CHAPTER 25: THE NINE UNKNOWN MEN
It was, Virgil thought to himself, a thoroughly miserable room. It was small and cramped, the walls painted a shade of grey that was a close cousin to black, the thick curtains not so much screening sunlight as suffocating it in heavy dusty folds. His translucent eyes could pick out the motes of dust dancing through a single ray of sunlight and that was all. Then Mariana reached out and tugged the curtain to one side, and the room was swallowed in darkness.
Virgil, standing right beside the table, heard the gust of air and the tiny gasp that told him someone had shifted into being just under it, hidden by the green table cloth. He smiled to himself, and glanced briefly around to make sure no one else had noticed it. The senses of the people in this room were very acute to such things. That was why he had decided to stand near the table. He knew they would not want to talk with him, or even stand near him. In this way, he gave Marie the best chance she could have of not being discovered.
His eyes trailed up to the wall where another crest had been mounted. It was much the same as the one below in the conference room, the symbol of the Temporal Adepts, the winding tower reaching up to heaven. The only difference was the nine stars arranged around the tower in a circle. The nine people whom those stars represented were now taking their seats around the table. Even now they were masked. Virgil was not even sure that each member of the Nine Unknown Men knew who the others were. How could they, if the only time they met they were dressed as they were now? Large robes masked the shape of their bodies, making impossible to tell men from women. Each one of them wore shoes with heels of different heights so that they were all exactly six foot tall. The masks they wore had filters over the mouths to disguise their voices, although Virgil knew that he could still identify one or two if he concentrated. The masks were black with sculpted, impassive features. The Nine Unknown Men had many weapons at their disposal, but the greatest of all was the fact that none of their fellow Temporals knew who they were. For anyone who tried to alter time for their own ends the touch of obliteration could come from a friend, a brother, a wife…you would never know.
Crouched under the table with Isabella and Daniel, trying desperately not to breathe, Marie began to feel she might be in over her head. She could see Daniel’s and Isabella’s eyes gleaming in the the dark, wide and close to panic. What would they do if they caught her?
She tried not to think about that. Don’t worry, she thought to herself.
Mariana is here. She won’t let them do anything to you.
She suddenly had an image of Mariana saying to Virgil “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.”
Maybe a backup plan was in order.
She could hear people sitting around the table, and a forest of shoes now surrounded her. She held her breath, and waited for someone to speak.
As was the custom, the first among them spoke.
“We are the Nine Unknown Men.” he said, in a voice that could have been male or female, young or old “Ours is the mandate of God.”
“It is the truth you speak.” intoned the other eight, their voices identical to the first.
This was how they always began, Virgil knew. There was something quite terrifying about the sureness of their words. With their masks, and their robes, they did not even look human. But then, even without the garments, these were not normal people. Not every Temporal could be one of the Nine. There were many “breeds” of Temporal, throughout history. And while almost all of them could slow and quicken the passage of hours around them, and will themselves through space and time, there were other gifts that distinguished them. There were those like Mariana who would recieve premonitions of events before she experienced them. There were others who could quicken the personal time of any given object or person, whether that meant ripening an apple, or ageing an enemy to dust. There were the lepers…
But then he wasn’t going to think about them. But those who had made up the ranks of the Nine had a gift unique to them. Obliteration. They and they alone could remove the totality of a person’s being, his past, present and future from the timeline. Something Virgil knew from personal experience.
“All time is our charge. All creation shall we safeguard, yea as the mother guards the child in her arms.” the first continued.
“It is the truth you speak.”
“And no thing shall stay our justice, not the might of armies nor the plots of wicked men. We are the Nine Unknown Men and our duty shall we do even unto death.”
“Is is the truth you speak.” Daniel muttered sarcastically in time with the others, and recieved a sharp elbow from Isabella.
“Before us…” said the first “Mariana.”
They turned to look at her. Mariana met their gaze.
“Most honoured of the fifty of Babilu. Revered Mother of the Temporal Adepts. Once First of the Nine.”
She nodded once in acknowlegement.
“And Virgil.” continued the first “Who once was, and is no longer. Once Sixth of the Nine. Shamed and unholy, and stricken from the book of history.”
“Bite me.” said Virgil cheerfully.
Under the table, Marie froze. Virgil had once been one of the Nine? Had she heard that right?
Mariana was speaking now. Without being able to see her face, Marie she sounded truly ancient.
“I have told you…” she was saying softly “I have told you again and again. I don’t want this. I have given as much to this…group….as anyone can be reasonably asked to give. And I left and I told you in no uncertain terms that I was not coming back. And still you ask me here.”
There was a pause.
“We know.” said another voice, and Marie thought she could hear something familiar in it. Kathy?
“And under normal circumstances, we would have respected your wishes” Kathy continued, if it was indeed her. “But we have a decision to make, and we could not make it without you.”
“You have the message?”
“And you’re sure it’s from him?”
“No. That’s what we’re hoping you can tell us. Do you want to listen to it?”
“No.” said Mariana wearily “There is nothing I would want to do less. Play it.”
Before Marie could wonder what “play it on” meant, she heard the crackle of a vinyl record under a needle. Mariana had a great many at home, as well as a magnificent gramphone player that smelt of varnish. There was a silence, broken only by the whisper of the needle on the record. Then a voice… and Marie heard Mariana gasp at the sound of it, as if feeling a sudden pain.
“My dearest children…” said the voice.
Mariana felt sure her heart was going to stop beating. Him…it was him. His voice was so inhuman and metallic, as if he was talking through a machine, as if steel cogs and pistons were breathing for him. And yet, still a little trace of his voice remained. The inflection. The haughty pauses. The pride and the arrogance. She cupped her face in her right hand and wrapped her left arm around her stomach, the one to catch the tears, the other to stifle the shaking of her sobs. Oblivious to her agony, as always, the metal voice wound on.
“…I speak to you from across such a gulf of time that you are now but the last fading glimpses in my memory. I can see you in my mind only like the lights of a city on a faraway hillside, and it is midnight. I turn now and I walk alone into the desert with my back to you. It has been five hundred years of my own time since last I stood among you.”
Beneath the table Marie was struggling not to put her hands over her ears. She felt like she was back in the field in the pouring rain, Rashgiel daring her to look at him. But she couldn’t look at him, and she couldn’t listen to this voice now.
Mariana however, had pushed through the first wave of rage and horror at the sound of his voice, and was now applying her brilliant steel trap of a mind to everything he was saying. Five hundred years of his own time? Three possibilities. He was lying, he was mad or he was telling the truth.
She shifted through each alternative in her head, weighing their liklihood. If he’s lying, why? If he’s mad, is he more or less dangerous? If he’s telling the truth, how can he be that old and still alive? So many questions.
“I am approaching the end…”
He’s dying? He’s admitting he’s dying?
“…and my sword is raised high.”
“Even as my body has weakened, the strength of my will has surpassed all measure. On my sufferance only, does the earth circle the sun.”
Mariana’s mind raced. As Temporals grew older their powers showed no signs of diminishing. In fact they often became more and more powerful right up until the time of death. Mabus had already been an incredibly potent Temporal Adept when he had vanished, by far the most powerful of them all. If he had survived another five hundred years, and his powers had continued to increase…He is telling the truth or he is mad? Why can’t he be both?
“Know my names. I am Chronos. Kan-Laon. Aeon. Kalachakra….
Gods of time. Heaven help us he thinks he’s a god. And he may just have the power to back up the claim.
“If you knew my plan, my children. If only you knew. I hope that if you were able to understand what it is I am trying to do you would not stand against me. But as it is, I know you will try. You will raise your little armies, and plan and plot against me. And I will strike you down with a wave of my hand. And you will be as nothing.”
Marie was wishing with all her being that she had stayed in the tree with Daniel.
“But I could not live with myself if I did not at least try to make peace with you. So I will offer you this one chance to avoid your death at my hands. There is one among you who I have need of. You will give me Marie Dashonde. You will give me the hangman’s daughter.”
And suddenly Marie stopped wishing she had stayed in the tree, and was now wishing she had never left St Anne.