CHAPTER 26: THE COUNCIL OF THE TEMPORAL ADEPTS
Every muscle in Mariana’s body had turned to iron wire. The voice carried on regardless.
“You will bring her to the place where this message was left for you, exactly one year later. Do this, and I will take your actions as a gesture of loyalty and capitulation, and you will live. Do not, and I will take her. And Nine shall become None. I await your answer. My blessing on you all. Ave Mabus.”
The needle was plucked from the record with a squeal. There was silence.
Marie thought she could hear herself sweating.
Everyone was still staring at the now silent gramaphone, except Virgil.
Virgil was studying Mariana very carefully, and thinking to himself: “If they’ve brought her here for the reason I think they have, she’s going to kill every last one of them…”
The first finally spoke.
“We knew that this day would come. We all hoped that it would fall to others to deal with. But it hasn’t. Mabus has returned and he has declared war on us, there is no other word for it. So the question is, what are we going to about it?”
The question, oddly enough, was directed straight at Mariana.
“Why are you asking me?” she asked calmly “I am not one of the Nine.”
“In deference to your former position, and to your experience in dealing with Mabus…”
“No. In deference to the fact that the girl is under my protection you wanted to see if I might be willing to do the sensible thing and hand her over to him to avoid an all out war which you cannot possibly win.”
Marie truly, truly wished she could have seen Mariana’s face when she said that. As it was, her voice was so deathly calm that Marie couldn’t tell how that was supposed to be taken.
“All options must be considered.” was the reply.
“And exactly what options do you think you have?” Mariana asked “Do you really think you can win against him?”
She’s going to do it, Marie thought, she’s going to hand me over to this Mabus thing.
“This is not the first time that the Nine Unknown Men have faced a challenge they could not overcome alone.” said Kathy.
Mariana nodded. “You want to inform the entire Council.” she said “Just like with Moorechild.”
“Exactly.” said another voice “When it became clear that we could not contain the rampages of Declan Moorechild and his followers, we formed an army of every Temporal Adept willing to fight with us.”
“And that war cost us hundreds on both sides.” yet another voice remined them “And Moorechild was not even close to Mabus’ level of power. The angels in heaven can’t find him. That is the kind of strength we are up against.”
“That is our first option.” said the first “We form an army and fight as best we can. And the second…”
“You sell a helpless little girl to save your own skins and Mabus goes away and never bothers any of you again and you all live happily ever after…”
Marie realised she had never loved Virgil as much as when she heard him say those extremely sarcastic words.
“You.” said the first “Do not have a say here. You do not exist.”
“Then who are you talking to?” Virgil “You must be a crazy person.”
“Virgil…” Mariana warned.
“These…” the first continued “are our options. War or capitulation. Can anyone think of a third way?”
Marie, huddled under the table with Isabella and Daniel, prayed that someone, anyone, would break that silence.
“Very well.” said the first “Then all that is left to do is vote. All in favour of informing the council and preparing for war? Very well. And all in favour of acceding to Mabus’ demand and giving him the girl, Marie Dashonde?”
This had to be a joke, Marie thought. No one was going to say anything?!
“So says the Nine.” said the first “Then we proceed as planned. May God show us his fortune and mercy.”
“Where are you going?” Virgil whispered to Mariana.
“Back to the castle.” she replied. “Wait here.”
Isabella watched as the Nine rose to their feet and then were gone, shifted away into thin air.
“You can come out now.” said a voice.
Marie, Isabella and Daniel crawled out from under table.
“My God!” said Virgil.
“You’re filthy! Do they never dust under that table?”
“Virgil, what’s going on?” Marie asked.
“Didn’t you hear?”
“You’re going to find out soon enough.”
“Who were those people?” Daniel asked.
“The Nine Unknown Men.” said Marie.
“No, I mean seriously.” said Daniel.
“Seriously.” said Virgil “They’re real.”
“And they really…they really go around wiping people out?”
Virgil walked up to Daniel and passed his hand through his neck. Daniel screamed and leapt back.
“Brains and good looks.” Virgil snorted “You’re on to a winner there, Red. I’m a ghost, you Antipodean nit. Who do you think made me that way? ”
“Never do that again!” Daniel wheezed.
“Oh I’m sorry, was that unpleasant for you?” Virgil asked “Hello, I’m Virgil, I will never again know the taste of food or drink from now until the end of time. How unlucky do you feel now?”
“I’m lost.” said Isabella “Who are the Nine Unknown Men?”
“No one knows.” said Virgil “They’re sort of unknown.”
“No, I mean…” said Isabella.
“They police the Temporals. If anyone tries to alter history for their own ends the Nine obliterates them. Removes any trace of them from history except for their soul. They keep their identities totally secret. So you never know who to trust…”
“No. You don’t.” said Marie, looking pointedly at Virgil.
“Ah. So you heard that?”
“Yes. When were you going to tell me you used to be one of the Nine?”
“It’s not something you talk about freely. Even former members don’t advertise the fact that they used to be part of the Nine.”
“So if it’s such a big secret why did you tell me to bring her here?” Isabella asked.
“Because I don’t like the Nine.” said Virgil “I don’t like how they operate. And I don’t like the idea of them sitting around and deciding whether or not they were going to hand you over to him without you at least knowing about it. Plus, in case I didn’t mention it before, I really, really don’t like the Nine. Getting one over them is pretty much the closest thing to pleasure I get to experience these days. No, I tell a lie. It’s not close to pleasure. It’s better.”
At that moment the door opened and Mariana stood there.
“Virgil they’re ready…”
She took in the scene and understood instantly.
“Virgil.” she whispered in a voice of not inconsiderable menace.
“Mariana.” he replied, seeming not in the least concerned.
“Would you be so kind as to leave me alone with Marie?”
“No!” said Marie, but Virgil gave her a look as if to say “It’s alright.”
Virgil left, followed quickly by Daniel and Isabella. Mariana closed the door behind them.
“Stay away from me.” Marie whispered.
“Marie…” and she took a step towards.
“I mean it!” Marie shouted.
“What did you hear, Marie?”
“Marie, from my point of view, the meeting that just occurred in this room was many hours ago. Since then I left here, went back home, got you and Isabella ready, and brought you back here. Now. Would I have done that if you were in the slightest danger here?”
“You would if you were going to hand me over to him.”
“But I’m not. And no one else will. I promise you…”
“They were talking about it.”
“They were considering their options. That is their duty. But there was never any real question of giving you up. The Nine are many things, but they are not monsters.”
“So when they voted…”
“They voted for war. I’m sure they would have made that more clear if they had known there was audience under the table.”
“How many voted against giving me up?”
“Eight. One was for.”
“I don’t know…”
“I. Don’t. Know. I don’t know who they are. That’s the thing about the Nine Unknown Men…” said Mariana.
“They’re kind of unknown.” Marie finished, growling.
“In any case.” said Mariana “They voted against it.”
“And if they hadn’t?” Marie asked.
“Marie…” she bent down to look her right in the eye “Look at me. I am going to promise you something now. If I thought, for one instant, that they were seriously considering handing you over to that creature, not one of them would have left this room alive. I am deadly serious. I would kill for you, Marie.”
“Don’t say that. I’ve had enough of people I love killing for me…” said Marie.
“How do feel about irreparable crippling?” Mariana deadpanned.
“They’d walk again, but they would be in pain every moment of the rest of their lives.”
“Alright. I can live with that.”
“Who is he, Mariana? Why does he want me?”
“He is a very bad man.”
“Don’t talk to me like a child. Just tell me who he is.”
“There’ll be time for that later.”
“Virgil said I’d find out soon, I thought he meant…”
“No, no.” Mariana soothed “It didn’t mean that. He meant…we’re going to tell the other Temporals what’s been happening. And Virgil is going to tell them about Mabus. That’s what he meant.”
“Why Virgil? Why not you?”
“We rolled dice. He lost.”
“Virgil can’t roll dice.”
“Which is why he lost.”
Marie laughed in spite of herself.
Mariana took her in her arms and Marie held on tight.
And in the perfect stillness the sour rasp of Mabus’ voice hissed in Mariana’s memory:
“You will give me Marie Dashonde. You will give me the hangman’s daughter.”
No. Mariana thought. I won’t. Not her. Not this time. This is one that you will not take from me.
The conference room was everything that the room of Nine Unknown Men had met was not.
It was bright, open and full of laughter and noise. Languages in their dozens bubbled and simmered together into a great mess of words Marie, Mariana, and Isabella made their way through the shifting crowd, Mariana’s status only going so far in clearing them a path. After all, respect is all very well, but if there’s no room to move, there’s no room to move.
Marie listened to the snatches of conversations as they went passed.
“You’re such a bigot!”
“I am not! I’m not…”
“What you’re saying is…”
“Look, I don’t have any problem with people from the twentieth century, some of my best friends are from the sixties. I’m just saying that culturally they are more predisposed towards genocide. There, I said it.”
“That is the most timist…”
“I’m not timist, alright?”
“Have you tried the quiche?”
“I shall tell you a story. Once I travelled the breadth of Araby and was made the guest of a great sultan. He fed me the finest caviar and peaches that had been picked at day break from a mountain orchard by virgin handmaidens and served to us with the morning dew still gleaming on their skins.”
“The peaches or the handmaidens?”
“And your point is?”
“Didn’t hold a candle to this quiche.”
“The quiche is awesome.”
“Yes it is.”
Marie had a thought.
“Where are the others? Where are the rest of…”
Marie cut her off with a glare.
“But where are they?”
“They are where we are. They are in this room. They are talking with old friends. They are queuing for the buffet. They are mingling.”
“You mean, any one of these people could be…”
“That is precisely the point.” said Mariana darkly.
“So all the Temporals meet up here to catch up while the Nine are upstairs deciding whether or not to hand people over to…whatever that thing was…”
“It’s more than that.” said Mariana “The Council is a support network. If you want to move to a certain period in time, the Council will help you get birth certificates, money, that kind of thing.”
“So who’s in charge?” Isabella asked.
“His name’s Milo.” said Mariana “He’s a very powerful Temporal. One of the most powerful I have ever known.”
Another “M” name, Marie thought. Marie, Mariana, Mabus, Milo, Mariel. It was beginning to get a little ridiculous.
“Are they going to talk about Thomas?” Marie asked, and she felt Isabella stiffen beside her at the name.
“It might come up.” Mariana admitted.
Isabella seemed to be trying very hard not to have heard anything that had just been said.
“Is that Milo?” she said suddenly, her voice a little higher and sharper than usual.
She pointed to a grim, foreboding figure who was seated at the end of the table, draped in a dark hood and cloak, with eyes like gimlets. In his hand was a golden dagger, and he flicked the tip menacingly with his great calloused, scarred thumb.
“No.” said Mariana “That’s Eloi of the Seventh Chapter. That’s Milo.”
He pointed to a short, balding man in his mid thirties with glasses, who was fussing through some paperwork across from them.
“That’s Milo?” she asked incredulously “That’s him?!”
She gawped in amazement at one of the most powerful men in all of space and time. He looked up and gave her a nice little wave.
“He’s one of the most powerful Temporal Adepts you’ve ever met?” Marie asked.
“Yes. He also makes a fantastic quiche.” said Mariana.
They were now seated around the great conference table. Isabella and Marie devoted great attention to it’s shininess while Mariana glanced around to see who else she knew here.
“Let me see now.” said Mariana “Kathy you know. That lady over there is Arabelle, she’s Daniel’s teacher.”
Arabelle looked very much like a teacher, she was dressed in a blazing pink cardigan and looked as if she had been born to say the words “Good morning boys and girls!” to packs of cranky, dyspetic five year olds flinging crayons at each other with near lethal force.
“Over there is Eamonn.” Mariana whispered, and Marie looked over to see a tall, broad shouldered man in his thirties with a closely cropped hair cut. He had a ready grin, and deep set grey eyes.
“He’s a very powerful Temporal.” Mariana told her.
“As powerful as Milo?”
“No. No one here even comes close to Milo.” Mariana answered “But he’d probably be second of all those here. That’s Junko Imai.” he said, pointing to a heavy set Japanese woman who was conversing with Kathy “She’d be another very powerful one. And over there is…”
Across from them, Milo got to his feet.
“Ehm, excuse me?” he said quietly “Excuse me? If everyone’s here, could I have everyone’s attention please? Please? Thank you. Alright, well first of all we should get all minor business out of the way.”
There was nothing too important discussed for the next few minutes. Eamonn informed them all that he was moving to America in the 1930s and needed some help getting a birth certificate and other documentation. Junko Imai announced that she and Arabelle were organising a trip to Tibet for the younger Adepts. It seemed as if nothing too important would be discussed…
“Okay.” said Milo “Very important announcement, it’s my wife’s thirty sixth birthday on the 23rd of April 1983 you are all invited of course, just please remember to come in period dress, not looking at anyone in particular, Chinochan.”
An Aztec warrior three seats down from Marie shrugged his shoulders: “If I forget again I’ll just say I thought it was a fancy dress party.”
“Worked once.” said Milo “Worked twice. Try it again and she’s going to start to suspect all is not right. I didn’t marry an idiot. Please make the effort. And when I say eighties dress I don’t mean dressing like Madonna.”
“What?” Kathy exclaimed “I looked great! Everyone loves Madonna, right?”
“I love Madonna.” Mariana offered.
“Who’s Madonna?” Isabella asked.
“You don’t want to know.” said Chinochan.
“What’s wrong with Madonna?” Kathy asked.
“Apart from everything? Nothing.”
“Hey, lay off Madonna!” said Eamonn.
“You lay off Madonna!”
“I’m not laying on Madonna!” said Eamonn laughing. “Someday.” he added wistfully.
“I’m I then the only one hear who thinks she’s terribly overrated?” asked Chinochan.
“She is much beloved of the brethren.” growled Eloi of the Seventh Chapter.
“Might I remind you all that this council was not convened to debate the merits of Madonna?” said Milo wearily.
The assembled Temporals gave a disappointed groan.
Milo buried his face in his hands.
“You won’t rest until you’ve driven me insane, will you?” he asked.
“No.” said the assembled Temporals.
“And in other news you are all going to die!” a voice called out.
Heads turned as one.
Virgil was striding through them like a prophet through a marketplace, a look of cold fury on his porcelain as he strode on and on, not stopping until he had actually walked into the centre of the table. He stood there, horribly bisected, as if someone had cut him in half and balanced him carefully on the varnished surface.
“Yes, all of you! Every last one. Every one of you complacent, torpid sheep will meet a violent end because you stopped being an army and became a bloody fan club. He’s coming. He. Is. Coming. And even back in the day, when you were still sharp, when you were still ready, even back in the day, on your best day possible, you could still not even hope to have a prayer of coming through this alive. God, you have no idea, do you? The sheer power, the sheer…
Hell, most of you probably don’t even know who I’m talking about. Most of you probably don’t even know who I am. You’re probably thinking, “Oh there’s a crazy man standing in the middle of the table.” Most of you probably don’t even know I’m a ghost. You’re…you’re probably a little confused right now. I’m Virgil. Hi.”
No one said anything.
“Which brings us to New Business.” said Milo, glancing at his copy of the minutes.
Milo cleared his throat, and Marie watched as the quiet, timid seeming man took on a kind of quiet authority.
“All of you are familiar with the story of the Nine Unknown Men. A secret organisation of anonymous Temporals tasked with preventing abuses to the timeline, with lethal force if necessary. Many of you have heard the stories that any individual who purposefully changes the timeline is “obliterated”, destroyed at the cellular level from all of space and time, leaving only a conscious soul known as a time ghost. These stories are true to the last detail.”
“Quiet please.” said Milo.
“As leader of this, your council, I have occasionally been contacted by the Nine. I don’t know who they are, but I do know that they are members of this group and most likely they are here in our midst as we speak. They are not monsters. They are not bogeymen. They are men and women who carry out a very difficult and vital task without asking for recognition or even acknowledgment.”
“He’s one of them.” Isabella whispered to Marie. Marie nodded. The same inflections, the same stresses and pauses. Milo was the First of the Nine, she’d bet anything on it. She glanced at Mariana, who was studiously not glancing at her. This made her all the more certain she was right.
Unaware that his meticulously maintained secret identity had been blown to smithereens by two little girls, Milo continued:
“Now. It so happens that various members of the Nine have witnessed strange occurrences in the timeline that are not part of the natural order. They inevitably involve soldiers or combatants vanishing into thin air at the very micro second of their death. Some of you may very well have seen the kind of thing I’m talking about. So sudden are these disappearances that even the angels and shades sent to collect their souls at the time of their death are caught off guard. As terrifying a concept as it is to accept, they do not know where these people are being taken. The few angels I have been able to speak to are very disconcerted by this. This is the first time anything has happened without their knowledge and they are afraid.
Now. This is happening all over space and time, in any period or nation you care to name. Neither Heaven nor Hell are behind these abductions, which means, I’m afraid, that it’s one of us. A Temporal Adept is behind this. And there is only one we know of who would have the power to do something like this. Virgil is here on my invitation to tell us everything he knows about Mabus. We will listen to what he has to say, and then we will decide what action to take. Virgil?”
“Right.” said Virgil quietly. “Well. I guess I’d better tell you everything, hadn’t I?”