(When your scheduled upload doesn’t upload as scheduled….whoops. Here it is, enjoy!)
Peter was by no means fully acquainted with the inner-workings of the stone labyrinth that was Ostevadel, either. He had been here only once before and had no idea of its full scope. He knew that it ought to have contained at least one Ithen, but he was beginning to realize that he could search forever and never find anybody, even if a hundred people were lurking in the damp corridors.
The last time he had been inside this grim excuse for a city, he had been leaving one of the most unsettling meetings of his afterlife. It had all been an accident; a trip gone awry. In fact, it had been Eve’s trip; the night he had murdered her for Sir Hugo.
He had been late starting out from The Masque; there had been some trouble with tickets and over-sold seats. He should have taken it as a sign that tonight was not the night to be attempting anything serious, but he took an owl and made his way to Julliard. Somehow, the last step on his path vanished. A tiny private cemetery in the New York countryside was supposed to end up in an apartment complex near the school, but tonight the apartments simply weren’t there. His feet left the grass of the cemetery and landed on the cold stone floor of…somewhere. There were torches on the walls. Actual torches, with fire. For one maddening moment, Peter entertained the idea that he had somehow slipped back in time. It was terribly cold despite the flames. He could hear the wind whistling like a train lost in a tunnel.
“Do I look like I care what he says?” a sharp voice echoed out of the darkness. Peter pressed himself against a wall and held his breath out of habit.
“You ought to care, Lesek,” said another, softer voice. Both seemed to be male. “We need to keep a low profile at this point. Someone knows about us.”
“I’m sure lots of people do. There was a time when we didn’t hide in tunnels.”
“That was before our numbers started going down. We have a real problem, Lesek, and you can’t just run off whenever the mood strikes. We have to be careful.”
The Lesek-voice had a sneer to it. “Careful. Yes, that’s a very accurate word for him these days, isn’t it? Careful. More like old.”
“We’re all old, Lesek.”
“But he’s everything that goes along with old. Senile, pathetic…he’s losing it, Yveren. He’s weak. In his mind and in his body. You can see it. I’m not going to waste away down here because his silver-eyed boyfriend says we play too roughly and exist too loudly.”
The second voice was no longer so soft. “Please don’t insinuate things. Lately, rumors and gossip are all our fellows have for entertainment. We are friends, Lesek, nothing more.”
A harsh laugh. “Well, you certainly spend a lot of time behind closed doors.”
“Have you considered that we might want to have a conversation without you?”
All right, Peter thought. Either I’ve landed in a nuthouse or some place that I really, really don’t belong. Slowly, he crept away from the voices. It would have been wiser, perhaps, to have simply found the gateway he came in by and taken the long way to Julliard from the cemetery, but so much time had already been lost and Sir Hugo had been very clear; the violinist was to be delivered at once.
He followed the torches and soon became aware that the voices were getting closer. This was impossible; they had definitely been behind him, before. But just as he had been certain of that, he was now sure that they were up ahead, just around a bend in the tunnel. This place was wrong. Drafty, full of deceptive echoes, and wrong.
“Morier got out,” the Lesek-voice was saying. “I’m starting to think he had the right idea.”
“Morier is a traitor,” the other voice replied with forced calm. “For all we know, he’s the one behind Heresh’s disappearance.”
“No, I’m pretty sure Heresh just left, too. Say, don’t you ever stop to think that maybe there isn’t a threat at all? Maybe he’s just making excuses for why everyone’s leaving, in the hopes that the rest of us will be too scared to follow.”
Peter turned and went the other way, hoping that this time he really was going away from the voices. But he hadn’t gone far when a new voice snaked it way out of the air and into his ears. “Don’t turn,” it said. It crept closer, until he could feel cold breath on his neck. “I was beginning to think you’d never notice me.”
“I’m willing to pretend I still haven’t.”
“How did you get in? Not by the front door….”
“I’m a ghost,” Peter replied. Sometimes the truth was the best cover. “I walk where I want.” He was aching to turn. His fingers slipped inside one of his coat pockets, curling around the cold handle of a pocket knife. “Who are you?”
“You heard them talking about me. You decide.”
“Old man with a silver-eyed boyfriend?”
“No worse than a ginger ghost in a blue coat.”
Despite himself, Peter felt a smile coming on. “Where am I, old man?”
“This place doesn’t make enough sense to be a city.”
“And yet it is. Mine. Did you bring any friends, ghost?”
“I’d have to have some first,” Peter replied. “What’s your city called?”
“…well that’s not helpful in the least.” Peter couldn’t stand it. He turned, ready to defend himself if need be, and was met by a pair of bloodshot red eyes set above hollowed cheeks in a face that was not old, but no longer young. The man they all belonged to was easily seven feet tall, and his thinness made Peter look like the picture of health.
“What’s the matter with your face?” the man asked. He was talking about the grease paint mask of white with black crosses for eyes–the mark of Sir Hugo’s fool.
“Nothing. It’s none of your business. Are you going to kill me or not?”
“You said you were a ghost.”
“Yes. What are you, a vampire?”
He shook his head. “Vampires and ghosts don’t exist; you and I know that. You and I know that there isn’t a name for what you are—for someone who has died and yet lives on, wandering through death with only a few scattered moments when he can step back into life. So you call yourself a ghost, because that’s easy. Because when you say “ghost,” people come as close to understanding as they ever will. I, however, have a name for what I am. I am an Ithen.”
“And what is that, exactly?”
A cold smile. “What is your name, ghost?”
Despite not wanting to, Peter found himself telling. It was an unspoken rule in their conversation; he would have to pay to play. “Peter Grey. What’s yours?”
“Esock? How the hell do you spell that?”
“I doubt you will ever need to. Come with me.” He turned to lead the way, but Peter took a step back.
“Ah, no, sorry, but I’ve someplace to be.” Fear of the impending wrath of Sir Hugo was tugging at him. He meant to ask how one escaped from the nonsensical tunnels of Ostevadel, but Isakj shook his head firmly and took the fool’s arm. His grip was none too gentle.
“It can wait.”
Peter was pulled along in a state of half terror, half curiosity. He had been dead for long enough to assume that he knew how it worked, but Isakj and these Ithen people were a reminder that he definitely did not. Death was still just as strange, just as new as it had been on the first day he had stepped across the bridge. Somehow, that was comforting. And besides, wouldn’t Sir Hugo be more pleased with him if he brought back knowledge of this place and its inhabitants than some violin prodigy?
That was how he justified Isakj taking him to a set of stone stairs that descended into the deepest darkness Peter had ever seen. They stood together at the top and did not speak for several minutes. Beneath them, a massive absence of sound filled the air. It was disconcerting, to say the least. As if someone had cut away a patch of reality and found nothing. There was nothing at all at the foot of those stairs, and it frightened Peter more than anything.
“So you feel it,” said Isakj. His expression was so satisfied that Peter began to imagine that this was some sort of joke. “Do you know what that is?” he asked.
“Why don’t you go down and find out?”
Peter backed away from the staircase until he nearly stood on Isakj’s foot. “Look, if you’re going to kill me you’ll need to do it yourself. I’m not going down there.”
Isakj smiled. “You may look ridiculous, but you’re sensible enough.” He hesitated and leaned his head to one side like a hound eyeing its prey. “Where are you off to, anyway?”
“I’m murdering someone,” Peter said. He left it at that, but Isakj seemed satisfied.
“Well, who am I to prevent the taking of a life?” He laid a bony white hand on Peter’s shoulder and steered him away from the stairs. “I don’t mind that you won’t go down there,” he said. “I merely wanted you to understand something.”
“I don’t think I understand anything.”
“Yes, you do. You understand that I have something you don’t wish to encounter. Something I can send to hunt down anyone I want, living or dead. You won’t be telling anyone about this place, will you?”
Peter managed his best fool’s grin—the infamous sort that said: I am on your side, and I don’t have enough marbles to be a threat. “Dead men tell no tales.”
Isakj took him through the labyrinth of torch-lined tunnels without another word. Peter tried to peer around corners, to look through cracks in wooden doors, but their journey up gave him no further information to bring back to The Masque. All he learned was that they had been deep, deep underground and that when Isakj finally ushered him through what looked like the basement of a building from the mid-20s they were in a part of New York City that he had never seen and that he would not see again for several decades.
Now that he was here again, the memory of that nothingness at the bottom of the stairs was driving him down through the city’s levels. It was bringing him a perverse sense of hope that perhaps they could ‘borrow’ whatever nasty thing Isakj had been hiding and use it against Sir Hugo. He had forgotten all about it until this frigid place had reminded him. A few too many trips across the bridge would have done that, as would a few too many instances of Sir Hugo swirling his mind about to rid of him of memories that might trigger pesky things like morals.
He still wasn’t sure how the disembodied director did that. Maybe there were blood-filled bits of ritual involved, passed down from the devil knew where. He had taken credit for it himself many times, but it was always Sir Hugo who somehow managed to find a way to turn people into clean slates.
There were the stairs. Peter came upon them so suddenly that he almost fell. He supposed he ought to have been disturbed by how readily he had found them in such a massive city after only having been brought to them once before, but he dwelt on this uncomfortable knowledge only a moment before beginning his descent. It was a long way down, which was a vast understatement, and as he walked the narrow staircase Peter’s thoughts had time to continue their backwards drift. They took him beyond the night he had met Isakj and killed Eve to the evening not so very long ago when he had murdered her for the second time. A hundred paper eyes watched him from the mirrors of his dressing room, winking and flirting with lifeless, dull seduction. Faces of long ago blurred before the narrowed centers of his dark crosses, and he reclined without relaxing in his usual cushioned chair, one elbow propped on its tattered arm and one white-gloved hand supporting his head.
Some vague thought knocked tentatively against his memory and reminded him in a reedy voice that he was supposed to be searching for the poet, who had gone missing from her room once again. Sir Hugo always got upset when she roamed the halls, and tonight he had been particularly annoyed about it, largely due to the other problem—Aidan Lawrence’s sudden allegiance with the pianist Liam Eastling.
For a while, Peter had pretended to search for the poet. He had poked his head into dressing rooms and offices for effect, but his mind had been anywhere else. Not even the director’s foul mood and his threat could force him to concentrate. Almost by accident he had returned to his dressing room, and when he found himself there he had given up even pretending to look.
His prized coat of brightest blue had fallen to the dust-stained floor. It lay there still, waiting to be rescued, but the fool couldn’t seem to care. He sat pensively in his white dress-shirt and scratched at the red, welting scar that ran a vicious three-sixty around his neck. Eve was in his thoughts. She was the three pronged hook that kept him from acting—that held him here in this raggedy chair while the whispers and doubts she had planted danced in his head. Tonight he had taken her in his arms, held her tightly from behind as she struggled and cried and pleaded, and snapped her fair neck. She had slumped in his grasp, her dark hair falling over her face like the grim curtain of a final act. He had sent her back to the road and felt nothing at all. Until now.
Now, it was eating him alive. He could have refused to follow orders. He could have cheated, as he had done when he snuck Tristan Hathaway back into The Masque as a skeleton with a false name. Yet when it had come to it, he had broken her, and the only thoughts in his head had argued that she had done this to herself. It was her fault for rousing Sir Hugo’s suspicion, her fault for being caught. He had hated her for being disappointing and failing to do what he would not even dare to attempt.
The irony of it all hit him with bitter force as he at last reached the last stairs and his mind jumped forward to the present. A few more steps would take him down to whatever was lurking there. A few more steps would tell him if they had a weapon with which to face Sir Hugo. But he couldn’t move.
He saw Eve, just as he had seen her the evening of her last death. She was seared into his eyes, her wounded, screaming face lifted to his and filled with tears. He saw her, just as he saw the blurred and indistinguishable faces of every man, woman, and unfortunate child he had slaughtered for Sir Hugo over the years. He saw them all and knew that he hadn’t felt any of it. None of their deaths had done a thing to him, and that hurt worse than any of them could.
This was why he had tied that noose above the costumes’ loft the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh times. This was why he had tried to escape his duties, his crimes, and his nonchalance in committing them. But he couldn’t remember the first time. After all these years, the reason for his scar was still obscured behind the same lethal storm cloud that hid his life from him.
Peter sank down and sat on the steps. He no longer cared about the weapon, or about Sir Hugo, or any of it. For the first time, he could admit that his apathy was fear, but the knowledge did him no good. So he was afraid to fight back, so what? It made it no easier. So he was afraid of himself, of what he had done and what more he might have done in life. So what? It changed nothing, and everything was still as hopeless as before. He didn’t know it, but it takes only a moment of realization to become a true ghost.
(TCOS Continues on Thursday!)