318: Second Prize in a Beauty Contest

I let myself be lifted to get a better look. The world was a disgusting mass of writhing tentacles, but it was all mine. 

There were no time constraints here, no idiots complaining about things of no importance, no sense that I was being judged and found lacking. I could do what I wanted.

The question was, what did I want? For once, I had an answer.

I looked down at Malmur and Damicar. They were overgrown with vines, just like everyone else. Everyone but me, of course. My body stood apart, untouched.

With a little effort, I was able to focus my mind and think about the Municipal Directory. I held Malmur and Damicar in my thoughts, along with the building in the main square.

I’d tried something similar when I lost Jenny, back in the temple. I obviously had a much stronger connection to her (ah, the good old days), but the fact I was able to distinguish her vines from each other meant it was possible. Plus, I had been practising my abilities quite vigorously with Joshaya in his various incarnations, and of all of us, I’d always been the quickest to acquire upgrades.

Uncle and nephew both had an attachment in common when it came to the Directory, that much I knew. It was just a shame I couldn’t scythe through all the other vines in the way.

Yes, that would be a reckless thing to do, and cause untold damage to the people whose various connections I’d be severing, but on the other hand, fuck ‘em.

The new, darker Colin, available in hypothetical situations everywhere. Of course I wouldn’t really do something like that. I just wish I could.

I was starting to get a sensation of something moving, flowing. I tried to pick out the vines I was looking for.

The city was quiet in my world. The sky was dark and the stars unblinking. Somewhere Joshaya was up to no good. I should have really tracked him down and had it out with him. Ha ha, just joking. Bastard would probably make me his emissary and send me off on a mission to save Dimension X. I’ve read fantasy books, I know how this chosen-by-the-gods shit goes down.

Then there were the gods trapped under the temple. What havoc and chaos would result from their release? I was tempted to find out, but I knew I’d be the one who ended up getting shafted. I know a pattern when I see one.

And speaking of being let down by the gods, the poor druids had made like a tree and left. I could probably track them down and form some kind of hippy commune with them, but what good would that do anyone? There’s enough misery in the world without encouraging drum circles and sitar music.

The issue with becoming a leader is that you need to find a group less good than you. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, but he’s king of a lot of blind people. What’s he going to get them to do? Can you imagine the logistical nightmare of organising an army of the blind? You shout Charge! and everyone goes off in different directions.

And even if you aren’t at war, the statues built in your honour would look nothing like you.

If you’re going to take control of a group, it should at least be a group that was functional. Which was why Malmur’s little outfit was so attractive to me. I just needed a way in.

A smart person might have realised they’d need information on all the groups they encountered, and maybe take notes along the way. You had to hand it to Maurice, he had that part figured from the start. He was able to play different sides off against each other because he knew how they would each react. I had gone for the more classic approach of relying on the people who had told me I could rely on them. Colour me embarrassed.

There was a dull glow coming from Damicar. He had vines going off in all directions, but there was space enough for a little light to get out.

Still nothing from Malmur, but Damicar’s was headed in roughly the right direction, so I followed it.

I had improved a lot at moving through the air and sped along. There was no rush of wind through my hair, no thrilling sense of flight, just a sort of glide through a very well rendered 3D map.

The closer I got to the Municipal Directory, the stronger the glow became. Having a sense of where I wanted to go made it much easier to tease out the appropriate vine from Damicar’s bunched up mass of indistinguishable growths.

There were numerous other vines from different sources getting in the way, but it was getting easier for me to distinguish between those vines I had an interest in, and those I didn’t.

As I neared the directory, fewer and fewer of Damicar’s vines remained. The others had gone off in various directions, his life as an outcast still a million times richer than mine. Now, the glowing vine was clearly visible. This was proving to be easier than I had anticipated. He shoots, he scores? Probably not.

This was only the first part of my attempt to take over the fishhead mafia. I didn’t even know if what Damicar’s dad had left him would be of any use to me. And if it was, then I had to put it to that use. Easy, it would not be. Malmur was bound to fight to keep power in his own hands.

I know, I’m not exactly the mafia boss type. Can you imagine people kissing my ring (not a euphemism)?

In the same way that Damicar wasn’t cut out to be the Don of a criminal enterprise, neither was I. Well, maybe not in exactly the same way.

He was an onion-addicted crybaby who was only decisive when it came time to add the fish stock. I had problems giving orders to men with homemade tattoos on their faces. But we were in the same general area. That area being Pussy Park.

The way I saw it, though, was like Monopoly when one player is dominating, with hotels on everything. The first question that comes to mind is, of course, why the fuck would anyone play Monopoly, that game sucks. It’s the only game where the outcome has been decided, and you still have three hours to go.

Some people think it’s an accurate representation of how business is conducted, but it has one very obvious flaw. There’s no comeback mechanism.

In real life, you can take out a loan, sell your body, or murder someone and take their money. You have options.

The way to win when you’ve obviously already lost, is to change the rules. If four of you are playing Monopoly, and one is way ahead, then making a deal among the three of you to see who can lose all their money the fastest makes the game suddenly fun (which it certainly isn’t the regular way), and, more importantly, cuts the real winner out of the competition. Fuck you, Richie Rich.

I was able to enter the Directory by simply floating through the walls. Being an insubstantial person was finally paying off. It was dark inside, but that only made my guiding vine more distinct. It disappeared through a wall behind the gated area where people served you. No problem for me.

In the vault were dozens, maybe hundreds, of small doors filling the walls. All locked up tight. The vine went to one in the far left corner. There were also some other vines attached to it. One was Malmur’s; I recognised it. Just with that thought, the vine began to glow green, the same as Damicar’s.

I’d found it. Not that I ever doubted the outcome, but holy fuck, it actually worked!

I stuck my head through the door into the area behind it, which was big enough to easily accommodate my head, shoulders and arms. The vines were in here, too, but just the thin tips. The glow was just about enough to see by. The contents of the box proved disappointing. No magic weapon, no wish-granting amulet, no cake of the gods. Just a single sheet of paper.

I created a light on the end of my finger. Being able to use beast magic in this state was a useful feature I had a tendency to forget about.

Even with my finger-light, it wasn’t that easy to read the note. It was black ink on purple paper. I only realised why after reading the first line.

Holy Eminence, I ask for your forgiveness.

It was written to the Pope on one of the special cards used to ask for advice. Purple was the top colour, if I remembered right, which would get you the speediest response. I had used the service myself, and had seen how quickly they had sent out troops to give me my personalised reply.

Many years ago my brother and I committed a terrible crime.

Rather than asking for advice, this was a confession. I imagined that once Damicar’s father realised he was dying, he, like all devoutly religious people, wanted to get a pass for all the shitty things he’d done throughout his life.

We robbed a missionary of the Church of the Shrine and used the money to start a life of wickedness and villainy. Even though the results were financially rewarding, leading to us doubling the missionaries initial investment within the first year, it was wrongdoing of the highest order.

I read all of it, and my personal conclusion was that none of it was wrongdoing of the highest order. As far as I could see, it was middle order, at best. Some of it wouldn’t even get you in the Australian cricket team.

As a couple of wayward youths, they’d mugged some Shriner, and used the ill-gotten gains as seed money for a start-up. Almost commendable. The Pope would probably give them an award for industry.

Mind you, despite his guilt, he hadn’t actually sent the note in. Perhaps because as well as owning up to his transgressions, he’d also implicated his brother in his crimes. Which I was sure was all true, but it’s a little out of order to drop your bro in the shit as you’re heading for the exit.

You get to enjoy the fruits of repentance while your partner in crime gets the blame. I’m not one to speak ill of the dead (they can’t hear me, so what’s the point?), but I was starting to think Damicar’s dad was a bit of a dick.

But the note was here, not in the hands of the Church. Was Damicar supposed to post it when he came of age? What kind of inheritance was that?

At least I now knew what had Malmur so uptight. Nothing. This was what religion got you when you’ve never actually had a face-to-face with your gods — a complete misunderstanding of how little they cared about what you got up to.

Which didn’t mean I couldn’t use this against Malmur. As long as he believed this would get him in trouble, he was vulnerable to being blackmailed.

I just had no interest in doing it.

Admittedly, I was looking to get into organised crime, so baulking at the first sign of having to twist an arm wasn’t very encouraging. This wasn’t even hardcore extortion, it was extortion for casuals. An extortion app for mobile, so you can rip people off on the go. Although if you did create that app, you’d probably get sued by Apple for copyright infringement.

I made the light on my finger brighter. There was nothing else in here. No deeds or contracts or recipe books like Damicar had said. Was there something written on the other side of the note? I couldn’t move it to see. The light got even brighter, and smaller, and more intense.

The note caught fire, flared for a second, and then all that was left was ash.

No, not an accident.

My magic worked in here. My magic could burn the pages of a book, as with the tax collector’s ledger. It would have been nice if it worked on the vines like it did with leaves and grass, but the vines weren’t really plants. Although, if I kept at it, maybe even that would be possible. It would certainly be useful now that I didn’t have the wooden sword.

Once the note was gone, the vines that had been attached to it began to shrivel. They had nothing to hold on to, so they no longer had a reason to exist.

How would that affect Malmur? Even if I told him I’d destroyed the note, he wouldn’t be able to check for another three years. But the fear or guilt or whatever it was he felt in connection to it no longer existed. Even if I gained nothing from the change, it would be interesting to see the results.

Wesley had said I feared doing what I wanted to do. She was right. I was afraid of looking like an idiot. There’s a reason why all the top jobs are taken by people who act like arseholes. It’s the only way to control the arseholes under you. Such is the arsehole meta.

The only way to change that was to break the meta. I wasn’t going to force people to do my bidding under threat of destruction. I was going to set them free. Their idea of a Golden God had them waiting for someone to save them, and here I was, Colin the Saviour.

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