Augustus nearly snarled, “Don't make fun of me, Father! I know what I saw.”
“My boy, those of us who have become celebrated on the stages of the worldâ”
This time Augustus sounded positively angry with his father: “Celebrated? Father, they used to laugh at your tragedies and boo at your comedies! Until you used the Grimoire to create the World Theater, no one appreciated your plays or our acting!”
“They were fools,” Junius said coldly. “Fools and philistines, who had no true understanding of the muses of comedy and tragedy! The greater their loss when we left them behind forever. I'm surprised you think of them at all, boy, after so much time has passed, after their idiotic disapproval has been swamped with the love and adoration our audiences here have shown us for our efforts. This is much better. Now we have audiences who understand us, who always applaud! Don't you agree, all of you?”
Even though the hot sun was wringing sweat from him, Jarvey felt a chill pass down his spine as a chorus of low, whispery voices began to rustle like wind in the trees: “Astonishing performance, sir!” “Excellently well written!” “Very moving!” “I've never laughed so much!” The voices died down gradually to a distant hum and then to silence. Though the words were enthusiastic, the tone of the voices sounded infinitely sad and dreary to Jarvey.
“Could there be anyone in the trees?” Augustus demanded in a peevish sort of way. “If he got this far, surely he'd think to climb.”
Jarvey ducked back.
“Look up,” Junius ordered. “Look carefully. Is there a boy concealed in the trees, my friends?”
Again came the chorus of weirdly identical voices: “No, sir.” “Nothing, sir.” “I see no one, sir.”
Augustus was not satisfied. “Maybe I should climb up in one of them just to make sure. If he got this far, he might haveâ”
Then Junius sighed. “Come on, son. We really have no time for this just at present. I want to finish with Act Four today, so tomorrow we can concentrate on the grand climax and of course our curtain call. Remember, we perform on the evening after that.”
“Augustus, if it makes you feel better, I shall place a spell of warning on the garden and on all the doors. There cannot be an intruder, for where would he come from? But if anything is out of place or wrong, we shall know instantly just where it is and what it is.”
“A spell will take you hours.”
“After our rehearsal, I shall attend to it, Augustus,” Junius said firmly. “Come.”
Jarvey heard retreating footsteps, and again he wormed his way forward on his stomach until he could peek over the edge of the terrace.
What he saw startled him so much that he almost overbalanced and fell off the edge of the flat roof The whole row of top-hatted, black-coated men stood directly beneath him, about a foot away from the wall, facing the wall and staring straight ahead at the marble. Junius and Augustus were striding away through the bean rows some distance away, heading for the distant doorway.
But the strange thing was that the men underneath him were
Their top hats were already transparent when Jarvey first caught sight of them, and in a few seconds they had disappeared. And then, horribly, the flesh and hair crept away from their heads, starting at the crown, revealing translucent, milky skulls that almost immediately grew as clear as glass and then vanished in shreds of gray vapor. The necks, the shoulders, the arms, the chests all faded to skeletal bones, and then the bones evaporated like mist in the sun. The whole process might have taken no more than ten seconds, but to Jarvey it seemed to stretch on and on.
Even after the ghostly men had disappeared, Jarvey didn't dare to come down for a long time. Far across the garden the forms of Junius and Augustus slipped inside the doorway. From here Jarvey could not even tell for sure that they had closed the door. With great caution he crept sideways, into the shade of the tree, and waited.
At last, as the sun slanted lower in the cloudless sky, Jarvey stood up, walked out into the mushy layer of leaf mold, and made a leap straight upward. With hands already sore and blistered from his earlier climb, he caught the creaking branch and hauled himself into the apple tree again. He worked his way down, dropped to the ground, and began to search for Betsy. He couldn't find her anywhere, and at last he limped toward the only doorway out of the garden. His leg muscles felt stiff and sore, and his throat felt parched. From a safe distance he could see the door was indeed shut.
He hoped it wasn't locked.
Like a flat lid sliding over the top of a square box, a gray layer of cloud had swept in from behind him, shutting off the direct sunlight. Jarvey soon heard the patter of rain, then felt the first drops as he crossed the little winding brook in the center of the garden.
He shivered. Even the rain was spooky, more like water drizzling from regularly spaced sprinklers than real rain. He wondered if Junius had arranged the weather on this odd world so that his garden would be watered every afternoon. Lunnon had experienced occasional storms, but Tantalus Midion, who had created that world, had not paid as much attention to detail as Junius. Lunnon had not even had a proper sun, just a diffuse, brassy glow in the sky. But Lunnon had people in it, real people, criminals whom Tantalus had brought to his world, kidnap victims whom he had taken by force, and their descendants, real flesh-and-blood people, not ghosts and robots. There the people were substantial, and the buildings had been made by their hands, not by magic. The weather in Lunnon and the surroundings was random and messy. Here everything seemed somehow sharp, substantialâeverything but the people.
But then, Junius probably was the one who had designed and created all the stage sets with their amazing impression of reality. Why should his world look false when he was such a master of illusion?
Jarvey reached the door at last, soaked to the skin and miserable, and tried the handle. It opened immediately.
Jarvey tiptoed down the hallway, and as he was passing a darkened doorway, someone inside went “Psst!” making him jump about a foot.
“It's me,” Betsy hissed from the darkness. “Here's where they live!”
Jarvey ducked inside the doorway. First he passed through an alcove, then into a cluttered room thickly furnished with overstuffed chairs, sofas, and love seats. Colored-pencil sketches of Junius, Augustus, Honoria, and Sarah Midion almost covered every wall in the room, the pictures showing their subjects in various theatrical costumes: pirates, soldiers, ancient Greeks and Romans, and kings, queens, princesses, and princes. With a rush of relief, Jarvey saw that Betsy had laid the Grimoire on a table. On top of it she had opened a large scrapbook. “Look at this,” she said.
The pages seemed very old, yellowed and brittle with age. Pasted in the scrapbook were dozens of newspaper and magazine stories, all about Junius and Sarah Midion. Some were dated. Jarvey saw one that came from the year 1822.
All of the articles were reviews of plays that the Midions had done back on the real Earth. Jarvey didn't have to read many to understand that Junius Midion's reputation as actor and playwright had been pretty miserable back in those days. The kindest of them said one of the plays was “not actually completely foul.”
“According to these, they're all horrible actors,” Betsy said.
Jarvey told her what he had overheard in the garden. “I was right,” he finished. “Junius Midion got hold of the Grimoire and used its magic to build a world where everyone would always love him and his family. Now he can make up any play at all, and it's always a hit.” He reached for the Grimoire, and Betsy, who never liked to be close to the book, shivered a little. “Come on, we've got to get out of here. Maybe we can leave tonight, when the family's asleep. But we can't let them catch us in their apartment.”
“But your mother and fatherâ”
“I don't think they could be here in this world,” Jarvey said. “When Siyamon Midion tried to trap me in the book, he told me to turn to the very last chapter. This can't be the last chapter in the book. It must've been written even before the Lunnon one you came from, because the date's earlier. When I tried to use the Grimoire, we went the wrong way. Siyamon would probably put my mom, my dad, and me in the chapter he was writing, not just stick them somewhere else in the book. Come on. Let's get someplace where we know we'll be safe and I'll open the Grimoire and get us out of here.”
They followed the hall to the backstage of the theater. The whole group of actors and actresses, real and artificial, seemed to be out on the stage, singing a very loud song that didn't even rhyme very well:
Oh, our lovers face much woe,
And they don't know where to go,
For the world seems turned against the four of them;
Will they find the way
To a new and brighter day,
And will their parents pay,
We cannot just now say,
But soon we're sure we shall hear more of them!
“Awful,” Betsy grumbled in a low whisper.
They hid behind the hanging curtains against the back wall as the Midions trooped out, all except Augustus seeming very pleased with themselves. “You were in excellent voice, Mrs. Midion,” Junius said heartily. “I am sure you will make a most popular hit.”
“Thank you, Mr. Midion,” returned his wife. “I am only sorry about poor Katrina Three.”
“Well, they do wear out, you know,” Junius said. “She shall be put to ushering until she falls apart, and tomorrow morning, as I shall be performing a few little spells anyway, I shall conjure Katrina Four. Fortunately, her part in the play is so very small that I think the new one shall do quite well with a minimum of rehearsal.” His voice faded off down the corridor.
Jarvey and Betsy waited for several minutes. The Midions seemed to have departed, and the stage lay empty before they dared to move. “Who's Katrina Three?” Betsy asked.
Jarvey's damp clothes clung to him and chilled him, so his teeth were almost chattering as he answered: “One of the magical actresses, I think,” Jarvey said. “They seem a little bit realer than the audience, but I don't think they're permanent. I suppose if they get out of whack, Junius just junks them and then makes new ones to replace them. Let's get out of the auditorium where we can see what we're doing, and we'll try the Grimoire.”
They stepped out onto the stage, now only dimly lighted, went around the sailing-ship set, and headed for the orchestra pit.
But before they had taken more than a few steps, something white swooped down on them from the wings. “I've caught you!” shrieked a horrible, scratchy voice. “Help! Help!”
A bony hand closed on Jarvey's arm, and the creature that had pounced from the gloom grabbed Betsy with the other hand. Their captor was a woman, or what was left of one.
Jarvey could hardly recognize the decaying ruin as one of the younger actresses he had seen in the dressing room. Her skin had become cracked and peeling, and her eyelids had withered away, leaving her bloodshot eyeballs staring madly out of their sockets. Cracked and flaking skin barely covered her skull, and what skin remained had become rough and dry-looking, like old, rotting leather. Her auburn hair was falling off in big clumps, and her blackened lips had pulled away from her gums, leaving her mouth a gaping slash in her face. Many of her teeth had fallen out, giving her a horrible jagged grin, and the arms that had reached to seize Jarvey and Betsy had great pits in the flesh.
Betsy screamed in terror as this corpse-like creature began to drag them back, her grip surprisingly strong. “Master!” the monstrous woman shrieked. “Master! See what I have! Let me live! Master!”
Jarvey struggled to free himself, swatted at her hand, and felt cold, rigid flesh strung with cord-like muscle and tendons. She gripped him even tighter, her hand like a trap snapped closed on his flesh. With a lurching gait, she dragged the two of them into the darkness of the wings.
“Massterrr,” gargled Katrina Three through her dissolving larynx. “Ssssseeeee.”
All the stage lights flared up full. Junius Midion stood leaning on a cane, glowering at them. At his elbow, Augustus leered at them in triumph. “I told you, Father.”
“Lett mmmmeee llllivvve,” pleaded Katrina Three.
“You remained alone onstage after the curtain fell?” asked Junius, sounding shocked. “You know that will destroy you! I can't save you. However, I give you a quick and painless release.” Junius snapped his fingers, and with a gurgle of anguish, the creature holding Jarvey's arm collapsed in on herself, her fingers stretching away to wispy streams, sticky as cobweb before they dissolved.
Betsy, suddenly released from the hold she had been fighting against, fell backward onto the stage, thumping her head hard, and Jarvey staggered. He felt something firm pressing against his chest. Junius was prodding him with his cane. “How did you get here, boy?” he asked.
Jarvey didn't answer.
A moment later, though, Junius's dark blue eyes flew wide as he saw what Jarvey was holding under one arm.
“The Grimoire!” he shouted. “Seize the boy, Augustus. He must not be allowed to live!”
The Rest Is Silence
on't open the book!” Junius Midion snarled at his son. They stood in the last dressing room, the one the Midion family used. “Augustus, I warn you!”
Augustus had carried the Grimoire into the room and had placed it on the table in front of one of the mirrors. His fingers twitched, and he had reached forward, had actually begun to open it, but when Junius Midion cracked his cane down on the cover with a sharp sound as startling as a gunshot his son had taken a reluctant step back. “Augustus, listen to me. We shall deal with the Grimoire in good time. Go bring the girl.”