Travelling through the Twilight Strip to reach the Old Zone of Kahani, Haroun thought, seemed to him to be as long of a journey as he had ever been on. Even when he and Rashid were rattling along in Mister Butt's Mail Coach through the teeth-chatteringly cold heights of the Mountains of M and winding, treacherous roads that led down to the Valley of K, there had been the marvellous views of the valley's golden fields and snowy silver peaks spread out before them, and at the end of the ride there was at least the prospect of hot water for washing and a good bed for sleeping. Now, though, there was nothing to look forward to except the darkness and silence of the Old Zone, nothing around them as far as the eye could see but the foul and putrid pollution that choked the once-marvellous waters of the Sea of Stories...and at the end of it all, their enemy, the one responsible for the kidnapping of Princess Batcheat Chattergy and the sad state of the Sea of Stories and the land of Kahani as a whole.
The name alone sent a fearsome chill racing up Haroun's spine. He could not help but shiver with the cold, twisting dread of it. And even though he tried to hide his unease, Iff the Water Genie and Butt the Hoopoe both noticed it, and asked him what had come over him to make him look so unwell all of a sudden.
'I want to know more about him,' Haroun said, startling himself with his own frankness in speaking of his fears. 'About Khattam-Shud. Even when I ask about him, all that anyone will ever say is that he is the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, the Prince of Silence, the Foe of Speech. But they will not tell me what he is like, or what he can do, or how he will react to those who try to stop him. How can we spy on him if we don't know the first thing about him?'
Iff was silent for a moment, turning Haroun's words over in his head. 'I do not know of any Guppee who has seen him,' he said slowly, voicing his thoughts aloud. 'And no Chupwala would speak of him, even if they had seen him. Do you know anything, Butt?'
'Not a thing,' Butt the Hoopoe said without moving its beak. 'It has been so long since anyone has seen him that even the stories of what he might have looked like have doubtless been lost.'
'We can't help you! Can't explain!
What this darkness might contain!' Goopy and Bagha, the Plentimaw Fish, chimed in sorrowfully from the murky waters below.
'He must be fearsome,' Haroun mused. Many of Rashid's best stories had featured villains that would keep you awake at night for weeks, jumping at every creak of floorboard and rattle of wind in the trees for fear that the story had come to life and the villain had appeared to seek revenge on all who had dared to cheer for his inevitable defeat. 'Clearly, he is tall and terrible, capable of inflicting the most cruel punishments for even the slightest disobedience to his whims. Why else would the Chupwalas fear him so?'
'Perhaps,' Butt the Hoopoe said, though it did not sound convinced.
'A sorcerer of the blackest magicks,' Haroun continued, as if no one had spoken. 'The sort who would welcome the sacrifice of a princess with her lips sewn shut.' He was almost enjoying the thoughts that were racing through his head -- they were coming to him quickly now, making his heart beat faster and faster. 'He might torture us. Make us thrust our faces into a wire cage full of snarling rats, or put us in barrels studded with broken glass and nails, or throw us into a pit with a razor-sharp blade that will swing down and down and down to slice us into the tiniest of bits.'
'Ugh!' Iff exclaimed, shuddering. 'Too terrible! Too vile, too vicious, too viperish! Not another word about such things!'
'We must think of such things,' Haroun insisted. 'How else will we know what to prepare for?' His mind whirled in a different direction, as he remembered what the Shadow Warrior Mudra had said through Rashid's translation of the Language of Gesture. 'Though if it is the Cultmaster's shadow who is harming the Ocean, and not the man himself, then it might have different ideas about what to do with us. Could it harm our shadows, instead of ourselves?'
'But but but our shadows are not like those of the Chupwalas,' Butt the Hoopoe pointed out. 'Ours do only what we tell them to do. How could anything harm them?'
'It could be done by a Process Too Complicated To Explain,' Iff muttered, and then suddenly tore at his sky-blue whiskers. 'Aiiee, how dreadful! Just think -- our poor Shadows, who would never harm a single hair on our head or anyone's head, suffering Terrible Torments they never dreamed possible! Pains that would make being stepped upon or pinched in a crack, which might happen to any honest Shadow, feel like being boxed upon the ears by a gnat!'
'Nonsense,' Mali said suddenly.
Haroun and Iff jumped, startled, and Butt the Hoopoe craned its neck to look right at the Floating Gardener who had been striding along beside them without making so much as a peep until that moment. Even the Plentimaw Fishes swam closer, and tried to quiet the sad little splutters and coughs that their many mouths were making in the polluted waters, in order to hear him better.
'What do you mean, nonsense?' Haroun said with a frown. He was not happy to have such harsh words said about Iff's thoughts, which had sounded perfectly reasonable to his own ears. 'I think that Iff is making very much sense. We absolutely must consider these things, no matter how fretful and fearful they may make us. We know so little about the Cultmaster Khattam-Shud that we cannot help but wonder what he might do.'
Mali shook his head. 'Don't need to wonder. Everyone knows him. What he does.' He gave Haroun a long, hard look. 'He ends things.'
Haroun opened his mouth, and then shut it again. Not even an ark came out.
For what seemed like a very long time, no one spoke. Then, without warning, Iff the Water Genie cleared his throat.
'There is a story that all Water Genies know. About why we say Khattam-Shud's name at the end of the Stories we tell.' He said all of this very quickly, as if the words had to come out in a rush or they would not come out at all.
'Really?' Haroun was interested, and so he put on his best listening face. He had many years of practice with it from listening to the Shah of Blah's tales every morning, noon, and night, but he had not used it quite so much lately and it felt a little rusty-creaky at first. 'Will you tell it to us, please?'
Butt the Hoopoe and Mali also seemed interested, and the Plentimaw Fishes were swimming quite close to them now, so Iff cleared his throat again and began to speak.
'There was once a Storyteller,' he said. 'I will not say "he" or "she", for this Storyteller lived so long ago that any notion of whether the Storyteller was a man or a woman, a Guppee or a Chupwala, a Page or a Princess or anyone else, has long since been lost. The Storyteller told stories, and that is the important part.'
He paused, waiting, to see if the others were still listening to him. Haroun nodded once, just once, and Iff took it as a sign to keep going.
'So there was once a Storyteller, perhaps the best Storyteller of that age or of any age. Even a story that you had heard a hundred times before, a thousand times before...from the Storyteller's mouth, it sounded as fresh and new as if you were hearing it for the Very First Time. And people would come from near by and from far away to hear these stories, to weep floods of tears at the sad parts and laugh long and merrily at the cheerful parts, and when the stories were over they begged and begged to hear more. And the Storyteller would always thank the people for listening, as a polite Storyteller should do, and oblige them with another tale.'
'The Storyteller sounds very much like Rashid, back in the days when he was the Ocean of Notions whose stream of words never dried up,' thought Haroun sadly. But he merely nodded again, to show that he was listening still, and kept listening.
Iff continued. 'The Storyteller's fame spread far and wide, and the people who came to listen demanded more and more tales. And why should they not? There were so many new stories to hear, and so many old stories that had not been told quite as well as they might have been told, and they would come from a Storyteller who loved to tell stories and who never seemed to tire. So one day, the Storyteller decided that there was only one thing to do -- to come up with a story, the greatest story yet, that would be so spell-binding and captivating that it would never need to end.'
'Never need to end?' Butt the Hoopoe said, surprised. 'But all stories must end.'
'So it was said,' Iff replied. 'Even the people who had been begging for new stories were very concerned, and some were worried that the Storyteller would not be able to keep the sad parts sad and the happy parts happy in a story that had no ending. But the Storyteller heard these mumblings and grumblings, and became very angry with the people, and declared, You beg to hear more stories when the ones I tell have ended, and now you are afraid of hearing my best story ever, the one that will be so wonderful that I will never need to end it?! No sir, no madam, a Storyteller cannot be dictated to like a chatter-box without a brain-box! I swear to you all, here and now, that I will wring every last drop of Stories out of me before I ever come to an ending!'
Haroun felt a lump of something cold and heavy settle in the pit of his stomach. 'That was a foolish thing to say.'
'So it was, young Haroun Khalifa, so it was,' Iff agreed mournfully. 'And so you can imagine what happened then, what sad and sour fate befell the once-marvellous Storyteller. To wring every last drop of Stories out of oneself is a terrible process, indeed a Process Too Complicated To Explain, but the Storyteller did so. And by the time it was all over, there were thousands upon thousands of new tales floating in the Sea of Stories, so many that not even a Water Genie could ever hope to count even the smallest drops of them...but there was nothing left of the Storyteller.'
'Nothing but the ending,' Haroun said softly, so softly that he could barely hear his own voice. 'Khattam-Shud.'
Iff looked very tired and sad as he nodded. 'Khattam-Shud is the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, the Prince of Silence, the Foe of Speech. There is not a Story that he would not end, if he had the chance. And so we say Khattam-Shud's name because by saying his name, we show that we are not afraid of endings, for all good Stories have endings. Happy endings, sad endings, endings that leave us content and endings that leave us wanting more. But they are our endings, the ones that we give to the Stories. The worst thing that can happen, the very deepest, darkest, coldest fear of those who have Stories within us that are bursting to come out, is that if we do not end the Stories...then he will.'
When Iff the Water Genie finished speaking, there was only silence.
Once more, only silence.
Slowly, carefully, Haroun turned the words over in his mind. There was something familiar about Iff's story, something that vaguely reminded him of someone he knew, stirring within him a flurry of unpleasant feelings that buzzed about his head and his heart like a swarm of angry bees --
-- but it had been nearly eleven minutes since he began to wonder what Khattam-Shud was like, or what he could do, or how he would react to those who tried to stop him. And when the eleventh minute passed, Haroun automatically lost interest in what he had been wondering, and the thoughts flew out of his mind entirely, and that was an end of it.
They flew on towards the Old Zone, as the Sea of Stories grew dimmer and murkier beneath them.