278. A Man of Substance

The important thing in situations like these is not to jump to conclusions.

Just because things look one way, doesn’t mean that’s the way you should accept them as being. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it could still turn out to be a very odd Japanese sex toy.

The Pope’s followers did not have that rotting-off-the-bone look you associate with zombies. Or zombers. I wouldn’t want to offend anyone. They were pale, had a dessicated quality to the parchment-like skin clinging to their bones, and milky balls of horror where their eyes should have been. Which isn’t to say they were necessarily bad people.

Maybe they were ghouls who ate dead people, but cemeteries take up a lot of valuable real estate, and what exactly are we saving up our dead for?

Or they could be vampires who drank blood, but who said it had to be human blood? Abattoirs just throw that shit away. They could provide a cleanup service.

I’d died and come back myself. As did Jesus. I’m not comparing myself to Jesus, I’m just saying weird things happen that we aren’t used to dealing with. It’s not the end of the world (except when it is). Doesn’t mean we should start plunging wooden stakes into people. Not without their consent.

There are clearly powers at work in the universe that we don’t understand. That we feel a need to explain. And we feel better once we have reasons, even if those reasons are crazy made-up shit.

A lich who keeps his vital parts in a jar could still be an organ donor in the event of his undeath. Worshipping an eldritch evil as old as time isn’t necessarily bad, if you find it comforting in the face of your own mortality.

Religion is a weird thing. People want to belong, they want to believe in a higher power, and they want that higher power to give them treats. Whether it’s a delusion or not isn’t the point. The fact that so many of us are willing to put our faith in someone who will take care of us, in life and in death, shows how important it is to us. If the guy you trust to lead you to the Kingdom of Heaven (insert your own retarded idea of an appealing afterlife here) happens to lead an army of the dead, does that mean he’s more or less likely to be able to deliver on his supernatural promises?

I realise it doesn’t seem natural to bring the dead back to serve as a slave, but what if you bring them back to act as your personal assistant? Teach them touch typing and pay them minimum wage, now where on the diabolical scale are we?

Natural is such an ambiguous term. We use it as a shorthand for good and healthy, but is malaria full of natural goodness?

Sure, nature designed living things to have a limited lifespan, but what good is such a rapid turnover? I mean, if you aren’t Apple, looking to fuck your customers as hard as possible. Is it enough time to get everything done? Eighty years or so to learn, to understand what the hell’s going on? Or in the case of an iPhone, nine months before it suddenly starts mysteriously slowing down, just in time for the release of the next model. How lucky.

This Pope might have had something to offer people. The genie who doesn’t try to screw you out of your three wishes with clever interpretations of your requests, he must exist. Why would he give a shit if you wanted a yacht or a Ferrari?

There must be a devil somewhere who gives you good, solid value for your immortal soul—they can’t all be dicks.

And even if it isn’t the best outcome, maybe when the zombie apocalypse comes, just let them bite you and join the winning team. They have an excellent healthcare plan.

Forget what might be potential areas of concern (eating brains and what not), and consider the evidence of your own eyes, and only that evidence.

If your local necromancer used his legion of the damned to build affordable housing and maintain an efficient and hygienic sewer system, are you going to let your fear of the occult force you to keep shitting in a hole in a field?

The point is, it’s what you do that counts, not what you believe or the things you hold to be sacred.

Like the zombers, these people could be hiding from public view because of a perceived danger they weren’t responsible for. They just happened to give the impression they were the denizens of hell risen to eat the flesh of man and feast on his entrails. It was an unfortunate look, like a bad perm.

Jenny, Claire and Flossie had worried expressions on their faces, but you can always take a photo of someone that captures them at an odd angle, with one eye shut and their jaw sitting unevenly. All three of them having the same look was a bit more telling, I suppose.

They had come here of their own volition, as far as I knew, and they were about to join the Necromancy Party. I had to assume they had a reason.

It seemed like a bad idea, from the outside, but was it any worse than becoming a Scientologist? Maybe necromancy would be a good career move.

I floated around, trying to understand what they might be up to. They weren’t in any immediate danger. And there wasn’t actually much I could do in my current intangible form. My hands passed through all solid objects. I could touch the vines binding people together, perhaps break them, but I didn’t know what that would do.

Jenny’s eyes were on the Pope. It wasn’t a look of infatuation, or even admiration. It was focused and full of intent. To do what, I had no idea.

Her hands were holding onto Claire’s and Flossie’s tightly. They were dressed like temple maidens and carried it off quite well. Jenny’s white gown was thin and flimsy and I could make out the shape of her breasts. It was just an observation, I wasn’t being pervy.

I inspected the thick tentacles that attached the Pope to each of his minions, giving them a tug to see if they would come loose.

Having got here easily enough, I was at a bit of a loss. I wasn’t even sure there was anything I could do. If I wanted to intervene, I’d have to go back to my body and come back the more traditional way. And I wasn’t sure I did want to intervene.

Made it awkward that everything was frozen while I was in this state. If there was a button I could use to fast forward it a bit at a time, that would have been useful.

I put my hand out to touch Jenny’s face. It passed right through her.

Getting back was also an unclear proposition. The connection between us had brought me here, but would it take me back? If not, doing the breaststroke all the way to Arthur’s place would take forever.

This ability really wasn’t as good as mind-reading or being able to fly dragons.

I was about to do a tour of the temple, maybe get a sense of where everything was, any demons or devils hidden away I could put on my ‘Do not disturb’ list, when I felt a tug and began drifting out of the room.

There was only one thread attached to me, and that was attached to the body sitting in Arthur’s garden. The pull I was feeling was from behind me, like someone had grabbed me by the back of my shirt collar.

I floated backwards, taking the same route I’d used to get here. The same people and places passed by in reverse. I wasn’t going quite as fast as last time, but I was picking up speed.

By the time I was out of the middle of the city I was fairly rocketing along. There was a little discomfort around my neck, but I’d had worse commutes. I was soon in the same road as Arthur’s house, then his garden, and then I fell with a bump into my own body.

There was a hand on my shoulder. Arthur leaned down to look me in the face. “Where have you been, my boy?”

I twisted and stretched. “Went for a wander. Did I miss anything?”

“No,” said Arthur, “but it seems you have mastered your ability.”

“I wouldn’t call it mastered. More like buttom-mashing a jammy win.”

Maurice and Dudley came running out into the garden, all excited.

“I found them,” said Dudley. “They’re safe.”

“They’re in the temple,” I said.

“Yes,” said Dudley. “You were correct. They’re with the Pope fellow.”

“Dressed in white with a bunch of weirdos bowing on the floor?”

“Why, yes,” said Dudley, a bit deflated. “Correct again.”

“You saw them, too?” asked Maurice.

“Yeah. They seem okay. But if Dudley can open a live feed whenever he wants, we can watch them from here. We don’t have to do anything unless they get into trouble.”

“And what do we do if they do get into trouble?” asked Maurice. Always with the questions.

“This Pope you trained,” I said to Arthur, “what kind of guy is he? Generally kind to animals and children? Or only after he’s turned them into his meat puppets?”

“When the old gods left, there was a vacuum created by their absence,” said Arthur. “Many religions rose up to take their place. Only one survived.”

That sounded quite ominous. “By killing all his rivals.”

“Oh, no,” said Arthur. “Nothing like that. He bought them out.”

“Makes sense,” said Maurice. “Typical venture capitalist model. You invest heavily in one firm, give them the capital to pay over the odds for everything, inflating prices. Drive everyone else out of business who can’t keep up, and then switch back to a normal profitable economy once you’re the only game in town.”

It did actually make sense, in a weird way. Offer people big shows with big prizes, make sure they won on a regular basis, even if it put you in the red, and when the competition couldn’t match you and gave up, recruit their salesmen for your team. The druids appeared to be the only holdout.

“He’d need to secure the capital from somewhere, though,” said Maurice. “Did he have a lot of money?”

Arthur shrugged. “I may have loaned him a little to get him started. It seemed better than leaving him alone in a graveyard to get up to no good.”

“I’ve got news for you,” I said. “No good doesn’t only happen in graveyards.”

Dudley rubbed the side of his head.

“What is it?” I asked him. “Do you see something?”

“They’re just talking,” said Dudley. “I can’t hear them but all three of them, just talking and talking to the Pope fellow.”

That poor bastard—perhaps he was the one who needed rescuing.

“Shouldn’t we relocate nearer to their position?” asked Maurice. “Just in case.”

Dudley nodded. They both looked eager to be off, even if there was no specific purpose to us getting closer to the action.

“Okay,” I said. The truth was I felt it might be time to move, as well. Not because the girls needed us to be there for them, but more because it had struck me as odd that when I returned to my body, Arthur had been standing next to me.

When I left, he was in the dining room with Maurice and Dudley. Nothing could move while I was in the adjacent world, so how had he managed to leave the boys and walk out into the garden before I got back?

The only other person who could move while I was floating about like a brain-damaged guppy was the elf, and she was an elf, a being of incredible power.

Regular Visitors like Maurice and Dudley couldn’t move, but apparently Arthur could. Which begged the question, if he wasn’t a Visitor, what was he?


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