Authors: Randy Ryan C.; Chandler Gregory L.; Thomas David T.; Norris Wilbanks
His foot was gone—sheared off at the ankle. The stump oozed blood, its color vibrant against the dull stone floor.
He glanced back at the magical frame he’d just passed through and gasped.
He could no longer see the room which held Heinrich and Cyrus Venice because opacity filled the black frame once again. Venice had closed the doorway with his otherworldly music just as Malcolm had passed through, slicing off Malcolm’s foot in the process. Even though the closing frame had somehow cauterized the damage to some extent, he was losing blood.
Malcolm sat up and tore off his jacket, his head feeling lighter by the second. He removed his shirt, popping the buttons as he yanked it open. A chill crept along his exposed flesh and he wasn’t sure if it was from the temperature in this strange place, or from the shock of his amputated foot. He ripped his shirt into two pieces, winding one half over and around the stump and tying the other half above the ankle to hold the bandage in place as a tourniquet. The pale shirt darkened in spots but for now it sufficed.
He lay beneath the window through which he could glimpse the dreary sky. Across the room sat a cushioned chair, a cello case and a music stand, all positioned so that he had not seen them from the other side of the frame.
Darkness welled in his mind. He wrapped his jacket around his bare torso and slid down upon the stone floor. Shivering, teeth chattering, he closed his eyes and could do no more before consciousness made its escape.
Malcolm Ehrlich’s eyelids fluttered and lifted.
Hunched over him was the one person for whom he’d been searching: Violet DuFresne. She looked tired and her clothes were wrinkled and soiled, but it was her all the same.
“You’re so pale. I thought I might have lost you there for a few moments but at least the bleeding has stopped. As soon as you’re able, you should sit up and drink some water.”
Malcolm moved his tongue through his cottony mouth and over his dry lips. He smiled at her. “I’ve found you at last.”
“You were looking for me?”
She placed his head in her lap and stroked his hair with gentle fingers.
It felt wonderful.
“I—I came back to find you. I quit my job and came back here. Well, not here, but—”
“Shh. I know what you mean,” she said, her fingers running over his scalp, there soft touch calming him. “Well, now you have found me and I am glad, but also upset. This place is terrifying and awful and now we’re both trapped here. All my fault, I think.”
“No, not your fault.”
“Do you think you can sit up and drink some water? I’m worried about all that blood you’ve lost.”
He nodded and she helped lift him higher onto her lap. She reached to the side and retrieved a thermos bottle, which she opened, pouring water from the container into the lid. Holding the cup against Malcolm’s lips, she eased it back until, after a while, he had drunk it all. She gave him more until he told her he’d had enough.
“Where are we, Violet?”
She looked around as if seeing the place for the first time. “I don’t know. What I
know is that it’s nowhere on Earth.”
Malcolm nodded. He still had a hard time grasping this concept. Everything looked sturdy enough to him for such a dream-like place. The blood had been cleaned up but faint spots could still be seen. The music stand, cello case and chair were still there and the infernal frame which led back home, if they could figure out how to open it without Venice’s violin.
“What are you doing here? How did this happen to your leg?”
Before Malcolm could answer, an awful hissing sound arose from outside the window. It sounded all too familiar.
Malcolm sat up. “The tall demon! He’s here.”
Violet frowned. “You mean the awful beast that guards me? I’m afraid so. Cyrus switched guardians several hours ago but I liked the old one better; it was terrible and awful to comprehend but at least it was silent, unlike this horrid creature outside. It does nothing but circle my tower, hissing and climbing the walls and peeking in the window.”
She began crying and now it was Malcolm’s turn to provide comfort. He pressed her head against his shoulder and stroked her golden hair.
The creature outside spat and hissed as if it were having a fit.
Based on her description, Malcolm assumed the star-golem had been guarding her previously. He didn’t think the tall demon was much of an improvement, yet for some reason it bothered him less than if it had been that green-eyed brute back in the warehouse.
“Tell me how you got here, Violet. How did you ever fall into that maniac’s hands?”
“It’s all a horrible blur.”
“Nothing could be more horrible than the situation we find ourselves in.”
She attempted a smile and began her story:
“I hadn’t received a letter or call from you in some time and I had become despondent—though I want you to know that it doesn’t mean for one second that any of this is your fault. I’m not trying to hurt you; I’m just telling you what happened.”
Malcolm interrupted. “I thought it was
who’d stopped sending letters, but I guess I’m not surprised to discover it had been me; I got lost in that accursed job, sometimes for months on end. It’s part of the reason I quit. When I’d realized what I’d become, I couldn’t take being a workaholic any longer—I couldn’t take the strange people in that strange country. I had to return home and make a new life—with you.”
The hissing outside grew fainter. Malcolm wanted to stand and look outside, but he didn’t think he was ready to rise just yet.
He kept one eye on the magic frame in case the room at the warehouse should appear again. If it did, he was going to drag Violet through it regardless of how many feet he had or who or what was waiting for them on the other side.
He thought of Heinrich and hoped the little fellow was okay. The man had helped Malcolm a great deal and in the end was quite heroic.
“It was a misunderstanding,” Violet said, chasing Malcolm’s thoughts away. “I should have known better but you had been absent for so long that I was losing hope of ever seeing you again. And that’s when Cyrus Venice stepped into the picture.”
“How did you get involved with that madman?”
“I felt confused and alone. In the beginning I ignored his advances but he was too persistent; he wanted me to complete his trio. Eventually, because I tired of turning him away, I allowed him to take me out for an evening. One thing led to another and then one night he took me back to his place—the warehouse—and played me the most
music I had ever heard. He had composed it himself and said he wanted me so that we could play the music the way it was meant to be played. I asked him who the third member of the threesome was. He said it was going to be a surprise, and it’s
going to be a surprise because he has not yet revealed this mysterious person.”
“But why does he keep you here in this bleak tower?”
“After I agreed to join him, he told me to step through the frame and wait in the room beyond—this one. That’s when he pulled out a gun, telling me I would remain here and practice until he had finished his greatest composition. He was ranting and raving something about ultimate power and old gods and other nonsense. I believed he had gone mad—until that black monster appeared. After that, I doubted my
She nodded. “I’ve been here ever since. He keeps sending sheet music for me to practice and says he won’t release me until his composition is completed and the ‘Outsider Trio’ has played the whole piece all the way through without error. He said he would no longer need me afterwards and that I’d be free.”
“Do you believe him?”
“I can’t even think about it.”
Malcolm pointed. “Where do those stairs lead?”
“There are two levels below this one. The second level is my sleeping quarters—an old sleeping bag and a pillow—and some food and water. The first level is filled with old junk and has a door to the outside. The guardian monsters have orders to leave me be unless I go anywhere near the exit on the first floor.”
“When I was on the other side of that frame, I saw a house on a hill in the distance beyond this window. Do you know anything about it?”
She shook her head, placing a light hand on his chest. “I sometimes watch the house out the window but nothing ever happens there. I think it’s abandoned and it certainly looks it.” She shivered.
“At night, there are these sounds outside, the most terrible sounds I’ve ever heard. That’s why I’m thankful that the bedroom level does-n’t have a window; I can’t hear it as well down there. If I put the pillow over my ears, I can’t hear it much at all, thank God.”
Malcolm looked down at where his foot used to be and realized the bandage had been changed. He noticed the bottom portion of Violet’s dress was missing and knew where the fresh bandage had come from. He smiled at her. “Do you have more water? Don’t give it to me if that thermos is all you have left.”
“No, there’s more downstairs in some plastic jugs so drink as much as you want. Venice will give me more if I ask.”
“I don’t know what he’ll do now that I’m here. Does he open the frame often?”
“In the mornings he opens it, gun in hand, monster at his side, and drops in some food and water. Also when he gives me new music to practice. The last time I spoke to him—yesterday—he said his masterpiece was near completion and nearly ready for its sole performance.”
“What do you think he meant?”
“Nothing good. You must have seen the way he controls the magic frame with his violin. Well, I think his violin is like a wizard’s wand. Depending on the notes he plays or how he plays them, he can make different things happen. So think: he said the composition he’s working on is a major work. I don’t like what that implies.”
“Don’t play for him.”
“But then he won’t let us go.”
The room swayed and Malcolm had to close his eyes and lean back against the stone wall to steady himself. He swallowed, feeling nauseous.
Violet cooed. “You look as pale as a ghost and you’re shivering again. I’ll run down and get some water, the sleeping bag and pillow so I can make you more comfortable. You never did tell me what happened to your foot.”
Malcolm swallowed. “It got caught in that bastard’s magic portal.” The stump throbbed, sending waves of pain through his leg. He slid down and lay on his side, his cheek against the cold stone floor.
The one thing that made this whole mess bearable was knowing he had found Violet again; seeing her face had made the whole quest worthwhile. Even the loss of his foot didn’t seem so terrible with her around.
He hoped they’d make it through all this. It wouldn’t be easy, especially since he doubted Cyrus Venice would honor his side of the bargain.
The black tide rose again, overwhelming him, and Malcolm succumbed.
It was darker now and he had a pillow under his head and was covered by a sleeping bag.
She sat nearby with her back against the wall and her chin on her chest, asleep. He felt guilty for depriving her of the sleeping bag. Sitting like that couldn’t be doing her neck much good. She must have dozed off while watching over him.
Near him sat the thermos. He rose on an elbow and opened the container, pouring some water into the plastic lid. It felt good going down his throat, cool and refreshing. He drank more.
His leg didn’t hurt as much when he held it still. The sleeping bag felt good and he wished Violet had decided to join him beneath its soft warmth. Maybe he would invite her after she awoke; after all, it wasn’t as if they were unfamiliar with each other’s bodies. And maybe it was time for a proper reunion.
A sound came from outside. Not the demon, but something equally disturbing. It was like the chortling of a tiger with laryngitis.
Malcolm pushed against the floor until he was sitting up. Then he worked his way over to the window. As he rose to his knees, nausea caused him to teeter. He ignored it and walked across the floor on his knees until he had reached his goal.
The darkening sky was all he could see from his position, so he grabbed the ledge and pulled himself up until he was standing on his remaining foot. He leaned against the ledge and kept his wounded leg held high, bent at the knee.
No stars or moon existed here, just as Violet had said—only a sky twilit in a darkish hue. Even though it was nearing full dark now, he could still discern some surrounding landscape.
Stunted shrubberies, oddly shaped, dotted the desert-like plain where no living beings moved. A ways across the plain was the hill he had seen from the warehouse with the ancient house perched at its apex.
The architecture of the dwelling was alien and he doubted its like had ever been conceived of back at home. He couldn’t put his finger on any one thing which set it apart from earthly buildings yet the overall impression was one of