We headed out of the temple with two of our members in wheelbarrows. Normally this would require some explaining. People don’t just push around unconscious bodies in gardening equipment, unless it’s a stag do that’s going very well.
In this case, however, we were aided by the presence of druids, the local religious weirdos who everyone did their best to ignore (in favour of their preferred flavour of supernatural worship).
Coupled with the fact we were coming out of the temple everyone believed could do no wrong (never fails to amaze me how happy the faithful are to confuse turn the other cheek with turn a blind eye) and they assumed we must have had a good reason to use this particular form of public transport.
The crowds in the square simply parted for us as they went about their business, shopping for things to put in their homes to feel happier about themselves. Which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Retail therapy really does make you feel better. Chimps find it comforting to pick lice out of each other’s hair and eat them, and we have Apple products.
Consumers, I think it’s safe to say, make the best people to govern. If there’d been a sale on, I doubt anyone would have noticed us at all.
My own thoughts were preoccupied with matters of slightly greater importance, although not as fun as buying a pair of trainers that cost a hundred and fifty quid. Even the shoebox feels like a free gift thrown in.
I strongly suspected Arthur, the one in a box of his own, to be another manifestation of Joshaya. I liked this latest character, thought the roleplaying was of a very high standard, and the cosmetic touches were really well done. But there were just too many things niggling in the back of my mind.
If the ability to control people beyond their sell-by date truly belonged to Arthur, how had Pope Joshaya been able to use it on Maurice?
It could be he had some influence over the ability since he’d spent so much time attached to it. Reverse-engineered a way to force it do what he wanted—he was a god, after all. But it could just as easily be explained by it being his power all along.
He was certainly going to great lengths to keep me off-balance. This was the trouble with no longer being underestimated by people much better at this stuff than me. Once they treated me as a valid threat, their superiority began to show.
Joshaya was making sure I had no idea who to trust and no one I could rely on. Since relying on other people was something of a trademark of mine, it was very smart of him to nip that in the bud. It was like trying to get out of a house and every time I opened a door or window, there he was, smiling and offering to assist me.
At this rate, the final battle would be me and all of his different personalities around a dinner table, like an Eddie Murphy movie, only with less farting.
“What do we do when we get there?” asked Claire.
We’d made it out of the middle of the city without a problem. There were probably guards and city officials who could have stopped us, but they were probably just as much in thrall to the Church of the Shrine as everyone else here. The crowds had thinned out and we had more or less a clear run to the graveyard. Not really the destination you want in this sort of scenario, but you play the hand you’re dealt.
Claire had been patient up to this point. I’d told her we needed to be careful to not be overheard, and she’d accepted that. I’m not sure why, since a crowd of druids pushing wheelbarrows of people through town was hardly the most inconspicuous way to stay under the radar.
Now that we were clear of any immediate challenge, she wanted some answers.
“We have to meet a guy. In the church. Or under it, actually.”
“What guy? Is he a priest? What aren’t you telling us?” She was being her usual pushy self, only this time it was a reasonable stance to take. Actually, it was almost always a reasonable stance to take with me since I never explained anything and treated them like cattle who needed to be herded, but that was just my leadership-style, as I’d often explained to her slowly enraging face.
“I just need a moment to think, okay. There’s a lot going on and I need to get it straight in my head before I talk about it and you lot make it even more confusing. It doesn’t help that your boyfriend’s decided to take the afternoon off.”
Maurice was having a lovely time taking a nap while being rolled around like a teenager in a shopping trolley pushed by his mates.
“He isn’t the only one who can help you make sense of things, you know?” she said. “You could talk things through with us.”
Dangerous ground, as ever. Like when your girlfriend insists you don’t need to go watch the game with your mates, you can stay at home and watch it with her.
“Thank you, but I’ll be fine sorting this out myself.” I was very polite, appreciative of the offer and firmly in the ‘not today, maybe some other time’ camp. How can you get mad at such good manners?
“This is why nobody likes you,” Jenny chipped in.
Harsh. But fair.
“It’s not like you lot bothered explaining anything to us when you ran off into the night without even saying toodle-loo.”
“We had a good reason for that,” said Claire.
“Yeah, well, maybe I have a good reason for not telling you now.”
She frowned and glared at me. Was she trying to read my mind? It wouldn’t work, but when did lack of common sense ever stop her? Then again, she was always glaring at me and maybe she just wanted to keep her daily quota filled.
“No,” said Claire, “I don’t think you have a good reason. You just don’t value our input.”
It was hard not to shake her hand and give her a shopping voucher as a prize. Buy yourself something nice, love, you’ve done very well.
I didn’t really have anything to add, and we didn’t have much further to go, so I went back to mulling over what to do when we got back to Arthur. Could the druids be of help?
Assuming they weren’t secretly working for Peter as well, they did have the advantage of not being affected by Arthur’s power. Or, at least that’s what I had been led to believe.
Another crock of shit? It was just so hard to keep everything straight when the goalposts kept moving.
I had to admit, the overall strategy against me had been an impressive one. Not because it was brilliant or staggeringly clever. What made it so devastating was how well suited it was for fucking with me in particular. Bespoke villainy of the highest quality.
Usually, you threaten someone to make them do what you want.
Deliver the codes to us, Mr Bond, or your lady friend will be swimming with my pet jellyfish. Their poison is stronger than three thousand cobras. Hurry, Mr Bond, hurry. Hahahahaha.
Fiendish, but with a slight loophole. If Mr Bond can kill the villain first, then the villain can’t kill the girl.
And there’s also the added problem of having to follow through with the threat if Mr Bond refuses the very reasonable proposal. If you kill the girl, then what? You still don’t have the codes, and now Mr Bond is pissed off. And he has a license to kill. They don’t give those out to just anyone, you know.
But, what if you kill the girl, but not permanently. Now, Mr Bond has to do what you say if he wants you to bring her back to life. He can’t just kill you. Who’s going to resurrect the Russian agent who fell in love with him even though she desperately tried not to?
Kill first, threaten later—it was next gen extortion.
“Are you happy?” asked Jenny.
I’d been doing my best not to dwell on what to do about her. I’d caught her looking at me a few times, but it hadn’t been the warm, ‘wait till I get you alone’ look I was used to. It was an altogether more cold and calculating ‘what is this thing I used to enjoy’ examination. It didn’t upset me, exactly. It sort made me feel like I was indoors on a sunny day. Which can be quite pleasant. Who wants to be out squinting and getting all thirsty for no reason?
“What do you mean? Happy about what?”
“Happy since we broke up.”
I hadn’t really seen it as breaking up, until now. I mean, ties had literally been severed, but plenty of people remain a couple when they feel nothing for each other. Why not us?
“No, I’m not happy. It’s extremely unpleasant,” I said, surprising myself with the candour of my words.
“Good? You’re pleased I’m unhappy?”
“Yes. It’s just an ego thing, but it’s nice I wasn’t just some shag to you.”
She was, I felt, being needlessly blunt. A little tact would have been nice. I realise the irony of what I said coming from me, but that’s because you don’t realise how tactful I am considering how cold and hurtful I could be if I didn’t soften the blow.
“Glad to be of help,” I said bitterly. “You won’t be rushing back to my arms when this is all over with, then.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t given it much thought.”
It was a good thing I was untouchable. If I’d been capable of regular human connections, I’d probably used one of the vines to hang myself with.
Even though there was a lot to decide before I met up with Lich Arthur, it was hard to concentrate with Jenny so close and yet such a cold-hearted bitch.
“Not given it much thought. I see. What have you been thinking about, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Oh, you know… what we’ll do after this, how we’ll survive. Finding food, finding a place to stay, somewhere to sleep. We really don’t have anything sorted.”
“No, you’re right. We need to see to the basics if we want to stop running around like headless chickens. Establish a base. Some place out of the way, where we won’t get dragged into unnecessary conflict. And I didn’t come up at all when you were thinking about things like where we’d eat or sleep? A general communal dwelling, was it, in your mind, I mean? No fleeting thoughts of me?”
See? I can be subtle.
“Not really. I don’t think I’m ready for a serious relationship right now.”
Rejection isn’t something I’m good with. That’s why I go out of my way to avoid it. Not anyone’s fault if you’re not into what the other person’s into. No chemistry is sometimes just the way it is.
But the trouble with the ‘I think I’m going to enjoy being single for a while’ is when you see that person a week later with a new bloke they bumped into at a bus stop.
Sure, if you click with someone, you click. That’s the way it goes. But letting people down gently with easy to disprove excuses is a lot worse than a straight rejection. It gives you false hope.
And when you realise what a dick Bus Stop Guy is, it’s even more painful. How much of a dick must she think you are to consider him a viable option?
“But you remember being with me, right?”
“Yes, of course,” she said.
“And how do those memories make you feel.”
She thought about it for a second. “I’m not ashamed.”
Hang myself with a vine, set myself on fire with my beast magic—that’s how I’d do it, if I cared. Which, luckily, I didn’t. Phew.
We were approaching the church and I had very little time to come up with a plan to outsmart the people who had consistently been outsmarting me since I got here. Rely on Arthur, or try to kill him when he wasn’t expecting it. Both options had very serious consequences if I guessed wrong.
“Looks like there’s a storm coming,” said one of the druids. They at least had been very helpful. Did as asked without quibbling and moaning. They’d probably turn on me for the third act twist.
I looked where he was pointing. It was an unusual cloud formation on the horizon. More tall than wide, like a tornado with legs. Like an Elf.
The best way to mess with someone trying to outmanoeuvre your manoeuvre is to force their hand. If you have to just plump for one choice or the other without putting any thought into it, you’ve got an excellent chance of getting it wrong. Or getting it right, but not realising it.
The Elf was coming. Arthur was waiting for me in his crypt. My ex-girlfriend was looking forward to hitting the Gorgoth singles scene. All in all, pretty average day at work for yours truly.
At least I had a clear idea of what to do. I’d go down and talk to Arthur, and if I didn’t like what he told me, I’d set fire to his rotting corpse. Because fuck them and their intricate planning.
The thing about placing threats over people’s heads is that they only work if you care about the outcome. If you’re truly untouchable, then you don’t care what happens to others, or even what happens to you. The important thing wasn’t to save myself, it was to ruin it for them. They could mess with my ability and force me to cut myself off from everyone around me, but they could never take away what made me truly untouchable, my huge abundance of spite.