[CHAPTER 12]: In the downwards city
Lori had only a vague memory of the last few hours. Or maybe it had been longer than that. There was something working its way through her system—some drug cocktail or other dissolving itself in her veins. She both desperately wanted it to go away and needed it to stay and numb her brain. But there was something wrong with the walls that soon made her look past the crushing oblivion.
The hospital walls had been white, but these were grey and made of stone. They were shiny with damp, and she was beginning to smell stagnant water and a faint tinge of mold. Not exactly the sterile environment she was supposed to have woken up to. She rolled on her side and did not feel the pull of restraints. Her throat was dry and tasted like half a dozen old socks.
“Lori?” said a voice. “Can you hear me?”
“Not crazy,” she mumbled, a thin film of saliva pooling on her pillow.
“I know you aren’t. Try to relax. We’re in New York now.”
She was pretty sure she was opening her eyes, but nothing around her made sense. The room with the damp walls was empty, except for a skeleton. “New York smells funny,” she managed.
The skeleton shrugged. “We’re underground. Peter calls it Ostevadel. We haven’t seen any of the Ithen who are supposed to be here.”
“Don’t go,” Lori said, responding to a sudden surge of fear. She wasn’t sure why, but she had the distinct feeling that the skeleton was going to abandon her—or perhaps had already abandoned her somewhere before. Nothing was clear, except the stabbing beat of her heart.
“I won’t,” it replied. “I’m staying right here. Go to sleep, Lori. You’ll feel better when you wake.”
She drew her knees to her chest and pulled the thin blanket over her shoulders. As she drifted and dreamed, the skeleton stayed. He stayed as she found herself lost in a myriad of nightmares, in which a blue-eyed demon stretched its black shadow wings over her aunt, cousins, godfather, and father and ripped them all to bloody ribbons that blew away in a thunderstorm. He stayed as her visions gradually became kinder and she sat with a frost-bitten man on the edge of a bustling pier, taking in the sweet smell of the sea. When she woke again, at the end of it all, the skeleton was still there.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“Not great,” she replied. She wanted to say ‘awful,’ but her head was at last beginning to clear, and so she supposed he had been right about her feeling better. “What happened? How’d we get to New York?”
He drew his chair closer. “Peter stole you. He’s frighteningly good at that. We had to go through a few more shifts, but we made it in pretty good time. You were in and out of consciousness…you don’t remember any of it?”
“No. Was I embarrassing?”
“Well, you did drool on Peter’s coat a bit, but other than that, not really. You’re…probably going to be in a bit of pain,” he added apologetically. “We didn’t steal any medication. Or crutches. So, you’ll want to stay in bed for a bit until we can get some. That’s what Peter’s out doing now.”
“Done,” said a voice from the doorway. They both turned, and the fool smiled at them, holding aloft a pair of crutches. “Don’t ask how, just be profuse in your gratitude.”
“Wasn’t going to ask,” Lori sighed. “Thanks.”
“We might need to go over what ‘profuse’ means, but that will do for now.” He leaned the crutches against the wall next to her bed. “I’m going to do another sweep of this place. It’s bothersome that we haven’t come across any Ithen yet.”
“What do we do if one happens to stumble across us?” asked Aidan.
“Just tell it you’re with the company. With me specifically. It shouldn’t want to hurt a skeleton.”
“But what about me?” said Lori.
“No fun in killing a cripple,” the fool replied. The pause after his words was less than reassuring, but before either of them could protest, he left. Lori collapsed back against the pillow and watched the slimy ceiling. She found that she wasn’t worried about the Ithen. So there might be some undead people interested in killing her; so what? That was nothing new. It was the thought that she might get left alone again which was decidedly more terrifying.
“What are you going to do,” she asked the skeleton, “once this is all over?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I hadn’t really thought about it.”
Lori wondered on his behalf, because thinking about someone else’s problems was a cathartic distraction. Ghosts like Peter could pass as living, if they wanted. They could move through the shifts with the aid of owls and take some small part in the world. They could interact—order coffee, see a movie, sit in a park….all things the skeleton could never do. He would have to find somewhere he belonged Out-shift. She imagined him settling down in some dead corner of existence, maybe with a ghost friend or two, for all eternity. It was bleak, depressing to think about, and she began to realize why he hadn’t yet given his future any thought.
“Sorry,” she said.
She might not have apologized if she had known the reason why he was so ready to forgive her for bringing up such a personal topic. For while she previewed his miserable fate for him, Aidan was wrestling with the decision of whether or not to tell her about Despernot. If it had been the other way around, he would have wanted to know that he was still being stalked by a murderer. But, on the other hand, it was not the other way around. Lori had been through so much, and from the look on her face was only now beginning to relax even the slightest of bits. He wasn’t sure he wanted to ruin that. Let her heal, let her rest, and then they could talk about her personal plague.
The glimpse of relaxation he had seen was rapidly turning into exhaustion. Lori struggled to keep her eyes open, her breath coming slower and deeper. She had a lot of healing to do yet, in many ways. For a brief moment, Aidan wanted to do something fatherly for her. He had the urge to place his hand on her arm, or to adjust the covers for her. But before he could muster up the courage, she was asleep again. He gave a little sigh and let his hand fall into his lap. It sat there, limp and lonely without its partner to fold with. The talk of what he would do after they fixed this—if such a thing was possible—had made Aidan remember exactly what he had lost: his skill, his livelihood, the means to do anything about his passion.
If I die again, he wondered, will I come back with a new arm? Is it a re-set, so to speak, or will I just make things worse? He entertained the idea for a few moments before remembering Peter’s explanation of what returning to and crossing the white bridge multiple times could do to a person. The slim possibility of regaining a lost limb was not worth the spiritual wear-and-tear. For the moment, at least, being whole of soul was worth more to him than being whole of body.
But that being said, exactly how ‘whole’ could his soul be when he didn’t even know who he was? When he was torn between some identity he had begun to carve for himself with a stolen name and the person he actually was, whom he didn’t know at all? The only thing that had felt right was art, and now that was gone. Now nothing was right. Nothing was certain. If only he could have a glimpse into Tristan Hathaway’s life, perhaps he would see something familiar. Perhaps he could stop thinking of himself as Aidan and let poor Lori’s father rest in peace.
He made sure that she was still asleep before standing and quietly making his way to the door. He would be back in only a few moments; all he wanted was to find Peter. The fool owed him more than an explanation of the horrors he had committed against them. He owed Aidan information about who he had been and the chance to become that person again. If anyone was responsible for fixing all of the things that were wrong, it was the fool, and so he set off down the torch-lit, twisting corridors of the underground Ithen city.
In less than half an hour, he was hopelessly lost.
(TCOS continues on Thursday!)