It was too far away to be absolutely sure it was the Elf drifting towards Gorgoth. In a fantasy world, there could be all sorts of explanations for what it was. It could be a very unusual cloud formation, and still kill us all.
When you’re living in a regular world governed by rigid laws of science, you take the basic things for granted. Gravity pulls down, sun feels hot, water works best when it isn’t full of industrial poison.
You look up in the sky and see a cloud, you know it’s moisture and condensation. Unless it’s a vapour trail from a plane, in which case it’s obviously the government filling the sky with alien DNA. Because reasons.
In a fantasy world, nothing had to be what it first appeared to be. Or even what it second appeared to be. It made it much harder to know how soon you should start running.
“We should go inside,” I said. “We don’t want to attract any attention.”
Everyone ignored me, of course. They were too busy staring into the distance.
“Looks a bit weird,” said Flossie, hand shading her eyes. “Ah don’t think it’s a storm.”
“Those look like arms?” said Claire.
They had seen the Elf before, but she was right on the edge of our visibility. Without Dudley’s eagle-eyes, she looked hazy at best. Still, it wasn’t like there were many other options to choose from when it came to giant beings made from compacted weather conditions. I expected the penny to drop in a minute, but it would be that long minute, like when you’re waiting for your shampoo to do its thing while you stand in the shower.
“Let’s go!” I said, trying to get inject some pace into the proceedings.
“It’s the Elf, isn’t it?” said Jenny.
“Yep,” said Claire.
“Oh ah,” said Flossie, whatever the fuck that meant.
“Elf?” said one of the druids. They began muttering between themselves.
I could see this very quickly devolving into a chaotic discussion group, the kind political activists like to hold in an attempt to achieve nothing (usually very successfully).
“Hey, fuckheads! We’re on a mission here,” I shouted, startling them all with my sudden spurt of energetic vitriol.
Sadly, their surprise didn’t translate into them actually doing as they were told. The sighting of the Jolly Green Giant had made them realise things were about to get real, and for all their recent experiences striking out on their own, this wasn’t the sort of thing you could just have a go at.
It was daunting. The only reason I found it easy to face was because I had already accepted failure as the most likely outcome.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, staring at it won’t help,” I said, reaching the end of my tether. They were hopeless.
“Can you guys wheel those two inside, please?” Jenny said to the druids.
The druids, who had also been staring at the horizon (I didn’t know if they had seen an Elf before or not), began filing into the church, wheeling their live cargo ahead of them. “Floss, make sure they don’t bump Dudley’s hands and feets against anything.”
Dudley’s limbs were hanging out the sides, so it was a reasonable precaution to take as he was rolled into the church. Flossie rushed to take care of it.
She twisted at the hip. “Claire, anything from the tree?”
The tree next to the church, the one that had spoken to me before, stood silent. If the forest still inhabited it, that would mean it could be spying on us.
Claire walked over and stared at it. I fully expected leaves to wilt and fall off.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Okay, good,” said Jenny. She turned to me. “Shall we?” She went inside with Claire without waiting for me.
I had an inexplicable urge to set the tree on fire. There was no need for it, but sometimes it just makes you less frustrated to destroy something. It’s one of our less admirable human traits. There’s probably an evolutionary reason for it. Nature seems to encourage general dickishness to help thin out the herd.
I didn’t set fire to the tree, and followed the others into the church, with one last glance at the approaching leviathan.
Everyone had taken their seats on the pews, leaving the pulpit at the front empty. Presumably for me to give them a rousing speech about fighting the good fight. I didn’t fancy it. They weren’t the ones I was here to speak to.
“Claire, come with a moment.”
I headed towards the back of the church, looking over my shoulder to make sure she was coming. She was, but only after exchanging words with Jenny.
I’m not trying to suggest Jenny was attempting to usurp my position. If she wanted to be in charge, I had no issue with relinquishing my power over the group (what little I had), but it seemed a bit rich to do it now while I was trying to arrange a last-ditch salvage operation.
I opened the door at the back and waited for Claire to catch up. Once she was through, I closed the door and started down the stairs.
“I need you to do some mind-reading for me.”
“You still haven’t told us what we’re doing here.”
“I just did,” I said, restraining my natural instinct to tell her to fuck off, then.
She followed me down, at least. “I thought you were completely untouchable now.”
“I am. All alone with no human connection to anyone. It’s great.”
“I see the way you look at her.”
“Who?” I said, as though there were a limitless amount of people she could be referring to.
“You know who. You still feel the same way about her.”
“Yes, Claire. Being untouchable doesn’t stop me wanting things. It just stops me being able to get them.”
We reached the bottom of the stairs. There was an iron gate in front of me. I tried pushing it, but it was locked. Last time I had floated right through it.
“Then do something about it,” said Claire.
“I can’t, I don’t have the key to unlock it.” I shoved and kicked at the bars, but there was no way through.
“I was talking about Jenny.”
In some ways, so was I. “We’ll have to go back. Maybe the druids have one.”
In a movie, the tedious bits where you go from one place to the next is taken care of in a single cut. You get in the car, then you’re pulling up at your destination saying, “Hey, wake up, we’re here.”
You don’t have to go back to where you started because you forgot to bring the right key.
“Just tell her, and keep telling her until she listens.”
“That’s called sexual harassment,” I said.
“Not if you know she loves you.”
“That’s the defence of every guy up on sexual harassment charges. I know she’d feel the same way about me if she just gave me a chance.”
“You can’t give up. You love her,” insisted Claire, like this was the piece of the puzzle I’d been missing.
“Thanks for clearing that up, Jane Austen. I’m not sure what difference you think that makes. It’s up to her, she’s the one with the power in this situation.”
“You both have a say in—”
“No. That’s not how it works. It’s like the relationship between a producer and an actress. He plays the big shot and lets her know that if she sucks his dick, maybe he’ll give her the movie role she wants. She reciprocates by making herself appear sexually available, implying if he gives her the movie role, maybe she’ll suck his dick. The two dance around each other and whoever caves first has an excellent chance of being cheated. Which would be fine if it was an even playing field, but it isn’t. The producer has a massive advantage. There’s only one role in the movie, but there are hundreds of desperate actresses with much dick sucking expertise. You’re a fool to even bother taking a punt, if you’re an actress. Not that it stops them.”
“So, you’re the actress and Jenny’s the producer?”
“Yes. If she wants me in her movie, great. If she wants to see who else is out there, and what they’re offering, no point turning up for the audition.”
“Isn’t that just you being lazy and insecure?” asked Claire as we re-entered the chapel.
“Yes. Hello, Claire, I’m Colin. Nice to meet you.”
Everyone had turned to look at us as we returned, probably expecting some amazing reveal of how we were were going to achieve victory. Premature expectation.
“Does someone have a key to the crypt downstairs?” I asked.
“There isn’t one,” said a druid. “The doors just rusted shut. Do you want us to help?”
The druids, at least, seemed like decent people. I no longer thought they were secretly plotting behind my back. I did, however, expect them to turn on me at some point for the greater good. They would probably have plenty of evidence to back them up.
“No, thanks. Flossie, how are those new muscles of yours?”
She was tending to Dudley like he was a massive baby in a wooden pram with one wheel. And loving it.
“Okay, but it’ll have to be quick.”
Sure. Never mind the giant about to crush us underfoot, the important thing was to make sure Dudley was fed and changed on time.
“Just one more minute,” I said to the faces looking at me optimistically. We headed back down again.
Flossie moving on from taming dragons to having super-strength was quite galling, but you can’t resent other people’s good fortune. Well, you can, but it won’t do you any good. It’s not like if she lost her new power it would suddenly end up in my lap. I get nothing either way, so might as well be glad she had it so I could use it by proxy.
“She misses yo’,” said Flossie.
“Don’t,” I said.
“And how do you know? You’re a mind reader now, are you?”
“No. But she is.” Flossie pointed at Claire, who smiled smugly. Another problem with living in a fantasy world—sarcasm was much harder to get away with.
“It doesn’t matter. What she thinks is irrelevant. It only matters what she’s willing to do. But thanks, anyway.”
“There’s no need to be a dick about it,” said Claire. If she’d been able to read my mind, she’d have seen I meant it. But that was okay.
“Can you break this door?” I asked Flossie.
She grabbed the bars and shoved. There was a crack as stonework crumbled around the edges. The door fell inwards.
I had no idea how this new power of hers worked, but that could wait. I was sure Maurice would have a working theory up and running as soon as we got him out of his wheelbarrow.
We cautiously entered the crypt. It was a lot more smelly this time around with pool of water I hadn’t noticed last time. There was a pervasive feel of brooding menace in the air. I lit the place up as well as I could and the shadows scurried into the corners like they were alive.
“Okay, this way,” I said as I moved towards the sarcophagus in the middle of the room.
Flossie popped her head in, looked around, and said. “Ah think Ah heard Dudley call.” She ran back up the stairs.
Claire stayed close to me, making me far more uncomfortable than the tomb of the lich king. I could have warned her about what she was about to see, but why spoil the fun?
The lid to the sarcophagus was partially open as it had been when I left. I leaned over to see what was inside. Arthur’s dessicated face stared up at me.
There was a yelp and Claire’s claws dug into my arm.
“Ow!” I said. “Easy, I bruise easily. No wonder Maurice doesn’t let you give him a handjob.”
“How do you know that?” said Claire, her annoyance supplanting her shock.
“Because you’re all terrible at it. No guy wants a handjob from a girl, except in pornos, and those guys have lost all feeling in their cock, so they don’t mind the pummelling.”
“That’s a load of shit. Some girls are going to be good at it.”
“Okay, yeah. Just because I’ve never seen a unicorn doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”
“Unicorns do exist,” said Claire. “We’ve seen them.”
Fantasy world ruining my point once again.
“Excuse me,” said Arthur, cadaverously sitting up.
“One minute, Arthur.” I turned back to Claire. “Whether or not they exist isn’t the point. Girls can’t respond to the feedback quickly enough the way a guy can. It’s obvious we would know how to handle a dick better than you.”
Claire stared at the mummified body sitting in his coffin like it was some netherworldly canoe. Then she slowly turned to me. “So, if it was another guy giving you a handjob, that would be preferable to a girl?”
“This is hardly the place to be talking about handjobs, is it?” I said with as much dignified outrage as I could muster (admittedly, not very much). “We’ll have to discuss your bizarre obsessions some other time. This is Arthur. The real Arthur.” I turned to Arthur. His features were frozen, and his face looked like it had been varnished.
“Hello,” said Arthur in a muffled voice. His lips sort of moved, but not enough to really enunciate his words. It was like hearing someone on a shitty walkie-talkie.
“Hi,” said Claire. “Sorry, we were just discussing why he’s too much of a coward to tell his girlfriend he loves her.”
“Ex-girlfriend,” I pointed out. “Arthur, I need to know if you’re really who you say you are, or Joshaya playing silly buggers. Before you deny it, the Elf’s on her way, probably being piloted by Peter. If you’re working with him, not much I can do about it, but assuming this whole rigmarole you’ve set up is due to you wanting to get out from under his control, then maybe we can make a deal.”
Arthur looked blankly at me, although I wasn’t sure he could look any other way. “Deal?”
“I’m guessing you aren’t going to trust me because I might be another Peter. No point getting rid of him only for me to take his place. I’d also guess you can’t free the other gods without me, or someone like me? Probably another thing I might hold over you. What I want you to understand is however this turns out, I have no interest in being your new master or taking over the running of the city. Not because I believe someone else deserves it more or would be better at it—I’m pretty sure whoever’s in charge will fuck it up royally. I don’t want any part of it because I consider this place to be too shit to be worth coveting.”
Arthur’s glazed eyebrows almost moved.
“It’s not good enough to be desirable. Everything you value, I consider worthless. I don’t want anything to do with it, other than to criticise it from a distance. Close enough to hurl abuse, but far enough to run away when I offend someone. You understand what I’m saying? I’m not Peter.”
Having spent time thinking about it, this seemed the most likely reason Joshaya had been giving me the runaround. He needed me, but he didn’t want to be beholden to me. He didn’t realise I didn’t collect on favours. I used them to make people stay away. Nothing makes a friend disappear quicker than lending them some money.
Of course, this all depended on him being Joshaya. If he wasn’t, he’d probably think I was a nutcase.
He stared at me like he thought I was a nutcase.
I turned to Claire. “Anything?”
Of course, the other reason I’d spewed so much invective in his direction was to give Claire a chance to pick up his thoughts. Any indication of his true intentions would be useful.
“He’s Joshaya,” said Claire. “And you just really upset him.”
As she said his name, the face in front of me changed and transformed into the Joshaya we’d met back at the tower in the woods, bushy beard and hair, ruddy face just asking to be punched.
“Have you considered just telling her how you feel?” he asked me.
“Don’t you start. Can we just go fight the Elf? If we get lucky, maybe she’ll step on me and I can stop getting all this fucking advice.”
Honestly, why does everyone think they know all the answers to everyone else’s problems when their own lives are a giant disaster zone?