CHAPTER 40: THE HUNT
She didn’t think. She didn’t stop. She didn’t let her mind wander.
“Oh come on. Let’s at least make this interesting.” said a voice in her ear.
She screamed and he was right there beside her, leaning over her shoulder as she ran. And then in an instant he was gone, flitted away leaving only the burning brand of a skull on her retinas.
Now he was standing by the side of the road.
The fleshless skull grinned unflinchingly at her as she ran past.
He was toying with her.
And when he grew bored, he would drag her back to the house and she would forget everything.
So she would have to make sure he didn’t get bored.
She shifted through space, re-emerging around thirty yards off the road to her left. Without even pausing for breath she ran into the forest.
It was like running blind in a knife drawer.
Every second step a twig would try to pierce her foot, every third, a branch would try to blind her.
Still she ran.
Mabus swung out from behind a tree, laughing like drunkard, and she felt the tip of his fingerbones searing her cheek. She screamed and tried to brush him off but he was already gone and she tripped, and fell and rolled and collided with Isabella who was running the opposite way.
They both screamed.
“Marie! Marie! Is that you! What is going on?!”
“Bella? Oh thank God…Listen to me…”
“Why is Doctor Toureil chasing me?”
“It’s not him. It’s not. And Papa isn’t Papa either. It’s Mabus. You have to remember, please, Bella, we don’t have much time, you have to remember, you have to remember all of it. Mariana, Virgil, you have to remember…”
From a distance, a flaming corpse watched them silently from a tree as the two girls talked frantically.
He could have ended it before it started but to be honest, he hadn’t had so much fun in decades.
He would let the game go on a little while longer.
He taped his stripped finger against the bark. He liked the sound it made, a nice dry tick. Like a clock.
Isabella’s mind was falling apart. The names had brought strange memories flooding back, memories that made no sense, and couldn’t be reconciled with what she knew about her life, and her father.
But it wasn’t her father.
And perhaps because she had never really known this life, the lies of Mabus and Groethuis fell apart even more easily for her than they had for Marie.
“Marie.” she said, and there was murder in her voice “How do we get out of here? How do we get them for this?”
“I don’t know…” Marie said desperately “I threw him in the fire but I don’t think he can be killed here…”
And suddenly the pieces fell into place.
What had Virgil said?
You’ve got to find out why he built this place.
Something is supposed to happen.
And when it does, the program will end.
Marie, Marie, Mabus thought, what are you thinking? What are you two up to?
She remembered Mabus emerging from the fire..
But you can’t kill me Marie, that’s not how Luke dies
That’s not how Luke dies.
“Isabella.” said Marie “Listen to me very carefully. I need you to do something.”
Mabus watched silently as Marie pulled Isabella closer to whisper something in her ear.
Isabella listened, and then pulled back, shook her head, tried to run away. Marie held on tight…
Now that’s interesting. What have you told Isabella to get her so flustered? Have you been telling scary stories?
“It’s the only way.”
“Please! You have to trust me!”
“I can’t! I can’t, Marie…”
“I’m going to lead him to the bridge. If you’re not there then he’ll bring us back and we will never get out of here. They will never let us get this far again. I need you to be brave.”
“Go. Go. GO!”
And Isabella was off, running in a direction now, off to the North, back towards the village.
And Marie wondered if Isabella would ever forgive her for what she had just asked her to do.
“Are you getting tired yet?”
She turned to face him.
The flames had died down mostly, and all that was left was a skein of red glowing embers over his skull and the smouldering remains of his clothing.
“Time for bed, I think.” said Mabus “Let’s go home Marie. And you can tell me all about your terrible dreams in the morning.”
“There isn’t going to be a morning.” said Marie “This will be the last night for both of us.”
And she was gone, running and shifting through the forest.
Don’t end it yet, she pleaded, don’t get bored.
Stay interested long enough for me to kill you.
Even very clever people can do very stupid things, Groethuis reflected. He couldn’t even guess how long he’d been chasing Isabella through the woods before he remembered that none of this was real. It was probably a credit to the convincing realism of the program, but he still felt quite foolish. Why chase her through the forest for hours on end when he could simply log out of the program and see where she was on a computer screen?
He removed the visor from his face and almost fell over. It was quite a shift, going from Doctor Toureil’s heavy frame to his own stick thin body. Cursing, he struggled groggily to his feet, slowly remembering how much each limb was supposed to weigh.
He looked over to the tank, where he could see Mabus twitching in the emerald fluid, like a sleeping dog dreaming of running.
He could understand how Mabus would spend so much time in the program. Just to be able to walk and stand again after so many years in the tank had to be appealing.
Now, where were they?
Marie first. She was the important one.
She was running through the forest, her signal shifting and zigzagging madly to through Mabus off her trail. Pointless, but one had to admire effort.
And there was Mabus.
Well no wonder she was running. His skin had been burnt off to the bone.
Groethuis sighed. The Master might think it was wonderfully entertaining to chase a young girl through a dark wood looking like the ghost of Christmas Yet To Come but Groethuis was the one who would have to put her sanity back together after.
His long, tapeworm-like fingers clicked over the keyboard…
Running through the forest, Mabus felt skin and hair growing over his face, and found the sensation quite unpleasant.
Now, where was Isabella?
Groethuis searched the screen, poring through lines of code.
There she was. My, she had gotten far. She was out of the forest and one the other side of the river, sprinting from the direction of the tavern. The girl could run. And there was someone behind her. Another program, not an avatar with a living controller like Luke or the girls, but an artificial intelligence, one of the many characters they had peopled this virtual St Anne with.
And he or she was chasing Isabella like a horse on fire.
And then he saw it. Isabella and Marie were both running for the same place.
Marie was bringing Mabus.
And Isabella was bringing…
“Oh dear…” said Groethuis.
And then he said it again, because he felt the point of a knife pressing into the back of his back.
“Hello Doctor.” said Thomas “Did we catch you at a bad time?”
“‘Lo Doc.” Holtz grunted.
“Ah Ezekiel.” said Groethuis “How are you? I trust the claw isn’t causing you any discomfort?”
“Nope.” said Holtz “Fits like a glove.”
“Thomas, it is a pleasure as always to talk to you at knife point but I regret I’m in the middle of a minor crisis at the moment.”
“Oh I know. In fact, we were wondering where Mabus was in the midst of all this. The people begin to wonder if he has forsaken them.”
“What are you talking about? No, I don’t care. I would however like to know how you got past the guards.”
“We didn’t.” said Thomas “We got through them.”
“Slight difference.” Holtz added.
Mabus strode out of the darkness, restored as Luke. The great mane of red-brown hair fell around his shoulders with each great stride, his eyes were once again a blue so bright they almost shone in the dark.
But this time, she was not fooled. And as she stood on the bridge, she knew that she was ready.
She just hoped that Isabella was.
“Would you like to catch your breath?” he asked.
“Marie. If I wanted to, I could simply whisk you back to your bedroom in the blink of an eye.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“Honestly?” he breathed in deeply “I’m just enjoying this too much. Groethuis truly is an artist. I can smell the sap in the trees. How does he do that?”
He took a step closer.
Where are you Bella?
“This is a wonderful place we’ve created for you Marie. Why can you not be content?”
Still no sign of her.
“You can have it all here, Marie. The life you were robbed of. The sister you never had. All your friends. Your home.”
And Marie’s heart leaped as she heard the stamp of bare feet running pell mell down the dirt road, followed by another.
“And your father alive again.” said Mabus.
Marie shook her head.
“No. You’re wrong. My father is dead. But you were right about one thing.”
Isabella, face as pale as a swallow’s belly, running and flailing her arms and legs like a windmill falling down a hill.
“I know how my father died.” said Marie.
And she turned.
Isabella collided into her arms.
Marie embraced her and they were gone, shifted away.
Mabus glanced around.
She couldn’t have gone far.
She didn’t have the strength.
“I hear there was a murder.”
Mabus looked. A young, thin man with dark hair stood at the other end of the bridge.
“Oh Marie.” said Mabus with a smile “How very brilliant of you.”
“I’m sure you’re all distraught.” said the Thomas programme “Did they catch the murderer?”
“Groethuis.” said Mabus “Reset the programme.”
“Do you think they will?” Thomas asked.
The youth snorted at this, as if it amused him. Thomas put his hands on the stone barrier.
“Tell me.” said the simulacrum “What would make a man do that, do you think?”
“Groethuis, reset the programme now!”
In the real world, Thomas pushed the dagger just that little bit further into Groethuis’ neck. Just enough to get the little blood ruby.
“Reset the programme. What do you suppose he means by that?”
“Couldn’t rightly say, Tom.”
“I was actually addressing the good Doctor, Ezekiel.” said Thomas “Though I certainly value your opinion.”
“I’m afraid it would be a little difficult to explain.” said Groethuis.
“Patronise me.” Thomas growled.
“We are running a simulation. A controlled dream. I have to reset it or the programme will end.”
“So this is what Mabus has been fiddling with while New Gomorrah burns.” said Thomas “What happens if it ends?”
“Then why does he want you to reset it?”
“There are people in the dream. If the dream ends, they will wake up. We don’t want that.”
“You don’t know them.”
“Groethuis!” Mabus’ raspy machine voice choked over the speaker “Reset the damn programme and get Marie and Isabella back to the house. Now!”
Groethuis closed his eyes. Thomas’ opened so wide they seemed to take up half his face.
“Tom?” Ezekiel asked.
“…what did he just say?”
Mabus’ mind raced. He had only a few moments left.
He tried to move, but he couldn’t shift. He couldn’t even walk. His avatar had become trapped by Thomas’ presence. He couldn’t break free unless Groethuis reset the programme.
“Oh yes. Oh yes, there are. There are that. A great many. Evil men aplenty. Do want to know what I think happened? To your magistrate? Would you like to hear my humble analysis?”
“Groethuis!” Mabus screamed.
On the roof of a nearby farmhouse, two figures grimly watched the proceedings.
“Are you alright?” Marie asked.
“No.” said Isabella “Are you?”
“No.” said Marie.
“We don’t have to watch this.”
“Let me explain.”
“They. Are. Here. ?.”
“Who’s they?” Holtz asked.
“Two little girls that I have to kill quite badly.”
“Any particular reason?”
“Ezekiel do I pry into every aspect of your life? Can’t you just take it on trust that I have my reasons?”
“Thank you.” said Thomas, “And you…”
The dagger bit deeper into Groethuis’ neck, who was now hoping quite fervently that the blade was clean.
“Blood or answers?”
“Which would your rather spill?”
“Thomas, please listen to me, I will only be too happy to answer any queries…”
“Why did he bring me here?” Thomas roared “Why was I dragged to this stone pit? Why me? He brings her here, this girl who’s very existence tortures me. Do you know the kind of suffering I’m talking about?”
He stabbed Groethuis in the chest, expertly avoiding the lungs and heart.
“You feel that?” he hissed through his teeth into Groethuis terrified face “That’s what it feels like.”
His eyes were fires of slate-grey. “I want Marie Dashonde dead. I was promised her. And he’s not going to give her up, is he?”
Groethuis didn’t answer. He twisted the knife.
“No…she’s too important.” was the tortured reply.
“Why, Groethuis. Tell me why.”
“I think your magistrate was a cruel and murderous wretch.” the fake Thomas intoned “Now that is not something that I object to. 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. A personal sleight. Do you understand?”
Mabus sighed “Yes, yes I understand. Could we please hurry this along?”
“I don’t believe we have been properly introduced. My name is Thomas Hieronimo.”
“Yes. I am aware.”
“And you are not a farmer.”
Thomas lashed out with his dagger.
Mabus dodged the blow effortlessly and slugged Thomas so hard across the face he actually spun in the air.
“I never claimed I was.” Mabus said.
“Mabus is dying, Thomas.” said Groethuis, his eyes desperately flitting to the computer screen. They had already begun fighting. There could only be one outcome. Mabus might be able to survive for a while but the program would eventually play itself out. The Hangman died at the hands of the Thief’s Son. It was as irrevocable a fact in that world as in the real one.
“He’s been trying to keep alive for centuries but his body is finally giving out. He has finally accepted that he will die. And he knows he lost any chance of heaven many years ago. That‘s why he built New Gomorrah. That‘s why he assembled his army”
Marie forced herself to watch. It wasn’t her father down there. And she wondered why the scene unfolding before her eyes looked exactly like she had always imagined it.
Mabus screamed as Thomas’s knife found his belly and began to eat. The pain was so real. The fire had been nothing compared to this. Here, finally, was something in this world that could kill him. He grunted and struck three great hammerblows against Thomas’s head. Thomas leapt back, agile as a cat.
Mabus roared, charged and threw every ounce of his weight and strength against the boy. Mabus felt a pure white joy as he felt ribs popping in Thomas’ chest like Christmas crackers, and they went over, splashing into the shallow water below.
Isabella turned away. Marie kept watching.
“Mabus knows that he’s damned.” Groethuis wheezed “So he’s decided that he will go to Hell. But he’s going to have an army at his back when he gets there. That’s why he’s done all this. “Better to rule in Hell,”, Milton couldn‘t have put it better if he was writing about Mabus himself! He‘s decided that he‘s going to Hell, not as it‘s slave, but as it‘s king!”
Is this what the real Luke Dashonde had felt, Mabus wondered to himself.
He was so far gone that he had lost the power to speak. Sheer rage was flowing through his veins. The Thief’s Son was a spiky, shadowy, crow-figure, darting in and out of the blackness, impossible to hold onto.
Thomas leapt into the air, planted both feet on Luke’s chest, buried a knife in either lung and then leapt into the air, catching Mabus’s chin and sending him flying into the stream.
Mabus lay there, simulated blood that felt as real as stone seeping out of him.
Overhead on the bridge, as programmed, avatars were gathering, designed to be horrified and distraught at what they saw. The virtual Thomas bowed graciously to them and took off into the night.
Isabella looked at Marie.
“Is he dead?”
“I don’t know.”
“What happens now?”
“You miserable treacherous murdering…”
“I beg your pardon, but you are the one with the knife in my chest.” Groethuis countered reasonably.
“You’re mad, both of you.” said Thomas “You’d kill all these men and send them to Hell to fight for your miserable souls?”
“No, no, no.” said Groethuis “Nothing like that.”
“Then how else is this army supposed to get to Hell?”
“Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.” Groethuis quoted “Armageddon, Thomas. In the end times the gates of heaven and hell are flung open and the elect and the damned are gathered up like a harvest. They divide up mankind between them, you see. The only time when the road from earth to the afterlife is opened. But Mabus has a surprise ready for them, an army of history’s most vicious killers armed to the teeth with New Matter weaponry. Once those gates open he’ll march on Hell, take the Nine rings and the black throne itself!”
Groethuis actually laughed and coughed up a little blood.
“Hell, I coulda told him that.” Holtz snorted “Don’t explain what’s so special about this Dashonde girl.”
“I’m getting to that.” said Groethuis “There’s one problem. Mabus doesn’t know when it’s going to happen. “You know not the day or the hour.” Unfortunately that’s quite literally true in this case.”
Thomas twitched the knife.
“No more Bible quotes, if you don’t mind.”
“Mabus made contact with a Shade. The Shade promised him he’d give him the exact time of the Apocalypse in exchange for one thing.”
“What?” Thomas asks “What did he promise him?”
In his tank, Mabus twitched violently and suddenly became very still.
It came gliding over the village like a black shroud, stark against the greying dawn. Already the clouds were rumbling, and she knew that the storm would soon break. But the Shade was not flying towards the house where the imitation of her father was being laid out on his bed which would soon be his deathbed. The Shade was coming straight for her.
And now it was clear that Groethuis could only accomplish so much.
As real as the village was, he could couldn’t come close to conveying the sheer horror of Rashgiel. She doubted anything could.
This Shade was a fake, she knew from the way her soul didn’t try to shiver out of her body on his approach.
“Poor child.” it hissed “Do you have any idea what lies in store for your father?”
“What if I told you that I can spare his soul?”
Marie blinked. This whole scenario was getting stranger and stranger. What did Mabus hope to get from all this?
“Go on.” she said, incredulously.
“Take his place.” said the devil “Come with me, and your father will be spared.”
“Thanks.” said Marie “I’ll pass on that one.”
“What?” said Rashgiel.
“I must decline your offer.”
“But I’ve been sent here to collect your father’s soul and bring him to hell…”
“No. You haven’t. That’s not my father. And if you had really been sent to bring his soul to hell I’d wish you a pleasant journey. But you haven’t. So I can’t.”
“Invalid outcome. Exiting scenario .groethuis/stanne/0998878/.scen.”
Groethuis moaned as new information flashed on screen. Disaster.
The whole scenario would need to be reset, the girls brainwashed again. Months of work lost.
Their best chance of getting the Armageddon date dashed. Who could even tell if Mabus would live long enough to see it through a second time?
“You’re telling me that this devil wanted Marie?” said Thomas.
“Yes…” Groethuis whispered, beginning to feel very light headed.
“I don’t know. Why do you?”
“And Mabus promised her to him?”
“Not exactly. Marie would have to go willingly. A Shade can’t simply take a living person against their will. A pact has to be entered into.”
“What kind of pact?”
“Mabus was impersonating Marie’s father. He was going to be killed just as he was in real life. Then a simulation Rashgiel was to offer her father’s soul in exchange for her own. You see?”
“So even though she’s not really saving her father, the fact that she thinks she is enough to let the devil take her?”
“That is a rather despicable thing to do. I just wanted to kill her. Speaking of which, where is she?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“I don’t even know why I’m asking.” Thomas said “Where else would they be? Where do you keep all the rest of your caged treasures? They’re in your tower.”
Groethuis’ desperate eyes were enough to tell him he was right.
“It falls to me to be both hero and villain.” said Thomas “I am going now to kill her. But it is time for this to end. All of it. Ezekiel?”
“Take a look at Mabus.”
“How does he look.”
Holt took out his gun and shot point blank into the tank three times.
Groethuis screamed “NO” after every one.
The glass shattered and Thomas felt the green fluid soaking into his toecaps as it rivered across the floor of the chamber. A grey, wrinkled thing lay soaking and bleeding at the bottom of the tank’s remains.
Mabus was dead.
Thomas stabbed Groethuis again for good measure and let him fall.
“So, where to next?” Holtz asked as they strode out of the Chamber.
“We tell the men that the tyrant is dead and that they’re all free. And that they belong to me now.