[CHAPTER 14]: Lyle’s Way, Again
Steam curled upward into air that was already dense with fog, rhythmically sputtering away over the chug and hum of an engine. Aidan found himself standing in the midst of dozens of down-staring shades who moved like cattle across a platform. Most didn’t seem to know where they were going, but he was forcibly reminded of the souls he had walked with along the road to Out-shift. Something was tugging at their cores; a spiny hook had sunk deep beneath memory and longing and beckoned them to stir.
The train was already packed. All of Out-shift, it seemed, was on the move. No one looked twice at the group of three who emerged from a pocket of air. No one bothered to raise an eyebrow at Peter, who was carrying Lori, or at Aidan wrapped in his many layers of disguise. They might as well have been dust—as common and unobtrusive as that.
“This is a terrible idea,” the fool muttered. Nobody argued with him. For his own part, Aidan was not looking forward to being crammed into a confined space with a multitude of dead, half of whom would probably belong to Sir Hugo, but the blood-stained image of Despernot picking himself up from what should have been an afterlife-ending wound would not go away. There were people who might try to harm you, and then there were people who would try to unravel you.
They loaded into the first available car, along with half the platform’s occupants. There was soon nowhere to sit. It took a great deal of effort to remain upright within the crush of bodies. Aidan pressed himself against the edge of a seat while Peter lowered Lori so she could stand. He kept one arm wrapped around her waist for support and used the other to grip the back of the seat in front of him. A little watery-eyed old lady standing next to Aidan gave him a single, disapproving glance and clutched her handbag a bit tighter.
Barely twenty minutes after the doors had closed and the train had pulled away from the station Lori nudged Peter and whispered something in his ear. The fool looked a bit surprised, turned on the spot a few times, and then pointed towards the back of their car. They exchanged a few more hushed words and she left, hobbling away from him through the crowd. She squeezed her way past a dazed couple in mud-stained wedding clothes and was gone.
Aidan stepped out into the middle of the aisle and beckoned to Peter. “What was that about?”
“She had to use the restroom.”
The fool smirked. “At least she won’t find much of a line.”
“Have you seen anyone you know?” Aidan whispered.
Peter shook his head and resumed his wary watch. All around them, muffled conversations began to pick up as the train car’s occupants eased into their journey. The smell of strong herbal tea wafted to them from somewhere. Aidan was just beginning to wonder how anyone could possibly be making tea on a moving train with no hot water when he saw someone he knew. It was the doctor—the one from his first train ride, who apparently had not been permitted to fix the poet. Peter saw him, too, and tightened his jaw as the doctor stepped over a little girl who was sitting in the middle of the aisle with a deck of cards. He was still dressed in his stained lab coat, and as he approached the edges of the bloody trench in his back gleamed with the sick shine of raw flesh.
He reached them at last and smiled in surprise, as if it were nothing more than random chance that he had found them here. “Oh!” he said, “You’re back! Was your friend interested in tendons after all, Mr. Grey?”
“Don’t bother being pleasant,” Peter snapped. “Have you told Sir Hugo about us yet?”
“About you? What about you, Mr. Grey?”
A whistle blast shook the corridor, bludgeoning their eardrums. Its echo was a deafening screech as the train began to slow at an alarming rate. The massive lurch of straining metal threw Aidan into the laps of several people, while Peter landed on top of the doctor, who squeaked beneath him, “I didn’t plan this!”
The train ground to a stop and conversations ended. One moment the old lady had been smacking Aidan in the chest with her handbag, swearing at him in Russian as he apologized and tried to extricate himself from her lap, and the next she was quiet, as if someone had switched her off. There was nothing, no hushed whispers of fear, no confused brainstorming over what might have happened. Aidan took his sunglasses off and let his vision adjust; the lights had gone out and all there was to work with were sparse moon rays that filtered in through the train car windows. When he could see again, prickles of fear raced through his bones. The dead were staring straight ahead, each of them fixing their eyes on something that hadn’t yet arrived.
Peter gave the unresponsive doctor a violent shake before giving up and getting to his feet. He shook the man in front of him, too, and said “Excuse me!” loudly, but the preacher in Puritan-style clothes did not seem to hear.
“What’s wrong with them?” hissed Aidan.
“I’d like to say it’s Sir Hugo pulling in reinforcements, but I’ve never known him to be able to control people like this. Which means it’s probably something much worse.”
“Great. Maybe we should get off. Might as well, while we’re stop-”
In the glare of the spasming moonlight, they saw three extra people. They were not frozen into silent oblivion like the others; they had come from the forward car and stood now in the middle of the aisle. Their moss-colored clothes did little to disguise lean, ink-dripping bodies. Aidan thought he recognized Grimwal—the man who had tried to keep him in the numbing land of In-between—but they all looked rather the same.
“Boo,” said a soft voice at the back of Aidan’s neck. He turned in a frightened whirl and found himself face to skull with a familiar heartless grin formed by blue-tinged lips.
The dancer’s smile widened. “This is a happy coincidence, Mr. Lawrence. We were on our way home to stop you, but here you are. And with Mr. Grey, too!”
“Hi, Alex,” Peter sighed. “Would you mind explaining to me how you hypnotized an entire train full of ghosts?”
“Pardon?” Alexandre glanced around the car, as if just noticing the frozen dead. “Oh, that wasn’t us. Another happy coincidence. Or perhaps,” he purred, “you simply haven’t given our director enough credit.”
“Our murderer, you mean.” Peter gave Aidan a meaningful glance that the skeleton completely failed to understand. All he could do was return a helpless shrug, which caused the fool to narrow his eyes in frustration. “Alex,” he went on, “you woke up to it once. He’s the reason we’re in this situation.”
The broken smile flashed. “No. No, no, no, my sweet fool. You started this. You and your friends. We could have carried on in paradise. It would have been better. But you ruined it.”
Again, Peter tried to give Aidan a pointed look, but this time Aidan wasn’t even paying attention. “How did you convince them to come out of In-between?” he asked. It was genuinely baffling, given how enthusiastic Grimwal and the others had been about their nasty realm.
“It was not so difficult,” Alexandre replied. “Many of them are unsatisfied, if you take the time to point it out. I’m sure Sir Hugo will offer them a place in our home. Oh, by the way,” he said with a grin that curled into something awful. “There is someone you should both see.”
He stepped as far to the left as he could in the narrow aisle, and behind him Aidan and Peter saw the door that led to the second-to-last car. It was open, and in its frame stood Lori, held by another ink-stained thug. This one was a woman. Ink oozed between pearly white teeth. Long hair coiled over her shoulders in ropes of dripping licorice, framing her face in black like a mask cut out of dark paper. But for all this she seemed…fresh. A new resident of In-between who had not yet had time to rot beneath the sludge. She was young, with dark eyes and a nose only slightly too long for her face.
“Eve,” said Aidan in disbelief.
“Satan’s hooves,” he heard Peter swear. “Bare Bones. Don’t get any of that stuff on your coat.”
It was a very odd comment to make. Wasn’t it just ink in which the intruders were incased? And wasn’t it better to get their drippings on clothes than on exposed skin or—in his case—bone? But then at last Aidan remembered the fool’s earlier looks of desperate significance and put two and two together. He was an idiot. He still had Peter’s gun in his coat pocket.
“I’ll try not to,” he said, feeling more of a fool than the fool. To be fair, there were many layers of padding between him and the weapon and it was on the side where he didn’t have a hand to reach for it, but the fact remained that it had been there all along, just waiting for him to remember.
“See?” Alexandre chuckled. “Look who I found. Look what your useless rebellion has done.”
Hands that had once moved across the strings of a violin with perfect grace tightened around Lori’s throat as Eve guided her down the aisle. Ink dropped from her arms onto her captive’s chest and shoulders.
“Eve,” Aidan said, “let her go.” His words produced no effect whatsoever; she didn’t even slow down to look at him. She kept her gaze firmly fixed on Alexandre and continued forward, stopping only once they were a few feet apart. He gave her a charming smile and took Lori.
“Thank you, Evelyn,” he said. “You’ve been most helpful.” He drew forth a long, rusty dagger and poised the tip at Lori’s throat. “We’ll keep them alive just until we get home, and then we’ll spill their blood on the stage. Sir Hugo will find some use for it, I’m sure.”
“That sounds like an unnecessary amount of mess,” said Peter. “You’ll have the scene-shifters cleaning us up for days.”
“A small price to pay for the satisfaction,” the dance replied. He was drawing blood already, and Lori didn’t dare to move. Aidan itched to draw the gun, but he wasn’t sure that this was the time. Nor was he sure he could properly fire it. There were four inkers in total, if one counted Eve. Add to that Alexandre and a train full of zombified corpses and suddenly a half-loaded gun in the lone hand of an inexperience skeleton didn’t seem very helpful.
Eve had taken an interest in Peter. As soon as he had spoken she had begun to walk towards him. Now they were almost touching, and for one brief moment Aidan felt hope. For one brief moment, he thought that perhaps she had fought through whatever had happened to her and was going to help them out of this—an inky deus ex machina come to their rescue. She put a hand on the back of Peter’s head and drew him to her in a kiss full of passion. This, too, was promising, until Peter began to spasm and struggle. She was filling his mouth with ink.
“Don’t!” Aidan shouted, but he might as well have cried out against a storm. Her eyes were void of anything save vengeance. The fool’s face was draining of what little color it had left, his body writhing under her deadly pressure.
Alexandre was saying something, laughing at them, but Aidan couldn’t hear his mockery. He couldn’t hear anything at all. He could only watch as Peter was suffocated.
“Eve!” he shouted, knowing it wouldn’t work. “Stop!” In a rush of fear and adrenaline, he aimed the gun at her heart with a trembling hand. She paused and lifted her head, glancing at him with grim recognition.
“You’re going to shoot me, Aidan?” she said. Her voice was slow and thick with ooze, but it was hers.
“Yes,” he choked. “I’m sorry. But if you don’t let him go, I’ll have to.” Something inside him was crumbling. He hadn’t realized how much he had missed her. It made no sense; he had barely known her at all, but there it was. To see her now, warped like this, was the most painful thing he could remember. He wished she hadn’t spoken—that she had remained just a mindless ink-zombie.
“He’s ruined you,” she said fiercely. “You’re defending your own murderer. My murderer.”
“I’m not Aidan,” he said. It wasn’t exactly the best counter-argument, but it was all that would come. “I’m Tristan. I’m…Peter brought me back. He tricked Sir Hugo so that I could continue what I started. What we started.”
She hesitated and glanced down at Peter, who had collapsed to his knees and was vomiting ink all over her shoes. “Now I’m supposed to forgive him for everything? Would that be nice of me?”
With a small frown, she knelt beside Peter. “You know what else would have been nice? Not being murdered.” She hauled him to his feet again. He coughed, still gagging on ink, unable to fight back. There was a shadow growing in his eyes that was alarmingly reminiscent of the defeat Aidan had seen in Ostevadel.
“Eve!” he shouted desperately. She wrapped her hands around Peter’s neck and squeezed.
The gunshot erupted the world. Eve was propelled sideways by its force and hit the opposite wall, landing across three of the corpses. She grasped at her chest and her eyes found Aidan again. Slowly, they filled with black tears. Then she slumped over and was still. Her head lolled at an awkward angle, trailing hair and ink into a black pool.
“I’m sorry!” Aidan gasped. The apology was for her, for everyone, but nobody acknowledged him. He cried it again, but the passengers were just as silent and staring as before. The only sound was Peter coughing from the floor.
“That was a shame,” the deep voice of Grimwal muttered. He took the gun from Aidan and tossed it away under a seat. Only after it was gone did Aidan realize what had happened. One solid punch connected with his skull and he fell face-first into the aisle. Ink from Grimwal’s fist gummed up his eye socket and cut his field of vision in half. But at that moment, the windows exploded.
Glass rained down on them from all sides. Without skin, Aidan was not concerned by the deadly shards, but from where he lay in the slough of dust and ink he could see something far more threatening: a wild-eyed phantom lurking just outside. Jagged edges of glass caught the gleam of his icy gaze, a lighter blue than Peter’s coat, but just as bold. Wind swept his dark hair angrily, and as Aidan watched he began to climb inside.
“What have you done?” Alexandre hissed, no longer amused. “This cannot be Sir Hugo!”
“Obviously,” Peter gasped. There was glass in his hair, making it even more spiky than usual. “Let’s save our differences for later, eh? We need to get off this damn train.”
The damn train began to move again. It picked up speed, belching steam like a hungry dragon. The motion unsettled the standing corpses and they swayed against each other, hollow reeds in the wind.
“He’s right there!” Aidan shouted. “Can’t you see him?!”
Apparently, they couldn’t. He was the only one to notice Despernot winding his way through the window like a snake. Even Lori looked directly where he was pointing and did not react. The inkers shifted nervously, and the first few sparks of fear began to burn in Alexandre’s eyes. “Oui,” he muttered. “Off the train.”
Suddenly, row by row, the hitherto silent passengers began to scream. Their cacophony split ears and minds alike, rising above sense in a wail of hideous madness. Alexandre let Lori go in favor of covering his ears and she stumbled her way to Peter, who caught her by the shoulders and held on.
“What is it?” Grimwal cried. He turned where he stood for a moment, looking to see what had caused the distorted faces of the dead to stretch in their screaming, but then something strange came over him. He went calm and pushed past Alexandre to go to one of the broken windows where he remained for a moment, standing before the light of the moon. Then he began to pick the glass from the window with his bare hands.
“What are you doing?!” Alexandre panicked.
Grimwal thrust the pieces into his eyes, and when they stuck fast he pushed harder, until with a sound thankfully lost under the screaming corpse choir and the straining engine they burst through the back of his skull.
“It’s him!” Lori shouted, “Despernot!”
One by one, the other inkers followed Grimwal’s lead. They each took a window and began to harvest the glass, depositing it in their eyes, their mouths, their fingertips. Alexandre watched in mute horror as his friends destroyed themselves, and then he rushed to Aidan’s side. “Please,” he begged, pulling him roughly to his feet. “Please, help!”
Abruptly, the screaming stopped. Out of the numbing fog that shooting Eve had placed upon his heart, Aidan was assaulted by the uncomfortable thought that the dead were silent now because they were no longer needed. He let Alexandre help him up, and together they turned to find a train full of corpses staring directly at them.
“…out the front,” Peter whispered. “Now.”
The fool led the way, although he was obviously still too weak to do much other than help Lori stagger along. She was equally useless—a deer in the headlights that had every intention of letting the vehicle turn it into pulp. Aidan forced himself to stop looking around for Despernot and follow them. Alexandre was keeping his hands clamped on his shoulders, clinging to him like a child. In a pathetic train of terror, they made their way into the next car and locked the door behind them.
“He’s going to kill us,” Lori sobbed. “It’s no use.”
“You’re not dead yet,” Peter reminded her. “Keep moving.”
The corpses here were just as silent as the ones they had left behind. Aidan felt like he had seen this movie; any minute now they would surely come to life and tear them apart or hold them down until Despernot could come and have his way.
“Excuse me,” said a small voice. All four of them jumped and even Peter might have gasped a bit. He was there, birthed from nothing, his bare feet somehow untouched by the ink that was staining most of the train. There were no cuts from the glass, nothing to validate anything Aidan had seen. “I need to know where she is,” Despernot said. “Where is my muse?”
No one answered. The demon swept his lunatic gaze over each of them in turn. His hands wrung together in front of him, and when he settled on Peter he clenched them into fists. “What have you done with her?”
“Me? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the fool managed.
“The Foxe knows,” Despernot said with a cold glance at Lori. “She knows you work for Sir Hugo, who hired the ship, which took us to sea and killed us. Sir Hugo wanted the cargo, and now my poor muse is cargo, so he must have her. You must have her.”
“Uh, no,” Peter began, but Lori interrupted him.
“He doesn’t work for Sir Hugo any more. But he does,” she said, pointing at Alexandre. The dancer stared at her in alarm and shook his head, but she kept her resolve. “He’s the only one here who knows Sir Hugo’s business.”
Despernot stepped over an ink spot on the floor. “Madness is divinest sense. You cannot lie to me, Foxe.”
“I’m not,” Lori insisted. “I don’t know if he knows where your ship is. But I know he’s the only one here who would.”
Despernot considered, biting the ends of his nails, and then suddenly Alexandre was floating in mid-air. He hung there, held aloft by some invisible hook, his mouth slightly open, his eyes lost somewhere in the back of his head. A thin stream of water trickled from his mouth. “I am asking nicely,” Despernot said.
Lori ran. Peter followed, grabbing Aidan’s hand to prevent him from remaining behind to find out Alexandre’s fate. They dodged standing bodies and made their way to the door, only to realize that it opened onto a narrow walkway that would take them to the engine.
“Is it safe?” Lori asked. “Is the conductor going to help us, or will he throw us off?”
Behind them Alexandre began to scream and Peter threw his shoulder into the door until it opened. “You’re worried about that? Now? Come on!”
Coal littered the floor inside the engine, overflowing from a hellish furnace that lurked in a corner and stank of ash. Everything was covered in smoke stains, including the somber figure that stood at the controls. He looked out at the fragmented landscapes with red, watery eyes as they rushed by.
“Please return to your seats,” the cadaverous conductor said in a voice so distant and monotone that at first Aidan wasn’t sure he had spoken. “There is nothing to worry about. The situation is under control.”
“Like hell it is,” Peter said. He seemed mostly recovered by now and stood on tip-toe to peer out one of the windows. “Lyle, we need you to disconnect your cars.”
A small cloud of dust lifted into the air as Lyle turned. It was a laborious process, full of clicking and cracking as his bones shifted. His features were a mess of smudges and sunken flesh. His eyes would have seemed dead as well, if not for the red, stinging appearance. He opened a mouth full of yellowed teeth and said very clearly, “It has never been done.”
“I know,” said Peter. “But now is a wonderful time to try.”
“You’ve got a train full of Sir Hugo’s minions,” Lori added.
A calloused, rotting hand reached for a level, and they were briefly hopeful. But several gears shifted and the furnace belched a disappointing, solitary plume of smoke. “As long as they have paid, it makes no difference who they are.”
“Nobody pays to ride this thing,” Peter muttered. Lyle’s eyes widened in shock.
“How do we disconnect the cars?” Lori pressed, before the conversation could derail. “Please, we don’t have time!”
“If you don’t have time, why do you want to do it?”
“Oh, shut up,” Peter snapped. He began to search the cabin, wiping centuries of dust and soot from panels of gears and levers that seemed never to have seen the light of day. “I’ll do it myself; it’s got to be one of these.”
Lori and Aidan scrambled to help. Lyle was saying something, mumbling on about how unfair it was that no one had paid. Finally he coughed wetly and pointed to a lever near his right leg. “Let them all die,” he wheezed. “Cheapskates and liars don’t deserve to live.”
“You’re most kind,” said Peter. He seized hold of the lever and pulled with all his might, wrestling it to a downward position until at last it clicked and the sharp sound of metal on metal rang through the air. They felt the engine gaining momentum as it pulled away from its cars and many passengers. The fool stumbled and was thrown into the side of the furnace, which spat sizzling sparks onto the edges of his coat. Aidan and Lori kept their footing and leaned together against the wall. They watched through the window as the rest of the train squealed madly on the rails. Even as Lyle brought them to a regular pace and their lungs could fill again, the first of the cars wobbled and fell. It collapsed on its side, and the next one mounted it like a ramp and sailed into the air a few feet before crashing down in a torrent of metal and flame.