[CHAPTER TEN]: Tangles
The commitment of a psychopath can be impressive. It took Black Boots only a fraction of the time it took most people to cross the bridge and return to what he knew he was destined to be doing. When he stepped through the wall of his study, his neck wrapped in a bloody tangle of rags, he felt an overwhelming sense of relief. He was home. He could begin his work again.
The red-head and the skeleton had taken one of the girls. It was no matter; he could easily find another. He began to gather ideas, and as he thought he cleaned. Soon the dishes were done, the washing machines started again, and the blood removed from floors and carpets as best he could. He hummed to himself and did not notice the stranger who stepped through the painted X a few hours later.
It was a stranger with a sunken face and pale blue eyes underneath snow-flecked black hair. He was kept going by loss and loneliness and something sick that constricted within him. It sat at the bottom of his brain-bowl and festered—a mass of congealed panic and insanity. He could barely concentrate on a single task at any given moment, and right now it was finding the fox.
He wandered into the kitchen, where Black Boots was hanging his cleaning towels up to dry. “Where is she?” he said, as if the man already knew he was there. His arrival was so casual, so unobtrusive, that Black Boots actually asked, “Who?” before rounding on him in alarm.
“Foxe,” the stranger said. “Or Lori. The same. Where is she?”
“Did Sir Hugo send you?” the towering ghost demanded. Even as he said it he knew the answer. He doubted he would ever trust anyone with that question again.
“In a way. He hired me once, a long time ago. I went on a ship and never came back.” The stranger glanced around, taking in the spotless kitchen, the gleaming tiles, the table set for one. He noted the knives by the sink and a small smile wormed its way onto his lips as he realized there was one missing and no dishes in the sink or running in the wash. “You’re ill,” he said. “You’ve always been. Did your illness take her life?”
Black Boots wrapped a gargantuan fist around the stranger’s neck and lifted him off the ground until they were eye to eye. As he hissed, the slit in his neck moved uncomfortably. “I don’t have time for you,” he said. “Move along. I have work to do.”
The stranger spoke, but his lips did not move. His voice filled in the cracks in Black Boots’ faulty perception, waking him up to nightmares he hadn’t known were there. It whispered things he couldn’t quite hear, but that echoed like thunder in his head. It crept under his thoughts until it was his own voice, until he began to believe the things that it said. And once that happened, he lost track of himself completely.
The cleaning towels never got put away. The stranger left them and their owner alone, drifting through the house a bit until he was satisfied nothing had been missed. He paced in the hall for a while, working through his own confusion. His mind was weak sometimes. It came with the territory. But at last he worked it out and understood the only path that made any sense for the fox to have taken. He went on his way, and the thing he left behind to cower in the dark was no longer even a ghost.
Aidan, Lori, and Peter arrived at the foot of a dark, monstrous hill with one mutual thought: they were in the wrong place again. Only the fool knew where they ought to have arrived after the last two gateways, but the others quickly fell victim to an unsettling pull in the gut. They fixed their eyes on the far-away tops of dark, leafy trees at the crest of the hill. An awful lot of wind was beginning to kick up in the valley, but everything above was eerily motionless. Aidan didn’t like it at all. His ankle-bones trembled and his five remaining fingers danced nervously at his side.
“Are we lost?” Lori asked in a hushed voice.
“Of course not, Snow Globe,” said Peter. “This is just another unscheduled stop. All we have to do is find the next gateway.”
“Snow Globe?” Lori frowned.
“Would you rather I called you Chrome Dome?”
She glared at him, but fell into step as they began to climb the hill. The way was steep, and Lori was out of breath by the time they arrived on the hill’s crown. They stood at the lip of a glad of monolithic trees. The great ugly things had looked large from below but now they seemed impossibly huge. Their trunks were oddly twisted—as if some giant hand had taken hold of their brittle bodies and given them a firm squeeze with a quick turn of the wrist to mutate their mighty forms. Their limbs, heavy with blackish leaves, bent like creeping tentacles into the center of the glade. It felt horribly as if they were reaching out to seize the intruders into their silent sanctuary.
“Don’t let them bully you,” Peter whispered to Aidan. “As soon as they know you’re scared, they’ll eat you alive.”
The skeleton scene-painter turned to him in alarm, but Peter grinned. “They’re just trees, Bare Bones. Help me look for the gateway.”
Wind was wailing in their ears and sending prickles down their spines as the sky glowed a faint, sickly green. The branches slithered forward just the slightest bit—leaves utterly silent. Aidan moved off in one direction, Peter in another, while Lori began taking hesitant steps toward the center of the grove. She was shivering in her borrowed clothes, and the last Aidan saw of her expression before she vanished into the maze of trunks was a far cry from the grim resolve of before.
Pale white stones lined the ground he had chosen to tread. They were small, scattered here and there, but Aidan was still forcibly reminded of the bridge. He was also conscious of how loudly the naked bones of his feet echoed in the stillness. The further he strayed from the mouth of the grove, the more the trees seemed to lean in upon him. Say something, they dared. They already knew he was afraid; there could be no doubt about that.
Suddenly there was a scream. “Lori!” he cried, but just as he had spun about and made to run back, something thick wrapped itself around his waist, crushing his ribs. He had half a second to look down and see a blackened, muscular branch before it gave a tremendous yank and whipped him through the air. Twigs snapped and leaves broke from their steams in a shower of dying colors as he went crashing into the top of the tree. If he had had skin to cover his bones, it would have been shredded to bits as the monster dragged him down through its branches with ferocious speed.
He landed hard on his back across a thick limb, somewhere within the dense canopy of leaves and branches. All became still, as if the tree had not just come to life and attacked. He lay there, draped over the branch like one of Dali’s melting clocks, afraid to move.
Lori’s scream had long since died, and he hoped she hadn’t gone with it. There was no sound of her, or of Peter, and it was plain that calling for help would do no good. As if in confirmation, one of the smaller branches crept up his chest and brushed the smooth body of a leaf against his mouth.
Tree-tentacles wound over his bones again, slipping between his ribs and pulling him to his feet with a touch far gentler than before. They balanced him so that he was facing the gigantic trunk of the tree. It was sheathed in the same shadowy bark—riddled with knots and glowing faintly green in the dim light.
Aidan thought he was beginning to smell smoke. He held very still, not daring to breathe, and waited to be snapped in half, ripped apart, or otherwise destroyed. Leaving The Masque seemed, at the moment, to have been a terrible idea. He fought with the notion that it would have been far better to have both arms and spend his days painting in blissful artistic contentment. Let all the shifts bow down and collapse in chaos; it would have been far better to ignore cryptic poets and paranoid pianists and, ultimately, rest in peace.
But how much peace could there have been?
The black leaves rustled, finally catching the wind. A hundred serpent voices lifted from the noise, drifting like ghosts through his mind. He could not be sure whether or not he imagined it, but he heard them say,
“We have them.”
He was terrified. Feebly, he tugged on one of the branches, but it held fast.
“We have everything you’ve lost.”
Something cut across his vision—a brief flash of vibrant light. The sounds and colors of a memory. He saw a long wooden fence at the end of a winding lane that he somehow knew and a house with a wide porch that he knew better. But then it was gone.
“We have what you’ve forgotten,” the invisible demons hissed. “Give us your death, and we will return it all.”
“My…my death?” Aidan managed to choke as a slender branch coiled around his throat. “But I’m already dead.”
Soot-stained bark scraped along his pale bones, leaving a thick black line. The burning smell was growing stronger. “Life, death…one is much as the other. Your heart does not beat, so we cannot ask for your life, though we would take it if we could.”
Twigs and leaves were beginning to close in around him, knitting themselves into impenetrable vices. Aidan twisted his head this way and that, trying desperately to catch sight of the ground. The voices taunted him, shedding their whispering outer layers to reveal a cold, hollow core of one. Only one voice, harsh and familiar. As it spoke at last without the others, Aidan recognized Sir Hugo’s unmistakable tones.
“So. Tristan Hathaway.”
Aidan decided it was best to say nothing. The branches under his clothes squeezed his bones painfully.
“Do you know what this place is, Tristan?”
He fought the urge to choke; the pressure from the branches and the increasing odor of smoke was overpowering.
“You will find no headstones, but this is a graveyard. Not so very long ago, innocent men and women were dragged up this hill and made to kneel on its crown. Their eyes were bound, and their hands and feet were fastened to wooden beams as the cruel faces of a bigoted town looked on them. They were lit aflame. Smoke and fire licked the flesh from their bones and drained them to ash by the morning.”
Sir Hugo’s voice drifted closer, and Aidan could almost imagine he felt breath against his skull. “But there was no wind that day. Nothing to carry the innocent dregs of human life away from the place of their murder. And so they sank into the ground and became imbedded in the land. And before long the hill gave birth to dark saplings whose trunks grew twisted and whose leaves died without falling. That is the place you have come to. And this is where you shall stay. You have interfered twice now, and that is more than enough.”
Branches slid in through his eye sockets. Aidan’s back arched involuntarily against the intrusion, but by now there was so many tree limbs wound about his bones that the movement didn’t even lift his feet from the branch they had been balanced on. Sir Hugo’s voice melted into the scheming of leaves as the tree slowly built a cocoon.
“Death is mine,” it said with a harshness that pained his senses. “She is mine, and I can do with the world as I wish. She will harm no one without my permission. She will tear down anyone I want with a single glance.”
Somewhere, muffled and distant, came the sound of wings. Aidan’s jaw had been pried open and he stood inside his blackened shell of wood and leaves in the throes of a silent scream as the noise drew closer. Soon it filled the air on all sides, flapping and beating against the dead breeze. There must be dozens of wings. They must have followed him from The Masque, braving the sunlight to hunt down their prey.
A tremor coursed through the tree at exactly the same moment as the crackling of flames joined the wings. Aidan felt his entire body rattle. The branches were quivering; a few even loosened their grip, but then…the entire top of the tree burst into flames.
Fiery orange and yellow blossomed through the dense growth that hemmed Aidan in and he felt a wave of heat break through his prison. All at once he was falling. Branches unknotted in rapid succession as fire raged up the tree’s trunk. He met with other limbs on the way down, smashing through the more brittle ones and bouncing clumsily off others in a mad spiral to the ground.
Either he hadn’t been as high up as he had thought, or else he was getting used to pain, because landing wasn’t nearly as agonizing as he had anticipated. He kissed the grass on impact and lay there for a moment, stunned, before wobbling to his feet. One leg of his pants was singed beyond repair and his shirt was gently smoldering, but that was nothing compared to what the tree was going through. It was a swaying monolith of flame—an enormous, jagged black tower lit with a halo of fire. From where he stood, Aidan could see at least two other trees that had gone up in flames, and as he squinted through the light and smoke he finally understood why.
(TCOS continues this Thursday!)