CHAPTER 45: FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS
Isabella seemed to not even notice him, and ran out into the field of dust. She could feel the grains of the dead on her bare feet like sand but she paid it no mind. She glanced around. Nothing.
She bit her lip so hard it almost bled.
Cole stood there, leaning against a wall and struggling to breath. She couldn’t believe it, he was half dead with exhaustion and he had actually run after her.
Then she realised that he was pointing behind her.
She turned, and her heart broke a little with happiness. Footprints, leading through the dust, away from the chamber.
“He’s fine, kid.” Cole wheezed “He made it. He probably didn’t feel like staying and chatting with Mabus. You know how awkward these reunions can be.”
“He’s alright.” Isabella whispered.
“He’ll be back.” Cole promised her “Just give some time to lick his wounds. Come one.”
He stretched out a hand to her and she took shelter under his arm as they walked back to the courtyard.
On an impulse, she gave him a hug.
He hissed like a kettle “For the love of God, please don’t do that.”
“Yes, these ribs have taken quite a bruising.” Groethuis noted as he studied Cole’s chest “Young Miss, could you please pass me that length of bandage, thank you.”
Isabella dutifully passed the unpleasant looking doctor the roll of bandage and watched as he went about his work like a thin grey spider wrapping a fly.
“Can you fix him?” she asked innocently.
He shot her a glance.
“Young Miss, this very day I have successfully treated a sextuple cenetarian of multiple gunshot wounds after he was clinically dead for ten minutes and left him better than he has been for years. He is in there, right now, sitting and drinking tea. And you’re asking me if I can treat some bruised ribs, a couple of fractures and a medium concussion? Child’s play, my dear, I could do this with my eyes closed.”
“Really? Could you chase me through a forest in the middle of the night with your eyes closed too?”
Groethuis stopped and looked up at her.
“I didn’t make you run.”
“Yes you did. You were in the same room. Reason enough.”
“How sad. I would have hoped that your time in a stable family environment with a reliable father figure would have induced a modicum of civility into your manner. But I suppose it can’t be helped, life is not like Dickens. A filthy urchin will not always be filthy but she remains an urchin.”
Groethuis would have said more, but Cole had a pretty good grip on his throat.
“Groethuis? How good do you heal, man? How good do you heal?”
“It’s alright Cole.” said Isabella “He’s wrong anyway. My father was a better father to me than Mabus ever was.”
“I find that rather hard to believe.” said Groethuis, rubbing his neck.
“My father never lied to me and told me he loved me.”
“What makes you think he was lying?” Groethuis asked “You don’t think he can love?”
“No. Not him. He proved that when he killed Mariana.”
“That simply proves that he no longer loved her. But he can still love, young Miss, I assure you of that. I do not claim to be an expert on such matters, quite the opposite, in fact. But I would imagine no length of time can pass where a man loses that ability. And if he does, I would guess it is the very last thing to go.”
His nails were claws that clinked as he took the china cup and raised it to his lips.
She couldn’t stop staring at him. At certain moments he seemed like a tree or a rock, some unimaginably ancient thing. Then she would watch with what relish that he gulped the tea down, feeling taste in his mouth for the first time since he had entered the chamber all those decades ago. And then he seemed like an infant, all bald head and wide staring eyes, every sensation new and joyfully discovered.
She took a sip of tea. She felt a heavy pang of grief in her stomach. It was the same blend Mariana had given her that first night. What were the chances?
“My, my. Where do we begin?” Mabus said “A mountain of things to discuss.”
“You killed those men.”
“Intriguing. Those men betrayed me, and were trying to kill you. And yet they are the first thing to come to mind when I asked you to speak. What does that say about you? That you value all human life equally, or just that you can only concentrate on whatever happened most recently?”
“You didn’t have to kill them.”
“I seem to remember you standing over Cole, waving your sword and telling them that they should fear you. Why should they fear you if you didn’t intend to kill them, Marie?”
“I wasn’t…I’m not…”
“Your father? No, you’re not. You have proven that abundantly. You are not your father’s daughter. You are mine.”
“Forgive me. I do not intend to insult your intelligence by trying to make you believe that I am Luke Dashonde. The time for such charades is long past. You are here because I recognise your intelligence and your courage and respect them. From now on, all our dealings shall be face to face. I made the mistake of treating you like a child. I do not repeat mistakes. But you must realise that I had a greater hand in shaping who you are than your father ever did?”
“What are you talking about?”
Mabus raised a hairless eyebrow.
“She never told you? Did you never wonder where the Temporal Adepts came from? Why we can do the things we do?”
“The Tower of Babel. You and Mariana and others tried to get to heaven and instead you ended up outside of time.”
“And were you there with us, Marie?”
“Then how did you become a Temporal Adept? What do you think we did after we came out of the tower?”
“I don’t know.”
“We did what people do, Marie. We married. We had children. We passed on our gift to our sons and daughters and they were fruitful and multiplied and had children of their own and our lines stretched down throughout history. Some of our descendants shared our gifts and some did not. Certain families inherited certain traits, the ability to see the future, or a particular aptitude to slow down time or to shift across great distances. The Lepers were a particulary unfortunate line, cursed beyond measure. That is why you have these gifts, Marie. You are descended from one of the Fifty of Babilu. Most likely from Mariana and myself. You have her nose, I think.”
Marie could hear ringing in her ears.
“She never told you?” Mabus asked.
“No…” Marie whispered “She said we were related.”
“Very distantly.” he said “But there’s more to family than ties of blood.”
“But that’s not possible, Jeda died before she could have children.”
She realised he was asking her a question.
“Yes.” she said “Jeda. Your daughter.”
“I do not remember her.”
“What? No, you must do. You killed her. You sick monster, you killed her!”
“Child, throughout my life I have fathered hundreds of children, scores with Mariana, many more with others. And she has borne the children of other men, and lived to see them grow to adulthood and make their way in the world. I was not even her first husband. So you see any one of her children, or mine, or both, could have been your ancestor. But do not ask me to remember one in particular. You say I killed her. Perhaps. If I did I had my reasons.”
“No. You have to remember her. You have to. That’s what drove Mariana insane.”
“Is it? I had sometimes wondered that.”
“Oh you remember that?” Mari practically spat.
“I could scarcely forget.” Mabus sneered “Here. Take my hand.”
Marie could not think of anything she wanted to do more.
Mabus reached over and placed his left hand on hers and she shrieked as it passed right through.
“How did you do that?” she asked.
“I didn’t. She did.” he said “Ghost hand. She tried to obliterate me from the timeline. We fought across millenia. It was the only time in a fight that I ever lost the upper hand, if you’ll pardon the expression. We tried to obliterate each other and I only barely escaped with my life. But now, as far as history is concerned, my left hand never existed. That’s when I realised that the other Temporals were too dangerous. If Mariana alone could come that close…no one else could ever get that chance.”
“That’s why you bombed the hotel.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“Because I want you to understand why I have done the things that I have done.”
“I understand. You’re a monster.”
“Marie. Look at me.”
She met his gaze, straight on.
“Do you know what I am doing, right now?”
She shook her head.
“I am searching through New Gomorrah with my mind. And every time I find a soldier who has betrayed me, who is warring with his brothers or assaulting my scorpions I age him to dust. I am doing this right now, as I sit talking to you. It takes me only the slightest effort. So you see, I am not a monster. I am something far more terrifying. I am a God.”
“Gods aren’t afraid to die.” Marie said, coldly.
“Oh. Even gods are afraid to die.” said Mabus “But you see, when we die, we come back.”
“Gods don’t need to be understood.”
“Ah. You may have me there. No, they don’t. They do not need to be understood, for they cannot be understood. Just like you cannot understand me.”
“I don’t understand how you can kill your own daughter and not even remember her.”
“You’d never do that, would you Marie?”
“Love is forever, is that not so?”
“You would never abandon your father, you would never forget him…”
“Mabus.” she cut across him “Stop. I know why you’ve done all this. Why you tried to bully the Nine into giving me up. Why you tried to trick me into believing you were my father. You brought me here to ask me something. So stop trying to guilt me, or trick me or confuse me.
And just ask me.”
Mabus said nothing, and then poured himself another cup of tea, and one for her.
“I have assembled my army. I have built my castle. I have forged my weapons and I stand ready to march. But to move this entire city throughout space and time will take so much effort as to tax even me. I may well be killed by the exertion. I will certainly not be able to do it more than once. Which is why I need to know the exact moment of the end of days.”
“So you can be there.”
“An invade Hell.”
“Why, you crazy old man?”
“Why not invade Heaven, you mean?”
“No I mean…alright, fine why not that?”
“Because it is not God who bars me from Heaven. It is myself. It is all of us here. We made our choices. If we entered heaven our souls would burn in a pain even greater than hell. Hell is where my destiny lies. I simply dispute the position I am to hold there. I choose King.”
“But you need to know the day and the hour.”
“And Rashgiel has promised to give it to you if you give him me in return.”
“But he can’t just kidnap me. I have to go willingly.”
“No one ever gives themselves over to the Devil, save by their own free will.”
“You could have told me that a while back and saved us a lot of trouble.”
“So sorry for wasting your precious time.” said Mabus, coolly dropping a sugar lump in her tea.
“What is your answer?”
Later they stood on the roof of the chamber, the ancient giant and the tiny red haired girl, watching the fires of New Gomorrah smouldering to black. The word had reached everyone by now; Mabus was alive. An eerie silence had descended on the city as everyone hunkered down and prayed that age wouldn’t eat them alive as they slept.
“Something I was wondering.” Marie said “Where did you build this place? Where are we?”
“Mons Wolff” Mabus told her.
“I don’t know where that is.” said Marie.
“Let me give you a clue.” said Mabus.
He pressed a button.
And Marie watched as a thin black line opened in the centre of the stone sky and spread like a second horizon from East to West. Then it split and opened. The sky gaped like a terrible mouth, as if stooping to swallow them all.
In a tiny room beneath the Combat Tower, so small the walls pressed in on his chest and shoulders, Thomas shifted his head in the blind darkness and listened to the sky pull apart.
In his lab, Groethuis tried valiantly to catch twenty test tubes that have been shaken from his desk and fallen to the ground like glass raindrops.
All around New Gomorrah, Vikings and pirates, soldiers and thugs, men and women of every nation, race and creed turned to each other and asked the same question: “Is it time?”
And on the roof of the Chamber, Marie Dashonde watched as the two sides finally came to a stop.
“Is…is that?” she askeed.
“Yes Marie.” said Mabus “That would be the earth.”
And so it was. And a beautiful earth it was too, a single impossibly perfect blue-green heaven in a sea of white angelic stars. And she realised it made sense. For New Gomorrah was never on earth. How could a construct so large have escaped notice on the teeming planet below? The materials were brought and shaped here by Mabus’ powers, formed under the base of the mountain Mons Wolff, beneath the surface of the moon.
Below them, the soldiers began stirring. Strangely, there was no panic and no rush. They simply gathered their weapons, and quietly assembled at the points in New Gomorrah they had been told to when the moment came. Those of Mabus’ troops who came from more advanced periods of time might have wondered what has preventing them all from being sucked into the vacuum of space, but they wisely put the thought out of their minds. Mabus had provided a way. That was all that mattered.
Later, much later, they were still on the Chamber roof, joined now by Cole, Isabella and Groethuis. Flying through the air over New Gomorrah were fifty eight battleships of every era and nation. Rescued from the sea-bed and brought here by Mabus, refitted with New Matter weaponry and armour and anti-gravity technology. They glided like barracudas, silhouetted jet-black against the earthlight.
“Why are those ships flying?” Isabella asked.
“Two reasons.” said Cole “One, there are no oceans where they’re going.”
“Two, they look cool.”
“I know. Bella. I know.”
Marie said nothing.
“Are you ready, Marie?” Mabus asks.
Marie nodded. She was. By her side, Isabella couldn’t speak. The tears were choking her slowly.
“Bring it in.” says Mabus.
Marie watched as two attendants brought in the coffin. It had been measured perfectly for her, sculpted from New Iron and on the lid was a beautifully detailed sculpture of Marie at rest. They laid it on the ground with some difficulty and removed the lid.
With a deep breath, Marie lay down inside it. She could hear her heart kicking against her ribs like a mule.
Cole is knelt by the coffin and whispered to Marie.
“Just say the word and I can get you out of this.” he told her.
“No you can’t.” he replied “But thanks for saying it.”
“Take care kid.”
“I will. Look after her, okay?”
“I dunno. Will she be sulky?”
“You know I will.“
He tried to say something and couldn’t.
“Take this.” he said simply, and pressed something into her hand.
He gots up and walked away, the mask doing him the mercy of hiding his face.
Isabella was next.
“Got your comb?” she asked.
“What?” Marie said.
“Your comb. You wouldn’t be able to sleep if you forgot that thing.”
“Yes. I’ve got it here. Thank you.”
“You knew this. You always thought I was crazy.”
“And I was always right. I want you to know something. I should hate you right now, but I don’t.”
“I was…I was trying to think up a way to sum everything up nice and proper because I love you so much and we’ve been through everything together and you saved my life a hundred times or something but I couldn’t and this is my last time ever seeing you and it’s just stupid and wrong and…” she stopped and took a deep breath.
“I love you.” she said simply “Don’t die.”
And they embraced for a few seconds.
“He’s here.” said Mabus simply.
And Isabella was gently pulled away, and the lid came closing in on her and then there was nothing but pitch black around Marie and her own breath wrapping her head in the dark.
A figure stood on the roof, sensed only by Mabus.
“You are late.” he said.
“If I had left too hastily.” says the Shade “Questions would have been asked. She is here?”
“There at your feet. Encased in New Matter.”
“And neither Gol nor Yol know of this?”
“I promise you. No one knows of this but us. You are a skittish one, aren’t you?”
“Ah..” says the Shade mockingly, “If only you had any idea of the powers you set yourself against.”
The Scorpion, Isabella and Groethuis listened carefully. They could only hear Mabus’ side of the conversation.
“It doesn’t matter.” said Mabus “Give me the time.”
“Three hundred years, forty days, eighteen hours. Four minutes.”
“Thank you.” said Mabus.
“I wish you luck.” sneered the devil “Because it costs me nothing, and will do you no good.”
“Goodbye Rashgiel.” said Mabus and the thing was gone, the casket taken with it.
Isabella screamed and leaped at Mabus but the Scorpion had her and had gotten her safely off the roof before she could even lay a hand on his cloak. And Cole was grateful she had done it. If he had stayed there any longer he might have tried to kill Mabus himself.
“Well?” Groethuis asked.
“Look up in the sky, Groethuis.” he said “And catch me if I fall.”
And as Groethuis watched, the earth awoke and the clouds danced and rolled as if to silent music. The earth flicked in and out of view, this great orb in the sky running before them as quickly and nimbly as a humming bird. Then slowed, then stopped.
Three hundred years, forty days, eighteen hours and four minutes later:
Exhausted to his last cell, Mabus collapsed into Groethuis’ arms. And above them now was
an earth that was brown and nearly dead, an apple too long on the branch.
Mabus reached out with his mind and found nothing but a few scattered tribes still scraping a living on the surface hunting and scavenging amongst the corpses of empires.
This is it, he thought. These seconds are the last seconds that any man will ever experience. This silence is the final silence.
And across all of space, from every particle and atom a voice spoke and it said:
IT IS TIME
And the sky burned up like paper and the sun turned red and then black. And from the burning sky a billion legions took wing. And some bore the form of men, and some of beasts, and some were glorious to behold and some terrible. And the last survivors of the world gave thanks or covered their heads in fear for the end time has finally come.
Almost there, Mabus thinks. Just one last push. The door is open, all that is left is that last terrible step…
A wound of fire had opened over New Gomorrah and swarming through it like lice they came, finally able to see that which had been hidden beneath the shell of New Matter for so long.
And when the soldiers saw the devils, not one of them did not scream with terrible recognition. And they would have fallen there and then if they had not heard Mabus’ voice carried through the length and breath of the city from the speaker on the roof of the chamber.
And this is what he said:
“NO MERCY! NO FEAR! NOW IS THE HOUR OF OUR ASCENT! NOW QUAKE YE GATES OF HELL!”
The battleships opened fire.
Demons fell dead in clouds.
And as Mabus pulled the entire city into the fiery maw a roar went up from New Gomorrah that carried through the fiery wound and shook the Nine rings and carried to the black throne itself.
Over an endless grey desert a black figure glides silently through the air, an iron casket clutched in it’s pale hands.
Rashgiel has broken the laws not only of Heaven, but of Hell. The virtuous must never suffer Hell. That is the Law. But what is forbidden is always that which is most appealing. This is true in Hell as well as on Earth. And every fiend in Hell has always dreamed of having one of the innocent to torment.
Rashgiel glances down at the small iron coffin in his grip.
He was wanted her ever since he saw her sheltered from the rain beneath Mariel’s wing.
It was for this reason that Rashgiel dared to offer Mabus the time of the Apocalypse in exchange for Marie.
For this reason that Rashgiel saved Marie’s life when Thomas had her by the throat in Bordeaux.
He was saving her for himself.
Now the fiend stops, hanging in mid air like a carrion crow. Ahead, the sky is as red as blood, pillars of black smoke as huge as mountains breaking the crimson. Below him, the grey sands of the desert shift uneasily in the wind. He is about to cross the threshold of the eighth ring and enter the infernal kingdom.
No. Too dangerous. He will have his fun here.
He swoops languidly to the ground, sinking into the grey sand up to his ankles. He lays the coffin down and sand fills in the engraving on the lid until only the carving of Marie’s face can be seen.
He takes in a deep breath and sighs.
Savours the moment.
He slowly pulls the lid off and gazes inside.
“Well now…” he purrs.
He stops. A strange, gurgling noise issues from his throat.
“Yes?” Marie asks politely.
He never even saw her move. And he never stopped to think that the Golden Scorpion would have placed her sword in the casket.
And he certainly never thought that she would be waiting to plough it into his chest the second he pulled off the lid.
As their eyes met, he finally realised that the girl he had once tormented in a rainy field on the other side of space and time was gone forever.
He slumped onto the sand without another word, and lay there, clear golden fluid leaking from the wound in his chest. Taking care to touch the body as little as possible, Marie slowly climbed out of the casket and looked around. She had travelled so far to come to this place.
Behind her, dunes of grey sand stretched off into eternity.
Before her, the Inferno.
She idly fingered the comb in her pocket.
“Do you miss her?”
“Not as much as I did. It goes away in time.”
“I thought when you lost someone you loved…”
“You miss them forever?”
“No. Eventually the pain goes away.”
“And you forget about them.”
“Let’s just say, you don’t think about them everyday. Maybe even every week. And then one day, you’ll find a piece of clothing, or a flower they liked or a comb. And you remember again. But it doesn’t hurt as much.”
“I’d never forget you.”
“Yes you would. It’s the way of the world. It’s the only way people can carry on.”
“I wouldn’t.” and the tone of her voice let her father know that it would be best not to pursue the point.
“Well. I’ll make you a deal.” said Luke “You hold onto that. And every time I see you combing your hair you’ll remind me of her. How’s that?”
“Good.” said Marie, as if he had redeemed himself after a shoddy performance first time around. He gave her back the comb, and kissed her goodnight as she went to bed, and she lay asleep with the small white comb reassuringly cool and firm in her grip, and she dreamt steady and soft.
She could see a great column of fire tearing up through the air ahead of her and it must have been a mile high.
She swallowed, put the comb back in her pocket and took up the blade.
“Didn’t forget, Papa.” she whispered to herself.
And then she took the first step, and another.
And she was on her way, towards the fire, never looking back on the way that she had come.