286. The Unprincipled Certainty

 How did we die? The when was pretty obvious, it had to be before the girls disappeared the first time. That was probably why they disappeared.

We woke up, noticed the girls were missing, didn’t notice we were already deceased. Shows how messed up your priorities can get when you’re in a relationship.

I feel I can’t really be blamed for the oversight as there were no injuries or obvious signs. We were a bit sluggish and found it hard to think clearly, but that was no different to any other morning.

Maurice made a guttural moaning sound and tried to stagger in my direction with his arms outstretched. Dudley was quieter, eyes vacant as he lumbered awkwardly towards me. Actually, it was hard to tell if Dudley had been affected, he was acting pretty much the same as he always did.

“Don’t do anything!” shouted Jenny. “Don’t move or think or say a word!” Would there ever be a time when she wasn’t trying to tell me what to do? Although, to be fair, she did sound panicked, like we were millimetres away from stepping on a mine.

My first instinct was to eject.

I had the ability to vacate my body and enter a parallel world where time slowed to a virtual stop, which was much more my tempo. I could go there, relax, have a think about things, maybe grab forty winks, come up with a plan. I could also snip any controlling tentacles attached to Maurice and Dudley.

There were two problems, though. First, if I cut off the Pope’s influence, would they fall over like the two guards on the stairs?

We’d been dead for some time, and somehow we’d managed just fine, walking around without any papal attachments. But now that the Pope had got his hooks into them, did that mean they were under new management? Would they react the same as all the other dead here?

Perhaps if I freed them, I could take charge like I did with the two guards, but what would I do with them? Take them for walks to the park? Down to the beach on weekends to chase seagulls?

And the other, slightly bigger problem was that I couldn’t actually leave my body.

I tried. I focused, I relaxed, I looked at Jenny and fired up the emotional receptors, but I couldn’t quite remember how to do it.

It was like a special move on a gamepad. Once you got it (up, down, triangle, square, right shoulder), it became second nature. You couldn’t really explain it or break it down, it just clicked. It was a knack. And sometimes the knack deserted you. This was one of those times.

Seeing Jenny brought out a mixed response. I couldn’t focus on just one. I was mad at her, I was glad she was okay, I was desperate to touch her and quite frankly I never wanted to see her again.

Maurice and Dudley were still struggling to get to me, their faces locked into grimaces. I’m no anthropologist, but it seemed to me that the two of them weren’t trying to attack me (very slowly), they were actually trying to stop themselves. Their slow movements were due to them resisting the force pushing them forward. The grunting and pulling of faces were because of the effort it took. They were doing their best not to kill me with their bare hands, but a superior power was compelling them.

Claire and Flossie were screaming at them to stop, which had no effect other than to give me a sharp pain in the ears.

“It’s him,” I said, pointing at the pontiff. “He’s making them.”

The Pope was standing in front of his throne, with his hands aloft and his fingers wiggling slightly. I assumed this was standard necromancery.

“Stop!” Claire shouted at the Pope like he was a naughty puppy. “Leave them alone.”

“They are unbound!” shouted the Pope through gritted teeth, clearly putting in some graft to hold onto Maurice and Dudley. “The dead cannot be allowed to wander unsupervised. Anarchy!” He was really struggling to keep a hold of them as sweat pearled across his brow.

There was a whole arena of undead he was managing to control just fine, but apparently two English boys were about his limit.

I could have been wrong, of course. Maybe we weren’t dead. Some sort of mind control, perhaps, or a form of magic I wasn’t familiar with. But Maurice and Dudley were clearly under the Pope’s power.

Being untouchable was stopping me also being taken over. I could still feel the tendrils trying to reach me, pushing and prodding. Trying to control me may have been what was giving the Pope so much trouble.

“They aren’t unbound,” shrieked Claire. “Leave them alone.”

“Don’t do anything,” Jenny screamed at us. At me mostly. “Count to a hundred and don’t try to work anything out.”

It was an unusual situation, so I was willing to wait and see what was going to happen. But someone telling you not to think about something makes it very hard not to do exactly that.

Somehow, we died, and then we were brought back to a state. My guess was that whatever was used to achieve our resurrection, becoming aware of it would render it inactive. The girls couldn’t mention it or let on that anything had happened for that reason. Presumably, everything else they’d done and were in the process of doing was in an effort to reverse the process.

This was all speculation, of course. Did Joshaya kill us? Did he save us? Did he do both? Hard to know when no one can talk to you about it.

“This is intolerable! Impossible!” It wasn’t clear if the Pope’s uncomprehending dismay was due to his inability to control three random corpses, or if it was a response to having to listen to Claire caterwauling at him. “On your heads be it.”

He snapped back his hands like elastic attached to his fingers had broken.

Maurice and Dudley sagged. Their eyes changed from pitch-black orbs to their regular colour.

“What happened?” said Dudley. “Is Flossie alright?” If not understanding what was going on was key to staying alive, Dudley had an excellent chance at becoming immortal.

“This doesn’t make sense,” said Maurice. “I mean, not unless…”

“No!” screamed all three girls, but it was too late. Maurice had used his excellent deductive reasoning to find the answer. And then he dropped to the ground.

“Take control of him!” Claire screamed at the Pope.

“You just told me to release him,” he replied with maximum affrontage. “Make up your mind!”

Dudley had sunk to his knees, a hand on his chest, his face paling. He looked weird without his usual rosy glow of embarrassment.

I could feel a pit of darkness within myself—I mean apart from the one I carried around normally. It was growing, making me numb from the inside. Whatever had been keeping us ‘alive’ had been connected to Maurice, it seemed. Now he was indisposed, both Dudley and I were feeling our delayed status update. I had died before—I recognised the call of the abyss.

Maurice sprang to his feet. He looked taller, with an elongated neck like somebody was holding him up by his hair. His eyes were back to completely black.

The darkness within me receded. Dudley got to his feet, panting. Was there really any difference between the living and the dead if both breathed and had heartbeats?

Claire came running across the arena and clambered over the boarding around the perimeter.

“How did we die?” I asked her.

She ignored me and threw her arms around Maurice. He didn’t react, not even with revulsion. The only thing keeping him upright was the Pope.

Jenny followed over the partition, with Flossie trying to get over, but bouncing up and down like the neighbour’s dog at the garden fence. Dudley went to help her.

“Joshaya killed all three of you,” said Jenny. “He hates Visitors.”

“But not you three?”

“We made him a deal. Claire saw what he wanted and we said we could get it for him.”

“But how are we walking around if we died?”

Jenny looked at Maurice with Claire wrapped around him. “That’s his power. He can make things true that aren’t, as long as he can convince you.” She turned back to me. “It even worked on you.”

“But I’m untouchable.”

“He tricked you. You’ll have to ask him how.”

I was generally impervious to other people’s voodoo, but if anyone could figure out a way to get to me, it would be him.

“Hey,” I said to Maurice’s blank face. “When you attacked the guards back there, did you think you could take them, or did you just want to force me to get involved?”

He didn’t say anything. I looked past him at the Pope.

“Make him answer.”

“I’m not your—”

“Look, Tupor, just be nice and help out, like your fake religion tells you to. Let him talk, please.”

“You people… You’re all incredibly annoying.”

“Don’t be too hard on him,” said Jenny quietly. “He’s not that bad. His real name’s Rupert.”

Maurice’s body became more relaxed, although he still had an unnatural stiffness about him.

“Maurice, do you charge into fights you can’t win just to get me to join in?”

“Yes,” said Maurice in a flat emotionless voice. “You won’t act unless someone’s in trouble.”

“Bullshit. I don’t care if people are in trouble.”

“You care. Sometimes. You are Chaotic Good.”

Trust Maurice to reduce everything to D&D alignments.

“I’m not Chaotic Good. I’m not a character in an RPG.”

“Pre-4th edition definition, not 5th edition.” Even in death, Maurice was an insufferable nerd.

It was hard to argue with him in monotone. Everything out of his mouth sounded too factual. I’d have to remember that for my next argument with Jenny.

“Well, fucking cut it out. And next time you manipulate me into an early grave, leave me there. Don’t make my corpse climb out and walk around.”

“We had to do it this way,” said Jenny, reaching to put her arms around me.

I leaned out of the embrace. “You could have told me.”

“We couldn’t,” she said.

“We’d have found another way.”

“No, we wouldn’t.”

“How the fuck do you know? This plan of yours was doomed from the start. And that letter saying you were off to see Joshaya, who would believe that?”

“It was the only way,” Jenny said, her voice rising. “You died. You were dead in my arms. I wasn’t going to allow it. You don’t get to leave.”

“Oh, and now it’s plagiarism, is it? Using my own line against me like it’s some preapproved excuse—is nothing sacred?”

Jenny let out an exasperated snort. “You know, sometimes I just want to punch you in the face.”

“That’s your answer to everything, isn’t it? Violence. Look at those two poor blokes.” I pointed at the corpses lying in the arena. “You kicked his head off his shoulders! What did he ever do to you?”

“They were trying to kill us.”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right, Jenny.”

“They were already dead!”

“Oh, and that makes it alright, does it. Did you hear her?” I said to the undead crowd watching us intently. “She thinks you don’t matter because you’re slightly dead. Can you imagine what it’s like living with someone like that?”

There was a general murmur of support for my position. That’s how I interpreted it, anyway.

Some guards came running out into the arena, picked up the corpses, reattached limbs, and a head, and stepped back. The recently dismembered shook themselves and walked it off. Which was good for them, but kind of undermined the central thesis of my argument.

“You left me, Jenny. I woke up, and you were gone. Next time, just let me die. We’ll all be much happier, yeah?”

“Shut up! Shut up, shut up, shut up. I’ll drag you back from hell if I have to. I will rip the eyes out of anyone who tries to take you from me.” She punched me in the stomach. “You don’t get to leave.”

Luckily, I was ready for it, and it only partially winded me. I took a knee. “Alright, take it easy, Lady Macbeth.”

Jenny let out some air and unclenched her fists. “Sorry. Still had some residual rage left over from the fight.”

Sometimes you need to get these things out of your system.

I got back to my feet, unharmed thanks to my superior masculine physique. The tears in my eyes were due to unrelated matters. “So, we’ve been dead for days and you’ve been having sex with our cadavers. Kind of sick, don’t you think?”

“It wasn’t all that different,” said Jenny. “You actually stayed harder for longer.”

Here was a conversation I wished I’d never started. I turned back to Claire. “And when did you decide to enter the Thunderdome?”

“It’s what we have to do to save you,” said Claire. “Rupert brought one of the old gods back to life.”

“The Golden God?”

“Yes. He brought him back to impress the locals, and then he lost control and had to lock him up under the temple.”

“Okay, so there’s a god locked in the basement. And you have to kill it?”

“There’s more than one down there,” said Jenny. “The god learned how to raise the dead from the Pope, so it brought back its friends.”

“Nice. Then why does Joshaya want them brought back. They’re already back aren’t they?”

“Not quite. They’re not alive. They’re—”

“Undead gods. Great. And what was your plan? Go in like Charlie’s Angels and hope Bosley saves the day.”

“Are you Bosley in this scenario?”

“It’s a non-specific reference. How are you three supposed to beat a bunch of gods? What were you even thinking? Joshaya killed the old gods, and wants them brought back. Meanwhile, Rupert brought them back undead, and now he want to get rid of them. It’s a mess. Have you even considered asking the old gods what they want?”

The three girls gave me an identical look. A very clear and intense look that said, “What the fuck do you think we’re trying to do, idiot?”

“Fine,” I said. “And why won’t the Pope send you down there? You look ready.”

The old gods were clearly the most powerful players here. Get on their side and you were gucci. Problem was getting access to them.

“Why don’t you go ask him?” said Claire, in her needlessly confrontational style.

I walked around the ring, excusing myself as I squeezed past the undead. They shifted their knees out of the way to let me past.

The Pope was waiting for me, his expression one of mild irritation. “Are you really the leader?” His words were laced with doubt.

It was an interesting question. “Not really,” I said. “Only when they make me.”


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