The show began, and Caleb wished he was somewhere else. But looking up and out towards the doors around the upper perimeter of the auditorium, he saw all of them were still closed.
Until they opened, what could they do?
Maybe I could Phase Step through them, if magic still works properly in this shadow world. But I don’t think I can take someone with me when I Phase Step. And even if I could, I wouldn’t want to subject them to that kind of pressure and pain.
Especially not when she’s just a little girl.
“This is different,” the girl said, clutching Caleb’s hand tightly as she watched the puppets descend to the stage. “I haven’t seen this show before.”
“It’s gonna be all right,” Caleb said, smiling.
Yet as he watched the puppets, his heart filled with dread.
What would the “show” be? What would these wooden puppets, rattling and staring, do or say?
What was the shadow up to?
“And now we begin,” came the shadow’s voice from all around them, “this special performance, for our special guest, of Tale of the Monster!”
The puppets all touched the stage in unison, and with that single wooden sound, the music and all other sounds ceased. A hushed silence filled the air, and Caleb realized he was holding his breath.
And then, the puppet in the front began to move.
It was dressed and made up as if it was a woman, and it wobbled to the front of the stage – clack, clack, click, clack – its fake eyes fixed on the girl at Caleb’s side. With a rattle as its head swayed, a new voice filled the auditorium, a woman’s voice.
“I am only human!” she cried, and the puppet swayed, bent backwards in a dramatic, depressing pose. “Why, oh why! Why must this happen to me! How could I give birth to…”
The puppet dashed to the very edge of the stage in the space of a heartbeat, leaning over, its grin seeming to widen as it gazed down at the little girl. “A monster!”
The girl shrieked, crushing Caleb’s hand in a death grip as she hid behind him.
“How –” Caleb started with a glare.
The sudden boom of wooden feet on the floorboards, all in unison, cut Caleb off. A whispering voice filled the air: “Do not interrupt the show.”
Warn me all you like. I’ll find the perfect opportunity to interrupt your sick show.
How dare you subject a little girl to this?
The woman puppet, who Caleb guessed was meant to be the little girl’s mother, suddenly click-clacked her way back to center stage. The puppet next to her, a man – probably her husband, and thus the girl’s father – wobbled forward, and the music began anew. High strings plucked out a staccato tune, while lower strings held out long, discordant notes beneath them.
A man’s voice: “Don’t worry, darling! She’s no monster. She’s our precious daughter. All will be well in time, you’ll see!”
The puppets all shook, and then stomped in unison, and the father puppet shrank back, rejoining the crowd at the center. The high staccato strings stopped, leaving only the long, drawn-out low notes.
The shadow’s voice: “But the father was wrong. Time would not heal this wound. And so…”
The low strings picked up, and mid-range strings joined in, starting a waltz as the puppets danced outward from the center, spiraling around each other.
In the center of their dance, there was a new puppet. A small puppet.
A child, with purple hair on one side, white on the other. One green eye, one blue eye.
Just like the little girl at Caleb’s side.
But this little puppet was frightening, with blood-red eyes fixed in a wicked glare. Its hands were strangely shaped, and…
Drip, drip, drip.
A red liquid dripped from them onto the stage, pooling around the puppet’s feet.
“No…” the girl at Caleb’s side said, huddling closer to him. “Not this, please…”
“Children must accept the truth,” came the voice of the mother puppet. The waltz ended, and the high strings came in alone, drawing out long notes that made Caleb’s ear drums sting. The mother puppet came rattling forward as it marched across the stage, stopping near the edge. “And so must parents!” It spread its hands, tilting its head back to stare mournfully up at the ceiling. “I have birthed a monster! All I can do is…”
All the puppets stomped in unison, the music stopped, and the mother puppet’s head came down, grinning at the girl.
“All I can do is fight back!”
Chittering laughter filled the air, as woodwinds clashed with strings, each playing separate tunes – the woodwinds a mournful, sweeping melody, while the strings sounded out a more sinister, wicked song. An inner curtain fell, covering only the center of the stage, where the child puppet had been, and the rest of the larger puppets danced and leapt around the stage, rattling and click-clacking as they laughed.
The shadow’s voice returned: “There was only one option, one way to fight back against the monster. Contain it, if possible!”
The inner curtain swept upward, and the music vanished, save for a single high, drawn-out note that resonated in the air. The child puppet was revealed now to be in a cage, and though it beat its dripping fists against the bars, it could not escape.
The shadow narrated, as a sweeping, haunting melody began: “The mother thought she had won, but there was more power in the monster than she suspected. And so things were not finished. Not yet.”
Hearing the girl whimpering at Caleb’s side, he turned to her, ignoring the play as he knelt down to meet her eye-to-eye. She was crying, and her wide eyes were frightened. He held her hand gently, and she gripped his tightly, desperately.
“Are you afraid?” he asked softly.
The girl nodded. “Very afraid.”
“They keep making you afraid in here, don’t they?” The girl nodded again. “But you know…” Caleb smiled. “You don’t have to be afraid.”
“But I’m trapped,” the girl said. “And I don’t… I don’t like any of this. It’s loud and mean and scary and… and…”
“And it’s a lie, right?” Caleb asked. “It’s not the true story, is it? You remember some of this, how it really happened.”
The girl bowed her head. “But Mama and Papa… they did call me a monster. They did lock me away.”
“It’s taking parts of the truth and warping it,” Caleb said. “You don’t need to pay any attention to it. And as long as you’re afraid…” Caleb looked up towards the doors, which remained closed. “As long as you keep being afraid, I think you’ll be trapped here forever.”
“But aren’t you afraid?”
Caleb laughed. “Yeah, a little bit. My teacher would be very frustrated with me, but I guess I can’t help a little bit of fear. But…” He looked back at the play, at the puppets, at the stage, at all the madness taking place. He laughed again, turned back to the girl. “You can use magic, right?”
The girl nodded.
“So,” Caleb turned her hand over, and tapped her palm with a finger, “there’s this really easy magic to use. You don’t need a Talisman or anything. All you do, is you visualize your fear right here, in the palm of your hand. Focus on it, and it’ll come out of you and gather right here. Then, all you have to do is grab it tight so it doesn’t go back inside of you, and then throw it away!” Caleb mimicked a throwing motion, aiming towards the stage and the puppets. “Easy, right?”
The girl giggled, shaking her head. “You’re silly.”
“What?” Caleb faked looking hurt. “It works. Don’t you want to try it?”
The girl shook her head, smiling. “No, I think… I think I can be brave, as long as I’m with you.”
Caleb smiled. “I’m Caleb, by the way. You still don’t remember your name?”
The girl shook her head, but then turned, looking up towards the doors. “But… I think I can find it out there somewhere.”
Caleb gave her hand a little squeeze. “Then let’s look for it together.”
“Pay attention!” the shadow’s voice shouted, filling the space. The girl jumped with a shriek, and Caleb pulled her close, gently stroking her hair. “Do not ignore the show. This is a special event, just for you.”
“I think we’ve –” Caleb started.
The girl screamed, pressing closer against Caleb.
Yell all you want. You won’t win.
A sudden boom shook the auditorium, and Caleb looked up to see…
The doors were open!
“What is this?” the shadow’s voice cried out.
Caleb grinned. Whatever had caused it didn’t matter.
This was their chance. This was their hope.
“Let’s go!” Caleb said, holding the girl’s hand tightly as he ran up the stairs. She followed after, as fast as her little legs could carry her. The shadow’s voice was shouting, the puppets were rattling and click-clacking, several different orchestras were playing loud, clashing tunes.
But none of it mattered. Caleb didn’t dare look back, and neither did the girl as she ran alongside him.
We’ll find your real name. We’ll get out of here together.
Nothing’s going to stop us.
They made it through the doors, and Caleb thought he saw a spark of white light in the corner of his eye. When he turned to look, though, it was gone.
But underneath all the cacophony, he thought he heard a still, small voice:
“Do not be afraid.”
Caleb grinned, running onward and out of the auditorium with the girl close beside him.
The auditorium was huge, so Caleb hadn’t felt at all closed in or claustrophobic, but exiting it into the shadow world beyond felt like stepping from a storage closet out onto a vast open field. Grey plains dotted with black, withering flowers rolled before him. The road was dark and winding, and on either side were miniature outdoor stages. There didn’t seem to be a sky, but rather an endless, disorienting ceiling of roiling grey mist that sometimes arced down to touch the ground.
“How far have you been along this road?” Caleb asked as they ran.
“Not far,” the girl said. “I’m always pulled back so soon, even if I run as fast as I can. And there’s a fork where I don’t know which way to go.”
They started up a hill, passing the first of the mini-stages on their right. Puppets suddenly popped out of the floorboards, rattling along the stage, grinning down at them with painted faces.
“The monster runs, but she cannot run far!” a woman’s voice proclaimed.
“There is no escape for evil’s servant,” a man’s voice declared.
“Don’t listen to them,” Caleb said, running on ahead without sparing another glance. “The shadow wants you to feel afraid. Fear keeps you trapped here.”
They crested the hill, and Caleb took a small moment to look back. But the puppets from the auditorium hadn’t followed them. The doors to the auditorium stood wide open, but no pursuers came after them. Faintly he could hear the discordant, clashing tunes.
On they ran, picking up speed as they descended the hill. To the left, puppets sprang out of the next mini-stage, and cackling laughter followed them as they raced past. To the right, puppets sprang out of another mini-stage, far enough in advance that Caleb couldn’t avoid looking at them.
A mother, a father, and…
A baby. Not with Duo’s hair, either.
The shadow spoke: “The parents were blessed with a new child, a human child, and finally their fear of a monster had ended. They could cherish their proper daughter, and pay no more mind to the monster they had brought into the world.”
“Our only daughter,” said the mother puppet, stroking the baby puppet’s head, wood scraping on wood.
“Our precious child,” said the father puppet, lifting a blanket and laying it across the baby puppet.
Caleb and the girl ran past. Chittering, cackling laughter followed them.
“There’s the fork!” the girl cried out, pointing ahead.
Caleb brought them to a stop, staring. “It’s… a bit more than a fork, isn’t it?”
Dozens of roads suddenly branched off from the main road, with no clear indication of which was the right way. In the circular intersection was a larger version of the mini-stages, and on it danced puppets with painted grins and wobbling glass eyes.
“Where do we go?” the girl asked.
Caleb frowned in thought for a moment, looking over each path in turn.
They all look the same. And the scenery beyond is just endless fields. How are we supposed to know where to go?
Caleb held back a sigh. He couldn’t show fear, or uncertainty, or disappointment.
He needed to smile.
“Are you left- or right-handed?” Caleb asked, looking down at the girl.
“Left,” the girl said, staring at him questioningly.
Caleb grinned, looking towards the roads on the left. “Which of those do you want to go down?”
“I… don’t know. There’s too many to choose from.”
“Hmm… what’s your favorite color?”
“Blue,” the girl said.
Caleb laughed. “Mine, too. So ‘blue’ starts with ‘B,’ the second letter of the alphabet, so counting from the left…” He pointed at the second road from the left. “How about that one?”
The girl giggled. “Okay.”
They ran ahead, taking the new road. Gnarled, blackened trees on either side cast thorny branches overhead, like an arching ceiling to the road. The misty veil above was hidden, save for what vapors sifted through the thick branches; feeble, grasping hands that faded in a breath.
The road widened as it ascended, and the trees turned into proper archways of stone. Above them, down the center of the arching ceiling, was a glass window to look up at the sky, though there was nothing to see. Lamps sputtered to life on either side, glowing dim and blue in the murky darkness.
“Your favorite color,” Caleb said with a smile.
“Our favorite,” the girl corrected, giggling.
Their ascent stopped, the road leveling out and the stone ceiling giving way as they came to a vast garden. In the midst of a great many black, withered flowers, thorny bushes, and gnarled trees, little blue blossoms poked out here and there, shimmering in the night. Hedges rose up, too tall for them to see far, and there were many paths they could choose from.
“Stick to the left?” Caleb asked, receiving a smiling nod from the girl. They slowed to a walk now, taking their time as they rounded one hedge, then another.
Each new turn revealed more about this place. Lamp posts came into being, their lights glowing blue. Statues of featureless children with worn, unreadable plaques stood in dark, haunting corners. As they rounded a new turn, they found themselves at a circular drive in front of a towering, dark mansion. Its central tower loomed highest and darkest, and glittering sapphire lights peeked out of windows here and there.
“Is this at all familiar to you?” Caleb asked.
The girl shook her head. “No. I’ve never…” She paused, and her grip on Caleb’s hand tightened slightly. “I… I have seen it. I… but I…” She shook her head. “I don’t remember. It’s like a big dark blur in my brain.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Caleb said with a smile. “But I think that means we have to go inside. Can you handle that?”
The girl nodded. “I want to get out of here. And…” She stared up at the looming mansion. “I want to remember things about myself.”
“Then let’s see what we can learn.”
Caleb led the way up the grand staircase to the front door. Before he could knock, it swung silently inward. Hand-in-hand, Caleb and the girl stepped inside.
But rather than the girl remembering or recognizing something, Caleb was the one who was suddenly shocked at what he saw.
This entrance hall… I know this place. I know this place!
Those books, arranged in reverse alphabetical order…
The special boxes of playing cards…
Caleb hadn’t been to this Manor in a long time. But of course he’d remember it. There was no other Manor like it, after all. This was a shadowy version of Mathers Manor, home to the Head of the Council of Mages, and good friend and mentor to Caleb’s parents…