(Oooops, this is super late. I apologize for that. Thankfully, I have a new job now, with a–hopefully–more reasonable work load, and so there is consistency afoot! Enjoy!)
“What happens now?”
The fool had taken up a corner of his coat and was rubbing the paint from his face, but he stopped to look at the miserable skeleton. “Alexandre will be sent to find us. Or maybe someone else. It really doesn’t matter who it is. We’re dangerous to Sir Hugo now.”
Aidan wondered how they were supposed to be dangerous to a man who had no body and an entire army of loyal, deceased thespians. He watched the names, dates, and creeping vines of the graveyard, feeling very empty. “There’s nothing we can do, though,” he said.
Peter was quiet a moment. “I wouldn’t say that. He’s not all powerful. He’s one man, with a little bit of knowledge, who’s been allowed to get away with too much. No one noticed what he was up to in life, and no one’s been brave enough to stand up to him in death.”
“Until a couple of hours ago you didn’t seem to mind what he was doing,” Aidan pointed out. He hadn’t meant to sound so cold, but the blame in his voice was frostbitten. He kept himself from apologizing; the fool had been Sir Hugo’s claws, cutting down innocent people whenever he was told. Aidan wasn’t sure he even wanted to know what else he was responsible for.
Peter’s black mouth dropped into a scowl. “Why shouldn’t I?” he said.
“People don’t change like that.”
“No?” The fool moved alarmingly close, smiling through his smear of a face. “You suppose you’re better than me, Bare Bones? I could tell you a few stories to change your mind.”
“Then don’t claim to know my heart. I did mind what he was doing. I minded so much, it killed me.”
“And then you just kept going,” Aidan pointed out.
“He wiped my memories!” Peter shouted. “It was all I knew! Don’t pretend you don’t understand that!”
“I suppose I do, thanks to you,” he replied in frustration. “But being willing to murder people says something about you, even if you can’t remember who you were.”
The anger on his face died. He had no retort, but the hurt in his eyes almost made Aidan feel sorry. The wind began to pick up, sweeping dead leaves over their shoes. “Look,” Peter sighed after a moment, “we need to get somewhere safe. You won’t survive in either Out-shift or In-shift, so you’re stuck with me.”
“I guess I am,” Aidan replied with a stiff nod. He certainly didn’t relish the idea of trying to navigate the shifts by himself. “But you’ve got to promise me something.”
“Promise me we’ll do something about it. About Sir Hugo. About The Masque. We got out, but we owe it to the others to go back and help. You owe it to them.”
Aidan wasn’t sure what sort of a reaction he had expected, but laughter definitely wasn’t it. “You’re sick,” he said sharply. “This isn’t funny, at all.”
“No, sorry,” Peter replied, shaking his head. “It’s just, you said the exact same thing before. About me owing everyone.”
“No, I didn’t. We’ve never had this conversation.”
The fool’s smile faded. “Actually, Tristan, we have.”
Samuel, as it turned out, had no money to buy Lori lunch. However, what he did have was a prodigious amount of skill as a thief. He managed to secure an entire meal for her, fresh from a shop tucked away in a stone alley by the docks. Lori had never smelled anything so wonderful, although she wasn’t exactly sure what it was. It was basically flat bread with some sort of meat drenched in a painfully delicious red sauce with a generous dollop of yogurt spread on top. She sat on an empty bench by a souvenir shop and forced herself to eat slowly.
Only when she was halfway through did she realize that Samuel had left again. She glanced around, trying not to be afraid, all the while conscious of the stares she was drawing from shop owners and passersby. She supposed she couldn’t blame them; she was a random teenager eating whatever this was while wrapped in a multitude of furs on a warm day.
Finally, just as she was thinking about moving some place less public, Samuel returned. He had changed clothes, forgoing the shirtlessness and bare legs in favor of a crisp grey suit with a white dress-shirt. The change was startling, and if not for his dreadlocked hair and the fact that he had decided to keep the belt-of-bones, Lori might have missed him in a crowd. Up close, however, he was still much the same—still just as frostbitten and thin. He sat beside her and placed a package of brown paper in her lap.
“Clothes,” he explained. “There’s a public restroom a little ways back. It costs one lira, but I have one of those, too.” He dropped a small coin on top of the package. “Once you’re ready, we can move on.”
“Will it take long to get there?” Lori asked, wiping her mouth.
“There are a few lengthy stretches between here and there, yes. I’d say we can be there in a day.”
She nodded and stuffed another bite of flatbread into her mouth. Samuel sat patiently until she finished, and then he followed her to the restroom. If this had been weeks ago, she would have been annoyed. But now, in a strange place, after so strange an adventure, she was glad to have someone looking out for her.
The clothes were nice. They didn’t look new, which led her to assume that he had snatched them off someone’s balcony or porch. But they were of good quality. There was a loose sky blue blouse with long sleeves, a pair of long pants that were a vaguely beige color, and some sandals. Beggars couldn’t be choosers, but Lori missed her shoes. She dressed, promising herself a pair of converse or boots at the first chance she got.
“You look nice,” Samuel said once she rejoined him. Lori wasn’t sure what to do with the compliment, so she just smiled awkwardly and shrugged.
“Nearly.” He reached into his pocket and took out a thin chain with a tiny glass bottle on the end. Inside was a bit of bird down, probably owl. He started to put it around her neck, but Lori took it out of his hands. Trauma hadn’t made her that comfortable with chivalry.
“Thanks.” She fastened the clasp and slipped the bottle beneath her shirt. “Lead on.”
They had to walk halfway up a hill, through a staggered series of alley ways and residences, before the next pocket of Out-shift presented itself. There wasn’t anything to distinguish it from thin air, and Lori added another mental note to her ledger, reminding herself to ask how he knew where the gaps in shifts were.
And then it was freezing again. The breath was forced out of Lori’s chest as her sandal-shod feet planted themselves firmly in snow. She hissed through her teeth and hurriedly unfolded the furs to wrap them around her again, silently cursing Samuel and his miserable choice of footwear. They were in the countryside somewhere. There was a road nearby, but it curved out of sight at a bend partially masked by a blanket of white. It might go on forever, or end in an instant.
“Hm,” said Samuel.
For a minute Lori thought the “hm” meant that they were lost—that this pocket in the shifts had been a mistake. But then she followed his gaze and realized the detached noise of vague curiosity was meant for a jarring detail lodged in the picturesque, frigid world around them: the tail end of an overturned car.
“Someone probably just left it here after they lost control and went into the bank,” Lori chattered, clutching the furs. “Let’s keep moving.”
“Just a minute,” said Samuel. “There’s death here.”
The way he said it was so calm, so casual, that he might have been commenting on the color of the vehicle. Lori trudged after him through the snow, wondering how he could sound so complacent about the whole thing and yet obviously care enough to go and see. The back of the car was smashed in. That didn’t seem right, given that it had gone nose-first into the snow bank, but suspicion went out of Lori’s mind as the rest of the grisly metal mess distracted her. Glass was everywhere, but the interior held one of the most macabre scenes she had seen in a while…which was saying something. Two people, a man and a woman, sat in the front seats. Rather, they hung there, tangled by seatbelts. Like limp, wingless bats they hovered over the upended roof. What might once have had the potential to become a substantial pool of blood at their feet had turned into a twisted array of delicate red icicles clinging all around, frozen in mid-drip.
She drew a deep breath. “That’s a lot of blood.”
“Too much, for a wreck like this,” Samuel agreed. “Nobody went through the windshield. The only glass that’s broken is the window at the back.”
“So someone broke in after they crashed.”
Samuel nodded and forced himself halfway into the car to get a closer look at the bodies. “Their eyes are out,” he reported. “And someone’s snapped their necks.”
Lori fell silent. It was impossible that Despernot had done this. He was gone, lost at sea, whole countries and oceans away. And yet her last memories of Foxe stumbling around the deck made her connect him to this. If it was him, somehow, that might mean he was following her. He would have known that she would try to get to The Masque. He might even get there before she did and be waiting to kill her.
“Are you all right?” Samuel asked. He had pulled himself out of the car again and was peering at her curiously. “We don’t need to stay.”
“No, I’m okay. I just…this reminded me of Despernot.”
“What about it?”
“Not ‘it.’ He’s a guy. A crazy guy. The ghost from the ship.”
Samuel’s expression drifted from curious toward the realm of confused. “Despernot is the ship. That’s its name.”
Lori opened her mouth to argue and then sighed. “Of course it is.” What was one more lie from the blue-eyed menace? She stuffed her hands deeper into the folds of the furs. “Well, whoever he was, he liked to put people’s eyes out.”
“Hm,” Samuel said again. “That’s good.”
“How is that good?”
“Because it might mean he’s nearby.”
Lori stared at him. “Um, excuse me, but a deranged, undead serial killer being in the area is not a good thing.”
“You forget, I’m looking for him. What I’m after wasn’t on his ship, which means he has it.”
“And what is—hang on,” Lori interrupted herself in sudden realization. “You haven’t been taking me to The Masque at all, have you? You’ve just been hunting him!”
Samuel gave her an embarrassed shrug.
“Oh my god. Okay, you know what? Forget it. Just take me home. Or, no, just to the nearest patch of In-shift or whatever-the-hell. Get me to a police station and leave me there.”
“Foxe, I don’t think–”
“Listen to me,” he said gently. She hated how earnest he looked. “I am taking you to The Masque. Your ghost just happens to be going the same way. It’s a bit disturbing, really, but it works in both of our favors.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“What can I do so that you will?”
She hesitated a moment, thankful for the frozen air that kept her tears away. “Just give me directions,” she said at last. “Tell me how to get somewhere safe.”
She wanted desperately to believe that he hadn’t been dragging her along as bait for Despernot, but there were too many coincidences. His main concern was not her safety or destination; that much was clear. She ought to have known better than to trust him. Plainly, none of the lessons she had so recently learned were sinking in.
“All right,” he said. “You have your furs, you have your owl feathers. You’ll be fine. Just go a mile east and look for a stream. Step over it, and you should be in a castle in Ireland. Then you’ll….” He trailed off and stared at something beyond her shoulder. Lori wasn’t stupid enough to ask what was wrong. She simply turned, ever so slightly, to see what he did.
It wasn’t Despernot, but there was someone watching them. He stood several yards away, leaning against a snow-laden tree. He was wearing nothing at all, but most of his body seemed to be covered in patches of hardened black paint, like he had fallen into a pot of ink. His hair was dark, although greying in noticeable places, and his eyes were a frightening shade of silver. Lori wasn’t sure how silver could be frightening, but he managed it. His gaze was eerie…and it didn’t help when he started towards them.
“Please tell me you know him,” she whispered to Samuel.
“No,” he admitted, “but I think he’s an Ithen.”
In answer, he grabbed her hand and began to run. The man with silver eyes called after them—rather he threw an inarticulate jumble of sound at their backs. Lori tripped and stumbled over her sandals, until finally they caught on something under the snow and she went to the ground in a flurry of furs and flailing.
Samuel was at her side in an instant, but no sooner had he extricated her from the snow than their pursuer was there, too. He laid a hand on Samuel’s back, and Lori saw a measurable change come over her companion’s mild countenance. The edges of his suit began to shine with frost. Slowly, he stood and faced the silver eyes.
“What do you want?”
Silver eyes looked blank for a moment, and then his mouth stretched into a desperate, frustrated cry with no sound. It was awful, embarrassing to watch, and Lori actually found herself struggling not to look away.
“Did you do this?” Samuel asked, pointing at the car.
The stranger managed to shake his head in disagreement, but the words still would not come. His frustration mounted and he began to pace in the snow. He wrung his hands and ground his teeth, and when Samuel told him to be calm he spun about and grabbed him by the throat.
Lori ran. She kicked her sandals off and flew through the snow as fast as she could. The stream was a mile away; she had been pretty good at running seven minute miles in high school, but it had been a while and she had just spent several weeks starving to death at sea. She estimated that it would take her a good twelve or thirteen minutes, at the best, to reach the next pocket.
Breathing tore at her lungs. The cold stabbed her face and made her eyes water, messing with her vision, which was almost useless anyway given how monotonous and uninterruptedly white the landscape was. How was she supposed to find a stream in all of this? It would be frozen and buried in mountains of snow. She could completely miss it and go running forever until she froze to death or was caught.
She stopped and stood where she was, shivering. She turned in each direction, scanning her surroundings for anything distinguishable. Samuel and the stranger were lost to sight, leaving her very much alone in the white wasteland. Running was probably not necessary any more, but she at least needed to keep moving. Her best hope was that another car would come along. She set off in the same winding direction she had been following and two steps later found herself in someone’s basement.
The change in temperature was difficult, as was the static that tingled in her ears for a long while after. She looked down at her poor feet and found them to be all sorts of fun colors that they shouldn’t. They also—along with the rest of her—shouldn’t have been in a basement at all. Samuel had said she would end up in a castle, which—judging by the washing machine and domestic paraphernalia—this clearly was not. However, all was not entirely lost. Her goal had been to get somewhere safe, to recover a bit, and then to carry on to The Masque by more normal, living means. This place was safe enough. Assuming the unsuspecting family upstairs would be nice enough to help her reach a police station, she was going to be fine.
She headed up the stairs, ignoring the heart-like thump of the washing machine that seemed to swell and follow her. The door at the top opened onto a hallway with closed rooms on either side. She moved quietly along it, her furs depositing a trail of snow on the carpet. The hallway led her to a living room that looked like something straight out of a home improvement magazine. It barely looked lived in at all, so meticulous was everything. In fact, it was perfect to the point of being disturbing. Lori decided that she would just look for a phone and then get out.
“What are you doing here?” said a deep, growling voice. A man stepped out of the kitchen ahead, an apron wrapped around his massive waist. He wasn’t fat, just huge—the biggest mountain of a man Lori had ever seen. He wore tall black boots and had scraggly, unkempt hair to match.
“I just…I’m sorry,” Lori stammered. “I got lost.”
“In my basement?”
“Um. Yeah. Sorry.”
He frowned down at her, setting aside the dish towel he had been drying his hands on. “Well. You’re in trouble, I suppose.”
Lori hesitated and then gave a small nod. “Do you have a phone?” she asked.
“I don’t think you understood me,” the man replied. He reached deep into a pocket of his apron and pulled out a gleaming knife with a blade longer than Lori’s forearm. “You’re in a whole new trouble.”
(Look for the beginning of chapter 9 on Monday evening! Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook…..but mostly Instagram….@companyofsouls)