Aidan had suggested they search beneath the trapdoor first. The pit of dust and bodies could be hiding any number of impossible things. It would take time to dig—especially since he and his one arm were useless—but it was a start, which they desperately needed.
They worked as quickly as they could. Bones were shifted out of the way, dust thrown into the air with wild abandon. Lori coughed and sweated through it all, while Aidan simply kept an eye on the dwindling pile of dust for a glimpse of anything interesting. He was thinking about Peter. It was strange how the revelation that the fool had murdered him had been less painful than this abrupt abandonment.
“Is this Peter’s coat?” Lori asked, fishing the tattered garment out. She turned its discolored fabric over in her hands and held it out for him to see.
“Yes,” Aidan replied. “He killed himself in this theatre. I guess Sir Hugo had his body tossed in here. It’s what I used to convince him to help me.”
Lori wasn’t sure what to say to that, and so she simply laid the coat aside and dug on. Perhaps that was what was bothering Aidan so much; Peter had lost so much to this theatre. It had warped him, robbed him of his memories…and he wasn’t going to do anything about it. He had done something, at first; he had brought Aidan back to The Masque and murdered Lori’s father, the actual Aidan Lawrence, to cover up the fact. He had done that to stand against Sir Hugo, at last, but this was a slap in the face to it all. Their deaths meant nothing. Lori’s pain meant nothing.
“There’s nothing here.” Lori stood back. They had reached the bottom of the trapdoor. The red-lit underbelly of the theatre was littered with bones and dust, but nothing more.
“…we need to keep looking.” said Aidan. “It’s somewhere.” He helped her out of the pit and together they began to explore the plentiful corners and nooks that filled the red space. It seemed to stretch on forever, maybe under the entire house as well as the stage. They didn’t speak, both too afraid of being overheard by eager ears lurking above.
This proved to be a wise decision, for eventually they came to a point that lay just beneath the stage right wings and heard voices filtering down to them clear as day. It was Giselle who was speaking.
“I think you should leave,” she said. “Turn your back on this place.”
“I think you should, too,” the poet replied. They were walking together, heading for center stage. After exchanging a glance, Aidan and Lori followed beneath. Soon they could hear about twelve more pairs of feet coming to meet them from the opposite wings. He could see nothing, but Aidan imagined the poet playing with the ends of her quill. Soon it was destined to be nothing more than a frayed stick jutting from her skull.
“So what’s going on?” asked Giselle.
“You’re our manager,” one of the actors muttered. “Don’t you know?”
The singer’s voice grew clipped. “If I don’t know something, it’s probably because it shouldn’t be happening,” she said. “Now, what’s going on?”
“Child abandonment,” William’s small voice piped up. The poet laughed at this incomprehensible statement, but Giselle sighed.
“I thought so. You seem nice,” she said to the poet.
“Thank you, I am.” There was an awkward silence both above and below stage. But finally the poet seemed to realize something and let out a soft “oh.” “You’re doing away with me,” she breathed. “My father has taken you in. You lied to me.”
“I’m sorry,” said Giselle. It almost sounded as if she meant it. There was a shuffling of feet and the poet began to scream and thrash against her captors, crying for Death.
Aidan turned and ran back towards the door.
“Wait!” Lori grabbed his arm and yanked him back. “Don’t you dare!” she hissed. “They can’t find us!”
“We can’t just let them hurt her!”
“We have to. There are like fifteen of them and two of us! How do you think that’s going to end?”
He knew she was right, but the sounds drifting down to them were awful. And then, abruptly, they changed.
The poet ceased to scream, and her cries were replaced by a horrifying silence. There were no footsteps, not so much as a false breath. Lori clamped a hand over her mouth and Aidan stood beside her, petrified, waiting.
Thud. Thud. Fifteen thuds in all as bodies met the planks of the stage. Then the footsteps began again, but now there was only one pair of soft feet padding towards the center. It shuffled to a stop, and in its wake a tired sigh echoed through the theatre,
Lori bit back a squeal of fear. Aidan took her hand and began to back away from the spot where Despernot lurked just above. How he was here, he did not dare to guess.
“Hush,” the mad man soothed. “Sweet thing.”
“Madness,” the poet replied. So he had not harmed her. Some other time, Aidan might wonder why not. But he kept backing away with Lori, moving as quietly as possible.
“I’m looking for a Foxe and a Grey man,” Despernot said.
“No. Leave them alone. They have nothing to do with anything. Your sister—Death is here!”
For a terrible stretch, he did not speak. Aidan stopped moving, waiting for them to begin again. Lori’s hand was trembling in his. “I used not to be like this,” Despernot said at last. “I used to wear shoes.”
“Please,” pleaded the poet, “you have to help her. She has been here for centuries.”
“What in exchange? An eye for an eye, but you only have one.”
Somewhere above their heads a company member sobbed. Aidan supposed they were merely incapacitated, perhaps trapped in their own heads. Or worse.
“She’s your sister!” the poet said. “Why won’t you help–”
There was a vicious crack as something vital snapped. Another thud.
“I find,” Despernot said to no one, “that people are no help at all after they’re dead.”
Aidan and Lori gave up on being quiet and ran for the door. It seemed to take an age to reach, but they made it through and slipped out into the corridor, just in time to watch a pair of scene-shifters dragging Peter’s unconscious corpse. He was moving ever so slightly, or at least seemed to be. It might simply have been the way his captors were scraping him unceremoniously against the floor.
Lori waited until they were out of sight before whispering in a panic, “What now?”
He didn’t have an answer. The walls trembled around them suddenly, and in his head Aidan imagined the disembodied wings bursting out of crevices to drown them. There were no skittering sounds yet, nothing in the walls that he could hear, but it wouldn’t do to stick around and wait.
“Let’s leave,” he said at last. “We can’t do anything. And he’ll kill you if we stay.”
“But we didn’t fix anything,” she protested. “Death is still here. Sir Hugo will still-”
“You can’t fix everything,” said Aidan. He wasn’t sure if he meant it. He just wanted to go. A very small, very scared part of him wished that Lori would have some argument ready, some rousing bit of speech to keep him committed. But she didn’t. Reluctance was written all over her face, but with a final shrug of her shoulders she followed him back towards the stables, back towards the corridors that would take them above ground again.
The horses had gone mad. They were champing and stamping in their stalls, their eyes rolling white in their heads. The sound of a screaming horse was one without compare. It grated against the base of Aidan’s spine and threatened to saw his neck in half.
The company had gone mad, too. When they reached habited hallways, their fears of being discovered were washed away by the sight of several seam-makers beating each other with rolls of fabric. It was comical at first, until a few of them switched to awls and began jabbing them into their companions’ faces.
“…why aren’t we losing our minds?” Aidan wondered as they side-stepped a bleeding, veiled lump.
“The same reason we didn’t on the train,” Lori hissed. “Easier to find the only sane people in a haystack of nuts.”
“Where were you going with that imagery?”
“Shut up.” She knelt and ripped an awl out of a panicked seam-maker. Aidan applauded her level-headedness and forethought as much as he was alarmed by both. At any rate, at least one of them had a weapon now. An awl against Madness was not much, but it might help with any company members who tried to waylay them.
They were back in his old studio. As Lori slammed and locked the door behind her, Aidan took a moment to look around. Nothing had changed. His canvases were still there, huge and half-finished. He felt an itch in his missing limb and longed to pick up a brush. But he would never do that again. Or at least, not for a very long time. He could train his other hand to paint, but it would never be the same.
“Hello?” Lori said, shaking him a bit. “Don’t go crazy on me.”
“Sorry. This was my….sorry. What?”
“I said is there a way out from here?”
Aidan shook his head. “Only the way we came in, and the stage. It opens onto one of the wings.”
She considered for a moment and then nodded. “He may have moved on by now. We can go and see. Here.” She picked up a mallet and handed it to him.
“You realize I only use these to close paint cans….”
“So? I have an awl.”
Armed with their terrible weapons, they crept to the back of the studio, which was disappointingly full of dust. Aidan cast one last glance at it all. The abandoned paint cans, the lofts, the canvas, the rolls of paper, even the moldering sink with its disgusting catch of standing water. He kept having to leave this paradise behind.
Which was exactly what Lori had done to him.
He had lingered too long, and now she was gone. Aidan turned on the spot, panicked, and ran as quietly as he could out of the studio. He moved silently through the dark velvet curtains, mallet at the ready, listening for any sign of her. But in that fabric jungle, there was nothing. No sound, no light…he was entirely alone. The black maze seemed to go on forever—certainly far longer than it should have. Eventually Aidan’s arm grew tired and he lowered the mallet to his side. These curtains were never-ending. He suppressed the urge to do something stupid like call for Lori and then, as he stood there helplessly, the thought to go under the curtains finally alighted on his brain.
Aidan got to his hands (well, hand) and knees and crawled underneath the first layer of curtain. He glanced up long enough to see that he was still trapped, and then moved on to the next section. He crawled under this, too, picking up all kinds of dust and dirt and a few stray bits of spike tape on his slacks. He kept going until he ought to have been through the four curtains that stood between him and the orchestra pit…but there were just more curtains.
Lights came from above. There was a rush of wind, and he found himself trapped in a black box with walls of dirt on all sides. At the lip of the box was a headstone. Even from this distance he could see that it didn’t have a name at all.
“My Foxe, Yorick,” said Despernot’s impatient voice. He leaned over the edge, a dirt-covered spade clutched in his hands. “That’s all I want.”
The lights whirled dazzlingly. It was as if the stars, moon, and sun had all decided to come out at once. Despernot stared down at him, and his blue eyes were the only patch of sky to be seen for all the glare. Aidan wasn’t sure what to say to him.
“It’s all I want,” Despernot repeated, driving the spade into the mouth of the grave with sudden force. “One little Foxe. A tisket, a tasket.”
“No it’s not,” Aidan squeaked.
The lunatic gave him a bemused smile. “No?”
“No,” Aidan went on, fishing for the thoughts that were swimming through his head in rapid succession. “If it was, you would have killed her already, or driven her insane or whatever you want. You’re Madness,” he added, at last seizing on a stubborn, wiggling inkling. “You can do…I don’t know … it seems like you can do anything.”
“I can do what you can do, when you want to.”
“…sure. But I mean, you made the entire theatre go insane, but left Lori and me out?” His voice gained strength. He believed himself now. “You knew exactly where we were. You don’t want her dead or crazy. At least not right away.”
Suddenly Despernot was standing beside him in the grave. He leaned against his spade and frowned. “Go on. Shall I give you some red wine? Will you speak?”
“Um, no. I mean yes. That is….” Aidan was fishing again, now that the madman was so close. He could see cuts and bruises all over his body. The front of his shirt was damp with fresh blood. “You want her to suffer,” he finished. “You’d like to see her as miserable as you.”
In the silence, Aidan could almost hear his bones shuddering. Despernot tapped his chin restlessly against the hilt of the spade, until at last something like resignation settled in his eyes and he sighed,
“It would be nice.”
Aidan wasn’t sure what he had expected. Maybe for Despernot to say something along the lines of, “Oh well, guess I’ll just have to give up then.” But he simply stood there, resting against his spade and swaying slightly.
“How am I to do that?” he said at last. “She hasn’t a muse I can lose.”
Aidan kept quiet, but Despernot’s wandering gaze suddenly found him again, followed by an unsettling smile beneath the perfect cheekbones. “Yet she has a father. Mr. Aidan Lawrence. She has you—she’s done all of this, because of you. She was on my boat, because of you. So, in a way, it’s your fault after all.”
“She exists because you gave her life. She ended up on my boat because you died. It’s your fault!” It might have been Christmas, Despernot was so gleeful. “I can kill two people with one spade!” he laughed. “You deserve to die, and she will be lonely and broken once you’re gone! It’s lovely, Yorick, thank you!”
Suddenly, Aidan knew that he was right. In a way. If he allowed Despernot to satisfy himself by killing him, the lunatic would stop. He would leave Lori alone, content that she would suffer forever. He would stop attacking the theatre, and maybe, just maybe, Lori could find Death and get it away from Sir Hugo. Maybe she could even do something about whatever predicament Peter had gotten himself into.
The thought was frightening and Aidan wasn’t sure about any of it. Nevertheless, he met Despernot’s eyes. “You’re welcome. So how does this work?”
“I erase you!” Despernot said proudly. “I drive you so wild that your ghost perishes on the spot and you’ll never be able to cross the bridge again. I break your mind so deeply that the only thing for you to do will be to leave existence. Goodbye! Up into the air, up away, who knows where!”
Aidan remembered the walk before the bridge and the uncountable, dazed shades of human beings who had walked alongside him, only to drift away into oblivion at the journey’s end. He supposed that wouldn’t be so bad. After all, it wasn’t as if there was a great deal left for him here. He didn’t even know who he was or had been. It would be all right by him if his death could at least mean something. “All right,” he said.
Despernot’s white smile flashed as blindingly as the lights above. He drew the spade over his head, his eyes deepening into pools of slick, black death as he brought its edge down. And then he screamed.
It was not a triumphant scream, and it ended wetly. Blood flecked his lips. The dirt walls crumbled around them, and the lights whirred and whirled until they became steady, dim beams up in the safety of the batons. They were standing on the stage, in front of the curtains, and Lori was hugging him.
At least, that was what Aidan thought at first, until he saw her rip the awl out of his back. Despernot staggered as she let go, grasping at the edge of the nearest curtain. He clung to it like a scared child and pulled himself up, heaving and gasping.
“You…you hurt me!”
“I’ll do it again,” she said, brandishing the blood-stained awl. “Leave him alone.”
“It’s okay, Lori,” Aidan said. Not for the last time, he wished he had facial expressions to help convey his thoughts. “He’ll leave you alone after I’m gone. He only wants to…make sure you suffer. Like he has.”
“But why would-”
“You took someone he loved,” Aidan interrupted.
She seemed to understand. Her eyes filled with surprise, followed by annoyance, which culminated in frustrated resignation as he gave his head the tiniest of shakes.
“Eye for an eye,” Despernot hissed. He wrapped a hand around Aidan’s waist and pressed his face very close against the side of his bare skull. “Say you love him.”
She hesitated only the faintest of seconds. “I love you, Dad.”
The single sentence that Despernot whispered into Aidan’s head could never be repeated. It was lost in a crushing buzz that echoed along his insides and pulled down sense in one vicious tug. In an instant, Aidan collapsed in upon himself and was gone.
(TCOS continues next Monday!)