The Pope was sitting on his throne, leaning a little to the side so that his elbow rested on one of the ornately carved armrests. Close up, it was obvious his luscious blond locks were a wig, and that he had a lot of makeup on.
“You’re American?” I asked him. “You’re the one who came here with Peter and Zarigold?”
The Pope pursed his lip as he looked me over. It was nothing I wasn’t used to. People judged me all the time, trying to work out how the hell I was still alive when so many better people weren’t.
“That’s right. Rupert Haines. Nice to meet you.” His non-theatrical voice was quite high and nasally.
“And Tupor Haisman?” I was curious about the name change. Why bother?
“Just a stage name. More fitting of the setting, I thought. Never liked Rupert. Lacks a punch. Not so unusual, really. I mean, you don’t think Zarigold’s her real name, do you.” His eyebrows climbed up his face like he’d revealed some scurrilous gossip.
We were getting on very well. Most people I met were much more eager to lock me up or stab me with something sharp. Rupert was a bit chatty, but generally quite pleasant.
“To tell you the truth,” he said, leaning forward, “I’m glad you’re here.” Not often anyone said that to me. I leaned forward, too. We were buddies now. “I’m rather hoping you’ll take the girls off my hands. Nothing against them, you understand, but they can be very demanding.” He leaned closer still, and dropped his voice even more. “Especially the bossy one.”
“Claire?” Like I needed to ask.
“That’s right.” He nodded vigorously, delighted to have found someone to have a moan with. He leaned the other way to look around me, checking the others were still out of earshot. “That girl could talk the hind legs off a giant centipede, and they have several hind legs.”
“Why did you agree to help them? I mean, I have to, but you…?”
“Haha, I like you. This is so much more civilised, isn’t it? No screaming, no pleading… no threats.” He pulled a face that made it clear he was referring to threats of a very personal nature. “So, you’ll be taking over, will you?”
While I had no issue with his presumptive and mildly sexist understanding of my role, I didn’t want to put myself forward as some kind of can-do guy who would sort everything out. Judging from how he talked about the girls—especially Claire—I got the sense they’d bullied him into helping. I empathised. I didn’t, however, want to tag in and take his place.
“First, I just need to get a few things straight,” I said. “I’ve been left out of the loop. Not really sure what the girls have been up to.”
Rupert gave me an understanding look. We were really getting into a nice exchange of sympathies. Our appreciation of the other’s difficult situation made us both want the best for each other. It wasn’t how boss battles usually went.
“Well, you see,” said Rupert, “I’m not really one for fighting and killing. The whole thing’s terrible for my indigestion. Always been attracted to the stage, though. Put on a show, put smiles on faces—that’s the ticket. My family was in Vaudeville, don’t you know? I was quite the hoofer in my youth.” His eyes glazed over as a distant memory flitted across his mind. He snapped out of it. “And then I was brought here. Jarring, to say the least. Still, we make the best of the hand we’re dealt, right?”
I nodded. I didn’t particularly want to hear his life story. You might think there’d be a lot to learn. Who would know more about this place than someone who’d been here for a hundred years?
Not really the point. The more information that exists, the more crap you have to sift through before you find anything useful. It’d be like the internet without Google, and then what would you be left with? Bing. A sobering thought, indeed.
The question is, where do you start?
“I tell you,” said Rupert, not needing an invitation to wax lyrical, “I’d rather not upset any apple carts. It’s been going very well recently. Packed out shows. Wonderful crowds, really knowledgeable. It’s nice to be appreciated by people who understand what you’re trying to do, isn’t it?”
I felt like saying, I wouldn’t fucking know, mate, but he was already doing enough whining for the both of us.
“And now there’s all this talk of war and monsters on the rampage. It’ll play havoc with the bookings.” He had another peek at the girls. Claire and Flossie were trying to hug their men back into the grave. Jenny had her back to us, pretending she wasn’t listening. “I really don’t want to be involved.”
He reminded me a lot of Raviva and the trolls. They would get on famously. Sold out shows right to the end of the season.
I nodded sympathetically. “You could have said no,” I suggested. “Told the girls you weren’t interested.”
“My dear boy, I would have loved to. Loved to! But I’m such a sucker for a tug on the old heartstrings. You should have heard the story they told about loves lost and desperate yearnings. And when the little one burst into tears, well, I’m not made of stone. My heart melted and I agreed to do what I could.”
“I bet you regret that now,” I said.
“Boy, do I…” He grinned at me. “Don’t tell them I said that. A promise is a promise.” He sighed wistfully.
“But haven’t you lived up to your word? They looked ready to take on anyone. You did that, didn’t you? Made them better at using their abilities?”
“Yes, yes, but it’s nowhere close to being enough. Nowhere close. They’re very resistant to being told what to do, you know?”
“Oh, I know.” We shared another conspiratorial chuckle. Nothing bonds two guys like talking shit about girls. Women think we do it because we’re oppressive bullies who don’t want to let females free of our patriarchal control, which may have some truth to it, but more to the point, it’s a lot of fun to slag people off.
“I thought I’d help out, show them a few moves, some exercises they could do at home, and then they’d say, thank you very much, Mr Haines, we won’t take up any more of your time, and off they’d go. But no. One thing led to another, and here we are in a battling arena, knocking people’s heads off.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” I said, feeling we were on good enough terms for the more personal stuff, “what I don’t understand is how you turned into a necromancer. I thought your power was to help people improve their abilities, not raise the dead.”
“Oh, that. It’s not as far removed as you might think. You see, I started using my ability on myself. I know, self-medicating, not the wisest move. The results were quite remarkable, though. You see, what you said isn’t quite accurate. I don’t help people improve as much as I help them realise their potential. And it just so happens the greatest potential for a dead person is to be alive.” He sat up, looking pleased with himself. “That was quite a discovery.”
“But why so many?” I looked around the arena filled with the undead. They seemed quite bored. “What are you planning to do with them?”
“Oh, you know, they make very good dancers. Very synchronised. Although, to be honest with you, raising the dead is a teeny-weeny habit-forming.”
“No, no, nothing like that. I could give it up anytime I wanted. But, you bring back one member of a family, and you want the whole set.”
I had thought for a moment necromancy had some effect on the body like crack. A surge of endorphins every time you returned a corpse to the land of the living. Turned out it was a much worse kind of addiction. He was like one of those people who collect Hummel figurines. It was a sickness.
“So, you aren’t planning on using your army of the undead to cause death and destruction?”
“Heavens, no. Think of the damage. They’re all in excellent condition, you know. I keep them very well maintained.”
He seemed more concerned about damage caused to them rather than by them, but he was right. As far as dead people went, they were in pristine condition. Straight out of the box.
“I’m teaching them how to tap dance, that’s about the limit of their offensive capabilities.”
I was finding Pope Rupert the First to be not at all what I’d expected. He wanted no part in any life-threatening shenanigans, and good luck to him. What exactly were the girls hoping to get out of involving him? Was he even being honest with me? I was late to the game and had a lot of questions.
I considered asking him to help me with my powers, the way he had with the girls, but he clearly had trouble getting through my force field of untouchability. Which raised all sorts of other questions about how I’d been affected by all the goings-on. I was dead, so Joshaya had been able to get to me. I’d been brought back by Maurice, so he could reach me as well. And Arthur had cut off my magic, so he hadn’t found me untouchable, either. None of it made sense.
“Who’s Arthur, by the way?”
“Arthur Bytheway? Never heard of him.” Rupert laughed and slapped his knee. “Sorry, couldn’t resist. Arthur is one of the old gods. I believe you know him as Joshaya. I told the ladies all about it.”
I had suspected that was the case. So Joshaya was able to use his magic on me. But I’d been outside of myself and seen my body. There was only one connection, and that was to Jenny.
“Joshaya killed the old gods, is that right?”
“Yes, in a manner of speaking. He put them under this temple, for safekeeping, which is where I stumbled on them.”
“And you raised one from the dead.”
“I’m afraid I did. I do regret it, but it seemed such a good idea at the time. The perfect show closer. It wasn’t like I’d be using them for anything malicious. Just a little light entertainment. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it through. The dead slowly regain some semblance of their original persona. Usually, it’s nothing too profound. Manageable, you know? But in this case it got rather out of hand. Gods, you see, have an uncanny ability to adapt. Dead gods are no different. It became an untenable situation, so it was back into the bottle for this particular genie. And now your lady friends want it unstoppered. They say they can handle it, but...”
He didn’t sound like he thought it a very good idea. I was inclined to agree with him.
I turned to look at Jenny. She still had her back to me. Fooling no one.
“Um, is there any chance I could have the use of a room while I’m here?”
“What kind of room?” asked the Pope innocently, with a less than innocent eyebrow cocked.
“I’d like to have a word with my lady friend. I find she’s much more reasonable when we’re alone. Doesn’t show off so much in front of her mates.”
Jenny’s shoulders twitched, but she remained committed to her role.
“That keeps her in line, does it?”
“Part of the training,” I said.
“I would have thought a chair and whip would be more effective.” He gave me a cheeky look. “But if that’s what it takes to avoid any unpleasantness, all power to your elbow.”
Jenny had a room already. It was nice, in a subterranean hole-in-the-ground sort of way. It had a bed in it. Sheets looked pretty clean. Some guards escorted us there and closed the door behind us. They didn’t lock it.
The Pope seemed to think I was going to convince Jenny to do as I told using the power of my cock. Clearly he had never met my cock—and I planned on keeping it that way. Jenny, though, seemed to be thinking along the same lines as the Pope.
“What are you doing?” I said to her as she began stripping off.
“We’re going to have sex, aren’t we?”
She stopped with her top half-on and half-off. “Why not?”
“I want you to tell me exactly what happened that first night when you and the other two disappeared. How did we die? How did we come back? And why are you shaking those at me?”
Jenny stopped shaking them at me. “I can tell you everything after we have sex.”
“We don’t have time for this. I need to know what happened so I know what I’m supposed to ask Rupert about. And don’t hold anything back. Even if you think it would be better for me not to know, tell me anyway.”
“Oh, I won’t hold anything back,” said Jenny while licking her lips, which is quite hard to do without mumbling, so hats off to her.
“Don’t talk like that, you’ll bite your tongue. And stop rubbing yourself. If you’re cold, put your top back on.”
“We haven’t seen each other in days. You really don’t want to have sex with me?”
Jenny’s face fell into abject disappointment.
I realise the popular response at this point will be, okay, it’s a fantasy world with ogres and dragons, but even a fantasy world has its limits. Surely any girl would be delighted to learn she wouldn’t be getting knobbed by yours truly. Jumping for joy, even. Well, I don’t have time to explain why this particular entirely rational woman (not often you see those three words next to each other) would regret missing out on my D. If you want proof this was what in fact happened, I refer you to the highly-regarded scientific paper on the subject by renown expert Professor Gof Uckyourself.
“Some boys would be happy to see a naked girl on a bed,” she said with the clear implication that my manhood was in question. I’m not sure what effect she expected that to have on me. My manhood’s always been in question, and that question is usually: What the fuck is that?
“I’m always happy to see you naked, Jenny. It’s in my top three things to see.”
“Is it number one?”
“No. I’m not an animal. There’s more to life than body bits.” I was totally lying, it was easily number one. Also number two, from a certain angle. “Now tell me what happened that night.”
“Okay, but I don’t want you to keep interrupting to tell me what we did wrong and what we should have done instead.”
“I won’t do that.” Mainly because who can be bothered?
“And I don’t want you to think it, either.”
That was a rather more difficult promise to make. “Okay.” Well, more difficult to make and keep.
Jenny took a breath. “I woke up when I felt you dying. Do you know what it feels like when someone you love dies?” I knew exactly what that was like, but I didn’t want to interrupt. “I screamed and tried to wake you, but I knew I couldn’t. And he was standing there.” Her face crumpled up.
“Yes. Joshaya. And I didn’t know what to do. I could feel Flossie and Claire begin to panic.”
“Why didn’t he kill the three of you?”
“Do you want to hear what happened or not?” Now she had the power, and she knew it. “Well?”
“Okay, then. First, kiss me.”
“Jenny, we already—”
“It’ll be much quicker if you just give me what I want.”
It was inappropriate, aggressive and, frankly, sordid to force me to gratify her at a time like this. She probably thought once I started, I wouldn’t be able to stop, too overcome by base desires to give a shit about gods and wizards battling for world domination. She knew me well.