Slipping Between Worlds Chapter Fifty-One:
In Another World
I know - a long time coming. But to compensate, it's an extra-long one. Enjoy.
This chapter opens with an almost wholly indulgent homage to a Blue Öyster Cult song. The mysterious, much-covered, and evocative "Astronomy", a ballad with impenetrable lyrics succeeding in conveying a sense of regret and loss and of it being TOO LATE. Much ink has been spent trying to explain the story that goes with the lyrics. I'll spare you this except to say the location for the story is perfect for my purpose.
There is a tavern much like this at every nexus point of the Multiverse, where worlds and universes intersect and travellers may voyage between the planes of reality at will, or by accident, or at the whim of the Gods. Sometimes called Journey's End, The Last Homely House, the Halfway House, the Crooked House, The World's End (a free house), The House of Secrets, the Mystery House or some other name implying it is not all it seems to be, this particular manifestation stands underneath strange stars in a black sky, surrounded by barren crusted black sand on the littoral of a black sea. Incessant winds sough overhead in an unquiet clear sky. (1) The sort of sky that reminds you that you are looking into eternity. And at least here, it isn't eau-de-nil. It's black, matey. Live with it. Or perhaps not...
Externally, it takes the deceptive form of one of those clapperboarded old taverns you only see in small old towns on the eastern seaboard of North America, maybe in Nantucket or Ann Arbor or quaint little fishing villages in Maine. Or, perhaps, Arkham, Mass. H.P. Lovecraft would feel at home here, sitting over a small beer at a corner table, and plotting something of which Man should wot not. It's that sort of inn. A swinging pub sign, never still in the ever-present and changing gusts, shows the eight arrows of a compass rose, four greater and four lesser, radiating from a central point. The name below reads
The Four Winds Bar.
Four doors lead you in. Once inside, you may order a drink and take your ease. Unlike some other mystery taverns on the Edge, you are not required to tell a story to pay for your drink. It's not that sort of tavern. The sort of people who find their way here are varied and tend to value their privacy.
Two such are seated at a table by the window, alternatively people-watching and discussing their business as professional equals. They might be viewed as franchisees who have just come from a meeting with the organisation's CEO and are unwinding afterwards.
The two black-clad and cowled figures sat impassively at the table watching the clientele. The rest of the drinkers in the bar appeared to be giving them a wide berth, even the albino in black armour with a black sword strapped to his back, his milk-white hair incongruous against the ornate enamelled breastplate. He looks lost in melancholy, although the smaller man in what looks like fools' multicolour motley is cheerful enough for both. He is carrying two wickedly curved swords, and is negotiating with the landlord about passage on something called the Black Ship. (2) Elsewhere, a naïve looking young girl of about seventeen, in Edwardian dress, is sitting with an older woman in nurses' costume. A wild-eyed manic looking man has joined them and is declaiming something about the star Sirius being fixed and consequent. (3)
OH, HIM? Said one of the black-cowled figures. CALLS HIMSELF DESDINOVA. THINKS HE'S IMMORTAL. WE WILL SEE.
He took a sip of what will turn out to be a Malibu and coke. He added, reflectively
THE COVE IN THE BLACK ARMOUR IS A FICTIONAL CHARACTER. A WARRIOR AND A WIZARD CURSED WITH A GREAT DOOM, BY ALL ACCOUNTS. FICTION BECOMES REAL HERE. AND SONGS. IT'S HARD TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE.
SO I PERCEIVE. said the other cowled figure. He is drinking Tia Maria.
The Death of the Discworld looked levelly into the eye-sockets of the Death of Roundworld. After a meeting with Azrael, they had elected to have a quiet drink together in an atmospheric bar somewhere. Roundworld Death had said he knew a good place in a dimension not far away. Working in parellel worlds as they did, the two Deaths were psychically linked. Doppelgangers, even. They usually met up in a neutral place when they had matters of joint interest to discuss.
THOSE BLOODY WIZARDS HAVE GOT A LOT TO ANSWER FOR. THEY'RE THE BANE OF MY L... EXISTENCE.
The Roundworld Death was not unsympathetic.
THEY CALLED ME INTO EXISTENCE WHEN THEY CREATED LIFE ON THAT PLANET. AS A MIRROR OF YOU, MORT.
The Discworld's Death shrugged.
WHERE THERE IS LIFE, THERE MUST BE A DEATH.
THERE IS NO JUSTICE.
NO, THERE'S JUST US.
Each Death took a sip of his drink. Both had a morbid fascination – it could hardly be called anything else – with the more disgusting, sickly, distilled concoctions.
WHO IN HIS RIGHT MIND THOUGHT THEY COULD EVER DISTIL CHOCOLATE BEANS? OR COCONUT?
HUMANS, MORT. THEY LIVE SHORT LIVES BUT THEY ARE INCREDIBLY INGENIOUS. LIKE YOUR DISCWORLD WIZARDS.
The Roundworld Death paused.
AND I HAVE TO SAY, ALL THEIR WINDING AND RE-WINDING ALTERNATE TIMELINES FOR ROUNDWORLD PLAYS HAVOC WITH MY NODES AND NEXUSES. NEXII. OR WHATEVER. THE OITHER WEEK, FOR INSTANCE. I'M ANSWERING THE DUTY CALL TO PICK UP A CERTAIN PHILIP HOLTACK, WHO DIED IN CROSSFIRE IN LONDONDERRY. THEN THEY WIND THE TIMELINE BACK AND START AGAIN. BUT DO THEY TELL ME? OH NO. I FIND MYSELF STANDING OUTSIDE A POST OFFICE IN LONDONDERRY WITH A HANDFUL OF HOURGLASSES AND A SCYTHE – AND NOBODY THERE. IF I WAS NOT IMMORTAL I WOULD CALL IT A WASTE OF MY TIME! AND A WEEK OR TWO LATER, I EXPERIENCE A SENSE OF DEJA-VU CONCERNING A GREAT BIG BOMB EXPLOSION IN LONDONDERRY. PHILIP HOLTACK AGAIN AND SEVEN OTHERS. THIS TIME I DISCOVER THE BOMB HAS INDEED EXPLODED ON SCHEDULE, BUT ARE THERE ANY CONFUSED-LOOKING SOULS TO GATHER IN? ARE THERE BUGGERY. AT FIRST I PUT IT DOWN TO THE SMOKE AND DUST MAKING IT HARD TO SEE. THEN I REALISED IT'S ALL COCKED UP AGAIN. SOME SORT OF RIFT IN SPACE-TIME OCCURED TO PROJECT THEM INTO YOUR WORLD A MERE MILLISECOND BEFORE THE INSTANT OF DEATH. MORT, I'M AFRAID YOU'VE GOT MY SOULS.
The Discworld Death was used to this sort of thing. Wizards, witches and History Monks did it to him all the time, with no consideration or respect. He'd learnt to work around it.
AND THEIR BODIES, I BELIEVE. AND THE TWO ARE AT THE MOMENT FIRMLY LINKED.
The Roundworld Death conceded this.
WHICH, MORT, IS WHY YOU CAME TO AZRAEL TO FORMALLY ADVISE HIM OF AN UNPRECEDENTED SITUATION AND TO ASK FOR HIS RULING. HE SUMMONED ME SO I MIGHT BE BRIEFED. AND HERE WE ARE NOW.
The Discworld Death laughed, sepulchrally.
LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE. IT DIDN'T HALF ANNOY THE AUDITORS!
THERE ARE SOME CONSOLATIONS. agreed the Roundworld's Death.
WHO'S COVERING YOUR DUTY WHILE YOU'RE HERE?
IT'S IN VERY SAFE HANDS. Said the Discworld Death. SUSAN IS DEPUTISING. SHE HAD A VERY UNIQUE ONE TO COLLECT, BUT I HAVE EVERY CONFIDENCE IN HER.
The Roundworld Death digested this. Susan Sto Helit was yet to be formally accredited with Azrael. But word of her reputation had got out on a very specialised professional grapevine. And Azrael Himself seemed happy enough with the arrangement.
YOU'RE LUCKY. Said the Roundworld Death. THE ONLY DEMIURGE AVAILABLE WAS SCROFULA. I HOPE HE'S UP TO IT.
SCROFULA? I HOPE YOURS SHAPES UP BETTER THAN MINE DID. HE WAS FRANKLY A DISSAPPOINTMENT. THEN AGAIN, I DID SEND HIM OUT AFTER RINCEWIND.
The same very specialised professional grapevine had also heard about Rincewind. Most of the other assembled Deaths in conclave before Azrael were sympathetic, whilst privately hoping they'd never see one themselves.
AND NOW YOU ALSO HAVE PHILIP HOLTACK. said the Roundworld Death. WHO HAS SO FAR EVADED ME TWICE. AND YOU ALSO GET MRS NORAH BLOODY TACHYON. GOOD LUCK.
Discworld's Death winced.
AT LEAST AZRAEL WAS VERY CLEAR. AS LONG AS THEY ARE IN MY JURISDICTION, AND THE CIRCUMSTANCES WARRANT MY ATTENTION, THEN I CAN REAP. I THEN OWE YOU BETWEEN ONE AND EIGHT SOULS. UP TO SEVENTEEN, IF YOU COUNT HER CAT.
NO DOUBT THE WIZARDS WILL SEND MORE OF YOUR PEOPLE TO ME. WE HAVE TO PLAY THE LONG GAME, MORT.
The two Deaths clasped bony hands. There was a complete absence of catastrophic explosion, as some narratives might have dictated.
BUT YOUR PEOPLE HAD BETTER GET CRACKING ON SENDING THEM BACK. the Roundworld Death said. MY WORLD IS A BUGGER FOR INSTABILITY. AND ALL THESE ALTERNATIVE TIMELINES FLOATING ABOUT AND LEAVING HUMANS IN THE WINDS OF LIMBO DON'T HELP. THIS IS THE NEXUS OF A CRISIS. AND THE ORIGIN OF A TRANS-TEMPORAL STORM. I'M FRANKLY ENJOYING IT TOO MUCH TO WANT TO BE SENT INTO OBLIVION. AND I KNOW A COUPLE OF DEMONS AND ANGELS WHO THINK THAT WAY TOO. AS WELL AS MY THREE ASSOCIATES. BELIEVE ME, WHEN WAR GETS ANGRY, SHE'S SCAREY!
The Discworld Death had once, reluctantly, had to imprison the Roundworld's War. (4) He sympathised.
WELL, THIS PHILIP HOLTACK IS A WARRIOR, ISN'T HE? YOU COULD JUST ASK MS. ZUIGIBER TO PAY HIM A PERSONAL CALL. HER AREA OF PROFESSIONAL EXPERTISE, AFTER ALL. PROBLEM SOLVED!
Behind them, the nurse, a brisk woman in her thirties called Carrie, was suggesting to her charge that perhaps, Suzie dear, we could take a little walk along the beach, we have matters to discuss. She meaningfully added that it was so nice to meet you, mr Desdinova, you will of course excuse us?
The Roundworld Death turned to watch them.
AND I'M NOT GOING DOWN WITHOUT TAKING THAT COCKY LITTLE SOD DESDINOVA WITH ME. IMMORTAL, MY COCCYX!
The Alien Queen briefly snapped back into consciousness in a chillingly cold place. The magical field gone, she remembered only the cold implacable mammalian female, an older female of beyond egg-laying years, the one whom she had recognised as something approaching a worthy enemy, who had divined what could kill her. Then being imprisoned by chilling water-ice and the threat of the deadly poison beyond it, that would at least have scarred and maimed her as she escaped the confines of her prison. And then... nothing. Until now. Where was she? No atmosphere? Well, she did not need to breathe; she could hibernate until the time was right.
There was a blinding actinic flash and a sensation of rending... she would have screamed, but in space nobody can hear you scream.
She felt light, insubstantial. She had leisure to realise the mammals had somehow thrown her off the planet. She could sense an enormous body, all its life-energy, all its food, receding from her at immense speed. And then, standing impassively in front of her... one of those lesser mammals the human mammals used as riding beasts, white, glowing, almost silver in the sun and starlight. White, shining, silver, studded leather, with its nose in... a nosebag? (5)
The horse stood unsupported in deep space, unconcernedly eating, as the mammal female unhurriedly climbed from its back and walked towards her. Dressed in black, with white hair streaming like a horse's silver mane streaked with black. Incredibly, she could hear the ticking of her heels as if she were walking on stone flags. The mammal female swept a stick as she walked. Something unfolded from the end like a branch of cold flame. Cold blue flame. It rippled with light, in a chilly, ripply, sort of way.
The Queen tried to spit a stream of acid at her. It boiled and roiled and flashed into vapour. The mammal female walked unconcernedly through the insubstantial mist.
"Who are you?" the Alien Queen screamed. The mammal took her time in responding.
"I'm the one who's going to complete the job. Of sending you the Seamstresses' Guild commercial transaction out into space." Susan Sto Helit said, conversationally. And then, in the Voice, "YOU BELONG DEAD".
The scythe swung.
The Queen screamed once and then passed into nothing. I go into the accumulated wisdom of all my mothers...
Susan stood and looked down towards the Disc, now a receding shape no smaller than the back of her hand. Glowing meteorites, remnants of the Queen's prison and the floor on which it had stood, were cascading down towards the distant Disc.
"Grandfather, you send me on some really interesting assignments." she said to herself, taking in the spectacular view. Then she called Binky to her. Something tugged at her, irresistibly. She heard chanting on the very edge of hearing...
Oh damn, not NOW. Can't you let me enjoy the view for a while?
Meanwhile, in the parched desert sand of Kahn-Li, something stirred and scrabbled at the sand...
"We'll just do a quick Rite of Ash-Kente, m'lord". Mustrum Ridcully said to the Patrician. "Nothing like getting final confirmation from the man himself, what?"
"Proceed." Vetinari said.
As Rincewind was threatened, cajoled and finally manhandled into the octagram to make up the numbers, the assembled company in the Zoo laboratories saw...
A girl on a white horse materialised in the middle of a chanting circle of eight Wizards. She glared at them. Ponder Stibbons had been here before, and tried to avoid her glare.
"You could have waited." she said, scowling at Ridcully. "This is like the last couple of times. Why don't you just send me a clacks, for goodness sake? You've got my address, Mr Ridcully!"
"You are Death?" Lord Rust brayed. "You're that Sto Helit gal, aren't you!"
The girl dismounted and said, with seeming deference,
"I am Susan, Duchess of Sto Helit, yes."
She stood, with a studied sort of casualness. Then the Scythe of Duty was in her hand.
LORD RONALD AUGUSTUS ALEXANDER RUST? YOU WOULD DO WELL TO RECALL THE STO HELIT FAMILY MOTTO! ONLY – HOLD THE "NON".
Rust blinked. He backed down.
"Point taken, my Lady." he said, more politely. Susan nodded. Most of the people in the room had stopped dead at the harmonics of the Voice. She turned to a familiar face or two and was Susan again.
"Hi, Johanna!" she said, in her normal voice. "You wouldn't have seen me, but I was there at a contract you carried out recently. I was quite impressed with the way you and Ruth took out that vampire!"
Johanna Smith-Rhodes smiled at the professional compliment. She knew Susan: they went to the same hairdresser, after all.
"I take it the usual fella's otherwise engaged, m'dear?" Ridcully said, conversationally. "You're fillin' in again?"
"He was called to see the Management." Susan said, shrugging. "There's a bit of a trans-dimensional irregularity going on at the moment. You've had people arriving here from a different jurisdiction who might well already be dead in their own world. Grandfather needed a ruling on whether they were still technically alive, and if so, were they temporarily under his care if the occasion ever arises."
"And are they?" Vetinari asked, seeing the point immediately.
"It was decided that they are, sir." Susan explained, the information somehow arriving in her mind without her needing to guess or assume. This was under the Rite of Ashe-Kente, after all, when Death or his accredited representative had to honestly and fully answer every question asked. "After all, you can't have seven or eight people running around who are technically Immortal. They might take advantage."
"Indeed." Vetinari said, drily. Somebody else, who was slow to catch on, made a connection and said "Grandfather?"
Susan turned to face the speaker.
"My grandfather is something of a literal-minded m... entity. Think of me as the result of his hearing about Take Your Daughters To Work Day. I get to cover the Duty when he's otherwise engaged."
"Ah." somebody else said. "Family business."
"Equal opportunities." Mrs Rosie Palm said, approving. Her occupation was not risk-free, by any means, but it rarely involved the possibility of death to Guild members. She could afford to be more relaxed about it.
Vetinari prompted Ridcully with a raised eyebrow. The Arch-Chancellor got the point.
"Anyway, m'dear." Ridcully said. "What can you tell us concernin' a rather nasty entity we sent your way just now?"
Susan looked across at an octagonal hole in the floor. She remembered to adopt the Voice, as it made these things easier.
"THE ALIEN QUEEN? SHE IS NOW VERY DEFINITELY DECEASED. I SHOULD KNOW. A COMBINATION OF WIZARDS, HISTORY MONKS AND ASSASSINS BROUGHT ABOUT HER END."
"Is there any possibility at all that she will come back?" Vetinari requested, politely. Susan considered this and allowed the reply to form in her mind.
"NO. THIS QUEEN IS VERY DEFINITIVELY DEAD. BUT SHE HAS SISTERS. THEY HAVE A COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUSNESS AND OTHER POTENTIAL QUEENS EXIST ON THE DISC. HER THOUGHTS AND MEMORIES HAVE RETURNED TO THE COLLECTIVE. IT IS INEVITABLE THAT ONE WILL RETURN IN A STRONGER AND MORE MUTATED FORM."
Vetinari reflected on this.
"Do you know when?" he asked. "We should be prepared."
"TOMORROW? NOT LIKELY. THIS LIFE-FORM REQUIRES TIME TO REST AND BUILD STRENGTH. IT ALSO REQUIRES A TRIGGER TO ACTIVATE IT. THE TRIGGER FOR THIS ONE WAS THE TRANS-DIMENSIONAL DISTURBANCE ALLOWING FOR PEOPLE AND IDEAS TO CROSS FROM ROUNDWORLD. I CANNOT TELL WHEN THE NEXT SUCH TRIGGER WILL BE PRESSED. BUT IT IS ADVISABLE FOR YOU TO WATCH KAHN-LI."
Vetinari looked thoughtful.
"It may be advisable to prepare an exploratory mission. If anyone has suggestions for such an expedition, please discuss them with me. I will be listening. No great rush."
He did not add this will be an opportunity to resolve other pressing problems by removing some people from the city and making them inaccessible. The Visitor Ruijterman, for example. I cannot, for very much longer, reasonably delay the Rimwards Howondalandians' reasonable request to speak to him. But if he gives them the secret of the Gonne...
Ponder Stibbons diffidently raised a hand. Involvement with Johanna had taken away some of his natural reticence around strong women. He reminded himself that Susan Sto Helit was mainly human, and a variation of his strategy for Dealing With Johanna should work here.
"Errr... your Grace." he began, with reticence. Susan turned towards him.
"Professor Stibbons?" she said, in her normal Susan-voice. Ponder took a breath.
"Our Visitors. From Roundworld. What can you tell us about them?"
"TO WHAT LEVEL OF DETAIL? PHILIP HOLTACK IS FIVE FEET NINE INCHES TALL. HE HAS BROWN EYES. HE IS APPROACHING HIS TWENTY-THIRD BIRTHDAY. HE HAS ALREADY TECHNICALLY DIED ONCE ON ROUNDWORLD. MUCH TO THE OPERATIONAL CONFUSION OF THE DEATH OF THE ROUNDWORLD, WHO ARRIVED AT THE SCENE OF A BATTLE EXPECTING TO CLAIM THREE SOULS BUT INSTEAD FOUND NOTHING THERE, YOU WIZARDS REALISED THERE HAD BEEN AN ACT OF GROSS IRRESPONSIBILITY AND REVERSED THE TIMELINE."
She paused, and added, sternly,
"YOU REALLY HAVE NO IDEA HOW WE DEATHS HATE THAT SORT OF THING. IT CREATES UN-NECESSARY WORK."
"We Deaths?" somebody exclaimed, incredulously. Susan glared at the hapless speaker, who turned out to be a more elderly Wizard. He recoiled, not wanting to draw attention to himself.
"EVERY WORLD HAS ITS DEATH, DOCTOR EDWARD JAMES STICKLEBURY." she told him. "WE ARE NOT ALONE. THIS IS WHY MY GRANDFATHER ISN'T HERE. HE WENT TO CONFER WITH PROFESSIONAL EQUALS ABOUT THIS."
"But Lieutenant Holtack is alive and well and currently thriving." Vetinari said. "I have high expectations of him. He is a singular young man."
"FOR NOW." she said. "NOTHING IS FIXED, BUT INDICATIONS ARE THAT HE WILL BE IN DIFFICULT SITUATIONS DURING HIS TIME HERE. THESE WILL REQUIRE MONITORING."
"Was he aware that he was killed on the Roundworld?" Vetinari asked. "Or at least on that particular Roundworld timeline?"
"HE WILL HAVE HAD CONFUSED MEMORIES OF A DEATH THAT DID NOT HAPPEN." she said. "HE WILL HAVE REMEMBERED IT IN THE FORM OF A BAD DREAM, A NIGHTMARE. BUT THE SECOND NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE, THE ONE THAT PROPELLED HIM AND THE OTHERS HERE, IS A CONSCIOUS MEMORY."
"What caused it?" asked Stibbons. "Can it be reversed? Can we send them back?"
" I WOULD SUGGEST THE TWO EXPLOSIONS WERE LINKED. AS TO WHETHER WE CAN SEND THEM BACK AND REGULARISE THE SITUATION, THE NODES ARE UNCLEAR ON THIS POINT. THERE ARE TWO KEYS: THE ELUSIVE MRS NORAH TACHYON. AND HER TROLLEY, WHICH IS NOT ALL IT SEEMS. FIND THEM AND YOU MAY RESOLVE THE PROBLEM."
And in her everyday schoolmistress voice, Susan added
"If that's everything, may I leave now? Unless Grandfather can get a lift home, he's rather stranded until he gets the horse back. And I've got a job to go to."
"Thank you, your grace. You have been most helpful." Vetinari said. "Arch-Chancellor, will you do what you have to do?"
"Of course, sir. Susan m'dear, if I call you a "foul fiend", just for the look of the thing, you understand, please accept it isn't personal?"
"I'll take it as read, Mr Ridcully." she replied, as he scuffed away part of the otherwise imprisoning octogram.
"How the devil are you going to get that horse out of here... oh, you can..." said Lord Rust.
And so Susan left.
Across the city, Philip Holtack shuddered. It wasn't just because of where he was and what he was doing, which was horrible enough to contemplate. He'd just had a very distinct feeling that somebody was walking over his grave. A memory of that bad dream, of being shot just outside the post office in Derry, surfaced. It had just been so bloody vivid... He put it down to tiredness and aftershock following the events of the last few days. He'd largely been moving so fast and absorbing so much new information about this place that he hadn't really had time to reflect and be introspective. But now, as he listened to Doreen Winking with half an ear, the reaction and post-combat stress was probably starting. He'd been shot at, blown up, landed in a strange new world an unguessable distance away from home, fought for his life, killed two people, had a terrifying flight on a bloody magic carpet, evaded a death sentence, and been shagged by a vampire. Of course there'd be a reaction...
He looked down at the handbook he'd been given. The foreword noted that it was a standard text, issued to City Watch recruits, concerning the wide variety of non-human species and otherwise alternative life-forms to be found on the Disc. It was quite a thick book. The publishers' notes on the inside noted it was a private publication sponsored by the Duke of Ankh, Sir Samuel Vimes, for internal use by the Watch. Out of interest Holtack flicked to "D". The section on Dwarfs did not look as if it had been written by Estrella Partleigh. She had issued them with a separate pamphlet. Comparing the two, Holtack found points of factual similarity, but found it hard to believe they described the same race.
And you also met some very nice girls and ladies, Phil, so it's not been wholly horrible, he reminded himself. Even if, apart from Lady Sybil, they're all predatory vampires and trained killers. And I bet Lady Sybil could be deadly if provoked.
And speaking of vampires...
Doreen Winking had made her way to the speaker's position at the front of the room, on a low, rather perfunctory, stage. She had probably intended it to be an eye-catching smooth sinuous glide, but with a body like hers it was doomed to failure. It had been like watching a duck in the mating season self-consciously trying to attract the attention of watching mallards.
"Bloody'yell!" an incredulous Welsh voice had murmured. Without looking round, Holtack had recognised "Head-Butt" Powell expressing mortal disbelief. He also heard a native Ankh-Morpork voice urgently whispering "for Offler's sake, don't laugh! She takes it personally!"
Good advice. She's still a vampire. Perhaps only just. But Sally said she was relatively young and didn't have the skills and strength of some of the older ones. Sally was handful enough...
Holtack looked again at the Countess von Vinkling.
Several handfuls, in her case. And you'd need more than two hands. Working in shifts.
He still could not get over the visual impression that he was looking at an older Morticia Addams who'd been repeatedly hit over the head. She'd also allowed the vampire equivalent of middle-aged spread to set in. And could vampires develop visible grey roots? Holtack thought there was no reason why not. But still...
"Gut afternoon!" she announced. "I hope zat ve are all refreshed after lunch."
Lunch had been a few tired sandwiches and a mug of tea, served with homilies by the Salvation Army. Young Boy Hughes had attempted flirting with one of the Salvation girls, who had responded favourably, but made it clear she'd quite like him to attend Octeday services at the Citadel, so as to best hear the holy and infallible gospel of Om. The other Toms had thought this was a huge joke and had mercilessly teased him about catching religion.
"They do that on Earth too, mun." J.J. Williams had remarked. "You get to chatting with a pretty girl, next thing you know she's inviting you to Chapel to meet her pastor!"
Even Sergeant Williams had joined in with "Why not try the Druids, Boy bach? I met one of their padres the other day and attended their service. Quite an eye-opener, it was!"
"What a man will do for the sniff of cwtch."(6) Head-Butt Powell had said, reflectively. "Even if you have to pretend to get religion for it."
"Or vampires." Boer Ruijterman had mused, with a sideways look at Holtack.
And now they were getting a Lecture From The Vampire.
"Mein name.." she said, pausing for dramatic effect, "is ze Countess Von Vinkling. As you can see, I am a wampire."
"No kidding?" an incredulous Seven Platoon voice said. She glared furiously in its general direction.
Holtack watched her. He was puzzled. She lacked the unconscious ease and self-assurance which defined Sally von Humpedinck. There was none of Sally's grace and poise. This particular Wampire... vampire... appeared to be making a tremendous conscious effort to project it, and was failing dismally on all counts.
It really didn't help that her pointed fangs were a bit wobbly in her mouth, as if they were some sort of false teeth. Holtack was reminded of Great-Uncle Iollo, whose ill-fitting false teeth were a family legend...
"I am a Wampire." she repeated, pausing for dramatic effect. "I am vun of zer oldest and most noble species on this Disc. Ve are a stylish und a cultured people whose written records go back further than... zan... humans. Ve vere writink our history from before primitive humans learnt to scrawl graffiti on cave walls... valls... yes, you have a question?"
Head-Butt Powell had raised a hand.
"Excuse me, ma'am." he said, with the innocent air of a Seeker after Truth. Instructing officers and NCO's had learnt to dread that tone of voice.
"It's quite sunny outside, like. It's daylight. Are you not supposed to retreat to your crypt, like, during the day?"
"Ah!" she said. "A common misperception. It is true, ja, that ve wampires are at our best in the...zer... hours of darkness. Ve are creatures of midnight and shadow. My coffin awaits...avaits... in zer family crypt."
The native Morporkian sitting next to Holtack rolled his eyes and nudged him in the ribs.
"She means the cellar underneath the fruit and veg shop." he whispered.
Holtack nodded. He was beginning to realise this vampire was not all she seemed. Her German accent kept slipping, for one thing.
"Those young in the Way...Vay... are often seriously inconvenienced by zer light of day, it is true. But with age comes immunity. Ve can walk...valk... in day without hindrance if it is cloudy or overcast. Zere are vays und means to deal with summer days, zat come with experience."
"Yeah. Suntan lotion and barrier cream." somebody whispered. There was a muted snigger, quickly shushed. The Countess von Winkling frowned.
"There are such remedies, ja." she said. "But ve know from practical experiments carried out by zer Count de Magpyr und his clan that...zat.. many learnt und conditioned reflexes can be overcome, vit training and reconditioning."
Sally had mentioned this, in passing. She'd given a clear hint that the de Magpyrs were thought of as a bit of an embarrassment in vampire circles and had caused a lot of trouble for everyone else. He raised a hand.
"Prozeed." she said, in the accent he was now almost sure she was putting on. It sounded too calculated, too exaggerated, when it wasn't slipping.
"Er... Countess... I was informed by Lord Vetinari that there are well over three thousand different religions on this world. Three thousand or more Gods, all of whom must have their own holy symbols. On my world, folklore has it that vampires are terrified by the sight of the holy symbol of one religion, and even seeing this causes them pain." Well, two religions, he thought, remembering the Jewish vampire he'd once seen in a comedy movie. Confronted with a cross, it had grinned and said Oi vey, have you got the wrong vampire! before going for the jugular. But a Star of David had made it cringe back and shield its face...
"If holy symbols repel vampires, how do you cope with three thousand different sorts? There are whole streets here full of temples and churches. And that tortoise thing on the wall seems holy to this church."
The Countess allowed a nervous tic to cross her face.
"Zer most holy turtle of Om, ja." she conceded, gritting her teeth. "Now you have brought it to my attention, could somebody cover it up? Please? Zank you." She paused.
"Zer trick is, not to notice. And no, vampires do not normally valk down zer Street of Small Gods. It saves trouble. I vill concede that the Count de Magpyr went a little too far on this. He succeeded in training his clan to recognise holy symbols zat they had previously been unaware of. Zere are still traumatised wampires out zere who refuse to leave their crypts, as unfortunately zer Count taught zem only too vell. A vampire trained to recognise patterns and see a holy symbol everyvere they look... is not a happy vampire. Fortunately, zer League of Temperance runs counselling classes for zer sacrophobiacs."
Holtack thought furiously. He'd have to ask Sally. Was it the case that the receptive gullibility of the vampire, combined with the belief of the would-be victim in the efficacy of their holy symbol, brought about an aversion reaction? So the Cross would work here, as if both parties were playing out a script and doing what was expected of them? He filed this away for attention later, and allowed Boy Hughes to fire a question. He watched her flinch – her reaction delayed by a second or so – at Hughes' casual use of the world "blood". As if she remembered she had to flinch, as if it were expected of her.
"Please. Do not use that word...vord." she said. "We of the League of Temperance have a strict policy on that. Will you all kindly refer to "b-vord"? Zank you so much."
Holtack winced, then grinned. She'd said that to Seven Platoon? Ah well... she'd learn.
"In response to your question, vampires do require b... b-vord... for sustenance. In former unreformed days, it is sadly true that ve consumed the bl... the flowing fluid... of humans, villing or not. But ve have moved on since! Now, zere is der Leek of Temperance!"
She proudly proclaimed this. Holtack listened with half an ear. Sally had already filled him in on the League of Temperance and the significance of the black ribbon. He now also knew that the rich red liquid she had drunk in the taverna was not likely to have been wine.
"So how do you get the blood you need, then, ma'am?" Powell asked. He waited long enough to see her wince and then added "Oh, sorry. I meant bee-voord. My slip!"
Here it comes, Holtack thought. Dumb insolence at its finest, calculated to be one step short of a chargeable offence... He leant back, happy in the knowledge some other poor unprepared soul was in the firing line. That is, if vampires actually had souls.
Dorienne von Vinkling, (or was it Doreen Winkling?) composed herself. She took a deep breath.
"There is animal b-vord." she said. Many of us work...vork... in zer slaughterhouses and kosher butchers. Zis meets zer need."
J.J. Williams raised a hand. She nodded, suspiciously.
"But ma'am, getting your blood..." again, the pause to watch her wince, and a nervous tic began. "Sorry, your bee-vord that way."
Holtack glanced over. Yes. The look of an innocent seeker-after-truth that he'd learnt to dread. He relaxed and felt a distinct sense of schadenfreude. Let the lady learn...
Doreen looked at Williams with a slightly apprehensive expression. He paused for a second or two and asked:
"But, ma'am. Isn't that substituting cruelty to animals for cruelty to people, like?"
She took a deeper breath. Things visibly wobbled in the confining bustier, an item of clothing that would have looked sensational on a vampire thirty years younger, six inches taller and about thirty pounds lighter. On Doreen, it reminded onlookers of a jelly mould with insufficient gelatine in the mix.
"That is a point of view, ja." she said, her eyes darting from side to side. "But I'm sure on your world, animals are slaughtered – humanely I'm sure – for zeir meat und for leather to wear.. vear? We wampires merely assist in zer process and take advantage of a by-product largely useless to humans."
"But isn't that depriving people of the raw material for black puddings, ma'am?" asked Boy Hughes. "lovely bit of scran, those!"
Head-Butt Powell threw a curve-ball in.
"Ma'am, if there are kosher butchers on this world, right, does that mean there are Jews here?" he asked. "I would not be surprised, they get everywhere, we even had a couple of them in Seven Platoon! Lovely boys both, Tailor Cohen could schmatter a uniform a treat, it was like having a Savile Row tailor do your walking-out kit bespoke, like, great job for a tenner. Kosher Greenberg could be a bastard corporal, though."
Holtack thought for a moment about Greenberg and Cohen. He wondered how they were doing back on Earth. And the rest of Seven Platoon, who he realised, with a guilty start, had lost their officer and – he suspected more importantly – their platoon sergeant. He hoped his successor wouldn't balls things up too much, until he got back...
Doreen looked genuinely puzzled. He stepped in, partly to give her a moment's grace from the innocent questioning. Besides, if there were French, German, South African and Australian people on this planet as well as "Welsh", he would not be surprised if there were Israeli and Hebrew Discworlders.
"Countess? My soldiers are referring to a religious and, er, ethnic, group on Earth. They live according to religious traditions that go back thousands of years, by historical accident they were scattered all over the world, their religion is defined by worship of one God who lays down a strict code of behaviour and worship, they do not seek converts, marry within the race, and insist all meat products be completely emptied of blood before consumption..." he tried to recall everything else he knew about Jews. "They have a strict dietary code where certain meats, such as pork and shellfish, are regarded as unclean and may not be eaten, and other prohibitions such as not having meat and dairy produce together on the same table..." He'd had an informal crash-course in What You Need To Know About Judaism on acquiring two Jewish members of the platoon. It had been useful.
"They are also bloody sharp with money and tend to become doctors and lawyers", he heard a Seven Platoon voice mutter.
The Countess suddenly understood. "You may mean zer Cenobians.(7)" she said. "They fit the description. Zey have a temple – a synagogue, they call it – on Small Gods."
Holtack remembered the legend of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel(8), and wondered. Had there been other crossings to the Discworld in the past? He'd have to find out...
"But time presses. We must move on... another question?"
"Medam, it is said a vempire may be killed by direct sunlight, by a stake through the heart, by gerlic or by silver. I understend your point ebout berrier creams, very ingenious, but do the other things hold force here?"
Doreen winced slightly.
"Yes. All those things work. There are many other ways too, depending on the place of origin of the vampire..."
Ruijterman nodded. It was clear Doreen was not comfortable about talking of the ways vampires could be despatched. Seven Platoon latched on this instantly.
"Wooden stake through the heart, Hughsey boy." said Powell, with relish.
"Get it in its coffin during the day, line up the stake over the heart, and wham! No more vampire!"
"I was thinking, a bayonet would do it? We are taught that in Battle School. Transferable skill, and all that!" added Williams.
"Then you just gets a pile of dust. You has to be careful not to bleed into it, though, or you're back to square one!" Powell gleefully added.
"Well, yes. But to be really sure, you has to cut its head off..." added Hughes, thoughtfully.
Doreen von Winkling's face was phasing through a lot of expressions, none of them happy or relaxed.
"In this modern enlightened age..." she almost shouted, "Vampires and humans seek to live in harmony and co-exist happily. We try not to dwell on older, less understanding, times!"
The German accent's gone completely, Holtack noted. Get her rattled and she sounds distinctly local...
Hans Ruijterman raised a hand. Recognising an older and possibly more serious soldier, she gratefully nodded.
"Medam, my home is in Efrrika." he said. "Which you call Howondalaand. "I em essured by two women who are almost competriots thet our homelands share meny things. Et home, the bleck natives hev legends of things like the impundulo. There is elso the inyoni yezulu, the Thekwane."
The African names rolled easily off his tongue. Doreen listened, trying not to betray ignorance.
"The Thekwane, which is the Bantu name, is said to menifest es the Hammerkop bird. It brings thunderstorms end lightning with it, end cen change as it wishes into the form of a beautiful maiden or a hendsome werrior. In this form, the inyoni yezulu will seduce a native it chooses and empty it of ell blood. Thet is the Zulu form of the name, by the way. It mey only be killed by fire or silver. To me, thet is a vempire by any other name. I hev learned thet things which are myths on our world are real here. Hev you encountered such creatures?"
Doreen was speechless for an instant.
"No, I have not. But it's only recently that Howondaland has opened up and its people have started coming to Ankh-Morpork. This is the first I've heard about native vampires. Cor!"
Now she wasn't German at all.
One of the native Ankh-Morporkians raised a hand.
"Excuse me. Sir? Chap from Rimwards Howondaland? You should go down the Zoo, sir. That miss Smith-Rhodes, she's got a lot of Howondalandian birds in the Aviary and I'm sure one of them's this Hammerkopf thing. Grey thing, little beady eyes, ugly bugger, long sharp pointy black beak. Has to keep it away from the other birds as it goes for them."
"Yeah, she set up this Vampire Birds of Howondaland display." said another Morporkian. "Have you been to see it, miss? Should be right up your crypt!" (9)
"I was a guest at the opening." Doreen said. "Lovely plumage!"
She naively asked if Ruijterman had seen these birds at home . He grinned.
"Ja. One of my bleck soldiers in Rhodesia was certain we were under etteck by one. He got exciteable end threw a hend grenade et it. Thet certainly killed the bird!"
There was a short silence. Then Powell grinned and changed the subject.
"Ma'am, they say a vampire can turn somebody into a vampire by biting them. I have got to ask this, as our officer here was sort of, er, attacked by a vampire last night, and we ain't sure about him?"
Holtack winced. Here it comes...
Doreen frowned, not sure how to take this.
"Well, all vampires in this city are Black Ribboners and members of the League..."
"Lady called Sally? In the local heth, like?" Hughes offered, helpfully. Somebody else sniggered.
Doreen did a double-take.
"Sally von Humpeding?" she snorted. "Well, she's no better than she ought to be, I'm sure!"
Pure street-Morporkian, thought Holtack. And she doesn't like Sally very much... He'd ask about Doreen when he next met Sally, he decided.
And elsewhere in the Multiverse, two professional associates left the Four Winds Bar. A forlorn wind sighed and moaned over the black sand of the littoral. The black sea moved and slopped in a slightly unpleasant oily way.
NEED A LIFT, MORT? Asked the Death of the Roundworld, indicating the pillion of his white motorcycle.
NO THANKS. Replied the Death of the Discworld. I TRIED ONE OF THOSE ONCE. BLOODY DANGEROUS THINGS, IF YOU ASK ME. YOU GO AROUND THE CURVE TOO FAST, THERE'S BARELY TIME FOR A SCREAM, AND THE NEXT THING YOU KNOW THERE'S A FIERY CRASH OF CHROME AND STEEL AND YOU'RE REASSEMBLING YOURSELF AT THE BOTTOM OF A CLIFF. (10)
YOU SHOULD UPGRADE, MORT. I GAVE UP HORSES A LONG TIME AGO. I'VE GOT FOUR BILLION OF THE BUGGERS TO KEEP TRACK OF. YOU GET AROUND THE DUTY SO MUCH FASTER.
There was a meaningful cough. Susan was leaning against the outside wall of the pub, holding Binky's reins.
MY RIDE'S HERE, ANYWAY. Said Death. HELLO, SUSAN. HAVE YOU BEEN WAITING LONG?
"Just got here." Susan said. "I did the job you asked me to do, Grandfather. Can we go now? This place gives me the creeps!"
And they left, with a backwards glance and a "goodbye" to the Roundworld Death, who paused in putting on his crash helmet and waved cheerfully.
I really have become as they are, Susan thought, ruefully, taking her grandfather's hand from the pillion position.
(1) As well as homage to the Blue Öyster Cult's Astronomy, this is a listing of trans-dimensional pubs, taverns, et c which are a popular setting for gothic, macabre, surreal or just generally eldritch stories in fantasy fiction or graphic novels - such as Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. (In which Death is a far more approachable and laid-back Gothic girl not unlike Susan, but more sympathetic). The song Astronomy is available on two studio albums, Secret Treaties (1974) and Imaginos (1988) as well as a live version on Some Enchanted Evening (1975).
(2) OK, an Elric cameo, along with the Companion to Champions, Moonglum. One day I might write an Elric in Ankh-Morpork cross-over. I have ideas as to how to marry the styles of Michael Moorcock and Terry Pratchett for comedic or spoofine purposes.
(3) This is where you need to listen to, or at least read the lyrics of, Sandy Pearlman, Eric Bloom and Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser's Astronomy. Desdinova, Suzie and Miss Carrie, Nurse, are characters in the song, stuck at the sinister Four Winds Bar...
(4) See my novella Doppelgangers.
(5) A bit of Patti Smith thrown in for good measure – her song/poem Horses could feature Binky - plus more references to the film Alien.
(6) Some explanation. Cwtch is a Welsh word with varying levels of meaning depending on the speaker and the context. Pronounced cootch, it is one of those words which has passed into "Wenglish" - ie, Welsh dialect English – and can variably mean kiss, hug, cuddle, snog, neck. And variations on a theme. In the Wenglish used by Welsh soldiers, the word is a euphemism for sexual contact or the woman provideing the possibility of it. If used in the right context in Welsh, it can have the severest possible pejorative meaning – you can call a generally unfavoured or stupid person a "cwtch", and it can be used as a gynaecological dysphemism. Think Cockney rhyming slang here - a "berk" is short for "Berkeley Hunt", in both senses.
(7) Refer to Terry Pratchett's Feet of Clay. A Cenobite priest is one of the only living persons with the secret of making Golems, and other Cenobites make vocal trouble for Cheery Littlebottom as she is trying to investigate his murder; they consider it very important to their religion that the corpse be released to them for immediate burial. Later in the book, Constable Visit describes them as servants of a very angry and vindictive God and quotes from their scriptures. The written script of Cenobians that drives the Golems is deliberately presented to look like formal religious Hebrew, and the Golems have a very Semitic/Yiddish attitude to them. Hmm...
(8) Some very strange religions have been derived from the perceived Biblical fact that on expulsion to Babylon, the Jewish people appeared to mislay ten out of twelve tribes who are never referred to in the biblical narrative after that point. British-Israelism, for instance, holds that these tribes escaped captivity and fled to Europe, where they became first fathers of the British, German, French, Italian and Nordic races, thus continuing God's express will that they rule the world in his name. This goes in the face of all conventional history, archaeology, anthropology, myth, legend and philology – why did our ancient British and Irish ancestors not speak Hebrew, for instance, why did they reverence the pig as King of Meats and worship a Boar God...
(9) Really true. Wikipedia lists several species of carnivorous Vampire Birds, all of which have a similar attitude to the vampire bat - if it bleeds, I feed. The Vampire Finch and the Red-Billed Ox-Pecker. (the latter name is a description, btw). Johanna normally kept these dangerous birds under strict security at the Animal Management Unit of the Assassins' Guild where they were of professional interest. However, with the Vampire Dollar being of growing economic significance, she'd set up a sample population at the Zoo with special nocturnal viewing hours, to accommodate the special needs of one customer demographic. Lady Margolotta of Uberwald had been honoured to open the display and was pleased to sponsor the cages.
(10) See Terry Pratchett's Soul Music. Death is quoting another Blue Öyster Cult song – Feel The Thunder, about three Hell's Angels who come to grief on a fast ride by night.
Bonus Lyrics For The Perplexed:
The Blue Öyster Cult - Astronomy
The clock strikes twelve and moondrops burst
Out at you from their hiding place;
Like acid and oil on a madman's face,
His reason tends to fly away;
Like lesser birds on the four winds,
Like silver scrapes in May ,
And now the sand's become a crust,
Most of you have gone away... Come Susie dear, let's take a walk,
Just out there upon the beach;
I know you'll soon be married ,
And you'll want to know where winds come from
Well it's never said at all,
On the map that Carrie reads,
Behind the clock ,back there you know,
At the Four Winds Bar ..Hey! hey! hey! hey! Four winds at the Four Winds Bar,
Two doors locked and windows barred,
One door to let to take you in,
The other one just mirrors it... Hey! hey! hey! hey! Hellish glare and inference,
The other one's a duplicate,
The queenly flux, Eternal Light ,
Or the light that never warms !
Yes the light that never, never warms !
Or the light that never
Never warms !
Never warms !
Never warms !The clock strikes twelve, and moondrops burst
Out at you from their hiding place;
Miss Carrie, nurse, and Susie dear
Would find themselves at Four Winds Bar It's the nexus, of the crisis,
And the origin of storms;
Just the place to hopelessly
Encounter time, and then came me... Hey!hey! hey! hey!
Call me Desdinova!
These wizardries of mine
Will show me true foresight !
And don't forget my dog,
Fixed and consequent ….
Astronomy – a star!
Astronomy – a star!
Astronomy – a Star!
Look it up on You-Tube: it's not a bad tune...