking and left out a lot of the details. He only really needed to know we had kept the Nekromel demons from coming here, and stopped the elf from making Flatland an even flatter land. I tried my best to not implicate us too heavily in the reason for the monsters rushing across the border, but we were clearly somewhat entirely responsible.
The rest was ogres and trolls and jabberwocky. I made sure to make our adventures sound like we had lucked our way through most of it. Competence can only lead to undesirable job offers.
I didn’t reveal my magic abilities or any of our group’s powers. That sort of things was best kept private, I felt.
“So Requbar has been devastated?” asked Grayson. “We have started receiving reports, but nothing’s been confirmed.”
“I’m not sure how bad it was,” I said. “There was a lot of structural damage, but it could have been worse.”
We hadn’t inspected Requbar after the explosion, so it was hard to know how bad it was. I also hadn’t mentioned the second explosion we’d seen from the air. Best to leave it for them to sort out what that was.
The table fell into a silence, small talk not really being anyone’s forte, least of all Grayson’s.
“Is there a Visitor here, in Gorgoth?” asked Maurice. “An old one?”
“Not that I’m aware of. They aren’t too fond of your kind here. Mostly from lack of contact and baseless rumours.”
“Who’s in charge?” asked Jenny. “A king?”
“The city is governed by the Pope. He is the Prime Ordained of the Holy Shrine.”
This revelation drew some surprised murmurs. I doubt he was actually called a pope, but the translation thingy usually chose the closest word in our lexicon, so I guess he was the head guy of some church organisation. Great, more zealots.
“They, ah,” began Dudley, his face quickly devolving into instant regret at having started a question, “they don’t, um, don’t believe in sacrifices and the like, crucifying non-believers and what not, um, do they?” He’d rambled his way to the end of the sentence and looked thoroughly relieved to have survived. We probably wouldn’t hear from him again for another couple of days.
“No,” said Grayson. “Not yet, at least.” He winced, as he had quite a few times during the meal.
The others looked at me like it was my fault. Which it was, obviously, but there was no need to draw attention to the fact. Claire nodded her head towards Grayson. Jenny nudged me. Someone kicked me under the table.
I jumped up from my seat before they started pulling out weapons. “Alright, calm your tits.”
“What is it?” asked Grayson, confused at our odd behaviour. He’d been looking at us like that pretty much since we’d arrived.
“I can heal you, I think. I learned it on my travels.”
Grayson looked dubious. So the same as before.
“Lift up your shirt.”
He slowly stood up, eyes locked on mine, and pulled his shirt out of his skirt. Apparently, it wasn’t a one-piece after all. It was oddly uncomfortable being watched by the others as I got intimate with this large, muscular man.
“Don’t tell your wife about this,” I said as I placed my hands on the nasty pink gash across his stomach and along his side. It looked much worse than my little poke should have.
“I don’t have a wife,” said Grayson.
“Then don’t tell your husband.” Ice-cold silence. I pressed and felt him flinch. “That was a joke. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with two men, you know…”
“You have issues with homosexuality?” asked Grayson as I rubbed his body.
“No, no. You just can’t trust them, because, you know, they’re always having sex behind each other’s backs.”
“Another joke?” asked Grayson.
“Er, yes, because, you know, the way anal sex works... from behind…”
It was the most awkward healing I’d ever given. I fervently wished for my hair to grow so it would cover my face.
The warmth from my glowing hands transferred and the scar faded to a very faint line. Grayson let out a long sigh, full of relief.
“Thank you. I appreciate you taking the risk.”
“What risk?” I asked.
“Performing an act of beast magic is the mark of a heretic,” said Grayson as he tucked his shirt back in, “and the sentence is death.”