The clunk of the JCB’s claw against something hard rings out across the worksite. Immediately, the machine ceases its work. A hushed silence falls on everyone, the mortals all staring at me expectantly. I try to keep calm, attempting not to show how excited I am. I’m not sure I succeed.
Immediately, Doug, the crews’ supervisor, is at my arm. He gets a little too close, but I’m willing to forgive his bad breath,
“Want me to pop down and check it’s not just a gas main, boss?”
I shake my head. I don’t want the mortals anywhere near the Rod of Asclepius. That’s why I brought my clay men. It’s fine for Doug and his crews to do the heavy work, dig down to the artefact, but after that, I want my own team involved. The less the mortals know, the easier it makes it in the long run. I fully intend to destroy the Rod as soon as I’ve used it to cure myself of my ability to only speak in lies. I don’t need someone coming after me in the future, thinking I’ve stashed it somewhere. I need to keep Lily safe.
“So?” The first of the voices intones inside my head, the others picking up the thread.
“You still intend…”
“…to waste what you have found?”
“Use it just for a bit of skirt.”
I ignore them. I am not letting the manifestation of my doubts, my concerns, ruin this moment. After everything I’ve done, I have found the cure to what ails me. Very soon, Lily will be mine.
I stroll across the land, feet squelching in the ever-thickening mud as I glance at my phone. It’s quarter past six in the morning, and this is definitely going to be a Halloween to remember. When I turn up at her flat all suited and booted, Lily might even think I’m playing some sort of Trick or Treat gag on her. That won’t last.
“Maybe you should wait?”
“Go see her tomorrow.”
“Do something else with the Rod today.”
“We could help you cash in on it.”
With little grace, I slide into the hole, mud streaking up the back of my clothes as I clumsily wobble and slip. I sense some of the mortals sniggering, but I don’t care. It’s like I can already feel it, sense its immense power. I step around the JCB scoop, and there in the early morning light is something that is not meant to be in the earth. Something smooth and constructed to hold one of the most powerful items in history. I reach forward, my fingers tingling as they touch the box.
Then I see it in my mind’s eye.
I stretch out in the bed, the sheets a little rough against my back. Without warning, her face appears before me, her red locks cascade over her shoulders to tickle my chest.
“Did you sleep okay?” Lily grins at me, her cheeks dimpling sweetly.
“I love you.”
“You may have mentioned it a few…hundred times.” She beams, her eyes twinkling.
“Only that many? I was aiming for thousands. I love you. I love you. I love you.”
She playfully bats at me,
“I love you too, silly.” I am so happy my heart strains, wanting to burst through my ribcage. I lean close to her, claiming her lips in a deep, passionate kiss. Our tongues explore each other’s mouths. It’s oh so familiar, yet different. We are happier. Then she’s on me, claiming me, and it is amazing.
With a gasp, Lily rolls off and lands next to me on the bed. She cuddles against my chest, and I can feel her body shaking against mine. Slowly, it eases, her breathing returning to normal.
“I love you,” I whisper.
“I feel exactly the same,” she tells me, relishing the truth of my words. Her gaze meets mine, and I can see my love reflected back at me. Her eyes grow hot with need, and before I know it, she’s straddling me again. She caresses my chest and rocks against me as I pull her mouth to mine.
Then everything shifts. My vision swirls and flickers, like it’s the end of an old film strip slipping off the reel.
Suddenly, I’m seated, my backside parked on an enormous gold throne. I stand, resenting the feel of clothing against my skin. It’s not just the fact I’m suddenly dressed that irks me. It’s what I’m wearing. The jacket is a deep crimson and the sash is a gaudy gold. None of this is me. It’s all so ostentatious. Yes, I’ve had fine things, but this leaves nowhere to hide. Everyone would see me in this. There’s something else, though, a draft. I look down to discover a hand reaching through the unzipped fly of my trousers. It grabs hold, trying to be smooth, but the touch is just a little too rough.
“What’s wrong, sire?” The words are spoken quietly in my ear, but it’s like a bomb has gone off in my head. I turn to face the horrid creature, realising how much of a faux Lily she is. Red hair, tightly curled, curvaceous figure with such skimpy clothing that leaves so little to my imagination. The make-up plastered across her face only adds to the torture of the sight.
“Get away from me!” I practically shout, recoiling from her touch.
“I don’t…what happened?” she stammers, whilst instantly retreating. There’s someone in the shadows who collects her and steers her away from me. It’s only at that point I realise I was as honest with that woman as I had been with Lily a moment ago. I turn on the spot, trying to unpick the surroundings.
The grand space is packed with exquisite items, each more glorious than the last. It’s a palace, but none I’ve seen before. I move to the window, which is a big mistake. The crowds are hundreds of rows deep, chanting and waving banners. It is all for me, Emperor Dolus.
I stagger back, my hand at my throat, choking back bile. What is all this? It’s at that point I realise I’m not alone. Four hooded figures step forward. My clay minions circle me, closing in.
“What’s going on?” I demand, trying to keep my voice level.
“Don’t you understand?” intones the first, its voice right but wrong. It’s the one from my head, the one that has plagued me for the longest. But now, it inhabits my clay creation. The creature to its left speaks, using the second voice that has rung through my mind for ages.
“This is what you could have.”
“How it could be.”
“What you should do.”
“It’s your destiny.”
I twirl on the spot, listening to the words, little clarity in my mind.
“We have told you of this,” they restart.
“This is what we have offered you.”
“What we have been insisting is better.”
“For you and them.”
My hands are suddenly at my head. I don’t want to hear them. I can’t.
“Do the right thing,” implores the first, his head tilting to the side, his gaze fixed on me.
“Make this a reality.”
“Rule the mortals.”
“Show the other gods how powerful you are.”
“How wrong they all were!” they chant together. I push through them, getting as far as the window before I stop dead in my tracks, realising what the many signs and placards say.
You saved us!
Dolus, the great healer!
“It’s not right. Not me!” I turn back to the solid foursome. “What can I do like this? I’m a trickster, not a bloody ruler!” I pull at my clothes, the material soft and silky between my fingers. “This is wrong.”
“No, Dolus.” The first one closes in, its head still set askew, like a sad puppy that just wants its bone back. “This is right. Think about it. Everything your family said, how they mocked you. The way they ridiculed you for being too attached to the mortals. Would someone who feels that way do this? Take over the Earth? No one would ever have suspected it of you. You will finally show them how great you are.”
“Show them! Show them! Show them!” the others intone as they close in.
Their leader continues, “How many tricks will you run with Lily?”
“None. None. None!” I splutter, looking for somewhere else to go, but they are closing in on me, cutting off any chance of escape. “Okay, I will trick. I’ll need money and somewhere to live. I’ll keep my hand in. It’s not the end.”
“And neither is this. Once you have the mortals, think about what else you could do. Who you could wage war on, especially when you can cure them of anything.”
It’s at that moment the Rod appears in my hand. It hums, almost like it’s feeding me, making me younger, stronger. It’s intoxicating, and I want to drop it, denounce it. Yet, I can’t quite let go.
“Give in to it!” the statues roar as they move ever closer. I close my eyes and picture her face. I recall the happiness of a few minutes earlier, and then release my fingers just as something touches my arm.
I jump, but it’s not my creations. It’s Doug.
“You alright, chief?” There’s concern creasing his brow. “You’ve been down here a few minutes, not doing anything.”
“Yes, I’m fine.” Sometimes lying clearly is easier than the truth. I glance down at the case in which I know the Rod is stored. Does that hallucination mean I shouldn’t? Can I control what’s inside?
“Control?” the voices taunt.
I shake my head. “I am in control.”
“You understand what happens now?” I ask, looking at Doug. He eyes me suspiciously for just a moment, then shrugs. “Sure. We pack up, go home. We weren’t here. Saw nothing. Won’t tell no one.” He grins, clearly thinking back to the money I shoved at him earlier this evening to ensure his people kept their mouths shut. “You won’t get no problems from my lads.” He covers his mouth, stifling a yawn.
“Are you all heading home?”
“Yeah, if you go past midnight, the firm always gives you the next day off. We’ve got a while before we need to be back doing any other jobs.”
“Surely, you all fancy a beer?” I beam at him, producing another wad of notes.
“Oh no, you’ve been more than generous, twice over.” Doug holds up his hands, but I force the money against his palm. He doesn’t wait that long before he grips it.
“You ever been to Strikers?” I ask.
“Can’t say we have. Probably too expensive for us,” he tries, but I’m not biting.
“Why not tell them I sent you? They’ll look after you.” It’s fun knowing it’s my last final lie. In truth, the team at that particular club will ensure they get enough dirt on this lot to ensure there is no risk to my secret. I always like an insurance policy.
Doug stares at me for a final moment, then brightens.
“Sure, why not? No one knows how long this took, anyway. By which I mean, we weren’t here.” He lets his eyebrows jiggle a little dance, and then he’s gone, shouting orders. Engines roar, trucks move, and I patiently wait, savouring my final moments of being tongue-tied. Very soon, I will speak the truth. All for Lily, the woman I love.
“Seriously?” It’s quiet, barely registering at the back of my mind.
“Yes. I don’t care what else I could have. What I could prove to others. This has always been about her and me. Nothing more.”
“Are you absolutely sure?”
“Yes.” I’ve never meant anything more in my whole life.
“You will be sorry.” Then it’s gone, my head quiet and peaceful, as is the worksite. Just for a moment, then my clay army slides into the pit. For a second, I wonder if they are going to say something, speak some evil, but they just set about their task as I have instructed them.
It takes a while, but finally, the crate is dug up and eased out of the hole. The workers shift back as one of them wrenches off the lid. It looks past the box’s top and then turns to me. It can’t speak, but there’s something in its features, something I don’t think I like. I step past it, every fibre in my body jangling. I think I’m ready for what I’ll see.
There’s no Rod. The crate is empty save for a piece of paper. Without thinking, I collect it up, and hold it close to my face. I howl as I read the four scribed words: Trick or Treat, Dolus?