After that, only blackness. The dark of a spider’s coat, the terror of the boogeyman that you wait for, but that does not come, which in waiting grows that much more frightful. The shadows fell upon them like a pack of wolves vying for prey, tearing, sinking their teeth into the soft flesh of their deepest nightmares. The queen herself, evaporated before either of the men could as much as breathe. After all, it was not her style to wait for a comeback and either way, she had no more words to part with either a dying man or a traitor. So she retreated into the deep corners of her never-ending house and left them at the mercy of her shadows and still counted herself merciful. She could have killed them outright, but instead, she granted them breath, offered them the possibility of seeing another day, should they manage to escape the vicious grasp of her spiders.
And in the dark, in the brief second before the house tore them apart, two words. ‘I’m sorry.’ And the man of lights felt Noah vanish from his side and let himself be pulled inside a game of his own making. Had things stood different, he would’ve taken this time to curse himself for ever thinking he could accuse the queen of lies in earnest, for letting his mind fall in her merciless claws. But times were as they were and he had far bigger issues to contend with. Like the past, that suddenly seemed nothing like the long ago at all. She stood before him, a woman made of nothing but bone and sinew, a wraith, a nightmare. His beloved, steeped in the light that fell through the open window. No, not open, but broken, the glass smashed through, square by square, a few poisonous shards left adorning the edges. In the trickle of light, particles of dust, rising and falling, dancing their mirthless dance around the room. In the dark, a bed, made of old and never slept in, a fire-place too rarely lit, a chair and a doll, sat silent, as if waiting for her master to come back, yet her master never did. Abandoned, like the woman herself. Perfectly cared for, though, unlike the woman herself, the doll’s hair washed down over her bare, porcelain shoulders, like a true little lady, her bright red lips an affront almost on the light itself. Her dress ironed, for the woman of the house let not two days go past without taking the dress off and arranging it, preening it as if for a little live girl. The woman, on the other hand, she stood up a skillfully carved mirror, nothing like the figure perched on her old wooden throne. She’d let her unwashed hair down for the first time in forever and it hung around her face, limp and lifeless. As he took one hesitant step into the room, he saw her back stiffen, but her eyes betrayed nothing. She was looking at a speck of nothing on the floor, or perhaps the tiniest spider, visible only to her, but her face bore no trace of curiosity or the slightest interest. She too was nothing but a lifeless doll, it seemed. ‘I’ve come for you again,’ the man of light spoke and his voice came out tired. He’d been here many times and he grew tired of the pictures in his own head. Still, the incursion felt nothing like it had in the past. Perhaps he’d been absent from his own realm for too long, had forsaken his own ghosts for love of someone else’s. ‘You know I can’t go.’ Her voice a cold whisper that prickled at his ears. ‘I can’t leave her,’ the woman said, shifting her sickly body to look at the doll in her high chair. ‘Take her with you,’ he pleaded, as he’d done so many times before. She only shook her head. ‘She can’t come with us, though.’ ‘Why not?’ Lydia, her name was Lydia. Sometimes. ‘It’s too early,’ she said, as if that explained everything. Perhaps in her mind, it did. ‘I can’t.’ ‘You already did, Ly,’ the man of lights insisted. ‘You already left this place. You grew up, remember? A long time ago now, this is no longer your home.’ Just then, a flicker of life in her veins, the slightest twitch across her forehead. ‘Then whose is it?’ Still reluctant, but something had now shifted in her tone, something that gave him hope. Perhaps just this once, they could escape this place. ‘No one’s, my love. It’s just a figment of your imagination.’ ‘You’re wrong. It’s a figment of yours. And yet, you’re right also. This is not my house.’ ‘Then let’s go.’ ‘We can’t go, not anymore. This may not have been my house to begin with, but you made me prisoner here, you made me belong. To this room, to this bed, to this doll. You built me this broken prison and now you tease me with promises of escape. You try to entice me out of your mind, like you always have. But what has that brought you, my darling? Nothing.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ the man of lights whispered, coming closer until he too stood in the light. ‘I’m sorry. I never meant to do this to you.’ The woman, who sometimes passed as Lydia through his dreams, looked at him with infinite sadness. She reached out a rake-thin hand and pressed it against his stubbly cheek. She was cold, like death, for his own true Lydia had died ages ago and this here was nothing but a shadow. And she always had been. ‘I could have loved you,’ he told her, a stray tear sliding under her fingers. ‘But you didn’t,’ the woman reminded him, as she always did. ‘Come away with me, please. Let me take you out of here,’ the man of lights tried. But no, he was not the man of lights, not here. This had been before his time. He’d given it all up the first time he’d stepped foot into the House of Shadows. ‘You’re not her,’ he croaked, voice rough as if he hadn’t spoken in a thousand years. ‘You’re just a shadow. And even if you were her, it wouldn’t matter. You’ re in another life now.’ A lie, but one he believed for long enough for his vision to clear, for the room with the doll and the bone-thin woman to disperse and for him to see clearly again. Before himself, he saw a door. And he took it.
On the other side, on the green pasture that spread out, he waited. At times, he thought he glimpsed the Queen of Shadows creeping at the higher windows, spying on him. She was testing him, waiting to see if he’d go in for his friend, if he’d brave the spiders and the ghost of his beloved Lydia once more for the sake of one dying man. He didn’t.
And somewhere, inside a room, behind a shadow, Noah Tremont cowered in a corner and he did not like it one bit. He had thought he’d grown unaccustomed to cowering, but it seemed it wasn’t like a coat you just threw off when you found it was no longer needed. And he fell back into his old stooped position remarkably easy. It only took one crack of his father’s whip to get him back into place. For the better part of his own trial, Noah did what he’d done best all his life. He hid. It was a clever trick to get a hang of, an extremely useful one, especially to a man in his circumstances, but he’d never seen his way clear of teaching others. He’d tried. Lord knew he’d tried. And he should have done better. Wasn’t it young ones were supposed to learn from the old? Wasn’t it the older brothers meant to carve a path for the newborn? But his sister, Cami, she’d never been one to want to learn. He remembered her as a babe, always watching him with her clever, hungry eyes. Analyzing, studying. Cami had never been one to cower and so, she’d had it much harder than Noah had. Or so he’d thought, once. Noah, he’d always been one who’d much rather sit and listen to a story, turn himself blind to the story going on around him, because it was not a happy one. But Cami, she’d never had much stomach for stories and she’d fought their father tooth and nail, just for the fun of it. She’d wanted to hit him so many times, but their old dad, he’d always been that split second quicker. And yet somehow, it wasn’t her that got hung up on that, but Noah. She’d moved on. In her moment in the tail lights, Cami had seen different things, other moments later in her short life. But Noah, he still found himself a frightened child, at the mercy of his father’s far-reaching whip. In his own vision inside the House of Shadows, Noah was met with a familiar sight. He saw Cami, all of eleven years old, standing up from behind the battered old armchair, in her hand-me-down shirt and the jeans splitting at the seams she’d worn them so much. And in his vision, he tried to do the same, he willed himself to stand, because it couldn’t be so hard, could it? He whispered to himself to go and stand tall, just like his sister had on countless occasions and been struck down for it, more often than not. And he would, he would, but just as he moved to take his step, Cami stepped out of the sunlight, to the world beyond the safety of the armchair, into reality, and he found he couldn’t follow her, so he sat, making himself even smaller, willing himself to think of all the fights he’d borne later in life. Not unafraid, but having learned how to better mask his fear.
And perhaps the lady of the house took pity on him, for the House of Shadows spat Noah Tremont out reluctantly unto the plains. His regret, like his mind, was poisoned and thus brought little enjoyment. And besides, none had died inside the queen’s house in so far, she wouldn’t have her first one be this sickly boy, dead at the hand of her prodigal son, with her left just to bury the corpse.
You poisoned him, my child, it is your task now to bury him.
The man of lights covered the remaining ground with a few nimble steps and helped Noah Tremont stand up straight on his own two feet again. A pallor had crept into Noah’s face, other from the disease that now troubled him, this one the mark of the queen herself. It was not the man of lights noticed, the look of a man who’d looked into the heart of his worst fears and won. It was the look of a man who’d been trampled by the demons in his own soul, let himself down in the lowest, most private pits, one can drift to. ‘I thought I’d see…’ he sought the right words, but they escaped him, leaving in their wake a despondent trail of tears. ‘I thought I’d see something different.’ He thought he’d see Cami’s death, yet he hadn’t. ‘No one can know what they’ll see when they stare into the shadows,’ the man of lights murmured. No one, except for him, who, with a painfully keen and honest eye, had known from the start what would haunt his own life. Indeed, when he’d looked inside the shadows for the very first time, there had been no surprise, only dull recognition. Perhaps this was why he was so suited for the job. ‘Let’s go now,’ he said, helping Noah into the waiting car. With one last glance skyward, he thought he saw the queen of lies, leaning out of one of her windows, waving goodbye with her napkin steeped in blood.