386: Cloaked Ambition

The carriage wasn’t the fanciest, but it was big and it had shutters on the windows so no one could see who was inside. It was painted red, or it had been before the paint had mostly flaked off, with a gold trim. And by gold, I mean yellow, by which I mean nicotine-ceiling white.

“Ah think it’s really nice,” said Flossie as we stood outside checking it out. “Roomy.”

You could have squeezed in ten or twelve people on the bench seats on either side (or six Flossies) and still stretch your legs. The seats were padded but looked like they could do with a good stuffing (couldn’t we all?).

“Put a bed in it,” I said.

“Sorry?” said Grayson.

“A bed,” I repeated. “A mattress from upstairs should do.”

It was a fairly simple operation. Grayson’s men squeezed a mattress in and used what looked like two small tables to prop up the middle. Once the sheets went on top, a few pillows, it looked like the kind of thing a powerful man would use to shag peasants on the go. I imagine such contraptions were all the rage during the French Regency.

“That looks really nice,” said Flossie as she peered in, eyes wide with the possibilities. She looked up at Dudley beside her. “Ah bet it’s really comfy.”

“I want one of your men up front with the driver and two standing on the rear plate,” I said to Grayson.

“Are you expecting an assassination attempt?” he asked.

“Always, but I doubt your men would be able to do anything about that. The guards are to stop these two from ever entering the carriage.”

“Us?” said Flossie. “Why can’t we ride in there with you? There’s loads of room.”

“You must be joking,” I said. “I’ve seen what you did to the bathroom, I daren’t even imagine what you’d do in a bed. Rattle it to pieces but keep it all stuck together with body fluids, probably. Stay out of my bedmobile. I need my rest.”

I was exhausted from all my excursions to the adjacent world. It was mentally draining having to piss about with forces beyond my comprehension, and that was just when I was talking to Flossie and Dudley. Manipulating the powers that connected all objects in the universe was even more of a pain.

While all this was going on, Caim, our resident emo Deathreaper, was sitting on the lawn with his sword out (not a euphemism). He quietly muttered things to it and received monosyllabic answers in return.

Caim clearly had an intense bond with the sword. The sword was cold and robotic in return. I would have assumed that was just its nature, but I’d spoken to it and knew it was capable of talking like a regular person. Plausible deniability for when the sword turned on him?

I was probably being unfair. Staying aloof and detached was also a way of behaving professionally. Maybe when they were properly alone, the masks came off and there was real talk. I wasn’t going to let those two in my bedmobile, either.

The hero business is a strange occupation. It’s always the nobody who gets handed the chance to fix the problems of the world. The farm boy, the bullied loser, the orphan — it’s a great story arc, to go from zero to hero, but it doesn’t really take into consideration what it’s like to be thrust from obscurity to people’s champion. Psychologically speaking, it can force you to rise to the occasion, or you can lose your fucking mind.

The despicable young noble who was trained from birth to lead is honestly better equipped to run a kingdom than Sam the pig farmer who rescued the princess from the evil witch. Breaking curses, very limited applications. Murdering barons for not paying taxes, vital to economic growth in a feudal society.

I didn’t know much about Caim’s past, but he had clearly suffered some setbacks. I also didn’t know where he was from or when he came here, but I was taking a leaf out of Angel Rose’s book. The less involved I became with him, the easier it would be when the time came to cut him loose. I’m not saying that scenario was guaranteed, it was just very, very likely.

What I really needed was some kind of support group for Caim, one that didn’t include me. With someone to watch his back, he’d be much less likely to feel alone and desperate. He needed a proper retinue of loyal and dumb-as-a-post henchmen. Who did I know like that? Who did I know not like that?

Once the carriage was ready, I got in and lay spreadeagled in my cocoon on wheels. It was hard to fully relax with beady eyes peering through the slats.

“Is it nice?” said Flossie from the outside looking in. “It looks nice.”

“Get in the cart behind,” I shouted. “Take Caim with you. Try to cheer him up.”

I didn’t really need Caim cheerful, I needed him on edge and ready to kill. Flossie was my go-to girl.

 

The Lord Protector’s convoy set off, Grayson leading the way with his men and Flossie and Dudley in a cart behind, with Damicar as their passenger. Caim had decided to take the guard position next to the driver of my carriage, cleverly bypassing my attempt to lumber him with Flossie. I suspected the sword was giving him good advice, which was going to be a problem.

I’d got rid of Toniono once he’d come down from his mushroom high — he didn’t remember much about what had happened, which was probably for the best. The guilds were another issue I’d have to deal with if I stayed here, which was why I planned not to.

We weren’t heading for the Church of the Shrine where the Fairy Queen had set up shop, we were going to visit a much smaller church in the corner of the city. Caim needed an entourage, one that wouldn’t let him down (or build him up too much) and I figured it was time I paid the druids a visit to see what was up. They had suffered a massive blow to their view of the world, and like most disillusioned religious fanatics, they would be in the ideal place for some good old-fashioned repurposing of their rage.

The journey got slower and bumpier as we neared the druids’ church. The graveyard was poorly kept and the path leading up to the building was overgrown and in need of maintenance. As municipal leader, I would have to do something about all the potholes. Some kind of task-force. It was good in the bedmobile, you could dream up all sorts of crazy shit you never planned to do.

We came to a halt and everyone got out. I felt relaxed and refreshed. Flossie gave me a dirty look and Dudley offered me an apologetic frowning-shrug. Damicar was ready for his next big adventure, and Caim climbed down looking like his dog had just died. This was the team that would save the world. Place your bets.

The church was quiet and seemed deserted. The druids had lost faith in their cause but had nowhere else to go, or so I had thought. If they weren’t here, it would be a pain to track them down, especially as I had no idea if they’d even be interested in my proposition. I did have Dudley’s roving eye to help, but it turned out Caim was the man for this job, or rather his sword was.

Caim had the sword drawn as soon as he got down from the carriage. His hand was covered in black vines but the rest of him was normal. His suit was another mystery I’d like some answers to, but that could wait.

The sword lit up and in a cool monotone it said, “Presence of hostiles detected, two hundred paces.” Caim moved the sword around until it turned more intensely purple (which isn’t always a good sign). It was pointing towards the rear of the church.

There was a long shed at the back. The door was open and the smell of cooking wafted out.

“Mmm,” said Damicar, sniffing at the air. “Not bad. Interesting seasoning.”

Even though my senses weren’t quite as refined as his, I recognised the smell, too. Lentils. I indicated for the others to wait while I went in alone. You’ve got to let your people know you’re willing to take the lead and confront dangers yourself, although I would only recommend doing so when the danger is related to a vegan diet.

There were only six druids inside, sat at a long table looking miserable. They were eating lentil soup, so their misery was well-founded.

“Oh, it’s you,” said one of them. “What do you want?”

None of them even got up.

“The old gods are back,” I said. “You must be excited.”

“They aren’t the old gods,” said another druid, “they’re fairies. The whole things was a sham, just like our entire lives.”

I imagined this was what it was like in a cult after the prophesied apocalypse failed to materialise and everyone realised they were in fact a bunch of stupid twats just like everyone had told them.

“I’m going to war with the gods, the fairies, the Visitors and anyone else who wants to tell me what to do,” I said. “It’s going to be a massacre. I thought you might be interested in forcing everyone to eat a dick.” I was appealing to their optimism, if they had any left.

They looked at me over their steaming soup. “You? How are you going to do that?”

“Well, not me personally. I’ve brought in a ringer. He’ll do the fighting, kick some arse, take no prisoners, that sort of thing. Hold on, I’ll get him.”

I stepped outside and called Claim. He was standing by a grave looking like he was checking for vacancies.

I took him back inside. “This is Deathreaper Caim.”

“Hello,” said Caim glumly. “Do you have a spare bowl of soup?” It was the kind of introduction legends are born from.

One of the druids got up and ladled out some soup into a wooden bowl and slid it down the table. Then he sat back down and returned to quietly eating. Caim sat down and began eating his soup. No one spoke. It was possibly the most depressing thing I’d ever witnessed, and my standards are high.

I stood there, trying to think of a way to get these people on the same page. They seemed to share only one common interest, other than overcooked lentil soup, and that was a great love of giving up. I was tempted to grab a bowl and join them, but the whole point was to make them a unit separate from me.

They finished eating and Caim stood up and went round collecting bowls. Then he went to the sink and began washing up.

The druids looked at each other, not saying anything but nodding.

“What is it you want us to do?” said one of them.

“Oh, not much,” I said. “Just follow him around, make sure no one tries to sneak up on him or mess with him in any underhanded way. Basically, watch his back while he kills every powerful bastard who’s made life a shit show for the rest of us. He has this sword that he uses, trust me, it’s impressive.”

They might not believe I could make much of a difference, but Caim had an air of mighty hero oozing out of him. Well, when he wasn’t doing the dishes.

“Can we see the sword?” asked a druid.

Caim turned around with wet hands, looking for somewhere to dry them. He wiped them down his front and then lifted his hand. The blade shot out.

“Black Thorn,” said a druid. The others joined in with the expressions of shock and surprise, somehow familiar with the blade. Caim put the sword away. The demeanour of the druids had changed. A light seemed to have returned to their eyes.

“We will follow you.”

“We are yours to command.”

“Wait, I have a thing next Tuesday.”

“Can’t you cancel it?”

“I suppose so.”

They stood, ready to make Caim their new god. That’s the thing about people with poor judgement, it’s a chronic condition. You can convince a girl to dump the guy who treats her like crap, but she’ll just find another guy to do the same.

“Okay,” said Caim with the minimum amount of enthusiasm.

I had expected I’d have to cleverly manoeuvre them into a group by making them see they had the same key interests in life, but they had recognised it without me needing to get involved. On some primal level, misery had found its ideal company.

“Great,” I said, for once the upbeat one in the room. “Now we just need to make you look the part. What’s this for?” I picked up a mallet on the table. It was a wooden hammer about the size of a large wooden spoon. The head was flat on one side, and a lot of pointy pyramids on the other.

“It’s for crushing lentils,” said one of the druids.

“Perfect. Let’s go.” If you’re going to play a game seriously, really put the time in to do it right, you’ve got to put the necessary time into character creation.

Outside, the others were waiting to see what magic I had wrought. Actually, they probably wanted to see how badly I would fuck things up (a perfectly reasonable assumption).

Caim followed me out and climbed back up onto the carriage without a word. The druids exited in single file and climbed onto the carriage roof.

“How did yo’ convince them?” said Flossie.

“I used my wit and charm,” I said.

Both Flossed and Dudley burst out laughing. “No, really, how?” said Flossie.

“Shut it. We’re going shopping for clothes, you can always go home and muck out your dragons.”

“No, no, Ah want to go shopping for clothes.” She quickly got back in her cart. No, it’s not a stereotype, it’s an archetype.

I asked Grayson to take us to the tailor who was supposed to come see me tomorrow. I’d save him the effort and bring him some extra business. On the way we stopped at a smithy where I showed the blacksmith the lentil hammer.

“Yes, we sell them here,” he said. “How many would you like?”

“I need six, but twice the size and made of solid iron.”

He put all his men on it at once, although the look in his eye suggested he didn’t believe lentils that tough existed. I wasn’t really looking to go ham on any legumes, I was more interested in the look.

“What are those?” I said, picking up what looked like a metal plate with mesh sections.

“A face-mask, My Lord,” said the smithy. “It’s for the fishermen, to prevent them breathing in the poisonous fumes.”

I hadn’t encountered poisonous gas fumes from fish (yet) but I took six.

The tailor, a thin man with an oily comb-over, bowed deeply as soon as I entered, apparently knowing who I was. “My Lord, we were preparing to visit you tomorrow.” He was extremely flustered by my presence, although all the armed soldiers waiting outside probably had some effect, too.

“Don’t worry about it, I was in the neighbourhood.” It’s great to have people in shops suck up to you. I was used to them ignoring me completely, even when I was at the till waving money in their face. “I need you to outfit this guy in a cape.”

Caim was wondering around the store looking lost.

“Of course, My Lord. Are you sure about the cape? Form-fitting togas are all the rage at the moment.”

“I’m sure they are. Cape, big, black, with a lining of pure menace.”

In the real world, you got status came with fancy hats. The bigger the better. The real world has no taste.

In the movie world, big hats messed up the lighting. Badass was cape-bound. Getting caught in doors, filthy from dragging along the ground and frayed to tatters in a few days. Completely impractical. You just have to step on someone’s cape as they run and it’s game over. But the look… you can’t beat the look.

The druids came in and the tailor’s face fell. “Are they… with you?”

“Yes, they’re with me. I need you to put them in black robes, high collars, you know, work the dark brotherhood angle.”

It took a while, but eventually they were all kitted out.

“Here, put these on,” I said, handing the druids the face-masks for fishermen.

“We don’t eat fish,” said one.

“They won’t fit over our beards,” said another.

“Then shave them off,” I said. My suggestion was not met with universal acceptance. Honestly, is there anyone more vain than men with big beards? “Do it, this will hide your… thingies.”

The druids used their beards to hide their face tentacles. They weren’t entirely human and didn’t like drawing attention to it.

They exchanged looks and then took off their beards. They weren’t even real beards. You can’t trust anyone, everyone’s out to trick you.

Once they had their black robes, shiny (but unwieldy) hammers and fish masks on the druids looked like a bunch of Lidl-brand Nazgul, which is to say, they looked awesome.

Caim had a glorious cape, which looked odd with his simple clothes, but when he switched to his armour and took out the Black Thorn throbbing with a purple light, backed-up by his six bodyguards with metal half-masks, he looked like the villain of the story.  But he was the hero. I mean, I did hear the Imperial March from Star Wars as they filed out, but he was definitely the hero. Definitely.

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