Peter and Lori stood on the stage in front of a house full of company members. It had taken an entire day for them to arrange this gathering. The effects of Despernot’s attack had been long in wearing off, and they had needed to go over what they would say. Lori wanted everyone to know the truth. Her hope was that after they understood, at least some of the company members would be willing to help her track down anyone in the shifts who was still doing Sir Hugo’s work. Peter, it had been decided, would remain behind in the theatre to help those who wanted to stay and anyone new who turned up.
She didn’t like to admit it, but Lori was beginning to realize just how long it would take to hunt down all of Sir Hugo’s pawns, both living and dead. She didn’t expect many people to sign on for the ride.
Peter raised his hands and the entire company fell into a hush. They were scattered throughout the auditorium, some standing in the aisles, some sitting in seats that happened to be free of debris and dust. Thin shadows danced across their faces, making many of them appear more ghostly than they were.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Peter began. His voice carried through the theatre as only years of experience would allow. “I have a confession to make. I ask that you hear me out, if you wish the full story of how you came to be here and what has occurred to bring us to this point.”
He made a sweeping motion to encompass the whole of their theatrical palace. Not a word issued from the audience, and Lori heard fear hanging on the fool’s tongue as he drew a deep breath.
“I am your murderer.”
Still, not a sound. Peter’s eyes darted from one side of the house to the other, taking in their reactions. Confusion, shock, doubt…he saw no anger yet and was fortified enough to go on.
“Not all of you met your death at my hands. Some of you passed away naturally, but almost all of you are here because of me. Whether I ended your life or coaxed you away from the road before you could decide whether or not to enter Out-shift…your presence here is my fault.
“I know this place has felt like heaven sometimes,” he said. “And I do believe Sir Hugo meant it to be. He wanted perfection, in every area of the arts, and that is exactly what he got when he sent me to collect each of you. But in doing so, we robbed you of your lives, your memories, and your freedom. It’s up to you to decide if that’s a fair exchange, but for my part I no longer believe that it is.”
As he spoke, the fool’s eyes drifted to Lori standing beside him. Words clogged his throat, and for a moment he stood without speaking, determination and decision mustering on his thin face.
“He is gone,” he said then. “Death has taken Sir Hugo at last, but he had others out there in the world who were working for him. Some of them I know, some I don’t. But all of them are dangerous, and all of them will be trying to continue what he started—to recruit the dead, to build places of Both by means of murder, and to seek ways to put Death under their heels. We can’t allow any of that to happen.”
Lori raised an eyebrow at him; he was stealing her lines. She was meant to give the recruitment speech.
“I…I intend to do what I can,” Peter went on, holding her dubious gaze, “to help Lori here in hunting down those people. We’ll find someone to watch The Masque, and you are all welcome to stay, if you wish. You deserve your freedom, but some of you may still find it here, now that it has no darker purpose. If not…well, you can go, or come with us. We would welcome your help, but the decision is yours.”
Silence. The company members glanced at each other, confused, conflicted, some of them finally beginning to show a bit of their entitled anger. Finally, they began to stand. One by one, they drifted away, some wandering backstage, back to their studios or practice rooms, some heading resolutely for the front doors and a long-awaited escape. There were only two who remained where they were. They were both scene-shifters, their expressions unreadable beneath their black hoods.
“…great, thank you,” Peter sighed.
“Hey,” said Lori, “it’s a start. Maybe the others who are staying will come around.” He shrugged and she laid a hand on his arm. “Thank you, though. Thank you for helping me.”
He nodded, and together they left the stage to join their silent hooded helpers. The scene-shifters stood to accompany them out of the house. They walked hand in hand, their gloves laced desperately together. Lori wondered who they were and if they even knew the answer to that question. Either way, she supposed that their help was better than none at all, and perhaps in time they would become more than mute shades. Perhaps, too, in time Peter would remember more things that could help them, and perhaps Death would make good on its promise and return Samuel to them. Perhaps they had a chance.
When they had all gone, The Masque’s house stood empty and still. Onstage, the lights began to dim. But before they could go out entirely, the dusty stage boards were draped in the tall shadow of a stranger who slipped out from behind the curtains like an after-thought. He was handsome and dark haired, except for the green rot blossoming around his lips. He wore an expensive suit that was a deep black to match his dead eyes. They watched in silent contemplation as Peter, Lori, and the scene-shifters left, and as the four of them vanished from view a wicked grin spread across his face.
(IT’S DONE! THE POSTING IS DONE! Keep an eye on social media @greenherself and this website for an announcement of when the paperback version will be released…as well as the next installment!)