[CHAPTER THIRTEEN]: Desperation
Aidan was terrified. Not only could he not find Peter, but he couldn’t remember the way back to Lori. The thought of wandering Ostevadel forever was only slightly less terrifying than the realization that she would wake to him having abandoned her.
He had taken a turn—at this point none of the turns he was making were right or wrong—a few minutes ago and found himself in a long, low room with broken chairs lining wooden tables. It looked like some sort of mess hall, but there wasn’t any food or sign that it had been used as such. He thought perhaps it might be a meeting hall instead, but then he investigated the enormous walk-in fireplace at the back and found a small pile of human bones and bits of fabric. That had been more than enough for him, and he had left without coming to a definitive conclusion about the room’s purpose, but with a firm resolution never to go peeking behind any of the doors in this place again.
Gradually, his path had been leading him downwards. This didn’t feel right, but every time he tried to correct course the ground kept him pointed towards the underworld. The torches here were sparse and placed much too far apart to allow any of their faint lights to be comfortable. Once or twice he had stopped to look closely at them, to see if they were actually burning, or if it was some sort of artificial light. As it turned out, the flames were real and not conjured by any gas system that he could detect.
He came at last to the top of a narrow staircase that descended into unfathomable darkness. Aidan had been fairly idiotic up to this point, what with the wandering away into an unfamiliar Ithen city and all, but he drew the line at allowing Ostevadel to coax him straight into the jaws of nothingness. That was what it felt like. At the bottom of the stairs he could feel non-existence. It made every bone in his body burn with fear.
But then, there came the sound of footsteps.
They echoed from behind him, back the way he had come. They were eerie, misshapen in step, with a faint drag of metal on stone floor at the end of each footfall. He was caught between this shuffling spectre and the stairs into nothing, and it threw him into a panic. He paced, wrung his hands, clamped his jaws together and ground his teeth. He couldn’t go down. He wouldn’t go down there, not with all the monsters in the world at his back. He knew now that he wanted to exist. There was no part of him that wanted to vanish into mist—no passing away into oblivion for him. And it was in that moment that he realized something else: he, too, was a monster.
Doing his best to hide the trembling of his bones, Aidan faced the dark corridor and the last of the flickering torches. He willed himself to stay perfectly still and occupied his mind by rehearsing what he would say to frighten away whatever came into the light. He had gotten about as far as “Beware!” when it was too late.
“Tristan!” It was Lori. The dragging and shuffling was coming from her crutches. She was shivering with cold, but the fear and frustration in her eyes burned. “There you are!”
Aidan relaxed and went to her at once. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I went to look for Peter, and I got lost. How did you find me?” he added. “This place is impossible.”
“It wasn’t that hard,” she replied, still smoldering at him a bit. “I just…had a hunch.”
Aidan hesitated and forced himself to meet her eyes. “You mean you felt drawn here. I did, too.”
“I had a nightmare,” she said quietly. “About Despernot. He was chasing me, and I came here to escape, and then I…well, then there was nothing.” Her voice was unsteady, and the anger was draining away to make room for the same sick fear welling up in Aidan’s empty rib cage. “We should get out of here.”
“But Peter…we can’t leave without him,” said Aidan.
Lori frowned. “Why not? We don’t exactly owe him anything.”
“No, but how are we going to get back to The Masque without him? Or even out of this city?”
“Damn it,” she sighed. “Okay, fine.”
Neither of them moved. They both wanted to go, to turn the city apart until they found the fool and could fly far, far away from the creeping snare of Ostevadel. But as much as they desired that, they also found within them a growing urge to stay. Without quite meaning to, they both turned to face the stairs again.
“There’s nothing down there,” said Aidan.
Lori hobbled a few inches closer and leaned down as much as she could without falling over. “Don’t be so sure,” she said. “Someone left these.”
Aidan looked and saw footprints pressed into the thin layer of dust on each step. They were going down. There was nothing to suggest they belonged to Peter, but he knew he couldn’t leave without making sure. Every part of him squirmed with anxiety. “Call for him,” he said.
Lori smiled without humor. “Are you scared?”
“Yes. Aren’t you?”
She nodded and raised her voice to call down into the dark, “Peter? Are you there?”
Of course there was nothing. She called once more, with the same result, and then looked meaningfully at Aidan.
“What?” he said stupidly.
“Um, I can’t go down there,” she said, waving a crutch. “Woman up.”
Aidan wasn’t sure if he should be offended or inspired, but either way he had no choice but to plant a foot on the first step. Down he went, at a snail’s pace, keeping as close to the wall as possible. His toe-bones clicked and clacked on the bare stone, and by the time he was halfway down the sound was being drowned away by an oppressive, unnerving silence. On he went, trying to focus on not falling into the abyss, until suddenly his foot connected with something solid on the step below him and he was forced to stop. He nudged it tentatively and found it human-like. “Peter?” he whispered. The sound was an avalanche in the stillness.
The thing in front of him did not reply and so, stifling a whimper, Aidan knelt and used his lone hand to feel what it was. He found a shoulder and worked upwards, discovering the collar of a coat. Holding his breath that he didn’t have, he let his hand slide underneath the collar and under the shirt beneath until he could feel the neck. The raised wound he was searching for was there.
“Good,” he sighed in relief. “Peter, let’s go. Are you okay? Can you walk?”
The fool didn’t reply and so, without waiting to work out how he was going to do it, Aidan hauled him to his feet and began to help him back up the stairs. It took forever. Peter was mobile, but only just. His legs dragged and he hung on to Aidan like a dead weight, which meant that between them they only had one working arm, which was busy keeping the fool upright and not at all available to keep them both from tumbling off the stairs. Aidan solved this problem by leaning into the wall and letting his shoulder scrape along it as they forced their way upwards.
When they finally reached Lori and collapsed in a heap at the top of non-existence, Aidan saw the fool’s face. It was frozen and pale, his eyes unfocused and full of something that was mad and sorrowful. He looked as if someone had reached into his heart and taken everything out.
Lori set her crutches aside and slid carefully down the wall to sit next to them. She took Peter by the shoulders and gave him a gentle shake. “Hey,” she said. “Come on, snap out of it.”
“I don’t think that’s helping,” said Aidan. He was beginning to fear that they had lost the fool for good—that he had found the nothing at the bottom of the stairs and let it scoop him dry.
“HEY!” Lori shouted in Peter’s ear.
The fool drew a breath. His eyes slowly began to focus on them, on their surroundings, and then…he was crying. He didn’t even bother to cover his face or look away; he just sat there silently and let a river of tears course down his cheeks. Lori drew back from him in alarm.
“Shit. What happened?”
“Let him be,” said Aidan.
They sat there, the fool staring at the ceiling and crying a dead man’s tears. Lori avoided looking at him altogether and sat a ways apart, while Aidan remained where he was, every so often glancing over to see if he was done. Eventually the tear tracks dried and he found the courage to speak.
“Sorry,” Peter said, his voice raw and scratchy. “I’m sorry.”
Aidan had a feeling he was apologizing for a great deal more than the sudden flood of emotion. He gave his reply a great deal of thought before laying his hand on the fool’s shoulder. “I forgive you.”
“Yeah, well I don’t,” snapped Lori. “Not yet, anyway.”
Peter held Aidan’s gaze for a moment before giving a small sigh and forcing himself to his feet. He helped Aidan up as well and then went to Lori, who refused his assistance. “Fair enough,” he said, with his trademark indifference. “But at least let me get you out of here, eh?”
She nodded. “That was the idea. Lead on.”
“I hate to say it,” Aidan interrupted before they could start off, “but what about your friend? What about the Ithen and the entire reason we came here? We’re no better off than we were before.” In fact, he wanted to add, we seem to be worse.
“We don’t need them,” said Peter. “We can do this ourselves.”
Lori raised an eyebrow and hobbled after him as he began to walk. “You really did go crazy down there, didn’t you?”
Peter ignored her comment. “I’ve said it before; Sir Hugo’s not all powerful. He’s just a man—well, a ghost—who’s been allowed to exist too long and get away with too much. We can send him back to the road just as we could anyone else. We’ll just have to be careful. We’ll sneak our way in, we’ll seek him out, and we’ll do what someone should have done hundreds of years ago.”
“You really think it will be that easy?” said Lori.
“Not at all. I just think our plan should be that simple.”
The new note of determination in his voice kept their arguments at bay as they ascended through the torch-lit stone halls. As they left the corridor that held the stairs to nothing, Aidan chanced a backward glance and thought he saw, outlined in in the glow of the torches, a small, dark figure watching them. He passed a hand before his empty sockets, in lieu of closing his eyes, and when he looked again, the shade had gone.