TCOS: Chapter 16 (1/3)

[CHAPTER 16]: The prize of Death

The shadows of dead horses leaned out from their stalls as Peter passed through the stables.  He slipped through their midst without quite knowing where he was, though he had a clear picture of where he was going.  Beneath the stage, somewhere in the labyrinth of hallways that held the trapdoor full of bones, was a room with a white couch.  He had remembered it in a flash of clarity, back in the poet’s prison.  He could recall quite clearly the spotless cushions, the clawed ivory feet gleaming and dustless.  He could also recall the man who had sat upon it, hundreds of years ago.

As he left the stables behind, Peter found himself regretting, for the millionth time, not telling the others what he was up to.  It had been cruel to deceive them like that.  But Sir Hugo’s eyes and ears were obviously everywhere.  Except in his head.  He couldn’t have told them a thing, or his plan would have been exploded before it began.  Actually, it wasn’t even a proper plan—just a sudden snippet of memory that had finally provided him with something to do.  He remembered the white couch, and Sir Hugo sitting upon it at their first interview.  He couldn’t remember what had been said, but his mind held the image of a middle-aged man with a thin face and thick spectacles doing their best to hide the beginnings of cataracts.  He remembered shaking this man’s hand and receiving a smile…and then nothing at all.

How he knew that the room with the white couch would be beneath the theatre, Peter couldn’t say.  Under the circumstances, he had decided that it was best to trust his instinct.  There wasn’t really much else to go on.  He reached the door that led underneath the stage and hesitated.  His corpse was in there, lumped into the pit of skeletons that lay beneath the trapdoor.  It was a grim reminder that he had never succeeded in escaping this place.

And now what are you going to do, he asked himself.  March into his room and murder him?  Can such a thing even be done?  The last was a multi-layered question.  He was as uncertain about Sir Hugo’s ability to be destroyed as he was about his own ability to kill again.  It made him tremble to think of it, even though this time the victim in question was undoubtedly deserving.  He wished, yet again, that he had told the others what he was doing; he would have welcomed their encouragement.

“Coward,” he muttered out loud.

The further he went, the dustier the halls became.  No one had been down here for years.  Decades, maybe.  As he picked his way through rat droppings and cobwebs, Peter wondered why Sir Hugo had banished himself to this miserable place.  He had a body, after all, if the bit of memory was true.  What use was it to remain an enigmatic voice in the walls, forced to rely on others to tell you what went on in your own theatre?  Something must have happened to him down here, or else he was well and truly mad.

He knew the right door when he saw it.  It was difficult to make out in the awful lighting which sputtered from a few fading bulbs spaced far apart on the walls, but it felt right.  There was nothing special about it—just a plain metal door covered in rust and dents.  It wasn’t even locked.

Peter pushed it open tentatively and then, to make up for entering like a scared child, he cleared his throat and said, “Sir Hugo?”

Nothing happened for long enough to make him feel like an idiot.  But he remained where he was, narrowing his eyes at the pitch blackness inside and willing them to adjust enough to make out anything at all.  He began to see vague shapes, darker outlines amongst the darkness.  And then the lights went on.  Their fluorescence blinded him and he flung his hands over his eyes.  The entire ceiling was awash in white light, and as its glare abated he saw things as they were.

There was the couch, still spotless, sitting empty and inviting in the middle of the room.  There was a desk and two chairs he didn’t remember, just as starkly white.  The floor was white tile, the walls were the same; it was oppressive and bland and somehow made him think of a repurposed operating room.

“Hello, Peter.”

The familiar voice came from a narrow bed that had been pushed against one of the walls in a far corner.  The bed was wrapped in a few threadbare white sheets and held a mockery of the man Peter remembered.  He was blind, his eyes white and luminous in a sunken face with skin that barely covered any bones at all.  He was a skeleton in translucent casing, wispy white hair falling like strands of clouds from his skull.

“Sit down, won’t you?” said the feeble thing.

“No, thanks,” the fool replied.  “I won’t be here long.”

“Do you suppose you’re going to murder me?”  Sir Hugo sat up, leaving himself half breathless.  “You came down here…off of some stubborn bit of memory…and you think it will do you any good?  Nothing can kill me.  Not even time.”  He spat the last words, and as he sat there glaring defiantly up at the fool, Peter saw the small vein twitching in his neck.

“…you’re alive.”

A gremlin smile lit Sir Hugo’s face.  “I managed it,” he wheezed.  “I learned how the Ithen did it.”

“I thought you didn’t care about them.  You acted unconcerned when I told you about–”

“Because I already knew.  Hand me that, will you?” he lifted a knobby finger and pointed to a white cloth that had fallen off the bed.  Peter hesitated only a moment before retrieving it for him.

“Thank you.”  Sir Hugo coughed into it and leaned back against the wall to rest.  “I’ve known of the Ithen, and of Isakj their leader, for centuries.  How do you suppose I learned how to make places of Both?  How to bring people safely across the white bridge without losing them to In-between?  How to make them forget?”

“How to imprison Death?” Peter offered.

The gleam vanished from his eyes.  “How do you know about that?  The poet told you?  And you believed her?” he added when Peter nodded a reply.  “That’s no good.  We can’t have people believing her.”

“So Isakj told you how to find Death?” Peter asked.  He had no weapons with him, although they were probably not necessary.  He had no idea how to kill an Ithen, and even though Sir Hugo was crippled and weak, he was worryingly close to being one.

“No,” said Sir Hugo.  “He wanted it for himself.  In exchange for teaching me what he could about the shifts, I agreed to put my resources to work for him.  I sent out ships to find Death and the others.  But when we did find it…” he smiled with cat-like slowness.  “Well, I thought it would be better for such a staggering force to never fall into the hands of those red-eyed monsters.”

“So you stole it.”

“Which would you prefer?  Death in the hands of an army of Ithen, or Death helping me run a theatre?”

Peter snorted.  “You’re quite the humanitarian.”  He sat on the edge of Sir Hugo’s bed, but the director made no move to stop him.  Either he assumed that Peter didn’t have whatever it would take to murder him, or he had something left that would prevent such a thing.  “Still, I think you got cheated,” the fool said.  “You may still be alive, but you look like shit.  Isakj and the others are fine.  Handsome, I daresay.  In a haunting way.”

“Death,” said Sir Hugo, “dislikes me.  It can’t do much in that little box, but it can do its best to make me miserable.  It killed my daughter to start, and it’s been keeping me dying ever since.  Of course,” he grinned, “all it’s done is given me what I want.”

“You wanted your daughter dead?”

“She’s with me forever, isn’t she?”

Peter sighed, twisting a corner of the white sheet between his fingers.  “I can’t believe I was so loyal to you for so long.”

“And now we’ve come to it.”  A bony hand shot out like a snake and seized the fool’s wrist.  Sir Hugo held on with startling strength, his pale fingers all but sinking into Peter’s dead flesh.  “Death is mine,” he said.  “I am the one person in the world—in all the shifts—that it can never hurt.  There is nothing it can do to harm or horrify me, and so what makes you think that you have any business here?”

They held each other’s gaze for a moment, Peter looking calmly into the wide, mad eyes that somehow seemed a bit too daring, a bit too proud.  There was fear in there somewhere, and once he realized it, he pulled his wrist away and stood.  “You’re right,” he said.  “I have no business with you at all.”

He crossed to the couch and began to overturn its cushions.  He found nothing and so, unceremoniously, he tipped it on its side and began to tear through the lining underneath.

“What are you doing?”  Sir Hugo’s voice held just the right amount of worry.  “What are you doing?”

Peter didn’t reply.  Unsatisfied by the couch, he moved on to the desk and its chairs.  Bit by bit, he tore the room apart and took his time to examine each piece.  Sir Hugo busied himself with trying to stand.

“I will call down every member of this company,” he spat, untangling himself from the sheets.  “You and your friends will be overrun!”

“You really want your sheep down here?” Peter said, dumping a drawer onto the tile.  “You want them to see the mess they’re being shepherded by?”  The drawer made a strange, hollow sound as it hit, and the fool paused.  “Oh ho.”

Sir Hugo went silent.  Peter knelt and began to pry at the tile.  He worked at it until bits of his fingers were bleeding, but at last it came away to reveal a rectangular hole and a small box within.  It was grey with dust, but when he took it out and ran a corner of his coat across its lid, it gleamed perfectly silver.

“NO!”  Sir Hugo staggered towards him.  His drunken lurch made him lose his balance, and he fell prostrate before Peter.

“Thanks for this,” the fool said.  He considered gloating a bit more—he deserved to, after all—but all he needed was for Sir Hugo to have a sudden desperate burst of strength or for some burly company members to come crashing through the door.  No, best to come out ahead.

He left Sir Hugo and his livid shouts behind and wandered back into the dark corridor.  The box was not heavy at all.  He carried it under one arm for several yards before he could no longer hear the director crying after him.

“What do I do with you now,” he said to the box.  “Hm?  What am I supposed to do with Death?  Set you free?  Are you going to wipe us all off the face of existence if I do?  Make us serve you, instead? Maybe I should find someone like Samuel and hand you over to them.  Someone who would worship you without trying to bend you to their will.  Maybe keep you from being too angry with us.”

He sighed and held the box up to the closest light.  Its spasming glare sent waves of shadows rolling off the sleek surface.  “Maybe no one should have you,” he said quietly.  “Any of you.”

He lifted the lid.  Just a peek at first, and then he took it off entirely.  He wasn’t sure what he had expected—a rush of wind and darkness?  His eyeballs seared out of his skull?  What he hadn’t expected was nothing.  The box was empty.

Peter swore and ran back down the hall, but when he reached Sir Hugo’s room he found his way blocked by three black hooded scene-shifters.  Each was a good foot or two taller than he, and they stood in the doorway with arms folded in silent refusal.  From behind them he could see Sir Hugo comfortably seated on his bed again with a Cheshire smile.

“I told you,” the director purred.  “It’s mine.”  He spoke to the scene-shifters, leaning forward to watch.  “Do away with the fool.”

They leapt on him, their mouths stretching beneath the fabric of their hoods, and as Peter’s head hit the ground he felt them dig knives beneath his skin.

#

(TCOS continues this Thursday!)

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