Caleb stood in the vast auditorium, looking down past rows and rows of seats to the stage.
Upon it stood Duo, and she was smiling up at him.
For a moment, Caleb wasn’t sure if it was the childish Duo or her shadow. As he slowly descended the ramp, though, it became clear. That smile…
It was sinister.
It was the shadow.
“Where’s Will?” Caleb asked as he drew closer.
“He should arrive any moment now,” Duo said in the low shadow voice. She spread her hands, as if to gesture at the entire auditorium. “What do you think? A fitting place for the halfway point of the game, isn’t it?”
“This isn’t halfway,” Caleb said, stopping at the bottom of the stairs that led up to the stage itself. “This is the final act, isn’t it?” He smirked. “You feel it in the air, right? This is the perfect time for a dramatic, exciting finale.”
“And what do you propose that finale should be?” Duo asked. “We have so much more planned – ”
“I think I’m starting to understand things.” Caleb climbed the stairs stopping at the top, on the very edge of the stage. Duo stood before him in the center, eyeing Caleb suspiciously. Caleb stared back at her, trying to figure out the right hand to play.
If I come on too strong, will I kill my best chance?
If I come on too weak, or take the wrong approach, will I get myself – or worse, Will – into worse trouble?
I was too cocky before. And here I thought Mister Midnight cured me of that. Guess I’m still holding onto a bit of my stupid arrogance.
He took a deep breath, let it out, and smiled. Not a cocky grin or smirk, not a taunting smile, or one of challenge.
He smiled with kindness. With hope.
“Duo,” Caleb said softly. “What’s your real name?”
Duo glared, opened her mouth to speak, and then stopped. Her expression changed, softening, and then hardened again, but still she didn’t speak. Like a war was raging inside of her, she warped and alternated between angry defiance and a deep, tragic sadness.
Caleb braced himself, hoping…
But the anger won, and Duo glared back at Caleb, speaking in the low shadow voice. “Our only name that matters is Duo. Unless you wish to know…” Duo grinned, a frighteningly wide, inhuman grin, “my name.”
Caleb’s eyes widened, and he stared in silence for a long moment.
Is this a trick?
Duo’s shadow kept on grinning. “Yes, I’ve spent so long with this girl, it really sometimes feels like I am two people: a we instead of a me. But it also serves a good purpose – it helps make the girl seem just as insane as she is. And it hides me very effectively. But you’ve seen the paintings. You’ve seen the girl’s story – enough of it, anyway. After that, your fate was sealed, Caleb Greyson. You were never going to leave this place.”
So they really are two separate beings… and this shadow… it…
It took advantage of a little girl. Like a parasite, with an unwitting, lonely, scared little girl as its host.
Caleb clenched his hand into a fist. “Duo,” he said. “I don’t know your name, but I want you to know –” he raised his hand, pointing at Duo’s shadow, “you don’t need to obey this monster. You don’t need to let it consume you anymore. You’ve been so afraid, and so lonely, for so long… but it doesn’t have to stay that way.”
Shadow-Duo’s face contorted in rage, but then softened, and Duo backed away timidly, staring at the floor. “What would you know about it?” she asked in her childish voice. “You’ve had everything all your life. How could you possibly understand?”
“You’re right,” Caleb said. “I’ve never wanted for loving parents. I’ve never wanted for love, or affection, or a place to call home. But that’s why I can feel your pain. Because I know, if I didn’t have those things, if I hadn’t been brought up with so much… I’d be totally different. I’d be broken. I’d be lost. And I’d be very susceptible to some shadow monster taking hold of me. I’d be very vulnerable to people looking after me, filling the void left by my parents only to use me for their own ends.”
“You –” Duo started, but then cried out as if in pain. Her face changed, and the sinister gaze of the shadow returned.
“Don’t play the hero,” it said, sneering. “There’s no ‘saving’ her, not after all these years. She and I are one. Your feeble, pathetic words will never reach her. Give up. You’re dealing with m–”
“Shut up, you,” Caleb said, glaring. “Duo? I wish I knew your name. But I hope you don’t mind me calling you Duo, until I know better. I want to help you, and your little sister. The shadow says ‘after all these years.’ You’re not much older than me, are you? I saw the paintings, and the dates. You’re twenty-five. I’m twenty-” Caleb paused, then chuckled. “Ah. Twenty-three. My birthday came and went while I was away in the Enchanted Dominion and no one told me. Even I forgot.” He smiled. “Twenty-five years isn’t so long. The shadow doesn’t have the hold on you that it thinks it does, right? With the right push –”
“It’s too dangerous!” Duo cried, stepping back. “Please. Don’t… don’t try this. The Contract… I can’t…”
But Caleb had an idea about that. Only…
How much could he say? And more importantly…
How could he be sure he was right?
“I have a plan for that,” Caleb said. “But I can’t tell you the details. Not in front of the shadow. I understand that makes things difficult. I understand you don’t have any real reason to trust me.”
“What kind of plan could you possibly have for undoing Contract Magic?” the shadow asked, scoffing. “There is no escaping the Contract once signed. Its binding power is a large reason why it was banned by Humans so long ago, isn’t it?”
Caleb gritted his teeth. Could he say anything in front of the shadow?
How else could he convince the girl in its influence? And even if he spoke, what could the shadow possibly do to make his plan impossible?
“Duo,” Caleb said, flashing a reassuring smile. “Think about it. Who signed the Contract?”
Duo – no, still the shadow – stared back at Caleb with a puzzled expression. That expression turned to bewilderment, then shock, then, suddenly, the shadow burst out laughing.
Caleb kept smiling.
Nice try. But I saw you panic there, just for a second.
“We are one, don’t you see?” the shadow asked. “There is no I or her. There is only us. I signed the Contract – that means she did. It binds us both.”
“Duo,” Caleb said. “Think about it. There’s hope. Don’t you want to take that? Don’t you want a chance at a real family, at friends, at love?”
The shadow’s face twisted in rage, but was suddenly softened as Duo returned. “You… but…” she started, but shook her head. “I can’t be like you, or anyone else. I’m not…” She shook her head, laughing, but the laughter was hollow. “I’m not human. Not anymore.”
Before Caleb could reply, the shadow returned. “You see? There is no hope left for her apart from me.”
“I don’t –” Caleb started.
“Enough of this!” the shadow crowed, stretching its hands out wide. “The curtain falls, and when it rises, you will understand. You will see just how hopeless your efforts are, and you will see that there is no other choice but to play my game until your last breath is spent!”
Caleb opened his mouth, but darkness fell like an avalanche. Sight vanished, taking with it sound, and smell, and taste, and touch. Caleb was isolated, lost, completely and totally alone.
This is the darkness. This is what Chelsea told me about. But that shadow brought the darkness in like…
Like a wave.
So it’s like Valgwyn, then?
One of his brothers, probably.
But Valgwyn, and the other brother that Maribelle talked about, Dullan… they both have physical forms. Is this brother just different?
When the curtain rises…
The darkness didn’t leave, not really. But when it went from completely impenetrable to a murky veil over the world, it seemed almost like daybreak to Caleb. For a moment, his eyes struggled to adjust to the world around him.
He was still on a stage, but…
On all sides, it was surrounded by rows of seats, going back and up, higher and higher, to impossible heights. He turned, and the pressure from his foot on the stage caused the floorboards to creak in the silence. Looking down, he saw that the stage was old, worn, rotted. And all around…
This place was a mess. The curtains were torn and faded, crusted with mold. The seats were scorched, scarred, splintered. And high overhead, what had once been a domed glass roof was shattered, forming a jagged window to the murky sky above.
This isn’t the same scenery that Chelsea saw, but…
This has to be the same sort of place. The shadow world. Who knows what I’ll find here?
Caleb’s ears perked up as he noticed a noise. It was faint, but as he listened, it became clearer.
Sniffling. Sobbing. Someone was crying, and trying to hide it.
He turned in a slow circle, surveying the auditorium, but he didn’t need to look far. As he completed his circle, looking back the way he’d started –
There was a girl. She sat on the stage not more than ten feet in front of him, with her knees pulled up to her chest, and her faced tucked out of view. But Caleb didn’t need to see her face to know who she was. He’d recognize that two-colored hair anywhere.
She’s still just a little girl, so I can’t call her Duo, can I? She wouldn’t recognize that name.
Caleb knelt down to her level. “Excuse me,” he said softly. The girl stopped sniffling for a moment, and then slowly lifted her head. Her eyes were red and bloodshot, and tears had left tracks through the dirt and soot on her cheeks. “If you don’t mind me asking, what’s wrong?”
The girl stared back at him for a long moment, then tucked her face back behind her knees. “Mama and Papa hate me,” she said.
Caleb sat down, scooting across the floor until he was just a foot away. “What’s your name?” he asked.
The girl shook her head. “I don’t… remember.” She sniffed, shaking her head again. “All they call me is ‘monster’.”
“Well, they really shouldn’t,” Caleb said, smiling. “You’re not a monster.”
The girl looked up, staring at Caleb with wide eyes. “How… how would you know?”
“Because you’re a human. Humans aren’t monsters.”
The girl leaned her chin on her knees, staring at Caleb. “Mama and Papa say they are. They say lots of humans are monsters.”
Caleb sighed. “Yeah, I’ve heard that before, but, like…” he rubbed the back of his neck, laughing softly, “every person is capable of doing really bad things. That doesn’t make them monsters. Even the really good people do bad things sometimes. It just seems kind of silly to call people monsters, as if doing something terrible means you aren’t a human anymore. People talk about humanity as if it’s something you can lose by doing bad, as if humans can only be humans if they do good. But we’re not perfect creatures, or gods, or anything like that. We’re all messed up. And besides…” his mind drifted to Chase, and hope sprung up in his heart, “even the worst people can do good again.”
The girl giggled, and Caleb gave her a questioning look. “You talk in circles,” she said. “But you say nice things.”
Caleb smiled. “So? What are you doing in a place like this?”
The girl sat back, looking up at the shattered roof high above. “I dunno. It feels like I’ve been here for, like… a whole bunch of years. But I’m still little, so that’s probably not right. But I’ve been here a really long time.”
“Do you remember how you got here?” Caleb asked.
The girl nodded. “I went to bed, and when I woke up, somebody said something about a curtain, and then it was all super dark and stuff, and when the darkness went away, I was here.”
“Do you know who said that?”
“Nope. I didn’t recognize the voice.”
It must have been the shadow. It’s been with her since she was younger, but it must have finally gotten strong enough to take her to this place when she was the age I see now. She doesn’t look older than… hmm. I’m not good with little kid ages. But, comparing her to what I remember of Delilah… I’d guess ten?
That means she’s been stuck in here for at least fifteen years. That’s terrible.
But that also means…
I wasn’t wrong about the Contract.
“Is there anything other than this place?” Caleb asked.
The girl nodded. “There’s a whole bunch of stuff outside. But I can only go outside when the doors open. When they’re closed, they’re locked. If I’m outside when the doors close, I end up back here anyway.”
“And does anything happen on this stage?”
Another nod. “They put on shows,” the girl said. “But they aren’t very nice shows. Weird puppets show up, and they try to pretend to be Mama and Papa, and other people, and they don’t say nice things.”
“Is it scary?”
“Yeah. I don’t like it at all.”
Caleb leaned forward, grinning. “Do you wanna get out of this place?”
The girl leaned forward, staring at him with wide, earnest eyes. “Can I?”
“There has to be a way out. We just have to find it. I’ll help you find it, if you want.”
The girl hopped to her feet. “You’re not afraid of me? You don’t think I’m a monster?”
Caleb smiled. “Nope. You’re no monster. And I’m not afraid of you.”
The girl giggled and held out her hand. “Will you stay with me? No matter what?”
‘No matter what,’ huh?
The shadow’s going to try and stop this. Can I promise her I’ll stay with her? If I do, and I fail…
I won’t fail.
Caleb stood up, took the girl’s hand in his. “No matter what. I’ll stay with you, and we’ll find a way out of this place.”
“Will you…” the girl started, shuffling her feet. “Will you stay with me even after we get out of here?”
Caleb smiled, squeezed her hand gently. “You bet.”
Sudden, chaotic music burst into life all around them, making both of them jump as sound and rhythm shattered the silence. The music came from so many different directions, and it seemed as if there were four or five separate songs trying to compete with each other. Rhythms clashed, melodies battled, and Caleb’s ears felt like they were going to burst.
“The show’s starting!” the girl shouted, eyes wide in fear. She pulled at Caleb, leading him towards the stairs on the opposite side of the stage, and Caleb followed. As soon as they descended from the stage, lights shot out, spotlights from high above in many colors, turning this way and that, beams crossing and twirling around each other. Caleb and the girl turned to look, and suddenly from above descended…
Puppets. Puppets on strings.
They were wooden, with color splashed all over them in chaotic patterns. They rattled and shook as they descended, jittering as if alive. Faces tilted downwards, and artificial eyes gazed at the pair. Painted grins sent a shiver down Caleb’s spine.
A voice spoke into the chaos, loud and commanding. “Let the show begin! Today, a special event for a special guest – a brand new show, one that we like to call…
“Tale of the Monster!”