“Finally,” said Arthur, “you’re leaving. Let me show you out.”
I got the feeling he wasn’t walking us to the door out of politeness, more to make sure we actually left. Whether or not Arthur was what he appeared, one thing was for sure—he had no interest in having us around.
“Is there anything you can tell us about the Pope before we go?” I asked him. “Any advice?”
“Don’t be a freeloader, repay your debts and don’t bother people too much.”
“I meant advice for dealing with the Pope.”
“Good advice applies to all situations,” said Arthur.
“What about the druids?” asked Maurice. “Are they going to cause any trouble?”
“They’re harmless,” said Arthur. “Just persistent. Like weeds.”
We were at the front door as he herded us through like a wily old sheepdog.
“And the giant green brain?” I asked as he began closing the doors on us.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Like broccoli,” said Maurice.
“No thanks,” said Arthur, “I’ve already eaten.”
There was definitely something off about Arthur. I was sure he wasn’t what he appeared to be, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was a threat to us. It’s hard to hurt people you have no intention of seeing ever again, other than emotionally.
“Good luck,” he said as he closed the door. I’d never seen him so cheerful.
“I feel like he didn’t really want us here,” said Maurice.
Dudley made a sad mewing sound. I think it was the pain of rejection dribbling out of him, like the last bit of air coming out of a deflated balloon.
We set off on our walk back to the city centre. It was a pleasant day, a little on the warm side, and the druids were swaying in the mild breeze. I could see them hiding behind the trees and hedges lining our route.
“Can you see what the girls are doing?” I asked Dudley.
“Sorry, not while I’m walking,” he said. “It takes time to move my head closer to them.”
It wasn’t entirely clear to me what he was talking about.
“He has to physically send his eyesight to the place he wants to see,” said Maurice. That didn’t make it much clearer.
It took some questioning to understand how his newly discovered ability worked. To see things far away required him to shift his vision that distance, like piloting a GoPro on a drone. He had to fly his eyeballs in the sky from where he was to where his target was getting undressed. Or whatever they were doing.
“We’ll be closer to the temple from the inn,” I said. “Should make it easier for you to spy on the girls.”
“Um, I wouldn’t call it spying,” said Dudley. “I mean, ah, I would never intrude, if, you know, a situation of undress were to occur…”
Very convincing. “But you could, though, couldn’t you? And they would have no idea. Your superhero name is Ultimate Peeping Tom.”
“No, no, no,” said Dudley, all flustered and beetroot in the face. “Purely for emergencies. Search and rescue.”
I didn’t really think he would abuse his gift, but with great power comes great potential for kinky shit. Dudley had very narrow interests when it came to that sort of thing, even though narrow was the opposite of what he was into.
“Can we go past the Mega Temple?” asked Maurice.
“Sure, why not? It’s on the way.”
He could have claimed it was for research purposes, but there was no need. It wasn’t like we had anything else to do. Three guys on the town, footloose and horribly lonely. If he wanted to be a little closer to where the girls were carrying on without us, so be it. If he pulled out a boombox and started playing Peter Gabriel, then we’d have a problem.
We had the slightly bewildered demeanour of tourists as we walked through the main square. People rushed around us with great purpose, as we aimlessly shuffled about.
The Mega Temple dominated the square. Hard to miss a giant human skull. Streaming fabric softened the outline, but you can’t really take the edge off Death by giving him a fancy hairstyle.
The Mega Temple’s doors were open, and there was a long queue waiting to get in. Shriners in white robes stood at the front with clipboards, like bouncers letting people in a group at a time.
“Do you think we should go in?” asked Maurice.
“We’d have to get in line,” I said, not really fancying it. I was reluctant to swoop in to save the girls when they had clearly signalled their intent to do this without us—I was even more reluctant to do it via a three-hour theme park queue.
“Wait,” said Dudley. “Let me have a look.” He sat down on the cobbles and closed his eyes.
Maurice and I stood there looking mildly uncomfortable—which we did like old pros. Dudley was breathing slowly, beads of sweat appearing on his expansive forehead. It apparently took quite some effort to send out his third eye on reconnaissance.
He shuddered and opened his eyes. “It’s fine. They’re sleeping.”
Lunchtime snooze. Alright for some.
“Are you sure they’re okay?” asked Maurice. “They weren’t… they weren’t dead, were they?”
“No, no. I’m sure they were breathing. I could see their chests going up and down.”
“Oh,” I said, “so you were checking out their chests?”
“What? No. I mean yes, but, not like that.” His cheeks flushed and the beads of sweat glistened like his face had been bedazzled.
Shriners were running up and down the line of people waiting to go into the temple, giving out drinks of water in paper cups, and also handing out flyers. They reminded me of the druids we’d met on our first day here.
It wasn’t like there was some kind of imminent danger hanging over the girls, or us. The Shriners operated a business; a very successful one. Yes, they were fiercely competitive, but their practices didn’t seem sinister. They had destroyed their rivals by using the time-honoured techniques of undercutting mercilessly and offering better value for money.
Seen from that perspective, I was even starting to understand their issue with the druids. It was like KFC being annoyed there was another fried chicken outlet down the road, calling themselves Kennedy Fried Chicken. Obviously they’d try to force them out of business, but they wouldn’t murder the people working there to do it. They aren’t McDonald’s.
I grabbed a flyer off one of the Shriners, and then waved away his eager face. I did want to know more about his religion and exactly what they believed, but I didn’t want to have to talk to a devout twat in order to do it. There are few things in life more aggravating than a true believer (of anything).
The flyer was beautifully written. The penmanship was exemplary. Honestly, they knew how to market their product. None of your scratched-in-chicken-blood bullshit. This was more like those monks who would spend three days to craft a good-looking letter Q.
What it said on the flyer was to play the lottery. Big prizes could be mine. Those prizes consisted of cash money (in coins—win a million, get a hernia), a chair with rods people could carry you around on (their idea of a luxury sedan, I suppose), and tickets to somewhere called Marlon Gardens. There were palm trees drawn around it, so I guessed it was some kind of luxury resort.
“Excuse me,” said Maurice to one of the Shriners. “What is this queue for?”
He was a braver man than I. Give them an in and before you know it, you’re sipping tepid coffee while watching a two-hour presentation about how Jesus defeated the dinosaurs. I edged away in case contact details were requested.
“This is the line for new converts. Once you enroll, you have access to all the temple’s facilities.”
He made it sound like there was a sauna and a gym.
“Including the sauna and gym,” he said. “Your health is our first priority.”
Fuck. I thought it would be bad enough to get preached at about faith and piety. This could be even worse. They might be CrossFit enthusiasts, too.
“You probably have questions,” he went on, like he’d trained hard to get this spiel down to a tight five, “they’ll all be answered during the induction. Current waiting time for the line is only four hours.”
Only four hours? For that kind of wait, the induction had better take place on top of Space Mountain.
We were eased out of the way as a small group of well-dressed citizens were escorted by Shriners on all sides. They were taken to the front and allowed inside ahead of the waiting throng.
“What about them?” I asked.
“For a small donation, you receive a blessing from the Golden God, and premium treatment. Gold Star members have access to the priority lounge.”
What god doesn’t love a backhander? Not that there’s anything wrong with having money and using it to your advantage. Otherwise, what’s the point of being rich? The problem has always been when those with money use it to block those without. It’s like if you won the lottery, and then used your winnings to buy the numbers four, five and six.
Everyone else still had a chance to win, as long as those three numbers didn’t come up, but it’s indisputably a dick move.
Our problem was we didn’t have the money to get shit done. We could get by, but we didn’t have surplus funds for bribing officials and belittling childhood friends. Considering how much we’d done for this world, you’d think someone would have offered us a chest full of gold by this point. I really needed to sort out some kind of payment plan before I saved the world again.
“Would you like to hear about our reward tiers?” asked the fawning zealot.
“We don’t have any money,” I said, and he disappeared. Not quite in a puff of smoke, but pretty damn near.
“If you have to pay to get fast-tracked inside,” said Maurice, “how did the girls get in so quickly?”
I looked at the queue. It was almost entirely male. “Because they’re girls?”
We made our way back to the inn. We’d paid in advance (another reason we were more or less skint) so at least we still had our rooms. The girls were safely tucked up in bed, so we had time to grab lunch, and maybe a nap of our own.
I needed a way to make money—it would probably serve us better than magic when it came to dealing with the Shriners, which was just as well since I still couldn’t produce as much as a glow on the end of my finger. I couldn’t even do a little busking with my balls of light to raise some pocket money.
After eating in glum silence, we went up to the biggest of our three rooms, which was the one I’d given to Claire and Maurice, and Dudley set up on the bed for a long night of remote viewing.
As long as we knew they were safe, the anxiety was at a manageable level. If something happened… we didn’t really have a plan.
While Dudley did his thing. Maurice and I batted a few ideas back and forth, just so we could say we did. He had brought up a bottle from the bar and seemed pretty depressed as he took long chugs.
“He could have at least helped me work out what my power is.” ‘He’ referred to Arthur. Maurice was the only one who hadn’t exhibited supernatural abilities so far, and it was making him feel a bit worthless.
“I’m not sure he knows how. I’m not sure he is who he says he is.” I explained why I was starting to suspect Arthur of not being a Visitor.
“Who could he be, then?”
I shrugged. “Maybe he’s Joshaya.”
“Why would a god need us to do all this for him?” said Maurice bitterly. “He’s a god. He should do his own miracles.”
“Maybe the Pope has special anti-god powers,” I said. “Gods give life, necromancers control death. Perhaps they balance each other out.”
“This is Claire’s fault.” Maurice gulped down more wine. “I let her get away with too much. I’m too nice to her.”
I agreed with him, but it never seemed like it was really his choice. “She did what she thought was right,” I said, somehow ending up defending the insufferable bint.
“Well, she shouldn’t. She should do what I tell her. When I get her back, I’m not going to let her make any more decisions. I suppose you think I’m full of shit?” Let’s say I wasn’t convinced. “You don’t know her. You don’t know anything about what she’d really like. Sometimes I get mad at her and put my foot down, I mean, really put my foot down, and she gives in, all the way. She likes it when I tell her what to do. A lot.”
There was some strange sexual undertone to what he was saying that I definitely didn’t want to explore, but I was more than willing to believe she had a thing for guys who took charge. Most girls do.
It’s not an easy thing to say without coming off like a prick, but that’s why equality is such a hard thing to maintain. People don’t want to live a balanced life in all areas, and it’s tough trying to separate your mindset for different departments of a relationship.
Maurice continued complaining about the love of his life, as you do, and eventually passed out. More from excessive yearning than the alcohol. I sat by the window and watched the light fade.
There were druids on the street corners. They probably had some of the answers we were seeking, but I didn’t fancy kidnapping one and trying to threaten him with a potato peeler. We weren’t the most intimidating bunch and my new power hadn’t yielded much in the way of results so far. I’d have preferred to have my beast magic—at least I could heal myself with that.
Of course, Jenny might not need me to come to her rescue. She might not need me ever again. It was a sobering thought. Despite my desire to be left alone, I had become somewhat addicted to her. Which sounds kind of romantic, but there are no good addictions. Even air will kill you if you don’t get enough of it.
I felt myself detach from my body. Thinking about Jenny seemed to be a trigger for me. I floated over the room. Dudley had a strange glowing tube growing out of his head, like a periscope. Maurice was lying beside him. Both had numerous appendages covering them. My body looked oddly naked, by comparison.
I drifted down to look at my own face. What a dork. Nothing about me looked remarkable. My anonymity was my highest scoring attribute. A one-stop shop for a big bag of nothing.
As I inspected my own ridiculous face, I saw something. A movement in the centre of my forehead, a tiny tip of a tail. Great, now I had ringworm.
It couldn’t really be worms. Nothing could move here except for the tentacles that bound people to each other. Carefully, I grabbed the worm-like protuberance in a pinch between thumb and forefinger, and pulled.
It was hard to get a grip, but slowly I extracted a thread that turned into a worm, into a snake. I had to really lean back and use all my non-corporeal strength to pull it out.
It came out with a pop and wriggled in my hand. As I watched, it stopped moving, dried up like seaweed, and crumbled to nothing.
There was a dark spot in the middle of my forehead that faded away, leaving me with the same gormless visage as before. That spot had been where Arthur had touched me. I sank back into my body and returned to the (relatively) normal world with an instant migraine.
I moved my fingers and a ball of light appeared.
Arthur had blocked my magic, I was sure of it. Why, though? Whatever the answer, at least I had one weapon back in my armory. Hopefully, I wouldn’t need it.
Dudley gasped for air and his eyes opened wide. “The girls. They’ve gone into the darkness.”
“What darkness?” said Maurice, suddenly very awake and sober.
“The darkness under the temple,” said Dudley. “And they’re not alone down there.”