They had tried to destroy the Will, but that proved to be beyond their power, so they broke it in two ways. It was broken physically, torn apart, with the fragments of heavy parchment scattered across space and time. It was broken in spirit because not one single clause of it had been fulfilled.
If the treacherous Trustees had their way, no clause of the Will would ever be executed. To make sure of this, all ten fragments had been hidden with great care.
The first and least of the fragments was fused inside a single clear crystal, harder than diamond. The crystal was encased in a box of unbreakable glass. The box was locked inside a cage of silver and malachite, and the cage was fused to the surface of a dead sun at the very end of Time.
Around the cage, twelve metal Sentinels stood guard, each taking post one of the numbers of clock face that had been carved with permanent light in the dark matter of the defunct star.
The Sentinels had been specially created as guardian of the fragment of the fragment. They were vaguely human in appearance, though twice as tall, and their skins were luminous steel. Quick and as flexible as cats, they had no hands, but single blades sprang from each wrist. Each Sentinel was responsible for the space between its own hour and the next, and their leader ruled them from the position between twelve and one.
The metal Sentinels were overseen by a carefully chosen corps of Inspectors, lesser beings who would dare not question the breakers of the Will. Once every hundred years one of these Inspectors would appear to make sure that all was well and that the fragment was safely locked away.
In recent aeons, the Inspectors had become lax, rarely doing more than appear, squint at the cage, box and crystal, salute the Sentinels, and disappear again. The Sentinels, who had spent ten thousand years in faithful service marching between the chapters of the clock, did not approve this slipshod attention to duty. But it was not in their nature to complain, nor was there any means to do so. They could raise the alarm if necessary, but no more than that.
The Sentinels had seen many Inspectors come and go. No one else had visited. No one had tried to steal or rescue the fragment of the Will. In short, nothing had happened for all of that ten thousand years.
Then, on a day that was no different fro any of the more than the three and a half million days that had gone before, an Inspector arrived who took his duties more seriously. He arrived normally enough, simply appearing outside the clock face, his hat askew from the transfer, his official warrant, clutched firmly in one hand so the bright gold seal was clearly visible. The Sentinels twitched at the arrival and their blades shivered in anticipation. The warrant and the seal were only half of the permission required to be there. There was always the chance that the watchwords delivered by the previous Inspector would not be uttered and the Sentinels' blades would at last see blurring, slicing action.
Of course, the Sentinels were required to allow the Inspectors a minute's grace. It was not unknown for a transfer between both time and space to briefly addle the wits of anyone, immortal or otherwise.
This Inspector did seem a bit worse for wear. He wore a fairly standard human shape, that of a middle-aged man of rapidly thickening girth. This human body in a blue frock coat, shiny at the elbows and ink-stained on the right cuff. His white shirt was not really very white, and the badly tied green necktie did not adequately disguise the fact that his collar had come adrift. His top hat had seen much service and was both squashed and leaning to the left. When he raised it to acknowledge the Sentinels, a sandwich wrapped in newspaper fell out. He caught it and slipped it into an inside pocket of his coat before speaking the watchwords.
"Incense, sulphur and rue, I am an Inspector, honest and true," he recited carefully, holding up the warrant again to show the seal.
The Twelve O'Clock Sentinel swivelled in position in answer to the watchwords and the seal. It crossed its blades with a knife-sharpening noise that made the Inspector tremble and waved a salute in the air.
"Approach, Inspector," intoned the Sentinel. That was half of everything it ever said.
The Inspector nodded and cautiously stepped from the transfer plate to the curdled darkness of the dead star. He had taken the precaution of wearing Immaterial Boots (disguised as carpet slippers) to counteract the warping nature of the dead star's dark matter, though his superior had assured him the warrant and the seal would be sufficient protection. He paused to pick the up the transfer plate because it was a personal favourite, a large serving plate with a delicate bone china pattern, rather than the usual disk of burnished electrum. It was a risk using a china plate because it could easily be broken, but it looked nice and that was important to the Inspector.
Even the Inspectors were not allowed past the inner ring of the clock, where the feet of the numerals were bordered by a golden line. So this Inspector gingerly made his way past the Twelve O'Clock Sentinel and stopped short of the golden line. The silver cage looked quite solid, and the glass box was intact and beautifully transparent. He could easily see the crystal inside, just where it was supposed to be.
"All, ah, seems to be in order," he muttered. Relieved, he took a small box out of his coat pocket, flicked it open, and with a practised movement, transferred a small pinch of snuff to his right nostril. It was a new snuff, a present from a higher authority.
"All, ahhh, ahhh, in order," he repeated, then he let out an enormous sneeze that rocked his whole body and for a moment threatened to throw him over the gold line. The Sentinels leaped and twisted from their regular positions, and the Twelve O'Clock Sentinel's blade came whisking down within an inch of the Inspector's face as he desperately wind milled his arms to regain his balance.
Finally he managed it, and teetered back on the right side of the line.
"Awfully sorry, terrible habit!" he squeaked as he thrust his snuff box securely away. "I'm an Inspector remember. Here's the warrant! Look at the seal!"
The Sentinels subsided into their usual pacing. The Twelve O'Clock Sentinel's arms went back to its side, the blades no longer threatening.
The Inspector took out a huge patched handkerchief from his sleeve and mopped his face. But as he wiped the sweat away, he thought he saw something move across the surface of the clock face. Something small and thin and dark. When he blinked and removed his handkerchief, he couldn't see anything.
"I don't suppose there is anything to report?" he asked nervously. He hadn't been an Inspector long. A decade short of four centuries, and he was only an Inspector of the Fourth Order. He'd been a Third Back Hall Porter for most of his career, almost since the Beginning of Time. Before that…
"Nothing to report," said the Twelve O'Clock Sentinel, using up the rest of its standard vocabulary.
The Inspector politely tipped his hat to the Sentinel, but he was quite concerned. He could feel He could feel something here. Something not quite right. But the penalty for a false alarm was too horrible to contemplate. He might be demoted back to being a Hall Porter or, even worse, be made corporeal – stripped of his powers and memories and sent somewhere in the Secondary Realms as a living breathing, baby.
Of course, the penalty for missing something Important was even worse. He might be corporeal for that, but it would not anything vaguely human, or on a world where there was any intelligent life. And even that was not the worst that could happen. There were far more terrible fates, but he refused to contemplate them.
The Inspector looked across at the cage, the glass box and the crystal. Then he got a pair of opera glasses out of an inner pocket and looked through those. He could still see nothing out of the ordinary. Surely, he told himself, the Sentinels would know if something had gone amiss?
He stepped back outside of the clock face and cleared his throat.
"All in order, well done, you Sentinels," he said. "The watchwords for the next Inspector will be 'Thistle, palm, oak and yew, I'm and Inspector, honest and true.' Got that? – er, good – well I'll be off then."
The Twelve O'Clock Sentinel saluted. The Inspector doffed his hat once more, swivelled on his heel and set down his transfer plate, intoning the words that would take him to the House. According to regulations, he was supposed to go via the Office of Unusual Activities on the forty-fifteenth floor and report, but he was unsettled and wanted to get straight back to the twenty-tenth floor, his own comfortable study, and a nice cup of tea.
"From dead star's gloom to bright lamp's light, back to my rooms and away from night!"
Before he could step on the plate, something small, skinny and very black, shot across the golden line, between the legs of the Twelve O'Clock sentinel, across the Inspector's left Immaterial Boot and onto the plate. The blue and green fruit glazed on the plate flashed and the plate, black streak and all, vanished in a puff of rather nasty and rubbery-smelling smoke.
"Alarm! Alarm!" cried the Sentinels, leaving the clock face to swarm around the vanished plate, their blades snickering in all directions as the sound of twelve impossibly loud alarm clocks rang and rang from somewhere inside their metal bodies. The Inspector shank down before the Sentinel's powerful gaze, chewing on the corner of his handkerchief. He knew what the black streak was. He had recognized it in a flash of terror as it sped past.
It was a line of handwritten text. The text from the fragment that was supposedly still fused in crystal, locked in the unbreakable box, inside the silver and malachite cage, glued to the surface of a dead sun, guarded by metal Sentinels.
Only now, none of those things were true.
One of the fragments of the Will had escaped – and it was all his fault.
Even worse, it had touched him, striking his flesh straight through his Immaterial Boot. So he knew what it said, and he was not allowed to know. Even more shockingly, the Will had called him to his original duty. For the first time in millennia, he was conscious of just how badly things had gone wrong.
"Into the trust of my goo Yester, I place the administration of the Under House," the Inspector recited quietly. "Until such a time as the Heir or the Heir's representatives call upon Yester to relinquish any such offices, properties, rights and appurtenances as Yester holds in trust."
The Sentinels did not understand him, or perhaps they couldn't even hear him over the clamouring of their internal alarms. They had spread out, uselessly searching the surface of the dead star, beams of intense light streaming from their eyes into the darkness. The star was not large; no more than a thousand metres in diameter, but the fragment was long gone. The Inspector knew it would have already left his rooms and gone into the House proper.
"I have to get back," the Inspector muttered. "The Will will need my assistance. Transfer plate's gone, so it will have to be the long way."
He reached into his coat pocket and drew out a pair of grimy and rather bedraggled looking wings that were nearly as tall as the Inspector himself. The Inspector hadn't used them in a long time and was surprise at the state they were in. The feathers were yellow and askew, and the pinions didn't look at all reliable. He clipped them into place on his back. He took a few tentative flaps to make sure they still worked.
Distracted by his wings, he didn't notice a sudden flash of light upon the surface of the clock face, or the two figures who appeared with the flash. They wore human shapes too, as was the fashion in the House. But these were taller, thinner, and more handsome. They had neat black frock coats over crisp white shirts with high-pointed collars and very neat neckties of sombre red, a shade lighter than their dark silk waistcoats. Their top hats were sleekly black, and they carried ornate ebony sticks, topped with silver knobs.
"Where do you think you're going Inspector?" asked the taller of the two new arrivals.
The Inspector turned in shock, his wings drooping still further.
"To report sir!" he said weakly. "As you can see… to my immediate superiors… and Yester's Past, or even Madame Yester if she wants…"
"Madame Yester will know soon enough," said the taller gentleman. "You know who we are?"
The Inspector shook his head. They were very high up in the Firm, that much was obvious from both their clothes and the power he could sense emanating from them. But he didn't know them, neither by name or rank. He couldn't even see their souls come to that.
"Are you from the sixty-hundredth floor? Madame Yester's executive office?"
The taller gentleman smiled and drew a paper from his waistcoat pocket. It unfolded itself and the seal upon it shone so brightly that the Inspector had to shield his face with his arm and duck his head.
"As you see we serve a higher master than Yester," said the shorter of the two gentlemen. "You will come with us… now."
The Inspector gulped and shambled forwards. One of the gentlemen swiftly pulled on a pair of snowy white gloves and snapped off the Inspector's wings, putting them in buff envelope that came from nowhere. He sealed this shut with a sizzling press of his thumb. Then he handed the envelope to the Inspector. The word EVIDENCE was beginning to write itself upon the envelope as the Inspector clutched it to his chest and cast nervous glances at his escorts.
Working together, the two gentlemen drew a doorway in the air with their sticks. When they'd finished, the space shimmered for a moment and then solidified into an elevator doorway. One of the gentlemen pressed a button and an elevator car suddenly appeared out of nowhere behind the grille.
"I'm not authorised to go in an executive elevator," the Inspector protested. "Not past Records by any means, stair, lift or weirdway. And I'm definitely not… sorry, not allowed to go down past the Inking Cellars."
The two gentlemen pushed back the grille and gestured for the Inspector to get in. It was lined with dark green velvet and one entire wall was lined with small bronze buttons.
"We're not going down are we?" asked the Inspector in a very small voice.
The taller gentleman smiled, a cold smile that did not reach his eyes. He reached up and his arm clicked horribly as it grew and extra couple of yards so he could press a button at the very top right-hand side of the elevator.
"There?" the Inspector asked, awed in spite of the fear that coursed through him. He could feel the Will's influence working away inside him, changing his mind and, more importantly, his soul, but he knew there was no hope of trying to help it now. The words of the Will that had got away would have to fend for themselves. "All the way to the top?"
"Yes," said the two men in unison, as they clanged shut the metal grille.