Aidan struggled to keep up as the fool tore through the theatre like a blue bat out of hell. The sight of his corpse under the stage seemed to have woken up a lifetime of nightmares. He sped along, silent and desperate, back through the stables, back to the inhabited halls of the theatre, aiming for the house. It was lucky there was not a play or a concert happening at the moment, although he might just have gone dashing across the stage regardless.
By the time Aidan reached him in the wings, he was standing at the foot of one of the pencil-thin ladders that stretched their narrow rungs toward spacious lofts.
“What’s going on?” Aidan demanded.
“We’re leaving,” the fool replied, not taking his eyes from the ladder. “We have to, now. It won’t take long for Alex to raise the alarm. But I can’t go yet,” he added. “Not until I see it.”
Peter began to climb, hand over hand. Aidan followed much more slowly. When the fool reached the little square trapdoor in the floor of the loft he shoved it aside and hoisted himself through. Aidan clambered up half a minute later and found himself surrounded in a forest of hanging costumes. Sound was muffled almost beyond recognition with all the fabric in the air. The fool held his breath to keep the silence and shifted between rows upon rows of outfits, some in protective, yellowing bags and others left naked to face time and isolation on their own. His footsteps sounded dull thumps across the creaking boards like a frantic heart as he pounded his way to the very back of the loft.
Yet another ladder rose into darkness. He ascended this as swiftly as the first and Aidan followed just as slowly. There was no trapdoor this time, and in a moment they stood upon the upper level. Costumes came here to die.
Torn clothes lay everywhere in fine layers of dust, cobwebs, and rat droppings, effectively extinguishing the sound of their feet. There were ugly brown boxes lined against one brick wall, and a child’s rocking-horse standing alone in a far corner. Above their heads were thick metal rods and drooping cords—fixtures for batons and lights. One of the rods had a rope tied to it. A rope that ended in a suspicious loop.
Peter stared at the ominous thing, his mouth slightly open. It was a look of realization, of spreading fear, and Aidan didn’t like it one bit. He liked it even less when the fool reached over the thin railing and stretched for the noose.
“Peter!” he hissed.
He stopped, the tips of his white-gloved fingers inches from the duty rope. He lowered his hand to grip the railing instead and his voice shook, “I knew it. I found this ages ago,” he said before Aidan could ask. “I knew it was mine, even then. We don’t get memories after Sir Hugo’s done with us, but we have feelings still…déjà vu. I knew it was mine. I knew I’d done it. I just didn’t know why.”
He turned to Aidan again, and the sickly grin was back. “I killed myself,” he said, “because of what he was making me do. And the funny thing is, I’m still doing it.”
Aidan started to say that he still was about twenty thousand leagues behind in the conversation, but something beyond the fool’s shoulder caught his attention. Someone was creeping towards them from the opposite side of the wings. He couldn’t make out who it was at first, but as the tall figures passed out onto the stage light fell on oxygen-starved skin and the damp, greenish-golden hair of the company’s principal male dancer.
“Peter,” Aidan whispered. “It’s Alexandre.”
The fool looked around and sighed. “Not long at all, I suppose. Shit. Well, we’ll just have to run for it.”
“I don’t think that’s a great-”
He left Aidan mid-sentence, climbing over a pile of boxes to scramble back down to the first level of the loft. Aidan remained for a moment, watching Alexandre until he was satisfied that the dancer didn’t seem to know where they were. Instead of aiming for the loft, he went straight for the back of the left-side wings, most likely heading for the door to Aidan’s studio. That would give them some time, although not much.
As quietly as they could, they made their way back down to the stage. Apparently the fool hadn’t literally meant to run; he walked casually out of the wings, strolling across the stage with Aidan at his heels as if it was nothing. He even stopped to greet a couple of hooded scene-shifters who paused in their task of sweeping up the stage.
“You can tell the others to call off the search,” he said. “I’ve found our wandering skeleton.”
They made no response, not even a nod. Undeterred, Peter shrugged and led Aidan down a flight of stairs at the corner of the stage and into the house. They walked down one of the central aisles, but they had barely made it halfway to the foyer doors when all of the lights went out. Aidan felt the fool’s hand close around one of his wrists.
“Now we run,” he said.
They fumbled their way to the doors and pushed together until one of them gave. The lights were out in the foyer as well, but Peter knew his way. He directed them…down. “We’re going backstage again?” Aidan said.
“We need something from my dressing room.”
“Is now really the time?”
“Without it, we won’t get a mile.”
Aidan decided it would be better not to argue. It was pitch black, but they met no one, and so arrived at the fool’s dressing room with little trouble. Peter locked them in, staggered around a bit in the dark, and then lit a candle. The feeble light wavered in the wall of mirrors, casting them in eerie shadows.
He ducked under counters and began to tear things apart. Shoes were flung aside, along with clothes, playbills, and plenty of spider webs, until finally he settled on a box that had been wedge in a corner. It was made of plain cardboard. He thrust it into Aidan’s arms. “Open that,” he said. “Take one and put it in your pocket.”
Cautiously, Aidan lifted the lid. There were dark, fuzzy shapes inside, and at first he thought with no small amount of incredulity that he had been pranked with a box of socks. But when he moved closer to the candle…they were dead owls.
The box was full of them. It wasn’t a very large box, but they weren’t very large owls. Scattered in sad little heaps between loose folds of red fabric were glassy-eyed elf owls, young barn owls, screech owls, and a few other miniature specimens that Aidan couldn’t place. He shut the lid and stared at the fool.
“Why do we need a box of owls?”
“You don’t need the whole box,” the fool snapped, still flinging objects aside. “I told you. Just one. Shut up and stick it in your pocket. Aha!” he seized something, slipped it into his coat, and stood up again. “Well? Hurry up!”
Aidan did as he was told and handed the box back. Peter took an owl for himself and then tossed the rest into a corner. He grabbed the candle and led the way out into the corridor again. The walls were beginning to creak, which was particularly terrifying, given that they were made of brick. They swayed and groaned, and even the ground squirmed like the back of some giant snake writhing and flexing as it uncoiled from its sleeping knot.
They ran, and Peter muttered helpful bits of advice such as “Go!” or “Hurry up!” every few seconds. These directions seemed to be meant for himself as much as the artist, but neither of them needed any reminders. They went as fast as they could, until they ran into William.
The hems of the boy’s clothes were still turned up at odd, haphazard angles. The two handprint-shaped bruises were just visible under the twist of his shirt collar. But where once a happily oblivious smile had lingered on his pale face there was nothing but stark, emotionless vacancy.
“William,” Aidan said, reaching out a hand. “Come with us. It isn’t safe.”
“We’re not supposed to leave,” the boy replied. “Sir Hugo says you have to stay.” It was not encouraging how blank his young eyes were.
“Leave him,” Peter growled, grabbing Aidan by the arm. A sharp yip from somewhere in the dark behind them heralded the arrival of William’s taxidermy pup. The motley terrier came bounding towards them, nearly-severed tongue lolling between his blackened gums. His beady eyes—which probably were beads—sparkled with eagerness. At least until William yelled, “Fetch!”
The Colonel’s happy, panting mouth sharpened it corners into a ferocious snarl. He landed squarely on Aidan’s torso, knocking him over and beginning to tear at his chest where he lay. Fabric flew as the dog’s mad frenzy shred jacket and shirt, and Aidan felt actual pain as yellow canine teeth hooked around a dry rib and gave a powerful tug. The bone broke free in his jaws.
“Good boy!” William clapped. His little mutt trotted back to its master, wagging its stumpy tail with Aidan’s rib clutched proudly in its mouth. “Such a good dog, yes you are! You’re such a good dog!”
Peter hauled Aidan to his feet, ignoring his gasps of pain. “Idiot,” he hissed.
First Alexandre, now William. Aidan knew he hadn’t been close to the boy, but the betrayal was just as jarring and just as much a reminder that they could expect no help here. He could feel his lungs constricting as he ran alongside the fool. His heart struggled to pound painfully against his chest. Both of these observations were ridiculous of course, as he hadn’t any heart or lungs to speak of. But try as he might to remind himself that he was just a skeleton and therefore had no reason to be in pain, the agony only mounted.
They reached the foyer again. William and the Colonel were following at a patient walk. Peter shoved the candle at Aidan and dug in his pockets for the key. The portraits of patrons past leered in demonic triumph as the walls moaned and, one by one, dim bulbs sputtered into brilliant life. Drums beat under the floor and above their heads—the cacophonous marching of rodent feet.
“You’ll never get out,” William chortled. He tugged on Aidan’s sleeve, making him jump in shock. “Come back to the dressing rooms. We can play with Colonel!”
The dog wagged its tail in anticipation, still holding its prized rib.
“Ignore them,” Peter commanded. His hands were shaking, their long fingers still trying desperately to get the key to work. “Come on, you little bastard!” he groaned.
A new sound came from above. It was deeper—a shifting and drumming louder and more definite than the rodent army. Even William looked up as the noise turned into visible cracks in the ceiling. A thousand flies buzzed angrily in Aidan’s ears, and then hell, as they say, broke loose.
Whole chunks of ceiling came crashing down, and with them fell thousands of horrid feathery black things, all whirring and flapping drunkenly. Aidan dropped the candle in his attempt to beat them off his head and shoulders. He heard William laughing happily, playing in the waterfall of wings as if it were nothing worse than a little shower of rain. What were they? Bats? Birds? The not-knowing was worse than the maddening cacophony of it all.
“AHA!” The triumphant shout came from Peter, and suddenly there was a wave of blinding light. Aidan was already doing his best to shield his eyes, and through his finger-bones he glimpsed what the freakish fliers were. What he saw made him feel like the bottom of the world had dropped. They were wings. Just wings. No bodies, heads, arms, legs, or anything else to which wings ought to be attached. They were just wings, crawling, creeping, thrashing on their own.
Peter grabbed him and yanked him out into the sunlight. He was out of breath, with half his buttons unbuttoned and his collar in disarray. His perfect paint job had smeared grotesquely down one half of his face like he’d had a stroke. “I didn’t just get clobbered by a horde of angry feather-dusters for nothing,” he said, shoving Aidan along. “Let’s go before someone finds an owl and follows us.”
Aidan didn’t need much encouragement. A few of the black feather demons had tried to leave The Masque, but as soon as they hit the sunlight they squirmed convulsively and turned back. Aidan had a delirious thought that they liked rather like disembodied mustaches.
“Head for Teagan’s,” the fool said, interrupting his floundering thoughts. For the first time, Aidan managed to look at their surroundings. It was only his second glance at the world since arriving to the theatre. They were in the middle of a city square, and there were tons of people.
Well, perhaps more like dozens, but still…every pair of eyes was trained on them. Several horrified gasps cut the air, and it wasn’t long before they were accompanied by screams. Peter began to run, and Aidan fell into step, heading for the wooden sign a few buildings away that blared “Teagan’s Pub.” His progress went unhampered until a young man wearing a dark rain jacket accidently stepped into his path. They stared at each other for a moment, and Aidan was made painfully aware of the afternoon sun gleaming off the top of his bare skull.
“Sorry,” he found himself apologizing. He tried to step to the side, but the man copied his movements. They danced an awkward dance, and finally Aidan simply grabbed him by the shoulders and moved him to one side. He was dimly aware that other bystanders were taking out phones, but he set his sights on the pub and ran. Somewhere nearby a woman screamed while shooting video.
When Aidan came within a finger’s breadth of Teagan’s, the world fell apart. A suffocating sensation swarmed his exhausted body as the light changed to dusk in an instant and static rose in his ears. He had gone out-of-shift. He nearly ran smack into Peter, who was standing still at the edge of a graveyard. It wasn’t the same as the one in which Aidan had woken. It was older, more over-grown, and much more populated by headstones. It was also painfully quiet. Such places tend to be, but this one sank the teeth of soundlessness so deeply into the ground that it was like being in a vacuum. Nothing dared to noise. The splayed carcass of dilapidated headstones yawned it toothy maw to swallow all it could. An invisible ripple of shadow tendrils hung in the air, waiting.
(TCOS continues next Monday! In the meantime, follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @companyofsouls!)