If Arthur was hooked up to everyone back in the temple, and could regulate the flow of unnatural longevity, he would be a powerful ally. And, like all allies, a potential enemy. But that was something to worry about in the future. I put it on my to-do list.
“No one would get hurt,” I said, “and it would only be a temporary measure. You could wake them up once I get my friends out of there. Deal?”
My plan was brilliant. It combined the humanity of not hurting anyone, with the sanctity of not needing me to do anything.
“I don’t know…” said Arthur, choosing to ignore my genius like so many before him. “Maybe it would be better not to get involved.”
It was hard not to stare at his desiccated remains when he spoke, looking for some twitching around the jaw like trying to catch out a ventriloquist.
He hadn’t moved, although he had somehow managed to shift the lid to his coffin. I peered into the darkness under the rest of the lid. Perhaps there was someone else in there with him.
“All I really want is to avoid Joshaya.” I grabbed the edge of the coffin. It was cold and grimy and made me want to wash my hands. Particles of dust rose as my hand slid along the edge, the decayed corpses of a thousand spiders, probably. I lowered my head to see better, holding my breath. “Nobody needs—”
A skeletal hand jumped out of the coffin and grabbed my wrist. I would have screamed, but as soon as I opened my mouth, myriad floaty spider-remains were sucked in and I began wheezing.
“I’ll do it,” said Arthur, very amenably. If he hadn’t used the Carrie death-grab to emphasise his consent, it would have been a welcome response.
The hand gripping my wrist was thin and bony, as skeletal hands tend to be, but it no longer showed any signs of life (or unlife). It looked like a Halloween decoration hanging off me. Which it shouldn’t have been able to do.
The dust, the coffin, none of it should have been able to interact with me in my current state.
“How did you do that?” I asked once I’d got my breathing under control. “You moved your hand.”
“Yes, I can move. Sometimes. I think. It’s been a long time since I had any reason to.”
I carefully prised the fingers open, doing my best not to snap them off. He might make me pay for breakages.
He was dead and alive at the same time, connected to people who only lived because he was hanging on. He had to be immensely powerful—powerful enough to interact with me here, just as Joshaya and the other gods could, just as the Elf could. And yet, he had ended up like this.
It was his attitude that had let him down. He was the epitome of the guy in the white hat, refusing to sink to his opponents’ despicable level. He was better than them, morally, and that’s why he was trapped in here.
“Why did you let Peter win?” It was a dumb question, but I asked it anyway.
“I didn’t let him. I just trusted him to be reasonable.” Arthur’s voice took on a melancholic air. “He always seemed to be a fair and honest person... until he didn’t.”
It was no surprise to me that someone like Peter would play it completely straight while he waited for the right opportunity to come along and give him the best value for his betrayal. Being proved right about my low opinion of people didn’t give me any self-righteous pleasure. I’d quite like to be proven wrong once in a while.
“So, you’ll do it? You’ll put everyone to sleep?”
“I’ll try. I can’t guarantee its effectiveness—it’s not something I’ve attempted before.”
It would have to do. If I bumped into Joshaya and Arthur’s powers failed to deliver, I’d be severely fucked. Even if he did deliver, Joshaya was a god with powers of his own, and he’d had plenty of time to come up with a contingency plan. Although, he had the whole ego and One True God thing going on, so he might just assume I had no chance of beating him. That’s gods for you, always believing their own press.
“I don’t need long, just enough time to get there and back. Once we’re all here, we might even be able to revive you.”
“Oh, are they gifted like you, your friends?”
An awkward silence descended. How would I classify them in relation to me? “Not like me. They have their own… strengths.”
“You don’t sound very confident of them,” said Arthur. Apparently he was a mind reader, too.
What I didn’t want to do was give Arthur the impression that failure was inevitable. It wasn’t very likely, but dwelling on that would do no good to anyone. But my reluctance to act positive just for the sake of it was so ingrained, it was hard to shake off.
The crazy thing was that it was true—acting positive did actually make things more likely to turn out how you hoped. It was what made it so fucking annoying. Why couldn’t results be independent of mood? What had believing in yourself got to do with it?
“It’s not that I’m not confident,” I said, even though I wasn’t, “it’s more that every time I tell them what to do, we seem to get into an even deeper mess.”
That sounded plausible enough, right? The public love a sob story.
“Ah, the burden of leadership. You don’t want to make them promises you may not be able to keep. I understand. I had the same problem.”
“You were the leader of your group?”
“By default. I tried to guide with a gentle touch, but it turns out some people prefer a firm hand. In an iron glove.” He sighed and dust blew off the coffin and filled the petrified air. “They were so desperate for me to tell them what to do when we first got here. Then they were desperate for me not to know what they had decided to do behind my back. And here we are.”
We could have stayed there for hours, swapping stories about ingrates and imbeciles (my new tabletop RPG, coming soon), but there were things to do and other people who could move around inside this frozen tableau other than the two of us.
“Do you want me to bring you anything back?” I asked, like I was nipping down to the petrol station on a midnight run.
“No, thank you. Good luck.”
We were two very polite, well-meaning blokes who were trying their best to do the right thing. We had no chance. But positivity could make all the difference, so Yay, Team Losers!
I drifted out of the tomb and headed back to the outside world. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been down there, time being hard to gauge in this place, but there was a chance Joshaya had crawled across the city to get to me.
Arthur had said he would put the plan into action immediately, but how long it would take to have an effect was hard to say, especially as my being out-of-body made everything stuck in time.
I would have to get back to my body to find out if it had worked. Or meet Joshaya on the way to find out it hadn’t.
My speed wasn’t too bad. Becoming properly untouchable had removed some ballast, it seemed, and I felt a lot freer. As I floated over houses and road, and people frozen as they went about their daily business, I considered what life would be like once this latest fracas had been dealt with.
I had a much greater sense of what I could do with my power, and perhaps Arthur would be able to help find out how far I could take it.
Obviously, it’s a dangerous thing to take victory for granted and start thinking about the wonderful times ahead when the current times were still quite capable of kicking your arse. But it’s comforting to pretend you’ve won and enjoy the victory in your head.
It’s also an excellent way of never having to bother trying. Looking forward with anticipation is great. Looking back with satisfaction, also nice. It’s the actual middle bit that’s a pain. All sorts of fuck ups are possible in the middle.
By rights, I shouldn’t have cared either way and just exited the scene first chance I got. I was untouchable. No flies on me. I certainly didn’t feel an emotional need to go back and save the others.
Maurice was excellent at problem solving, and Dudley made a great lookout. Claire had a phenomenally useful ability and Flossie had evac ready to go at a moment’s notice. And Jenny… Jenny had her ability which could come in useful. Mainly, she was part of the group and it wouldn’t be any extra effort to bring her along.
All very rational and pragmatic. I bring them to Arthur, we sort out some kind of ‘not dying’ protocol, and whatever came next, came next. Nothing personal.
The reason I was happier thinking about the future, though, was probably the gnawing thought that I wouldn’t succeed. That was the problem with being a decent person trying to do what was fair. It was like going to the Olympics and not taking any drugs. Because you were better than that. Sadly, what you wouldn’t be is better than any other athlete at the games; no medal for you. Moral high ground, yes. Winner’s podium, no.
It’s always been true that the best way to succeed is to cheat. That’s the beauty of rules, they give everyone else a handicap that doesn’t affect the cheater. Easy to do, easy to get away with.
The only time it doesn’t guarantee a win is when everyone else is cheating, too.
You can go to the Olympics drug-free, but then you need to find another way to level the playing field? A knife in your sock, perhaps. A picture of yourself in bed with your opponent’s mother might get you the edge you need.
My point is, if you want to play by the rules, you should assume everyone else isn’t. And plan accordingly.
I reached the temple without encountering Joshaya, which most likely meant he’d be waiting for me inside. If Arthur had knocked everyone out, did that mean Joshaya would be unconscious? Or would I have to get to my body first?
Once I was through the doors, my heart began to race. Technically, that wasn’t really possible, but it wasn’t really the time to worry about the inconsistencies of a fantasy setting. The temple occupants were as I’d left them. Still no sign of Joshaya. Which was a good thing, but made me feel a bit jumpy. He was going to wait until the last possible moment, and then jump out and ruin everything. I knew how scary movies ended.
My party, all five of them, were waiting for me outside the portal. And still no Joshaya. Where had he gone? It was unlikely he’d wandered off and got lost, so he was probably up to something. Probably invisible and flying and watching with x-ray vision.
Not much I could do about it, though. I re-entered my body.
There was a moment of darkness as I settled back into my mind. A small figure was waiting for me.
“Did I miss anything?” I asked him.
He looked cross. “When is she coming back?”
“I don’t know. Maybe never. Wouldn’t it be better for her to find someone who can take care of her and give her what she needs?”
“No.” He was very adamant.
Despite being untouchable, I was still connected to this little shit. I was still connected to me, and I wasn’t exactly the most well-adjusted person in the world. This one or the one I’d left. He had feelings, even if I didn’t. I genuinely didn’t feel a desire to rush back into her arms, but give it time.
“You need to keep your eyes open,” I said. “Things will probably go wrong at some point.”
“You mean they haven’t already?” He was in a real pissy mood.
“Just pay attention. There’s a god on the loose and he’s not on our side.” I vacated the area before he started crying or something. I had issues and had no intention of dealing with them now.
My eyes opened and I was back where I’d started (story of my life).
“What happened?” said Claire.
Maurice and Dudley collapsed. Which is when I remembered they’d also be affected by Arthur’s sleep-inducing ability. We had to get across the city with two dead-weights. On the plus side, at least Arthur had come through.
Claire and Flossie made squeaking noises and rushed to their prostrate partners.
“Don’t get your knickers in a twist,” I said, calming them down not at all. “They’re just asleep. With any luck, so is everyone in the temple, including Joshaya, wherever he’s got to.”
“Aren’t you going to free the gods?” asked Jenny.
It occurred to me that Joshaya might have used the time I was away to replace one of the party. It wouldn’t be too hard for him. Stick on of them in a closet, take their form, no one’s the wiser.
Jenny would be the obvious choice, but the flat, empty look she gave me was too cruel to be anything other than the real thing.
“Not right now. We need to get to the other side of the city with these two first.”
“How are we going to do that?” asked Flossie. She was sitting on the floor with Dudley’s head on her lap. The other two girls were also looking at me like they fully expected me to have no idea what to do next. It was like a ‘welcome home’ party.
“No one’s going to stop us. We just need to find something to put them on. A cart or something.”
“And where do you think you’ll find one of those in here?” said Claire, stroking the side of Maurice’s face like that would do anything.
“The druids are still outside. They should be able to help. Jenny, go ask them.”
She paused a moment, then went running off.
“Right, between the three of us we should be able to…” There was no way we could shift both Maurice and Dudley, not without a winch and some pulley.
“It’s okay, Ah got him.” Flossie stood up and heaved Dudley to his feet. She was half his size, but propped him up against the wall like it was no effort at all.
“How’d she do that?”
“She’s a lot stronger, now,” said Claire, like that explained it.
Flossie turned and backed into Dudley, pushing her bum into him. He flopped over and fell onto her back. She began walking, hunched over, draped with Dudley. Sherpa Flossie.
Claire and I managed to get Maurice up between us and hobbled after her.
We passed numerous unconscious people on our way to the temple entrance. I spotted the gift shop on the way out and was tempted to grab some mementoes. Helps to differentiate one nightmarish experience from another if you have a nick-nack as a visual aid.
Remember the time a bunch of mad gods turned us into the walking dead? Here’s a skull in wine bottle we got that day. Look, it still glows in the dark.
I decided against it. Those places are such a rip-off.
We got to the main doors which were open. The archway was filled with druids, looking around like a group of boys allowed in the ladies toilets for the first time. Everything was new and exotic.
Jenny was standing in front of them, decidedly unexcited to see me. I was starting to find it slightly irksome.
“Did you find a cart?” I asked.
The druids spread out and two came through from behind, pushing wheelbarrows. “Will these do?”
They would have to. Luckily, we had the manpower to avoid me having to do the pushing. We fitted Maurice and Dudley into the wheelbarrows and prepared to go.
“Right,” I said. “We need to get back to your church. There’s someone waiting for us there.”
This seemed to be good enough for them. Clear, concise orders were what people responded to best.
“Who’s waiting for us?” asked Claire.
It was a good question. As a rule of thumb, you should suspect everyone of being dishonest and untrustworthy. Arthur was no different. Joshaya hadn’t been around since I’d left here. Who was to say he hadn’t taken the form of Arthur in the crypt to toy with me again?
Maybe I was being unnecessarily paranoid and he was the real thing, but I needed to be prepared for the worst. Forewarned is forearmed, as long as you can do something about it. Otherwise, you’re just pre-fucked.