Oh please let me dead.
Because if I’m not, I have the distinct impression I shall be in quite a lot of pain when I wake up.
“…Mariana!?…Mariana?! Can you hear me?”
Ah. There it is.
“Thank God, she’s alive!”
Yes. Not unlike being ground through a strainer and set on fire. This may in fact be the most pain I have ever been in.
“Mariana! Mariana, are you hurt? I need you to concentrate, can you feel anything broken?”
Kathy, while I’m sure what you’re saying is both wise and fascinating, the fact that all I can hear is a high pitched whine in each ear renders it rather moot. Do shut up and let me be dead, I think I’d much prefer it. The indistinct blob hovering over her head which or might or might not have been Kathy was now joined by another.
“Eamonn! Thank God!”
“How is she?”
“I think she’s in shock. Were you hurt?”
The tall Temporal shook his head grimly. “No. Few cuts and bruises. Lucky me.”
The Hotel Baur Au Lac was splayed in front of him, split right down the middle, a great orange firestorm raging in it’s heart, a coal-black pillar of smoke carrying volumes of ash into the crisp cool Swiss air. A great many of his friends were now part of that ash.
“Lucky, lucky me.” he whispered.
“Eamonn, how many got out?” Kathy asked.
“Counting us? Fourteen.”
“Yeah. Eloi made it. The kid Daniel. Arabelle got burnt pretty bad, between you and me she’s not making it home…”
Mariana lay on the lawn of the Hotel Baur Au Lac, Eamonn’s words buzzing soundlessly over her head. All so much droning. From the corner of her eye, she could see a green forest reaching for a cool blue sky. Lying on the grass, Mariana remembered.
The bomb had appeared in the centre of the smooth, round table.
“Oh c’mon!” Virgil squealed “I was jok…”
The bomb exploded, destroying everything within three floors.
That was what had occurred in normal time. In slow-time, it was a little more complicated than that.
“…No…” Milo had said. And everything had frozen.
The bomb had already detonated, and the great orb of heat and light had vaporized the centre of the table, taking eight of the people closest to it instantly. It now froze in mid spread, a great fiery globe, utterly static.
Isabella was screaming. A man just three seats down from her had been half consumed by the flame, the fire stopping midway up his torso, and he was now frozen there, half way between being and oblivion.
Marie wasn’t saying anything, she was simply staring at the fireball in front of her like a rabbit in the headlights. Kathy had leapt to her feet.
“What the hell…?”
“Don’t you understand?! Milo’s thrown a slow time envelope around us!”
All eyes turned to Milo. Like the explosion, he was frozen, a look of total effort etched on his features.
“He can do that?”
“Around all of us? My God! I never knew he was that powerful!”
“What about the others we have to save them!”
“We can’t!” Kathy snapped “They’re already dead, he raised the field as quickly as he could but even he’s not that fast!”
“But why isn’t he moving?” Isabella asked.
“He can’t project the field around himself and us at the same time, it doesn’t work that way…”
“But we can’t leave him!”
“Everybody. Listen. To. Me Now.” said Kathy “When the explosion touches Milo, he dies. When he dies, the field around us collapses. When, not if. Then we die. We can’t save these people because they are already dead. It’s already happened. Now everyone. Get. OUT!”
It had the desired effect.
The fire ball was beginning to move, spreading over the table like treacle.
“We can’t let this happen!” Marie shouted as Mariana herded her and Isabella out the door. There was a stampede now, Temporals desperately jostling to make it through the one exit before the bomb killed Milo and collapsed the envelope of slow-time.
Mariana said nothing.
Mariana held tightly on to them, her grip like iron.
“Mariana, please, we can’t just…”
“Help!” came a cry.
Mariana spun to see where the cry had come from.
Maket, the Egyptian girl, had been knocked unconscious by the first shock wave of the blast and had only just come to. The fireball had now grown to the point where she was cut off from the doorway. She was trapped on the other side of the table, watching the encroaching ball of fiery death with huge, white staring, eyes.
“Help me please!” she screamed.
Mariana took in the scene. The fireball was now half a foot from Milo’s chest and would kill him within a quarter of a minute, slow-time. There was no way to get around the table in that time. But under it…
The table was finest varnished mahogany, around two and a half inches thick. This had absorbed some of the impact of the blast, so that the fireball was still a foot or so away from the carpet. Oh Hell.
“Marie, Isabella get out of here now!”
To their credit, they didn’t argue and ran for the door.
“Marie!” she shouted after her “Go into slowtime the second you step into the hall or you’ll be caught in the blast!”
Then without another look she leapt under the table, the fiery ball was weighing down on her as she scrambled under it, hissing as the heat seared the small of her back. If it did that in slow-time, then once the envelope collapses…No, don’t think of that..
She was through to the other side. Miracle.
Maket threw her arms around her and held on tight.
Mariana looked around desperately at the fireball. Amazingly, she could still see the black line of a part of it’s casing in the heart of the inferno
Three inches from Milo now. No room under the table to crawl back. Doorway blocked. Time to die.
Maket clenched her tightly.
Wait, you senile of hag, the window! With one arm clasped around the girl she shuffled to the nearest window and
The glass was slowly shattering from the shockwave, the shard’s flying out into the Swiss morning with an eerie elegance.
Just one more second and enough would have cleared for her to jump out.
They were four stories up. Long way to fall. Longer if you hit the tarmac. Make for the grass. Hope for the best. Not like you have a choice…
“No! Please she can’t die!”
“It’s alright Maket! She’s alive!”
“I’m sure, I’m sure, here take her wrist. You feel that? Do you feel her pulse?”
“She saved me! From the fire, she saved me!”
“I know. I know.”
Maket hugged her tightly, tears streaming from her eyes and staining her dress.
She didn’t even notice her.
His eyes were riveted on the sky, and the angels and shades that were swarming overhead like swallows at sunset.
They are late, she thought.
Mabus caught them by surprise.
She leapt from the window, Maket clutched tightly to her.
The ball slowly, tenderly, touched Milo’s chest.
The top three floors of the Hotel Baur Au Lac were ripped open by a great white ball of fire and heat. Every living thing inside was killed instantly.
Kathy was looking at grass.
If she kept her field of vision focused on one small patch of grass, she could pretend that she wasn’t in, that the remains of the hotel weren’t collapsing into flame behind her, that Mariana wasn’t lying comatose two feet away…
Deep breaths girl.
She looked up. Eamonn looked like a different person. But then everyone did. Maybe it was the adrenaline, maybe it was the shock. But it took her a full two seconds to even realise who he was.
“Are you one of the Nine?”
Even his voice sounded different.
She was about to lie, but stopped herself. The whole purpose of the Nine’s anonymity was that the other Temporals wouldn’t know that you were one of them. The other Temporals, for the most part were dead. Was there really a point?
“I’m Third of the Nine.” she said simply.
“Not anymore.” said Eamonn.
“Milo’s dead. I don’t know who the second was, but I’m guessing he or she didn’t make it out alive. I’m pretty sure that makes you the First of the Nine.”
“The Nine?” Kathy asked bitterly “What Nine would that be? The Nine he just massacred?”
“No.” said Eamonn “The Nine who are going to track down this animal and obliterate him. Burn him right out. Surgical, like. That’s the Nine I was talking about. You were clearly thinking of some other Nine.”
“You’re not thinking clearly.” she said.
“Wrong. Clear as the driven snow. I want him dead.”
“He wants you dead. You go looking for a confrontation one of you will get his wish and it won’t be you.”
“I do. We just lost everybody or damn near. And next time Milo won’t be here…”
It hit her. She stopped. Swallowed.
“And he won’t be here to pull your butt out of the fire, so you sit down, and calm down and come up with a plan that doesn’t involve you running off and getting yourself killed because no one else is dying on my watch, do you understand me, that is my first decree. No one. Else. Is. Dying.”
She had been crying for a full five seconds before she realised she was. He held her.
“I’m sorry.” he said simply.
“Doesn’t help.” she whispered.
“I know. Sorry.”
The paint on a surviving wall was melting and running like water in the heat.
“S’okay.” she said.
A terrible thought hit her like a hammer.
“Oh God. Eamonn. The girls. Marie and Isabella…”
She already knew.
“Yeah.” he breathed “They’re dead.”
As fate would have it, it was at that moment that Mariana regained consciousness.
She scrambled to his feet…
“Mariana! Easy, you’ll hurt yourself!”
Kathy’s hand was on her left shoulder, Eamonn’s on her right…
Back on the ground.
Get up! Weak old woman! They’re in there! You’ve got to save them!
Get up Mariana. Get up. GET UP!
Can’t even walk. What are you good for? Useless old…
They got out in time, Marie got them out, tough as nails that girl…
They’re fine they’re fine…
Look at you, doddering senile old fool…
A great orb of fire and smoke rose from the heart of the blaze. The shockwave hit. Her ears rang.
Oh God no.
Kathy turned away and faced the green fields and forests of the Hotel grounds. She could still feel the heat from the blaze crawling up the small of her back , but looking out at the scene, there’s was nothing to say that an act of mass murder had just occurred twenty feet in the opposite direction. Facing this way, the air was cool. It was as if it had never happened.
She took a deep breath. Make this minute last, girl, you’ll need this for what’s coming. Just put it away for a second in the back of your mind. Take all the flame and bones, and hide it for a few minutes.
Because if you don’t, you’re liable to break down right here and now.
She closed her eyes. There was a chill in the air that told her that a storm was coming. She could feel it in her bones. When she couldn’t see what was causing it, the crackling of the fire was vaguely lulling. Then she heard something else, a thin wailing keen, like a dog in pain.
She opened her eyes.
Across the green fields, winding their way up the gravel path to the flaming remains of the Hotel Baur Au Lac was a veritable convoy of fire engines, ambulances and squad cars. With their lights flashing they resembled a great blue and red glow worm, stretching away into the distance. The wailing was getting louder. And over them, as if keeping pace, was a great grey storm cloud rumbling with a thousands tons of thunder.
She turned to Eamonn. “Round up everyone. We’re flying. There are men coming with questions that I really don’t have the energy to answer.”
“Wait a minute.” Maket said quietly “What about the ghost?”
Kathy shot a glance at Eamonn “Did you see Virgil?”
He shook his head “But he should be fine, right? I mean, he can’t die twice can he?”
Before Kathy could reply they were interrupted by a young male Temporal running towards them from the ruins of the hotel.
“Cops comin’, we gotta go!”
“Carlos, tell everyone to separate. We’re just putting ourselves at risk of more attacks if we stay together.” Kathy called to him.
Whatever Carlos replied was lost as the storm broke.
The storm crackled and grew until it encompassed the entire sky. Lightning flashed, stretching from East to West in an arc of fiery white brilliance. Eamonn, Maket, Kathy and Carlos collapsed as their legs crumpled beneath them.
They had all traveled throughout space and time, and had seen wonders.
But this was too much. They were felled by sheer awe.
And the thunder spoke to them in a voice of great power. And it said:
“KNOW ME. I AM OF THE TAI-YOL.”
Eamonn breathed “Oh sweet mother. It’s a bloody Seraph.”
Impossible, Kathy thought to herself. The Seraphim were the most powerful of all the nine choirs, the elite guard of God Himself. Their power was said to be beyond credence, so much that their form of choice was not human like the Angels and Archangels, or bird or lion like the Princedoms and Dominions, but forces of nature. Storms, avalanches, tornadoes. This of course was all rumour, as no Seraphim, in the history of the world as far as Kathy knew it, had ever deigned to sully itself with a visit to the Earth. And yet, here it was. A massive, living thunderstorm as wide as the sky itself. One of the Tai-Yol, looking down at her. She desperately searched her memory. She had been taught a smattering of the angelic language by an angel she had befriended in her teens. “Tai-Yol” simply meant “Of God.” They were as close to the pure will of God as it was possible to be. Less like independent beings who served him, more like his hand or arm.
And that was the thing that now hung overhead.
And the thought terrified her utterly.
“YOL KNOWS YOUR PAIN.” it said “AND YOU ARE NOT FORSAKEN. YOL SEES THE SINS OF MABUS.”
He’s going to help us, Kathy thought. He’s going to tell us where Mabus is. No, wait that’s crazy. Why would he need to do that? We’re just ants to him. He’s just going to destroy him himself.
“BUT YOL SEES NOT MABUS HIMSELF.”
“I BRING THIS WARNING FROM YOL. YOU MUST FLEE. HIDE YOURSELVES. SCATTER YOURSELVES AS SEEDS OVER THE FIELD. FOR HE CANNOT GUARANTEE YOUR SAFETY.”
There was a long, long silence.
“What?!!” Eamonn shrieked “Are you having a laugh!? Are you?! Are you actually saying that the Capital G sent his pet storm front here for the express purpose of saying “Sorry lads, you’re on you own?!” What the hell is this?!!?”
“BE SILENT.” the Tai-Yol intoned solemnly.
“Like Hell!” Eamonn screamed at the burning sky.
“Eamonn. You’re making it angry.”
“Angry? Angry! I’ll show it angry!”
“Eamonn shut up!”
“Just give me a pair of rubber gloves and I’ll waste the fecker!”
His eyes were glowing with reflected thunder and were not all together sane.
“Wait! Wait, please just tell us!” Kathy got shakily to her feet and faced the storm “Please, just tell us why you can’t just stop him!”
“There’s nothing you can’t do!” she screamed.
“The weakest angel! The weakest angel, could lay waste to the entire earth!”
But she couldn’t stop now, the grief had taken over. Like a woman keening at a funeral, she didn’t know what she was saying, the words came from somewhere else.
“Why can’t you stop him? Why can’t you…”
She went silent. The sky was growing brighter, throbbing furiously .
Oh God. She thought. I’ve done it now.
The wind howled, her eyes burned with the fiery light and tears streamed down her cheeks. The air crackled, she could feel the hairs standing up on the back of her neck. Then it happened, the storm exploded in sheer fiery rage:
It bellowed and every cell in her body answered “BECAUSE!” and the world rang with “BECAUSE!” and in all the world, every inch and every gram of dirt, every mite of air, every drop of water was nothing but one great world of “BECAUSE!”
The storm hung listlessly overhead. Grey as death.
And it whispered sadly to Kathy:
“Because we don’t know how.”
And Kathy knew terror.
Then it was gone, and they were standing in sunlight with the neon blue snake of police cars and fire engines and ambulances winding it’s way up the hill towards them, wailing like they were the ones hurting, they were the ones who had felt the flame creep slow over their backs and watched friends turned to charred black bits and greasy ash.
“Kathy?” Eamonn said, shaking her shoulder.
Her ears were still ringing from the Seraph’s words. They don’t know. They really don’t know where he is. No one is safe. No one.
“Kathy?” he said again, more urgently this time.
She opened her eyes.
“Let’s get the hell out of here.” she said hoarsely.
One after they other they began to shift out, and were gone. Eamonn and Kathy were left alone.
“Where’s Mariana?” Eamonn asked.
She had been saying the word for so long that it had lost any meaning and had become a noise. A note. A birdcall.
The lobby had been inverted. Order had become chaos. Light, darkness. Cleanliness turned to filth. The cool, calming air was now being burned by the flame and turned to black smoke.
And Mariana sat on the ground, cradling her knees.
“I’m…I’m…I’m…I’m sorry…” she whispered.
“I’m so sorry. I think I’ve gone crazy again.”
And she laughed or cried (she was at the point where they are one and the same).
“I’ve lost her. Them. Both. All three. Him. All of them. Oh God. Oh God.”
Tears fell to the floor, cleaning ash as they rolled. Pointless.
“And you.” she whispered “I’ve lost you. And I never got to tell you…”
She looked to where he lay crushed beneath a ceiling beam, his ancient eyes staring up at the ceiling as if it was the most shocking thing he had ever seen, would ever see. How small he looked, she thought. But then the dead always looked small. It often seemed incredible that life could even fit in such a tiny thing.
“Charles.” she whispered “I was going to tell you everything. I swear I was.”
The flames roared on. Something crashed. The hotel sounded like it was about to give up the ghost and finally topple in on itself totally. Even here, in the lobby, as far from the blast as one could be, collapse seemed imminent.
“This my fault.” she whispered “It won’t end. It’ll just go on and on. Nothing ever changes.”
But even now, the madness was receding. And it was different this time. When Jeda had been killed there had been nothing but rage, mad, feral rage…
Now. This was different. Her grief was draining away, replaced by something colder than rage. It was simply a realisation. A certainty.
This time there would be no theatrics.
No screaming, no wailing.
She would remain utterly calm.
For Mariana knew with the kind of certainty that cannot be challenged or even questioned that she would kill Mabus for what he had done today.
He had finally done it.
He had pushed her to the point where she could feel no more pain. She had finally passed that threshold. And a terrible calm washed over her. And in a way, she felt free. It was the kind of freedom that a dying man feels when the edges of the world begin to go black, but it was a freedom nonetheless.
She counted their names in her head.
Virgil (If not in body then in soul.)
On and on the names went. And as she walked through the burning lobby, past stunned firemen, out into the gathering dusk lit up with red and blue lights she swore he would hear every one of those names ringing in his ears before the last, bloody blow.
And then the shadows twitched and she was gone.