In The Land of the Dead
"Well. Your friends are very – enthusiastic."
Bonejangles laughed as they made it back out onto the street. "Yeah, they're a great bunch. Didn't knock your stockings too far across the room, did they, Mrs. Liddell?"
"They came close!" Lorina replied, pressing a hand against her chest. "I thought The Hip Joint was packed full!"
"Well, the Ball & Socket is kinda the place to go around Burtonsville," Bonejangles said, tipping his hat. "Dunno if you've noticed, but we don't really have a happenin' night life round here."
"Yes, you'd expect such a small village to be much quieter. . .I thought you said something about the people here being uptight?" Arthur asked, scratching his beard.
"Upstairs," Bonejangles told him, with a significant point at the sky. "Livin' folk tend to be all about rules and propriety and that sorta thing – and judgin' by what we just heard about their pastor, it's gotten a hell of a lot worse since I died. But once people hit here, they're ready to relax and live a little."
"Mmmm – reminds me of Oxford," Arthur commented, looking at Lorina. "I mean, I know any place with a university can't be that repressed, but. . . ."
"Oh, I know," Lorina replied with a grin. "I saw plenty of rather unlady-like behavior being indulged in after we joined the party down here. Even participated in a bit myself." She rubbed her temple in memory. "Though I think that night with the vodka was a mistake."
"Ya gotta build up your tongue for that stuff," Bonejangles laughed. "Good for you for even givin' it a shot, though. You suck down a glass, Liz?"
"Half, and then slept a good half of the following day on the couch," Lizzie confessed, shaking her head. "And still woke up feeling rather sick. . .it's unfair that you can still get a hangover down here."
"Eh, just be glad you didn't get the headache. The really good stuff will leave you groanin' for days afterward." Bonejangles stopped as they reached the square again. "Okay, we wanna go down Broken Heart Lane. This way, folks."
Arthur looked around at the hunched-in buildings as they crossed the cobbles. "This place looks like it's trying to hide from the world. . .you said before Victor's family is in fish, right? Is he the one with the cannery that was taking off? I seem to recall seeing 'Van Dort' in the market."
"Might be, though I doubt Victor's got it yet," Bonejangles said. "Must belong to his dad. I ain't the best one to ask – croaked long before anything interesting sprang up 'round here."
"Fair enough – I was just wondering why anyone would set up such a large operation here. It seems so – cramped."
"Factories get work no matter where they are," Lorina pointed out. "That's the whole reason London's getting so overfull. Here, at least, they have the pleasure of work and being able to enjoy nature at the end of the day."
"I suppose. . . ." Arthur ran a reflective hand along a wall. "Still, seeing up close just how tiny this village is certainly puts into perspective why the first fellow we hired couldn't find it."
"No excuse for him lying straight to our faces, though," Lizzie said darkly. "The nerve of that man. . .after we told him what a hurry we were in too. . . ."
"Well, he's not likely to do it again," Lorina said mildly. "Certainly not with the language you and Bonejangles threw at him."
"Yeah, I was impressed, Liz," Bonejangles said, swiveling his head around to grin at her. "Posh girl knowing those words? Didn't know the fancy books could be so filthy."
"I'm not that posh – and trust me, you pick up a lot of colorful language around Oxford undergraduates," Lizzie informed him. "They may have pretended to be perfectly proper members of society when father was around, but the things they said to each other when they thought people couldn't hear! And then of course Alice would sneak down to listen and we'd have to stop her parroting them when Mama's friends or the faculty were over."
"Oh God yes," Lorina said, covering her face with her hands as she giggled. "I suppose we were just lucky she mispronounced them half the time."
"Sounds like Gladys – she was kind of a prankster," Bonejangles said nostalgically. "She once managed to throw my best hat onto the roof when I ticked her off about something. Took me an hour and a half to get up there and get it back."
"Alice once nearly knocked a hole right through the plaster with her hobby horse trying to slay her 'giant' nurse," Lizzie grinned. "Papa wasn't pleased at all."
"That dent cost a lot to repair," Arthur defended himself. "Though I guess I preferred that to her waving the carving knife around."
"I know – I close my eyes, and I can see her in her room, blood streaming down her arm because she'd stuck herself trying to slay the Jabberwock." Lorina said, shivering. "I still don't know how it didn't leave a scar. . .sometimes I think the reason she healed so well and got sick so little was because God knew she'd have to in order to make it to her eighteenth birthday."
Lizzie's expression soured. "That almost makes it sound like God planned the fire."
"If He did, we're going to have words," Arthur said, voice cold. "What a thing to inflict on my daughters. . . ."
"Let's not get wrapped up in such gloomy thoughts," Lorina said as they passed an intersection lined with coffins. "Not so close to our goal. Remember our Fourth of July picnic on the Isis?"
"The one where it started raining halfway through?" Arthur asked, perking up.
"Yes, and we ended up in such a tizzy we nearly upended the boat! Good thing you spotted that house on the banks!"
"And that the owners were nice enough to let us in, yes," Arthur agreed. "Even with Lizzie and Alice arguing about whether it would be better to be a Lory or an Eaglet. Weren't you reduced to telling her that you were older and thus had to know better?"
"Yes, and then she pretended not to know how old I was!" Lizzie laughed. "And just to spite her I wouldn't say. I still think I was right in saying it would be better to be a parrot."
"I thought my folks had weird arguments sometimes," Bonejangles said, watching the three of them with amusement. "I always thought you school guys were supposed to be stiff."
"Some of my colleagues were, but I always thought learning should be fun," Arthur told him. "A lot of my worst memories involve dull tutors – why would I inflict the same on my girls?"
"You could never be dull, Papa," Lizzie said, smiling at him. "Just a little overenthusiastic sometimes. You should have seen the library just before – well. He was collecting so many photographs of sea creatures we could hardly move."
"Yes. . .and now they're all gone," Arthur murmured, face falling. "Along with a lot of other things."
"Hey, hey, I thought the deal was you weren't getting gloomy," Bonejangles said, holding up his hand as he turned to walk backwards for a bit. "Look, I know we had some bumps on the road, but we made it here, didn't we? Just a couple more streets and we'll be at the tower. And you heard what Chauncey said – if the Elder don't wanna help ya, we'll make him."
"Hopefully you won't have to go that far," Lizzie said, before taking his hand. "You've done more than enough for us already."
Bonejangles tipped his hat rakishly over one socket and winked. "Just a concerned citizen, ma'am."
"Stop that," Lizzie giggled, shoving it back up. "Alice may have said otherwise, but I know I'm not old enough for 'ma'am!'" Her gaze fell on her blue, rotted, but still eternally-18 hand, and her mirth fluttered away. "I'm never going to be old enough for 'ma'am.'"
"It's not all it's cracked up to be, dear," Lorina told her.
"I'm sure it isn't, but – it would have been nice to have the chance."
"We'll just have to guarantee Alice gets one," Arthur said.
"Mmmm – if we ever find this tower."
"It's around here, hold your horses. . . ." Bonejangles spun his head around in a circle. "Ah! Yeah, right down this way, and we're home free!" He pulled Lizzie into a tiny, hemmed-in alley, her parents squeezing along behind.
"I hope so," Lizzie replied as they wriggled between the tight walls. "The way you've been building it up, it had better be – oh!"
She stopped as they came back out into open space. Looming up before her was easily the tallest building she'd ever seen, alive or dead. Although calling it a building was something of a stretch – the bottom looked to be little more than a huge lump of stone, roughly hewn into a right triangle. Sticking out of the vertical side was an old brick tower, stretching high into the dark sky. Lizzie squinted at the very tip-top, ringed with the tiny fluttering shapes of birds. "All right, I'll admit it – that's impressive," she allowed as her parents caught up.
"Very," Arthur agreed. "But how do we get up there?"
In response, Bonejangles pointed out a staircase carved into the gray rock. "Same way you get anywhere around here – leg power."
"No lift? Magical or mechanical?"
"Ain't like we can lose our breath," Bonejangles shrugged. "Besides, the Elder likes to keep to himself a lot."
"Probably keeps away those who would disturb him about frivolous matters too," Lorina said. "I know if I had magic, I'd want to discourage those who would want me to turn lead into gold or other such silliness."
"Good thing our task isn't silly, then," Lizzie replied, marching forward. She set her foot purposely on the first step. "Come on everyone – up we go."
It was easy to keep up her enthusiasm for the first few feet. But as the staircase slowly wound round and round the ancient stone, stretching upward in a lazy spiral, Lizzie found her determined spirit flagging. "For God's sake, how high is this tower?" she demanded as they finally reached the brick.
"High enough that we'd splat pretty good if we fell," Bonejangles replied, letting his fingers click along the twisted iron railing. "Don't worry, we're almost there."
"Thank God we can't get tired," Lorina commented, pulling herself up behind Bonejangles. She directed her gaze across the purple horizon. "Oh, but the view is beautiful. I think you can see the whole village from up here!"
Everyone paused for a moment to admire the tiny town below them. "There's the town square," Arthur said, pointing. "And oh, there's the Ball & Socket! At least, I think so. . . ."
"Yeah, I'd say it's in the right place," Bonejangles nodded, leaning on the railing. "Man, I never took the time to actually look around whenever I came up here. Bonesaparte's been saying we oughta make a map of the place – maybe I can take him and Wellington up here, keep 'em busy for a while."
"Here be dragons," Lizzie joked. "Or skeletons, as the case may be. Can you see your house?"
"Maybe? We lived outside the village walls proper. . . ." Bonejangles squinted at the vague silhouettes of little huts at the very edge of vision, beyond the crumbling ring of stone that marked the perimeter of Burtonsville. "Could be that one. . .or that one. . .hell, one's as good as another."
"Really? What would your mother think?" Lorina gently needled him.
"She'd think she'd trade for any house that had a privy that was a bit closer to the back door. Getting out there in the winter was murder, I tell you. Always gonna be jealous of people who grew up with indoor bogs."
"Remind me to tell you about the time our toilet flooded the downstairs loo then," Lizzie said, pulling a face. "I seriously thought we were going to have to move."
Lizzie blinked, then turned her head to see a beady black eye staring back at her. It was attached to an equally black head, matched with a black beak. "Um, hello."
The raven croaked and twisted its neck to the other side to regard her from the opposite angle. "That's one of the Elder's pets," Bonejangles said in explanation. "He keeps a whole flock of 'em in his room. Got 'em trained to carry stuff and deliver messages."
"Are they friendly?" Lizzie asked, holding out her hand just above the raven's head. Part of her wanted to pet it, but the other part was not keen on losing any fingers.
"Well, I've never seen any take a snap at anybody, but there's always a first time. . . ."
"They're lovely creatures," Lorina commented as Lizzie drew her hand back. The raven puffed up its feathers a bit, as if swelling with pride. "I've never seen one up close before. What do you think, Arthur?"
Arthur leaned forward, staring hard at the bird. "It's – yes, it's a beautiful specimen – but is it just me, or is that creature breathing?"
Lizzie's eyes went wide. Sure enough, a close examination of the raven's chest revealed a motion she'd almost forgotten about. And there wasn't a speck of blue to be seen in the feathers. "It's still alive?!" she cried, jabbing at it with her finger. The raven hopped away and warked its displeasure at her. "How – just how?!"
"Well – we've seen maggots and spiders down here that are alive," Lorina said logically, though her face belied her own shock.
"Yes, but – you kind of expect that with the dead. Ravens are – are – much bigger, to start!"
"They do eat carrion. . .but then again, so will a wolf, and I've yet to see a living one of those stalking around," Arthur said, regarding the raven through slitted eyes.
"Elder says that some animals have got special magic tricks like humans," Bonejangles commented as the raven got tired of all the fuss and flew away. "You know, like how those spiders and maggots can actually talk to ya after you've bit it. Maybe getting down here without dyin' is a raven's." He gave Lizzie's wrist a tug. "How about we go ask him?"
Lizzie allowed him to pull her up the final few steps into the top of the tower. It appeared that, in life, the structure had housed an observatory, or perhaps a ceiling hothouse. In death, however, it resembled more a gigantic birdcage, twisted metal bars curving over their heads and joining together in a tiny circle above. There were still a few cracked chunks of glass nestled in corners here and there, but most of the crossbars were now perches to ravens – an enormous flock that crowed and cawed and regarded the visitors with an interest that didn't seem merely animal. Lizzie frowned at the one closest to her, which qworked innocently. The pets of a wizard would likely be magical too, wouldn't they? She glanced around the space. Or, at least, very well read.
It was true – if the ravens could read, they had their choice of material twice over. The Elder's sanctuary was filled to bursting with books. Thick shelves lined what passed for the walls, all stuffed and groaning under the weight of dozens upon dozens of tomes. A few dressers and chests of drawers were scattered around, also piled with books. More sat on an ancient, worm-gnawed lectern, which towered over the lesser pieces of furniture. And whatever didn't fit went on the floor, where stacks as tall as Lizzie formed a maze across the worn wood. "You know, I think the reason he doesn't often come out is because he usually can't find the way," she commented, turning in a slow circle to take it all in.
"And I thought you were addicted to printed paper, Arthur," Lorina said wonderingly. "Look at all this! Our library couldn't have contained even half as much."
"It's amazing," Arthur replied, stars in his eyes. "He must have spent decades collecting it all. . . ." He picked up a book at random. "The Study of Magickal Energies In The Firmament, And How To Harness Them. Does he allow borrowing?"
"Let's ask him – HEY, ELDER!" Bonejangles yelled, making Lizzie jump and sending a few nearby ravens scattering. "WHERE ARE YOU?"
Ragged coughing answered the musician's shout. "Now really, is that any way to call for me?" a crackly old voice asked from somewhere behind the lectern.
"Only way that works," Bonejangles retorted. "Come on out into the light for a second – gotta introduce you to somebody."
"You have no respect for your elders, Bonejangles," the voice said, though its tone was amused rather than annoyed. There was another cough, a few thuds as of things being pushed out of the way, and then an ancient skeleton emerged from the shadows, perched atop a little book staircase. While the years had been written all over the face of Mrs. Gertrude Carter, they were etched into the very bones of Elder Gutknecht. His spine was an almost perfect L, ribs perpendicular to his pelvis, and his bones were thin and yellow. Gold pince-nez glasses balanced precariously on the scrap of nosebone he had left, and cobwebs dangled from his chin, giving him a thin, scraggly version of the traditional wizard's beard. There was also a giant crack in his skull – a relic of whatever had killed him, or a simple result of extended time in the Land of the Dead? Lizzie was inclined to believe the latter – there was simply no way that Elder Gutknecht hadn't achieved a ripe old age before he'd passed. The quintessential Learned Old Man. Let's hope he lives up to the stereotype.
There was a sudden flurry of barking from behind the lectern. Moments later, a small skeletal dog bounded down the books and ran up to Lizzie, tail wagging. "Oh, hello there!" Lizzie bent down to stroke its skull as it sniffed at her skirt. "Aren't you a dear little thing!"
"Hey, that's Scraps, isn't it?" Bonejangles said as he and the elder Liddells joined in on the petting. "What's he doing up here with you, Elder?"
"Well, after Emily's passing and Victor's return to the Living world, I noticed that the poor dog was looking rather lonely," Elder Gutknecht said, as Scraps nuzzled the hands around him. "I thought we could both use the extra company." He clapped his hands twice, and Scraps reluctantly broke away from the crowd to go sit by his side. "That's a good boy. . .now then, I see we have some newcomers to our village?"
"These are the Liddells – Arthur, Lorina, and Lizzie," Bonejangles said. "Folks, this is Elder Gutknecht, in case that wasn't obvious."
"How do you do?" Lorina said, dropping a curtsy.
"Quite well," Elder Gutknecht replied, returning it with a bow. "What brings you up here?"
"We have to ask a favor," Lizzie said, stepping forward. "You see – we need to go Upstairs. My sister is in terrible danger, and we have to save her. There's this – m-man, who – damn it, Sam, I should have asked you to write a song about it," she grumbled, turning to Bonejangles. "I hate having to explain."
"Don't think I could have made your story sound any good," Bonejangles said, not without sympathy. "With Emily, I had the tune already down. And it was easier to talk around what happened to her."
"Let me – about twelve years ago, a man by the name of Angus Bumby took an interest in Lizzie," Arthur said, taking the lead. "Lizzie was repulsed by him and repeatedly said so, but he refused to accept it. After we told him off for the last time, he broke into our house, murdered poor Lizzie, and then set the place on fire to cover up what he'd done. Lorina and I perished in the smoke and flames, but our younger daughter, Alice, managed to escape. Bumby was able to convince the police that the fire was an accident caused by our cat – to this day, no one's figured out the truth."
"He sent Alice into an asylum for ten years while he received a doctorate and started an orphanage in Whitechapel, collecting small children and – and destroying their minds," Lizzie came in, her fury over Bumby's actions overcoming her disinclination to speak. "And then he sells them to the lowest form of human being imaginable that isn't him. And now, Alice has finally come out of Rutledge, only to fall straight into his hands! He's ripping away her heart and soul, just like the others, and – and I can't bear the thought of him – you have to send us Up there before it's too late!" she cried, clasping her hands before her. "Before my sister – I know it's a complicated spell, and phoenix feathers don't grow on trees, but please, you have to–"
"Wait, just a moment," the Elder said, holding up a hand. "I don't need a phoenix feather to send you Upstairs. Slip Through The Veil should do fine."
Bonejangles's jaw dropped so wide it unhinged. "Wait, what?" he said, snapping it back into place. "Hang on a minute, Elder, I saw you use one! Back when we were all heading Upstairs for Emily's wedding!"
"Different spell," the Elder clarified. "One specifically intended for large groups."
"So – which one's the Ukrainian Haunting Spell?" Lizzie asked, blinking.
"That is Slip Through The Veil," the Elder told her. "A relatively simple spell for one or two corpses needing to return to the Living world. And all that requires is a raven's egg."
Lizzie lit up. "Really? You must have dozens of those lying around! Just give us a couple and–"
"I'm not done, my dear!" Gutknecht cut in quickly. "I'm afraid the spell has certain limitations. One of which is that you need to have a certain amount of magical power that most people lack. I can certainly check if you do, but it's almost guaranteed that I would have to cast the spell on you."
Oh – whoops. Lizzie rubbed her cheek, trying and failing to convince herself that she wasn't blushing. "Right, Sam – er, Bonejangles – mentioned. . .but that's not so bad. You're willing, right?"
"Yes, this seems a serious matter indeed. . .but tell me this – are you buried in Whitechapel?"
"Certainly not," Lizzie said, frowning. "We're from Oxford. My father was Dean of Christ Church at the university."
"I was afraid of that. . .when you use Slip Through The Veil, you return to the Land of the Living above your grave."
"Er – I think we're 'buried' above ground, actually," Lorina said, gnawing on what remained of her lip. "The Liddell family has a personal vault. . . ."
"I suspect in that case we'd end up in the crypt itself, outside our personal drawers," Arthur replied, Gutknecht nodding confirmation. "But that's not so bad either. Oxford's not that far from London."
The Elder tilted his head. "Close enough to get where you need to go in a single night?"
Arthur's face fell. "Er, probably not. . .we only get one night?"
"The spell only lasts until sunrise," Gutknecht said. "I've done tests. As soon as the rim breaks the horizon, you return to the Land of the Dead."
"Hmmm. . ." Arthur rubbed his chin. "It's not like we need to stop to rest. If we found a fast horse and driver–"
"It's Whitechapel, though – and Lizzie, do you actually know the address of the Houndsditch Home?" Lorina asked, turning to her daughter.
Lizzie groaned, pressing her face into her hands. "No, I don't. I was so upset after meeting Farley that I never thought to ask him. Damn it. . . ."
"Don't beat yourself up, Liz – you had a hell of a lot on your mind," Bonejangles said, patting her back soothingly. "None of us thought to ask either." He tilted his hat forward. "Can't we just start lookin' around one night and then pop back up again the next?"
"The spell would reset – you'd be right back at your graves," Gutknecht said, shaking his head. "And in your case, Bonejangles, that would be the woods outside the village, so it wouldn't be any use to you anyway."
"Oh, yeah, right. . . ."
Lizzie looked up at him. "You want to come with us to look for Alice?"
"Hell yeah! I've gone through all the rest of this with ya, haven't I? I'm just as worried about her as the rest of ya." He rolled his eye from left to right. "You're my best girl, Liz. Unless you don't want me to come, I'm stickin' with ya to the end."
Lizzie smiled, even as the imp stirred in her brain to mumble Best girl? "I'd be delighted to have you along."
"We all would," Arthur agreed. "Though we have to get up there first. . .is the spell restricted to the night hours? Having a whole day to travel would be better, especially in the summer. And if you can send dead people back to the Land of the Living, surely you have a way to make them look alive again."
"False Flesh," the Elder confirmed. "Which I really should have insisted everyone here drink before we went Upstairs for the wedding. . .perhaps we could have avoided some of the chaos that resulted."
"I dunno, Elder," Bonejangles said. "All those folks seeing their grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles and everything suddenly come back to life? Probably would have been even worse than what we got."
"Perhaps. . .of course, I was expecting everyone to appear directly in the church," Elder Gutknecht added, giving Bonejangles as steely a look as one could manage with adorably droopy eye sockets.
Bonejangles fidgeted. "Yeah, I know, I mucked it up. . .didn't expect everybody to lose their heads like that. And I definitely didn't – you heard what's happened with Victor, right?"
"I have, and I consider it a shame that any action on our part to help would just make the problem worse. Hopefully the strength he showed in fighting Barkis will come back to aid him once again." Gutknecht sighed, then turned back to Arthur. "As to your original question, the spell can work during the day, but it lasts for only an hour at most, and – well, I felt a distinct wrongness to wandering about the Living world while the sun was in the sky. It may not be technically restricted to the night, but if you want proper functionality. . . ."
Arthur huffed, frustrated. "Damn it. . .I don't suppose there's a spell that will let us travel back to the night of the fire and prevent the damn thing in the first place?"
"The closest you could come is an hour's worth of observation," Gutknecht told him regretfully. "And that's only if you have an immense store of raw magical power."
Arthur winced. "No thank you – living through it once was enough."
"And you can't cast that more powerful spell for larger groups on us?" Lorina asked. "That doesn't seem to put you at your own grave."
"It doesn't – but that is the one that requires a phoenix feather, and I'm afraid I used my last one for Emily," Gutknecht said with a long sigh. "I've been trying to acquire another, but – your daughter put it best. It may be months or years before I find or buy one. There is another spell that allows for instantaneous travel to places, but it's tricky at the best of times, and combining it with Slip Through The Veil. . .the very first time I tried it, I found myself flung into a Cherokee settlement in the Americas when I was aiming for London. I've only gotten the combination to work once, and I wouldn't dare risk it on you with such low odds of success."
Lizzie slumped onto a nearby pile of books, sending a few volumes skidding to the floor. "So you can't help us after all. All this way for nothing. . . ." Scraps, whining, came and sat by her side, leaning against her leg. "We're sorry to have bothered you."
The Elder coughed again. "Well – I may not be able to help you now – but I can help you later."
Lizzie raised her head, brow furrowed. "Pardon?"
"Slip Through the Veil has one important loophole," the Elder said, raising a finger. "You have heard stories of how, on All Hallow's Eve, the veil between dead and living thins? That's actually true. From sunset on October 31st to sunrise on November 1st, Slip Through The Veil can be cast by anyone – and you're able to appear wherever you wish."
Lizzie's spirits burst upward, soaring on wings of almost delirious delight. She could go Upstairs! She could see her sister again! She could save her from that bastard, and all those children in Houndsditch too! She could finally, finally see justice done! And all it would take was a raven's egg, and – and. . . .
And her spirits crashed straight back into the ground. "I – please forgive me, Elder Gutknecht, I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but – I have to wait three months?!"
"I know it's far from the ideal solution, but it's the only one I can offer," Gutknecht replied, tone gentle. "I've experimented, remember? I would send you up sooner if I could, but unless you found a way around the travel problem. . . ."
"I know," Lizzie said, pressing her fingers against her forehead. "Just. . .three months. . .anything could happen to her in that time. Even. . .I want to rescue my sister, not avenge her."
"She's held on pretty well for this long," Arthur said, trying to be positive. "And perhaps while we're waiting we could research quicker methods?" He looked around the piles and piles of books. "It seems as if you could use someone to help you organize the place anyway."
"Heh – yes, I have let it get rather out of control," Gutknecht confessed, scratching the top of his head and making the loose plates creak. "You're certainly welcome to look at whatever books you wish. Perhaps you'll find something I've missed. God knows many of them I haven't read in years, and my study was always focused on European spellwork. . . ."
"I'd be happy to lend you a hand," Arthur grinned, holding up The Study of Magickal Energies In The Firmament, And How To Harness Them.
"You just want to read as much as you can get your hands on," Lorina teased. "Watch him, Lizzie – he'll disappear for a fortnight, and then we'll have to drag him out of here kicking and screaming."
Lizzie giggled as Arthur pretended not to have heard. "Probably. . .but before anything, can you check to see if any of us can cast Slip Through The Veil?" she asked the Elder. "Perhaps it's a long shot, but if one of us can, maybe we can figure out a different way to actually get to Houndsditch."
"Of course, my dear." Guknecht crept his way down the book steps and started rummaging around in a set of nearby drawers. "Now, where are they? I must start keeping notes on where I put things. . . ."
Bonejangles patted her back. "Okay, so – gotta wait until Halloween. Better than not being able to go at all, right?"
"Yes, but. . .ugh. I've already waited almost twelve years for this," Lizzie said, pinching the bridge of her nose.
"Then you can wait three more months," Lorina told her, rubbing her shoulder. "I'm worried for Alice too, my darling, but we can't let ourselves dwell on it. Like your father said, she's held on for this long." She played with a lock of Lizzie's hair. "I'm a bit more worried about you, actually. You're sure you're up for this?"
Lizzie stared at her mother, baffled. "Mama, haven't I been leading the charge all this way?"
"I know, Lizzie, but – going Upstairs is a big step. Will you be all right if you see – him again?"
The face that haunted the back of her mind swam before her eyes, all glittering glasses and devil-neat goatees and that infuriating smile. She shuddered. "Maybe. I think I'll try to avoid any meetings, though."
"Oh come on, Liz," Bonejangles said, an evilly playful note in his voice. "I was expecting you to be head-over-heels for reintroducin' yourself to him."
Lizzie raised an eyebrow. "Whatever gave you that idea?"
"We-ell, think of it this way. It's been twelve years, and he thinks he's gotten away with everything scot-free, right? So on Halloween night, he decides to take a little walk, get some air – or what passes for it in Whitechapel. . .and then, outta nowhere–" The shadows behind them twisted, his taking on a shape roughly analogous to Bumby's while hers raised its arms and opened its mouth impossibly wide. "There she is, the 'love' of his life, only now she's blue and rotting and shriekin' like a banshee about to drag 'im down to Hell. . . ."
Lizzie grinned darkly as the Bumby-shadow silently screamed and ran, pursued across the old books by her own. "Oh yes. I think I like that story."
"I do hope you're not planning on killing him," Elder Gutknecht put in, tone scolding as he looked up from a wardrobe he had in the corner. "I acknowledge you have every reason to do so, but Living justice should be meted out by Living authorities. Our two realms aren't supposed to intermix freely, and we should abide by the rules of whichever one we happen to be in. Even scaring him out of his wits – no matter how much he might deserve it – should be subordinate to saving your sister."
"Scaring him out of his wits might help save Alice," Lizzie retorted as her shadow resumed its proper place behind her. "But I promise not to make trouble – or too much of it, anyway. Believe me, I'd rather have him rotting in jail than rotting down here."
"We're not murderers," Arthur confirmed. "I mean, I'd love to trap him in a burning building, see how he likes it, but – you're right. Better to turn him over to the authorities. We'll just have to find some more solid evidence. The testimonies of dead children are probably not admissible in court."
Elder Gutknecht nodded, moving over to another set of drawers and pulling them open. "I wish you all the best with – aha! There you are!" He reached down and grabbed his prize. "And still half left, good."
After all that, Lizzie had been expecting something a little more impressive than a box of matches. "What do those do?"
"Watch." Elder Gutknecht took one out and struck it to life on his leg. "Now we wait ten seconds. . .which should be about. . .now!" He shook the match to kill the flame, then opened his mouth and dropped it inside. The tiny charred stick of wood dropped straight through his ribcage and onto the floor. "Fortunate this does not actually require a working throat. Now then. . . ." He adjusted his glasses and peered hard at Lizzie–
And without warning, his eye sockets filled with bright greenish-gold light, burning like a pair of witch-tainted candles. Lizzie squeaked and moved back a step. "Sheesh!" Bonejangles said, leaning away. "What the hell is that?"
"Signature Sense – it allows me to see just how much raw magical energy you have available," Elder Gutknecht replied, looking them up and down.
"Makes you look like somethin' right out of one of Galswell's nightmares."
"Unfortunate side effect. The effect would be muted if I was lucky enough to still have eyes." He turned to the elder Liddells, who grimaced as the light hit them. "Hmmm. . .well, I can confirm that none of you have the necessary reserves to cast Slip Through The Veil on your own. However, Miss Liddell, you do seem to have enough to cast False Flesh without any help from me."
"Do I?" Well, she supposed that passed as good news. "What do I need for it?"
"Just a handkerchief-sized piece of cloth and your wits. Tear it in half while concentrating on the form you wish to project, and you'll look that way for about three hours," Gutknecht told her. "I'm afraid it's a caster-only spell, though – and it really only fools sight. No-Rot should prevent anyone from smelling anything wrong, but I would invest in thick gloves before offering to shake hands."
"If it's caster-only, where does that leave us?" Arthur asked, frowning.
"Ah – I should have clarified. The spell in its natural form is caster-only. You can also make a potion of it that anyone can use," Elder Gutknecht explained. "I'll be giving you enough for all of you to last the night, don't worry."
"I'll help you make them – it's the least I can do," Lizzie told him. Then, grinning at her father, she added, "And someone ought to be around to keep an eye on Papa."
"I promise I'm not going to just sit around and read all the books!" Arthur said, folding his arms. Then a smile quirked the side of his mouth. "If only because I have just under three months and that's not nearly enough time." His expression turned serious again. "That does bring up the question of where we're going to stay. Burtonsville doesn't seem big enough for any hotels. . . ."
"We got rooms above the Ball & Socket," Bonejangles assured him. "Ms. Plum would be happy to let you stay in one. Or heck, if you don't care about fancy, just pick a coffin laying around any time you want a rest."
"I think we'll take proper beds," Lorina said, shaking her head fondly. "But thank you – both of you. I – I never thought I'd be a-able to see my little girl again before she. . . ."
"Oh, don't cry, Lorina," Arthur said, wrapping his arm around her as she wiped at her eyes. "We're almost there. But yes, thank you. From the bottom of our hearts. You really don't know how much this means to us."
"I believe I could take a guess," Elder Gutknecht said, giving them a toothless grin. "I'm happy to assist you in any way I can. And I'm sure Bonejangles will serve as an excellent escort to our village."
"He's been doing a bang-up job so far," Lizzie said, taking her friend's arm warmly. Bonejangles tilted his hat low over his face, as if shy. "We appreciate anything and everything you can do for us." She touched her throat. "I guess now I have to start rehearsing just what it is I'm going to say to Alice when I see her again."
"We've got time," Arthur assured her. "Right now, I think I could use a quick pint. You did promise everyone a round back at the Ball & Socket, Bonejangles."
"Yeah, I've been waiting on one of Ms. Plum's and Paul's best too," Bonejangles nodded. He tipped his hat at the Elder. "Thanks a bunch. We'll be seein' ya."
"I look forward to it." Gutknecht started ascending the stairs back to his lectern, stopping briefly to whistle. Scraps barked, gave everyone a goodbye sniff and nuzzle, and then bounded up after his new master. "Ah yes, you are a good boy. . .shall we see where I put that box of biscuits?"
The Liddells and Bonejangles picked their way back out to the stairs through the stacks. "Well then – I think that's as good an answer as any of us were expecting," Arthur commented.
"Not really, but I can't complain about being able to see Alice again," Lizzie replied. "Just. . .three months. . ."
"It's our schedule, and we must stick to it," Lorina said, patting her shoulder. "We'll find ways to keep ourselves busy in the meantime."
"I'll show you all around the village," Bonejangles promised. "Though you're on your own for the remaining two months and twenty-nine days. And a half."
Lizzie giggled. "I am eager to see you perform in your native environment. . .and to acquaint myself with all your other friends besides."
"Me too," Arthur nodded. "That pair you mentioned before. . .they're not the real generals, are they?"
"Nah, just nicknames," Bonejangles assured him with a laugh. "Though I'm pretty sure they were both in the right armies. They'll tell you all about it for a drink."
"I'm most eager to get to know this Ms. Plum," Lorina commented. "She reminds me a bit of Nan Sharpe – just more maternal."
"Oh yes – the way she was going on when we first came inside, I half-expected to be dragged off and fitted for a wedding dress," Lizzie grinned.
Bonejangles's laugh turned abruptly awkward. "Ah heh. . .yeah, 'bout that, I'm sorry she kinda just latched onta ya like that. Think I told ya she's been on my butt to get hitched? Showing up with a lovely young lady at my side musta been a dream come true for her."
"It's all right," Lizzie assured him with a pat on the arm. "I was more amused than anything. And it's not like it took you long to set her straight."
"Yeah, well, couldn't have her draggin' you off to the altar, could I?" Bonejangles scratched the back of his skull. "Honestly, I'm surprised a gal like you wants to hang around me at all."
Lizzie blinked, surprised. Hadn't they already covered this topic when discussing how off their first impressions of each other had been? "Why wouldn't I? You're funny, you're talented, you're much more intelligent than you give yourself credit for–"
"Ain't a shade on anybody from Oxford, though."
"If you mean the undergraduates, I'll take your brand of intelligence over theirs any day," Lizzie said, poking his ribs. "All rote recitation of Latin verbs and Newton's laws of physics and who died in the Battle of Hastings. You – you're real. You know things that actually mean something."
"Newton's laws of physics mean something," Arthur said, apparently feeling he should defend his chosen profession and school.
"You know what I mean, Papa. They didn't care so long as they received good marks. I couldn't have a proper conversation with any of them. That is the major point in your favor, Sam – you actually talk to me, not at me. Bumby may have been the worst of the lot, but I know the rest of them considered me little more than just a prize to be won. A pretty decoration around the house. They never listened to what I had to say – just nodded and smiled and hoped it would lead to a kiss – or worse." Her fists clenched. "I am so glad to be rid of them – and to have you instead," she added, looking up at Bonejangles. "Maybe our conversations occasionally verge on the ridiculous, but I like that. You treat me like an equal – just 'one of the boys.' I like it."
Bonejangles looked back at her for a moment – then, to her puzzlement, turned away, pushing his hat low over his brow. "Uh, well – you're welcome, Liz," he said, still rubbing the back of his skull. "Glad I make you feel that way. . .but I gotta confess, you've never been just 'one of the boys' to me." His spine vibrated slightly, suggesting a swallow. "Never met a guy half as amazing as you."
It was the warmth in his tone, she decided later, that made her stop dead in her tracks. A deep, anxious gentleness that she'd never heard before. She stared at him as he determinedly kept his eye on the wall. ". . .Sam?" she finally got out. "I – does Ms. Plum actually know what–"
"Why don't we go on ahead?" Lorina suddenly broke in, with a smile that reminded Lizzie of Alice's stories of the Cheshire Cat. "You two have a lot to talk about, and you don't need us hovering over you."
"Mama!" Lizzie protested. They couldn't leave her, not with this information hanging over her head!
Lorina winked at her. "You'll be fine, Lizzie. We'll meet you at the bottom, all right? That should give you plenty of time." She dragged a gaping Arthur past the pair. "Come along, dear."
"I – but – he just – we–" Arthur babbled, waving his free arm around like a Barbary macaque fending off a persistent mosquito.
"Mustn't interrupt," Lorina said, gentle but firm. "Come on." With another grin and a nod at Bonejangles, she and Arthur disappeared around the bend.
Lizzie watched them go. ". . .She's going to be smug about this straight up until Halloween, you know."
Bonejangles groaned, covering his face with his hand. "Damn it, this isn't how I wanted to tell ya."
"How did you want to tell me?" Lizzie asked, ignoring as best she could the triumphant return of the imp's shrieks in her mind – You see? You see?! He was worming his way, looking for a weak spot. . . .
"I – well, uh – I wasn't," Bonejangles admitted, eye darting all over the place.
"You – you weren't going to say anything?" Lizzie put her hands on her hips, insulted for a reason she couldn't quite articulate yet. "All this time together, and you were going to lie to me for the rest of our afterlives!"
"Not lie, just – not say anything!" Bonejangles protested. "And it's 'cause of all the time we've spent together that I wasn't gonna!"
"How does that – look, tell me, right here and now, how do you feel about me?" Lizzie demanded, folding her arms and hitting him with her best steely glare.
Bonejangles leaned back. "Honest? Slightly terrified."
Lizzie let her gaze soften. "Okay, then, how you felt about me five minutes ago."
For a moment, Bonejangles seemed on the verge of trying to distract her and book it down the stairs. Then he took a deep breath, pushing his hat up to look at her properly. "All right, you want the truth? You're the most incredible girl I've ever laid eyes on. The one I would have settled down for if we'd both been breathin'. I was pretty hard up for good conversation too when I was alive – if we weren't just havin' a roll-around, the ladies seemed to think I was either too smart or too dumb. Half the reason I only looked for a roll-around, to tell the truth. Never thought I'd meet somebody who cared about what I had to say and didn't make fun of me – much – for not knowing the big words to say it." He chuckled. "Not that I minded gettin' made fun of either. . .you got one hell of a mouth on you, Liz. Mean that in the best way, I promise. Crack great jokes and ain't afraid to let the curses fly – can't believe I ever thought you were prissy! And under all that you've got the sweetest heart o'gold I've ever seen. The way you care about your sister, and those kids. . .you deserved a hell of a lot better, Liz."
Lizzie let her arms drop back to her sides. He really thought all that about her? She twisted a lock of hair around her finger. "Thank you. . .but what made you think I wouldn't want to hear that?"
"The way you freeze up and glare at any other guy who gets too close," Bonejangles replied, pulling his hat down again. "Dunno if you even notice anymore, but your voice drips venom whenever you talk about men. 'Specially our favorite creeper. . .and I don't blame you one bit there. Just. . .whenever I thought I oughta say something, let you know how I felt, little voice inside me shot back, 'Oh yeah, and get lumped in with the bastard who took it all from her? Have the last time you see her be her screaming at you 'bout how they're all alike?' And I sure as hell didn't want ta hurt ya, so. . . ."
He had an imp too? Her own had gone quiet, probably hanging on for dear life with the way her head was spinning. "But – surely you noticed I had no problem with you in Whitechapel," she managed to say. "We were pretty close all through our brief visit there."
"Yeah, and for a second. . . ." He peeped out at her from under his brim, and his eye filled up with hope. Then it went dark again. "But I figured, we were already playing it up for the nobblers and fawney-droppers, and – and look, if you're gonna take a swing at me, just do it and get it over with, okay? Waitin's the worst part."
Yes! Yes! Hit him! Punch him! Shove him over the railing and watch him shatter into a million pieces! the imp roared, shaking a clawed fist. He's a man and they're all alike! They all want one thing in the end!
Lizzie stared at Bonejangles through the ranting. He looked the droopiest she'd ever seen – head low and hollowed out with shadows, hat covering his eye, shoulders slumped. This was worse than when he'd gotten that news about the Everglots. And all because he'd was worried about how she'd take his confession. . . . No, she thought, stopping the imp in its tracks. No, I don't think this man wants the same thing the others did.
Are you mad? the imp protested. Look at him! He's a man!
He's Sam, Lizzie replied, tightening her jaw. I don't want to hurt Sam! He's my friend!
Friend? Hah! He probably took you on this trip to butter you up!
He told me about the one spell that could help me see my sister again, cut his long-awaited tour short, and came back to a place that is full to the brim with bittersweet memories of a friend, dragging my mother and father along besides, to butter me up. Consider me buttered. I can't believe it was all to try and make a move on me. He's too good for that.
None of them are too good, the imp hissed. None of them are good at all, save Papa. You can't trust any of them, can't give them an inch. You cried into his ribs once. . .what do you think was going to happen after we went Upstairs and got Alice away from Bumby?
Actually. . .Lizzie hadn't really thought about that at all. Her mind had been so focused on her plans for justice (or revenge, whichever word would do) that she hadn't considered the future after that. She supposed that she and Bonejangles would go their separate ways, duties fulfilled. . .but picturing that scene, her and her family heading back to Oxford while he and his band resumed their tour, made her heart ache. She didn't want to leave him behind – to go back to her room and her books after all this. And it would be near impossible to send mail to someone always on the move. . . . You know, I – I don't play a bad piano, and while my voice isn't the best it doesn't openly offend the ear. . .maybe I could offer to give Raymond a night off every once in a while. . . .
You'd join the band? the imp said, flabbergasted. What about your family? Your reputation? What about the fact that you'd spend the rest of your afterlife constantly surrounded by men?!
Mama and Papa would understand – they might even be happy for me! And who cares a jot about reputation down here? We're dead – we're past the worst of everything! And I've been with the band weeks now – I trust them!
Yes! Yes I do! Because Sam trusts them, and I trust Sam! He hasn't put a toe out of line since I've known him! Lizzie mentally shouted, balling her fists. You may say he's got nothing but ill planned for me, but I don't believe it! He's been almost nothing but kindness itself! He makes me feel safe and wanted and lov–
Her hands relaxed as she stared down at them. Yes – that was it exactly. Even before he'd admitted it, she'd felt loved. And – it hadn't disgusted her in the slightest. On the contrary, the idea that someone like Sam could love her, broken and mangled and bitter as she could be. . .she thought about all the color he'd brought into her afterlife, all the joy and laughter, all the fun she'd never thought she'd have again. . .and just how empty eternity seemed without him there. . . . Oh. Oooooh dear. Forget Halloween – Mama's going to be smug straight until Christmas. She's entitled, I suppose. Does it sneak up on everyone like this?
"Liz?" She blinked and looked up to see Bonejangles taking an anxious peek at her from under his hat. "You okay?"
He worried about her even when fully expecting her to rip his skull off. How could you not get soppy about a man like that? He'll betray you, the imp insisted, though its voice was weaker now. They're all alike. He may look good now, but just you wait.
I'm done waiting, Lizzie replied, setting her jaw. And I'm done listening to you. Yes, there are plenty of men out there who are scoundrels and scumbags, but Sam isn't one of them. I knew how to tell the difference, before you came along. You kept me locked up and afraid in my room for twelve years.
I kept you safe!
You kept me a prisoner! In a cage of my own making! Well I'm tired of cages, and terror, and you! I have found something better! Something worth any danger you'd keep me from! I don't need you anymore! She sucked in a deep internal breath. SHOVE OFF!
The imp fled. Lizzie was smart enough to know it wasn't gone for good – soon enough it would crawl back into her skull and start muttering. But she also knew that it would never be as loud as it once had been. And, hopefully, one day in the near future, she'd be able to chase it off once and for all.
For now, though, she was going to take advantage of her quiet head. She smiled encouragingly at Bonejangles, still peeping out nervously at her. "I'm fine," she assured him, then stepped forward. "In fact, I – I reciprocate your feelings."
There was an almost audible hum of gears as Bonejangles worked out what 'reciprocate' meant, and then – oh dear. Bonejangles worried was horrible, but Bonejangles shocked was hilarious. He pushed up his hat, jaw hanging open so wide it hit his sternum. "I – you – wha?"
"I love you too." And then, taking pity on the poor man, she gave his shoulder a playful smack. "Congratulations! You got the man-hater to admit one isn't so bad."
The tension broke as Bonejangles burst out laughing. "Damn it, Liz! Givin' me a heart attack when I don't even have a heart anymore. . . ." He snapped his jaw back into place, then took her hand. "You really mean that, though? This – this is okay?"
"It is," Lizzie nodded, squeezing his fingers. "Though I confess I'm not much interested in traditional courting, not after. . . ." She let the sentence trail off, not wanting to bring his name into the proceedings. "I – I like what we have now. Can't we just go on the way we have been?"
"I ain't gonna say no," Bonejangles replied, grinning bright in the pale light of the Underworld. "I'm not good with flowers or fancy dinners or any of that anyway. We got all eternity to take it slow."
Lizzie nodded. "Good." She glanced down the stairs. "All right, time to tell Mama and Papa. Mama's going to be doing somersaults in the streets."
"Yeah, and Ms. Plum's gonna be right behind. . .but what about your pop?" Bonejangles asked as they started down again, hand in hand. "Don't wanna start anything with you if he's just gonna yank me to pieces."
"You'll be fine," Lizzie said, giggling. "Papa's not that sort. Besides, it's hardly like you can take advantage of me. Or I of you, if we come to it. How are we even supposed to kiss if you don't have any lips?"
"Well, nice thing of being dead is, ain't gonna hurt if you just decide to smack yours against my teeth," Bonejangles grinned.
Lizzie snorted. "Such a romantic. What am I going to do with you?"
"Keep me around a while, I'm hopin'," Bonejangles replied, swinging their hands between them.
Lizzie hesitated – then decided that was something the imp would approve of and threw caution to the wind, raising herself on tiptoe briefly to peck the long white bone of his chin. She smiled at the astonished delight in his eye. "I think I can manage that."