* * *
* * *
Thursday dawned bright and beautiful.
The morning light crept across a small cemetery in Tadfield, gilding the tombstones with soft gold. It poured over the grass like clear syrup, illuminating the figure of a man who stood by one of the grey stones. A bag that bulged oddly lay on the grass beside his feet. His head was bowed, his hands folded primly. His lips moved in what looked like silent prayer.
Then Zirah lifted his head and brushed the tombstone lightly with a hand. His attitude was still one of reverent pensiveness.
Zirah was a creature of ritual. He believed in doing the proper thing. He believed in decorum. You had to show respect, you had to do the right thing, because if you didn't, what were you? You were nothing. You deserved nothing, because you can't ever get something for nothing. You can't just run through life, not thinking of anyone or anything, trusting blindly that everything turn out all right, because it won't, will it?
It hadn't. Zirah knew all about it.
But if you worked. If you tried, if you tried hard and did all the right things and never, ever said what you weren't supposed to, maybe somebody would notice. Maybe somebody would help, would . . .
. . . see. It could turn out all right. He could make a happy ending. But he had to work at it.
You don't ever get something for nothing.
And so Zirah did this every year, this almost-sacred pilgrimage. Maybe another -- person might not have bothered, but Zirah did. It wasn't just for the small bundle buried so many years ago, it was for all of them, all the blank eyes and silenced voices that followed him. Zirah cared, he cared about every single one of them. He'd never forgotten.
He dug a foot in the earth. He tried to ignore the ghostly sensation of a gumless mouth gnawing vainly at his shoe.
It wasn't pleasant. The look on Caphriel's face yesterday -- he didn't think Zirah enjoyed himself, did he? Travelling all the way to the back of beyond, when he could be in his bookshop right now, sorting the new shipment of religious books. Zirah was making an effort. But Caphriel didn't understand about doing the right thing. When Zirah had tried to explain, Caphriel had looked at him oddly and said there was never a right thing to do, just the only thing. There were never any choices.
Sometimes Zirah felt the rift between his and Caphriel's minds was almost too great to cross. It was a great comfort that they could relate in . . . different ways.
He smiled, lowered his eyes and was determinedly contemplative for the next five minutes. Silence expanded in the cemetery, accented by the susurration of leaves in the wind.
Finally he dabbed at his eyes with a rather crumpled handkerchief and bent to pick up his bag, taking care not to jostle the books inside it. He turned and felt the pressure of the blunt snout of a gun against his ribs.
"Dunt move," said Hastur. He dug the gun into Zirah's side. Hastur might have been somewhat out-of-date when it came to understanding mobile phones or electricity, but violence was a timeless language every demon could speak.
Zirah looked up slowly. He wore a sorrowful smile that, if anything, grew even more sweetly sad when it collided with Hastur's rictus of mingled savagery and terror.
"Dunt say it," spat Hastur, "dunt say you weren't expectin' me, or I gave you a shock, or what a pleasure it is to see me."
Zirah shut his mouth. He coughed in embarrassment.
"I wasn't going to say that," he said mildly. "I was just going to ask--"
"And dunt ask any questions, and dunt say my name," said Hastur. He paused. A bead of sweat rolled down his temple. Zirah watched it with detached concern.
"I'm asking the questions now," Hastur continued. For a demon who was holding the gun, he seemed remarkably unsure of himself. His viciousness had an odd tinge of nervousness. He had the air of an actor who was valiantly going on with the script despite knowing that something was seriously wrong with the set. Zirah disregarded him.
"Is Ligur here?" he said cheerfully, as if being accosted by his colleague with a gun was a perfectly normal occurrence. "Oh, there he is, behind that bush. Come along out, Ligur." The short figure lurking in the shrubbery did not move. "My dear chap, I'm not going to eat you."
"Says you," said Ligur sullenly. "I dint ask for the job. Not me. 'M not an exacting demon. Just give me a soul or two to torture and I'm happy. I'm not lookin' for glory--"
"Shutupshutupshutup!" Hastur gripped the gun. Zirah made a pained face, but politely refrained from saying anything. His courteous silence resounded throughout the cemetery; it seemed to increase Hastur's jumpiness.
"How's your. How's your business been, then?" said Hastur, with an attempt at a nasty leer. It crept across his face, met Zirah's look of grave friendliness, and crumbled. He went on, with a courage born of desperation. "Been very busy, have you?"
"Why do you ask?" said Zirah. His expression of guilelessness was such that a six-year-old couldn't imitate it.
Hastur dug up some moldy scraps of courage from somewhere.
"Himself was hanging around, Down There," he said, with the exaggerated nonchalance of a movie gangster, "and He was thinking, why, we haven't heard much of our Zirah lately, have we? No progress reports, no information about His son. He missed the plangent tones of your voice."
Hastur's face contorted in a leer. The venomous malice fought with the lingering traces of terror, and won. For the moment.
"So Ligur and me went to look up the boy on his birthday," he continued. "See that the hell hound got off safely and that. And what did we find? What do you think, Zirah?"
He managed to make Zirah's name sound like something pond scum would spit out.
"I really can't imagine," said Zirah politely. He didn't seem to realise he was being held up with a gun. More than anything else, he looked like he was thinking of a bibliophile's convention he was missing, and regretting that courtesy forbid him from detaching himself from Hastur's grasp.
"We found a gerbil," Hastur ground out. He seemed to have forgotten his fear. Behind him, the bushes shook urgently. "A fucking gerbil."
"Gerbils are very suitable pets for children," Zirah said mildly.
"And some plastic toys," said Hastur, ignoring him. "And a couple of clowns performing parlour tricks. No hell hound, Zirah. Could you tell me why there wasn't no hell hound, Zirah?"
Zirah was silent. The shrubbery that contained Ligur rustled nervously.
"And we find you here, hanging around a cemetery with a bag of fucking books," said Hastur, breathing heavily. "Miles away from the kid you told us was the Antichrist. You think you could tell us why, Zirah?"
"The books?" said Zirah. "Books are important, you know. A proper education, that's what children need. Especially in these stirring times. Know your enemy--"
"I wasn't talking about the books!" shouted Hastur. Zirah shut up. "What the Hell is going on?"
"You know what I think, Zirah? You want to know what I think?" said Hastur. "I think there was a fuck up somewhere, Zirah. And I think the fault was yours. You want to know what happened to those clowns?" He shoved his face into Zirah's, breathing on it. "Let me tell you, what's gonna happen to you is gonna be even worse."
His voice dropped to a whisper, thick with menace and the memory of anguish. Other people's.
"Your fate will be whispered by mothers in dark places to frighten their young," he said.
Zirah smiled, a blinding smile, full of amusement and humour and sheer human friendliness. It was an enchanting smile, to the unsuspecting. Its effect on the demons was that Hastur stepped back precipitously, and a dark figure emerged from the bushes behind him, creeping determinedly to the other end of the cemetery.
"I expect it already is," said Zirah thoughtfully, and reached out. Exquisitely manicured fingers closed around the gun in Hastur's nerveless grip.
"I'll give you ten seconds," said Zirah. His eyes were lit with bright, childlike delight. He leaned towards Hastur, who was rapidly backing away from the enthrallment on Zirah's face. Ligur had forgotten about stealth and was fleeing, crashing through bushes and tripping over tombstones.
"Run," Zirah whispered. Someone yelled behind him. None of them noticed.
The figures of the two demons blurred and vanished.
The problem with this Earth, Zirah thought, was that nobody ever let him relax.
He followed them.
* * *
"Hey! What do you think you're--"
But then there were none.
Anathema Device slid down the fence she'd been climbing and crumpled in the bushes, her mouth open.
She'd been planning to stalk right into what looked like a very sticky situation and solve it with her usual method, which consisted mainly of being briskly practical and not allowing anyone a second to think. She was confident enough about them that she was sure she could have managed to defuse the situation, even if it involved a man with a gun. And if she couldn't, well, there was always her bread knife and her feet. Anathema wasn't a witch for nothing. Her shoes were made for running, on the rare occasions when sheer strong-mindedness didn't work.
But there was no-one to push around. There had been three men. Now there wasn't.
The breeze ruffled the grass where the men had stood.
If it had been anyone else, they would have thought they were seeing things. But in Anathema's line of work, she saw things everyday. Her job was to figure out what they meant, and she had the best guidebook in the world.
Agnes would have something to say about this. It was probably, Anathema thought, the one Justinius Device had interpreted as referring to the Grand National, on the basis of which he had ruined the Devices for the next couple of centuries.
She picked herself up, dusted herself off, and climbed back over the fence where Phaeton was waiting, one wheel spinning crazily.
The end of the world, she thought. It had to be a sign. Before you knew it, they'd be up to their chins in frogs.
Frowning in thought, she righted her bicycle. It was probably terribly scratched, the way she'd knocked it over in her haste to get to the strange men before anything -- well, anything happened. It might not make much of a difference, considering what Phaeton had been through before, but then again, she might have to make some repairs ...
"Are you all right?"
Slowly, inexorably, Anathema's eyes were dragged up to a friendly young face peering over the fence. It was a face worth looking at. It looked like Just William as illustrated by Botticelli.
"Yes," she said, staring.
There was something odd about the boy. Very --
"I thought you might of fell off your bike," he said. "I was goin' to see if I could help. Dog led me here." He gestured at a small mongrel that looked like it had just stepped out of an Enid Blyton book. Definitely something odd. Something important about him. But Anathema just couldn't think . . .
"Thank you. It's a very nice dog," she said absently. The boy beamed. "What's your name?"
"Adam Young," said Adam. Generously, he added, "It's a nice bike, too."
"Oh, this old thing? It's just--" Anathema looked down.
"It is nice," she said, surprised. Then she wondered why she was surprised.
But surely Phaeton hadn't always been this . . . shiny? And the gears. She felt almost certain there hadn't been sixteen different kinds of fancy gears the last time she had looked. Phaeton had been in the family for years; it couldn't have always been so modern. It looked exactly like the kind of bike a boy like Adam would think was cool. Where had the basket gone? . . .
Anathema shook her head. She could feel a headache coming on. And there was still the matter of disappearing gun-toting men. She should look it up in the Book.
"D'you want me to help you back to your cottage?" Adam said, not to be done out of being helpful. "I haven't got anything to do at the moment."
Anathema peered suspiciously at Adam. If she knew anything about places like Tadfield, Adam had probably been sent by his mother to snoop around. But after all, she thought, what harm could it do? It would give the residents something to talk about. And it wasn't like any of it would matter in a couple of days.
Besides, she liked Adam. There was something eminently likeable about him. He had an honest face.
"Why not?" said Anathema. She let Adam twiddle happily with the gears on her oddly unfamiliar bike. His dog trotted at his ankles, making running attacks at random weeds. Anathema had the impression that it should be a lot bigger, but she couldn't imagine why.
"So . . . where do you come from?"
* * *
Anger was an inexorable pressure behind Caphriel's eyes.
It obliterated all thought, dragged him down streets and pushed him in its own direction. He gave himself up to it, gripping his walking stick so hard its carvings embedded themselves on the flesh of his palm.
"The bastard," he muttered. "The bastard." He let his feet lead him. They knew where he was going better than his head.
He'd loved Zirah for longer than most civilisations endured. He'd done it in spite of the rules, of all sense, of his own judgement. He'd done it because, because, because there was something there, there had to be something there, something wonderful and beautiful that blazed. Something unlike anything else in God's unbelievable, maddening world. Something that was broken, and had been for a long time.
He'd known better than to trust Zirah. Zirah walked to the beat of a drummer who was short a whole drumkit. Zirah went strange places in his head. Zirah killed people as easily as he smiled, and the worst thing was that he never realised it was wrong . . . .
Caphriel should have known.
It took him several minutes to realise that he had stopped and was staring at himself in a shop window. He realised with a shock that he looked absolutely tragic, like a rock star who had been passed a celery stalk instead of the expected joint. He was trying unsuccessfully to wipe the look of his face when his perception rearranged itself subtly. His reflection faded into the background, and Caphriel found himself looking at the word "CLOSED," written in Zirah's careful copperplate handwriting.
If Caphriel had had a flaming sword, he'd have stuck it right in the door and sliced the bugger in half. As it was, he thumped it with his stick, until a 999 look in the eyes of certain passers-by gave him the impetus to will it open.
He stepped in, shutting the door gently behind him. Then, calmly, methodically, he ransacked the place.
His hands didn't shake at all.
* * *
When Newt Pulsifer joined the Witchfinders' Army as the first recruit in years, he rapidly passed through several emotional stages.
These were: incredulity, horror, disgust, fascination, wonder, boredom, boredom, boredom, a brief flare of interest, and a desperate desire to be anywhere but where he was, right now.
These all, except the last two stages, occurred in Sergeant Shadwell's flat, when he was scouring the newspapers for strange phenomena and surplus nipples. The second last stage started when the door to the WA's headquarters burst open, and a man in dusty black stalked into the room.
"I want to speak with the General," he said shortly. He didn't say, "Now." He didn't need to.
Newt had heard of love at first sight. He didn't believe in it, in the shaky, half-hopeful way he didn't believe in God, peace conferences and signed petitions. But now he could well believe there was such a thing as hate at first sight, because he was feeling it with a vengeance.
Caphriel wore his human form in the absent-minded way he wore his threadbare black coats, but over the years it had grown up around him and moulded itself to his personality. It wasn't that it was good-looking, although it was. It wasn't its grace or its romantic gauntness. It was the style it exuded. It had "poetically angsty rocker" written all over it in messy handwriting. It was incredibly, indifferently, casually cool.
And the worst thing was, Newt thought as he tried to explain to the man that the Witchfinder General wasn't around just that minute, the worst thing was that the man didn't care. He seemed quite nice, actually, an ordinary, harried man who for some reason was furious at the entire world at the moment. He was insistent about talking to someone in charge, but he wasn't particularly arrogant or rude; he just seemed too distracted to care if he came off as pushy. Newt could tell the man probably didn't even wear his sunglasses for effect -- he had some kind of eye condition, maybe, or he had just forgotten to take the glasses off when he came in. He probably wore black because he didn't have to wash it often.
It didn't matter. Caphriel was still cool. His indifference only increased his cool quotient.
Newt had never been cool.
He hated Caphriel immediately, with an unreasoning, unswerving and absolute loathing.
"Oh, for God's sake," Caphriel was saying passionately when Shadwell entered, holding a paper bag bulging with tins of condensed milk.
Shadwell glared at Caphriel. Caphriel forgot all about Newt and returned the glare, with interest. He wasn't in a mood to be nice, especially after several minutes of trying to explain to the imbecilic private that he didn't care if the General wasn't in; he'd speak to anyone with authority.
"Sergeant," he said, "I want you to find someone for me."
Shadwell took one look at Caphriel, and swallowed an oncoming grumble.
"Fine," he said, with a fairly decent attempt at deference. "We'll put our best on the job right awa', sor. We'll find 'un in no time, I'm sure. Noo, if ye'll just tak' a . . ."
"I'll make certain of that," said Caphriel calmly. "I'll be coming with you."
Caphriel's face looked like it had been carved out of marble by an artist in a very bad temper. It was immovable.
"I won't get in the way of your agents," he said. "I just want to make sure the job gets done. I'm sure you understand."
He smiled, and Newt quickly revised his opinion of the man.
Nice? Not in a million years. He was an utter bastard.
And that was how Newt found himself sputtering down the road in his car on a clear Friday morning, with a man like a painting entitled Misery in Monochrome hunched in the passenger seat beside him.
Newt wasn't wholly enjoying himself -- Caphriel's grimaces whenever the Wasabi exhibited one of its endearing little quirks didn't make him any more likeable than he'd been the day before -- but he was experiencing an odd sensation of freedom. After spending several weeks in a sticky flat, separating bizarre phenomena from the newspapers with a pair of scissors, this new assignment made a noteworthy diversion. Newt was going Somewhere, even if it was just in pursuit of the client's so-called "friend" in a small town on the edge of nowhere. It was better than newspaper-clipping.
This was the brief flare of interest. It didn't really make up for the next stage, but at least Newt had enjoyed himself a little before everything went to pieces.
Of course, Newt never did see it that way.