It might have seemed a bit risky to call out Joshaya. He was the person I’d been trying to avoid, after all. If him catching up with me unravelled Maurice’s power, meeting him could kill me. But that was also why it was safe to do so.
If this version of Arthur was really Joshaya, then I’d already been in his presence, even told him I was dead, and was still alive.
If I was wrong, it wouldn’t change anything, and if I was right, as I apparently was, I should already be dead. Unless there was more to this whole being dead business than first appeared.
I didn’t need to understand exactly how all this mumbo jumbo worked to realise whoever was holding death over my head as a threat, was also making sure I didn’t die.
Not to blow my own horn (every boy’s dream), but I was important enough to keep alive. They needed me. Which gave me some leverage. Until I became so irritating that they gave up on their plans and killed me anyway.
Joshaya pushed the coffin lid aside and floated upwards to a vertical position like some undead boss monster. Which was innately spooky, but in his rotund Joshaya-form he didn’t really give off a Dracula vibe, he looked more like Father Christmas. The sarcophagus was on a raised platform, so he towered over me and Claire, one foot on the edge so he looked like Santa crossing the Delaware. Then he stepped off and jumped to the ground, landing surprisingly gently.
This incarnation was portly and ageing, but he moved around like a sprightly young man with no concerns. Must be nice to be feel good about yourself the moment you get up, even when it’s out of a coffin.
I, on the other hand, can get eight solid hours in a soft bed and still feel like utter shit. Where’s the justice?
“Do you really believe you can defeat Peter?” he asked me, completely ignoring all the other issues at hand. Probably because he was responsible for most of them.
“Maybe,” I said. “But tell me your plan first.” You see? Cunning.
Joshaya shook his head. “I hoped to release the others from the captivity, but even then I don’t know if it will be enough. He appears to be stronger than ever, and has recruited a new ally.”
The ally in question was a large Elf that had been very generously been provided by me, and was striding across the land towards us.
“What about you?” I said to Claire. “Any ideas?”
“Now you want my input?” She had been a bit startled by Joshaya’s sudden appearance, but I soon had her back to her regular belligerent-self. It’s my gift.
“You wanted to be part of the special counsel inner-circle. Welcome. We have a madman with a giant Elf on the horizon, a god who’s been working for him against his will, and us. Take your time.”
It might seem like I had accepted Joshaya as a new team member, and now it was all about getting out there, fighting crime like the X-Men with a new line-up that included Magneto. You had an omega-level mutant on your side—you couldn’t deny he had sick powers that would come in useful—but, on the other hand, he was a fucking supervillain. You don’t just assume he’ll have your back.
The problem was that whatever he was really up to, he wouldn’t just fess up if asked. I did believe he was willing to help us against Peter, but not for our benefit. He would want something in return, probably everything, but the fact he needed me at least gave us some small advantage. Maybe.
If he had simply been working for Peter and happy with the terms of his contract, there’d be no reason to pretend to help us. Well, no reason that I could think of.
That’s always been the tricky part, the stuff you don’t even know is a problem. You can’t assume there’s nothing hiding in the dark just because you can’t see it.
“If we’re going to defeat Peter,” I said with full confidence, because bullshit always sounds better when you wrap it up in something pretty, “then you have to tell us how he got you in this position in the first place. You’re supposed to be a god. He’s just an American pensioner.”
Admittedly, you underestimated American pensioners at your peril. The grey vote could get all sorts of nutters into positions of power, and not just at the local golf club. But still, Joshaya was an actual god who could raise the dead. Surely he could have handled one egomaniacal senior citizen.
“You don’t understand how powerful he truly is,” said Joshaya.
“He can only help people’s abilities get stronger, can’t he? What can he do on his own?”
I didn’t have a complete picture of what Peter could do. He hadn’t really been explicit, and no one else seemed willing to talk about it. Even the little I did know might not have been accurate.
But Joshaya was our man on the inside. Now was the time for him to reveal all. The breakthrough I needed was just around the corner.
I, of course, fully expected him to come up with some bullshit reason to tell me nothing—which wasn’t necessarily a problem.
I glanced over at Claire to make sure she was still paying attention. She was staring straight back at me, face twisted with contempt. Or possibly indigestion. It was hard to tell.
Why she was looking at me like that, I had no idea. It was him she should have been focusing on. I tilted my head and nodded towards him to get her facing the right direction.
“It isn’t just a matter of augmenting others so they can be stronger. He is also able to use their power himself.”
I lost interest in Claire’s facial abnormalities. “He can hijack their abilities? How?”
“I don’t know. It takes time and requires the recipient’s cooperation. That’s how he fooled us all. He offered his help to make us all stronger. Too late did we realise the price of that aid.”
It was a lot to take in. Peter could tap into the abilities of the people he aided. It didn’t appear to be a form of mind-control, he wasn’t a puppet-master. And he couldn’t just take over their ability, he had to be invited in like a vampire, which seemed apt.
That was, if what Joshaya was saying was true.
I looked at Claire. She shrugged at me.
Had she been compromised? What about the others?
“What happened to Arthur?” I asked Joshaya. “I mean the real Arthur. There was one, right?”
“Yes. He passed away some time ago. He killed himself. He didn’t want to allow Peter to use him. He considered it the only way, he and his wife.”
“Yes. They both took their own lives.”
Was that what really happened? Hard to say. But Arthur was dead in a city where the dead were available for after dinner speaking engagements and corporate events. Even if he really had died, or been killed, that shouldn’t stop us having a word with him.
“How did he kill himself?” asked Claire, probably suspecting it hadn’t been suicide at all.
“He hanged himself. From the tree outside this church.”
“So he’s buried here?” I asked.
“Yes.” Joshaya seemed saddened, but then a few minutes ago he had seemed to be a desiccated corpse, so you had to take these things with a pinch of salt.
“Why can’t you bring him back?” I asked. “You could, right? Raise him from his slumber.”
“No, I can’t do that,” said Joshaya.
“Why not?” asked Claire. We were hitting him from both sides now. It was good, keeping him off-balance.
“I made him a promise. He had had enough. He no longer wanted to be here, and I agreed to honour that wish.”
“But he would be a good person to have around right now, wouldn’t he?” This seemed more and more like the way to go. Bring in a ringer late in the game.
“Of course. He was the only one who could challenge Peter directly. But…”
“But you promised,” I finished for him.
Bloody typical. When you want people to keep their word, they somehow find umpteen reasons to break it. But when you needed them to show a little moral flexibility, suddenly they were the most principled person who ever existed.
“Then break your word,” I said.
“Yes, you can. It’s not like you’ll be doing it for a bad reason. Just try it and see what he says. If he’s really not feeling it, we can always bury him again. No harm done.”
“I gave my word,” said Joshaya.
“Who gives a shit?” I said, making a very reasonable argument. “What’s the worse that could happen? He kills himself again?”
This, I felt, was a good line to take. If Arthur was Peter’s nemesis, let them sort it out between them. Maybe he had his own giant Elf and they could battle it out like some crappy Japanese kids show. I’d be happy to take care of merchandising.
Joshaya looked uncertain. Not convinced, but certainly well short of a firm refusal.
“Look, just show me where he’s buried. We can at least see if it’s feasible.”
I’m not saying you have to jump, just look over the edge… while I slowly creep up from behind to give him that last push.
Joshaya came to a decision. “This way.” He headed deeper into the crypt.
“Are you sure about this?” whispered Claire. “It could be a trap.”
She was right, but sometimes you have to go with your gut. Convincing others is the hard part, though.
“I know what I’m doing,” I said with supreme confidence. She wasn’ buying it.
“No you don’t, but we don’t have a better option.”
“Thanks for the support. Did you pick up anything from him?”
“No. And I wouldn’t trust anything if I did. His mind’s like a swamp.”
“But you said you knew he was Joshaya.”
“I lied. Thought it would back up your bluff.”
She was able to read me even without the assistance of her powers, which was a little worrying. I had to start mixing it up a bit. Perhaps once in a while making valid choices based on solid reasoning, just to confuse her.
Joshaya had made his way to the far end of the crypt and now stood by a wall. It had an archway that was filled in. It was very much like the portal back in the temple, the one the gods were trapped behind.
“His body is behind here. I cannot pass through this gateway, but you can.”
In that moment I knew I had made a mistake.
Backing out now would be tricky though. Claire would think I was crazy and Joshaya might turn on me. But fuck that.
People often fear being seen as clueless, especially if they are (and they usually are). I think part of the problem is that smart people doubt themselves and stupid people don’t.
The more you know, the better understanding you have of the problems you face. The less you know, the more confident you are you have the answer.
Most people, though, get to the point where they realise they can be wrong. And not just about the vague stuff no one’s really sure about because David Attenborough hasn’t covered it on Blue Planet yet. You can be wrong about stuff you were a hundred percent convinced you had correct.
It’s a strange, sobering moment of clarity. If I was wrong about this thing I knew was right, how many other things am I wide of the mark on?
Because whole arguments can be built on a single inaccuracy, and once found, it will bring everything tumbling down, leaving you with nothing.
People don’t like to change their minds. It’s a sign of weakness. It pushes you back, behind all the people who had it right to start with.
But I’ve never worried about that. Well, I do worry, but there’s no point to it. It’s one of the (few) advantages of being thought of as worthless to begin with. When I realise a mistake, I stop and think about how to correct course. Even if I have turn around and go back the way I came, getting in everyone’s way.
It would be nice if the ability to recognise your own faults was seen as a virtue. It isn’t. You have to go to the back of the line, and everyone treats you like the special needs kid. Some kindly, some cruelly, all with some level of resentment that you’re inconveniencing them.
Arthur was locked behind a wall. Unreachable. By anyone other than me, that is.
Lucky I happened to be in the neighbourhood. Very convenient.
It wasn’t a matter of me being the only one willing to bring Arthur back, it was more that I was the only one who could. Someone needed me to do it. They needed me here, under pressure, seeing it as my one way out of this hole. Be the hero and save the day. Quick, hurry, the Elf will be here any moment.
“What is it?” asked Joshaya, recognising a change in my attitude.
“Peter’s ability. It doesn’t work on me. He can’t use my power. He has to get me to use it for him. Like this.” I pointed at the wall. “He wants me to go in there, doesn’t he?”
Joshaya stared at me, his ruddy face tensed. “If you wish to call on Arthur for help, you must enter his resting place. The decision is yours, no one else’s.”
And there’s the problem with being open-minded and willing to change your position. A moment ago I was convinced I was right about bringing Arthur back. A moment from now, I might be convinced there was another, better course of action. It would never end.
But you can’t think like that. If you realise you’re wrong, you have to adjust, if you can. The people who look at you like you’re an idiot with no idea are closer to the truth than they know. They just don’t realise it doesn’t matter. That describes everyone. It doesn’t change anything. You have to act, and if you’re wrong, well, better luck next time. If there is a next time.
“No,” I said. “I’ve changed my mind.”
“What?” said Joshaya. “Why? Do you want your friends to die?”
“I haven’t really thought about it,” I said not looking at Claire. “All I know is that Peter won’t be able to get to me. Which means he can’t use me.”
Joshaya went through a range of facial expressions. Some I recognised, some were brand new to me. All of them were less than impressed.
“You don’t wish to see for yourself?” asked Joshaya.
“I’m alright, thanks.”
“People will die.”
“They usually do.”
“You could defeat Peter and take everything he meant to keep for himself.”
“I told you, not really interested. I’d much rather just park the bus in front of goal and let him tire himself out.”
Joshaya looked at me with glowering contempt. “What kind of a man are you?”
“Yeah, I get that one a lot. I should probably write up an FAQ somewhere so people can save themselves some time. Maybe have cards printed up I can hand out.”
There was a loud snort. I turned to look at Claire who was laughing into her hand.
“Sorry,” she said to Joshaya. “But your face. You really thought you could rely on his sense of loyalty to his friends.” She shook her head. “Not the best judge of character, are you?”
Joshaya looked upset. Either for failing to get me to do Peter’s will, or because he’d been dissed by Claire (I’d have been gutted, too).
Then he settled into a resigned look that hung a bit loose off him, like he’d lost weight since the last time he’d tried it on.
“I see. You’ve made up your mind.”
“Yes. Tell him he can do what he likes, but not with my help.”
The thing about gods is that they aren’t very perceptive. I know, sacrilegious (literally). But across all religions, all myths and legends, they set people tasks and are surprised by the disappointing outcome.
They disobeyed Me? Again? Well, send my son down there, they’ll listen to him.
You’d think they’d spot a pattern.
Joshaya faded from view. One moment he was looking at me disappointed by my choice—nothing new, there—and the next he was gone.
“Have you got everyone killed?” asked Claire.
“No, not everyone,” I said. “You lot might be in a bit of trouble, but I should be fine.”