The Pope led us back towards the heart of the temple. He seemed very happy to do what I asked, which immediately made me suspicious. Nobody was ever happy to follow my orders.
The Pope was merrily doing whatever I asked, the old gods had let me go with barely a how do you do. No one was this easy-going unless they were up to something.
My general instinct was not to trust either of them, not to believe any explanations and to be super suspicious of every time they let me have my way. Not that my instincts were always right—when it came to anything positive, they were usually very, very wrong—but once the alarm went off, time to start running.
Unfortunately, I didn’t understand what was going on well enough to know which direction I should be running in.
“Can I have my sword back,” said Jenny as we travelled through numerous corridors.
“No, I think I should hang onto it.”
“But I’m better at using it.” She was right, in that her skills with it were marginally better than mine (the margin between good and bad), but the implication was that I’d have to take her with me when I wanted to get stuff done. I could almost feel the hooks being attached, slicing through my skin, the barbed ends holding them in place.
I shuddered. “I need the practice.”
“I saw what that other dimension looks like” she said, “with those weird tendrils everywhere. You could use the help.”
“Thank you, I appreciate the offer. It’s very reassuring to know you’re always there for me, and I want you to know how much I value your support. Now button up your jacket, you ignorant slut.”
Jenny pouted at the rejection and buttoned up the bottom two buttons on the jacket, emphasising her cleavage even more. Touché.
As we returned to the main hall of the temple were the arena was, more and more people appeared. They mostly stood around doing nothing. Some seemed to be chatting, but it was like that fake chatting extras do in the back of movie scenes. Without orders to carry out, they looked listless and kind of bored. Did the dead suffer from depression?
“Don’t you think it’s a bit unfair to force these people to be undead?” I asked Joshaya, not really expecting him to feel anything for his minions, but curious to hear how he would justify himself. It’s good to have a sense of which flavour of mad your psycho is. You had to be careful though. It’s all very well saying, “Know your enemy,” but what if they’re into some really weird shit?
“Don’t think of it as undead,” said Joshaya pleasantly, “think of it as assisted living.”
While it was commendable that Joshaya had done his best to keep his minions scrubbed up and maggot-free, they were still very clearly not living life to the full. I had no interest in joining them. Sign me up for a DNR.
Joshaya led us into the amphitheatre where the crowd had remained seated, watching an empty arena. They really needed someone in charge of entertainment and leisure activities suitable for the dead. If ever a city needed a golf course...
The other four were there, waiting for us. Even though I had spent quite a lot of time floating about, it had been in the adjacent world, so not much time had passed for them. They stood up as we entered. With Jenny in tart-mode (because she knew it made me uncomfortable) it would be much easier to tell which of them had been eyeing up my bird. And it was. Just by watching where people were looking, it was immediately obvious who the culprit was.
“What are you looking at, Claire?”
“Me? Nothing. Why?”
Not that I’m suggesting Claire had decided to play for the other team. She had always been the least chesty of the three girls, and perhaps there was some lingering envy? I don’t know, women are fucking idiots when it comes to their personal appearance. Fake tits, uncomfortable lingerie and anorexia—who designed that outfit?
Everyone was looking at me, waiting for an explanation. I couldn’t be arsed to give one. Certainly not the truth.
“Never mind. We have to discuss some important matters, you know, before the big finale where we all die gloriously, because of hero stuff which I enjoy very much.”
“Okay,” said Claire, picking up on my cleverly coded message that they should keep their mouths shut until we were alone. “There’s a conference room we can use.”
“Really?” I said, not being able to picture it. “Does it have tea and coffee, and a projector to show Powerpoint slides?”
“Yes,” said Claire.
“We made it really nice,” said Flossie.
They didn’t appear to be using sarcasm. Possibly because they didn’t know how.
“Please be quick,” said Joshaya, suppressing his obvious eagerness to get on with things, which only made me more wary of rushing.
“Super-quick,” I assured him. “We’ll be back before you know it.”
Claire guided Maurice, who was still a bit monged, and Flossie walked hand in hand with Dudley like they were going for a romantic stroll.
The conference room wasn’t the corporate meeting facility I had been led to believe. There was a table, some wooden chairs that looked like they’d break if you sat on them, and a large piece of slate nailed to one wall, with chalk marks wiped off to leave white smudges. There were cups and saucers, but no beverages. Were we supposed to wait for the tea lady to do her rounds?
“This is where we hold our strategy meetings,” said Flossie proudly.
There were a number of questions I could have asked at this point, but most of them would have been taken as me being unnecessarily mean and aggressive. And those were just the ones about where to find the biscuits.
“Before anyone says anything else, you need to know that the Pope is actually Joshaya.” I raised both hands to stop any questions. “I know. He was also Arthur and who knows who else, so we can safely assume he likes to play dress up. Which also means he could be any of you.”
“But we just saw him,” said Flossie.
“We don’t know how his powers work,” I said. “He might be able to be more than one person at a time. So, you all need to prove you are who you appear to be. Claire, why don’t you go first?”
“Why don’t you go fuck yourself?”
“Good, you pass. Floss?”
“Um, er.” She screwed up her nose in concentration. “Ooh, Ah could sing a song. Ah’ve got a Taylor Swift medley that Ah’ve been working on.” She jumped up and down, delighted at the prospect.
“Excellent. No one could fake that much joy over Taylor Swift’s music.”
“Tell me when yo’ want me to start?”
Dudley stared at me, wide-eyed with indecision.
“Perfect. And lastly, Maurice.”
Maurice looked right through me, like I wasn’t even there. His eyes were completely black and his skin ashen grey. Okay, maybe more charcoal grey.
Even if he wasn’t Joshaya in disguise, he was connected to him. I wasn’t sure how the whole necro thing worked—my short time in charge of a couple of the walking dead had made it clear it was the guy holding the puppet strings who called the shot, but it might also be a way to spy on people. I couldn’t risk saying anything sensitive in front of Maurice in this condition.
“We have to unhook Maurice from the Pope.”
“Okay,” said Claire. “How?”
“We just cut him off at the source.” I waved the wooden sword about.
Claire didn’t look too enthusiastic. “What if he dies?”
“Then we’ll bring him back.”
“It’s not that simple. Once he’s dead, his power stops. Then you and Dudley also die. You understand?”
“No, not really.” None of it made sense. I could accept there was magic in this world, and it allowed you to do crazy shit, but I still expected some kind of logic to it. A manual would also be nice. “I know we died. And after that, Jenny somehow used Maurice’s power, even though he was dead, and her ability is supposed to do with emotions, not hijacking other people’s ability.”
“That’s because magic is an emotion,” said Jenny. “At least, that’s how it feels. “
If that was true, it would explain why I had so much trouble getting a handle on my own powers.
There had always been an emotional component with beast magic, which I had sort of mastered, but that always felt like it required less emotions, not more. Except when I lost control, and everything got whacked up to max.
Perhaps Visitor magic was similar to that. Although, if it did require me to be more in touch with my feelings, we were all fucked.
“But he was dead, wasn’t he?” I said. “Joshaya killed him.”
Claire said, “I don’t know what happens after everything gets turned off, but maybe it takes time for the batteries to power down completely.”
Here was a girl who had spent too much time around nerds. What we needed, though, was the real thing. Maurice would have a much clearer idea of what was going on. He probably had notes on it already, indexed and cross-referenced.
“We have to keep him alive, that’s the main thing. If I free him from Joshaya’s control, we can at least—”
“If he realises he’s dead, the spell will stop working,” said Claire, suddenly an expert.
“Can’t you just make him forget again?” I said.
“It gets harder and harder, and lasts for less time. There’s hardly anywhere left to hide the truth.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about. Something to do with how her ability worked, probably. “But I know I’m dead, and it doesn’t make the spell stop working on me.”
“That’s because you can’t be dead,” said Jenny adamantly. “I refuse to accept it.”
“Right. Your decision to believe I’m alive is greater than any decision I might make about my own future.” Put like that, it felt a bit like bullying, to be honest. “So why can’t Claire do the same for Maurice?”
The experts didn’t have anything to say for a few seconds and they exchanged looks. I used this time to good effect. “Don’t you love him enough, Claire?” There’s never a bad time to put the boot in.
Claire scowled. “Of course I do. I’m just not connected to him the same way she is to you. I don’t have her power.” She looked at Jenny with the same longing gaze earlier aimed at her boobs.
“Then I’ll do some rewiring,” I said. “Once you’ve got your claws into him as deeply as Jenny has hers into me, you should be able to prevent him claiming the embrace of death, as much as he’d prefer otherwise.”
There were some doubtful looks in my direction, so no change there.
“You really think you could do it?” said Claire.
“I’d be messing with emotions, which could go either way, good and bad. There’s always the chance, even if it works, he might not feel the same way about you.”
“No. I don’t want that.”
“The alternative is his death.”
She went into deep thought. He might live and not want to be with her anymore. Let him die or let him be happy without her? A decision most people wouldn’t need to think about. But Claire wasn’t people, she was a girlfriend. She had a good, long ponder.
“Okay. But don’t turn him into something weird.”
Now there was a request I felt I could fulfil. How could I possibly make him any weirder than he already was?
I sat down and Claire guided Maurice into a seated position opposite me. I made myself comfortable and took some deep breaths.
“You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?” said Claire.
“I’ll figure it out. It isn’t brain surgery.”
“I know, it’s much harder than that. “
“I’m just going to have a look and try a couple of things. It’s better than leaving him like this.” I pointed at Maurice, his head lolling, dribble running down his chin.
Claire crossed her arms and sucked on her lips. “If you hurt him…” It was an empty, generic threat that I didn’t blame her for. I know the difference between malice and fear.
I cleared my mind and tried to remember how to leave my body behind. This was the hardest part of the whole thing. I felt Jenny’s hand on my shoulder, followed by a jolt of inappropriate feelings regarding a specific sexual act. Not that they were bad feelings, it was just that sitting opposite Maurice wasn’t where I would choose to feel that way.
The jolt was enough to shove all my thoughts into a single point near the end of my nose. It took me a moment to collect myself and realise I was sitting slightly in front of myself. I turned to check if I was alone. No sign of Jenny. I had expected her to hitch a ride, again, but apparently she had learned to take a hint. I found that highly unlikely and checked under the table.
Unable to find her, I decided to focus on Maurice. He had a huge bunch of vines growing out of him, as did everyone else in the room. Now what?
For all my insistence that this was the best option, I had very little idea how to make Claire able to shield Maurice from death.
This was the best way for me to learn about my power, though. If I could figure it out, the potential was massive. I’d be able to change the way people thought and felt about things. Love and hate and everything in between would be mine to mould. I could identify the specific vine that made someone like Despacito, cut it out like a cancer and burn it to ashes.
You may think that much power shouldn’t be placed in one person’s hands, especially if that person was me. But force yourself to listen to Despacito fifteen times in a row and get back to me.
I floated closer and examined the vines attached to Maurice. It was like one of those movies where the guy had to disarm a bomb by cutting a wire. Only, there were usually only two wires, and they were conveniently colour-coded. I had hundreds to choose from, all ochre green.
I floated over them like Tom Cruise, in the clutches of some evil religion bent on world domination. I’m of course referring to the Church of the Holy Shrine (for legal reasons).
When I’d been looking for Jenny, I discovered a way to highlight specific vines—in that case, ones focused on Jenny’s boobs. I hoped to replicate that here. What I was looking for was a vine that connected Maurice and Claire at the most primitive level.
An image of Claire and Maurice together filled my mind. Holding each other. Kissing. It wasn’t pleasant, but I persevered. That’s what makes me the hero I am.
Half a dozen vines lit up.
What I specifically needed was the one that most reflected Claire’s desire to control Maurice. I concentrated.
Even more vines lit up.
Is there any force more powerful than a girl’s desire to keep her guy under her thumb? The biggest black hole in the universe is probably powered by a voicemail message that says, “Where have you been?” in a shrill voice.
I sorted through the vines until I found one glowing more brightly. Slowly, and with some gritting of teeth against the unpleasant texture, I separated it from the others.
It wasn’t the thickest, but it had a hardness to it, a lack of flexibility. This was the one. I pulled and tugged until I had enough to work with, constantly fighting against the resistance it was showing, eager to get back into the weave.
With the vine gripped in both hands, I floated towards Jenny’s body. She also had a bunch of vines growing out of her, but only one that attached to me, thin and barely visible as it was.
I touched the vine in my hand to the thread between me and Jenny. There was a chance that Jenny’s thread would slice Claire’s in half. It was razor sharp and had cut me before when I’d tried to interfere with it.
But that didn’t happen. The two vines, fat and thin, Laurel and Hardy, stuck together.
It was a tenuous bond that looked like it might spring apart at any moment. I didn’t know what effect it would have, but if magic was an emotion, their combined desires might conspire to make something happen. Or it would do nothing and I’d have to think of something else.
I re-entered my body to see what havoc I’d wrought.
Maurice’s eyes cleared as he regained consciousness. He looked around, baffled. Claire had her hands over her mouth and tears in her eyes.
“Hey,” he said, “my plan worked!”
“Your plan?” I said. “How the fuck was this your plan?”
“No time to explain,” said Maurice. “We need to move onto phase two. Girls, please take off your tops.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” I said.
But it was too late, the three girls were stripping off. I turned my head away.
“No,” said Maurice. “You have to look. Look!”
What was this madness? I had no issue looking at breasts on a computer screen in the privacy of my bedroom, like any civilised man, but real boobs of people I wasn’t involved with? In public? Where they could see me looking? It wasn’t right. It wasn’t decent. It was just so… European.