This has been a bad month for Isabelle.
It's not getting any better.
'I'm gonna kill you.' the little man says - loudly, too loudly, the voice of
a man who hasn't spoken to anyone in Moloch knows how long.
Whispered, 'If... if you want to kill us... why didn't you shoot when you had
The little man hunkers down in front of her. ' 'Cause then, you wouldna known
Eyes staring, wide, '...my crime? What crime?'
Big, growing bigger with every word. 'Your crime - the crime you're gonna
/die for/ - the crime that's gonna see ya /burning in Hell till Judgment
Day/ - your crime is /this/:'
Roaring now, echoing in the little room, out of all proportion-
'YOU TOOK MY BOOK!'
On the face of it, this is patently ridiculous.
However, his shotgun is patently real.
'Do we look like book thieves?' William asks, reasonably.
The little man looks him and Isabelle over, considers.
Finally, he nods. 'Yes.'
'We're not thieves. We're pilgrims, passing through.' Their standard story,
for anyone who asks.
It's even partially true.
The little man considers them again. Then he nods towards Isabelle. 'Not in
This is almost too much for Isabelle. If she had any breath left in her,
she'd be laughing, rolling on the floor.
He turns back, 'An' since you're a book thief *an'* a liar, I'm gonna make
She blinks teary eyes. The little man has rested his shotgun against a wall.
And pulled a knife.
'...no...' she whispers. 'No, I'm /not/... you can't /do/ this, I'm /not/...'
'You are going to die.' William tells the little man, calmly, coolly. 'They
will find you, and they will kill you.'
'We're all dyin', blood-drinker.' the little man says. 'Sooner or later, we's
He raises the knife, and drives it in.
The screaming lasts a very long time.
They've regrouped on the edge of the settlement.
'Scavenger.' Sade concludes. 'Demons have better weapons than a shotgun.'
'Try to scare off anyone else who comes 'round their town, leave 'em be.'
'Well, it worked...' Aurora notes.
'Usually touched - only the touched would want to stay anywhere near a
Hellgate, no matter what they left behind.'
'That's what worries me...' the Kapoor murmurs.
Angeline nods. 'Don' feel like no Hellgate anywhere 'round this place... an'
this place look like it been left for a long time, hey? Any Gate /this/
close, an' Terminus its own self'd be dead by now.'
'So what was it?' the Father wonders.
Laura catches the Father's unconscious look towards his shadow, to where his
shadow should be.
'What about Isabelle and William?' she says quietly.
Townsend closes her eyes. 'Damnit. Damnit, damnit, /damnit/! They're not
/here/, they're not back - and that makes no sense, not in a dirt patch like
this. Something's got them.'
Which might as well mean they're dead, Laura translates. Whether it's a
scavenger, or something worse... Isabelle and William are most likely dead.
But Isabelle would leave a body, not like William... and if there's a body,
there's a Lazarine too. Or...
Going back would be the height of stupidity. Whatever got them would get us,
too. Leave, while the getting's good.
But we won't, she knows. Aurora won't leave William, and there's no way in
Hell the Father's going to leave Isabelle.
'Which means we're going back.' she says calmly, leaving the "of course"
Townsend sighs. 'Well, 'least this time we're prepared. Up for a little
Sade quirks an eyebrow. 'I've been up for it most of my life.'
'Angeline, you go with her.' In case of something worse, the ex-Sheriff
The witch-woman nods.
'Meantimes,' Townsend continues, 'I think it's time we made ready.'
Isabelle sits there, her head lolling forward.
That's not what scares William.
Where the crazy little man drove his knife into the wall - into her shadow -
her shadow is bleeding, bleeding darkness, darkness pooling on the floor.
*That's* what scares him.
The little man watches her, no emotion betraying itself.
Finally, he nods. 'I hates snitches.'
The van-tal stares at him.
'Hate 'em e'en worse than book thieves. If anyone 'serves to die, it's
'I suppose /that/ was a snitch?'
'Yeah. Nasty little bugger. Would a' done anythin' to keep her alive - an' if
it couldna, would most likely leap for someone else. Couldna have that,
needed it outta the way soon.'
'So why not kill her?' William asks carefully. 'You've told us why you're
gonna kill us, you've killed the snitch - why not kill us?'
' 'Cause I wanna know.' the little man says. 'I wanna know where she picked
up that snitch. Ain't none of the Lords /I/ know - so whose is it? Who's
William shrugs, his chains clattering with the movement. He doesn't know,
doesn't know what in Hell's going on. All he knows is that the little man
isn't going to kill them yet - and that's what matters.
Screaming so loud, so long, that it cannot be heard.
And then, when it /stops/...
god, hurts so much
-tainted little bitch...
get out. get out of my head.
i will /not/ serve you. i will /not/ love you.
-herald... the grandfather is gone.
-little /whore/, giving herself to all and sundry...
GO TO HELL!! GO TO FUCKING HELL, YOU BASTARD!! YOU KNOW /NOTHING/! NOTHING!!
-god help me, if you don't shut up, i'll give you over to the grandfather
-you would /dare/?
-yes. i would. do you understand what has /happened/? do you know even /that/
much? if not, then get /out/.
-i shall stay.
i heard, did they think i never heard, i /knew/ what they thought, what they
saw... what they wanted to see.
never gave myself to him, not like /that/... i gave him everything /but/ my
-herald, will you hear us?
-we don't have time. the grandfather will notice soon enough.
notice...? who /are/ you?
-we ask that you be our herald now. our speaker. our advocate. our voice,
when we need it.
who are you?
-please, yes or no?
who /are/ you?
-his prisoners. his toys. the grandfather's toys, and he will not let us
loose, not even when we break...
i can't trust you.
-who can you trust?
a fee, then.
-part now, part later. to be revoked should either side break oath.
-not at stake. not the price. we shall give you what you need.
-be our herald.
-SHE HAS AGREED. BY THE TOWER AND THE VOID, LET IT BE SWORN!
Isabelle's head snaps back, eyes wide and staring, seeing nothing.
The little man slaps her across the face.
'...wha... what...?' Isabelle whispers, trying to raise her hand. 'What...'
'That's better.' the little man says. 'Now... whose was that li'l snitch?'
'The little snitch watchin' over your shoulder. /Whose was it/?'
'I... I...' Isabelle stammers. 'What...?'
'Look behind you.' William says quietly.
Isabelle turns her head. Sees the knife in the wall, in her shadow, darkness
pooling where the wall meets the floor.
'I...' she begins again. Closes her eyes, tries to gather herself. 'I... I
think it... something... the Grandfather, she called it the Grandfather...
wanted me to love it, serve it...'
'Grandfather... hm...' the little man murmurs. 'Know that from somewhere...'
He peers closer at her face. 'Now /that/ ain't somethin' you see most days,
even out here. Why would anythin' mark a /book thief/ as its Herald?'
'Where... where did you last see it?' Isabelle asks.
'You should know.'
'Pretend,' William says heavily, 'that we don't. /I/ certainly don't.'
The little man thinks. 'Hm... Back in the inn. Definitely had it back in the
inn. Hmm. Mebbe I left it there... Now, if I leaves the two of you here, and
checks on that, the two of you're gonna escape. But if it's there, an' I kill
ya, I just killed two people. An' if I take ya with me, you're gonna try an'
escape... I know. Swear.'
'Fuck you to Hell.'
The little man nods. 'Very nice. You need more curse-words, though. Now
/oath-swear/. Swear me an oath - on your honour as a Herald - that you ain't
Isabelle takes a deep breath. 'I swear, on my father's face and on my
herald's honour, that we shall not escape you.'
'Good.' the little man approves. 'Good. You'll go places. Maybe not any place
you'd like, but you'll go places. Now, hold still. We're goin' for a li'l
They've divided the tiny street between them, Angeline taking one side, Sade
the other, each keeping the other in sight as best they can.
'Not in there...' Sade says, closing the shop's door. 'Angeline?'
The witch turns from the inn door, cat-slitted eyes focusing once again on
the world, on Sade. 'I think we got trouble.'
'Nothing new.' Sade comments wryly. 'How bad?'
'Don't know. Think you should see.'
Sade is up the few rickety steps in seconds. As she looks over Angeline's
shoulder, she lets out a long, low breath.
The floor is covered in faces. Human faces, their images black and clear on
the wooden floor. No square inch has been left untouched. Every age, every
race, every shape.
Angeline shakes her head "no". 'Ain't human doin', either... Dark light...
that's what I see. These things burnin' wit' dark light...'
'Any ide-' Sade begins, then hushes. Her ears have caught a sound, a jingle.
It repeats itself.
Angeline nods - she's heard it too.
Inside, Sade indicates. If we need, out the back.
They slip inside.
Everything burns black, a white silhouette inside.
If she had the words and the time, she'd say that everything's turned inside
out, black to white, white to black, become its own negative.
What is this? What-
Sade taps her on the shoulder.
Something's jus' comin' inta sight - a little man, wearing...
Angeline's eyes widen.
Wearing a monk's robes. No' the Godman's priest-robe - a monk's robe, tied at
the waist, the cowl up over his head, sandals on his feet.
In the black light, his cowl is white.
Not human, no matter how much he look the part... she realises.
Two chains in one hand, leadin' off to...
/Now/ she guesses who their scavenger was. Who has Isabelle and William.
Quietly as they can, the two of them move to the back door, the door to the
Keep down, keep out of sight. Still armed, like as not. They have numbers and
surprise, but he has the home ground - and captives.
Up the steps, chains still jangling.
She catches Isabelle's intake of breath. Catches... the sound of horns,
herald's horns, paper-thin, on the edge of hearing.
Then hears the chains clank to the ground.
Sade stares at Angeline. What in the Hell was that?!
Angeline spreads her hands helplessly. She has no idea.
'What the...' Isabelle's voice whispers.
Sade and Angeline haul themselves out from under cover.
The monk is gone, leaving Isabelle and William standing at the door, chains
dangling from their wrists.
As Sade sets about opening the locks, Angeline's eyes widen.
'Is, gel... seen yerself in a window lately?' Angeline says carefully, once
the chains are off.
Isabelle spins around, looks at the window. 'Oh...'
Half of Isabelle's ginger hair has turned white - stark white.
The rest remains untouched.
'A ghost?' Sade murmurs, as Isabelle examines her hair.
Angeline shakes her head. 'Whatever he is, he ain't a ghost. Ain't human,
'Hm. Time was, that only happened in romances...' William murmurs.
'What was he looking for?' Sade asks.
Isabelle's still looking at her hair, so William answers. 'His book. He was
looking for a book.'
Angeline looks around. To the Sight, things are still inverted - what's
happening, is happening here.
A trap? A booby trap?
Who set it? Who was it meant for?
That monk, she guesses. But why? For a book...?
She concentrates, shifting into the full Sight
Speak, she commands.
-book. my book. the faces say. Took my book.
Who are you? she asks.
-order... there was an order...
Order of what?
-order of things, ordering things. ordered to do.
A chill creeps down Angeline's spine. Still, she continues. What happened?
-light, cold, cruel light. came for the book. my book.
Who are you?
-survey says, do not know.
Who is survey?
-survey says, ask again later.
-light, burning bright... was here, took my book, took it, said, come and get
it, complete it...
Where was the light?
-here, left himself here, that he would know, left a book here, said I would
Angeline's face darkens. She knows what this thing, this poor thing was - and
what its master did to it.
Rest now, she says, and shifts back to the simple Sight.
'Well?' Sade says.
' 'Kay...' Angeline rests her hands. 'Somethin'... I dunno what, a sorcerer,
mebbe somethin' else - all the thin' could tell me was "light" - it had a...
a /familiar/, somethin' that'd do thin's, simple thin's, for it. An' this
light sent the thin' out to... order thin's? Look 'em over? Then...' She
takes a deep breath. 'Then it came for the familiar's book, what it'd set its
order down. Trouble was, the thin' didn't want to give it up... so "light"
took the book, an' broke the poor thin's mind. Meanin' the last thin' it knew
'That someone here had its book...' Isabelle whispers.
Angeline nods. 'That, an' whatever else its master left in it. Like knowin'
there was a book here... but no' that the master'd trapped the place.'
'Let me guess.' Sade says, her voice cold. 'This "master" was the one who
emptied the town.'
'Seems a fair enough guess.'
'Why not destroy it?'
Angeline shrugs. ' 'Cause it might need it again, sometime? 'Cause it /did/
need it? /Thin'/ about it - you trap somthin' somewhere, last thin' you want
is for t' thin' to /know/ it's a trap. An' so long as the thin's thinking
'bout its book, it'll get that... 'cause it don't even know it /is/ a trap,
don' care that there anythin' else out there... an' the moment it get
anywhere near, the trap kicks in again... so it never thin's about anythin'
Anger rumbles in her voice. 'An' the worst of it is, the /worst/... the
trap's usin' the thin's /own spirit/. Ever time it walks in, t' trap steals
another chunk of the thing, blasts it back out there. An' when there's too
little left t'steal, jus' goin' round an' round in circles...'
'The faces...' William mutters.
'The question is, how do we break this thing?' Sade says.
'These things are literal.' William mutters again. '/Give/ it the book,
Isabelle glances around. By the logic this "master" had, the book should be
in plain sight. So where would you-
Her eyes fall on the guestbook on the bar.
She smiles grimly.
When the little man wakes up, there is no one around.
He looks around at the little room, at the chains, the shotgun, the heavy
At the little book placed against the door.
He stumbles over towards it.
His book. /His/ book, finally returned.
No. Not his book.
The book Light said would lead him to his book.
He closes his eyes.
He remembers. After so long, he remembers.
Light. Control. Survey.
Light had nothing to measure against but itself.
Yet this world is still here. If Light raged unchecked...
Where is Control?
What has /happened/?
It staggers, regains its balance.
Broken. The trap has been broken. Survey has been released.
An irritation. Perhaps more, in time. Monitoring the vectors suggests
increasing disturbance - more and more non-linear factors inserting
themselves into the equation.
Nevertheless, it is the cataloguer. It will adapt for these non-linear
factors, continue its work, and when it is done, everything will be recorded,
ordered, and set down for the Towers.
'Y'know, Is, gel, you're lookin' a lot better these days.'
Isabelle doesn't have the energy to glare at Angeline.
'Actually, she has a point.' William says. 'It seems like there's a massive
weight off your shoulders.'
'Mm.' Isabelle shrugs.
She catches the knowing glance they share, and shakes her head ruefully.
You don't know the half of it, she thinks, as they continue down the road.
-be our herald.
She knows what that means, what they will want.
Knows what that means for them, and for her.
She looks back at the tiny speck of light behind her, sighs, and turns back
to the road.
All the while hoping that the little man, whoever - whatever - he was,
managed to free himself.
Because there is a long way to go, 'fore they sleep.
Copyright 2002 Imran Inayat