“Of course we saw,” said Claire. “How could we miss that?” She wiggled her fingers in front of her face.
“It were disgusting,” said Flossie, grimacing.
“Oh,” I said. “I thought only I could see it because it looked like the tentacles that appear when I go into one of my trances.” I realised my hands were still on fire and put them out. “I wish that wouldn’t keep happening. Now they know I can do magic.”
“Premature combustion,” said Maurice. “You should wear gloves.”
My hands didn’t hurt but they were a bit red. It was frustrating to have such an incredible power I couldn’t harness properly. It was becoming a bit of a feature of my abilities. All the more reason to find a teacher to show me how to do things properly.
Jenny had a concerned look. “That’s what it looks like when you cross over? Tentacles exploding out of people’s faces?”
“More or less. Mostly more. The tentacles don’t just come out of faces, they come out of everything.”
“Ah wouldn’t like that,” said Flossie.
“You should have told us,” said Claire, shuddering. “So we’d be better prepared.”
“I don’t think it would have made a difference. And these tentacles don’t seem to have anything to do with the ones I see. Just a weird coincidence.” I wasn’t sure if it was just that, but we didn’t have time to start speculating about it. So, of course, the speculation began.
“They looked a bit like illithids,” said Maurice, drawing blank looks from the others. “You know, mind flayers.” Still blank looks.
“I doubt they’re connected to characters from D&D,” I said. “They would have used their psionic abilities if they had them.”
“Is this some sort of nerd code you’re talking in?” asked Claire.
“Yes,” I said.
Maurice was too heavily invested to ease off the throttle now, though. “Mind flayers were ripped off from the Cthulu mythos, which is all about the Elder Gods. Didn’t Deneel and Dereel mention the old gods?” He quickly flicked through his notes.
“You think Cthulu is real?” I asked, heavily implying such thoughts were madness. More out of habit than anything else. After the shit I’d seen, some ancient tentacled monstrosity was nothing special.
“I don’t know, but it’s worth bearing in mind,” said Maurice, finding the page he was looking for and nodding to himself with satisfaction.
“We could help you more if you occasionally told us what the hell you were going on about,” said Claire.
“It’d just waste time,” I said, which was probably a slightly tactless way to put it.
“Oh, would it?” said Claire. “Would it? Too busy, are you?”
She was clearly about to flip out, which would waste even more time, and we were stood in the middle of the street with the Squidward Q. Tentacle fanclub probably marshalling their forces somewhere nearby.
“We have to be patient with him,” said Jenny. “He’ll get there.”
“I have been patient. It never gets any better,” said Claire.
“It will, I promise you,” Jenny said in a comforting voice. I had the feeling this wasn’t the first time they’d had this conversation.
“Whatever it is you guys need to work out, can you do it later? The druids confronting us like that probably means they were serious in wanting us to leave the city. Which means they’ll try again.”
Flossie was still shaken up by what she’d seen. “You don’t think they’re cannibals, do you?”
“Don’t worry,” I said, “if they are, I’m sure they’ll find you delicious.” Women, always fishing for compliments.
“Technically,” said Maurice, “if they were cannibals they’d eat each other, not us.” Say what you want about nerd culture, it never fails to find a pointless tangent.
“Um,” said Dudley, “shouldn’t we move before they decide to, ah, return?”
“Where should we go?” Jenny asked me.
“We’re here now, we might as well find this Askii guy’s place.” We had come to this part of town because Commander Grayson had told us Askii’s home was here, although he wasn’t sure if he would be living there, for some reason. He did give us directions, so we knew roughly where to look.
Maurice scratched his chin. “If the Shriners keep a watch on druid activities, do you think they know about their squiddish tendencies?”
It was a valid question. I had assumed the Shriners kept an eye on the druids because they were a rival religion. Such rivalries are commonplace between competing businesses, sectarian or otherwise. But maybe the Shriners had a more prosaic reason to be wary of the druids. Good old-fashioned fear.
“If they knew already, wouldn’t they have done something about it?” asked Claire.
It did seem unlikely the druids would be allowed to run around freely with their face fingers swaying in the breeze.
“I think we should assume they don’t know,” I said. “Which makes it more likely the druids aren’t going to let us tell anyone their secret. Not that anyone’s going to believe us.”
“We could tell Grayson,” said Flossie. “He’d believe us.”
There was some agreement with this idea.
Maurice, nodding and writing at the same time, said, “It also means they really want to scare us away from here. This area in particular. Otherwise they wouldn’t have gone all in like that.”
We looked around the deserted street for signs of the druids. The street remained empty.
I agreed with Maurice that their attempt at scaring us off smacked of desperation. It wasn’t a bad move—a short, sharp shock. I’m certainly one of those people who, if they moved into a new house and blood dripped down the walls spelling the words ‘GET OUT’, would pack their bags and leave. I know how to take a hint.
But in this case, the effect was somewhat dampened by my previous experiences.
They couldn’t have known I was used to seeing tentacles sprouting out of people’s heads. Partly because of my ability to shift into an adjacent plane of existence, but mostly from playing the Resident Evil franchise on PlayStation. I’d been desensitised to that kind of thing since I was twelve.
“Let’s just find this house,” I said. “If it is the guy we’re looking for, he might know what it is the druids want.”
“Is that your decision, Oh Leader?” said Claire. In a sarcastic tone, if you weren’t sure.
“Yes. Do you want me to explain why?”
“No, we’re just here to do whatever you tell us to.”
I had no idea why she was getting so shirty. It wasn’t like she was on her period, and once I struck that off the list of possible reasons, I was left with a blank piece of paper.
“Maybe the man we’re looking for is what the druids are trying to keep us away from,” said Maurice, oblivious to the argument going on around him.
I pointed at Maurice, both to show my decision had merit, and also to redirect the hostility towards someone else.
“Let’s go then,” said Jenny, trying to get us back on track. “It’s not far from here, is it?”
We finally got moving. It was the threat of the druids coming back that stopped the chit-chatting from carrying on, but I was happy for it to stop, whatever the reason.
“Ah wish they had taxis in this world,” moaned Flossie after five minutes of walking.
“Good idea, we should invent them,” I said. “Maurice, make a note. We’ll start by giving people lifts on the back of a goat, and work our way up to huge double-decker carriages. We’ll have a monopoly.” Maurice scribbled it down.
The area we were in had few residences, all with big gates and high walls. They were the sorts of houses I’d gladly settle down in. Close the gates and let the rest of the world go about its business.
You’d need a lot of money, though. It almost made me want to take some mad quest for a legendary artefact which I’d then sell to the highest bidder (yes, bids from evil megalomaniacs accepted).
“I think this is it,” said Maurice. He had the directions written down, of course.
It became immediately obvious why Grayson hadn’t been sure if Arta Askii would be at home. The huge black iron gates were coated in orange dust. There was a thick chain wrapped around them, securing the two halves together with a large padlock that was sealed over with age and rust. It didn’t look like anyone had used this entrance in a long time.
“Are you sure?” asked Claire, peering through the bars and getting orange stripes on her hands.
The rest of the place had a similar dilapidated vibe. The walls were overgrown with ivy, the grounds were wild and unkempt, and the house in the distance had tiles missing and windows broken. It looked abandoned. Although, that didn’t mean it was.
“Look,” said Maurice, pointing at the top of the gate. There was a double A symbol worked into the bars. Arta Askii.
“Ah can’t see a doorbell,” said Flossie.
“Doesn’t look like anyone lives here,” said Jenny.
“Can’t you tell?” I asked her. “Use your emotion sensing thingy to feel for signs of life.” I looked at Claire. “You too.”
“It doesn’t work like that,” said Claire, slamming down the cockblock without hesitation.
“But it could, couldn’t it? You don’t need to pick up on specific thoughts, just for some blip in the general vicinity.”
It was a reasonable idea, I thought. They both had ways of detecting uniquely human activity that could easily be modified into a searching skill.
They stared through the bars, their faces screwed up in concentration.
“Gah,” said Claire. “I’m getting nothing.”
“Maybe it’s too far,” said Jenny, also giving up.
“You’re both slackers,” I said. “You should have been training your abilities for this sort of thing. If you’d put in the effort, you could have been the Williams sisters of competitive hide and seek by now. Maurice, training for the girls. We need to get hold of some long bamboo sticks.” Maurice wrote it down.
“What’s the bamboo for?” asked Jenny.
“You know how Jackie Chan was trained? His masters would make him do back flips and tumbles and if he didn’t land them properly, they would hit him. He learned to git gud.”
“What?” said Claire. “You’re going to hit us with sticks?”
“Only because it’s an effective teaching tool.” Neither girl looked convinced. “It worked for Jackie,” I pointed out, “and he became the number one action movie star in the world!” I felt my argument was solid, but I was still getting glares. “He has a son, you know. Also an actor. Ever heard of him? No. You know why? Because Jackie never beat him.”
“You’re not hitting me with a stick,” said Jenny. She was surprisingly calm about it, but obstinate in her refusal to accept non-Western teaching methods.
“How else are we going to get you up to speed quick enough? Trust the Chinese way, it’s been in use for thousands of years.”
“We’re not Chinese,” said Claire, like that made a difference.
“Racist,” I said.
“I, um, I think I saw a curtain move in one of the windows,” said Dudley.
We all looked at the house, unable to see anything. But Dudley had much better eyesight than the rest of us, and if he said he saw something, none of us were going to dispute it.
“How can we get in?” asked Maurice.
The walls were very high, and there weren’t any obvious footholds. Dudley jumped up to grab some overhanging ivy. It came away in his hands in large clumps.
“We could climb the gate,” Flossie suggested.
It looked possible, but the spikes at the top weren’t very encouraging. We all stared at them with undisguised reluctance. Of course, Jackie Chan would have bounced off this wall and that wall and been over in a jiffy. I’m telling you, we’d all be better off if our parents had used physical violence to teach us martial arts. And also the piano.
“Coom on,” said Flossie. “It’ll be easy.”
Her time spent running up and down the backs of dragons in flight had instilled a degree of self-belief in her, it seemed. She wasn’t the most slender of girls, but she was quite sprightly.
Without waiting for us to agree, she scrambled up the gate like a big-bottomed monkey. She reached the top and waved down at us.
There was a creaking sound, the gate broke free of its moorings on either side, and fell inwards with Flossie still attached.
The gate hit the ground with a thud, sending up a cloud of dirt and dust. The door was open thanks to a new knock down ginger world record.
“Don’t say a word,” said Flossie as she got to her feet red-faced. “That had nothing to do with my weight.”
“Obviously not,” I said. “They were just rusted. And it doesn’t matter what people think about your weight, Flossie. There’s only one person whose opinion matters when it comes to things like that. Him.” I pointed at Dudley. “As long as he wants to shag you, you aren’t overweight.”
Flossie looked at Dudley who nodded enthusiastically. She grinned and blushed harder.
“What kind of advice was that?” demanded Claire.
“The good, practical kind,” I said. “There’s no point telling insecure people to believe in themselves. What kind of useless shit is that?”
Claire stared at me open-mouthed, unable to find a rebuttal. A technical K.O. is still a win.
We entered the grounds and tried to lift the gate up to prop it back in place, but it was too heavy. We’d have to pretend it was like that when we found it.
The path up to the house was covered in weeds and rogue plants, but there were no other obstructions. The front door was closed and there was no doorbell or knocker that we could find. I tried knocking with my hand but it wasn’t very loud on the heavy doors. There was no response.
There was a letterbox halfway down. I bent down and pushed the flap up. Inside, the hallway looked deserted and unlived in, covered with cobwebs.
“Hello?” I shouted. “Mr Askii? Peter sent us.” There was still no response. “We’re Visitors. From Earth. It’s an insignificant little blue-green planet far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy.”
Maurice crouched down beside me and shouted, “Mostly harmless,” through the letterbox.
There was a clicking sound. The door opened making me lose my balance and fall into the house. The others retreated behind me.
I got to my feet and walked in, followed by my cautious party. It was dim and dusty. There was a large staircase ahead of me that went up to a landing and then split into two. There was a very tall window over the landing which let in some light, although there seemed to be a tree just outside which was blocking a lot of it.
The door slammed shut behind us and we all jumped and turned to look at it. There was a noise from in front and we jumped again, turning to look that way now.
There was a man standing on the first landing. He was wearing a dressing gown and pyjamas, it looked like. And he had a large sword in one hand.
“I suppose they sent you here to kill me,” he said in an American accent.
“Who?” I asked.
“You know who. Those blasted druids. Couldn’t get past the hex on the gate, so they hired you schmucks to do their dirty work for them.”
“Ahhh,” I said, not really wanting to ask, “there was a hex on the gate?”
“Yes, of course. How else was I supposed to keep them out?”
I raised a finger to indicate he wait a moment. I turned and walked through my party, opened the front door and stuck my head out. There were druids streaming in through the wide-open ungated entrance. I closed the door.
The thing about someone like Jackie Chan is that he isn’t your conventional fearless hero. He knows a punch can hurt your hand as much as it hurts the other guy’s face. He also knows you should use your environment to your advantage.
“So,” I said, “is there a back door to this place?”