CHAPTER 19: VIRGIL
There was a great yellow moon sewn into the black and grey fabric of the night sky and the path ahead of the two men was a golden thread, leading them home.
“I hear there was a murder.”
“Yes.” Luke replied “Our magistrate.”
“I’m sure you’re all distraught.” said the youth tonelessly.
Luke did not reply, not wishing to lie, but not wishing to show disrespect for the dead.
“Did they catch the murderer?” and again the words were passionless.
“Do you think they will?”
“I don’t know.”
The youth snorted at this, as if it amused him.
They walked on in silence until they reached the bridge. Thomas put his hands on the stone barrier, and leaned over to see the stream trickling in the moonlight. The two waited for a few seconds. Luke was in no real hurry.
“Tell me.” said Thomas “What would make a man do that, do you think?”
“I don’t know.” said Luke wearily “There are evil people in the world.”
Thomas actually laughed at this, and it was a sick and scratching laugh.
“Oh yes. Oh yes, there are. There are that. A great many. Evil men aplenty. Do you want to know what I think happened? To your magistrate? Would you like to hear my humble analysis?”
“I think your magistrate was a cruel and murderous wretch. Now that is not something that I object to. I myself, you see…” and his head turned, his grey eyes caught the moonlight, the effect quite horrible “I am myself a cruel and murderous wretch but you see I tend to take it as a personal insult when someone close to me is killed. I consider it to be a personal sleight you understand.”
“I don’t believe we have been properly introduced. My name is Thomas Hieronimo.”
His lips parted. There was the snarl.
“And you.” he said slowly “Are not a farmer.”
The knife, still flecked with spots of Nogaret’s blood which were one of the few bodily remains of his still above ground, flew out and Luke felt a line in the centre of his face catch fire. He roared in pain and slapped his hands to his face, red blood seeping through the fingers.
“How dare you…” Luke heard the dark youth’s voice only distantly through the buzzing of the pain “…did you honestly think you could kill my father and not have to deal with me? I take my revenge very seriously, Monsieur Dashonde. ..”
“So do I.” said a voice behind him.
The Thief’s son spun around. He had been sure they were alone.
There, standing on the bridge in the moonlight, was a girl.
She was young, around Isabella’s age, Thomas thought, and he would not have paid her any mind were it not for two things. The first, was that the look in her green eyes made it very clear that she intended to kill him. The second, was that she was holding a long sharp sword. And it was pointed directly at his neck.
“And who might you be, mademoiselle?” Thomas asked with a debonair smile.
“I might be his daughter.” she replied, and the smile was not returned.
“Marie…?” Luke murmured, looking up, and squinting as the blood from the wound ran into his eyes.
“Well.” said Thomas “If this isn’t revenge I don’t know what is. Pay close attention Papa, I wouldn’t want you to miss this.”
And before Luke could grab him he had lunged at Marie. Luke screamed his daughter’s name.
Marie did not flinch.
Marie was gone.
Thomas landed on the ground with a wallop and leapt to his feet. How could she? Nobody could move that fast…
“Die” came a voice behind him. It was a simple command.
She drove the sword into his back and held it there until he stopped twitching. And then, because it was the only way she could make sure she would never see his form running for her again, she cut his head from his shoulders. She let the sword drop to the ground and turned to look at Luke. And he was there, and he was real and he was still alive. Still her Papa, bloodied yes, but still breathing. And she flew into his arms and kissed him and held on to him for dear life, as if she was afraid he would melt into dust. But no, she could feel the solidity of his flesh and bone in her arms, and she knew that everything was going to be alright.
She jolted back to reality
Above her the sky was a wintry blue, and she could hear crows cawing weakly in the bare trees.
“You were a million miles away.” Mariana said with a kind smile as they walked the dirt path back to the house.
Not quite so far away, Marie thought to herself, just long ago.
They were coming up to the entrance to the house now, through the front garden.
“Here, let’s rest a while.” said Mariana gesturing to a bench.
With a grunt she sat down, and Marie could hear her kneecaps popping.
She sat down beside Mariana and watched as she wrapped her shawl tightly around her. Watching her shiver against the winter chill made her seem old to Marie, which made her feel uncomfortable. Mariana won’t be here forever, she thought. Then again, no one would be.
“Do you know, ” said Mariana staring out across the fields that surrounded the house “I was a lot older than you when I discovered I was an Adept?”
“Yes. I was married. I was a grown woman. And even then. The temptation to act irresponsibly was almost too much for me. It is a terrible burden for a child to bear. I knew your father, you know.”
“Oh yes. We spoke many times. He was a good man, I liked him. Rather serious until you got to know him. Then he would lighten up. To an extent. Didn’t approve of his choice of profession but then it wasn’t really a choice, poor man. And as I’ve said before we were family. So if I could go back and save his life don’t you think…”
“Why don’t you then?” and even Marie was surprised by the venom in her own voice.
Mariana was silent for a few seconds.
“Many reasons.” she said eventually.
“Name them.” said Marie coldly.
“It would change things.”
“I want to change things. Like my father being dead.”
“But that will only be the beginning. Who knows what will happen after? Maybe your father was going to have another child. A child perhaps who would grow up to become a terrible conqueror, who would kill millions. Maybe your father would have hung a man who would go on to father a great leader who would do great good in the world. Every time you try to change history you hold the fate of billions in your hands.”
“I don’t care.”
“I don’t care. I can’t. My father is dead. I can’t care about anything else. I can’t.”
“You didn’t let me finish. You would change history and you would kill billions of people. And then you would die. You would be written out of history and time would correct itself as best it could.”
Marie looked her straight in the eye.
“I don’t believe you. And the second, the second, I’m strong enough, I’m going to save my father.”
And with that she turned, and walked back towards the house alone.
Dinner was decidedly quite. Isabella ladled out the stew and watched as Marie and Mariana ate in total silence. The only sound came when Marie absently slurped her stew. It was so unexpected that Mariana and Isabella started and stared at her.
At that very moment, Marie would have given anything, anything, for either of them to slurp their stew in return and say, in a ridiculously over posh way; “I do beg your pardon!”
But of course neither of them did. And without another word she cleaned her bowl away and went to bed.
Once she was gone, Mariana simply nodded once to Isabella.
Marie gasped in pain and collapsed on the floor.
That wasn’t right.
The pain had lanced through her head and now hovered there, throbbing hotly. For the past hour (of her own personal time) she had been trying to travel backwards, back to before her father’s death. It wasn’t working. The most she was able to manage was five minutes or so, and even then she was pushing herself beyond her limits. When the pain subsided she gingerly got to her feet, laying a hand on the bedpost to steady herself. Her breathing was ragged, as if she’d just run over a mountain. No. It felt worse than that. It felt more as if a mountain had run over her.
She took a few deep breaths and tried again. It was no use. It was getting harder the more she tried, harder to shift the minutes around her, harder to picture the rabbit in her head. It was a rangy, flickering thing now, zipping up and down, and almost impossible to see. She pushed through, again the pain, again the gasp…
The world was swimming around her. She lay down on the bed and tried to count to ten. She could feel the stew in her stomach getting increasingly nervous, wondering whether or not it was time to jump ship.
“If you keep going like that you’re going to give yourself a nose bleed.” said a voice “And Mariana really likes that carpet.”
Marie glanced around in terror.
“Who’s there?” she whispered.
Virgil stood at the end of her bed.
“Boo.” he said.
There was something very unsettling about him. Her senses rebelled at the void he created just by standing there, but there was more. For all his beauty, and he was beautiful, there was something ugly in his expression.
“You know. If a baby tries to walk too early, it can end up damaging it’s legs forever.”
“I’m not a baby.” said Marie, and was glad to feel anger. Anger helped keep the fear at bay.
“I hope you are.” said Virgil “Because if I thought you fully understood what it is you’re trying to do, then I would be very angry.”
“I’m trying to save my father.”
“Yes, yes, very noble. You are going to end up killing a small continent. You really have no conception of the numbers involved.”
“You’re the ghost.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Well then I will have to convince you.”
“You can’t stop me.”
“Interesting. Do go on.”
“Mariana sent you?”
“To talk me out of it?”
Virgil lent in and lowered his voice.
“Mariana sent me to scare you insane.”
And suddenly he reached out and his hand had passed through her skull. There was a tickling buzzing, and then she felt blackness swallow her whole.
She was by the ocean. She could tell by the roar of the surf. It sounded so loud, that she was certain that if she reached out her hands her fingertips would trail in cool saltwater. But all they touched was cold marble. She opened her eyes. She was lying on a marble floor, in a hall so vast that she could not see from one end to the other. It was the first time she had ever seen a room that could claim to have a set of horizons.
She turned around and found herself face to face with a ten foot tall throne. It actually had a staircase running around it. It was a truly grotesque thing, all black polished marble and gold inlay, and ridiculously ornamented. It seemed that cherubs and knights and saints had been engraved into every inch of the thing. Each one of these details was beautifully done, and if even the smallest, most humble of them could be removed from the whole it would be considered a great piece of art. It was the sheer excess of the whole thing as a whole that was offensive, the flaunting, sneering, arrogant grandeur of it. Marie doubted she had ever been so belittled by a piece of furniture in her life.
“Makes you want to puke doesn’t it?” said a voice.
She looked up to see Virgil sitting on the throne, his legs dangling a good five feet off the ground. It gave her a sort of satisfaction to see that, far from making him look impressive, the throne seemed to swallow him up and make him small and almost unnoticeable.
“Am I dreaming?” Marie asked.
“No.” he said “I am. And you’re in my dream. Or memory, I suppose that would be more accurate.”
“You’re remembering this right now?”
“To be honest, I never really stop.”
“So how am I here? In your memory?”
“Because all I am is memory. When I passed my hand into your brain it was like I broke a hole in your mind and you fell through.”
“I told you. I have to show you the error of your ways and Mariana specifically mentioned that I wasn’t to make it easy for you. Which will be much more effective and tons of fun for me to boot.”
“Where are we then? Where are you remembering?”
“A place, a time and country that will now never exist. Feel privileged, no one ever gets to see this stuff.”
The roar of the ocean grew louder.
“Are we on boat?”
“I hear the ocean.”
“That’s not the ocean.”
“What is it then?”
“I’ll show you shall I?”
Whatever Virgil said, Marie’s way of coping with what she was seeing was simply to believe that it was all just a dream. And she knew that in dreams you could move from place to place in the blink of an eye. She was not unduly shaken, therefore, when they were suddenly out of the throne room and standing on a balcony. What did shake her, was what she saw from that balcony.
There was an ocean, and it stretched to the place where the earth met the sky. And it was an ocean of people. Chanting, singing and jostling, people in their millions, people of every colour and size and shape. So many people that the smell of their bodies was stifling, even in the cool morning air. And the noise… even just their breathing would have been loud enough. But they shouted joyously and the balcony itself shook at the power of their voice. Marie was unable to breathe.
Virgil, for his part, simply looked out across the great sea of faces and sang softly to himself:
“From Araby, Persia and far off Cathay,
Come pilgrims to Paris, their homage to pay
From England and Scotland, from Ireland and Wales,
The Moors and the Tartars, the Prussians and Gaels
The angels in heaven, the devils in hell,
The princes and pontiffs, the beggars as well,
All come to Paris, to pray and to sing,
To Virgil the mighty, our most golden king.
Oh Virgil, magnificent, glorious, grand
With the peoples of Earth in the palm of his hand.”
Marie, who had never in her life even seen a hundredth as many people as now stood before her, turned to look at him.
“Why are they…”
“Why are they here? Weren’t you listening? They’re here to see me.”
“But they’re not even looking at you.”
“No, not me. Me!”
“I’m not here. Not really. I’m just remembering this. On this day, I was not actually standing here. So they’re not looking at me.”
“I understand.” said Marie, who could not have understood less if she tried “Why do they want to see you?”
“Because they love me.” said Virgil.
“Because they have no choice. Because this is my world. And in my world they can love me and accept my love in return or they can die.”
Suddenly, the crowd burst into life like a bed of coal busting into flame. The noise was incredible and Marie dropped to her knees and covered her ears. Virgil spread his arms and seemed to bask in it.
“There…” he breathed “There it is…”
He looked down at Marie, crouching on the floor.
“No, no, no get up! Get up! You’ll miss me!”
He hoisted her to his feet and lifted her over the balcony rail.
She still had her hands clamped over her ears to drown out the roar but now she could see where it emanated from, the centre of the storm.
They were standing on a balcony which jutted out from a castle as vast as a mountain. Another balcony, grander and wider than the one they stood on, looked over the crowd. And on that balcony stood Virgil, alive and in the flesh. And he was breathtaking.
The face was still there, the impossibly delicate features like a porcelain doll. The golden curls glinted in the sunlight. But the eyes were different. The Virgil who stood by her side, Marie noted, had beautiful blue grey eyes that were full of warmth and sympathy and wit. But there were little seeds of cruelty in those eyes. But in the eyes of the man standing across the way from them, those seeds had taken root and grown. The eyes that looked across the seething crowd were terrifying in their cruelty and indifference. He wore silk robes, red with gold inlay, and Marie instinctively felt the purpose of those robes. It was the same purpose as the throne, and the castle and even the crowd itself. Worship me. Fear me. Be in awe of me. For next to me you are nothing.
Virgil, the king of all he surveyed raised his hand and the silence that descended was as thick as a blanket.
Virgil, the ghost, turned away. Marie wondered why they sun had suddenly gone dark and looked up. A flock of shades and angels a hundred million strong hovered over the crowd below. And she realised that everyone of the people below in the crowd was about to die.
“Our people!” Virgil called out to the crowd “Our dear children! Our most subservient and loyal vassals! We would like to say that our heart is gladdened to see you all, you who have travelled so far, from across the world, from the most distant lands to pay homage to our glory. We would like to say that never has any monarch in the great world’ history known subjects as worthy and deserving as you that are now in our sight. We would like to say all this, but we won’t. Because you see the truth is, we have been up carousing since the crack of dawn and we are now suffering from a most regal hangover, and the fact is the clamouring of you peasant vermin is much like a chisel being inserted into our majestic head with considerable force. So hear this! By royal degree, every man in this crowd shall turn to the person to his right, and proceed to murder him. That is all.”
Marie watched as the ocean of people flushed red.
Carnage exploded, people were screaming, gouging eyes, biting, tearing at each other and it wouldn’t stop…on and on and on into the distance, a sheer infinity of savage murder.
Virgil the king was laughing. Blood sprayed, staining the perfect alabaster white of his face. He didn’t stop.
Virgil the ghost was sobbing into his hands.
And because she couldn’t look any more Marie glanced away to see an old man, horror on every inch of his ancient face, hobbling out of the palace gates to Virgil’s side.
“Oh Anthony, poor Anthony.” Virgil moaned “You tried, you poor old fool. You tried to get me to make them stop.”
Sure enough, Anthony seemed to be begging Virgil the king, gesturing to the massacre unfolding before them and clasping his hands together as if in prayer.
“‘You can still save them, Lord!” he said” Virgil murmured “As if they would have heard me. As if I would have listened to him.”
“Virgil, I can’t look at this anymore!” Marie screamed “Please!”
Virgil nodded once, and they were back in the throne room.
To Marie’s horror, she could still hear the screaming through the walls.
“You animal!!” she screamed, anger finally getting the upper hand over horror.
“Worse!” he snarled back “Oh a thousand times worse!”
“Why? Why did you do that!?”
“You know why. I told you why. I was hung over. They were making too much noise, so I ordered them to kill themselves.”
“How could you…”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“You’re right! I wouldn’t understand! I’m not supposed to understand this! You don’t understand madness!”
“Then understand this. Those people died because I thought I could change the past. I was born into a noble family. And I went back in time and I killed a great many people until I was king of France. Then, using knowledge from the time to come I carved out an empire from most of the known world. And I set myself up as a god. And I amassed such wealth and power that human lives became nothing more than playthings for me. This is how your powers can corrupt you if you’re not careful.”
“No. No, this has nothing to do with being a Temporal. You are evil! That’s all there is to it. I would not do this! I would never become like you!”
“That is exactly what you would become like!”
“You’d love to think that, wouldn’t you? Because then it’s not your fault, anyone would have done the same thing in your place! Well it’s not true! You’re just a monster!”
“That’s not what I meant. I know perfectly well you wouldn’t try and set yourself up as Queen of the World. I know you only want to save your father. What I mean was that you would end up like me now. Haven’t you asked yourself how I became like this? Haven’t you wondered why I’m not still ruler of the world?”
Marie glared at him.
“…why?” she growled.
“I’ll show you.” Virgil said.
Early morning, and even beneath his robes Virgil could feel the chill. He looked up at the sky, filled with clouds purple and swollen with rain. He clicked his tongue irritably, and reached a hand up absently to the sky. It, alone in all creation, was beyond his power, he thought to himself. The whole world held his name as holy, and yet the sky would rain on him just as it would on the lowliest peasant in France. The thought infuriated him, and he looked away from the sky and turned back to look at the castle, which obscured most of it. He stepped over the body of a young woman and stared at the devastation with impassive, blue eyes. The dead were everywhere, and formed ragged chains that snaked off past where the eye could see. It filled him with nausea, and also a kind of cold, grey pride.
Anthony was kneeling on the ground whispering prayers over one of the bodies while three palace guards stood by, impassively casting the scene in yellow torchlight. The idea of praying over one body in the midst of so much death amused Virgil. He wondered how long it would take Anthony, his sad, ancient, hump-backed little major domo to say prayers over every single corpse. A wicked desire to find out raised it’s head but he dismissed it. Anthony had other duties, although the idea of him bobbing in and out of the mounds of corpses and muttering pieties until doomsday amused Virgil a good deal.
He turned and found himself staring at one corpse in particular. A young woman, her face turned upward and with an expression of fear so vivid that for a horrible second Virgil thought she was alive.
And in that instant, she went from being a thing to being a person.
And suddenly, a hint of the enormity of what he had done struck him and he stood on the very edge of madness.
But the moment passed and she was just a thing again. They were all just things.
And he breathed a sigh of relief. He had won. He had conquered the earth, he had conquered time and now he conquered the last remaining shred of his humanity.
Nothing could stop him now. The only thing beyond his power was the sky.
“Tell me one thing, Virgil.” said a voice “Did you do it because you thought you wouldn’t be caught? Or because you knew you would be?”
Virgil froze rigid.
“For what it’s worth, she would be truly touched that you went to such lengths to get over her.”
He turned and faced the nine figures. Anthony and the guards stood in perfect stillness. He cursed himself. He should have sensed the slow-time envelope being thrown around him. He reflexively tried to shift an hour into the future but as he expected remained rooted in time. All nine were Temporal Adepts, trained to excellence, and they were working together to keep him where and when they wanted him. To break free of their trap he would have to distract all of them. Even one would probably have the strength to hold him in place. The nine were dressed in black robes, vestments really. This was appropriate, as they considered their work to be nothing less than a holy cause. Amongst the Temporal Adepts they were known as the Nine Unknown Men, and their faces were hidden by black scarves over their mouth, and wide brimmed black hats. Nonetheless, Virgil knew exactly who each of them were. He had once been one of them. He also knew that despite the name, they were not all men.
“No.” he replied “I did it because I thought you wouldn’t care.”
The woman who spoke before shook her head sadly “I was hurt yes. But if you thought I would be so broken hearted that I would allow you do to this…”
“Well then you’re stronger than I gave you credit for.” he sneered.
“And I always thought you were the strongest of all of us.” she said surveying the dead “How wrong I was. He took my heart and my sanity. But you let him take your soul, Virgil.”
“Spare me.” he hissed.
“No.” she replied “I’m afraid that’s the one thing I can’t do. You have crossed a terrible line Virgil. And you knew the punishment. And the fact that I love you like a son will not save you. I am not here as your friend. I am here as the leader of the Nine Unknown Men, and the instrument of God. I condemn the Temporal Adept Virgil of France 1742 to obliteration from space and time for his crimes against the laws of our people. Who concurs?”
The other eight figures called out, one by one, their voices cold and passionless.
“…Aye.” the last whispered softly.
“Let sentence be passed.” the woman said “Please Virgil, don’t struggle.”
And suddenly the bravado evaporated. He was going to die. And with a roar he flung himself at her, hoping that maybe if he distracted enough of them he could break free of the envelope, flee to the Dark Ages…
A single blow knocked him to the ground. A second made sure he stayed there. Black robes fluttered all around him. They were too fast, too strong. He hadn’t even seen them move.
Through a gap in their robes he could see Anthony, his simple face frozen in an expression of pure grief and piety. And for a second, he was glad he was about to die.
He could hear them talking over their heads.
“Quick, he’s struggling!”
“Who’s going to do it?”
“I will.” he heard her say, as he knew she would. She wouldn’t let anyone else. Not after everything they’d been through.
And then he felt her hand on him.
No. No. No. This couldn’t be it. This couldn’t be how it ended. “I will” and then nothing? Surely there was more? And then Virgil discovered the terrible abruptness with which life ends.
Marie and Virgil the Ghost watched as the Nine got to their feet. Virgil was gone. His body had simply melted away at the woman’s touch.
“Can you see him?” one of them said.
“Yes.” said the woman.
And Marie could see him too, flickering and fading away like a trick of the light. Terror and grief dancing in the rain that now began to pelt from heaven in great lazy slugs.
The woman pulled the scarf from her face and Marie was not surprised to see Mariana, she had already guessed from her voice.
“You’ll get stronger as time passes.” Mariana told him “You’ll come with me now.”
The flickering ghost that was Virgil nodded dumbly.
Mariana looked around at the endless sea of dead bodies soaking in the downpour.
“Let’s get the hell out of here.” she croaked, her voice cracking.
And they were gone.
“This is as far as we go.” Virgil said “I don’t remember anything past here.”
“What did she do to you?” Marie asked quietly.
“She erased me. My body was destroyed. Every molecule, every atom. Disintegrated. There is not so much as a single skin cell belonging to him in all of space and time. In a second, I was dead. More than dead. Worse. It’s one thing to realise your dead. Whole other thing entirely to realise you never were. That no one ever knew you. That no one is mourning you. That no one ever loved you. And everything I had ever done was undone.”
“So why are you still here?” she asked.
“Ah, well you can destroy the body.” said Virgil with something like satisfaction “But the soul? Nothing can destroy that. Nothing in the universe.”
“What…what did it feel like?”
Virgil looked up.
“Like…like burning. No. Like drowning. No. Like suffocating. No. Like nothing at all. It felt like being destroyed, and you could feel it in every cell of your body. Every nerve. That’s it, it was like being dipped in acid. Like being eaten away.”
“Because you killed all these people?”
“No. People have been killed every day since the human race began and will be killed every day until it ends. And the killers do not get obliterated. I was killed because I purposefully tried to change history.”
Marie felt her stomach drop.
“She…she said if I tried to change history, I’d be written out. But she never said who’d be doing the writing.”
“Really? Odd that.”
“So, if I tried to…Mariana would…?”
“No. She’s out of the Nine now. After me, she hung up her robes, Couldn’t face it anymore. But the Nine are still around Red. And they will not hesitate. Little girl or not, father or not, they will kill you. And before you decide to be all noble and sacrifice yourself remember that when they do kill you, you will never have existed. And you will never be able to go back and save your father and he will most likely still die. The only difference now will be that he never even had a daughter. And all those memories you have of him will never have happened. Doesn’t sound like a good deal, does it?”
“Who are the Nine?” she asked
“They’re Temporal Adepts who police the rest of us.”
“No, I mean who are they?”
“I don’t know. That’s why they’re called the Nine Unknown Men. They keep their identities secret. They could be anyone.”
“And you don’t know?”
“I suspect. That’s not the same thing.”
They stood together in silence.
“Are you okay?” he finally asked.
“Well. We are standing knee deep in mud rain and corpses. I would be a little disturbed if you were quite frankly. Do you want to go to sleep?”
“I’m afraid of what I’d dream.”
“So what do you want to do?”
“Do you have any nice memories?”
“I have a memory of a very nice trip to the beack I took when I was young. Beautiful summer’s day and the water was like glass.”
“That sounds nice.”
“C’mon, I’ll take you there.”
And he took her by the hand, and they went to the beach and lay in the sun.