The rush to get into the temple was like an irresistible tsunami. The men on the doors stood no chance, and their cries of protestation went unheard. The people had been waiting all morning and were in no mood to be reasonable or orderly.
Had the temple officials bothered to come out and explain what was going on, maybe offered people complimentary refreshments and a free pope-on-a-rope for their kids to play with, perhaps things would have gone differently.
There were only two men operating the door, and they were shoved aside when the doors flew open with an echoing boom as they slammed against the temple walls.
We were in the middle of the throng, doing our best not to fall and get trampled to death. You don’t get scenes like this down your local C of E church, not unless they run an Alpha Course.
I had a small red shoulder bag with a cartoon version of the Shriners’ symbol with two thumbs up. No one was going to suspect me of being anything other than a very sad nob-end. I would blend right in.
I had given similar objects of tat to Dudley and Maurice. The smock Dudley had over his top said I ? Golden God with the heart painted gold. Tacky eyesore? Yes. And yet, the perfect camouflage. Maurice had a peaked cap that said Five Star Man (Pending).
No one paid us any attention as we entered the temple surrounded by people. We were the people.
The hall we were in had high-vaulted walls that slanted to give it a triangular vibe. We were inside the mouth of the skull the temple was shaped as. It stretched ahead of us like a throat into its belly.
Murals covered the walls in colourful depictions of landscapes bathed in golden light. I recognised a few landmarks—the spires of Fengarad, the flat-topped mountain in Monsterland. It was very nice. Like the Sistine Chapel without the arrogance.
There was a lot of noise from the crowd we were with, mainly generated by the confusion of not knowing where they were supposed to go. Shriners rushed towards us to guide us back out. They weren’t carrying weapons, so they hadn’t figured out this was more than a simple misunderstanding. We just had to use the chaos to our advantage.
Both Dudley and I had been here before, in a non-physical capacity, so we knew which way to go. The problem was that the Shriners were between us and our most direct route.
“I’m sorry, please, everyone, there’s been a mistake,” shouted one of the Shriners. “We aren’t open for worship yet.”
“What about the gift shop?” someone shouted.
“The gift shop is only open during worshipping hours, in accordance with city licensing rules. Please make your way back to the exit.”
“What about those soldiers? Where were they going?” called out someone else.
“They weren’t soldiers, they were missionaries, going out to spread word of the Golden God. Please don’t touch that, sir. It’s a priceless artefact.”
The Shriners were busy shouting apologies and instructions and requests for not fingering the artwork, so we were able to duck into a smaller side passage that was roped off. As proper Englishmen, that would normally have been enough to deter us from trespassing, but sometimes you have to take extreme measures.
More corridors split off from the one we were in and we hurried down them, doing our best to head in roughly the right direction.
The passages were lit by torches and there were more murals, although these ones were less picturesque. The pretty meadows and blue skies gave way to dark, foreboding mountains running red with lava. Most probably lava.
With fewer people in evidence, it would make it harder to explain our own presence here. We pressed on, ignoring the oppressive tension that came with the feeling there was no way we would not get caught. And then what? Fight our way out?
“With all those soldiers gone,” said Maurice, trying to put a positive spin on things, “we have a pretty good chance of not bumping into anyone.” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself not to panic.
“Do you, ah, think, they were the walking dead?” asked Dudley. “I mean, the running walking dead?”
It had been hard to tell, they were pretty quick and had their faces covered. They had seemed quite fit and muscular, which you don’t often see in a zombie apocalypse movie. Which is odd considering how much protein they eat.
I said, “Would the Pope send out a battalion of the undead in broad daylight?”
“They aren’t vampires,” said Maurice in that dismissive way only nerds can when they don’t know what they’re talking about.
“How do you know?” I asked him. They both went a bit quiet, probably imagining their girls having their necks sucked.
We were out of sight and had come this far undetected, but there was a very morbid feel to this place. The paintings of skeletons embracing weren’t helping to lighten the mood. Most probably embracing.
We pressed on, determined to complete our mission. Save the girls, become heroes, not shit ourselves. Hopefully, in that order.
To be honest, it wasn’t heroism that was driving me to pursue this rather ill-advised operation. It was the rather more prosaic emotion of being bitterly annoyed. I’d had enough needlessly burnt toast in my life.
Unfortunately, righteous indignation doesn’t guarantee a righteous result. It soon became apparent we had no idea where we were supposed to be going.
“None of this looks familiar,” said Dudley. “I think I would remember these images.” He was standing next to a picture of a skull with a snake slithering through its eye sockets. Somebody was clearly slipping acid into the communion wine.
“Can’t either of you, you know…” Maurice raised his hands while wiggling his fingers.
“I’ll try.” Dudley sat down with his back against Skeletor and closed his eyes.
“What about you?” Maurice asked me. He had the insistent air of someone who felt he could be more pushy because his girlfriend might be in trouble. A slippery slope.
“I’m not sure. I haven’t been able to do it the last couple of times. I might be out of juice.”
The truth was I was having trouble leaving my body. I’d tried it when we were outside in the square, just to check on where the girls were with their mission to become independent ladies, but I couldn’t get past a mild buzzing across my scalp.
The method I’d used the previous times had relied on thinking about Jenny. She was the key to it, although I wasn’t sure why. Some deep-seated emotional reason, most likely. But recently the thought of her only pissed me off. An overwhelming sense of Gahhhh! made me want to rip my hair out, and that wasn’t the right sort of meditative state for an out-of-body experience, apparently.
Having these amazing powers at our disposal would make everything much easier, you might think. But getting them was the easy part. Learning how to control them was a nightmare, like an Ikea shelf unit without the instructions. It never looks like the picture in the catalogue.
If you suddenly had the ability to fly, it would be cool, but then you’d be at a thousand metres up, freezing your tits off and getting slapped about by the wind, unable to keep a steady course and no idea how to navigate without a map. Most of the time you wanted to get anywhere, it would be quicker to take a taxi.
“We’re going to need you, you know that right?” Now Maurice’s concerns for his girlfriend were making him overtly passive-aggressive, which is counter to the whole passive-aggressive ethos.
“I’m sure we’ll find them without my—”
“No, I mean, the Pope controls dead people. He must have a connection with them. If you can cut off that connection, his army of the undead will become useless to him.”
Maurice was making a reasonable point. When I transferred to the adjacent world, I could meddle with the bonds between things. If I cut off the Pope’s influence over his followers, we’d have a much better chance of beating him.
“That might just mean the undead will be out of control and on the loose,” I said.
“Yes,” said Maurice. “But then he’s as much a target as we are.”
Was that better? I wasn’t sure.
“This way,” said Dudley. He got up and rushed off, his concern for his girlfriend making him think he could lead the charge and we’d just follow him. We followed him.
We rounded a corner and found ourselves facing two lounging guards either side of a triangular doorway. The way Dudley stared at it, I assumed this was where the girls had gone.
“Where do you think you’re headed, brothers?" one of the guards growled.
We had the full tourist ensemble going for us, but I still felt the chill of their suspicious stares.
They were dressed like the soldiers who had departed earlier. They wore full armour, helmets that covered their faces, and they had spears that didn’t look symbolic.
“Gosh, I’m glad to see you guys,” said Maurice without missing a beat. “Is this the way to the main assembly hall? We’ve been wandering around these passages for nearly an hour and my feet are killing me.” He smiled ingratiatingly, all wide-eyed with innocence.
The small of my back was cold with sweat. Watching someone else play the role of blagger-in-chief was even more nerve-racking than playing the role myself.
“How do we even get out of this place? Is there a map? I didn’t see one in the gift shop.” He couldn’t have come across more enthusiastic if you’d told him Alan Moore and George R.R. Martin were writing the eighth Harry Potter book.
“This area’s off limits to worshippers. How did you get here in the first place?” the guard continued suspiciously. “I thought we were closed.”
“No, they opened the doors,” said Maurice, giving it all he had, his natural awkwardness masking any signs of subterfuge. “They let us in, but we must have taken a wrong turn. There’s just so much to look at. You must be very tired standing here all day, I don’t know how you do it. What’s through there?”
The other guardsman looked Maurice over contemptuously. “Turn around and go back, brother. This is off limits, get it?” He gripped the shaft of his spear, more out of irritation than threat, I’d say. “Take a right turn when you get to the main corridor, keep going straight past the next two cross passages, left on the third, then head towards the kitchen smells. Find somebody else down at that end and ask them the way out.”
“But we don’t want to get out, we—”
“Ask down that end,” said the guard gripping his spear with greater emphasis.
“Yes, of course, sorry.” Maurice smiled gormlessly, produced a knife from I don’t know where, and stabbed the guard under the chinstrap of his helmet.
Dudley came in with a figurine of the Pope I didn’t even know he had, and aimed at the other guard like it was a club. He smashed his head in.
Fear for their girlfriends had turned them into vicious killers who gave no warning, so obsessive infatuation did have its upside.
Unfortunately, the guards didn’t seem very impressed.There was no blood. No cries of pain. They both faltered when they were first attacked, but now they straightened up.
The guards lowered their spears. Maurice and Dudley backed off. They looked to me for some kind of intervention. Of course, now that they’d driven the car off the cliff, it was my turn to take the wheel.
And what did fear for my girlfriend’s well-being enable me to do? What inhuman strength would I dredge up from the depths to save her from the danger she’d put herself in? The same danger she’d dragged me into without consulting me first.
How do you deal with that kind of person who has no consideration for someone else’s choices? She must have known I’d come after her. Even if she tried to put me off the scent, she must have known. Not to rescue her. Not to carry her out in my arms like An Officer and Gentleman, not unless she lost a few kilos. I had to find her down here because how else would I be able to tell her how much she was pissing me off?
That’s all I wanted. To find her, tell her how big a fucking pain it was to care about her, and then leave the bitch down here. That’d show her.
It took me a moment to realise no one was moving. The guards were frozen in place, each with a single vine growing out the top of his head.
Maurice and Dudley were practically stitched together, they were so closely bound together with slimy green limbs.
I was floating just outside my body.
If I’d known it didn’t have to be nice thoughts about Jenny to get me out of myself, I’d have mastered this stupid ability in five minutes.
My first move was to check out the vines attached to the guards. They were fairly substantial-looking. I tried to pull them out, but nothing much happened. I could have used the wooden sword right about now, but it hadn’t been in the inn so I assumed Jenny took it with her. Also incredibly inconsiderate. Typical.
There was some give in the rubbery skin when I dug my nails into it. I decided to go all in and bit into the tentacle. A career in gay hentai loomed large in my future.
The taste was not pleasant. Very salty. But it ripped open and the longer end shrivelled away. The part sticking out of the guard’s head was still there.
I repeated the process with the other guard. His was no less salty. I grabbed the two appendages, one in each hand.
The other ends had already vanished. The stubs in my hand were writhing around and I could feel them growing less substantial. I jumped back into my body.
The guards dropped their spears with a clatter. All voluntary motion ceased as they stood trapped in helpless immobility.
There was nothing in my hands, yet I could feel the weight of each man’s throbbing protuberance in my grip. Let’s not go into unnecessary details. An utter sense of control flooded through me.
Maurice tentatively approached and took off one of their helmets. The guard’s face was grey and wrinkled like he’d left it in the bath for too long. His eyes were totally black.
“Dead men,” said Maurice.
“I know. I’ve got their puppet strings here.” I shook my hands like I was holding reins and both men jumped. “Is there a way down to the lower floor through that doorway?” I asked them.
“Yes,” they said together in flat voices.
“What’s down there?”
“The Golden God.”
I looked over at Maurice and Dudley. They had a steely look to them I hadn’t seen before. Mind you, I hadn’t really been paying attention.
“Lead the way.”
The guards haltingly turned and walked through the opening. I felt a tug and I was dragged after them like I had two dogs on a lead. Two big, dead dogs.