The six of us reconvened the following morning. A proper night’s sleep in an actual bed had helped chill everyone out, even Claire, and we were back to our usual directionless selves. We were in a new city with a bit of money and no real idea of what to do next.
Despite my ability to use magic and spot trouble a mile off, the real reason I was the leader were times like these. We were in a world with no signposts, and they needed someone to choose a road to go down. I didn’t know the correct path any more than them, but I didn’t care if I was wrong. My attitude had always been that if you didn’t like where I took you, then you shouldn’t have listened to me in the first place.
“We’ll have a look around the city,” I said. Nothing too complicated about that. We needed to see what this place was like.
“What’s our cover story?” asked Maurice. The others leaned in around the wooden table we were sitting at, ready for the detailed backstory I’d prepared for each of them.
There was obviously a lot of things we needed to do as well as familiarising ourselves with the city’s layout. We had to get more information on Arta Askii, probably through his warehouse business. He was most likely the Visitor I was looking for. Him being so hard to reach made him an even better candidate. If I was some powerful, otherworldly entity making shedloads of cash off the local populace, I’d do a Howard Hughes and keep myself locked away in my giant mansion, too.
Then there was the Church of the Holy Shrine. We had to stay off their radar, and at the same time it would help to learn what kind of people they were. Whose shrine was it? What god did they worship? Did they sing boring hymns that droned on and on, or cool gospel tunes with everyone dancing like James Brown? Stuff I’d like to know, but which would be hard to find out without sticking our heads over the parapet.
And there were also the druids. I hadn’t told the others we were being watched. Seemed an unnecessary complication to burden them with. They acted jumpy enough when we weren’t being pursued by religious nutters, it would only amp up their anxiety if I gave them full disclosure. In fact, it seemed an unnecessary complication to tell them anything.
“You’re just tourists, you don’t need an elaborate backstory. No roleplaying. We’ll look around, and once we have a better idea of what kind of place this is, we can decide what to do next then.” I said ‘we’, but whatever our next move, it wouldn’t be a group decision.
“But if we’re tourists,” said Flossie, “we must be visiting from somewhere.”
She was right, as the others were quick to point out.
“Fine. We’re visiting from Requbar. We’re on holiday.”
“Do holidays even exist here?” asked Claire. “Or tourism?”
“Of course holidays exist,” I insisted, without any idea if they did. “Holiday. Holy day. They have religion, they have time off to, I don’t know, cut off chicken heads and poke dolls with pins, or whatever pagan nonsense they get up to.”
“That’s voodoo,” said Maurice.
“Which is a religion,” I said. “We don’t know what these Shriners believe in, so keep an open mind.”
I sensed some low-level scoffing going on at me telling someone else to keep an open mind, but my willingness to be nonjudgmental has always been misunderstood. There’s nothing more open-minded than to assume every single person you meet, regardless of race, gender or creed, is a huge twat.
The girls required (and by required, I mean demanded) a short break to sort out their clothes. They spoke to the innkeeper’s wife to get some needle and thread, and when they came back an hour or so later, their outfits had changed to a less formal look.
I realise it’s a bit of a stereotype, girls being all about fashion and accessories. Oh, she’s a girl so she must know how to sew, you chauvinist bastard. What can I tell you (other than go fuck yourself)? I don’t know if one of them was the seamstress or they were all experts, and I didn’t care. I wasn’t about to ask them if they’d used a cross-stitch on that new hem. ( I have no idea what a cross-stitch is or how it relates to hems—and I never will). You can’t blame me for their refusal to buck the traditional assignment of gender roles.
The girls stood there posing, waiting for us to tell them how great they looked. Yes, I know. It’s not my fucking fault they’d been brainwashed into needing male approval since they were toddlers.
Dudley and Maurice made awkward-sounding impressed noises. Some guys are really good at flattering women. It gets them all sorts of benefits (mainly pussy-related ones) so it makes sense they would learn to do it. Others are terrible, but know what’s expected of them, so they do their best. And women seem to like it, even when they know it’s not entirely sincere. All animals have their mating rituals.
“Okay, let’s go,” I said after handing out zero compliments.
Claire’s hands went straight to her hips. “Is that all you’ve got to say?”
It was a bit late to start expecting me to act like a regular human being. “Are you happy with the way you look?”
“Ah think we look great,” said Flossie.
“Good. Nothing more to say then, is there?”
“Why can’t you—”
“It’s okay,” said Jenny, cutting Claire off before she went full-ballistic. “He doesn’t need to say anything.”
“I know,” said Claire. “But it would be nice, if just once he noticed.”
It was a pointless argument, but I caught the slight look of disappointment on Jenny’s face. I’m not a monster. I would like to please people I like, I’m just not used to it. Pleasing people, or liking them.
“Look, it makes no difference what you wear,” I said to Jenny. “I’m maxed out on how I feel about you. The numbers can’t go up any more. Sure, once things start to sag and wrinkle, you putting on a bit of lipstick and tarting yourself up will make me go, ‘Oh, you look nice today,’ because there’ll be something for you to improve. But that’s at least five years away from happening.”
“Thank you,” said Jenny smiling. See? Flattery, they’re suckers for it. “But that’s not what Claire meant.”
“No,” said Claire. “We changed the outfits so they matched what the local people wear, so we wouldn’t stick out.”
I took another look. The trousers had somehow become skirts and jackets were sleeveless and cropped. I looked around. It was very similar to the clothes the waitress and the woman behind the bar wore. They had done their best to blend in, like I’d suggested.
Claire hadn’t wanted me to tell them how great they looked, she wanted me to notice how smart they’d been. Women, never satisfied.
“Oh,” I said. “Yes. That’s very good.” I walked out hoping my face didn’t look as red as it felt.
We headed towards the middle of the city. We could work our way outwards from there. I was unsettled by my mauling at the girls’ hands (it isn’t easy coping with a constant barrage of self-realisation—like having someone hold up a mirror to you, then hit you over the head with the mirror, and then use the broken shards to stab you in the face), so I almost forgot about the druids.
I was reminded by the bald heads bobbing in the crowd behind us. If they wanted to follow us, that wasn’t a terrible thing as long as they kept their distance. The bigger problem would be if any Shriners noticed their interest in us, and wanted to know why. My hope was that with so many people about, we would lose them along the way. Or they’d get bored when they realised we were just sightseeing. As long as we were out in public, they were unlikely to attack us, I told myself.
“Why do you keep looking back?” asked Jenny. A day without Jenny watching my every move under a microscope would be quite a sad day, actually.
“Making sure our six is clear,” I said. “Oh, look, a shop.” Know your enemy, especially what distracts them.
The shop in question was different to the others we’d come across so far. Most had been food and clothes and stuff for your house. Remember in the olden days how you used to have to go to a different building for each thing you wanted to buy? It was like that. But this particular store had a completely open front, with a man in a white robe selling what looked like sheets of paper in various colours. He had a trim goatee and pageboy haircut, and a look of practiced benevolence on his face.
People were buying the paper, writing something on it, rolling it up and dropping it in a barrel.
Maurice, who was always on the lookout for new writing material, wanted to take a closer look. Everyone likes checking out a stationery store, so we all wandered over. It didn’t really make much more sense from up close.
There was a symbol of a fish over the store, a bit like the one Christians use, only this one was vertical, like a rocket about to take off. People were saying things like, “Shrine bless you,” and, “May the shrine watch over you,” so it became obvious this was somehow related to the Church of the Holy Shrine. But there was no preaching or proselytising going on, as far as I could tell.
People paid cash, scribbled something down, and popped it in the barrel. Business was brisk.
On one wall of the store was a board with more bits of paper pinned to it. They had writing on them in the same language we had already learned, so it wasn’t too hard to decipher the crude scrawls. They seemed to be Agony Aunt letters where people asked for a solution to problems, with answers written in beautiful handwriting at the bottom.
We could have asked the man what was going on, but there was the same old problem of getting up the nerve. Yes, it was retarded we could fight demons and still have issues with this sort of thing. But on the flip side, fuck you.
“How much?” Jenny asked the man. It was good having a normie on the team.
“One for green, two for blue, five for yellow, ten for red and a hundred for purple.” He rattled off the answer and then turned to take money from someone else.
The different coloured papers cost different amounts, but in what currency, or for what purpose, wasn’t clear.
“What’s the difference?” Jenny asked.
The man looked slightly miffed at the question, but like a true disciple of a greater power, shared his wisdom. “Green takes up to two weeks to get an answer, purple takes a day. Sliding scale in between, right? His eminence is a busy man, can’t answer everyone at once. Make sense? Give your noggin a joggin’, alright love?”
He spoke more like a barrow boy than a holy man, but at least Jenny got an answer. He was already dealing with other customers.
People were paying to ask the Pope for an answer to their questions, ecclesiastical or otherwise. The more they paid, the faster the response. It was a very smart way to make money. No donations for some mystical rewards in the afterlife. Pose your question in writing, pay the fee, get your answer—which was posted publicly.
The questions varied from wanting to know what the future held (which were usually given as vague horoscope type of replies) to practical requests like how to fix a drain (which were given as comprehensive lists of instructions).
It didn’t seem a bad system. Better than praying to an invisible, absent guy in the sky and waiting for some kind of sign you had to pretend you’d received. And by the looks of it, no less profitable.
“There’s some quite useful information here,” said Maurice, as he read some of the Pope’s advice to the faithful. He wrote some of it down.
Rather than some overbearing Thought Police that wanted you to think in a certain way, this was more like a business, with a clearly set-out pricing system to fit any budget. The value of the answers people got varied quite a lot, but then so did the value of their questions.
I strongly doubted the Pope answered all these himself (or any of them). He probably had a team of scribes to do it for him. Or maybe he outsourced it. Either way, it didn’t seem malicious or particularly evil. A lot of it was solid, practical suggestions.
As we continued to wander around the city, we spotted more and more of these Pope shops. There was practically one on every corner; like Starbucks, but not quite so much of a rip-off. A fake answer from a non-existent deity might not be the best way to spend your money, but it’s still better value than five quid for a cup of fucking coffee.
I felt like as long as we didn’t interfere in their business, the Shriners would leave us alone. The druids, however, were still stalking us.
We got some food and started making our way to the north part of the city where Grayson had said the richer people lived. The crowds thinned out and the cobbled streets grew wider. It became much harder for our pursuers to remain hidden.
“Ah think we’re being followed,” whispered Flossie, nodding less than subtly at the two bald men trying to hide in the doorways behind us. “Ah think they’re druids.”
“Yes, they’ve been watching us since we arrived at the inn,” I said.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” asked Claire, annoyed.
“I was waiting to see what they’d do,” I said, which was sort of true. “Just be chill.”
“I am chill,” said Claire in a way that was more ice-cold than chill.
There were more druids up ahead, I noticed. And even more coming out of side streets. There was no one else around and no obvious escape route. We were quickly surrounded by a dozen or more of them. The two we’d met at the city gates didn’t appear to be present.
“Ah don’t feel very chill,” said Flossie nervously as we backed up against each other.
“You are alien invaders,” said one of the druids. “Leave this city, or else.”
“Or else what?” I couldn’t help asking. I got a lot of hissing and tutting. Not from the druids, from my party.
“Defy us, and we will become your greatest nightmare,” said the druid doing all the talking.
“You’ll become a vagina with teeth?” I said.
“Vagina dentata,” said Dudley ominously, although I’m not sure you can say those words any other way.
“Leave,” said the druid, and then there were tentacles coming out of all of their faces. Waving at me like facial sea anemone. It was quite disconcerting, even though I’d been in the adjacent world and seen all sorts of freaky shit.
My hands burst into involuntary flames. The druids made a strange warbling sound and fled.
“Damn, I didn’t mean to do that.” Letting them know I could do magic would only put them on their guard. I turned to the others who were all staring, faces frozen in shock.
“What the fuck was that?” said Maurice.
“Face octopus,” said a stunned Flossie.
“You saw that?” I asked. I’d assumed I was having one of my flashback moments where I could see the physical manifestation of people’s psychic connections. Apparently, these guys weren’t reaching out with their minds, they actually had tentacles growing out of their heads.