“A back door?” said our host. “Certainly. It’s sealed shut and covered in wooden boards. “Why don’t you just leave the way you came?”
It was a reasonable question.
“The gate,” I said.
“It sort of fell over.”
He didn’t seem particularly surprised by this news. He nodded with a sad look on his face. “It was bound to happen eventually. Very corrosive, hexes. They burn through everything in the end.”
At least he wasn’t upset about it, which was a relief. I wouldn’t have to throw Flossie under the bus as I’d been planning.
“We didn’t come here to kill you,” said Claire, doing her best to keep things calm and reasonable. Probably would have helped if she hadn't shouted it at him like a death threat.
He was a bit startled by her outburst, but didn’t come charging at us with the sword he was holding. I wouldn’t have blamed him. Might even have joined him.
“Then why are you bothering me?” he asked.
“You’re Arta Askii?” I asked him.
“Arthur. It’s Arthur.”
“Are you a Visitor? Peter told us there was one in Gorgoth who could help us.”
His shoulders sagged. “Not again. That son of a bitch. He’s always sending me his cast-offs so I never have any peace and quiet. Every time I think I’ve finally got a little time to myself, a bunch of his… his... failures come traipsing up to my front door, begging me to help them become as powerful as possible. Swear up and down that they’ll only use their abilities for benevolent purposes and saving cats in trees. Never works out that way, does it?”
We all shrugged. How the hell were we supposed to know?
“Look at you,” he said with undisguised bitterness. “You’re worse than those druids. At least they’re honest about what they want. Not like your kind. Even when I do offer to help, to show you the correct path to becoming a decent person, what happens?” He paused like he was waiting for an answer.
We still had nothing.
“I’ll tell you what happens. You start off very meek and respectful, taking in everything I tell you, and then slowly by slowly, out it comes. The corrections, the suggestions, the unasked for recommendations. What if we tried it this way. I’ve been thinking maybe we could do it that way. I read somewhere it’s actually better to do it standing on your head with a stick of celery sticking out of your ass. It never ends!”
He threw his arms out wide in exasperation and the scabbard on his sword went flying off. He ignored it.
“I don’t know what happened back home over the last hundred years that convinced everyone they already know everything, but you know diddly. DIDDLY!”
He was clearly upset, but I didn’t think it was fair to blame us. If ever there was a group that were happy to admit their ignorance, it was us.
There was a thud on the door and we all jumped closer to the staircase. There was a lunatic with a sword on the landing, so we didn’t get too close.
“Don’t worry about them,” said Arthur. “There’s another hex on the door.”
Considering the effect of the first hex on the gate, this wasn’t all that reassuring.
“Is there another way out?” I asked. “A secret tunnel or something?”
“Oh, you think that would be a good idea, do you? More ways into the house?”
“Um, no. I just, um…” It was hard to know what to say. Anything could set him off.
I could also tell Claire was losing her patience. And that would definitely set him off.
“If we can’t get out, we’ll have to stay here,” she said.
“Do what you want,” said Arthur.
“Do you have any food?” said Claire, ready to keep at it until someone was in a heap of tears. Probably me.
“No, of course not. I live off of rainwater and mildew.”
“We could do a deal,” said Flossie shakily.
“What kind of deal?” said Arta. He had the expression of a man preparing to be appalled by an unpleasant offer.
“If yo’ give us something to eat, we’ll help yo’ tidy up.”
“Hey, hey, hold on,” I said. “This is a big house and he won’t have a Dyson in the cupboard under the stairs.” I was all for a fair and reasonable exchange of goods and services, but I wasn’t about to dust an entire fucking mansion for a sandwich.
“Not good enough for you?” screamed Arthur, my hero. Luckily, he had no intention of letting Flossie sell us into slavery for snacks.
“It’s dirty,” Flossie screamed back. “I saw a spooder.” She pointed at a corner of the hall.
“Great. I love spooders, whatever the hell a spooder is. And I like my house just the way it is. It has character.” He began coughing. He waved away any attempt to offer assistance, of which there were none. “This is just my allergies. No, not to dust, to assholes.”
His glaring was interrupted by more banging and scratching at the door. Faces appeared pressed against the small windows on either side. The glass was covered in dust and grime, so we couldn’t see the faces very clearly, but there was a hint or two of tentacle.
“Who are they?” squealed Flossie, holding on tight to Dudley. “Why do they want to kill yo’?”
“They’re my biggest fans,” said Arthur. “They love me to death.”
“And the tentacles…?” I asked, since he was being so chatty.
“It’s a long story.” He sighed deeply. “You better come up.” He turned, threw the sword away like he was bored of it, and walked up the stairs as the sword clattered down.
We tentatively followed. Whatever was waiting for us up there couldn’t be any worse than what was trying to break the door down.
We climbed the stairs in a clump. Arta was stalking slowly towards an open door down the other end of a long corridor. It was gloomy and only lit by dust-covered windows, so it was hard to make out much. Probably for the best.
By the time we entered the room, Arta was already seated at a long table filled with food. Our stomachs growled in unison.
“What’s the matter? Hungry? Tell you what I’ll do, let’s play a game. You win, not only will I feed you, I’ll help you with whatever problem you came to see me about. How’s that?”
It wasn’t a bad offer. Kind of depended on what the game was.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s play.” Not like I had anything else to do.
“Good, good. Here we go.” He placed two green apples on the table in front of him. “You tell me which of these isn’t poisoned and I—”
“They’re both poisoned,” said Maurice before I could.
“What the hell are you talking about?” He picked one and took a big bite. Bits of apple flew out of his mouth as he said, “See?”
“That’s because you already took the antidote to the poison,” said Maurice.
“Oh,” said Flossie. “Like that movie”
“The Princess Bride,” said Dudley. “Marvellous.”
There was a murmur of agreement.
“They stole my idea!” screamed Arthur, the outrage sending him to his feet. He sat back down again. “Although that does explain why so many of you guessed the right answer over the years. Live and learn.” He picked up the two apples and violently hurled them at the wall where they both splattered into pieces. “Okay, how about this?”
He placed two more apples on the table. They looked the same as the two he’d just chucked away.
Arta raised his right hand. “As God is my witness, one of these is poisoned, one is fresh and delicious. Eat one and live, and I’ll teach you everything I know. You’ve got a fifty-fifty chance. Are you man en—”
I picked up the first apple and took a bite. It tasted very nice.
“You have to eat it all,” said Arthur.
I kept eating, all the way down to the core. As I took my last bite, I felt a burning sensation in my mouth and throat. My eyes began to water and I couldn’t breathe.
Arthur had a smug look on his face. My party were just standing there looking at me. They had at least learned one thing from me. If you don’t know what to do, don’t scream and shout, and run around doing nothing. Do nothing quietly.
I put my hand up to my face and healed myself. My lips felt enormous and my nose seemed to have spread across most of my face, but it didn’t take long for the swelling to go down.
“That’s cheating!” shouted Arthur.
Maurice walked up to the table and picked up the other apple. He took a bite and then spat it out, his face twisted in disgust. “I get it. The delicious one is also the poisoned one. You have to eat a whole apple, so either you eat that one and die, or you eat this one and stop because you think it’s poisoned.”
“I ate the whole thing,” I said. “So, I win.”
Arthur didn’t look very happy. “You can heal yourself. That’s your ability? Think that makes you special, do you?”
“No, I learned this off a stoned frog. The monsters have been nicer to me than any human I’ve met here.” There was a series of coughs behind me, which I ignored.
“I know!” said Arthur. “It’s like they only shipped over the biggest assholes they could find. And then they follow you around like you’re the answer to their prayers, and when you try to actually make them understand what it means to be a person, a real, goddamn person, they freak out like you want them to learn how to swim in a vat of acid or something.”
“And even when they accept they were wrong,” I said, “they try to explain it back to you, like you were the one who didn’t get it.” I was warming up to this guy. He seemed to have his head on straight.
“Right! That’s absolutely right! What the hell is wrong with people? Maybe you wouldn’t make such a bad student.”
“Oh God,” I heard Jenny mutter, “they’re bonding over their mutual hatred of everything.”
“What’s he going to teach him?” Claire muttered back. “How to be an even bigger bastard?”
It’s never easy being teacher’s pet, always resentment and jealousy from the other kids.
There was a crash of glass from downstairs.
“I knew I should have put some hexes on the windows,” said Arthur rubbing the bridge of his nose. He rose from his chair, not looking particularly worried, and walked out of the room, dressing gown flapping.
We followed him (after swiping some food), but kept a little distance just in case druids came pouring up the stairs. It was surprisingly quiet.
“Oh no,” we heard him exclaim. “Really? This is a bit much, isn’t it?”
We slowly descended the stairs to the landing Arthur was standing on. Below him, the floor was covered in druids, all prostrating themselves.
One at the front raised his head. He didn’t have any tentacles showing. “We live to serve you, Master.”
“I’m a little busy right now. I have guests.”
“We will take them away and kill them for bothering you.”
“They aren’t bothering me, you are. Look what you did to my window!”
“I thought they were trying to kill him,” whispered Jenny.
“Too much love can kill you,” I whispered back. “Especially if the lovers have AIDS.”
“Hey, you,” Arthur called out, “come here.” He waved to tell us to come closer. Reluctantly, we sidled along the landing.
The druids peered up at us, still on the floor but shooting death stares at us as best they could from that angle.
“You want the Old Gods to return?” asked Arthur. There was a murmur from below. “You want me to bring back the glory days when perfect beings sat on thrones and commanded their lessers to do their bidding?”
There was more enthusiastic murmuring. You can murmur enthusiastically, I’ve heard it.
“Then I am not the one you should be following. He is.” Arthur grabbed me by the arm and pulled me closer to him. “He will summon the Old Gods from their slumber. I will train him to be the one you have been waiting for. If he survives the training. Fifty-fifty. Not bad odds.”
The druids sat up to get a better look at their new messiah. I wasn’t too put out by being volunteered for service. Not like I intended serving the full term. But Arthur did say he would train me, which was what I wanted. Fifty-fifty was okay. I might get lucky and not survive. I could do with a rest.