The blue flames covering my hand created a ring of light around me. The edges of the circle quickly filled with irate druids.
My advice when it comes to threatening trees—and I realise this is a niche area when it comes to offering guidance—is to not do it when surrounded by druids. They tend to take these things personally.
Maurice stood on one side of me, Dudley on the other. There wasn’t much either could do if the druids decided to rush us. But the druids hung back, crowding the perimeter without breaking it.
“The ground here is heavy with moisture,” said Xesar. “Your tricks won’t have much of an effect.”
I raised my hand and the flames shrank to an intense red glow shimmering across the tips of my fingers. I moved the hand from side to side and the druids ducked and recoiled.
My magic was enough to keep them at bay, for the time being. They scowled and grimaced, but they also looked scared. The heat from my fingers was enough to warp the air. If Xesar ordered them to attack, though, they probably would.
“Let him try,” said Xesar, not sounding in the least bit perturbed that I might set the tree on fire.
The druids backed off a little, allowing a gap between me and the large tree now covered in glossy leaves. They kept their hate-filled eyes on me.
“Unless you can scorch every stalk of grass and incinerate every root buried in the earth, you cannot destroy me. We are one under the soil. And there is much soil.”
He had a point. Back in the living forest I had threatened to burn everything to the ground, and the forest had capitulated. I’d seen him as a finite entity, inhabiting the small area Joshaya had made his home. Threatening to burn everything seemed a reasonable way to force the forest to do what I wanted. But more than likely the forest had been playing along.
If any vegetation was a possible refuge for the thing I was talking to, I would have to burn every plant in the world. Which was still a finite proposition, but it was a big finite proposition.
I put out the burning light in my hand and the druids darkened to faceless circle of hostility. I could feel their desire to close in and push us down, into the moist earth, about six inches apart. Maybe put some netting over me to keep the birds off until I’d had a chance to sprout. A rare blend of rage and horticulture.
I produced a bright white ball, and they pulled back. The ball of light hovered over my head like a halo.
“Before we go any further,” I said, “can I just clear something up? You’re all followers of the ‘old gods,’ right?” I put ‘old gods’ in air quotes with my hands which made them all flinch like I was about to cast a spell.
I looked about, waiting for a response. They were nervous and apprehensive, probably due to my capacity for magic, and my ability to create punctuation in physical form.
Under the harsh glare of my light, which had a similar effect to the lights going on in a club at the end of the night, the druids didn’t seem a particularly menacing group.
Their robes were a sober grey, their beards not so much an expression of style as a desperate attempt to compensate for their baldness. They didn’t carry weapons and they had no worldly goods to speak of. No flash, no bling.
“Old gods,” I repeated. I added the air quotes out of sync, which left them even more scared and confused. “The ones Joshaya killed. Right?” There was some hesitant nodding. “So why are you following him?” I pointed at Xesar. “He works for Joshaya.”
The atmosphere changed. Fear turned to affront. Denials began ringing out from all sides.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “You don’t believe me. Why don’t we ask him?”
The protests died down and the druids turned to face the tree.
I expected Xesar to deny it. There was no way to prove he was in league with their enemy, the One True God who had killed all their favourites, so no need to fess up. I was hoping to buy some time so I could figure a way out of this clusterfuck.
“Yes, it is true,” said Xesar. “Joshaya is my master.”
The druids were taken aback. No one said anything for a moment, and then everyone spoke at once. Demands for an explanation, exclamations of shock, complaints about lack of communication, prayers asking why prayers weren’t being answered—your full religious experience in a thirty-second blast.
I looked at Dudley and Maurice. The focus was off us and if we wanted to sneak off, now was the time. But where would we go? And I still had a number of questions I wanted answers to. It was just a bit tricky getting hold of the metaphorical conch so I could ask them.
An increase in light intensity brought the audience participation segment to a close. Everyone shielded their eyes and turned away.
“I know you’re all upset,” I said, dimming the light back to a normal level, “but we aren’t going to get anywhere like this. Xesar, what is it Joshaya wants?”
We all waited for an answer. The tree remained silent. Very tree-like. Cosplay, ten out of ten.
“Tell us what he’s after, and I’ll get it for him. He doesn’t have to go all around the houses. Just ask.”
Would it be that simple? Probably not. I didn’t really plan to step in and give him the keys to the city, or whatever. But at least I’d find out what this was all about.
“You do not need to do anything,” said Xesar. “It is all being taken care of. You just have to wait.”
Normally, this would have sounded great. My kind of gig. But the problem was the squad chosen to take point on this mission were all people we were sleeping with. This, it turns out, has a marked effect on how closely you follow events despite having no ability to affect the outcome. It’s like putting a bet on a football match. Suddenly you’re sitting outside your house, listening to the radio commentary on the car radio because you don’t want to miss the final score.
“You mean the girls?” asked Maurice. “You sent the girls to get whatever it is Joshaya wants?”
“Yes. They are the only ones who can bring the old gods back.”
“He wants them back? But isn’t Joshaya responsible for their deaths?” I asked. “You know, he could have just missed out the middleman and not killed them in the first place.”
“We all make mistakes,” said Xesar.
The druids began discussing matters among themselves. New information had come to light, but the end goal was the same—bring back dead gods. It was just that they weren’t going to be the ones to do it.
Dad, it seemed, had found his kids to be a disappointment, and had decided to start a new family. Dad had also, it turned out, killed everyone you ever loved. Emotions were conflicted.
“But he’s a god,” I said. “Why can’t he do it himself?”
It’s always been perplexing for me, the notion of an omnipotent deity who needs others to do everything for Him. Sure, there might be the occasional plague of frogs or something equally obscure out of a B movie, but when shit gets real, it’s always the squishy mortals who get called up to the front lines.
“Tupor Haisman is no ordinary man,” said the tree, rustling its leaves for dramatic effect. “Look where we are.”
The first glimmer of dawn was on the horizon. I looked around but nothing stood out. We were in an open field with lots of tombstones rising out of the grass. One of them fell over with a thud.
“We’re in a graveyard. So?”
“A graveyard with no bodies,” said Xesar. “They have all been claimed by the necromancer. His army is innumerable.”
“I doubt it,” said Maurice. “Unless they can reproduce at a very fast rate.”
“They can’t reproduce,” said the slightly miffed tree. “They’re dead.”
“My point exactly,” said Maurice.
“I’ve lost my thread.” Xesar sounded a bit irritable. “What was I saying?”
“The Pope’s got an army of the undead…” I prompted.
“Yes. That’s right. The gods brought life. The living dead are beyond their control.”
“Ahh,” I said.
“Ohhhh,” said Maurice.
“Um...” said Dudley. “Did I miss something?”
“The gods are weak to death magic,” said Maurice.
“Ohhh,” said Dudley, even though I’m sure he had no idea what Maurice was going on about.
“Wait,” said Maurice. “The druids. He can’t reanimate vegetation, can he? That’s why Joshaya tried to combine them with plant matter. His own army that couldn’t be raised from the dead and used against him.”
There was outrage among the druids.
“That’s it? That’s all we were to you?” cried out a voice.
“We believed in you!” cried out another.
I fully expected an axe to be pulled out and a cry of, “Timber!” They settled for some moping and muttering.
It’s sad that religious people so rarely apply outrage to their own as readily as they do to everyone else. I guess if you don’t tear down a few cathedrals when you find out the priests have been raping your kids, you aren’t going to be too fussed by some experiments in weaponised gardening.
Very few people are capable of exercising genuine faith, they’d just like it to be true. Even if it isn’t, why not pretend?
“Exactly how are three English girls supposed to achieve this miracle?” I asked Xesar. “I think I probably know them as well as anyone, and they’re crap at everything. Well, not everything, but you know, anything involving planning ahead, or electrical wiring.” I turned to Dudley and Maurice whose girlfriends I was badmouthing. “No offence.”
Neither seemed too upset and they graciously waved my concerns away. Men are just so much more reasonable about these things.
“They are uniquely suited to this task,” said Xesar.
A telepath, an empath and a dragon-flying ginga. I failed to see how the three of them were suited to any task.
“We’d like to talk to you,” said the druid who had been in the pulpit.
It took me a moment to realise he was talking to me. “Yes?”
“We’ve talked it over, and we’d like to become your followers.”
“Me? You want to follow me?”
The druids all nodded.
“Thanks, but I’m not really looking for anything serious right now,” I said. “And you have your tree guy. Hail Xesar.”
They shot dirty looks past me at the tree. There was no response from Woodface McGillycutty. There was some movement in the boughs, but that was probably a breeze.
“We are no longer affiliated with the previous organisation,” said the druid. “We feel we can offer you a lot of options going forward. Logistics, surveillance, catering. Whatever you need.”
“What about fighting?” If there was a military wing of the druid faith, they might actually come in handy. Give the enemy a damn good pruning.
The druids looked at me rather apologetically. “No, we don’t really go in for that sort of thing. We try to love everyone.” He glanced towards Xesar with narrow-eyed resentment. “Which isn’t easy.”
“Apart from aphids.”
There was a general consensus that aphids should be ashamed of themselves. Someone tried to include slugs, but he was quickly shouted down for going too far. Live and let live.
There was a sigh of wind through the branches. “You see?” said Xesar. “This has always been the problem. They’re too soft.”
“What are you talking about?” I said. “You’re a fucking plant, as well. I don’t see you storming Skull Temple, a quarter inch at a time.”
“In the end, we will still be here when you have all passed. We will reclaim the land.”
“You mean like a weed? Is that what you really are? You dress up in fancy leaves and flowers, but beneath it all, you’re just Wilbur the Weed, an aggressive little shit trying to climb over everybody?”
“I am Xesar.”
“I’m going to call you Wilbur from now on. I think it suits you better.”
“I. Am. Xesar.”
I seemed to have hit a nerve, or a root, or something.
The druids were watching me bicker with mild embarrassment. For me, for themselves, who knows? I decided they should have more of a say.
“Motion to rename Xesar to Wilbur the Weed. All those in favour?” I raised my hand and waited.
Dudley and Maurice raised their hands. The druids all followed suit.
“Shut up, Wilbur. Motion carried.”
Wilbur’s branches shook. There was no breeze.
Petty? Yes. Pointless? Maybe. Satisfying? Definitely.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” I said to Maurice and Dudley. “We’re going to go to the Mega Temple and we’re going to look around. We’re new to the city, we want to check out the attractions. Not bothering anyone. If we do happen to stumble across the girls—it’s a small world after all, right?” I shrugged my shoulders, they shrugged theirs back. “If we see them in passing, then we grab them and drag them out, ignoring their protests and claims they have everything under control.”
Both lads gave me a firm nod.
“Now, there will be repercussions, obviously. Cries of foul and ‘you don’t trust me’ and ‘you don’t think I can’t take care of myself’ and so forth and such and such. To which you will reply... Maurice?”
“I love you.”
“I simply couldn’t stand to be apart from you any longer.”
“Okay, both of those sound like utter bullshit, so I have no doubt they’ll work.”
“What about you?” asked Maurice.
“You can do what you want, but I’m going to be by your side when you do it, sink or swim.”
“Oh, I say, that’s rather good,” said Dudley. “Can I use that?”
“No, use your own.”
“But how do we get into the temple?” said Maurice. “The queues are stupid.”
“They are somewhat phenomenal,” agreed Dudley.
He had a point.
“Okay. You want to help?” I said to the druids. “You want your gods back? Let’s do this religion thing the way the gods intended. How much money have you got?”
The druids pulled faces and patted themselves down looking for spare change.
Maurice took off his jacket and went round with it held out like a tray. The druids threw in whatever they had. I couldn’t see any pockets in their robes, but they must have been hidden in the folds because it was quite a haul.
You had to be pragmatic about these things. We were going up against an institution built on wealth and success, with many members who were doing very nicely out of it. They owed everything they had to the Pope and you can’t just expect to overcome that sort of loyalty. You have to buy it.