281. Burnt Salad

 “You wish to become one of us?” asked the druid. His eyes sparkled with hot anticipation. Apparently I’d stumbled onto the magic password.

“Yes. Sure. I’ve always been a big fan of nature and, you know, trees.” I hadn’t really thought this through, but how hard could it be to convince a buffoon you thought his beliefs were brilliant? “You think so too, right?”

I passed the ball to Dudley and Maurice.

“Definitely,” said Maurice. “Trees are a vital part of the ecosystem. The most vital.”

“Yes, they’re absolutely smashing,” said Dudley.

“See? We all believe in preserving the environment for, you know, future use.”

The druid might have sensed a degree of insincerity in my voice, subtle as it was. “Are you just saying that so you can meet Xesar?”

“No,” I said firmly. “Aren’t we all one under the soil?”

His eyes lit up again. “Yes, yes we are.”

I was borrowing the phrase from Joshaya’s forest. It seemed appropriate for the current situation, although it did give me pause for thought. The druids had expressed some animosity towards Joshaya when I’d mentioned him. They seemed to consider him an enemy of the gods they followed, and in some way the cause of their decline. Possibly even their deaths. So why was this druid so easily won over by something one of Joshaya’s follower had said?

I may have been overthinking it. The three major religions back home were virtually identical, and they still managed to hate each other’s guts, so why not the religious nutters here, too? Maybe self-loathing wasn’t just universal, it was trans-dimensional, too.

“How do I get my robe? I suppose I have to shave my head.” It wasn’t that big a deal the rate my hair grew at, but it might be a bit tricky growing the full beard. I verged on giving myself a hernia just trying to squeeze out a patchy goatee.

“You must convert,” said the druid. “You must give up the ways of the flesh, and become one with the land.”

“Sounds good. So, a bit of baptism and then tea and biscuits to celebrate, something like that, is it?”

The druid looked at me like he didn’t think I was treating the matter with the respect it deserved. “It is no easy matter to discard your flesh.”

The way he said it, I started to think he might not be talking in metaphors.

“I have to become a plant?” I asked him.

“We are not plants.” He waved his arms about. “Do I look like a vegetable?”

I had a number of devastating responses ready to unload on him, but I decided now wasn’t the time.

“I’m trying to understand what you mean when you say I have to convert. I don’t know your secret ways. Convert into what?”

“You must merge yourself with the land, the soil, root yourself within the dirt.” His eyes were closed and a calmness descended on his face. I guess gardening relaxes some people.

“And that’s it?” It didn’t sound so bad.

“It is not as easy as you think. A true druid must allow his very being to mingle with the bugs and insects that crawl through the grass. You are no better than the worm who works diligently to pass mud through his digestive tract. And no worse. You must be humble. Are you humble?”

“Yes,” I said. “No one’s more humble than me. I’m the undisputed humble world champion.”

He didn’t look amused. “You must discard pleasures of the flesh.”

He kept saying that. It wasn’t an appealing sentiment, literally or figuratively.

“Okay, no fleshy pleasures. Should we get going?” I was happy to agree with whatever he wanted. I had no intention of going through with this nonsense, I just wanted him to take us to the big boss.

Which could be dangerous, but if things went pear-shaped I was confident I could outrun a giant brain. They tend to have poor mobility, what with having no legs. Sure, you have to consider psychic powers. I know how sci-fi works. A large frontal lobe could mean anything from telekinesis to ESP. But I was untouchable. Even if he got his tentacles in me, I could remove them.

“What about you?” the druids asked Dudley and Maurice. “You wish to convert?”

“Okay,” said Maurice with minimal enthusiasm.

“Ah, yes, I would be interested in further details,” said Dudley with total lack of conviction.

“That’s wonderful,” said the druid, ignoring the wishy-washy responses. He seemed very happy to have snagged three new members for his gardening cult. Made me wonder if he worked on commission. “If we go now, we should make it for the dawn service. We’ll have time to dig the purification pit if we hurry.”

He was excited, I was mildly appalled, Dudley and Maurice were desperate. Everyone was working towards their strengths.

We left the inn and followed the druid across the city. It was the wee hours and only the occasional screeching cat broke the silence. I say cat, it could have been gnome playing the bagpipes for all I knew.

It was dark, but lanterns in doorways provided us little pools of light to guide our way.

The druid’s name was Deteel. He told us our destination was a small church in the Quiet Quarter, which meant nothing to me. We hadn’t had time to explore the city to any great extent.

Maurice had his notebook out and was making a rough map, in case we had to find our way back on our own. Although it might be tricky reading directions while being chased by enraged druids. Why would they be enraged? I’d probably think of something.

Deteel was a bit jumpy, and clearly unsure about taking us back to the secret base now that he’d had time to think about it. He kept looking at us and was muttering to himself a lot.

Maurice leaned towards me. “If he’s member of a hive mind, he may be communicating with them.”

I shrugged. It was possible, but it didn’t really matter. We weren’t trying to sneak up on them. The more people there to meet us, the more chance someone might put the kettle on.

Personally, I thought he was trying to convince himself he’d made the right choice. I recognised the behaviour—it was my default mode.

“Is this really the best course of action?” asked Dudley, looking back. The Mega Temple with the girls somewhere beneath it was in the opposite direction.

“We can’t help them if we don’t know what’s going on,” I said, leaving out the fact we probably couldn’t help them even if we did know what was going on.

The cobbled streets became less cobbled, fewer and fewer houses lined our route and the lights faded so we had to rely on the stars. I considered using my recently reclaimed magic to make it easier to see where we were going, but I didn’t want to spook the druid. He seemed pretty nervous already.

“So, is it boys only?” I asked him in an effort to take his mind off his doubts.

“What?” he snapped, even more rattled thanks to my intervention.

“Nothing. Just wondered if druiding was an all-male outfit.”

“Discard the flesh,” he said.

It was a bit presumptuous of him. Not like you couldn’t have women around without wanting to shag them.

“Maybe they’re like plants,” said Maurice. “They have both parts.”

I tried to think how that would work, and then I tried not to think about it.

There was still the occasional hovel or simple shack dotted about, but the roads had disappeared and the ground was covered in grass. It was wet and muddy underfoot, which was surprising considering how hot and dry it was during the day. We were still inside the city walls, but not many people lived around here.

The reason it was called the Quiet Quarter became clear once we started noticing the tombstones; mainly by walking into them. This was a graveyard. A big one.

A cemetery at night has all sorts of implications, mostly ridiculous ones. In a fantasy world, they weren’t quite so ridiculous.

The thing about travelling around with girls is that you become braver. Not because of any chivalrous intent, just because you want to impress them. Or maybe that is a chivalrous intent. Once you realise you can get rid of a spider in the bathroom and get that look of gratitude as a reward, you’d think you wouldn’t be troubled by that sort of irrational fear anymore, even when there are no girls around. For some reason, that’s not how it works.

We walked closer and closer together, our eyes peeled for occupants of graves making a trip topside. Deteel showed no concerns, so I assumed there wouldn’t be any hands reaching out to grab us by the ankles. I kept up a swift pace, anyway.

There was a building up ahead. The druid had called it a church, and it did sort of look like a small village church. There were two arched windows at the front that spilled light. They were like two eyes in a house made of evil, the kind that was built on an ancient burial ground, which of course it was.

The light from the windows illuminated the immediate surroundings enough to show a big wooden door like a mouth, and a large tree to one side that was all bare branches stretched out to provide crooked and twisted protection. It just needed a hangman’s noose swinging from one of its boughs to complete the mise en scène—Oscar for production design in the bag.

The area around the church was overgrown and unkempt, but there was a sort of path beaten down by comings and goings.

More tombstones littered our path and we couldn’t help but trample over the graves. We mumbled our apologies to whoever was buried there, but whether that would make a difference when the dead rose to eat our brains, I couldn’t say. Better safe than sorry.

The druid paused at the door that looked a bit tatty and worn. The whole place had that feel. I got the impression the druids only got to hang out here because no one else wanted to.

He pushed the door aside and light flooded out, along with a barrage of noise. We followed him in.

It was a real church with pews and a pulpit. A large group of druids—twenty or so— were sitting in rows, their attention fixed on the pulpit so they didn’t notice us come in. There was a druid at the front holding court, if you can do that in a chapel setting. He looked no different from every other druid, same bald pate, same extravagant beard.

“We need to step it up,” said the man in the pulpit. “It’s just not good enough. Numbers are down, donations are down. We haven’t had a new recruit in weeks.”

“When’s Xesar coming back?” said someone in the congregation to muted support.

“I don’t know,” said the guy playing vicar. “He’ll be here when he gets here. Focus on bringing in new punters.”

“How?” said someone else. “We can’t compete with the Shriners.” There was louder muttering and grumbling as everyone complained about the unfairness of everything.

When it comes down to it, there’s only ever been two systems: them and us.

If they’re doing it, it’s completely out of order. If you’re doing it, you should be allowed to break whatever rules you need to.

“We could hold a raffle,” said another druid.

“No gambling,” shouted the vicar. “Gambling leads to depravity.”

“They seem to be doing alright out of it,” grumbled someone.

“Don’t test me, Dezeel. You’re darkening my aura with all your negativity. It’s my turn to run the service and we aren’t abandoning the true path on my watch. When it’s your turn, do as you please.”

There was more grumbling. Deteel coughed with artificial volume and everyone turned to look at us.

“What are they doing here?” barked the vicar, redirecting his tetchiness at us.

“Um, I, that is…” Deteel was so awkward and uncomfortable, I considered offering him a place in our party. “They want to convert. I thought… three new members would be… nice.” He was finding it hard to maintain his level of confidence under the intense glare of druid distrust.

“Is this true?” asked the druid in the pulpit.

“Kind of. We’re just browsing right now.” I didn’t really want to fully commit to being buried alive and fed twice a day via watering can. “Arthur sent us,” I said. They looked blankly at me. “You know, Arta?” There was a shift into half-hearted recognition. “Remember how he said I was going to help you get your gods back? That’s why we’re here. We need to collect some information from you.”

“What kind of information?”

“Oh, general stuff.” I was trying to pivot from full-bore blagging it, to extracting vital info. It was a bit of wrench. “Which god do you want back first?”

“Can’t you bring them all back?” asked one of the druids in the back row.

“No. One at a time is the best I can manage. It’s not that easy resurrecting an entire pantheon.” I had no idea how hard it was, but I assumed it would sound a plausible thing to claim.

“We should bring back Unas the First, first,” said pulpit guy. The room broke out into open squabbling, everyone voicing their opinion about who to bring back first.

If they did belong to a hive mind, it wasn’t designed to operate a vast network in concert to fulfil a singular objective. It was more like someone had thrown a hive full of bees into a room and legged it.

Shouts of, “Merrigum the Provider,” and “Purple Hark,” rang out. “Atlak! Atlak!” insisted someone else, who was either another old god, or they were having a coughing fit.

They each had a favourite, and no one wanted to miss out on getting to see theirs at the All-Star game.

“Excuse me,” I said, trying to get their attention back. “Hello? Can I suggest something?”

No one was listening.

“Quiet!” bellowed Dudley. I’d never heard him so loud before.

They all shut up and looked at him. He instantly turned beetroot red, which was probably a good thing. Made him more vegetable-friendly.

“Why don’t we ask Xesar?” I suggested. My only goal was to get to their mysterious leader.

There was an awkward silence as the druids looked at each other.

“He isn’t here right now,” said the guy in the pulpit. “We’re expecting him back anytime.”

This wasn’t good news. Dudley and Maurice were looking at me expectantly. What was I supposed to do? It wasn’t my fault he wasn’t here. How did a brain even move, let alone pop down the shops?

“Where did he go?” I asked.

“Nowhere,” said the druid. “He’s still here. But not. You passed him on the way in.”

I looked behind me at the door like he might be standing there. He wasn’t. I turned back to the druids.

“The tree?” said Maurice. “Is he the tree?”

A sea of bald heads nodded.

I turned around and walked out. The tree on one side of the church didn’t look like a brain. It didn’t look like a floret of broccoli, either. What had Claire seen?

As I stood there staring at it, the others all came out of the church and gathered around me. We all examined the tree like some art exhibit, arms folded, scratching chins, tilting heads to one side—the full range of gestures from the pretentious emoji set.

I walked closer to the tree and placed my hand on the truck. It was cold and wet. A bit slimy, too. There was a layer of something covering the bark.

A warmth spread across my palm, but it wasn’t coming from me. I stepped back and the tree had a soft green glow to it. Leaves began sprouting on the branches. There were gasps behind me, but everyone was staying very still in case they missed something. An event was clearly occurring.

The boughs rapidly filled and I could see it, the brain shape. That was the trouble with seeing things from the perspective of others, you only saw what they saw, not what was really there.

“Xesar?” I said to the tree.

Eyes opened in the trunk. They had a familiar look to them. “Hello, Colin.”

I recognised the voice. The same as the one in the forest. Which raised a number of questions.

“I want some answers,” I said.

“Maybe yes, maybe no.”

“Maybe yes,” I said. “Or have you forgotten what I can do with fire?”

The tree didn’t seem concerned. “Normal flames won’t harm me, and you no longer have your magic ab—”

My hand burst into flames. “You were saying?”

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