“My name is Lori.”
Aidan sat with her on Black Boots’ couch. She was wrapped in a blanket with a plate of toast and a glass of water in front of her. He couldn’t have put an arm around her frail form even if he’d felt compelled; she was sitting on the side where he now had only a shoulder. Peter sat in a chair across from them, hunched over like some ponderous bird.
“Can you tell us what happened, Lori?” Aidan asked.
“It’s a long story,” she sighed. “But you know some of it. I was looking for him,” she said with a tired glance at Peter. “I had a photograph and a few tips, did a lot of research…found out about all the people he’s killed.”
“What were you going to do once you found me?” Peter frowned.
“Everybody keeps asking me that. I don’t know. I still don’t know. I can’t think about that right now.”
“You don’t have to,” Aidan nodded. “So you went looking for him, with your godfather….”
“Yeah.” Her voice choked a bit and she took a sip of water. “We found this ship. It was carrying mummies for you,” she said to Peter. “That’s where my godfather died. Despernot killed him.”
“That probably wasn’t his real name,” she admitted. “He was insane. Black hair, light blue eyes. He didn’t like you at all, but your name was on the shipping manifest. He knew all about you and your boss and what you’ve done.”
Peter sat up a bit straighter and ran a hand through his hair, which was less impressively spikish now. “Was the ship coming from Egypt?”
“I think so, yeah.”
“Then you’re right. It belonged to The Masque. Sir Hugo used to buy corpses from all around the world to keep his theatre functioning as a place of Both. Mummies were less suspicious to ship; nobody asks funny questions if you want an ancient dead body. We never did get any though,” he added thoughtfully. “Our shipments kept going astray. I suppose I can blame this Despernot person for that.”
Lori was quiet for a moment. “Maybe,” she said at last. “Samuel might have had a hand in it, too. He’s the one who saved me from the ship. Despernot said he tried to stop them, back in Egypt. I guess it’s possible that he could have prevented other ships from bringing you mummies.”
“What was he like, this Samuel?”
“He was…all right,” she replied. “Nice, I guess. He wasn’t alive, but he wasn’t dead, somehow. He was only a bit darker than me, but frostbitten. There were always icicles in his hair and patches of it on his skin, no matter how warm it was.”
The fool leaned forward. “He wasn’t alive or dead?” When Lori nodded, he sat back again, looking as if someone had just told him that a box of puppies was on its way. “That’s fantastic news. Where is he now?”
“I don’t know. We got attacked. He told me to run.”
“Attacked? By whom?”
“An Ithen? I think that’s what he called it. It was a guy. He had silver eyes and was covered in inky stuff.”
Both of them stared at her. It was Peter who spoke first, although Aidan had been close behind, opening his mouth a second too late. “So either the Ithen are having domestic issues, or Samuel is something else. Maybe he’s….hm.”
They waited for him to share with the class. The excitement illuminating the fool’s eyes was infectious, and Aidan found himself daring to hope. For what, he wasn’t sure. Some sort of a breakthrough in their stagnant situation. Some sort of clue as to what came next, what direction they should take…what decisions should lead them there.
“Sir Hugo knows more than I do,” the fool said. “He’s told me all kinds of things about the Ithen. I even met one myself, once. They’re druids,” he explained, “in a way. Ages and ages ago they were a clan of living people who believed strongly in the presence of the world beyond and the power of death. They worshipped it and dedicated their lives to trying to harness its powers. To beat it. They’re the ones who discovered the shifts—who brought that knowledge into the living world. Eventually, they figured out how to be both living and dead and how to move between the shifts without owl bits or any other aid.”
“That sounds useful,” said Lori.
“Yes, and damned dangerous, too. Multiple trips back to the road will warp you. Being dead too long will break your spirit. But being neither? It strips you of your humanity. You become a ruin of flesh and bone—an empty sheet without even a ghost. Death is their drug, and they can’t go a second without it. They’ve been pretty quiet this century, but they used to do things such as hire themselves out as mercenaries, just to get their fix of bloodshed. Just to keep going without going mad.”
“…okay, now they sound pretty awful. But you’re saying Samuel’s something else?”
“Possibly. I know less about this, but…the Ithen I met told me that at the very beginning, when they were first discovering the shifts, factions started forming within their clan. The majority wanted the power, wanted to be able to use death to their advantage. But there were some who simply wanted to understand and worship its power without completely abusing it. When the Ithen were off finding occupations where they could cause death, the others were getting jobs as morticians, undertakers…anything that dealt in death without needing them to murder. That’s what it sounds like your Samuel is. And if so, he could be our best shot at stopping Sir Hugo and bringing down The Masque once and for all.”
“But if he’s not interested in murder,” said Aidan, “how will that help?”
The fool shrugged. “He cared enough to stop the ships from reaching us. He ought to at least be willing to help.”
“And what if Samuel’s…what if that Ithen killed him?” Lori asked. “What do we do then?”
“Hell’s hammock, you people are difficult.” The fool thought about it for a moment and then gave a grim smile. “Well, then we’ll just have to go to New York City. That’s where the Ithen are.”
“What would a bunch of death druids be doing there?” Aidan interrupted. He was imagining them taking in a Broadway show or strolling around Times Square.
“And why would we want to run into them?” Lori added.
“Because if the one I met is still there, we might not need Samuel at all. He’s old. Uninterested in bathing in blood any more. But he might be convinced to help us. He still needs death, after all.”
Lori looked uncertain. Aidan shared the feeling; his memories of the silver-eyed fiend combined with her tale of its attack did not recommend the Ithen very highly—even their senior citizens.
“Hey,” Peter said, “at least now we have something of a plan! We’ll keep an eye out for Samuel and make our way to New York City.”
“You and I will,” Aidan corrected. “We need to get Lori to safety first.”
“No, I’m coming with you,” Lori said.
Peter didn’t speak. Aidan supposed that, as her father’s murderer, he must feel that he had no place telling her what to do. But thankfully, as a vaguely invested stranger, Aidan had that luxury. “You’ve been through a lot already,” he said, trying to choose his words carefully. “You don’t need to suffer through anything more. You could go home, live your life…something the rest of us can’t do any more. Trust me; you don’t want to end up dead.”
“No,” she agreed. “But I also don’t want my godfather’s death to be pointless. I led him onto that ship. It’s my fault he’s dead. I may run into him again or I may not, but, if I do, I want to be able to tell him it was for something. Same with my dad,” she said, meeting Peter’s eyes. “You killed him for a reason, as much as I hate it and think you’re an idiot. But you were hoping to escape this situation and set things right, so…I’d like to help with that. I’d like to see this Sir Hugo guy go down.”
Again, Aidan was struck by the supreme irony of the situation. For one thing, their only foreseeable hope might turn out to be another enemy. No points awarded for brilliancy there. He also found it doubtful that many people could say they were placing their trust in the guidance of their murderer or—in Lori’s case—their father’s murderer. It was sick and bitterly amusing; a laughable idea. There was so much standing between them all, and none of it was trust.
“Eat your toast,” Peter said at last. “If you can’t keep up I’m dropping you at the nearest hospital. This is a horrible idea.”
“Yeah, I know.” She ate, and while she did Peter began to search the house for another gateway. It would be pointless to retrace their steps; they needed to find a way forward, not back. Aidan sat in companionable silence with her until she had finished her meal and sank back against the couch.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked. “What happened here, I mean.”
“Not really. In fact, I’d rather forget it.”
“If you’re sure….”
She gave a short nod and then frowned, her face wrinkling with uncomfortable memories. “Well, there is one thing I suppose you might as well know. He told me he was working for Sir Hugo. He was trying to make this a place of Both.”
Aidan nodded. “Yes, he mentioned that to us, too.”
“Oh. Well, there you go.”
The quiet washed over them again, crushing their thoughts beneath it. There was much they could have said to each other, many questions that could have been asked, but neither had the strength for it. They were exhausted by everything, and thought they would never say it, both of them just wanted to go home, wherever that was.
“I’ve found it,” said Peter. He leaned over the back of the couch. “All done? Shall we go?”
Aidan stood, and then one of the questions that had been drifting around the inside of his skull worked its way down to his jaws. “I was wondering,” he said. “Why would Sir Hugo have anyone making places of Both? I mean, it seems very random, doesn’t it? What purpose does it serve?”
“He said he wasn’t the only one,” Lori spoke up. “He told me there were others working for Sir Hugo, all over the world. He said he was proud to be part of the company.”
Peter frowned. “It doesn’t make sense. So he’s got people all over the world making places of Both? Why? What does that accomplish, aside from giving the dead a few more buildings they can enter? And if that’s the point, then shouldn’t they be focusing on strategically important buildings? Not people’s basements?”
“Don’t look at us,” said Aidan. “We don’t work for him.”
“Actually, Bare Bones, you do. But clearly our esteemed director has a side business.”
“Or the theatre is the side business,” said Lori.
The fool mumbled in agreement, but Aidan found himself thinking of the poet with the quill through her eye—Sir Hugo’s daughter. Their conversation had been brief and, at the time, nonsensical, but it came back to him now in bits. She had told him that Sir Hugo was messing around with death. Of course he had assumed she was talking about The Masque and the crimes Sir Hugo had committed to staff it, but now he thought she might have meant more. She had also said something about a way to get rid of him, but he couldn’t recall what it was. All he remembered was that it hadn’t made any sense. He could see her telling him, the quill in her mess of an eye trembling as she absently stroked its feathers. But he couldn’t remember.
“Whatever it is,” the fool was saying, “it’s probably something disastrous. Which just means we need to hurry up and get to New York City. Lori, take Aid—Tristan’s shoes. He doesn’t need them. Take his coat, too. I’ll see what else I can find.” He vanished off into the other rooms and returned minutes later with a nicely folded outfit: women’s jeans and a maroon long-sleeved shirt. Aidan didn’t want to think about whose clothes they might have been.
Lori slipped off to change and when she came back she took his coat and shoes. The fool put his arms around both of them, squeezing Aidan’s empty shoulder with what the scene-painter felt was an inappropriate amount of enthusiasm. He took a barn owlet from one of his pockets and held it out to Lori. She made a face and, with a sigh, he began stuffing the bird down the front of her jeans.
“What’re you doing?” she squeaked, slapping his hand away.
“Your pockets are next to non-existent.”
“And who picked them out for me?” She snatched the owlet from him and dangled it gingerly by one stiff claw. A slight smile twinkled in Peter’s eyes.
“Fair enough,” he said. “But hold on to that owl, darling, or you may find yourself someplace worse, where your pockets will be the least of your worries.”
“I know how this works,” she shot back. She slipped the owlet into Aidan’s coat pocket, glaring at the fool the entire time. Then she went to the kitchen and searched until she found a steak knife. She placed it in the coat as well and rejoined them, arms folded across her thin chest. “Ready.”
“Good thing she’s not your daughter, Bare Bones,” Peter grinned. “I like her.”
“You’re terrible,” Aidan replied.
The fool laughed and led the way to a study that branched off of the house’s main hallway. The gateway had helpfully been marked on a wall with a crude X in black paint—perhaps Black Boots’ way of reminding himself not to accidently walk through it. It stood between two bookcases full of medical textbooks and photos of birds. Peter took the first step, vanishing into thin air. Aidan followed, and together suffocation swarmed them again as they melted through the wall. He heard Lori gasp in the abrupt darkness.
When the world began to make sense again they stood in the catacomb Peter had spoken of earlier. However, the fool wouldn’t hear of them stopping yet and they were off once more, arriving this time on the edge of a graveyard overlooked by breath-taking mountains. They picked their way through unkempt grass paths and toothy headstones for a few yards before he turned to them and whispered, keeping his voice hushed to accommodate the resting places of the dead around them.
“We can do this,” he said, the devious smirk replaced with an expression of earnestness. “I think things are finally turning.”
Owls and bits firmly secured, they followed his bright blue coattails as he led them to the gated doors of a mausoleum. One step over its threshold and the world would be sucked away to await the unfolding of a new horizon. Aidan stole a glance at Lori before he took the plunge. Her jaw was set, her focus dead ahead, the hilt of the knife firmly in her grasp.
(TCOS continues next Monday!)