vulgarweed ("Spark of Goodness") & waxbean ("Enough of a Bastard")
Title: Until the End that is to Come
Summary: Look forward. Adjust mirrors. Use seatbelts. The end comes.
The night was dark, as all nights should be, and the demon Hastur lurked through the shadows of postboxes and whitewashed fences, becoming little more than a shadow himself. He didn’t like these trips up to the surface. He didn’t like the earth or the humans who inhabited it, and he hated the cold . He tried to take comfort in knowing that if all went well the end would come soon, but even that was getting difficult. He had work to do. Morning would arrive in a few hours. He could smell the sunshine a long way off and the pure, white snow that would soon follow it and something much, much worse.
 Say what you like about hell, at least it was warm there.
There are places in the world where time curves and stretches and twists. Here it bent itself in patterns reminiscent of M25 London orbital motorway, which forms the sign odegra in the language of the Black Preisthood of Ancient Mu, except as people walked along the streets, passing the farms and chalk quarrys and orchards, it manufactured something quite different than hate and unpleasantness. Even those unfamiliar with the theory of temporal dissonance knew that summers were long here and bright and warm with proper lightning storms in the evenings, and autums were brisk and painted red-gold by leaves that seemed all at once to fall from their branches on the first windy days into large piles perfect for jumping into. It always rained on bonfire night and there was always a thick cover of snow on the ground by Christmas, snow that, in the spring, melted into perfect frog-sized puddles and filtered into perfect larger frog-sized ponds, and those springs were the best anywhere filled with green, growing things and gentle rain and a smell in the air that made everything feel new and clean.
Lower Tadfield rested peacefully under a sky lit with stars, unobscured by dust or smoke or lamplight, a rest so peaceful and self-assured that even a lurking demon could do nothing to disturb it. It felt wrong to Hastur. Something itched and niggled at the back of his mind and at the front of his mind and at what little of his mind there was between back and front. It felt like hundreds of tiny pinpricks on his skin, each one getting closer and closer to those few vulnerable spots. This was no place for a proper demon. There were too many good feelings about, threatening to wear him down to nothing if he stayed too long , and he could forget himself easily here in the cold.
 Crowley was not a proper demon in this respect. For thousands of years he thought he was allergic to the dust that covered Aziraphale’s various collections of stone tablets, libraries of scrolls, and bookshops. He always got a bit itchy and uncomfortable when he stopped by to discuss the details of their Arrangement, and when they started meeting at St. James Park, he thought it might just be the Angel’s fashion sense that was making his eyes water. By the time he realized that it had been Aziraphale himself and his general good influence, he could no longer feel any of it.
The plan was perfect, though, and his part in it was simple. All he had to do was make sure that his master’s son wouldn’t interfere and that there weren’t any small pockets of resistance hidden throughout the place. There was no need for heaven to know the world was about to end, but as easy as his task should have been, he was failing. He was distracted. He was worried, and he was alone. Ligur had been everything a demon should be. He had seen no need to change or adapt or adjust or even regulate his personal temperature so that he could walk comfortably on earth, even the surface of the sun wouldn’t be nearly warm enough to suit him, but feelings in the air here were warm in an altogether different way, a way that made Hastur’s skin and the maggots crawling beneath it blister. Ligur’s replacements had been little more than monsters, great scaly beasts from the pits. Hastur wondered if this was the right place. He wondered if the right people would be sent to do the right job, and then he stopped wondering.
There was not enough space in his mind to hold two thoughts at once, and the thought that currently occupied it was so loud it had easily pushed all others aside. It was the silent scream of desperate frustration, and it was a call that tugged at the emptiness in his chest where a heart would be if he had one. There are some things no self-respecting demon can resist, nor should they be expected to. In one of the houses, there was a man getting exceptionally angry at his new computer, and Hastur knew he had to be there, to lay a hand on the man’s shoulder and see what violence he could stir in his soul. “In thirty years,” he growled to himself, turning and walking where his feelings led, “we shall have him.” With a simple thought, for that was the only kind Hastur was capable of, the computer began to burn.
A dog barked from one of the nearby yards, and the wind blew, rustling the leafless branches overhead, and Hastur shivered in a way that had nothing to do with the cold. The house that stood before him was old, but it wore its age with pride. The shutters were cracked in places and shingles were missing, but these were battle scars. Its wooden walls had fought off the wind and the cold for many years, and they had won. Though Anathema Device never knew that beneath the thick layers of chipped paint and a thin layer of rust there was a horseshoe hanging over the entrance of Jasmine Cottage intended to ward off evil spirits, she would, if asked, tell you that the old ways are often the best.
When Hastur tried to pass through the doorway, he fell back, dissolving into black sludge and a stain that would never come out, but the last thought to cross his mind was that he missed Ligur and would rather be wherever he was, because lurking just wasn’t the same alone and being a Duke of hell wasn’t worth it if there was no one to recount the deeds of the day with and that he was quite content and glad to leave it all behind , which just goes to show that you don’t have to be a nice person to have things work out well for you in the end.
 He would be feeling quite different about the whole thing if he knew who was going to be given his old job, but luckily for him, he wouldn’t have to be bothered with knowing things ever again.
Newton Pulsifer was nice. He was nice in the vague, unmemorable sort of way that meant he was decent without being spectacularly kind or remarkably generous or noticeably good at anything at all, but he was also nice in the other way, the way with a definition that only one person in a thousand has ever heard of . He was precise and punctual and practical and patient in the way that made it possible for him to keep at something no matter how badly it seemed to be going. He came to Jasmine Cottage just as Agnes had predicted, and Anathema hadn’t forced him to leave because she thought Pulsifer would be the perfect name for a spring-loaded fanning mechanism that could be used to keep computers from blowing up. She knew very little about computers beyond the way they exploded when Newt was around, and while the concept of an internal fan was hardly a new one, what she had in mind was just a bit bigger and a good deal stronger.
 They are invariably the sort of person who uses it to confuse everyone else, and if nothing else is known about Anathema Device, it should be remembered that she was just this sort of person, the sort who uses ancient spellings, has done her PhD on the history of doodads, gizmos and gadgets, and takes a certain secret pride in having a name that means both a detested person and a curse.
It is said that when faced with a situation too terrible or wonderful or altogether unbelievable, the mind simply shuts it away or creates a new memory overtop. This was never true of Newt, who was used to disasters and being the one who caused them. Months ago, however, when he first woke up in a bed rather nicer than his own and beside a woman rather nicer  than any willing to talk to him, his first thought before stumbling to his feet, before making breakfast and answering a knock at the door to receive a package that had the power to determine his entire future, was that the world must have nearly ended, and his second thought was that it could very well have been his fault. The full memory returned eventually, and even now he still remembered something of that night and the days that followed, though very little of it made any sense.
 Nice by both definitions, of course.
They had burned the book together, and he had returned to her bedroom to find his model aircraft hung with cotton from the ceiling and his shirts hung neatly in her closet, and so he stayed, telling himself everyday that he would leave as soon as he managed to get his things properly packed, and Anathema smiled, knowing he never would, though sometimes she wished he had.
This morning had been particularly difficult. Newt was up most of the previous night tinkering, and Anathema had been woken early by unsettling dreams to find a pile of acidic black sludge burning a hole in the wood of the porch. The holidays were coming, and neither knew whether they should go home or if they should take the other with them or where home was anymore. Some questions are hard to answer precisely, but what’s often harder is not being afraid to look for an answer.
It started in late December. The earth was no longer reeling from the festivities of its 6016th birthday , but it was at the groggy, partially hung-over stage where it couldn’t put up much of a fight if a few bullying meteors came along wanting to bang it around and knock it out of orbit.
 Very little is known about how a planet celebrates its birthday, but the earth is generally agreed to be a lot more fun than Pluto and good deal better mannered than hot-tempered Mercury.
The Kraken, too, was weary from celebrating, though it continued on with a greater sense of grim determination than most planets are capable of showing. After being roused from a nap spanning several millenniums, it was finding it increasingly difficult to fall back to sleep. With winter fast approaching, it followed the feel of slight temperature changes against its thick skin and the internal map it had been given in the early days of the earth to warmer waters and started sightlessly searching for a pod full of female Krakens ready to welcome it in and when that failed for at least one. In mid-September it decided sex wasn’t so important as a body like its own to swim beside with ears to listen to its calls. By November it would have settled for a large whale, and when December began, it just wanted someone to notice it, neither species nor size mattered anymore. The fish were frightened, and the divers swam right by thinking it was rock formation. The ocean was more colorful here, and it wanted someone to explain the coral and the fish and the anemones to it, the way they moved and ate and lived.
The Kraken would stay there, and it would wait without seeing what passed before it, and try not to get in the way and embarrass itself too badly. There wasn’t much of a choice, but first it screeched and it sucked in water through its mouth and pushed it up through its blowhole as hard as it could. The sound was like a hundred thunder claps and a thousand erupting volcanoes all rolled together, but there was an echo that followed of something desperate and lonely and sad that could be heard by anyone who was really listening.
There were orchards beyond the gardens and the small back yard of Jasmine Cottage, and they were considered one of the best places to play in a town full of exceptional places to play. They were also where three unfortunate fish who had mistook the Kraken’s mouth for an underwater cave landed in the grass . The water they had swam in by landed all over the world, but the largest portion splashed down onto a Wasabi named Dick Turpin parked in Jasmine Cottage’s front drive, and it spilled down under the hood to cause a horrible hissing sound and several small explosions and a wavering mechanical voice to say “Ouch” seventeen times.
 Because of the unusual time curve around Lower Tadfield, which slowed their descent, they arrived an hour later than they otherwise would have and a good deal more alive.
“Fish?” said Wenslydale, who was the first to notice. “I wonder how they got here.”
“Fell down, I reckon,” said Adam, looking up at the sun and the surprising blue of the winter sky.
“What’ll we do with them?” asked Pepper as she swung down from the empty branches of an apple tree.
“Put them in the pond, I guess,” said Brian, “seeing as they’re fish and all.”
“You can’t,” they heard another voice say, and they turned to see a large sort of boy with a football under his arm followed by a gang of slightly smaller boys, who looked more than a little upset that their game had been so abruptly ended. “You can’t,” he said again. “You can’t put them in the pond. It’s not at all the right ecosystem.” He glared at the Them, and the boys behind him tried desperately to pretend their leader hadn’t just said something about ecosystems.
“Hey, Greasy,” one hissed, punching him lightly him in the shoulder. “Hey, you gonna pound ‘em?
“This,” Greasy Johnson said, ignoring the punch and picking up a long red and white speckled fish, “This is a Sandhopper Blenny. They don’t like being kept with other species.”
The Them blinked, all except Adam, and watched silently as Greasy picked up a larger red and blue and black fish with scales that shimmered in the sun. “Here’s the Blue Star Leopard Wrasse. They only eat small invertebrates, and I don’t think that pond has a substantial population of foraminifera.”
Behind him, his gang, who wouldn’t be calling themselves the Johnsonites for much longer, groaned and began to shuffle their feet, pretending they didn’t know him and preparing to throw a few punches at the Them  if Greasy didn’t do it soon. He looked as if he might for just a second as he stepped forward, but instead he grabbed the final fish up out of the grass. “And this— this is Golden Domino Damselfish. It’s too aggressive to be put in the same place with the others. Besides it’s too cold in the pond and the salinity is all wrong.”
 Not Brian, though, because he fought as dirty as he looked, and not Pepper, because none of them wanted to get beat up by a girl, and not Adam because there was something in the way he was staring at them that would have made that impossible. Wensleydale, who was quick to recognize their actions, adjusted his glasses and took a dignified step behind his friends.
A glace passed then between Adam Young and Greasy Johnson, and though it was quick as lightning, Adam managed to say said quite a lot with it. It said we were born they same day and in the same place. It said that it was because of Greasy’s real parents that he was allowed to stay in Lower Tadfield, which was definitely he the best place in the world to be. It said they were much more different than they realized but also a lot more the same. It said that they were friends once and he would never forget, and it said it was time for Greasy to go home and it would soon be time to find where his real home was. Greasy, for his part didn’t say anything at all, he just smiled and turned his back on all of them  and ran towards his house, dropping the football and cradling the three fish in his large hands.
 This is an exceptionally hard thing to do, though it may not always look that way, especially when even your friends call you Greasy.
He didn’t need the books anymore to tell which tanks they each belonged in, and he waited patiently for them to warm up and start swimming normally, as if they were right at home. He would go there, one day, someplace far away with warm, clear water and colorful fish. Hopefully there he would meet someone who knew what it was like to feel like they were alone and too big and didn’t quite fit. He sighed and waited, and from his window, he watched the sky turn red.
Anathema Device was sitting on her porch, looking up into the sky without really seeing it. A cold wind blew, stirring the large puddles of water that had recently landed on the lawn and the street in front of Jasmine Cottage, but she took no notice of it. A recent issue of the New Aquarian lay on the ground by her feet. She hadn’t bothered to pick it up since it had slipped slowly from her fingers. She was remembering, which in itself wasn’t especially unusual. She had a very good memory, after all, and she used it often as professional descendent and practical occultist and before that as a young girl who liked to embarrass her teachers by knowing obscure facts and ancient spellings they had never heard of. It was, however, extremely unusual that the things she was remembering hadn’t yet happened.
She had always considered herself just a bit psychic. She had good instincts about what would happen when, even on the few occasions she didn’t have a book to tell her. The future, after all, was easy enough to figure out if you were paying attention to the present. This was different. This was racial memory. It was harder to explain to herself now than it had been trying to get Newt to understand the truth of Agnes’ prophesies all those months ago. She was looking back, and somehow the tunnels leading to proper memories of things that happened before had been crisscrossed and looped and twisted until they led in the opposite direction, and she wasn’t sure if she would be able to make it back. Newt was there in the things she was seeing. She couldn’t find him at first, but there were shouts and explosions and horrible creatures rising up from huge crevices in the ground and the bitterly cheerful sound of the Wasabi’s simple poems as fire rained down from the sky, and the outline of a tall figure in jeans trying to run from it all and falling down. She shivered then, though the wind had already died away.
Newton Pulsifer, who was according to records and to the ninepence he was now sent every week was still a member of the professionals, also had a good memory, only he used his to catalogue the mistakes he made in the desperate hope that he would one day be able to avoid them entirely. He knew the exact steps he had taken to install his newest computer, and he knew they were exactly the same as the ones on the thick instruction manual that came with it. What he didn’t know was why it had caught fire when he pressed the on switch, and he was determined to take it to someone who did.
When he passed Anathema on the porch, she looked up at him blearily. “You should wear your other trousers,” she said, “the tan ones.” And he glanced down in derision at his recently bought jeans before walking back to her room to find his tan trousers folded neatly in her closet, and he checked the long mirror quickly before turning away. The jeans had been embarrassingly expensive, but for all the mistakes Newt could remember, there were some that he couldn’t avoid. The man in the advertisement had looked stunningly cool in them, and while the people in advertisements are usually the sort who didn’t need expensive jeans to look stunningly cool, even the faceless mannequin in the storefront windows had looked a good deal cooler than he currently did. He gave a disappointed sigh and changed into his tan trousers, pricking his finger on the pin he kept in the front pocket. He sighed again and clenched his fists in frustration, but deep inside a part of him decided that if hoping that things would work out well in the end was a mistake then he would have to keep making it.
Newt maneuvered himself into the Wasabi with considerable difficulty after packing the computer into the trunk, and with a good deal more difficulty, he managed to get it to start. It seemed wetter than usual and there was an odd swish-swish sound that he couldn’t place, but he knew himself well enough to know that popping the hood to take a look at what was happening would probably result in something much worse than wetness and a sound. “Look forward,” it said as the engine stirred to life. “Adjust mirrors, use seat belts. The end comes.” He shivered then, but that was because he had turned on the heat, which resulted in a spray of near-freezing water.
As Newt left the driveway he could already feel the water pooling around his feet. The Wasabi moaned. As he drove up the first hill towards the edge of Lower Tadfield the water was up to his ankles, soaking the cuffs of his trousers, and the Wasabi began to sound like there was something boiling beneath its hood. By the time he was well out of Tadfield on one of the longer, emptier roads, he was shin-deep in water and black smoke was spewing up from the Wasabi’s engine. The car had stalled itself at the top of a hill and was shaking violently. Newt was worried by this, and he was rather more worried when he looked out the window and realized that the ground around the car was shaking as well.
The sky had turned red and looked like it was on fire in places, and the earth in front of him opened up, spitting out a bit of lava and a horrible creature that looked like it was trying very hard to be human and failing spectacularly. It had greenish-yellow skin and hair so black it was nearly blue, and it came right for Newt as soon as it saw him, smashing the windshield of the Wasabi, which seemed all too eager to give way. Newt tried to drive forward but was only rewarded with a burnt smell when he pressed his foot to the gas pedal. His heart was beating fast, and he could hardly breathe from the smoke and the sick sense of fear that seized him, but he was grounded in the absolute certainty that no matter what he did he would die very soon and probably very painfully. He gulped, and he grabbed the pin from his pocket stabbing into the air many times and into the demon just once.
It is a little known fact about demons that they have just a few pressure points or vulnerable spots put there make the fighting more even for the humans whose paths they cross . This is almost the exact opposite of humans, who are made almost entirely of softness and vulnerable spots, but surprisingly often with something diamond-hard buried underneath. None of those spots were where Newt’s pin struck, but it did get the demon in the eye on the side of its head, and in shock, it took a few steps backwards and kicked at the Wasabi’s grille.
 Certain angels would tell you that this has everything to do with ineffability and evil containing within it the seeds of its own destruction. This is not true, as angels and demons are of the same make. It is true, however, that angels visiting earth are slightly less likely to be stabbed and shot at and struck with frying pans.
From the rearview mirror Newt could make out the outlines of two more creatures. One seemed to have a thick mane around his head and the other’s legs seemed stuck at odd angles. Both were headed for him. Stars and meteors fell from the red sky like burning rain, and black clouds gathered along the horizon. Newt couldn’t believe what he was seeing and neither could Anathema, who hadn’t yet moved from her chair on the porch. She blinked, forcing herself back into the present and decided that what she really couldn’t believe was that she had let it happen.
There are some things that should be believed no matter how strange or unlikely. Agnes Nutter had, early in her life adjusted to a comfortable state of madness by simply making the decision to trust in what she saw with her eyes and with her mind and to distrust everything else. She had seen the way gun powder reacted to flame and was sure without even having to remember into the future that eighty pounds of it packed into her petticoats would do the job perfectly. She felt heavy then and tired, which was hardly surprising, and she sat down to write.
She finished quickly and tapped her quill against the ink bottle before setting it on the table there would be a deep and echoing finality to all of her actions from that point on, but she contented herself with knowing that at least it wouldn’t last long. The letters were finished months ago, and the book was finally ready, Further Nife and Accurate Prophesies of Agnes Nutter. Arrangements had been made. It would be kept at the post office for centuries, and it would reach just the right person at just the right time, she was sure of this, though for a long time after, Newton would have a hard time accepting that he was the right person for anything. She held the book to her chest one last time before placing it in the box she had prepared for it. It was her finest work, and she had known, even then, that no one would ever read it, and so every page was empty save for six words on the inside of the front cover. ‘You shalle not need me, Anathema.
She smiled and sat back for precisely seven minutes to ponder the life-changing importance of a book that would never be read, and then she got up from her chair and stepped slowly  out the door to meet her future and the end that she knew was coming.
 She knew it would look a good deal better if she were faster doing this and if she weren’t waddling quite so much, but both the explosives and the roofing nails made speed quite impossible.
When Witchfinder Major Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer saw her hobbling towards him the first thing he did was wonder, as he had never done before, what good it was doing the world to kill mad old women. The second thing he did was bind her hands and lead her towards the town square. He was a practical man, in his own way, and he had a job to do. Agnes had remembered these moments many times, and she had seen his slight hesitation and his look of self-disgust for having hesitated. She wrote this down as she wrote down everything she remembered, but for reasons only known to her she had thrown it directly in her fireplace, which she secretly considered a very good place for most prophesies, second only to books no one would ever read.
Agnes Nutter had been tied to the stake and had shouted her warnings. She was looking out on the crowd with an expression of deep, unsettling amusement, and beside her the first Witchfinder Pulsifer was looking into himself, questioning everything he had done. Previously unknown regions of his mind, sparked to life, whispering to him about things like compassion and mercy and the importance of daily exercise, and he hesitated again. The flame on the lit bundle of sticks he held was creeping down towards his fingers, and Agnes did the only thing she could think to do and what she had known she would have to do all along— “Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer!” she said, whispering through her gag so that only he could hear. “What kynde of name ys that? For who would go neare a man such as yowe?!” She smiled, though no one could see it, and he dropped the torch, and everything went boom.
The explosion was spectacular.
Moments before Newt had been in the Wasabi, clutching his pin and trying to keep driving, though he didn’t know if driving was the right word for it. There is something innately satisfying about pressing a gas pedal down as far as it can go and hearing the clicking hum of acceleration, but when Newt pressed the Wasabi’s gas pedal to the floor the engine sputtered and caught fire. The car slid forward for a few seconds, and he looked out the side window half expecting to see snails and tortoises speeding by. Instead he saw the reflection of the other demons running up the hill in the side mirror.
He coughed from the smoke and tried to force down the lump that seemed stuck in his throat, and he put the car in reverse. It rolled down the hill, picking up speed, and he rolled out the door and ran away from it as fast as he could manage in his wet shoes and burning shirt and tan pants with a pin stuck in the front pocket, and a hand grabbed him by the arm and pulled him behind an old shed just the Wasabi flipped backwards off a roadside ledge and hit the ground. There was a loud crack and shockwaves that rippled invisibly through the air and a cloud of flame that rose up, shockingly white against the red sky. Miles away, in an orchard, three children said ‘Wow’ in a single voice and a fourth said nothing but smiled and began to walk slowly towards the edge of town, knowing his friends would follow.
Newt wiped the soot from his glasses and looked up to find that he was standing face to face with Anathema. She was out of breath and carrying a large backpack, and he could see her bicycle leaning up against the shed’s far wall. “I think,” she said, “that I should have told you not to go out at all.”
“What?” he asked, trying to catch his breath and pat the fire out of his shirt.
“I did try to help, before when I told you . . .”
“You told me to change my pants.” Newt blinked and peered around the shed to see the demons gathered around the charred, still burning remains of his car, holding their hands over it as if trying to keep warm. “Wait,” he said, turning back to Anathema. “You knew this was going to happen?”
“Yes— no.” She was looking down at her shoes and at the sparkling frost on the grass, reflecting the red of the sky. “I saw you here, you see, and I thought that if you had some protection . . .”
“Some protection? Since when is a pin protection?”
“Since you used it to protect yourself.”
“What?” Newt held his head in his hands, patiently willing his brain to start working properly. “I think,” he said, moments later, “I think you should have told me a bit more than that, maybe.”
“Yes,” Anathema said, and when she looked up her eyes were focused on the sky behind him, but he was surprised at how upset she looked, at least compared to the last time the world nearly ended. “Yes, well you once told me you were a computer engineer, which wasn’t at all nice.”
“Yes but . . .” He paused and wondered for a second just which definition of nice was currently in use.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and he realized this was by far the most distressed he’d ever seen her and quite possibly the most distressed he’d ever seen anyone. She was in a worse state now than she had been when the first book was destroyed and before the second one came, and even knowing what that book had to say would have done little to console her. “I saw you here,” she said to Newt. “I didn’t think there was any way to stop you from being here. I didn’t know if that was allowed or possible. I feel like I’m going mad, you know. Almost everyone does when they start remembering the future, even if they don’t mean to, and I can’t make it stop.”
“Agnes didn’t,” Newt said. She had told him quite a lot about her ancestor, after all, but she looked at him then as if that were the last thing she wanted to hear.
“That’s because she was mad before.”
He resisted the urge to look behind him and held her by the shoulders. “You won’t.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I’m not sure.”
“You’re too practical,” he said after a quick glance back. The demons were closer now, but they were wandering together bewildered and didn’t seem to see the shed or the two of them standing behind it. He forced a smile. “You could say that’s a different kind of madness, really. You didn’t just let things happen. You came here . . . eventually. You found me here, and I think that means something.”
“Yes, I mean, of course. It means you prepare. It means you’ve never let things take you by surprise before, and this won’t change any of that”
She smiled and pulled a large bread knife from her backpack, and Newt wondered if it might be just a bit too early and not at all the right place for declarations of undying love, and he would have thanked his lucky stars if they weren’t currently landing around his feet. He reflected for just a second on how he had never trusted the universe, and Anathema looked up at him, dazed. “Just a bit to your left,” she said, and he shuffled a few inches closer to her and tripped forward, narrowly avoiding a ball of fire that fell from the sky.
One of the demons reached a hand around the shed, and Anathema swung her knife, cutting off two of its fingers, which quickly grew back longer than before. Then she pulled both Newt and Phaeton, her bicycle, upright. She had had quite a time getting there , but it was not only still miraculously in one piece, but it had somehow sprouted a second seat and an extra pair of pedals. As they sped away with the demons following close behind, she remembered a dark night spent mapping ley lines on a roadside and the two men, who gave her a ride home.
 Luckily, because of temporal dissonance, that time passed much faster than it otherwise would, allowing her to reach Newt while he was still in one piece.
Crowley didn’t mind the cold so much anymore, but he still shivered when he met Aziraphale on the roof of a London Burger Lord to get terribly drunk in celebration of his newly appointed rank. Hell’s ducal symbol had been forever emblazoned on the back of his leather jacket , a huge three-pronged pitchfork, and he hadn’t even began to think about how the damned thing made him look like the kind of motorcyclist who frequents open-air bars and calls himself cobra or skull crusher or something equally idiotic. He was currently much more upset about everything it meant than how awful it made him look, and it wasn’t just the jacket. His eyes had gotten so bright they were now easily noticeable behind his sunglasses and behind most walls, and no matter how he tried, he couldn’t seem to get his tongue unforked.
 He had only just avoided having it tattooed on by explaining nearly a hundred times the concept of placing advertisements where they’re most likely to be seen, and in one case also explaining the concept of clothing. Some departments of hell are quite behind the times.
“A duke, dear boy, in better circumstances that would be terribly impressive,” Aziraphale said, resigned and consoling. Crowley ignored this, grabbing a bottle of wine from the picnic basket he carried and downing it without bothering to taking any note of the taste or even coming up for air.
Crowley had told Aziraphale about his promotion while feeding the ducks at St. James Park and had then set the surface of the pond on fire. “I thought you liked roasssted duck,” he had said as the charred feathers floated down around them. There were certain powers that came with being nobility that he still hadn’t quite worked out. He could do quite a lot before, really, but he had to concentrate. Now everything seemed aimed towards maximum destructive capacity, and it left little room to think. It wasn’t that the fire was too flashy, not necessarily. Crowley approved of flashy. He was all for flashy when it came to cars and suits and telephones, but he had long ago come to see the beauty of subtlety,  something very few humans and practically no demons ever manage.
 He had learned shortly after the introduction of electricity that you could do more damage with a pair of crossed wires than a thousand fireballs. Newton Pulsifer knew this as well, but he usually much too busy wondering why he was always the one to get those particular wires crossed to reflect on any deeper meanings, and he was currently much too worried about the fireballs to think of anything at all.
Now everything about him was too noticeable. It entailed too much and made him too responsible. He didn’t like being responsible for failures. He would much rather sit back and take credit for the horrible things humans did to themselves. It took Aziraphale quite a few miracles to put the fire out, leaving the lake in a state only slightly better than Crowley’s couch and his plants, which would never again need any talks to make them frightened of Crowley’s wrath after what they had seen that morning, but they weren’t as scared as Crowley himself. Aziraphale knew he was terrified to go near his Bentley and he said no to the Ritz and the British Museum because he didn’t want to destroy something else that didn’t truly deserve it, so they had settled on Burger Lord.
Aziraphale had brought several bottles of reasonably fine wine that could be wished into much finer wine if the situation called for it, which it most likely wouldn’t. Crowley was already through three of them, and hadn’t yet made any comments about Aziraphale’s poor taste. At least he had started pouring it into a glass before drinking. Aziraphale took this as a good sign. He cleared his throat and wrapped the red and green tartan scarf more tightly around his neck and shoulders and shivered before speaking. “So . . . er . . . how did it begin, then? I didn’t think they were pleased with you, actually.”
“They’re not pleasssed,” Crowley said scowling into his glass as if it might be hiding some secret wisdom from him intentionally. “It’ssss a thing— a bad bloody thing . . . a death ssssentence.”
“It goesss like thisss: sssome poor ssssap gets made Duke, takesss the elevator up to earth, triesss to messs about, isss killed or worssse and isss sssent back downstairsss for punissshment, all very unpleasssant.”
“And painful, I’d imagine,” Aziraphale said, and Crowley tried to pretend he didn’t hear. He’d already spent enough time imagining the punishments and the pain.
“They’re not all bad, you know. Mossst of the damage they do is becaussse they don’t know how to act on the outssside. Ssssso,” he said, throwing the glass down at the street below and earning a disappointed tut from Aziraphale. “Ssso, they sssay here’sss Crowley, he’sss been up there for thousssandsss of yearsss. He ssshould have—have it.”
“Work experience.” He took a swig from the bottle and winced. “They’re trying to throw another apocalypssse, you know. They figure if they don’t tell your lot they’ll have a better chance of winning.”
“Doesssn’t matter though,” Crowley said, staring ahead at the parked cars and rooftops and the strings of colored lights that were beginning to blink on. “Can’t do it now. Tisss the ssseassson, holiday ssspirit and all that, too much whatzit— that thing that’sss all about now— nicenessss, good feelingsss, what you get when you care for sssomething a whole lot . . .”
“Too much love?”
“Yeah, ‘sss too much of that. They’ve got to really be wanting it— deep down wissshing for it all to end, thinking it would be better if everything wasss jussst blown to bitsss. That’sss how they usssually feel.” Crowley liked to think he had a pretty good idea of how humans usually felt, and years ago, he made sure to tell Aziraphale not to go making anyplace so happy that he’d get demoted, and Aziraphale had for the most part obliged. Crowley was beginning to regret that. He could do with a bit of simple demotion, a nice boring desk job for example. Unfortunately, Aziraphale currently seemed much more intent on the one bottle of wine Crowley had left him than spreading joy throughout all the cities of the world.
“Well, ‘sss just poor planning really. If I really wanted to get it done, I’d at leassst wait until the holidaysss are nearly over, when they have to go back to work and are ready to kill their in-lawssss, when they’ve sssstarted to realize that they didn’t get any of the thingsss they really wanted this year and probably won’t next year either or the year after that. That’ssss when I’d give it a go . . . if I had to, I mean.”
“You wouldn’t,” Aziraphale said, sounding rather more smug than he felt.
“I could though, thasss the point . . . It’sss not the right place either, Lower Tadfield. Never any proper hate there. Ssslough though . . .” He paused, and he sighed, rolling his eyes behind his sunglasses when he saw the way Aziraphale was looking at him. “Don’t worry, Angel. I’ve got a crack team of my people ssset up in Lower Tadfield, jussst in cassse. They won’t let anything happen, even if it could.” He gave a sharp smile at the thought of the 518 men with names like Desk and Tin and quite often Smith, awaiting his further orders. He liked power, really, just not too much of it and not the kind with consequences.
Aziraphale nodded and smiled back. “I have . . . er special forces there as well, in case my side wanted to start something.”
“Oh.” The sun was setting, and the sky was red, which would have been good luck if either he or Aziraphale had been a sailor. A few snowflakes were collecting on his jacket and his sunglasses, and through the windows of shops and apartments he could see the stands of candles and the wreaths and the decorated trees, and he thought for just a second that he could feel something that should have been quite annoying but really wasn’t so bad. Then he sneezed and a parking meter on the other side of the street exploded in blue-white flame and became a molten puddle on the sidewalk.
“Seeds of its own destruction,” Aziraphale muttered before sitting back next to Crowley, contentedly remembering how the Witchfinder Sergeant told him that his finest man was heading up the operations in Lower Tadfield. If either of them had known what that man would soon be getting up to, Aziraphale would have blushed and Crowley would have been mildly impressed.
Anathema was beside him when it happened and the demons were still behind and gaining fast. There was a hill too steep to ride the bicycle up with any semblance of speed so they carried it between them as they ran. Newt had expected it to be a good deal heavier than it was, in fact carrying it seemed to propel them forward at speeds they wouldn’t have otherwise been capable of. And then It happened, and all thoughts of the physics of bicycle carrying up steep hills was forgotten.
They crossed a hedgerow and a bare patch of road just like all the other bare patches of road they had been running and pedaling along and suddenly Newt felt like he couldn’t fail and nothing could hurt him. If Anathema felt this, she didn’t seem at all surprised by it, but she did slow down her run just a bit, which was lucky for Newt, who had stopped all together. Normally an It that requires capitalization is a very bad thing indeed , but this It felt good. It felt like home, not just the town he’d been living in or the house where his things had suddenly appeared or the room he shared with a woman he hardly knew and would quite possibly never understand. It felt like the kind of home he never had, the kind where knowing every mistake you’ve ever made doesn’t matter so much as knowing you won’t ever make one again. He wasn’t thinking then that such a feeling couldn’t last. In truth he wasn’t thinking at all, and he jabbed his pin out at the approaching demon, hitting the exact place in its chest where a heart would be if it had one, and it toppled over screaming and growling and spitting fire. Anathema stared at him for a second not at all dazed and clearly astonished, and he pushed his hair out of his eyes in a way that he once imagined would look cool.
[15 ] Feeling invulnerable around demons could be a very bad thing indeed, and it said something about Newt’s current state that he didn’t come to this conclusion himself.
“The demons?” said Anathema, who found her voice first. “I wonder how they got here.”
“Came up, I would think,” said Newt, looking down at the one lying on the ground and then at the others standing back and looking cautious.
“What’ll we do with them?” said Anathema as she drew her bread knife for the second time.
“Whatever it was that I did to the one on the ground, I guess,” said Newt, “seeing as they’re demons and all.”
“You can’t,” they heard another voice say, and they turned to see a boy slouching towards them followed by a small dog and gang of two other boys and a girl, who all looked more than a little confused. “You can’t,” he said again. “You can’t kill them.” He looked at Newt and then at Anathema, and the children behind him looked back and forth between themselves and at the demons, trying desperately to make sense of things and in some cases trying to remember if something similar had happened to them before.
“Adam?” one asked, adjusting his glasses. “What’s happening?”
“That,” Adam said, pointing to the demon standing back farthest from him, a tall man shaped thing with pale skin speckled red. “That’s Blenny. He doesn’t like to share space with humans.”
Newt and Anathema blinked and watched as Adam pointed to the other demon standing away from him, clearly frightened. It was larger than the others, red and blue and black with a thick mane around its head and barely human shaped anymore. “This is Leo. He only eats brimstone. He shouldn’t have been sent here at all.”
Behind him, the Them exchanged more glances and began to shuffle their feet, as if they might soon have to run very fast from the monsters Adam was insisting on leaving alone. Newt considered taking a step behind Anathema because her knife was a good deal bigger than his pin, and she was probably a good deal better at using it, but the feeling he had earlier hadn’t entirely worn off, so he stayed where he was. “And this, Adam said pointing to the final demon, that was slowly managing to get to its feet. This is Domino. He’s too aggressive to be put on earth with people. Besides it’s too cold here, and it’s not their fault they came.”
A quick glace passed then between Adam Young and Newton Pulsifer. “You did quite good, you know,” Adam said and turned to Anathema, who had just lowered her knife. “You too.” It was unnerving the way he looked at her. She felt a chill and for just a second wondered if she could remember differently now because someone had thought the town deserved a witch who could see at least into her own future, if only to keep herself from losing valuable books. Time stretched, and the glance ended with two barely perceptible nods. “The explosions were brilliant,” said Adam to everyone watching him, and even one of the demons nodded at this.
“Way better than in the movies,” said Pepper.
“The best I’ve ever seen,” said Brian.
“That last one was my car,” said Newt.
Beside them Wensleydale silently wondered how the beat-up old car he had seen Newt driving had exploded so fantastically, but it was silently agreed by all present that any car that could blow up like that was well worth having.
Adam looked at his watch, which had broken long ago but still kept time just the way he liked it . “I need to get home soon,” he said, and he looked at the demons— the monstrous creatures, who shivered as the sun set, and the dog beside him growled. “You should go back home, too.” There was a power in his voice, something that made it impossible to disobey. “You shouldn’t be here. It’s not right.” And then they weren’t, and Anathema was almost certain she had seen at least one of them giving a short wave goodbye.
 Long summers, brisk autumns, snowy winters and perfect springs.
Adam and Pepper and Brian and Wensleydale left soon after that, shuffling slowly towards their houses talking about explosions and monsters and other terrifying things that look way better right up close.
“He was right, you know,” Anathema said, finally turning to Newt.
“About the demons . . . well, yes . . . er . . . I suppose it wasn’t their fault, but . . .”
“I meant about you being quite good. You really were.”
“Oh.” It wasn’t something that happened in the real world. Anathema turned to pick up her bicycle, and Newt who had just enough sense to drop his pin beforehand grabbed her by the arm, spun her around and kissed her square on the lips, a motion that against all odds came off gracefully and didn’t result in any major injuries.
When he pulled back, she smiled as if she’d seen it coming from miles away, and he was so relieved she wasn’t angry with him that he kissed her again. It was quite lucky that she could see in to the future, he thought, he wouldn’t have to worry about making mistakes so much anymore— at least not the kind that are shockingly bad, because to one person at least they wouldn’t be shocking— then she started kissing him back and cognitive processes stopped almost entirely, save for a single thought. I’m home.
Mistletoe sprouted in the tree branches overhead, and snow started to fall, and for that moment, everything was perfect.
It was their Shangri-La, their never-ending paradise or at least Madame Tracy’s idea of it. To anyone else it would have seemed nothing more than a shabbily painted house with walls that stains stuck to and a pantry stocked full of enough tins of condensed milk to last a normal person several lifetimes and to last her Mr. Shadwell at least two weeks.
He complained still, but after the last few months, he was beginning to relent just a bit. He even agreed that Madame Tracy had just the right number of nipples, if only because he was nervous at the thought of having to perform a thorough inspection as she had suggested on a few memorable occasions.
He glared at the tree she had decorated the week before, giving a hardly audible murmur of discontent [17 ] and then peered out the window to see what the sky had cooked up to offend him. It was red and stars were toppling out of it at alarming speed. “Witches,” he said simply, causing Madame Tracy to scurry out of the kitchen and join him.
 This from Shadwell should be considered the equivalent of high praise.
The usual smell of Brussels sprouts cooking had been temporarily replaced by the smell of cookies, and she was currently holding a tray of gingerbread men. “What was that, dear.”
“Aye, there’s trouble, wumman,” he said pointing out the window with a shaking finger that had once served as a weapon of righteousness. “An’ I had them damn southerners calling me up here— the pansy and the flash bastard. Strange things happening. Wanted men in a place called Tadfield. ”
“But that’s where young Newt’s staying with that nice girl.”
“Aye, livin’ in sin with a witch, he is.” Madame Tracy gave him a meaningful look, waving the tray under his nose until he took a gingerbread man and began to chew on it without bothering to close his mouth. “Stars fallin’,” he said. “There’s bad news if I ever seen it.”
“You know,” said Madame Tracy, following his gaze. “I’ve always thought it meant good luck.”
Though he never said so, not even to Crowley or Aziraphale or the few humans who understand the business he was in, Shadwell was actually quite confident in his forces of his Witchfinder army, though they were nowhere near as extensive as he claimed. Private Pulsifer had been the first to find a self-admitted witch in nearly two centuries, though technically it was the witch who found him, and though neither Sergeant Shadwell nor Madame Tracy knew it, it was lucky for all of them that she managed to find him again and get him back to Tadfield, where the records said he was posted.
Anathema and Newt had made it back to Jasmine Cottage eventually and back to her bed— their bed. He really was quite good at a lot of things, including some that she would have found incredibly surprising if told to her early that morning. He was asleep now or nearly so and she would be soon if she could keep her thoughts from carrying her places she was scared to go.
She tried to keep herself firmly in the present. She counted the seconds as they turned to minutes and thought about the warmth of the blankets and the snow falling silently in the darkness outside and the softness of Newt’s breaths coming from right beside her. She was getting tired and more frightened as the time passed, and she knew already that putting off thoughts of the future would not stop it from coming. Newt shifted, turning on his side. His hand brushed her shoulder, and she closed her eyes.
Anathema Device remembered her future. She remembered her wedding at the conference center on the hill and how hard it would be to sign papers with her new name. She remembered the book she wrote, the Pulsifer she invented, the flowers that sprouted in her gardens every year though she never bothered to plant any seeds. She remembered the party the whole town threw when Newt, after nearly twenty years of study, actually did become a computer engineer and the better party the two of them threw together when he gave it up and they buried his computers in the backyard. She remembered the children of lower Tadfield growing up and having children of their own, who would run through her small gardens and the orchards beyond them, chasing her cats and stopping by for glasses of lemonade when they got tired and being terribly impressed by the sports car Newt had somehow acquired. She remembered Newt. The trips to London they would take, the restaurants, their failed attempts at dancing together. She remembered being old with him and worried that he coughed when he walked too fast. She remembered herself with white streaked through her black hair complaining about how her back hurt when she rode her bicycle. She kept remembering. “Stop,” she whispered.
It was a good future, a good life, one filled with long summers, brisk autumns, snowy winters and perfect springs, but one day it would end. One day everything would end, and if she let herself see that she would wonder if she could be more prepared, if she could somehow stop it from happening. It seemed silly now, lying next to Newt in her home— their home, where she felt safer than anyplace she had ever been, but part of being practical is knowing yourself. She was beginning to understand why Newt was so sure she wouldn’t go mad after seeing the future, because she wouldn’t be afraid to change it, but there are some things that can’t be changed and some she wasn’t ready to see. “Stop!” she said louder than before, forcing her eyes open, and the memories faded, and the bedroom swam back into focus.
Far away, red dust that had been swept up by the wind on long-abandoned battlefields was struggling to take shape. It skittered fast over the harder surface of the soil beneath and swirled together red as blood and as the sky. If there were anyone there looking, and indeed if there were anyone nearby they would have not been able to look away, they would have seen first the outline of an elegant hand and then a long leg and a cloud of hair that moved with a life of its own and a smile that shone like the edge of a knife and then nothing as the dust dissipated, scattered, was lost back into the wind and into the hearts of men.
From smokestacks, hot chemical steam billowed up into the cold air above factories and gathered in the atmosphere over bare earth, scattered with drainage ponds and the long scars of newly dug roads where a forest had once stood. There it bent and twisted with the breeze and tried to react with naturally occurring elements to form the secondary pollutants smog and low-level ozone, and it tried harder still to form itself into the shape of a young man wearing a crown, but it failed at both, fading away when the snow clouds came.
Outside a Burger Lord in England, sat a pile of rubbish, empty wrappers and broken glass and Styrofoam soda cups that shifted in the darkening shadows, only it wasn’t so much the wrappers that shifted as the emptiness and the memory of what they had once held, and if anyone were looking from overhead they would have almost seen the silhouette of a thin man slicker than grease rising to his feet. He was doing a rather better job than any of the others. Unwanted cans of soup and string beans had already been donated to the proper charities and after weeks of holiday parties, people had already begun planning their new year’s starvation diets.
It’s hard to say why Famine failed to take shape and to take up his scales and his work, but if anyone were listening they would have heard the sound of large wings flapping and an indignant voice followed by the clang of a trashcan lid. “It’s terrible the way they litter, these days, dear boy. I do wonder if your lot has anything to do with it.”
There was another voice then, one that laughed as its owner tried to keep himself from pointing out that litter today was nothing compared to the fourteenth century  and laughed louder as the trash can burst into flames. “I could get usssed to this, Angel. I really could.”
 If heaven and not humans had been responsible for indoor plumbing, Crowley would have honestly considered switching sides.
On the edge of a road just outside Lower Tadfield, the faint whisper of a mechanical voice could be heard by anyone who was listening carefully and understood the kind of pain that made speaking nearly impossible. “Look forward,” it said. “Adjust mirrors, use seat belts . . .” The voice faded when the small, cheap fan-type mechanism that had kept the tape turning going finally gave in to the corrosive rust that had been forming ever since it was doused with salt water, and a tall, robed figure stepped out of the shadows.
THE END COMES.
Azrael laid a very thin hand on the charred remains of an engine and spread his wings. The silence of the night was pierced by the roar of a thousand motors struggling to start and sputtering out until nothing was left but the ping-ping of cooling metal.
A car’s time on earth is short and depending on their make and their owners terribly uncertain, but Dick Turpin was a good car as far as such things can be measured outside the bounds of proper engine functions and safe exhaust levels, the perfect car for its owner, and for all its faults, the Wasabi was well loved and loyal for as long as it could be. It also went out in a way highly impressive to someone who had quite a lot of say over the way things should happen, so it was reincarnated as a bright red sports car  that would somehow find its way to the driveway of Jasmine Cottage by the next morning.
 The exact sort of car that both twelve year old boys and Newton Pulsifer consider very cool.
Newt woke to a voice he wasn’t sure he had actually heard, and sat up to find that Anathema wasn’t yet asleep.
“My car exploded,” he said, because he couldn’t think of anything else, and she nodded. “It just blew up . . . Bang, just like that.”
“Actually,” she said. “It overheated. The engine flooded and caught fire, and then it slid backwards down a steep hill and fell off a small cliff. And it never worked particularly well anyway, even after it started reciting poetry. I’m not sure if you even wanted it to.”
“I called it Dick Turpin, you know . . .”
She nodded. Newt was already missing the Wasabi, and though she disapproved of cars in general , she was trying her best to be sympathetic, while secretly wondering why, if he didn’t want to be responsible for such cataclysmic destruction, was he still insisted on tinkering about with computers. “Yes,” she said, “because it always held up traffic.”
 This is true of nearly all bicyclists, especially those who have had to ride on busy streets full of angry drivers.
“It won’t anymore, though, not ever again.” Newt sighed, telling himself there were more important things than cars, even the ones with clever names, and he thought back on the day that had just ended and found that he remembered it perfectly.
There are people in the world who can look into the future, and most go mad from what they see, and those who don’t often go mad from the forces that want to keep them from seeing, but some remain stronger than any of that, or at least more practical. Newt noticed that Anathema didn’t look at all upset anymore or afraid or unsure. He’d always had a hard time with religion and was uncomfortable around people who knew with absolute certainty what they believed. He didn’t trust vengeful gods, whose followers seemed to take pride in their cruelty or the uncertain universe, but he believed in her, and he was starting, slowly, to believe in himself, and for now, that was enough. It might not last, he knew, because nothing lasts, not forever. Things end, whether in a sudden flash of fire raining down from the sky or in a soft, warm bed at the end of many long days. He would be with her until then.
“Am I supposed to take a shower now?” Newt asked, and Anathema smiled and shook her head and looked out the window. Snow was still falling. The red of the sky had long since faded, and the stars that remained were stuck firmly in their places. She didn’t want to go anywhere for the next few hours or the next few days or the next lifetime, for that matter, and she didn’t want him to go anywhere either. This was where they belonged, in Jasmine Cottage, nestled between the orchards and farms of Lower Tadfield.
The night was dark, as all nights should be, and it was just beginning.
Happy New Year, go_exchange, from your Secret Writer! (and your mods!)