The 4th Part: In Which Alden’s Really Bad Day Continues, And The Boy Finds Out Why
Whipped by the infernal winds and half-sunk into the Vagueness, its dark walls much the worse for wear but still proud, the Gatehouse loomed before him again at last. As the Borderlands warped away into the distance behind him and the Vagueness consumed space and time, Theo approached the great creaking mansion through which the Other Side leaked into the world.
He had almost forgotten the view. The windows with their loose wounded shutters fluttering open and shut like eyes; the smell of nothing; the way the facade of the house was difficult to look at, not because it was too bright or anything but because it seemed only half-real and it tricked the eyes and discombobulated the brain. It rippled up into the sky like a reflection on a pool—but then, in a manner of speaking, it was just that.
Theo swallowed hard, looking up at the lifeless building. He watched the swirling fingers of the Vagueness testing for weaknesses, prying patiently at the stones and windows, just like they always had.
Fear gripped him now that he had stopped running, and the anger and hurt wasn’t in his head, now that he was actually there. Far-off, subdued, nightmare memories of the screams and the blood haggled to gain admittance to his consciousness. Every groan of the wood and rasp of the wind was to him like an electric barb, bringing back the anguish and the terror as if it had never ended.
“They’re waiting for me in there, aren’t they,” he whispered, eyes wide. “The ones who killed my family. They’re waiting for me.”
“Oh, dearest,” murmured the Fox, close beside him. There was something of an abnormal insubstantiality to her figure, and an odd smoke-like darkness misting off of her fur, but in a place like that it was easy to miss that kind of thing. “Isn’t this what you have been waiting for?”
“Yeah, i’ss real brave o’ you, innit,” said the Rat Man, sucking disinterestedly on a rat’s tail. “Takin’…um…bein’—“
“—taking initiative, dear,” the Fox provided, somewhat acidly.
“Can’t turn around now. You ran away. It’s too late. You can’t go back. The Mage’ll kill you,” added Goggles drearily in her gravelly tones, turning her round glass mask-eyes towards Theo.
The pale raven just watched.
“I’m so proud of you, dear. Finally striking out, taking control of your power, and breaking free,” crooned the Fox. The bright glimmer of violence bloomed in her, subtle and quick as a bullet. “This is your moment of glory! Revenge! Come, dear, be strong! You’ve made it here, after five long years. You’re no coward, I know it.”
Theo wiped the last vestiges of his angry tears from his eyes, and nodded. He clenched his fists, and marched resolutely forward towards the door. It was half off of its hinges, and it groaned in the breeze, revealing at moments a watchful slice of darkness beyond its battered planks.
He took a deep breath, stifled his dread, gripped the edge of the door, and swung it open before he had a chance to quail. He walked into the darkness, and it swallowed him.
Beyond it was a room. Theo knew the room. It had been his childhood. It had four corners, and a carpet, some tarnished old candlesticks, and presumably a roof among other things, but most of those other things were both indiscernible and indisputably unimportant.
Directly across from the entrance was a gaping mouth of another door, set into the wall like a vast mirror. Theo stared at it, heart drumming. He knew the door, too—it was the door that had always been forbidden, the wall that should have remained no more than a wall, and it stood wide and gaping just as it had when Theo had drawn it open in his bitterness. Just as it had when the screaming had started. And the light was the same; it fell the same way it had when the blood had first splashed across Theo’s face, and when he had stumbled back towards the doorway and fled blindly away from the horror and down the endless stepping-stone path five years before. An infinity of shapes and notions flitted in the something or the nothing beyond the threshold; it wasn’t really possible to say what it looked like on the Other Side of the door, except that it was an amalgamation of both dark and bright, yes and no, and it breathed.
Theo’s breath caught.
The corpses of his family still lay there as they had fallen, one in every corner of the room, each displaying the mark of the curse that had killed them. Theo’s sister in the North Corner, stabbed up to the hilt with six knives. She had always had a temper. Theo’s brother in the South corner, his skin tight and dry about his bones, his belly distended with starvation. He’d never stopped eating. Then in the East Corner lay Theo’s once cheerful father, his body rotted with ruptured black and green boils of sickness. And across from his senseless crumpled figure, what remained of Theo’s mother slumped in the West corner, a perfect pale skeleton grinning stupidly into the room.
Theo was grateful for once for the darkness, because he could not clearly make out their staring eyes or the gruesome corruptions of their flesh that such proximity to the Other Side had, of course, preserved entirely. At least, that was Theo’s assumption; Alden would have known that they were just a Memory, but since the boy did not, they may as well have been real, for they disoriented him anyway.
He tried to regather his focus.
The bloodstains on his face were pulsing savagely now, like a headache. “Okay. Where is it?” He said. Then, louder and more defiantly, “where are you? It’s me, Theodore M. Praetorius. I’ve come t-to avenge my f-family!”
There was silence as his words echoed away.
And then a voice—or something that had the same effect as a voice—tremulous and powerful as a tidal wave, whispered, “finally.”
And the Curse descended. It was sudden—almost too explosively quick for the senses to follow; but Theo felt abruptly that it was there. Every hair on his body quivered, and a chill ran up and down his spine as his heart plummeted, drumming, into his stomach. He tossed back and forth, searching the ceiling, and then spun around, immediately and instinctively drawn to look at that unfathomable, petrifying, unstoppable power.
When he looked towards the door, however, he did a double-take, bemused. What he saw was his four companions behaving weirdly. Their bodies seemed to have bloated with darkness, which condensed and streamed off of them like clouds off of mountaintops. They twitched; the void-like strings reached out like hands from inside of them and clutched and tore at the others, merging, growing, a writhing mass of rats and carrion-birds, gas masks and fingers, pin-teeth and sword-eyes.
“Uh, guys?” Said Theo, vacantly. “What—what’re you doing?”
Scarcely a moment later, however, Theo’s eyes widened. Abruptly, he buckled over, gasping, an indescribable and debilitating pain consuming him. It gripped his heart like a raging fever, and pulsed through him with each beat of his blood. The stains on his forehead were flaring maniacally, each one like a hot brand, hurting him worse than the other.
Through the torture, he heard the Fox. “Ahhh…that feels good. I’ve missed this. Haven’t you, dear friends?”
“Tell me ‘bout i’.” Rat-Man’s voice. “Ah, lookit that. We’re hurtin’ Theo, en’t we.”
“We’re hurting him very badly,” concurred Goggles.
“It is delicious,” trilled the Fox. “But he isn’t bleeding yet. Shall I make him bleed, dear friends?”
Theo panted, shaking with agony, “where—what—what’re you doing! Please! Why—?”
The great viscous web of darkness laughed. They were all around him—their voices, their smells of blood and rot and paleness. The Gate was still behind him, but he couldn’t really notice it anymore. The corners were lost in the deeps of that swirling power, and so was everything else. Theo couldn’t tell if he was standing or falling or neither, or if he was turning, or if the darkness was turning around him.
“Wha’ are we doin’?” Repeated the Rat Man with some bored disbelief. “Eh…seriously?”
“Oh, dear, but I’m disappointed in you,” he heard the Fox say with a dignified pout. “It is really quite simple.”
Theo felt like his head was going to rupture, the pain was so intense. “I—I don’t—“
“Of course you understand, dear.” The Fox’s bright sadistic voice was soft. “You said you wanted to fight the Curse that killed your family. Well?”
Theo looked up as the realization hit him. “Wait—y—you’re the Curse? You all—are—”
“There i’ is!” said the Rat Man. “Say, all a you, seem like i’ finally hit ’im!”
Goggles added, “it certainly took you long enough to catch on.”
“Exactly right,” agreed the Fox. “Well. I suppose perhaps it would be fair to say that we were merely what the mages call shadows, before. But that’s all sorted now, isn’t it, dear friends?”
Theo gulped numbly, betrayal, desperation and hopelessness crowding in on his fear and pain. “It was you? Y-you were the ones l-lying to me?”
“Oh, dear, dear,” tutted the Fox, “we didn’t lie. The Curse was here, after all—rather, it is here, since we are it, you know.”
“Y-you told me that M-Mr. Mage…ahhh!” A wave of pain forced him to stop mid-sentence.
“Oh, that,” the Fox said distastefully. “He is the most powerful Mage since Merlin.”
“You ough’ to’ve listened to ’im,” noted the Rat Man.
Goggle’s raspy mask-voice added, “the Mage practically spelled it out for you.”
“Hmph—what a nuisance, really!” Said the Fox. “If it weren’t for him, I expect we would have had our victory five years ago. Well now. That’s all in the past; there is no use dwelling on it. Luckily, you listened to us, dear.”
“Ne’er doubted us,” concurred the Rat Man.
Theo struggled, trying to form some coherent opinion or intention out of his desperation and misery.
“Well then!” The Fox’s voice was brisk. “How shall we kill him?”
“I kinda wanna do i’,” suggested the Rat Man hungrily, in the tone of one trying to sound casual so as not to invite opposition.
Goggles would have none of it. “But I want to kill him too.”
There was a pause, and then the Fox seemed to reach a decision. “The Last Praetorius,” she mused. “When he dies, the Gate will crumble, and the order will be broken. We will be free. We have all waited, dear friends. Let us do this together—as one.”
As she said the last words, they were not just in her voice anymore; all their voices melded together, overlaid, and the became the same. In a split moment, the void-like shadow contracted like a video played in reverse and, after a moment of chaos, bloomed once again into the shape of an enormous raven, its pale dark wings catching a gust of the infernal winds and fluttering with silence.
Buckled beneath the excruciating agony, Theo could think of only one thing.
As the great raven descended on him through a fathomless stillness, and even as the pain in his body compounded with each endless second, he raised his streaming eyes and traced the only rune he knew.
There was no dramatic flash of light; there wasn’t even a powerful shockwave or a magical sound. It wasn’t one of the runes that had been modified to include those kinds of crowd-pleasing things.
But where the great raven had been—which, from Theo’s point of view, was everywhere at once—there was just air again. The sounds of creaking planks and shutters moved through the square room with its four corners, and behind Theo, the Gate gaped like a mouth. The pain had dimmed; Theo sank to his knees on the ancient carpet, panting heavily, tears still streaking his cheeks. Before him glimmered the echo of the rune he’d used.
And beyond that, a tall thin man in a black suit, a gorgeous red fox, a girl in a sullied white dress, and a mute pale raven stood by the doorway, looking ruffled and annoyed.
“That was a nice attempt,” Goggles offered gloomily, straightening her mask. “You repelled us back, and forced us out of our true form. But it isn’t any use. You can’t kill us.”
“Oh, bother,” exclaimed the Fox. “I told you we should have done this earlier, before the mage taught him any irritating spells. Now this will take longer.”
Theo struggled to stand up. His vision was blurred, so he tried rubbing his eyes, but that didn’t help. It didn’t matter; there was no escaping anyway. The Curse was blocking the door.
“Let’s stop talkin’ an’ jus’—“ The Rat Man began, but he was cut off my the intrusion of a very peculiar thing.
Everyone went quiet, listening.
That very peculiar thing started out as a string of noises, and it became clear after several seconds that those noises were, in fact, insults. A long list of them.
“Is he callin’ us names?” Said the Rat Man.
The Fox’s ears were swiveling about, confusedly. “If those are his insults, he does not appear to be saying them now.”
“—monster,you vapid, arrogant, halfwitted fashion-mongering son of a scorpion, you think I’ll let you hoodwink me anymore? I’m done! I won’t let a selfish coxcomb like you abuse me or my friends anymore—!”
An angry glob of words shot through a crack in the door, making everyone in the room startle. It paused for the moment, quivering in the air and lashing out threateningly at whatever it sensed might be sentient; and then, apparently spent, it dashed away and disappeared rather unceremoniously through the Gate into the Other Side.
Five sets of eyes shifted simultaneously and uncomprehendingly from the Gate back towards the house’s door as another sound took the place of the rogue insults. It was the patter of light, confident, and brisk footsteps, accompanied by the tapping of a staff.
Alden Arden Alexander pushed open the the great door, walked in, and threw an empty jar over his shoulder. He excused himself for littering, smiled, asked if the Rat Man might move aside so he could get through, and marched down the carpeted room towards Theo with a glorious rustling of his second-favorite coat. The Shadowcat padded beside him.
They all just watched him, blankly.
Alden looked around at the numb confused faces, and shrugged. “He said it, not me,” he claimed, pointing at Theo. “Anyway, that is what what I call appropriate redirection of bad energy. Thanks for that, kid! Oh, you look like you’re going to pass out. Let’s not.” He lifted a hand and, turning it upwards with a flick of his wrist, raised Theo to his feet. A dusting of golden magic sifted off of the boy’s shoulders. “There, that should do it,” Alden said. “All better?”
Theo tried to find his voice; it took him several tries. “I thought you were going to do some big magical entrance,” he croaked.
Alden looked up at Theo and crooked his mouth. “But that was way more fun,” he said. “Did you not like it?”
Theo felt his hot tears redouble with relief. “Mr. Mage, I’m so sorry…I—“
“Hey kid.” Alden grinned. “Don’t run off like that again. You might get into all sorts of trouble.” He looked down at the last echoes of Theo’s rune, as it faded and was gone. “Nice spell though! I really didn’t think you could do it.”
“Um—speaking of which, Mr. Mage…” Theo pointed over Alden’s shoulder, and swallowed. “They—um—“
Alden raised his eyebrows, and casually turned around.
The Curse had rebounded and merged again, and it was growing as it did so. The Fox’s glittering teeth and the rat’s tails and pale feathers were writhing and swirling again, gathering with a new rage and power, descending again to consume Theo and Alden once more in the dark gauze of their void—
Alden crinkled his nose. “Huh. That’s rude,” he observed, and planting his heel firmly into the carpet, he waved his hand in a crisp semicircle. A sick, rippling sound immediately followed, as some force locked the Curse in place and then, with a shiny, eerie motion, jerked it smoothly back to the other side of the room, divided again into four shadowy figures.
Theo let out the breath he had been holding. The Shadowcat sat down and twitched its tail.
The Fox growled, pacing in front of her separate counterparts, her eyes livid. “Oh, come on, not you again. Dear, dear, you are flamboyant. And you are getting on my nerves.”
“Archmage, 1st class,” Alden said with a shrug. “You’re going to have to try harder than that if you want the kid.”
“Oh, come now, mage,” the Fox answered in silver, dagger tones. “You couldn’t even destroy us when we were just a shadow. Even you can’t kill us now.”
The pale raven said nothing.
“Eh, you sure ‘bout tha’?” Whispered the Rat Man doubtfully. “Pretty sure he di’n’ attack us ‘cause he di’n’ wanna hurt Theo. He did jus’—“
“Don’t be a fool, you silly Rat,” the Fox scoffed sharply, thrashing her tail. “Come on! He cannot hold out forever. Let’s get this frustrating old man out of the way once and for all.”
They tried to merge and close in once more. Alden’s face fell into concentration, but he merely twirled his staff once, and the green crystal blazed to life; the Curse splintered and reformed; Alden cast a pulse of energy to stop them getting past him, and then added a shower of harlequin confetti. The Curse moved quicker. There was a rush almost too sudden for the eye to follow, and Alden slid a few feet backwards across the dimly lit carpet, his eyes blazing with the focus of holding the mad raging darkness at bay.
He was grinning. “That’s more like it!” He said.
Any other house but the Gatehouse would have been leveled in an instant; but the Gatehouse just groaned. Light and shadow, myriad sounds and the space where sound should be, all wound together and dissipated and rebounded as the Curse pried for weaknesses in the mage’s guard, in his staff, in his coat, in his boots.
Alden clenched his teeth. After several moments, he dropped his hands to his side, balancing the staff in one of them, and muttering something, he snapped open his fingers. The staff surged with power; a tapestry of enchantments expanded like a fishing net into the room.
“Oh, resorting to such defensive technique! It appears you may be having difficulty,” said the Fox, or at least, her voice was the one which found its way out of the darkness. “I see you brought a Shadowcat. Why not ask it for help?”
“You think I didn’t already?” Alden smiled. He nodded towards the Shadowcat in question, who was sitting unconcernedly at Theo’s feet.
“Yes. It is sitting,” answered the Fox. “So?”
“Ohh…” The Rat Man realized. “He’s not hurtin’! That beastie’s tamperin’ wi’ Theo, innit? The link—we—canna hurt ’im!”
Alden laughed, and pretended to tip his hat, because he didn’t have an actual hat on. “Have you forgotten that the Shadowcat is symbol of house Praetorius? They’re guardians of the Borderlands too, in their way. Anyway, he’s the only one that can actually help me.”
Theo had watched, gaping, for several moments, and then resolution stole into his eyes. He nodded to himself, and taking a deep breath, he stepped forward towards Alden and addressed the mage in a low voice.
“What do we do, Mr. Mage?”
Alden shook his head. “You shouldn’t have come here, kid. There’s only one thing we could do, technically, but I’m not suggesting it.”
Alden sighed, and glanced at Theo’s expectant face. He shook his head again, and said regretfully, “I could be really badass for a bit longer, and give you time to close the Gate.”
“But it’s already out of the Gate. The Curse, I mean.”
“Yeah, it is.” Alden bit his lip. “You know when I said that if you came here before you were ready, you could end up trapped on the Other Side?”
Theo furrowed his brows.
“That blood on your face,” explained Alden, and then had to stop because the Curse was doing something, so Alden was casting a tricky spell and didn’t want it to backfire. “It’s a link,” he called over his shoulder. “That Curse Marked you. It’s locked to you; that’s how it meant to trap you. But that’s why they need to kill you now—you’re bound—you, the Fifth Praetorius, and that Curse. Just like the First Praetorius and the Seven at the Beginning. Where you go, it has to go, until either you kill it or it kills you.”
Theo blanched, almost—but not quite—understanding what Alden was trying to say. “What does that mean for me, Mr. Mage?”
“You’d have to close the Gate from the inside.”
“But I’d be trapped!”
“So would the Curse. It’s rejoined its Shadow now; it’s whole. If you can trap it on the other side, the Shadow will be free to access this world, but it’ll only be the Shadow. And what harm can Shadows do? Actually, sorry, I take that back. One second—!” Alden was too caught up in his magic for a moment to continue.
Theo felt his heart in his chest, drumming, but steadily now. He turned towards the waiting mouth of the Gate, its unfathomable contents spreading out like an unwritten story. The prospect of getting any nearer to it almost made him dizzy. He tried to get some air to clear his head; his breath trembled.
Theo steeled his will.
He grew calm.
This was his fault. This was his family, his Gatehouse, and he was the last Praetorius.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll go in.”
The Fox had started advancing; Alden twirled his staff and slammed it onto the ground; a blue-green wave sliced through the room, driving the Curse back. “Go in there? You’re mad, kid. Everything that doesn’t exist is through that door. Magic, gods, objectivity, devils, not to mention curses as nasty as this one. Look, I’m not gonna make you do anything about this, so just sit tight. I might be able to figure out a way to trap this thing. I mean, there’s always a possibility that I’m even more talented than I think I am.”
Theo’s eyes were locked on the hypnotic nothing of the Other Side. “But, Mr. Mage, they can escape. They can enter existence. Why not the other way around? I’ll be fine. I’ll do this. I have to.”
“Kid, it’s not—“
“No. You warned me, Mr. Mage, and I didn’t listen. So if you think this is the only way to end this, then I’m going to do it. I’m the only one that can fix this; that’s what you just said. That curse is my curse, and it killed my family. I’m going to fix it. Please, let me fix it. I—I don’t want to run away again.”
Alden took a long look at the earnest expression in Theo’s eyes, which for once was unclouded, and frightened, but brave. Theo held his guardian’s gaze, conviction and terrified vulnerability both written like other kinds of marks across his bloodstained forehead. For a moment there was just the two of them, caught in an instant of time between the raging Curse and the wide mouth of the Other Side.
Finally, Alden nodded.
“Okay,” he said, quietly.
“Okay,” agreed Theo, nodding back.
Alden turned businesslike. “The Shadowcat’s true form is on the Other Side, and she’ll help you. And take this.” Holding a spell steady with one hand, he used the other to throw the boy the dragon-bone ring he’d kept on his finger. Theo caught it clumsily. “It’s an apprentice charm. Dragon’s aren’t real, so wearing a dragon bone ring helps you acclimate to working with magic from the Other Side. But you’re a Praetorius, so you should be fine anyway. Oh, and take my jacket too; I’ve worked hard on it so nothing can use it against you, not even that. And I’d give you my boots, but your old house’s floor here looks disgusting so I think I’ll keep them on. Actually just take my staff too, it’ll help you channel the runes. And—“
“Seriously, Mr. Mage, t-that’s plenty, thanks,” said Theo, trying not to drop anything as the coat and the staff landed in his arms. “J-just focus on fighting that thing, please. I thought these were your—priceless treasures, anyway.”
“Yeah, they are,” yelled Alden over the noise, assembling a huge and complicated rune. “So don’t mess them up.”
Theo knew that was all the goodbye he would get. He swallowed his terror, and faced the Gateway squarely. The Shadowcat rose to her feet and joined him, her tail curling and uncurling, just one of two small silhouettes framed against the vast darkness and light beyond the threshold. Everything seemed to have gone quiet, although Theo knew that it hadn’t. But he could hear his own breath, and the rustling of the carpet in the infernal winds. He even thought he could hear the Shadowcat, telling him to go on.
Never taking his eyes from the Other Side, Theodore Mario Praetorius slipped the dragon-bone ring onto his finger. He shrugged the cloak onto his shoulders and put his arms through the sleeves. He gripped the staff tightly, and the green gem winked; the rod was almost the perfect height for him.
With a final, terrified, determined breath, he strode towards the Gate and he didn’t stop until he was on the Other Side. The Shadowcat followed him; the tip of its tail was the last thing to vanish.
There was no sound, except for a hushing cry of surprise as the Curse found itself caught, dragged, and flung outwards and away into the Vagueness on the Other Side by the inexorable string that it had cast itself. Teeth and beaks, sullied dresses and masks and a hundred hundred squirming rats twisted and struggled fruitlessly as the bright darkness summoned them. And then, like a sun setting or a sky being erased, the Gate closed, and everything went quiet. The house creaked in the wind, and the Memories of the fallen Praetorius’ leered out of their corners. The room became just a room, and what remained of the Curse abruptly deflated, writhed in confusion and dismay, and shrank into a Shadow.
It was dim now—almost too dim to see—and a bar of silver-red light fell in through the restless half-open door to the plain.
Alden looked thoughtful. He scratched his nose. For a long time he just stood where he was, looking at the empty wall where the Gate had been—and still was, to the only one who could open it. The mage approached it, and placed his hand against its worn dark surface for a moment. Then he sighed, and sans dragon-bone ring, coat, staff or Shadowcat, he turned around to go home.
The defiant Shadow of Theo’s curse, still confusedly roaming the room, snapped out at him with his tendrils of vapors, but Alden brushed it aside with a flick of his wrist and headed for the door to the Borderlands and the world beyond.
Four voices, distinct and together the same, cried out in shock and fury. “What did you—how did you do this to us?”
“Me? Nothing,” Alden answered. “This is your fault for thinking that binding yourself to a Praetorius was a good idea.” He frowned, dangerously, and raised a finger. “Now get out of my sight, Shadow, or you might regret it.”
The Shadow fled.