The Dark at the End WEDNESDAY Chapter 2

"Who the hell are you?" Jack said as he spotted the guy sitting in the Lady's front room.

He already had the Glock half out of its holster when the Lady touched his arm.

"A friend of Glaeken's."

The guy rose and extended his hand. "You must be Jack. Glaeken sent me down. I was visiting him. He's told me a lot about you. I'm Bill."

"Told me a little about you," Jack said as they shook. "Very little."

Jack had seen him from a distance before. This was the first time close up. Long hair pulled back into a ponytail and a full beard, both generously salted with gray, a scarred forehead and bent nose, eyes almost as blue as Glaeken's. The face put him in his sixties, but his lean, muscular six-foot frame seemed younger. Jack felt thick calluses on his shake hand.

Bill shrugged. "Not a whole lot to tell."

"You were in North Carolina with him. Heard things went sour down there."

Till that moment, Bill's eyes had been closed off, showing nothing. The shutters opened for an instant, releasing an almost palpable flash of pain and anguish. This guy had been through hell - a number of hells. Then they snapped shut again.

"You could say that." He cleared his throat. "Glaeken said you might need help with an injury."

Jack checked his jacket sleeve. Blood had soaked his arm and begun to drip during their trip back from the park. He'd kept his arm inside the jacket and phoned ahead to see if Glaeken had any bandages. He knew the Lady sure as hell didn't. Glaeken kept that nurse around for Magda, but Jack didn't want her involved. She might recognize it as a bullet wound and get all good-citizeny and report it.

"You a doctor or something?"

He smiled. "I've been a lot of things, but not a doctor. I used to take care of a bunch of boys who tended to hurt themselves or each other on a regular basis." Another, briefer flash of pain.

"Sleep-away camp?"

"Nope. Orphanage. Here ... let's take a look at that arm."

Jack laid the Tokarev on the table and shrugged out of his jacket. The lining of the left sleeve was soaked. Same with the long-sleeved tee he was wearing beneath it. The tee he could throw away, but the bomber jacket was an old friend. Maybe he'd take it downtown to Tram's place and see if he knew a way to clean it up. Couldn't bring a bloody jacket just anywhere.

Bill was staring at the gun. "Do you carry that everywhere?"

"Not mine. But one just like it did this."

Bill stared a moment longer, then pulled a pair of scissors from a paper bag on the Lady's table. He pointed them toward the torn sleeve of Jack's T-shirt.

"That's got to go."

"Do it."

He cut over Jack's shoulder and around and under his armpit, then rolled the bloody fabric down and off. He shook his head as he inspected the wound.

"That's going to need stitches, which I can't help you with."

Jack took a look and winced at the sight of the open, two-inch-long gash running across the skin at the lower end of his deltoid. The bleeding was down to an ooze.

"I know someone who can."

He hoped Doc Hargus was around and available.

"I can butterfly it until you get to him."

"Sounds like a plan."

The Lady helped Jack wash the blood off his arm in her shower. The barest woman's bathroom he'd ever seen. Not one cream or lotion, not even a toothbrush or toothpaste.

"Where do you keep the towels?" he said after the blood had swirled down the drain.

"I'm afraid I don't have any. I don't bathe."

Of course she didn't. She didn't need to. He made do with the rest of his T-shirt.

As Bill was cutting strips of adhesive tape, Glaeken walked in with Weezy. After calling Glaeken, Jack had let Weezy know about the attack on the Lady. He wanted her input.

Glaeken dropped into a chair next to Jack and glanced at the wound. He didn't seem impressed, or even sympathetic. After all the wounds he'd no doubt collected over his thousands of years, this probably qualified as a scratch in his book.

Weezy was another story. Concern tightened her features as she went down on one knee next to him and closely inspected his arm.

She'd been a skinny, goth type during their childhood together, but on the chunky side and living in sweatsuits when she rocketed back into his life last year. These days she'd slimmed some and dressed in fitted jeans and sweaters. Her dark hair was longer and tied back in a simple ponytail. No trace of the heavy eyeliner she'd worn as a teen.

"Does it hurt?" she said, and chewed her upper lip.

"Not as much as you'd expect."

Bill dabbed it with something that foamed the blood and made it feel like a nest of hornets was attacking it.

Jack squeezed the chair's armrest with his free hand and said, "Okay. Make a liar out of me. Now it hurts."

"Sorry," Bill said. He dabbed again. "Needs to be done."

Weezy bounced up and stepped around to the other side of the table where the Lady stood watching in silence.

"Are you all right?"

The Lady nodded. "Not the slightest harm done."

Weezy turned to Glaeken and Jack. "I don't get it. What happened?"

Jack didn't get it either. He hadn't wanted to get into the details over the phone, so he gave them a quick run-through now.

When he was done Weezy turned to the Lady and said, "It sounds as if they knew just where you'd be."

"No question," Jack said. "They jumped out directly in her path and began firing." He looked up at the Lady. "Do you take the same route every day?"

She nodded. "Since I began walking again."

Weezy turned to Jack. "You're sure they were from the Order?"

"Sure as I can be without seeing a sigil brand." He pointed to the Tokarev. "They used that and spoke a foreign language. Drexler seems to favor Eastern Europeans for the rough stuff and Eastern Bloc types favor Tokarevs and Makarovs."

Glaeken frowned. "But the Order wouldn't attempt such a thing without clearance from the One. And Rasalom knows very well that bullets can't hurt the Lady."

Jack grabbed the pistol and ejected the magazine, then popped out the 9mm rounds one by one.

"I thought he might be using some supersecret Lady-killing ammo, but these are standard jacketed hollowpoints."

"If they are of this Earth," the Lady said, "they cannot harm me."

"Maybe he was making sure that was still true," Weezy said. "You've been damaged, you've been weakened, you can't change your looks, you can't hop around the globe like you used to. If you lost those abilities, he had to wonder if maybe you'd lost the invulnerability as well. Even you weren't sure right after you survived the Internet outage."

Jack remembered that. To test herself, she'd thrust a knife blade into her hand. To everyone's relief, the wound had closed instantly.

Glaeken was nodding. "Yes, that makes sense."

"You know what this means, don't you?" Weezy said, looking around at them. "Rasalom has been watching us, clocking and tracking our movements."

Something tightened in Jack's chest. He didn't like the idea of anyone tracking him, especially Rasalom.

"Maybe not yours or mine," he said. "But obviously the Lady's - especially the Lady - and probably Glaeken's too."

Weezy turned back to the Lady. "Is there a way we can hide you?"

"I cannot hide. The purpose of my existence is to proclaim this world's sentience."

"Hide you from Rasalom, not the Ally."

"I don't think there's a way to do that," Glaeken said.

The Lady thought a moment. "There might be. I am not always aware of what the One and the Otherness are doing. Perhaps there is a way to keep them unaware of what I am doing. I shall consult the noosphere."

"Consult?" Weezy said. "But you're a part of it."

"Not anymore. I am still its creation, but no longer its appendage, no longer directly fed by it. I must reconnect regularly now."

She closed her eyes and stood still and silent. Utterly. She didn't need to breathe and did so only to speak.

Bill stared at her, then at the three of them. "At the request of my new friend here," he said, gesturing to Glaeken, "who's some fifteen thousand years old, I'm patching up a man with no identity who got wounded protecting a woman who's not really a woman, or at least not a human woman, and is even older than my friend, and for whom the Internet was crashed in an attempt to kill her. What happened to the world I used to know - or thought I knew? I've gone through bizarre, life-changing experiences, but they take a backseat to what I've seen and heard the past couple of weeks."

Jack knew how he felt. Weezy had always known there was a Secret History. Jack had learned gradually, piecemeal, over a period of years, and was still adjusting. He gathered Bill had been thrown headfirst into the Secret History. And the cosmic shadow war that fueled it.

Two nameless, unimaginable forces in a tug-of-war for control of the sentient realities across the multiverse. Earth occupied one of those universes, and was one of the prizes. Not the gold medal, just another piece of the sentient mosaic the forces were assembling. Without sentience, a world had no value, and had no place in the mosaic.

That was why the Lady was so important. As the avatar of humanity's collective consciousness, a product of the noosphere, she was the beacon that announced this world's sentience to the multiverse. Extinguish that beacon and this world, this corner of reality would appear worthless.

Earth was currently the possession of a force known to those aware of the Secret History as the Ally - a misnomer. It didn't have humanity's back, cared nothing for it, and valued it only for its sentience. Indifferent was the best description, but considering the alternative, indifference seemed downright benign. The alternative was the other half of the cosmic yin and yang, the Otherness - unquestionably inimical, and determined for countless millennia to add Earth to its own mosaic. But the Otherness's mosaic was toxic to humanity, and life here would be hell under its influence.

An immortal named Rasalom - or the One - led the Otherness's forces here. Glaeken had once led the Ally's, had once been immortal, but had been released and allowed to age. He was now as mortal as Jack. Rasalom's lifelong mission was to clear the path for the Otherness. All that stood between him and that goal now was the Lady. Extinguish her and this world would no longer appear sentient. The Ally would discard it and the Otherness could grab it for its own.

"Welcome to the Secret History of the World," Jack said.

"Thanks. But in this case, knowledge isn't power." He positioned himself closer to Jack's arm. "Hold still. Time for the butterflies."

Jack put a whine in his voice. "Please don't hurt me."

Bill gave him a concerned look, then smiled. "For a moment there you almost had me."

"You'd be amazed how many times that has come in handy."

"I can't imagine how, and I'm not going to try."

He began applying the homemade butterflies, using them to bridge the wound edges and hold them together.

Glaeken said, "So now that the One has established that the Lady still cannot be harmed by anything of this Earth, including him, what does he do with that information?"

"He looks for another way to make an end run," Weezy said. "The Fhinntmanchca failed, so did the Internet meltdown. He'll need to find something else."

Glaeken frowned. "Is there anything left to find?"

Jack shrugged. "I'm sure there is. Maybe Dawn's baby."

"Dawn's baby," Weezy said, shaking her head. "She's out looking for him as we speak."

"Any way you can help her find him?"

"I can try, but I'm still working on the Compendium."

The ancient Compendium of Srem ... Weezy had been collating its uncollated data since last year and still wasn't finished. Its pages could be photographed, but the language would no longer be English. And so, with her faultless memory, she was probably one of the few people in the world who could wrestle it to coherence.

Jack felt like standing and pacing, but had to sit still for the butterflies. "Maybe it's not the baby. Maybe that's a red herring to distract us while he's looking for something else. Whatever, we need to bring the battle to Rasalom before he finds something. But I've got to find him first."

Glaeken's intense blue eyes bored into him. "And should you find him, then what?"

"He goes down."

"Don't be so sure. At the risk of being a bore, I must remind you once again that he will not 'go down,' as you put it, easily. As the One, he has been gifted with extraordinary recuperative powers. As once was I."

Glaeken had become kind of a broken record on that.

"How extraordinary?" Bill said.

"Wounds heal much more quickly than you'd imagine." He pointed to Jack's arm. "A scratch like that would heal almost immediately."

"Scratch?" Bill said. "This is no scratch."

Glaeken shrugged but said nothing.

Jack checked out the scars on the backs of the old guy's gnarled hands. "But the wounds still left scars?"

He nodded. "Oh, yes."

"What about penetrating wounds?"

"They take a little longer; they take a toll, but they heal."

"Even the heart?"

"Even the heart. My body spat out a dozen or so bullets shortly before the Ally cut me loose to join you mortals."

"Spat them out?"

Glaeken nodded. "More of a slow extrusion, I would say, but I hope you're getting the picture."

He was, and not liking it.

"How about amputations?"

"The bleeding will stop quickly, the stump will scar over, but what's gone is gone."

"No regeneration?"

"He remains human, and humans do not regenerate limbs."

Bill was shaking his head. "How did I get myself into this?"

"You know very well how," Glaeken said. "Your virtue nearly killed the One."

Jack looked at the gentle, ponytailed, hippie-type guy patching up his arm. Almost killed Rasalom?

"Really? How - ?"

"That's for another time," Glaeken said. "How do you plan to put him 'down,' as you say?"

Jack considered this a moment, then said, "Sounds like beheading will work."

"It will, but you'll never get that close."

Jack knew that. "I guess that leaves kablooie."

Glaeken frowned. "Kablooie?"

"Blow him to pieces."

Glaeken's expression became grim. "Yes, that will work. But it had better work the first time. You won't get a second chance."

"There won't be a first time if I don't find him."

"How do you plan to do that?"

"Start at the last known sighting."

"The Osala apartment?" Weezy said.

Jack nodded. "I'll see what the doorman can tell me and go from there."

"Be careful."

"You sound like Gia."

"Neither of us wants to see you hurt. Or worse."

That makes three of us, Jack thought.

Bill had finished his butterflying and bandaging.

"That oughta hold you until you find a real doctor."

Jack rose and extended his hand. "Thanks. Nice meeting you. We'll have to talk about your set-to with Rasalom sometime."

Bill gathered up his tape and bandages. "It won't help you."

"Don't be so sure."

"I'm pretty sure. He wasn't born yet."

Before Jack could ask for an explanation, Glaeken rose.

"I must get back upstairs."

They would have said good-bye to the Lady but she was still in her trance, communing with the noosphere, so they all followed Glaeken out into the hallway. Bill started for the stairway, but Glaeken didn't follow.

"Coming?" he said, stopping and turning.

Glaeken shook his head as he pressed the elevator button. "I don't feel up to the stairs today."

Weezy put a hand on his arm. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. Just a little tired."

Jack looked at Weezy and read the concern in her eyes - not much different from his own, he imagined. Was Glaeken failing? He seemed as solid and steady as ever, but this was a new twist. He'd been shuttling back and forth to the Lady's apartment via the stairs since he'd moved her in. Why couldn't he manage them now? His heart? His knees?

He was an old man, had been aging since his mortality was restored on the eve of World War II. His chronological age was mind-boggling. But what was his body age? That was what mattered. One day his body would give out, just like everybody else's.

And then Jack would step into his shoes - or so he'd been told.

Hang in there, Glaeken, Jack thought. You keep on being the Defender, and I'll stay perfectly happy being the Heir.

Bill too looked concerned. "Okay. See you upstairs."

The elevator arrived and Glaeken pressed the Lobby button once the three of them were aboard.

"Kind of a roundabout way to go," Jack said for lack of anything better.

Glaeken sighed. "I don't have my key."

The building had two elevators: Glaeken's private express to his penthouse, and the local that required a key to reach his floor.

He turned to Weezy. "How is Dawn searching for her baby?"

"She tracked down one of the doctors at her delivery - a pediatrician - and she's haunting him in the hope the baby will show up at his office. I'm worried about her. She's become obsessed with finding that baby. It's all she talks about anymore."

Motherly concern infused the descending cab. Still in her teens, Dawn had awakened Weezy's maternal instincts. Not surprising. The girl was young enough to be her daughter - Weezy would have had to deliver her as a teen herself, but it was biologically possible. She'd never said so, but Jack suspected Weezy's subconscious saw Dawn as the child she'd never had and most likely never would.

Glaeken turned to Jack. "Perhaps, when you're not in active pursuit of the One, you might help her."

Jack had been thinking about that.

Rasalom, posing as a Mr. Osala, had hidden Dawn away during her pregnancy under the guise of protecting her from the baby's father. He arranged for prenatal care and for a skilled delivery team ... which promptly whisked the newborn away to parts unknown.

Obviously the child - which according to Dawn had some pretty scary deformities - meant something to Rasalom. And if it meant something to Rasalom, maybe it could be used as a lure.

"Yeah. Not a bad idea."

The elevator arrived at the lobby. Weezy said good-bye and walked toward the entrance, but Glaeken grabbed Jack's arm and held him back.

"What do you plan for the baby if you find it?" he whispered.

Jack shrugged. "Not sure."

"I know what you should do."

Glaeken put his fists together and gave them a sharp twist. The meaning was clear and it shocked Jack. So unlike Glaeken ...


"Too much is at stake - humanity is at stake. Nothing good can come of that creature. Only evil."

With that he turned away and pressed the button on his private elevator. Jack stared a moment, then slipped back into his bloody jacket.

"What did he say?" Weezy said as he joined her on the sidewalk.

"He wants the baby found too."

"I'm glad he's on board with that. Maybe then Dawn can find some peace."

Don't count on that, Jack thought.

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