The walls were thick, so the archway had some depth to it. You could see through it and yet have no indication of what was on the other side, apart from shadows.
This was where Dudley’s second sight had faltered. Beyond was where the girls had gone. We were entering the realm of the Golden God, whoever the fuck that was.
The two undead guards walked ahead of me in long, strong strides. I had to double-step to keep up. Stairs led us down. Torches flared brightly as a faint breeze caught their flames, but all they showed were more steps, and more shadows ahead.
The appendages I had managed to detach, and now had in each hand, connected me to the guards. It was a strange sensation. I could feel the weight and texture, even some movement as a pulse passed through my hands and up my arms, but I couldn’t see what I was holding. My hands were empty, and also buried in the consciousness of each guard.
And they did have a consciousness. They weren’t the mindless undead you expect of the dearly departed. I sensed a will, an intelligence, a desire to get away from me. But above and around that was my own will. My control over them was absolute.
I didn’t have to force my intentions on them, it was just there, sitting on top of their own aspirations, stifling any attempt at independent thought or action.
We reached the bottom of the steps and stopped. I’d asked them to take us down to the next floor, and here we were. A long hallway stretched out ahead of us, punctuated by pools of light where torches sat in sconces on the wall.
“Did three girls come down here recently?” I asked. There was no response from the two guards standing in front of me, looking straight ahead. My question may have been too vague. “Three girls who weren’t dead.”
“Yes,” they both said.
Relieved sighs escaped from Dudley and Maurice. There had been a chance the girls were already dead. It was something we had avoided mentioning. I think I would have noticed if my only real attachment to anyone had been cut, but then you have to factor in the level of dead it takes to end a relationship. They could have died and been brought back as obedient slaves who did as their master instructed. I won’t deny the idea had a certain appeal.
From what the guards had said, though, the girls were still alive.
“Can you see them, now?” Maurice asked Dudley.
“I’ll try, hold on.” He sat down cross-legged and closed his eyes.
When we were standing around like this, I became much more aware of the slithering sensation wrapped around my hands and curled between my fingers. It was not pleasant. “We need to hurry up,” I said. “I’m not sure how long I can keep hold of them.”
This was the first time I’d tried taking hold of the tentacle-like growths I could see coming out of people. I’d cut them before, so I knew they could be interfered with, but the idea I could use them to control people hadn’t occurred to me until now.
It might not have been something that worked on the living. The Pope was a necromancer and the extension of his powers that manifested as these weird tentacles might be uniquely able to control and animate the dead.
It would have been useful if I could identify different types of appendages. It would also have been nice if they didn’t pulsate and throb quite so much.
“They don’t look like they’ve been dead very long,” said Maurice. He walked around the two guards who ignored him. “Look how firm their skin looks. And they have no muscle deterioration.”
He was right, they looked fit and healthy. Buff, even. How do you add muscle mass to necrotic tissue? Double the amount of whey in your protein shake?
Maurice stood in front of one of the guards and placed the side of his face against his chest. It was a lovely moment of romance between the dead and the living. You couldn’t get more Montague and Capulet than that.
“His heart’s beating,” said Maurice.
“Are you saying he isn’t dead?” It would take the whole necromancer concept in a very original direction.
“No, I think he’s dead. You still need the body to work if you bring it back. Muscles need energy to work.”
“Yes,” I said. “Magic energy.”
“I would think so, but apparently it’s a hybrid operation.”
Great, our necromancer was Elon Musk.
One of the good things about being in a fantasy world was that it lived up to the stereotypes. Our knowledge of video games and movies, which we had been (rightly) told would be of no practical use in the real world, helped us enormously here. It was a massive advantage to have played RPGs. We knew what to expect and how to dodge. That all went out the window if people started being innovative. You don’t innovate in the world of RPGs. You Skyrim, and then you stop.
“But he didn’t bleed,” I said. “When you stabbed him in the head, nothing came out.”
Maurice looked a little shame-faced about being reminded of his attempted murder. “Maybe they heal fast, or…”
“Yeah.” Maurice looked up at the guard. “Sorry about that.”
The guard showed no reaction. I moved to get a better look at his face, and his black eyes were completely devoid of emotion. Which was a bit strange since both guards had been quite relaxed and chatty back when we first ran into them.
That was when they were under the Pope’s control.
Now they were under my control, and it was work-to-rule. An aspiring necromancer could take that kind of thing personally.
It suggested the Pope’s control wasn’t the overwhelming oppression you’d get from the Asian parent of a second-generation immigrant. This was necromancy as art.
A little freedom, a little independence, a foundation in strength and mobility, and a beating heart to give it that signature dash of faux-humanity. No skin hanging loose, no limbs dropping off, no dancing in 80s music videos.
Dudley started violently and shot to his feet. “I found them. They’re, they’re…” He was very flustered and struggling to get his words out.
“Were they naked?” I asked him. That’s what usually turned his face this red.
“No, no. Not anymore. They’re in some sort of arena. I think they’re about to fight.”
The girls fighting for their lives was obviously of great concern. Also of concern was Dudley’s ability to spy on the girls when they were getting changed. Clearly, this was wrong. It was an invasion of privacy bordering on assault. It would be very scary for women to know there was some leering teenage boy watching them every time they took their bra off. Of course, if they didn’t know they were being watched… it would still be very wrong. Which is why if I had that particular gift, I wouldn’t use it that way very often at all. I think that makes my position on the matter more than clear.
“Do you know where this fighting arena is?” I asked my recently acquired minions.
“Yes,” they both replied.
“Take us there.” We were off again.
The passage was long and drafty. Wherever the air was coming from, it suggested we weren’t going to die of suffocation deep in the bowels of some ancient god’s last refuge. Which was nice.
We were moving at a fair pace and quickly approached the end of the passageway, where two more guards stood waiting.
I needed a plausible excuse for why we were down here. I couldn’t think of one. “Convince them to let us past,” I said in my most authoritative voice. The two guards I was connected to had to obey me, so perhaps they’d think of something.
“The Master has ordered us to bring these men to him,” said one of the guards.
“They will be sacrificed to the Golden God,” said the other.
The guards in our way stepped aside. I was pleased my instructions had been followed so successfully. Less pleased by how quickly they’d come up with the reason we were here. It sounded far too plausible.
We entered a cavernous hall full of mostly dead people. As in all of them were dead, mostly.
They looked very active, otherwise. They weren’t doing much, standing around, mingling. Having quiet conversations. If someone started handing out cheese and crackers with a fruity glass of Beaujolais, it could have been any Friday night in Shoreditch, only more open-minded.
There were more of them than I’d expected. When the soldiers ran out of the temple earlier, I’d assumed that was the bulk of the army of the dead. I assumed wrong. The Pope had clearly been raiding the local graveyards for some time and he’d given everyone a nice upgrade—they were all in peak condition. To be able to keep so many of them under his control was quite impressive.
“They’re all so well-maintained,” said Maurice as we tried to blend in. “They can’t all be fresh corpses.”
Whatever the Pope was doing, he had an excellent fitness program. They all looked like they used their gym memberships regularly. What kind of foul sorcery could do that?
There were multiple staircases ahead of us. They led up to openings high up on the wall, and people were going up and down them. It seemed that’s where we were headed, too.
As we reached the bottom of a staircase, lined up behind dozens of the undead like we were queuing for the escalators on the London Underground, I felt the slick, rubbery pressure against my palms start to fade. I was losing my grip on my minions.
We had already started climbing and there were undead ahead and behind, squeezing us up the stairs like toothpaste. I tried to keep hold of the reins, but they slipped out and I was just digging my nails into my own skin.
The two guards fell face-first onto the steps, and lay there. They didn’t go crazy, they just stopped working. I casually stepped over them and kept going. Maurice and Dudley did the same. And so did everyone else. No one paid the poor guards any mind, they had too much to do to worry about a couple of slackers. It was even more like the London Underground than I had first thought.
We made it to the top and came out on a terrace. Off to one side sat Pope Tupor Haisman on an obsidian throne, looking bored. There was a ring below us covered in sand. Three girls stood in the middle.
Dudley and Maurice tried to push through the crowd to get closer, but we were hemmed in from all sides until people found somewhere to sit. Affecting a spectacular rescue would have been a lot easier if they’d had a ticketed seating arrangement.
“Next!” shouted the Pope wearily.
Two very large men entered the arena and stood across from the girls. The men were armed with swords. The girls had no weapons. They had skimpy white outfits on, and that was all. Showing a bit too much leg, if you ask me. Not that women can’t dress as they please, but come on, a little decorum in the battle arena please. These places have a dress code for a reason.
The girls didn’t look scared. Or even concerned. Flossie was in the middle, the other two on either side.
“Hear me,” bellowed one of the combatants, raising his sword. “I, Taskadar the Rock, who in life led the armies of the Gorgoth Vultures, and in death have become twice as mighty, have come here to vanquish the three of you. You shall be as dust beneath my sandals.” He laughed wildly.
I might have been misreading the signs, but he seemed a bit nervous.
“I, Earthit Bone-Shaker, will drink your blood,” said the other one, “and piss it on your puny corpses.” He was the charmer of the two, I could tell. He turned in the light and held aloft his cleaver. He roared and the arena was filled with his rage. History of domestic abuse, guaranteed.
Jenny took a half-step forwards and made a fist. The roar immediately ceased, and Earthit Bone-Shaker’s anger vanished, leaving behind fear verging on hysteria. He fell to his knees trembling, dropping his cleaver and his bravado.
Claire took a step on the other side and pointed at laughing boy. He wasn’t laughing now. He dropped his sword and clutched his head. “No, make it stop.” He curled up in a ball with his forehead pressed to the floor. “Make it stop!”
Jenny screamed. Not fear. Destruction. It was the rage she had stolen from her opponent. It was terrifying. But not as terrifying as what she did next. She took two steps towards the nervous wreck kneeling in front of her and kicked his head off his shoulders. It went sailing away, landed on the sandy floor, and rolled all the way to the edge. There was no blood, and the guy was already dead, but still. What. The. Fuck.
The other poor sod tore off his helmet, scratching and pulling at his hair which came out in clumps. Whatever Claire had put in his head, it wasn’t coming out like that. He gave up and grabbed his sword, and charged, yelling wildly.
Flossie raised both hands on either side, and then brought them together with a slap. A gust of wind blew Taskadar the Rock away like a dandelion seed. He smashed into the wall beneath the Pope’s throne, and lay still.
I looked at Maurice and Dudley. Their mouths were hanging open in utter disbelief.
“When did they get so good?” mumbled Maurice.
“I don’t think they need rescuing,” said Dudley.
“No,” agreed Maurice. “They don’t need us.” He looked infinitely sad. He had no powers, and his girl was already at the omega level. RIP masculinity.
The crowd didn’t react. They watched like they had no idea what was going on or what it meant. They were here because everyone else was, that’s where their interest began and ended. I suspected most of them were season ticket holders at Old Trafford.
“No, no, what are you doing?” screamed the Pope. He had a very strong American accent. Up above, he’d sounded very RP and full of game show gravitas. Down here he sounded like a New York arsehole, bada bing, bada boom. “Are you crazy? Those were two of my best guys. Jeez. Can we get a cleanup crew down there, please.” He had a real beleaguered air to him.
“We beat them,” said Claire defensively. Even more so than normal.
“Of course you beat them. Anyone could beat them. You were supposed to control the fight, not end it.” He was up on his feet, his golden locks wafting around in a glorious Timotei haze. “You came to me. I didn’t force you to do this. You begged me. Begged! Well, you do it my way, ladies. Victory against the old gods will not come easy. I want to see blood, sweat and tears. Yours, not mine!”
It wasn’t really clear if he was training them for war, or a new production of Chicago. Either way, it wasn’t what I’d been expecting.
The area around us was clear now. Everyone had found a seat except for the three of us.
“Excuse me?” I said. “Do you mind telling us what the fuck is going on?”
The girls looked at us. Surprise, at first. Then horror.
“Get out of here,” screamed Jenny. “Get out of here right now!”
She was very insistent, but I didn’t see any immediate threat. Even the undead crowd didn’t look too bothered with us being here.
“Intruders!” shouted the Pope. He looked just as surprised as the girls. He raised his hand like he was attempting the Vader death choke.
I felt it, in my throat. A constricting pressure, closing around me, forcing me to release control and give myself over to a higher power.
Wait, that didn’t seem right. I resisted the urge to give in and pushed away the fingers clawing at my mind.
I looked at the other two. Both Dudley and Maurice’s movements had become stiff and slow-paced, their limbs moved as if weighted down. Their eyes were pitch-black and their faces were frozen in a grimace of stark terror. They had turned around and were coming for me, fighting to stop themselves, but unable.
How was he controlling them? He was a necromancer. He couldn’t control the living only the… and suddenly it all made sense. I wondered how long we’d been dead for.