CHAPTER 29: THE LEPER COLONY
“So.” said Milo “Mabus recruited you into the Nine to fight these mutated Temporals.”
“That’s right.” said Virgil “But then, you knew that, didn’t you?”
“I knew a little.” said Milo. For all his mild nebbishness, there was a warning in Milo’s eyes.
They don’t know I’m one of the Nine. Let’s keep it that way.
Virgil’s seemed to respond; Or else what?
“So. What happened?” Kathy asked gently “Did you go to Stalingrad?”
“Yes.” said Virgil “More fools we.”
Slowly. Tenderly, he filled his lungs.
Russian winter. Like breathing ice water.
Before his eyes lay the corpse of a city, it’s great grey back broken by a thousand hammer blows from the sky, and left for dead on the ice. Hardly a storey still stood on another, and there were no straight lines. The elegant rectangles and squares and angles that form a city’s sky-scape had been beaten, burnt and mangled, and now there were only rough jagged edges like torn paper, black against the snow. It no longer looked like a place made by men, a collective of homes and schools and warm firesides. It looked like something wild, a dark forest or a jagged mountain peak. It looked like a place where wolves could roam, their eyes glinting yellow and mad.
“What happened here?” he asked her.
“Two children threw a tantrum.” she replied.
“Ssshh.” hissed Aodh, as they crouched behind an eighth of a wall “He’s trying to concentrate.”
Jeda and Aodh turned to look at Mabus, who was crouched on the ground, his eyes closed . He opened them and spoke softly:
“They’ve built themselves a little hideaway in the centre of the city.”
“How do you know that?” Virgil asked.
Mabus smiled. “Do you remember when I let Lula go free in the garden? Didn’t you wonder why I didn’t kill her?”
“I just assumed you were being merciful.”
“It would be best if you not assume that again. I left a drop of my own blood on her dress as I was holding her. I can sense it wherever it goes, I can feel it. That’s how I knew they were here. Do you have your weapon?”
Virgil lowered his gaze. Poking out through the folds of his fur coat he could see the dull glint of his sword handle.
He nodded to Mabus.
Then he screamed as five figures dressed in black suddenly appeared in the falling snow and he thought the Lepers were ambushing them.
Then he saw that they were wearing the same black furs and wide-brimmed hats that he was wearing and realised that these were the five remaining members of the Nine that he had yet to meet. One of them stepped forward and Virgil found himself looking at a tall statuesque woman who looked to be around…her age was impossible to tell. She seemed to carry an air of terrible solemnity, but then her face broke open in a smile and for a second she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Jeda had thrown herself into the woman’s arms and hugging her tightly.
“Dearest.” Mariana sighed, kissing her forehead “Oh my dearest, I have missed you.”
“Me too.” Jeda murmured, snuggling into her coat.
“Aodh, Baako.” she said looking up at them.
Both men bowed reverentially to her, and Virgil did the same.
Mabus stood before her, and they looked into each others eyes. They were both so tall that looking between them gave Virgil the impression that he was staring through a valley.
“Hello again, beloved.” she said.
“Wife.” he said simply and kissed her gently.
“Virgil” he said “This is my wife, Mariana. Jeda’s mother.”
“Madame.” said Virgil, bowing deeply. Oh please like me, oh please.
He gave his most winning smile, but in the cold his lips quivered and he looked a little like a growling dog.
“Hello Virgil.” she said. Virgil had met royalty who did not possess even a tenth of this woman’s regality “I hear you have joined our family?”
Virgil stood up hurridly, glanced at Jeda, glanced back at Mariana and proceeded to gibber.
“No! No, no, no. I mean, not yet! I mean, of course, one day, I would, that is to say, we haven’t discussed marriage, but we of course would be planning…wouldn’t we?”
He glanced at Jeda who was looking at him as if he had caught fire. There was the same shocked, morbid fascination. He was burning, but she couldn’t look away.
“Of course, we would…only if you approved of course, I would never…that is…I….”
“I meant the Nine.” said Mariana simply.
“Ah.” said Virgil. Ohhhhhhhhhh dear.
“Are you involved with my daughter, Monsieur Virgil?”
“No, no, Madame.”
“You are, aren’t you?”
“Is this true, Jeda?”
“It’s a little up in the air at the moment.” said Jeda, glowering at Virgil.
“I see.” said Mariana, seeming a little more chipper on hearing that.
“We shall have time for all this later.” said Mabus “We’ll be moving out soon. Check your weapons and equipment. We’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Where are they going?” Virgil asked, as Mariana and Mabus vanished into the ruins.
“They just need some alone time. They haven’t seen each other in a long time.” said Jeda.
“Depends who you ask.”
Mariana and Mabus walked together through the snow.
“You are looking old.” she said.
“No.” he said.
“What?” she asked.
“No. We are not going to have this discussion. Not right before we go up against them. That is not how we are going to spend what might be our last few hours together.”
“I find it quite ironic that you are now worried about how long we have left together.” she said.
Mabus said nothing.
“How long has it been?” she asked.
“You first.” he said.
“It has been eight months of my own personal time since I last saw you. How long has it been for you?”
“You’re lying. You look a good ten years older than when I saw you last.”
“Does it really matter? I’m here now”
“Yes it matters, Mabus. It matters a great deal. Because we’re getting old.”
“We’ve got years left.”
“Not as much as you think. Yes, we were born before the tower. We’re not going to wither up at eighty but we still have our limits. How long really can we expect to live? Two hundred and fifty? Three hundred on the outside? And now I’ll have ten years less of you. And I won’t pretend I’m not so vain that it doesn’t hurt me that you can spend ten years without seeing me.”
“I couldn’t. I was on a journey.”
“Into the future. The far future. It took me a long time.”
“What were you doing that far ahead?”
“I was looking for a way for you and I to live longer.”
She realised this was the first time she had seen him blushing in a very long time.
“Mabus.” she whispered.
“This is what we were warned of. Memento mori.”
“I hate this. I can feel it. Every day I’m getting weaker.”
“Hush my love.”
“No, there must be a way.”
“Everything dies. Everything dies sooner or later, including us. We have had far longer than most. I don’t mind getting old as long as it’s with you. We have maybe seventy years left together. That’s plenty of time if you know how to use it wisely.”
He nodded, and kissed her softly.
“I love you.” he said.
“Don’t go away that long again.” she whispered.
“I won’t.” he promised.
It was snowing once more, thick and white and dry, as if heaven were drawing a veil over the dead body of the city.
Through the snow Virgil could see them. Angels in grey, black Shades, haunting softly over rubble and ash.
There seemed to be as many as the flakes of snow that shone brilliant against the ocean-grey clouds when he cast his head up to the sky.
“There’s so many of them.” he whispered to her.
“They don’t come and leave.” she said quietly “They stay. They know they’ll always be needed here.”
Then he froze. Eight feet away from him, standing as solid as a statue, a figure was gazing at him. Then it raised it’s hand to it’s face, removing the black goggles that shielded the eyes. It was Baako.
“All clear.” he said quietly, but his deep voice cut through the muffling snow like an axe.
“Stick to the shadows. Move at speed. Be Ghosts.”
And then he was gone, leaving a void in the snow that was quickly swallowed up by the white swarm.
Snipers camping in the ruins, thin as old crows, huddled under rags and rubble would start at grey streaks that flitted from shadow to shadow below them. But then they would realise that they were tired, starving and freezing cold, and the light was playing tricks on them. And then they would settle back into position, comforted slightly.
Not even the Germans could move that fast.
Mabus stood as straight and tall as a grandfather clock, pitch black in the swelling, billowing snow, and slowly stretched out a single gloved hand. There he held it for one. Two. Three.
“There!” he barked, sending a ball of steam to heaven, battling against the heavy snowflakes to ascend.
The rest of the Nine began digging with their bare hands, pulling up bricks, iron, piping and weeds.
“Stop.” said Mabus.
Again he stretched out his hand with a look of fierce concentration on his face. To Virgil’s amazement, the rubble began to melt away into the air, solid iron piping becoming as insubstantial as mist. Now, there was only a single, perfectly round black hole where the rubble had been.
“Mabus.” said Baako after a few minutes of awed silence “What did you do?”
“I sent it all a few hours into the future.” said Mabus, sounding a little exhausted.
“I…didn’t know you could do that.” said Jeda.
“Nor did I.” growled Aodh.
“It’s new. Wanted to test it first. Otherwise I could have ended up looking like a ninny.” he gave a weak smile. “They’re down there.” he said, gesturing to the hole “All of them. And I would guess they’ve sensed us by now.”
There was a silence.
“Did you just say “ninny”.” Jeda asked.
“That may be the most un-Mabuslike thing you have ever said.” Baako noted.
“Won’t they have slipped away to some other time then?” Virgil asked, who felt that the really should be directing the conversation back to the Lepers.
Mabus turned to him “Nine prospective meals have turned up at their doorstep and dared to attack them in their own territory where they know every inch of the terrain and probably outnumber us heavily, and you think they’re going to run away? Hell, they’ve probably already broken out the good china.”
“Ah.” said Virgil weakly.
“Well, if you don’t mind, I shall go first.” said Mabus, taking a flashlight from the folds of his coat “Age before beauty and all that.”
He disappeared down the hole, followed slowly by Mariana, Baako and then Aodh. As Virgil went to follow, he felt Jeda hold him by the crook of the arm, and turn his mouth towards hers.
After about a minute, they drew back, the two streams of their snowy-white breath melting together.
“Did you just kiss me because we’re going to die?” he asked.
“No.” she said. “I was really, really cold.”
He could smell dead rats.
Maybe not rats.
He could smell dead something.
The tunnel was the worst possible height, too high to justify crawling, too low to stand upright, forcing the Nine Temporals into an agonising crouch-walk. The air was thin and foul tasting, there was a dull ache in his lungs as they tried to draw enough oxygen from the thin soup.
“Couldn’t have set up shop in the Hilton, oh no…” Virgil heard Aodh grumbling under his breath.
They shuffled on through the pitch black with only Mabus’ flashlight, a thin white feeler in the dark, to guide them.
Minutes became hours. Twinges became aches. Tempers became frayed.
“I swear to God boy, jostle me one more time and I’ll feed you this sword!” Aodh hissed.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Virgil hissed “It is of course my fault your arse takes up the width of the tunnel!”
He felt Aodh’s hand clamp around his throat.
“Would you mind repeating that?” the Scotsman hissed “Don’t believe I caught that.”
“Are you two trying to get us killed?” Baako asked reasonably “Because all I’m hearing you saying is: “We’re here! We’re here! Come and get us!”
“Take your hand off me sir.” said Virgil.
“Say please” said Aodh.
“Take your hands off me before I cut your throat you stinking, hairy, throwback. Please.” said Virgil.
It was lucky that it was at this moment that Virgil fell through the floor.
Well. Sort of lucky.
With a crack like a dog barking, the dry caked earth had suddenly split beneath his weight and he felt his stomach rise as he slipped out of Aodh’s grip and began his horrible, giddy descent through the bottomless black. He screamed as a wedge of earth collided with his back and sent him bouncing into a dirt wall which ground across his face like sandpaper before he finally collapsed with a horrible suddenness on the bottom of the cavern.. He lay there for a few seconds, as he had done after Mabus had beaten him within an inch of his life in the training room. After a few seconds he was conscious enough to wonder why there was soup in his mouth.
He tried to get to his feet, and whimpered in pain as he put weight on his wrist. A sprain. Not much considering how far he had fallen, but possibly fatal under the circumstances. He slowly got to his feet. And felt the back of his head. Some wetness, not much.
He could have slowed down his descent as he fell, slowed down time, reduced his inertia. But he had panicked, he had lost control, and now he was alone, trapped in enemy territory with no light and a damaged wrist.
To reiterate: Idiot!
“Right now you’re thinkin’, I just gone and made a damn fool out of myself.” he heard a voice growl in the darkness.
Every last hair.
Every last hair?
Every last hair on Virgil’s neck was up and standing to attention.
“Now you’re thinkin’: “Aw crap.””
He could hear them now, rustling in the shadows. He could hear lips parting over chipped, grey teeth. He could hear hoarse breathing. He could hear the spittle.
The mind-reader in the shadows continued.
“Now you’re thinkin’, “Well, maybe they’ll make it quick.””
Very, very slowly, he reached for the handle…
“But now you’re thinkin’: “Quick and painless ain’t exactly the same thing.””
“That’s him, Joel. His friends cut up Abel all red and made me cry.” he heard Lula hiss.
“Well now, that is just plain rude.”
“What’s he thinking now?” Virgil heard Lula say.
“Well, unless I miss my guess, he’s thinking, “Why the Hell don’t they stop talking and eat me?””
“Oh.” said Lula. There was a pause.
“Why don’t we?” she asked.
There was another pause.
Virgil was already in slow-time, sword drawn, moving fast…
…don’t panic, don’t panic…
He grunted in pain as his sprained wrist collided with something that felt like a neck.
…it’s pitch black, they can’t see you, there’s more of them, that means you have a much better chance of hitting them than they have of hitting you…
The blade bit into something that screamed like a mule, he could taste blood in the air…
…remember what you’ve been taught, no mercy…
He was seeing red spots in front of his eyes. The shadows snarled blue murder, he snarled back and threw himself into them, twirling and thrusting.
…God. You’re actually winning.
A blow to the head.
Ears singing, blue bleeding over his vision, everything fizzing and fading…
Any slower and he’d be dead right now.
He’s on the ground, they’re gathering in for a good night kiss, the blade falls to the ground…
There’s a hand holding down his wrist, he can feel the calluses on the palm, rough and dry like nutshells…
Someone kicks him in the gut, doesn’t really make much difference.
A kiss on his neck, sweet and gentle.
This is it.
Down it came, like an angel falling from heaven, fiery red and hissing, painting the walls of the cavern lurid crimson as it fell. The flare landed, sputtering and blinding in the centre of the cavern. The gaggle of around fourteen lepers screamed and covered their eyes in pain. Then, like bolts from the sky they landed by the flare and stood regarding the scene.
There was dead silence, broken only by the cat-hiss of the burning flare. The Nine Temporals surveyed the frozen lepers with murder in their eyes.
Standing over Virgil was a great beast of a leper, six feet tall and almost as broad, with a thick black beard, who he could only assume was Joel.
“KILL…!” Joel got as far as roaring but it was too late.
The Temporals were on them, and they would be the ones doing the killing.
All the lepers knew Mabus. His name was forbidden in the burrows beneath Stalingrad. He haunted their fevered, demented dreams, chased them through the shadowy reeks of their madness and now he was here before them, in the flesh. To their credit they made straight for him, not hesitating for a split second .
Aodh, Baako and Jeda cut their way through the oncoming hoard as the lepers surged forward, intent only on reaching the old man and ripping him to shreds.
“Virgil!” Jeda shouted out over the din, slowing down time around her to nimbly leap over a female leper who now looked like she was moving through molasses.
“Over there! I see him!” roared Baako, hoping that Aodh and Jeda were close enough to his temporal rate that his words wouldn’t be a high-pitched buzz or a slow deep whale song.
Lula had taken advantage of everyone else’s distraction, and was about to administer the Leper’s kiss to Virgil.
“Get the Hell off him!” Jeda screamed at her.
Lula hissed through her teeth. “No! Go away! He’s mine! He’s…”
Her head hit the ground, and rolled some distance.
Mabus was in a world of calm. He breathed in calmly, and with no effort.
The lepers drifted in the air like leaves in a lazy autumn breeze. Slowly, gracefully, Mabus, reached out with his cane, struck one lightly on the neck, another on the head, another in the stomach, as if he was reaching to pluck apples from a tree. Stay calm, breathe deep, and it all becomes so easy.
He took a grip on an elderly looking male who was running very slowly towards where he had been some three minutes ago, and climb up him to swipe delicately at another, younger leper, who was leaping through the air out of Mabus’ reach. He struck him a rap across the face, and saw with satisfaction a slow reversal in movement, as the blow began to take effect and send the young leper back the way he came.
Taken this slowly, violence was so very relaxing.
Mabus was a blur, a spinning thrusting tornado that the lepers threw themselves against and were thrown back, smashed, broken, bruised and bloodied. Those that survived the first encounter picked themselves up and redoubled their efforts, pushing themselves to their very limits, slowing time around them until their hands trembled and their heads ached, and still they could barely see him, so quickly he moved.
He was everything the horror stories had said he was. And still they sprang forward, faster and faster, until the cavern looked like a great swarm of human-sized bees batting against each other, blurring, vicious, furious.
I cannot will not shall not be beaten I am the storm’s core I am the perfect still I am the ever-spinning death I am tireless ceaseless endless…
He spun, duck, struck. All was calm.
I am God’s sword edge by me is the unclean seared from the sound flesh let them come they are paper cast on fire I am the fire that burns white and blinding I am the fire that burns…
He was unstoppable.
He was invincible.
Joel’s hand was around his throat.
He couldn’t breathe.