Reaper Man

Chapter 16



"Do you think it might be a good idea to go back outside?" said Doreen.

"What good would that do?" said Windle.

"Well, it'd get us out of here."

Windle turned, counting. Five of the passages radiated equidistantly-out of the domed area.

"And presumably it's the same above and below, " he said aloud.

"It's very clean here, " Doreen said nervously. "Isn't it clean, Arthur?"

"It's very clean."

"What's that noise?" said Ludmilla.

"What noise?"

"That noise. Like someone sucking something."

Arthur looked around with a certain amount of interest.

"It's not me."

"It's the stairs," said Windle.

"Don't be silly, Mr. Poons. Stairs don't suck."

Windle looked down.

"These do."

They were black, like a sloping river. As the dark substance flowed out from under the floor it humped itself into something resembling steps, which travelled up the slope until they disappeared under the floor again, somewhere above. When the steps emerged they made a slow, rhythmic shlup-shlup noise, like someone investigating a particularly annoying dental cavity.

"Do you know," said Ludmilla, "that's quite possibly the most unpleasant thing I've ever seen?"

"I've seen worse," said Windle. "But it's pretty bad. Shall we go up or down?"

"You want to stand on them?"

"No. But the wizards aren't on this floor and it's that or slide down the handrail. Have you looked closely at the handrail?"

They looked at the handrail.

"I think," said Doreen nervously, "that down is more us."

They went down in silence. Arthur fell over at the point where the travelling stairs were sucked into the floor again.

"I had this horrible feeling it was going to drag me under," he said apologetically, and then looked around him.

"It's big," he concluded. "Roomy. I could do wonders down here with some stone-effect wallpaper."

Ludmilla wandered over to the nearest wall.

"You know," she said, "there's more glass than I've seen before, but these clear bits look a bit like shops. Does that make sense? A great big shop full of shops?"

"And not ripe yet," said Windle.

"Sorry?"

"Just thinking aloud. Can you see what the merchandise is?"

Ludmilla shaded her eyes.

"It just looks like a lot of colour and glitter."

"Let me know if you see a wizard."

Someone screamed.

"Or hear one, for example," Windle added. Lupine bounded off down a passageway. Windle lurched swiftly after him.

Someone was on their back, trying desperately to fight off a couple of the trolleys. They were bigger than the ones Windle had seen before, with a golden sheen to them.

"Hey!" he yelled.

They stopped trying to gore the prone figure and three-point-turned towards him.

"Oh, " he said, as they got up speed.

The first one dodged Lupine's jaws and butted Windle full in the knees, knocking him over. As the second passed over him he reached up wildly, grabbed randomly at the metal, and pulled hard. A wheel spun off and the trolley cartwheeled into the wall.

He scrambled up in time to see Arthur hanging grimly on to the handle of the other trolley as the two of them whirred around in a mad centrifugal waltz.

"Let go! Let go!" Doreen screamed.

"I can't! I can't!"

"Well, do something!"

There was a pop of inrushing air. The trolley was suddenly not straining against the weight of a middle-aged wholesale, fruit and vegetable entrepreneur but only against a small terrified bat. It rocketed into a marble pillar, bounced off, hit a wall and landed on its back, wheels spinning.

"The wheels!" shouted Ludmilla. "Pull the wheels off!"

"I'll do that," said Windle. "You help Reg."

"Is that Reg down there?" said Doreen.

Windle jerked his thumb towards the distant wall. The words "Better late than nev" ended in a desperate streak of paint.

"Show him a wall and a paint pot and he doesn't know what world he's in," said Doreen.

"He's only got a choice of two," said Windle, throwing the trolley wheels across the floor. "Lupine, keep a look-out in case there's any more."

The wheels had been sharp, like ice skates. He was definitely feeling tattered around the legs. Now, how did healing go?

Reg Shoe was helped into a sitting position.

"What's happening?" he said. "No-one else was coming in, and I came down here to see where the music was coming from, and the next thing, there's these wheels -"

Count Arthur returned to his approximately human form, looked around proudly, realised that no-one was paying him any attention, and sagged.

"They looked a lot tougher than the others," said Ludmilla. "Bigger and nastier and covered in sharp edges."

"Soldiers," said Windle. 'We've seen the workers. And now there's soldiers. Just like ants."

"I had an ant farm when I was a lad," said Arthur, who had hit the floor rather heavily and was having temporary trouble with the nature of reality.

"Hang on," said Ludmilla. "I know about ants. We have ants in the back yard. If you have workers and soldiers, then you must also have a -"

"I know. I know," said Windle.

"- mind you, they called it a farm, I never saw them doing any farming -"

Ludmilla leaned against the wall.

"It'll be somewhere close," she said.

"I think so, " said Windle.

"What does it look like, do you think?"

"- what you do is, you get two bits of glass and some ants -"

"I don't know. How should I know? But the wizards will be somewhere near it."

"I don't see vy you're bothering about them," said Doreen. 'They buried you alive just because you vere dead."

Windle looked up at the sound of wheels. A dozen warrior baskets turned the corner and pulled up in formation.

"They thought they were doing it for the best," said Windle. "People often do. It's amazing, the things that seem a good idea at the time."

The new Death straightened up.

Or?

AH.

ER.

Bill Door stepped back, turned round, and ran for it.

It was, as he was wonderfully well placed to know, merely putting off the inevitable. But wasn't that what living was all about?

No-one had ever run away from him after they were dead. Many had tried it before they were dead, often with great ingenuity. But the normal reaction of a spirit, suddenly pitched from one world into the next, was to hang around hopefully. Why run, after all? It wasn't as if you knew where you were running to.

The ghost Bill Door knew where he was running to.

Ned Simnel's smithy was locked up for the night, although this did not present a problem. Not alive and not dead, the spirit Bill Door dived through the wall.

The fire was a barely-visible glow, settling in the forge.

The smithy was full of warm darkness.

What it didn't contain was the ghost of a scythe.

Bill Door looked around desperately.

SQUEAK?

There was a small dark-robed figure sitting on a beam above him. It gestured frantically towards the corner.

He saw a dark handle sticking out from the load of timber. He tried to pull at it with fingers now as substantial as a shadow.

HE SAID HE WOULD DESTROY IT FOR ME!

The Death of Rats shrugged sympathetically.

The new Death stepped through the wall, scythe held in both hands.

It advanced on Bill Door.

There was a rustling. The grey robes were pouring into the smithy.

Bill Door grinned in terror.

The new Death stopped, posing dramatically in the glow from the forge.

It swung.

It almost lost its balance.

You're not supposed to duck!

Bill Door dived through the wall again and pounded across the square, skull down, spectral feet making no noise on the cobbles. He reached the little group by the clock.

ON THE HORSE! GO!

"What's happening? What's happening!"

IT HASN'T WORKED!

Miss Flitworth gave him a panicky look but put the unconscious child on Binky's back and climbed up after her. Then Bill Door brought his hand down hard on the horse's flank. There at least there was contact - Binky existed in all worlds.

Go!

He didn't look around but darted on up the road towards the farm.

A weapon!

Something he could hold!

The only weapon in the undead world was in the hands of the new Death.

As Bill Door ran he was aware of a faint, higher-pitched clicking noise. He looked down. The Death of Rats was keeping pace with him.

It gave him an encouraging squeak.

He skidded through the farm gate and flung himself against the wall.

There was the distant rumble of the storm. Apart from that, silence.

He relaxed slightly, and crept cautiously along the wall towards the back of the farmhouse.

He caught a glimpse of something metallic. Leaning against the wall there where the men from the village had left it when they brought him back, was his scythe; not the one he'd carefully prepared but the one he'd used for the harvest. What edge it had had been achieved only by the whetstone and the caress of the stalks, but it was a familiar shape and he made a tentative grab at it. His hand passed right through.

The further you run, the closer you get.

The new Death stepped unhurriedly out of the shadows.

You should know that, it added.

Bill Door straightened up.

We will enjoy this.

ENJOY?

The new Death advanced. Bill Door backed away.

Yes. The lacking of one Death is the same as achieving the end of a billion lesser lives.

LESSER LIVES? THIS IS NOT A GAME!

The new Death hesitated. What is a game?

Bill Door felt the tiny flicker of hope.

I COULD SHOW YOU -

The end of the scythe handle caught him under the chin and knocked him against the wall, where he slid to the ground.

We deed a Crick. We do not listen. The reaper does not listen to the harvest.

Bill Door tried to get up.

The scythe handle struck him again.

We will not make the same mistakes.

Bill Door looked up. The new Death was holding the golden timer; the top bulb was empty. Around both of them the landscape shifted, reddened, began to take on the unreal appearance of reality seen from the other side...

You 're out of Time, Mr. Bill Door.

The new Death raised his cowl.

There was no face there. There was not even a skull.

Smoke curled formlessly between the robe and a golden crown.

Bill Door raised himself on his elbows.

A CROWN? His voice shook with rage. I NEVER WORE A CROWN!

You never wanted to rule.

The Death swung the scythe back.

And then it dawned on the old Death and the new Death that the hissing of passing time had not, in fact, stopped.

The new Death hesitated, and took out the golden glass.

It shook it.

Bill Door looked into the empty face under the crown. There was an expression of puzzlement there, even with no features actually to wear it; the expression hung in the air all by itself.

He saw the crown turn.

Miss Flitworth stood with her hands held a foot apart and her eyes closed. Between her hands, in the air in front of her hovered the faint outline of a lifetimer, its sand pouring away in a torrent.

The Deaths could just make out, on the glass the spidery name: Renata Flitworth.

The new Death's featureless expression became one of terminal puzzlement. It turned to Bill Door.

For YOU?

But Bill Door was already rising and unfolding like the wrath of kings. He reached behind him, growling, living on loaned time, and his hands closed around the harvest scythe.

The crowned Death saw it coming and raised its own weapon but there was very possibly nothing in the world that would stop the worn blade as it snarled through the air, rage arid vengeance giving it an edge beyond any definition of sharpness. It passed through the metal without slowing.

NO CROWN, said Bill Door, looking directly into the smoke. NO CROWN. ONLY THE HARVEST.

The robe folded up around his blade. There was a thin wail, rising beyond the peak of hearing. A black column, like the negative of lightning, flashed up from the ground and disappeared into the clouds.

Death waited for a moment, and then gingerly gave the robe a prod with his foot. The crown, bent slightly out of shape, rolled out of it a little way before evaporating.

OH, he said, dismissively. DRAMA. He walked over to Miss Flitworth and gently pressed her hands together. The image of the lifetimer disappeared.

The blue-and-violet fog on the edge of sight faded as solid reality flowed back.

Down in the town, the clock finished striking midnight.

The old woman was shivering. Death snapped his fingers in front of her eyes.

MISS FLITWORTH? RENATA?

"I - I didn't know what to do and you said it wasn't difficult and -"

Death walked into the barn. When he came out, he was wearing his black robe.

She was still standing there.

"I didn't know what to do," she repeated, possibly not to him. "What happened? Is it all over?"

Death looked around. The grey shapes were pouring into the yard. POSSIBLY NOT, he said.

More trolleys appeared behind the row of soldiers. They looked like the small silvery workers with the occasional pale golden gleam of a warrior.

"We should retreat back to the stairs," said Doreen.

"I think that's where they want us to go," said Windle.

"Then that's fine by me. Anyway, I vouldn't think those wheels could manage steps, could they?"

"And you can't exactly fight to the death," said Ludmilla. Lupine was keeping close to her, yellow eyes fixed on the slowly advancing wheels.

"Chance would be a fine thing," said Windle. They reached the moving stairs. He looked up. Trolleys clustered around the top of the upward stair, but the way to the floor below looked clear.

"Perhaps we could find another way up?" said Ludmilla hopefully.

They shuffled on to the moving stair. Behind them, the trolleys moved in to block their return.

The wizards were on the floor below. They werestanding so still among the potted plants and fountains that Windle passed them at first, assuming that they were some sort of statue or piece of esoteric furniture.

The Archchancellor had a false red nose and was holding some balloons. Beside him, the Bursar was juggling coloured balls, but like a machine, his eyes staring blankly at nothing.

The Senior Wrangler was standing a little way off, wearing a pair of sandwich boards. The writing on them hadn't fully ripened yet, but Windle would have bet his afterlife that it would eventually say something like SALE!!!!

The other wizards were clustered together like dolls whose clockwork hadn't been wound up. Each one had a large oblong badge on his robe. The familiar organic-looking writing was growing into a word that looked like:

I K Y

although why it was doing so was a complete mystery. The wizards certainly didn't look very secure.

Windle snapped his fingers in front of the Dean's pale eyes. There was no response.

"He's not dead," said Reg.

"Just resting," said Windle. "Switched off."

Reg gave the Dean a push. The wizard tottered forward, and then staggered to a precarious, swaying halt.

"Well, we'll never get them out," said Arthur. "Not like that. Can't you wake them up?"

"Light a feather under their nose," Doreen volunteered.

"I don't think that will work, " said Windle. He based the statement on the fact that Reg Shoe was very nearly under their noses, and anyone whose nasal equipment failed to register Mr. Shoe would certainly not react to a mere burning feather. Or a heavy weight dropped from a great height, if it came to that.

"Mr. Poons," said Ludmilla.

"I used to know a golem looked like him," said Reg Shoe. "Just like him. Great big chap, made out of clay. That's what your typical golem basically is. You just have to write a special holy word on 'em to start 'em up."

"What, like "security"?"

"Could be."

Windle peered at the Dean. 'No," he said at last, "no-one's got that much clay." He looked around them. "We ought to find out where that blasted music's coming from."

"Where the musicians are hidden, you mean?"

"I don't think there are musicians."

"You've got to have musicians, brother," said Reg. "That's why it's called music."

"Firstly, this isn't like any music I've ever heard, and secondly I always thought you've got to have oil lamps or candles to make light and there aren't any and there's still light shining everywhere," said Windle.

"Mr. Poons?" said Ludmilla again, prodding him.

"Yes?"

"Here come some trolleys again."

They were blocking all five passages leading off the central space.

"There's no stairs down," said Windle.

"Maybe it's - she's - in one of the glassy bits," said Ludmilla. 'The shops?"

"I don't think so. They don't look finished. Anyway, that feels wrong - "

Lupine growled. Spikes glistened on the leading trolleys, but they weren't rushing to attack.

"They must have seen what we did to the others," said Arthur.

"Yes. But how could they? That was upstairs," said Windle.

"Well, maybe they talk to each other."

"How can they talk? How can they think? There can't be any brains in a lot of wire," said Ludmilla.

"Ants and bees don't think, if it comes to that," said Windle. "They're just controlled -"

He looked upwards.

They looked upwards.

"It's coming from somewhere in the ceiling," he said. "We've got to find it right now!"

"There's just panels of light," said Ludmilla.

"Something else! Look for something it could be coming from!"

"It's coming from everywhere!"

"Whatever you're thinking of doing," said Doreen, picking up a potted plant and holding it like a club, "I hope you do it fast."

"What's that round black thing up there?" said Arthur.

"Where?"

"There. " Arthur pointed.

"OK, Reg and me will help you up, come on -"

"Me? But I can't stand heights!"

"I thought you could turn into a bat?"

"Yeah, but a very nervous one!"

"Stop complaining. Right - one foot here, now your hand here, now put your foot on Reg's shoulder -"

"And don't go through," said Reg.

"I don't like this!" Arthur moaned, as they hoisted him up.

Doreen stopped glaring at the creeping trolleys.

"Artor! Nobblyesse obligay!"

"What? Is that some sort of vampire code?" Reg whispered.

"It means something like: a count's gotta do what a count's gotta do," said Windle.

"Count!" snarled Arthur, swaying dangerously. "I never should have listened to that lawyer! I should have known nothing good ever comes in a long brown envelope! And I can't reach the bloody thing anyway!"

"Can't you jump?" said Windle.

"Can't you drop dead?"

"No."

"And I'm not jumping!"

"Fly, then. Turn into a bat and fly."

"I can't get the airspeed!"

"You could throw him up," said Ludmilla. "You know, like a paper dart."

"Blow that! I'm a count!"

"You just said you didn't want to be," said Windle mildly.

"On the ground I don't want to be, but when it comes to being chucked around like a frisbee -"

"Arthur! Do what Mr. Poons says!"

"I don't see way -"

"Arthur!"

Arthur as a bat was surprisingly heavy. Windle held him by the ears like a misshapen bowling ball and tried to take aim.

"Remember - I'm an endangered species!" the Count squeaked, as Windle brought his arm back.

It was an accurate throw. Arthur fluttered to the disc in the ceiling and gripped it in his claws.

"Can you move it?"

"No!"

"Then hang on tight and change back."

"No!"

"We'll catch you."