The Lord Below
Dragomir had told his recruits that if he hadn’t returned from Below in two hours, they should send in backup.
Two hours had passed.
The six spirit hunters darted through the opening in the Bridge, flitting from shadow to shadow, weapons in hand. They’d been training for this for so long, but no boggart or restless mummy had prepared them for what they found in the mausoleum.
One ghost – a white thing, vanishing and reappearing – fought off a horde of corpses. Severed limbs and dislodged bones littered the ground beneath the ghost, but even they didn’t stop trying to attack him: fingers scuttled after his heels, eyes squirmed toward him. The spirit hunters didn’t know if he was friend or foe, but they did know how to fight undead: in this particular regard, they were more than proficient. They may not have had Vapoursteel, but their pistols and knives and boot heels crushed skeletons just the same.
On the other side of Whitechapel Below, Dragomir crept through the house. He’d snuck in through the kitchen, where he’d been greeted by a crew of surprised ghost cooks in the kitchen. He’d been happy to leave them be, until one hair-netted spectre swung a cleaver at him. He’d filled them all with Vapoursteel.
He moved down a corridor. The house was silent. Usually, the house Below acted innocent. Now it seemed to have shrugged off its façade. Now, it looked haunted. Shadows leered, cobwebs abounded. The floorboards and walls creaked and groaned, almost as if the house was a living creature.
Dragomir did not give a damn.
He paused outside the study. He hefted his crossbow, aimed the bolt at the door and –
“Come in, Dragomir.”
Bale’s voice was gentlemanly. Dragomir lowered his crossbow, not because he was a gentleman – he was a bastard, as he would be the first to admit. But he wasn’t the kind of bastard that fired at people through closed doors.
“I’m gonna need your word that you ain’t gonna bash in my skull soon as I open the door,” he said.
A pause. “You have my word.”
Dragomir twisted the crystal doorknob and pushed open the door.
Bale sat at his desk, smoking a cigarette in his old cigarette holder. He looked more solid than the smoke that hung around him: he almost looked alive.
He gestured for Dragomir to take a seat. As he did, Dragomir said, “You’ll forgive me if I keep this thing loaded?”
“I wouldn’t expect anything else.”
“For somebody who wants to kill every person, you look pretty alive,” said Dragomir.
“It’s because I’ve been getting stronger. I have to, naturally. People might resist me. I have to able to fight them off.”
“People like me, you mean.”
Bale smiled. “Remember the last time we had a Mexican standoff?”
“I remember I won.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“You went Below.”
“And now I’m its leader,” Bale said, inhaling deeply. His slightly-transparent throat glowed red.
“Before I joined the spirit hunters I was with the foreign legion,” said Dragomir, “And sometimes we got sent into tin-pot countries to put bullets in their politicians. They’ve got a word for that kind of leader, the kind you are. It’s ‘dictator’.”
“Maybe,” Bale said cheerily, “although I’m far beyond the reach of bullets.”
Years of training seized the opportunity. The crossbow rose, the firing mechanism coiled, the Vapoursteel bolt spun. And Bale caught it. It shone in his fist: a captured star.
Bale didn’t look angry, not really.
“Did you really think I’d let you in here if I wasn’t impervious to Vapoursteel?”
“That’s not possible,” Dragomir said. The commander of the elite operatives of the Order of Spirit Hunters had not felt fear in so long that it took him a moment to realize which emotion had seized him.
“You seem to underestimate how many ghosts I’ve gotten rid of and how many people I’ve killed,” said Bale. “Not because I’m cruel. I did it because I had to.”
At first Dragomir wanted to tell Bale that he would fail, that someone would stop him, but then he realized that it was not true.
“I guess you’re gonna kill me,” he said instead.
“As surely as you would have had our roles been reversed,” Bale replied, stubbing out his cigarette with a hiss.
Quint couldn’t keep fighting forever.
He’d been about to give up when the spirit hunters appeared. They did help, and the tide of undead did slow, but they were losing. These skeletons were infused with Bale’s power, and that wasn’t something easily broken. Even as Quint knocked a corpse to the ground, it would reassemble and fight again. In life, Quint had often imagined himself to be a hero in a Greek myth. Never had he thought he would’ve been Sisyphus.
And one spirit hunter had been killed already.
The two Brides were surrounded by broken headstones.
Their fight had been vicious: the landscape around them even bore wounds as a result. And it was far from over. Nor was it purely physical. The more they fought, weaving, darting, striking, the more they seemed to connect. The line between Dark and Light began to blur. Atomic fusion writ large.
Because when the Light Bride and the Dark Bride touched (as they often did, with fists and claws and legs whirling) a curious thing happened. Memories transferred between them. They were two halves of one person, after all, and as the halves reunited, so too did their memories. Visions played across the Light Bride’s mind: faces, names, places she’d long forgotten came back, startlingly clear, almost painful.
She saw her parents and her siblings. She remembered her school. She remembered her first heartbreak. But she could never dwell on these remembered things for long, because the more they fought the more her dark half tried to destroy her.
Still, slowly but surely, between the blows, she was learning how to be alive again.
“We don’t need to fight,” the Light Bride said. “Come back with me.”
“We’re better as one person.”
“You are,” said the Dark Bride, “But what about me? When I was with you, I was your shadow. But down here, I’m a queen. Here, shadows can cut.”
And her claw did cut: splitting open the Light Bride’s arm. Her essence spilt from it.
“Then let’s change that.”
“Because your world’s evil,” said the Dark Bride,
“It’s too full of shame and lies. People like us have to hide in it.”
“What about Margo?” the Light Bride said. The Dark Bride’s nails grazed her, and she remembered swimming in a great lake.
“I don’t care about Margo.”
“If you’re with Bale, she’ll die.”
“Margo’s not like the other people,” said the Light Bride, “she was kind to me.”
“That means nothing.”
“It means there could be others like her.”
“The living don’t care about shadows.”
“What would you know about the living?” the Light Bride said.
“I know people are too broken to save.”
“Maybe,” said the Light Bride. They touched again, and the Light Bride saw herself as a little girl, being hoisted into the air by a laughing man.
Alexi Dragomir died the way he had lived: pissing people off.
It took Bale two blows with Dragomir’s own Vapoursteel bolt to kill him – one more than it had ever taken to kill any other person. This irritated Bale. He didn’t have the time to hack at mortals. Dragomir didn’t see it, he had closed his eyes, trying to suppress the thought that he had failed. Instead, he tried to pray that he would not come back as a ghost.
And in that, at least, he was successful.
Quint didn’t see Bale until it was too late.
Still spattered with Dragomir’s blood, the new lord of Below descended the flagstone steps that led to the mausoleum that had once been his resting place. He looked solid, and strong, and even some of the walking corpses gazed at him with as much fear as what remained of their facial muscles could muster.
Quint didn’t notice their expressions because he was too busy trying not to get eaten. He’d been cornered, and now stood on a casket, knocking down any skeletons that tried to climb up to him. It was a lot of knocking.
“It’s no use, boy.”
Quint stopped. Bale’s voice was time-freezing. So too was the tip of the Vapoursteel bolt, pricking the back of Quint’s neck.
“Each time you break a skeleton, another one’s going to take its place.”
The skeletons in question parted around Bale as he walked, gazing up at him, some even kneeling, as if he was their messiah – and perhaps he was. Bale reached Quint, and looked down at him with – was it pity?
Quint couldn’t have been sure, because he couldn’t look at Bale for long. His essence was running away, and he slowly collapsed onto the casket.
“Hurts, doesn’t it?”
Quint began gasping for air – an instinct that he hadn’t lost in death, but which didn’t help him now.
Bale crouched beside Quint, so their faces were level.
“You’re Fading,” he said. “Do you know why?”
Quint’s body became more transparent by the second; the colour leeching out.
“Because you chose Margo.”
Quint began to shake.
“But I can help you.” Bale placed a finger on the prick in Quint’s neck, and the flow of spirit stopped – for a moment.
“You’re a broken thing, like everyone else,” said Bale. “Everything I’ve done I did so I could fix the broken things; provided they want to be fixed.”
Bale leaned closer, voice cold. “I beg your pardon.”
“I knew you’d say that,” said Bale, “Fortunately, I never offered to fix you. But I need you to fix Margo. And for that reason you’re not going to Fade today.”
Bale waved his hand over Quint’s neck, and the hole narrowed until only a few drops of his spirit leaked form it.
“Take him to the house,” Bale commanded.
A hundred hands descended on Quint.
The Light Bride didn’t think she was letting the Dark Bride destroy her, but she wasn’t certain. Every blow brought with it a memory, and those memories were like a drug. Remembering, even the bad things, was euphoric. It drowned out the sorrow.
Hit. Her first kiss.
Hit. The colour of her mother’s eyes.
Hit. She’d been pregnant.
Sometimes thoughts of Margo would cut through the memories. She knew that if she didn’t fight, Margo would die. Her family would die. Perhaps even more people would die. But the memories were so much easier. Such an inconvenience, the truth. So she fought back, blocking attacks, and the two Brides leaked ectoplasm. They were Fading, and rapidly, the only difference was the Light Bride Faded faster. And the Dark Bride knew it.
“Bale’s going to make everything better,” she said. “He’s fixing us.”
“You know that’s a lie.”
“Stop saying that! You’re just like them. Why shouldn’t we go with Bale? God knows the world is messed up enough already.”
“But that’s why we have to do something else,” the Light Bride said, not knowing if she believed herself, “not because it’s better, or because we’ll win but because if we don’t, then what the hell? It’s the only way to make sense of all this.”
“Make sense of what?”
“Life.” The word sounded feeble, even to her.
“We’re not alive,” said the Dark Bride. “Don’t you get that? We’re gone. We’re perdu. We’re dead!”
And this was the unassailable, incontrovertible truth, the Big Goddamn Hurtful Thing hiding behind all the Little Goddamn Hurtful Things. And the Light Bride began to cry.
This time, the Dark Bride didn’t laugh. The pain was just a little too close to home to laugh. By now, the Brides had stumbled into the corner of the garden Below that served as a makeshift graveyard. The headstones of more Bales protruded from the soil. Most were broken. More became so when the Brides fell against them. As they did, the Light Bride remembered that she’d been a nurse.
“I worked in the cardiology department,” she said.
The Dark Bride, in the way of all destructive creatures, didn’t understand. She didn’t understand the smile that bloomed across the Light Bride’s face: a smile made of ironwood, one that her claw strikes and kicks – no matter how furious – couldn’t break.
“Why are you smiling?” she said, cautiously.
By now the Light Bride’s tears were a torrent. “I worked in cardiology,” she said, still smiling, still crying, a laugh creeping into her voice.
“We worked in cardiology.”
The Dark Bride took half a step back. One might’ve dared to say she looked afraid. The Light Bride however, no longer did. She was almost laughing. She didn’t stop laughing when the Dark Bride attacked again.
As the claws came, she remembered. She remembered riding in a ferry with a men whose laugh was the most beautiful thing in the world. She remembered picking apples with her mother. She remembered a ring. She remembered the moment she died, and how un-extraordinary it was. She remembered loneliness and she remembered coffee and she remembered saying goodbye to old friends. She remembered Sunday afternoons and gunshots and the great painters and writing poems and puppy’s breath and that she’d never felt like she’d fallen in love, but rather that it had dropped onto her from a considerable height and cared little for whether or not she’d be squashed, and that being squashed was sometimes a good thing. She remembered the taste of peanut butter, and Margo Comeau was right: it did indeed taste like the feeling after a decent cry.
The last thing she remembered, before she Faded for good, was her name, and she laughed, because she’d known it all along.