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Night's Bridge

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He was a small child walking home from school, at night, down the one road with no streetlights. No matter how many times he did it, it never got any easier, never got any better.

 

Richard leaned against a pillar waiting for the Floating Market to fill the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament. He lay his hand over his belly, to tamp down the twisting excitement that grew with every market. She'd surely be back tonight. She'd told de Carabas she'd see him at one of the markets. Tonight could be the night. Richard took a deep breath and grabbed a hold of himself. She probably wouldn’t show. This was the 8th market he'd shown up to before it started and only left when everyone else was gone. He didn’t know where Door had gone, but he knew when. Before he'd come back to London Below.

No one knew who set the market locations, but Richard was certain that they had a twisted sense of humor to set up shop here on Bonfire Night. A few food vendors were getting ready. Not much of a crowd. Yet.

He’d been living Below for months and he supposed he was happy-ish. Happier than he had been in London Above. Absolutely. He dragged a fingertip back and forth over a rough line of mortar. Strange that it wasn’t worn smooth in its old age. This couldn’t be the cellar where Fawkes and his cronies had failed. A fire had destroyed all of that in 1830-something.

Door had once said, “There are little pockets of old time in London, where things and places stay the same, like bubbles in amber.” Rough mortar notwithstanding, Richard was pretty sure he hadn't wandered into a pre-1830 bubble. Only pretty sure. Like 73%.

A crowd flooded the market all at once. Shouting, shoving, and hastily erecting stalls selling everything from guts to garters. Literally. The smells were as loud as the noise, if that made any sense. A curry counter had popped up three feet from Richard and was quickly selling plate after plate of golden brown curry. It smelled enticing and familiar, but he couldn't take a break now. He must keep watch.

Undersiders still looked odd. Their clothes: the patchwork of centuries. A man in a Victorian top hat and a coat made of pelts (many still possessing heads) paused to inspect various lengths of string. The animal eyes on the man’s coat glinted as he moved. Something else flashed from the shadows in the periphery of his vision. White teeth, a floating grin. The Marquis de Carabas strode out of the shadows, frock coat flapping.

“Richard!” de Carabas tried to pull him into the fray. “There are people to whom I must introduce you.”

“No.” Richard yanked his arm back. “Thanks.”

“Come. Come. You must do something. You must make a living.” The marquis plucked one sleeve of Richard’s ratty sweater. “You’re a sartorial catastrophe.”

It wasn’t that Richard disliked the Marquis, exactly. You either ignored him or gave into him completely. Trusting him was not an option. Richard returned to scanning the crowd.

“Go away, de Carabas. I’m busy.” Richard returned to scanning the crowd.

An elderly woman, with two doves nesting in her enormous tower of hair, smacked the Marquis with the skeletal remains of a Japanese fan. Richard glimpsed a slim woman and a shock of auburn hair, but it wasn't her. In his excitement he’d grabbed de Carabas’s arm. Richard looked down at his treacherous fingers and then up at de Carabas. They both looked down at his fingers. Richard let go at once.

The dove lady walked off burbling to her doves, who burbled back.

de Carabas threw an arm around Richard. It might look chummy if you didn’t know the Marquis. Richard turned his head a fraction and glared. He might not be able to make de Carabas cower in fear, but Richard could make him think twice about strong arming him.

“Just come and meet them. Even if you don’t want the job.”

Maybe he could persuade the dove woman to smack de Carabas some more. “Why should I bother?”

“Well, since you asked. I wouldn’t have mentioned it otherwise, but when you returned to us and discovered the Lady Door had gone off to look for her sister… Tell me. Who helped you settle in?”

Richard did his best imitation of Hunter’s thousand yard stare.

The marquis leaned in and whispered, “Ah. Well. If you prefer to wait around like an abandoned dog until your owner returns… “

“She’s not my--” Richard banged his elbow into the pillar, in that awful way that makes your eyes tear up. “Damn it. Who are you harassing me to meet?”

“A damsel in distress.” de Carabas gripped Richard’s arm and steered him toward the burbling dove woman, but thankfully swerved around her. Bird people usually took to roofs. Richard did not care for heights.

de Carabas stopped suddenly swept into one of his courtly bows before a tiny couple. Both old, both sad.

"A damsel?" Richard shook his head. He couldn’t help them, nor could he walk away when the marquis had a stranglehold on his arm. Richard glanced over the couples’ heads, looking for a waif in an oversized leather jacket and a dress made by a tornado ripping through the Royal Opera on opening night.

“This is the Warrior? Doesn’t look like much.” The old man squinted up at him. “Must be a scrapper.”

“Mr. Smift and Madam Smift, may I present Sir Richard Mayhew. The official Warrior of London Below. Slayer of the Beast of London.” de Carabas turned to Richard. “These unfortunate souls have lost their daughter.”

Richard said, “I’m very sorry for your loss, but I can’t help you."

The sad eyed Smift burst out, “de Carabas. You said you knew the Warrior personally. This one clearly isn’t the genuine article. If you think you can pull the wool over my eyes--”

Richard wasn’t offended. He didn’t claim to be the Warrior because he wasn’t. He didn’t know what his purpose in the underside was. He needed Door to help him sort it out. He wished he’d returned before she left. He could have helped her search.

“Are you calling me a liar?” All of de Carbas’s unctuous charm vanished. He released Richard’s arm and examined his nails. A movement so nonchalant, and yet deeply menacing. Richard was dying to ask him how he pulled it off, but he knew the Marquis wouldn’t tell him. Not for free.

Smift had more hair than sense and he was nearly bald except for a few tufts growing above his ears. Richard, unthinking, unsheathed Hunter’s knife and twirled it for something to do with his hands. Richard had been practicing and he’d gotten quite good at knife twirling. Mrs. Smift noticed and whispered in her husband’s ear. Smift froze. They both looked up at him like scared rabbits.

“I’m very sorry. I can't help you. (twirl) I don’t know anything about missing persons. (twirl) Perhaps she’ll find her way home.” Richard tucked the knife away and went back to scanning the crowd.

“But our daughter was taken!” Mrs. Smift had shocked herself. She was plainly terrified, but had spoken up anyway. Richard softened at her distress.

“When and where did you last see her?”

“We were crossing the bridge,” Smift’s voice cracked. He glanced at the Marquis who nodded encouragingly. Smift hastily swiping at his dry eyes added a little wobble to his voice. “And when we got to the other side she was gone.”

“The bridge?” Richard looked askance at the Marquis who was whistling something that made his hair stand up a little. “Night’s Bridge?”

No one said anything, which answered that question. Richard said, “If the Night took your daughter there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s nothing anyone can do.” He looked at the Marquis to back him up and the traitor shrugged.

Richard seized him by sleeve of his ridiculous, foppish coat and dragged him a few feet away. “What is this,” he hissed.

“London Below is watching you. Rumors are flying. Do you recall our acquaintance, Mr. Varney? There are others like him--who’d like to be in your shoes. The Hunter. The Warrior.” de Carabas leaned in close. Orange fire from a torch filled his dark eyes. “They’d like to win that knife and then filet you with it.”

“I’m not a warrior,” Richard said. He’d tried to explain a hundred times. Killing with Hunter’s tutelage didn’t make him a warrior. Fancy knife twirling didn’t make him a hunter.

“You survived the ordeal of the key. You slayed the Beast. You are the warrior.” de Carabas's eyes seemed to soften, which was unlikely. The light playing tricks. “Richard. She may never return. Steel yourself. If you don’t take this job or prove yourself--there won’t be anything for her to return to.”

“She’s coming back,” Richard said. Which was whistling in the dark. He turned to the Smifts, nodded. “I’ll go to the bridge, but don’t get your hopes up.”

There were no maps of London Below and pieces of it met in ways that weren’t actually possible according to the laws of physics. Richard suspected the laws of physics broke down in ways that would give scientists nervous breakdowns.

He climbed through the grate Anesthesia had shown him. The scuttling, scrapes, and drips in the tunnels were so normal to him that they barely registered. He’d come this route several times and gotten as far as the antechamber, but hadn’t had the gumption to cross the bridge again.

The mineral smell of ancient stone and the sharp tang of fear seared Richard’s nose and throat. His eyes blurred. His heart was beating much too fast, or perhaps much too slowly. Either way he couldn’t breathe. He did not want to set foot on the bridge. It was harder knowing what would happen. At least he was alone. If it took a toll--it would be from him. And he had nothing besides himself.

He doused his light. There was no point in wasting it in the blackness of the bridge. No one was waiting to cross. He raised a foot and before he could think about it he put it down and then took another step. Maybe you had to think silly, happy thoughts? He began to imitate John Cleese from the Ministry of Silly Walks. It worked. Maybe. For a second before the nightmares loomed up around him. Croup and Vandermar. Islington’s demented beauty. Hunter’s treachery. Richard’s temptation to throw himself onto the subway tracks during the ordeal. He was utterly worthless. He wasn’t fooling anyone. He was weak and useless. He’d have been better off staying in London Above at his fake job and enjoying his fake success.

Damn it all. He was covered in ice cold sweat, teeth chattering. He hadn’t been through hell and watched Hunter die just to collapse on this awful bridge and give up. He unsheathed her knife and planted his feet shoulder width apart and screamed into the darkness, “SHOW YOURSELF. ANSWER FOR YOUR SINS!!”

He sounded hysterical, his voice canted too high. He screamed again and again. Demanding answers. Slashing at the dark with his knife. Berzerker rage kept the terror at arm’s length.

“What are you afraid of?” Richard’s voice grew hoarse. “COWARD! FACE ME!”

In the dark he heard a deep voice say, “I am here.”

A dim light, or just a slight ebbing of the blackness permitted Richard to see a tall, thin man. Pale as new fallen snow. His hair merged with the darkness. Two blue stars shone from his deep in his eye sockets. Richard couldn’t have spoken if he wanted to. He wasn’t precisely scared, but he wasn’t comforted either.

“You called me. What do you want from me, Richard Mayhew?” The voice seemed familiar, but Richard was certain he’d never heard it before. He’d seen many strange things in the underside, but nothing like this. Not even Islington matched this creature.

“Who--” Richard croaked and waggled the knife vaguely at it.

“I have many names,” he said.

The darkness lifted a little more and a musical voice said, Tell him who you are or we’ll be here forever.”

“I am Dream.”

“You’re a dream?” Richard wasn’t surprised. Night’s Bridge was full of nightmares.

“No. I am Dream of the Endless.” The man did not blink. He did not move.

“You know. Morpheus? The Sandman?” The woman moved closer. She looked like a refugee from a Siouxsie and the Banshees concert--all in black, with heavily kohled eyes. She wore a large silver ankh on a chain. She seemed almost human.

“Dream,” Richard said and looked at the person. Being?

“I am an anthropomophic personification,” he said. “As is my sister.”

“Hi. I’m Death.” She gave a jaunty little wave.

Richard gestured at her chest with his knife. “Isn’t the ankh a symbol of life?”

“Well, sure. But you can’t have one without the other.” She hefted herself up onto the side of the bridge and drew her legs up tailor style. “You want answers and I’m afraid we don’t have any helpful ones.”

“What happens to the people who are taken? Are they dead? Can they be returned?”

“This bridge is in my realm. Mortals cannot enter it freely and leave again without paying a toll. It would unbalance the way of things.”

Richard looked at Death, still perched on the bridge, chin propped in hand. “That’s his way of saying no.”

“So I have to go back to that girl’s parents and tell them she’s dead?” Richard began to pace. “And you took Anesthesia when I crossed last time. She was a person. The rat speakers didn’t think much of her, but she was kind. She was alive. It’s not fair.”

Death giggled. Richard glared at her, but she didn’t stop. The sound, inexplicably, made him feel lighter. “I just told Death that life isn’t fair, didn’t I?”

Richard looked at Dream, who stood stock still. “What will you take from me this time?”

Dream peered at him, considering. Death hopped lightly off the wall. “The toll could be something he doesn’t want, right?”

“No.” Death frowned down at her. He was what Richard had expected Death to be like, while Death seemed quite lively. “If he valued it, it wouldn’t be a toll.”

“I don’t have anything,” Richard said. Dream looked pointedly at Hunter’s knife. Richard clutched it. “You can’t have it.”

“I can,” Dream said.

Richard glanced at his sister who patted her brother on the arm. “Did you just try to make a grammar joke?”

He glared at her and said, “No.”

“Yes. You did! I can see it in your eyes.” She shook her head and snickered.

“Was it funny?” Dream asked, uncertain.

“Not in the way you meant. S’okay. We can work on it, bro.” Death had a thought. “If I escorted Richard over the bridge, he would be under my protection. He wouldn’t have to pay.”

“What should you care if he has to pay a toll?” Dream wasn’t asking rhetorically. He wanted to know--to understand.

“I always care. About all of them. You know that.” Death rolled her eyes. “Your life would be easier if you cared less about rules, you know.”

“Yes. I know,” said Dream. “Very well. Take him.” Dream vanished.

“Come on then,” Death said with a jaunty grin and they set off across the bridge. It was still creepy, but with Death’s help he wasn’t overwhelmed by terror.

“I know why you came here,” she said. “I was here for both of them. That’s all I can tell you except that they are at peace.”

“Good,” Richard said, feeling something must be said.

“I know it’s not what you wanted to hear.” She sighed. “I rarely get to tell people anything they want to hear.”

Richard looked at her. He wouldn’t mind so much when he died if she came to get him. She patted his arm. She let go when he stepped foot on the other side.

“Look, you can be the Warrior. You just can’t be her,” Death said. “Figure out what kind of warrior you want to be. There are a lot of monsters in the world. They aren’t all living in sewers and the stuff of myth. You know?”

Before Richard could thank her, she strode back into the dark. Richard murmured his thanks anyway and heard a lilting "you're welcome" float back to him. He stared into the darkness until his feet were numb with cold. He could be a different kind of hunter. Why hadn’t he thought of that before? It was so obvious. He could never be Hunter and so he’d decided he couldn’t be worthy of the title. He stumbled out somewhere near Elephant and Castle, only a mile and a half from where he’d started and yet so much farther.

He found the Marquis beneath Sloane Square. He was listening earnestly to an old man from whom he took a slip of paper from and tucked it into one of his many pockets.

“All hail the conquering hero,” de Carabas flourished a hand at Richard, even though there was no one else around to see him.

“There’s no way to bring any of them back,” Richard said. “But you knew that.”

The Marquis said nothing, very loudly.

“Thank you,” Richard said. “If other people need help. Smaller things--battles I can fight. Not, you know, wild beasts in the bowels of hell. Come get me.”

“Oh. I shall, Sir Richard.” de Carabas grinned and rushed off claiming he had an appointment.

Richard decided food first then a reordering of his priorities. It would be better if Door returned to find him settled and self-sufficient. Whether or not she found her sister, she was going to need his help. He'd read that courage meant choosing to do something when you were afraid. If you weren't afraid then it wasn't brave. It was rash. For the first time he not only understood that, he also believed it.