Maurice jumped up. “We have to do something!” Then he threw up.
None of us were very big drinkers, and Maurice had downed a whole bottle of something that smelled of rotten apples, so it wasn’t surprising his stomach couldn’t handle it. On the plus side, it all came out very quickly and confined itself to a small pool on the floor. Easy cleanup, for someone.
We stood there pulling faces and doing our best not to let the smell make us start a vomit conga.
Had the girls been here, one of them would have taken charge and tidied everything up in a jiffy. An incredibly sexist arrangement, you might think, but there are things better handled by some people than others.
If you think about it, who would have the power in that situation? The people standing around looking lost and uncertain, or the ones taking control and getting shit done? I know who I’d pay more for at a slave auction, and isn’t that the real test of how valuable a person is?
Maurice was still unsteady after his sudden retching, and Dudley was looking around for something to throw on the puke so we could pretend it wasn’t there.
“We could move the chest of drawers to cover it?” was his best suggestion.
“I don’t think that’ll help with the smell,” I pointed out.
We were acting like we’d get in trouble if anyone found out, but that was just because we were a bunch of retards. I took a breath, regretted it, gagged slightly, and then left the room.
We were in an inn. They had people to take care of this sort of thing. I was pretty sure they were used to worse than a little sick on the floor. They probably had a chute for dead hooker disposal.
It was quite late and there was no one at the reception desk. Room service was another thing we needed to invent, right after the telephone. I rang the bell on the desk and after only a few seconds the innkeeper appeared through the curtain at the back. He was in a nightgown and nightcap. He was bright-eyed, though, and fully awake.
“How can I help you, sir?”
“My friend’s taken ill and threw up on the floor. Could you send someone to—”
“Jaina!” he shouted before I’d even finished. His wife came out in a dressing gown, her hair piled up and stuck with pins. “Clean up in room…” He turned to me.
“Three,” I said.
The wife (yes, he’s the ‘innkeeper’ and she’s the ‘wife’, leave me alone) turned towards the stairs and shouted, “Seema!”
A girl came running down, it sounded like from the very top of the building, and was informed of the situation. She ran into another room and reappeared with a bucket and mop. She ran back up the stairs.
I did feel a bit bad for disturbing all these people, but it was their job, and I was paying them. Still, I felt obliged to thank them and apologise, and generally act like I had let them down terribly.
It was how a nice boy acts. It wasn’t how a hero of the kingdom behaves, I would guess. When I did finally build up the confidence to order people around like servants, would that mean I’d finally made it to alpha male status, or just that I’d become a huge douchebag? And is there a difference?
The innkeeper and her husband (happy now?) were very nice about it and told me not to worry, they’d take care of everything, which only reminded me I was in a fantasy world. You don’t get that kind of customer service in England, land of the pouty salesgirl.
I noticed a chain around the wife’s neck with a rocket-shaped pendant (or possibly a vertical fish), the same symbol the Shriners used.
“Are you followers of the Golden God?” I asked as casually as I could.
“That’s right,” she said with a big smile.
“I’m only a two-star man,” said the husband. “She’s a three-star woman.” He seemed very proud of her accomplishment. I had no idea how their tier system worked or what advantages you got from gaining stars. Possibly it worked the same as it did for people who worked at McDonald’s—every star gets you an extra dollop of tartare sauce on your filet o fish.
I gave them a recounting of seeing the Pope and his acolytes in the city square, doing my best to sound awestruck by the pageantry of it all. I didn’t communicate my discomfort this had all taken place on a giant human skull, because I know how to be tactful. I am a master of tact, and if you don’t agree, I suggest you go fuck yourself.
“Have you seen the Golden God? He sounds very impressive.”
“Oh no,” said the wife. “Nobody has seen the Golden God.”
Sounded about right. Why offer proof when you could sell tickets to a big song and dance show every day.
“Where does he live, though? In the sky?”
They both laughed like this was a wonderfully absurd idea.
“No, no,” said the wife. “He lives in the temple.”
“He has his own room?” I asked.
“Under the temple,” said the husband. “They built it on top of him.”
“So he won’t get cold,” added the wife. Made perfect sense. The temple was apparently some kind of hat for their god. Probably got it for him on Father’s Day.
What it did tell me, though, was that if the Golden God was under the temple, and that’s where the girls had gone, chances were it wasn’t by coincidence.
The girl came down with the mop and bucket and I thanked everyone again before heading up.
In the room, which now had a lemony scent to it, Dudley and Maurice were still pretty shaken.
“I can’t see them,” said Dudley. “I’ve tried, but, ah, well, um, it seems I’m just not able to.”
He was clearly upset and finding it hard to focus. Possibly his ability was suffering because of it.
“We should try to get in the temple,” said Maurice.
“And then what?” I said. “We can’t barge in and hope something good comes of it.”
Even though we’d got ourselves into an excellent position to keep an eye on things, we didn’t have any real way to get to the girls. We didn’t even know if they needed our help.
It’s a lot easier when these things are scripted. In a movie, the President’s daughter is kidnapped, the kidnappers call, the team assembles, the pursuit begins. It’s all nicely dovetailed so one thing starts just as the previous one ends.
In real life, information is hard to get hold of. You can’t just set off and hope you run into the next clue that tells you where to go.
“We can’t just wait here,” said Maurice, distraught and possibly about to throw up again. I didn’t want that to happen, mainly because it would be super-awkward to get everyone out of bed again, but also because I knew what he was going through.
Despite being willing to let the girls do their own thing, it was still hard to sit around with no idea what was going on. I wanted them back where I could keep an eye on them. Where I could make sure they did what I told them. Where they would be available to mop up sick, as and when it was necessary.
There’s no point denying those sorts of feelings, but that doesn’t mean I was going to act on them. They had made their choice. What I could do was make my own choice. But I still needed to know what the options were.
Dudley tried to get back into surveillance mode while Maurice fretted. I stuck my head out of a window to get some air.
It was late and quiet, but there was still a druid on one corner keeping watch. If anyone would have information on the Shriners, it would be them. It seemed obvious. They were enemies. You learned everything you could about your enemy, so if you ever got the chance, you could really fuck with them. I think that’s one of the lessons in Sun Tzu’s Art of War. You probably don’t recognise it because you don’t read Chinese.
Dudley still wasn’t having any luck. “I can’t get past the entrance. It’s like someone dropped a velvet curtain over it. This is my fault. I should have been watching more closely, but when they were getting changed, I… I didn’t want to intrude.” He was rambling quite hard. Not a good sign. Also, his power let him see naked girls, which, while I strongly disapprove of that sort of invasion of privacy, was a lot better than my power to see all of the tentacles, all of the time.
“If we can grab one of the druids,” I said, “we might get some intel on what’s under the temple.”
“How do we grab him?” said Maurice. “Won’t he just run away?”
“It’s quite dark,” I said. “We could sneak up on him.”
“I guess so,” said Maurice. He didn’t seem to think much of the idea, but it wasn’t like we had many other options. “Are you sure there’s only one?”
“I don’t know, I—”
“Excuse me. I say, hello?” Dudley had stuck his head out of the window and was shouting across the alley. “Yes, you. Sorry, we, ah, have a message from Arthur. Could you come up for a mo?”
I went to the other window. A rather bewildered druid was pointing at himself and looking up at Dudley. He began walking towards the inn.
Normally, Dudley would never do something so forward, but emboldened by desperation, he had elected to take the direct route.
We hurried to the stairs and waved the druid to come up. The front of the inn was open with no doors or windows, so he had no trouble getting in. He was alone and hesitant. He looked like the other druids, bald and bearded, but a little worried. I could see his reason for concern. He was walking into an unknown situation, outnumbered three to one.
On the other hand, the three in question were us. He kept coming.
We guided him into the room, indicating he keep quiet. The more likely he was to think this was important, the more likely he wouldn’t run off.
He entered the room, we closed the door and jumped on him. A tussle ensued.
We had a massive advantage, so we came out on top. Just. Maurice took the sheet from the bed and wrapped up the druid. Me and Dudley had him pinned—okay, mostly Dudley—and kept him in position until Maurice had given him the full mummy treatment.
“Why are you doing this?” the druid managed to say through the gap in the sheet. “I have done you no glark…”
His words were lost as Maurice tightened the bed sheet.
“Listen,” I said, “we aren’t going to hurt you, we just need some information.”
“I’ll never talk,” he said, or at least I think so. I got Maurice to loosen the restraints, especially around the face. It took a moment, one of the knots was a bit too tight and he had to pick at it with a fingernail.
“What do you know about the Shriners?” I said.
He stopped struggling. “You want to know about them?”
“Not about us?” He seemed a bit hurt, emotionally.
“Not really. What can you tell me about the Golden God? Is he dangerous?” I backed off a bit. We were all on the floor with the druid rolled up like a sausage in the middle.
“What does he eat?” asked Maurice, scrambling for his notebook.
“I don’t know,” said the druid. “I’m not his keeper. Ask his cook.”
“Does he have a cook?” asked Dudley.
“How would I know? I don’t work for them, do I?” The druid was getting quite ticked off that we assumed he’d know these things and began complaining about unfair expectations that no one could possibly live up to.
Knowing your enemy wasn’t his idea of good warcraft, apparently. If he’d read a bit more widely he might have known the supreme art of war is to subdue your enemy without fighting.
“Have you any idea where these sheets have been?” I whispered in his cloth-covered ear. “They’ve been soiled, heavily. People juices. Stains like crisp packets.” I stuffed part of the sheet into his mouth, muffling his screams.
“Actually,” said Maurice, “I think they change them every—”
I kicked Maurice and kept the pressure on the druid's face.
Tentacles burst through the sheet. They weren’t that big, the size of fingers, but long enough to freak me out. I jumped back, as did the others.
The druid freed himself from the laundered sheets, spitting and coughing, his face back to normal, tentacleless.
“Disgusting,” he said between gasping breaths. “You people are sick.”
“Look,” I said, deciding Dudley’s direct approach might be worth a shot, “the Shriners have our women. They’ve taken them below their temple. Are they going to feed them to their god?”
We waited for his answer.
His breathing returned to normal, more or less, and he unwound himself, gingerly. There were actually a few stains of a questionable nature that the local brand of detergent hadn’t been able to shift. I’d have cracked in five seconds with that in my mouth.
“I don’t know,” he said. “The Golden God is unknown to me.”
“What about your god? What’s he like?”
The druid looked confused. “Which of the old gods are you referring to?”
“The one who looks like a green brain,” I said.
The druid scowled. “He isn’t a god, he is our leader. He is Xesar.”
“Okay, but is he a nice guy?” I asked.
“He isn’t nice. He is great!”
“He’s a great guy?” asked Maurice.
“That sounds nice,” said Dudley.
“No,” said the druid. “He is fearsome and terrible.” You could tell he was trying too hard to make his boss sound like a baws.
“Can we meet him?” I asked. “We promise not to make fun of him for looking like a piece of broccoli.”
“He doesn’t look like broccoli!” insisted the druid. Quickly following up with, “What is broccoli?”
“Take us, please,” said Maurice, opting for the most direct route—begging. He looked like he was about to cry and took a corner of the sheet to blow his nose. The druid was disgusted. I made a mental note of which corner it was in case I needed it to threaten him with later.
“You cannot meet with Xesar. His location is secret. Only druids may receive the wisdom of Xesar.”
“Okay,” I said. “How do I become a druid?”