The druids were giving me suspicious stares. Their concern was understandable—if you’d been told I was the guy who was going to be leading you to the promised land, you might want to reevaluate your choices.
“I don’t think they like you,” Jenny whispered out of the side of her mouth. She had the ability to sense emotions, but I didn’t think she’d used it to come to this particular conclusion. The intense looks of disgust and revulsion on the druids’ faces sort of gave them away.
“He is the one I have been waiting for,” said Arthur in a slightly forced manner. He was selling them a product I felt he might not purchase himself. “He is the reason I have refused your request for so long. He is the one.”
“Are you sure?” asked a voice from the crowd.
“Of course,” roared Arthur. “Do you doubt me?”
There was a lot of shaking of heads, some mild shrugging of shoulders, and I’m sure I spotted a couple of abstainees.
Arthur was doing a good job of using their reverence for him against them. They had insisted he was the guy to lead them, so they couldn’t really argue now he was leading them straight towards a gruesome fate—me.
While the pastor told his congregation it was time to drink the poisoned holy water, my group had gathered in a knot around me. And by around me, I mean behind me, which made it very difficult for me to back away. We really needed to work on our on-site deployment.
“They don’t like you,” said Claire. Her and Jenny were becoming something of double act. I’d have to put an end to that when I had a free moment.
“I don’t like you,” I said. “Circle of life.”
Claire shot me a half-arsed look of disapproval. I was slowly wearing her down to the point where she wouldn’t even be able to roll an eye at me.
“What are they thinking?” asked Maurice. It should be noted that Maurice never came to Claire’s defence. He didn’t care how much you insulted his girlfriend. Partly because he felt she could take care of herself, and partly because he didn’t want anyone else to like her. All those magazines that try to tell women how to tell if a man really loves them, they have no idea what they’re talking about. Get yourself a guy who only wants people to see your bad side—no one will ever love you more than him.
Claire scanned the crowd of genuflecting druids, her face screwed up in concentration, and then very slowly she said, “Broccoli.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” I said a little too loudly, drawing cold looks. Who from? Take your pick.
Arthur was still talking, going on about how he would mould me into a figurehead they would march behind. Their attention drifted back to him.
“That’s what it looks like,” said Claire under her breath. “A big floret of broccoli.”
“All of them?” asked Maurice, notebook out.
“Mmhmm,” said Claire.
“Now,” said Arthur, “I need time to get your future leader into some kind of fit state to lead. It won’t be easy. It will be quite messy, to tell the truth. There will be blood, but none of it will be mine, you can count on that. If he doesn’t make it, we can always try again with the next one.”
“When will the next one get here?” asked someone in the crowd, a bit prematurely, I felt.
“I don’t know,” said Arthur. “But there’s always a next one, don’t you worry about that. You all go home and keep yourselves out of trouble. And away from here. Far away. The Shriners are watching.”
Even though Arthur was making a big deal about how gruelling this training process was going to be, I wasn’t too put out. He was clearly exaggerating for his audience, which might have only been a slight exaggeration about what would be a truly horrific future for me, but it pointed to a greater truth. He didn’t want to be in charge of these people.
That small detail was very important to me. Here he had a bunch of guys super keen to do his bidding—jump off a cliff, kill whoever he told them to, force their kids to eat Marmite, all sorts of atrocities—and what he most wanted was to fob them off on someone else. If he saw no value in having idiots at his beck and call, then this was a man I could really look up to and call master.
The druids slowly departed, looking a bit miffed. They’d finally got their sempai to notice them, and he’d ordered them to redirect their devotion towards ‘pleb least likely to succeed.’ And also to fix his gate on their way out.
“And don’t attract too much attention. We don’t want to give anything away to the Shriners. This is a covert operation. Lay low. Far from here. Very far.”
The druids filed out mumbling their compliance.
Arthur looked pleased. “Good, good. That went better than I expected.”
“Who do the Shriners worship?” I asked.
“The oldest god of all,” said Arthur. “Money. You keep out of their way and their balance books, they won’t bother you. Give their Mega Temple a wide berth, too. You don’t want to get dragged in there.”
“Ah have a question,” said Flossie, her hand raised.
“Why do the druids have tentacles in their faces?”
It was a reasonable question. They hadn’t exhibited any of their squiddish tendencies while indoors, but there was no doubting what we’d seen.
“You know about that, do you?” said Arthur. He pulled his dressing gown closed and tied the belt. “I suppose it’s only fair to give you the full picture. Wouldn’t want you losing your minds if you saw their true forms.” He pulled a face suggesting we wouldn’t like what we’d see. “The old gods, they liked to experiment. Mix this with that, see what happens. Head of a lion on the body of an eagle, that sort of thing. That’s what happens when you have too much power and small attention span. Boredom sets in, and that’s when the crazy stuff starts.” He opened his eyes wide and leaned back, giving us time to take in his words.
None of us were that shocked. We’d seen plenty of crazy shit. You had to do more than flash a couple of face tentacles to get a reaction out of us.
Arthur seemed disappointed by our low-key response. “The gods, in their madness, decided to combine animal with vegetable. Plant and man, as one.” He slapped his hands together and interlocked the fingers.
“They’re triffids?” I asked.
Arthur gave me a bemused look. Hadn’t kept up with mid-twentieth century literature, apparently.
“A plant-human hybrid,” said Maurice. “When did they do these experiments? Back when the world was young?”
“Oh, no,” said Arthur, “this is only a few years back. They hit the tiles soon after. Not even their hobbies could hold their interest.”
“But what about the tentacles?” said Flossie. “Plants don’t have tentacles in their faces.”
“The tendrils? They aren’t tentacles, they help them draw nutrients out of the ground. Not dangerous, really. Might give you a nasty hickey if they really went for you.”
That was kind of a relief, I guess. Worst they could do was drink your milkshake when you weren’t looking.
“When does the training start?” I asked, eager to get on with it. If there was a practical use for my rubbish talent, I was keen to find out what it was.
“Hold on, now,” said Arthur. “I haven’t agreed to anything, yet.”
“But…” I pointed at the space where the druids had been.
“That was just to get those carrot-munchers out of here,” said Arthur.
“Do they really eat carrots?” asked Flossie. “That’d be cannibalism, wouldn’t it?” She looked at Maurice for confirmation. He shrugged.
“First, I need to see what you can do,” said Arthur. He turned to Claire. “What’s your ability?”
“What’s yours?” asked Claire belligerently (so, in her usual manner).
“Well, to put it in terms you might be able to understand, I can find the strengths and weaknesses in others. I can use that information to help people make the most of what they have, or I can use it to destroy them.” He said it very pleasantly, which is always worrying. The polite badass is the most badass badass.
“Let’s see, now.” He gave Claire the once over. “Do you have anything to show me?”
Claire glared at him, which was her most OP ability even without the magical twist. Arthur stared back. “I see. Yes. It’s been a while since I met a telepath. They tend to be quite fragile. Most of them go insane.”
“I don’t have any mental issues,” said Claire. I waited for someone to call for a vote.
“It creeps up on you,” said Arthur. “It’s all very well seeing what others are thinking every now and again, but once the ability fully manifests, it can become overwhelming. Knowing what people really think of you, seeing who your partner fantasises about when they make love to you, becoming aware of the darkness in everyone around you.”
“No,” said Claire flatly. She looked at Maurice. “He only ever thinks about me.” She turned to face me. “And I don’t need to read minds to see the darkness around me. It’s on public display all the bloody time.”
Arthur nodded, his head rocking from side to side. “Maybe, but you still have obvious weaknesses. Look in my mind.”
Claire turned to glare at him again, and jumped back grabbing her head. “That was disgusting.”
Arthur grinned. “Yes. A nasty image in the centre of your brain is very hard to defend against.” He turned to Jenny. “And what about you?”
Jenny raised her hand. “No thanks. I’m trying to not develop my power. It’s bad enough being attached to one person.”
Arthur shrugged and turned to Maurice. “Hmm. Anything?”
Maurice smiled nervously. “I’m not sure. I don’t think so.”
“Interesting, interesting. We’ll get back to you.” He turned to Flossie. “And you?”
“Ah need a poo,” said Flossie. “Where’s the loo?”
Arthur didn’t look like he relished the thought of sharing his bathroom facilities, but it would be preferable to letting her shit on the floor. The way she was mincing about, she was practically touching cloth as it was.
“Alright, alright,” said Arthur reluctantly. “Down the hall on the left.”
Flossie went scooting off with Dudley following after, apologising and bowing awkwardly.
“I can’t seem to get a reading off you,” said Arthur to me.
“I’m untouchable. I see connections between people and things, but only when I transfer to another plane where everyone’s frozen except me.”
Arthur looked surprised. “Oh, I haven’t come across that before. Is it powerful?”
“Can’t you tell?” I’d hoped he’d be one of those wise men who already knew everything, and would mock and insult you until you realised the power had been inside you this whole time. Why couldn’t my life be a beautiful series of revelations instead of having to listen to a chubby redhead proclaiming her need to take a dump?
“Afraid I’m not all-knowing god. Can’t read minds, either.”
“So, you can’t help me?”
“I didn’t say that. If that slimeball Peter sent you here, it might mean it’s something worth developing. Hopefully to something that can wipe the smug look off his face. I assume it’s still there.” I nodded. “I don’t know, though. I need some time to think about it. Come back tomorrow.”
“Can’t we stay here?” asked Flossie who had reappeared, Dudley in tow. “The bathroom was really nice. It had a floosh.”
“No,” said Arthur, “you can’t.”
“But it’s so big and empty,” said Flossie, her good manners giving way in the face of upmarket toilet facilities.
“Yes, and big and empty is how I like it. Tomorrow. I’m going back to bed. Never a moment’s peace.”
He turned and stomped up the stairs muttering to himself. We had been dismissed.
It wasn’t a bad day’s work. The teacher had been found and had agreed to help, kind of, and the druids had been convinced to leave us alone, for the time being. I’d take it.
As we left the grounds, the druids were trying to get the gate back up. We hurried past them before they decided to reinterpret Arthur’s instructions the way religious zealots often did (by killing everyone they don’t like).
“Still broccoli,” said Claire.
The others discussed what they thought of Arthur, his lack of manners (didn’t even offer us lunch!) and general bad attitude. I didn’t join in. It didn’t matter what I thought of him as a person. If he could figure out how my ability worked, I wouldn’t care what kind of party host he was. I might be stuck with a legion of walking bean sprouts, but ducking out on them wouldn’t be too difficult.
We still had most of the day left, so we decided to follow our noses to the market square. There were all sorts of foods for sale and we stuffed our faces.
A bell began ringing. Not a shrill ting-a-ling-ling, this was a giant clanging chime that echoed around us. The crowds quieted down and turned to face the north end of the square where there was a domed building with large circular sections cut out of it. Two close together in the middle, two larger ones further apart towards the top.
It was draped in long trains of brightly-coloured fabric that flapped around. These were pulled aside to allow a man to walk out of one of the lower circular cavities.
“The Pope, it’s the Pope,” said voices all around us.
My attention, though, was on the building, which I assumed was the Mega Temple. Now the drapes had been parted it was easier to see the shape.
“Um,” said Dudley, “doesn’t it look a bit like…”
“A skull,” said Claire. “It’s a giant, human skull.”
You shouldn’t generalise, but buildings in the shape of body parts, generally speaking, not good.