I had thought I’d be fine with a hermit’s life. A cabin on a mountainside, a freshwater spring nearby, maybe grow my own pond weed. Sounds pretty bliss.
Don’t misunderstand me, I realise there’s nothing idyllic about life, especially not mine. The wilderness isn’t any safer than civilisation — both require immense survival skills. Sure nature seems very pleasant, with its flowers and faint scent of manure, but in this world, go down the wrong forest path, and you could end up being brutally gang-raped by bunnies.
Despite the risks, I think I’d make a decent fist of it. I could already hunt and cook to a reasonable standard. I had healing for the times I fucked up. The intense loneliness, which most people would find unbearable, would be the biggest attraction for me.
And if I did crave some kind of physical contact, I could always ‘accidentally’ take a wrong turn down Bunnicorn Lane.
“Oh, hello boys. Looks like I lost my way. Again.”
I was pretty sure I could make it work, if I had to. But the truth was, I was a city boy at heart. I didn’t want to have to eat barbecue every night.
Of course, the city contained my arch nemesis: people. But that wouldn’t be too much of a problem if I could make myself one of the crowd. When you’re just another pleb among thousands, you can go unnoticed a lot easier than when you’re the only idiot for miles around with a simmering hotpot. Randoms flock to those kinds of out of the way places. Weirdos on quests, requiring help from total strangers. Been there, done that, thanks but no thanks.
As I floated back through Gorgoth, I could appreciate the qualities of this city. Yes, it had a giant human skull at its centre, but in London we have a man standing on a giant pole. You need something eye-catching to pull in the tourists.
Putting my irrational fear of the occult to one side, and my rational fear of the occult to the other side (there were gods under the temple, after all), the city had a lot going for it.
Stone buildings that provided housing for everyone — I hadn’t seen any beggars, which meant either an excellent welfare system or Brazilian-style death squads — thriving business and industry, great food (apart from the occasional poisonous seafood platter), and wonderful weather. It was perhaps a bit on the warm side, but it was a dry heat.
The religious stuff was a bit dubious, but hardly intrusive in everyday life. People were willing to give the Church of the Shrine their money, and in return they got solace and support for whatever idiotic hope they had for themselves. Which might have all been meaningless nonsense, but it was nonsense at very reasonable prices.
There was no vilifying of groups or individuals like you get with most religions. Well, maybe they gave the druids a bit of a hard time, but they had tentacles growing out of their faces. Not that you should reject people for something they couldn’t help being born with, but it’s hard to accept someone into your heart when they could potentially suck your face off.
My point is that it was manageable. People were getting by, and without a twenty-four-hour news cycle to aggravate them, were reasonably content.
In the other three cities, I had felt the undercurrent of unrest. People were jockeying for position. Social strata were in constant flux. Not here.
Here, they had a very clear idea of a higher power being in charge. They were wrong, but that’s the great thing about humility. Simply thinking you aren’t anything special is enough to stop most fights from breaking out. Self-esteem is highly overrated, particularly in the hands of people who have no right to own any.
In the distance, a fizzing light was streaking towards me. It was running along one of the vines, from the direction of the Municipal Directory. Damicar’s vine, the one that had led me to his father’s lockbox, was disintegrating. It was as though it was a lit fuse for a bomb, racing me back to Damicar. When it got to him, he might actually explode.
Others vines behind it were also on fire. Destroying the note wouldn’t only affect Damicar. I turned and upped my speed as much as I could, staying ahead of the burning fuse.
I found my body where I’d left. The people in the street were awaiting my return, they just didn’t know it. This was the moment I had engineered, my chance to do it my way.
Falling back into my body was easy, like slipping on old shoes. Wesley was seated on her comfy chair. She gave me a smile as I passed through, not offering me any advice or observations. It wasn’t that she had nothing to say, I think it was more that she had something I hadn’t encountered before. Patience.
“Right, sorry, where were we?” I said to Grayson as I snapped back into the here and now.
He looked at me like he thought I was trying to distract him while someone stuck a ‘kick me’ sign to his back. It’s a very specific look which I had often seen reflected in the sunglasses of arseholes.
Malmur’s men scurried about, and the street was nearly vomit-free. Damicar’s place would take some rebuilding, but that wasn’t a bad thing. It could do with the renovations, and I’d seen enough Gordon Ramsay shows to help with the layout and point out the people who were a Yankee danky doodle shite.
I took a long hard look at both Damicar and Malmur to see if there was any change from my intervention.
“What is it?” asked Damicar, touching his face self-consciously. “Do I have something in my teeth?”
“How are you feeling?” I asked him. “Anything on your mind?”
Damicar took a moment to search his thoughts. “Well, I have been wondering if you can use minced garlic instead of a puree in a—”
“Okay, good. What about you, Malmur? Everything okay?”
Malmur pursed his lips and aggressively ran his eyes up and down my body. I wasn’t sure what he was checking for, but he wasn’t really in a position to be judgemental. He was the one in a toga, and he didn’t really have the legs for it.
“What are you up to?” he asked me, unnecessarily suspiciously.
I felt it coming closer. The touch paper burning towards us was nearly here. I could almost see it. I’d had moments like this before, when I’d been able to see particularly active vines while still in this world. The more intense the sensation, the clearer the image became. A vine coming out of Malmur’s chest. One in Damicar’s. Sparks devouring the other ends.
“What is it?” Damicar sounded uncomfortable. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
The vine burned down to the stump and I flinched, expecting an explosion. There wasn’t one, but everyone else flinched with me.
I relaxed my face and let my shoulders go loose. “It’s nothing. How do you feel now?”
Damicar seemed unaffected, just mildly bewildered by my behaviour.
“Malmur?” He had the same look of perplexed annoyance as before. Perhaps I needed to be more specific. “You know the note your brother left when he died? Does it still upset you?”
Malmur’s eyes widened in startled surprise. His mouth dropped open.
“Oh!” cried out Damicar. I turned to look at him. He had his fist on his heart and a pained look on his face. Then he belched loudly. “That’s better.” He took another bite of raw onion.
I turned back to Malmur. I hadn’t been sure of what to expect, but something should have changed, shouldn’t it?
“What do you know about my brother?” He said it so menacingly, I heard Grayson start to draw his sword.
“I know he left a note for the Pope, confessing to a lot of things that don’t really matter. He was just scared of dying. He wasn’t trying to punish you.”
There was movement behind Malmur’s face, like a parasite had crawled in through his ear and was trying to find somewhere to lay its eggs.
Something broke. His whole body changed from tightly-wound spring to gelatinous blob. He began crying. Not sniffling, not even sobbing. This was a deluge.
“It doesn’t matter.” He looked at me with snot running freely down his face. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“No,” I agreed, “it doesn’t.”
“Even if the Pope reads it…”
“He won’t. I destroyed it.”
“You did? No, it isn’t possible, and yet… I think… I think I believe you.” The downpour intensified.
“You should, it’s the truth. You won’t know it for sure for another three years, but you can feel it’s gone, can’t you?”
Whatever use I could have put the note to if I still had it, I felt destroying it had been the right thing to do.
I had nothing to hold over him now, but that was okay.
It’s a shitty thing to do, to drag someone else into your guilt. If he’d wanted to shop Malmur because he believed he’d done something terrible and deserved to be punished, fair enough. But to do to lessen his own punishment, that was clearly the action of a giant dildo who hadn’t experienced true remorse or repentance.
“I admit what I did was wrong, but so did you…” The motto of millions of adolescents trying not to grow up into responsible adults (and judging by Reddit, succeeding).
“Thank you,” said Malmur, his voice breaking.
“Don’t thank me, thank the Golden God.” The Golden God had done fuck all, of course, but you don’t win people over by taking credit for the impossible. They end up resenting having to crane their neck to look up at you. And the great thing about deferring to a higher power is you have someone to pass the buck to when shit hits the fan. Hey, it was God’s will, not mine. Don’t ask me to explain, mysterious ways, dude, mysterious ways.
“I don’t really understand why your brother left it in the Directory, though,” I said. “Or what he thought Damicar would do with it.”
Damicar was standing there, unaffected. The loss of the note was no big deal to the gormless tub of lard. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Damicar’s lack of resentment towards people who clearly deserved it had a soothing effect on his surroundings, although it missed the occasional spot.
“That boy…” said Malmur, with an edge to his voice that suggested the anger hadn’t gone, it had just moved to somewhere else. There’s always somewhere else. “He’s the reason everything changed. It was all going so well, and then he was born.”
Damicar backed away, his nostrils flared and he began munching more quickly under his uncle’s disapproving glare. I think he was afraid whatever his uncle wanted to do him would cut into chow-time.
It’s not an unusual story, a criminal having a child and rethinking his approach to life. It’s usually a passing phase, fading out as the thankless and futile nature of parenting become more apparent. But if you throw in a terminal illness, and a big hoopla about the Golden God eight times a week (matinee on Wednesdays), then I can see why a guy might put pen to purple paper.
“It’s not Damicar’s fault,” I said. “The Golden God has a purpose for him, as he does for you.”
“Me?” said Malmur. Time to lean back and reel him in.
It may have seemed with my natural reluctance to use bully-boy tactics to get my way, that I might have tried for a more wholesome approach. Be kind, be forgiving, wait for others to see the benefits of behaving like a decent person. Perhaps if I’d been raised in a bubble and never encountered another human being I might think such a thing was possible.
But I was raised in North London, and I have no illusion about how far decency will get you.
“Yes, you and your whole organisation. You are going to be an instrument of the Golden God.” That instrument being a giant fiddle.
If you threaten and coerce people, you can get them to do what you want. If you exert enough force, you can break them so they’ll be under your control forever. But until that happens, they will see you as a target for revenge. You’ve got to constantly watch your back, which will give you a terrible pain in the neck.
On the other hand, win them over by making empty promises, and you can rely on their natural fear of missing out to keep them from walking away. After waiting so long, imagine how crushing it would be to bail now, and then it arrives tomorrow. Everything you had hoped and prayed for, the day after you left. Better to hang in there, and you never know. Could be tomorrow.
“Everything will be better once you allow the Golden God to guide your path.” This religious stuff was easy. You got your shepherd, you got your lambs, and then you have your delicious Sunday dinner. Anyone for more mint sauce?
“The path to salvation?” asked Malmur.
Lucky for Malmur, I wasn’t some shyster looking to scam him so I could buy myself a Rolls Royce. These fake messiahs with their abject materialism. Is nothing sacred?
“Salvation, yes, sure, that’s where the path’s headed alright, somewhere around there. Very close. Walking distance. But first,” I said, “I’ll need one of your boats.” Maybe I took my time getting here, but the important thing was that I had found a way to my objective.
Malmur looked confused. “I don’t have a boat.”
“You don’t? But you’re the Fishing Union, aren’t you?”
“No,” said Malmur. “Why would you think that? We are the Warehousemen and Teamsters Guild.”
“Hoo hah!” said the thugs in unison, before going back to cleaning up.
“No boats? No boats at all?” Malmur shook his head at me. “But I need a boat.”
“Where do you want to go?” asked Malmur.
“Shrine Island,” I said. Perhaps I shouldn’t have told him. The look of horror on Malmur’s face suggested he’d rather I hadn’t.
“No one has ever returned from that place.”
“Because it’s so lovely they didn’t want to leave?” I asked optimistically.
“No,” he said, “because everyone who sets foot on the beach is killed.”
I wasn’t frightened. How bad could it be if there was a beach? White sand, palm trees, cocktails served in coconuts, probably. Sure, maybe a monster or two, but I’d dealt with monsters before. Monsters were fine, they just got a lot of bad press. They weren’t so scary once you got to know them. I could handle monsters. “What kind of monsters are they?” I asked him.
“They aren’t monsters. They’re people.”
“Oh,” I said. “Fuck.”
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