"Hold on there," the Captain interrupted, holding up a metal-encased finger. "There's something we need to discuss before you go. Something private."
He leaned forward and whispered something in the doctor's ear. Mr. Smiles' eyes went wide, and he whispered something back. Campren discreetly took a step forward, hoping to overhear their hushed conversation, but when they saw him get closer, the two only lowered their voices. Irked by being blatantly excluded from the discussion, he folded his arms and turned his back to them in a huff.
His eyes fell on Mr. Smiles' gleaming suitcase of medical supplies.
"If I can do it fast enough. . ."
"Just remember that, Smiley," the Captain concluded in his usual, vociferous tone of voice.
"Yes, sir," the doctor replied with a subservient bow. "If you will me a moment to collect my things, Campren and I shall be leaving momentarily."
Mr. Smiles turned to reach for his case. To his surprise, the moment his fingers brushed against the gleaming silver handle, the entire suitcase went spilling down the steps in a gleaming rain of glass bottles and medical instruments of varying degrees of nastiness.
“My apologies,” he said sheepishly, gathering up several scalpels of various sizes and placing them back into the case. “I can be so clumsy at times.”
Campren shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. Happens to the best of us.”
He worried that Mr. Smiles would notice that one of his instruments was missing.
Or if he did, he didn’t say anything about it.
“Sorry for the delay." The latch on the doctor's case clicked shut. “Off we go, then.”
"I'll see you soon!" the Captain called after them, waving his crutch-free arm in the air as a farewell gesture. "Remember to watch out for that merry murderess!"
The walk to Geoffrey’s residence was completely silent, aside from the soft pitter-patter of the two men's feet on the white pavement. They walked side-by-side, Mr. Smiles never saying a word, or even turning to look at his companion at all. Several times Campren opened and shut his mouth, considering engaging the man in conversation and then opting not to.
After several minutes (though it felt like hours), they eventually came to a quaint little bungalow, situated between a flower shop and an adobe hut. Unlike the rest of the uniformly white world, the bungalow had some splashes of color on it. It wasn’t much—just a few subtle shades of browns and blues here and there—but it was enough to make the home stand out like a circus clown at the stock exchange.
“Here we are,” the doctor said unceremoniously. “Mr. Pierce should be inside. I suppose I shall bid you farewell. Be sure to stop by my office for a check-up tomorrow; I wish to monitor you condition very, very closely.”
With a tip of his wide, black hat, he turned on his heel and vanished down the street.
"I wish to monitor your condition," Campren repeated under his breath in a mocking tone. "Weirdo."
The wooden steps up to the bungalow's raised front porch creaked slightly as Campren's feet came down upon them, not loud enough to be annoying but audible enough to give the place some character. The front door was open, with only a weathered-looking screen door separating the interior of the house from the outside world.
"Geoffrey?" Campren called out softly. He gripped the edge of the screen and entered in, the door slamming behind him with its spring-loaded hinges.
It was a very homey sort of place, with quaint wooden furniture and shelves full of odd bits of brick-a-brac that must have held some sort of sentimental value for someone at some point, but were now caked with dust. Like the facade of the house, the walls and floor had smears of coloration littered here and there, although a couple of spots looked like as though they may have been colored with a Crayola set. A few dozen stacks of paper sat piled up on the floor, some of them several feet tall. At the far end of the room, the familiar college professor sat hunched a writing desk, his tweed jacket hanging from the back of his chair.
"Geoffrey," Campren said again, a little louder.
The man's head perked up, though he didn't turn around.
“Ah, you’re here. Surprising. With Yuria as your guide, I didn’t expect you to arrive until sometime next week.”
Campren hesitated. He didn't wasn't exactly excited to fill Geoffrey in on all the gory details.
“We . . . uh . . . we were interrupted.”
He briefly feared that the professor would ask for more details, but the subject was mercifully dropped. Either Geoffrey saw his reluctance to discuss the day's events or he simply didn't care.
"Go ahead and have a seat," he told Campren. "I'll be finished with this in a moment."
Campren complied and found himself a spot on a lacey white couch that was so soft it seemed to melt beneath him as sat.
"Nice place you got here!"
"Isn't it, though?" Geoffrey returned, keeping his eyes on whatever was on the desk in front of him. "It used to be a lot better. You should have seen it when the color was all here."
"You mean this place wasn't always like this?"
"Heavens no. Not too long ago, these buildings were all as colorful and lively as their real-world counterparts. It's my theory that every structure is linked to a story in the Book, and when the story is destroyed, the building loses its color, just as coral turns a bleached white after it dies. But that's neither here nor there."
The old man slowly stood up, and Campren heard the sound of something heavy hitting the desk several times. A stack of papers being straightened.
"What's with all the writing?" he inquired, observing the neatly-arranged manuscript in Geoffrey's hands. "You were writing earlier today, too."
The professor plunked the papers onto a pile on the floor and threw himself on a recliner opposite to Campren. "It's how I fill my time nowadays."
"Old one, actually. I decided to pick it up again after someone put my musical career on hold."
The two men smiled. It occurred to Campren that they hadn't really known each other that long, but being in multiple life-or-death situations together had lit an odd spark of friendship. It was as though sight of the other was a source of hope, a reminder that even the most insurmountable trials can be conquered.
"Speaking of which, there are a few things I need to ask you about our little adventure," Geoffrey continued. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small cluster of paper scraps, scrawled all over with indecipherable notes. "What was the name of that sword, again?"
Campren thought for a moment. "The Sword of . . . Ryan?"
"Reinn," Geoffrey corrected him, quickly adding the word to his collection of notes. "That's it. I'd almost forgotten. And the river fairy: did it have a name?"
"Just the Great Fairy of the River, as far as I know."
"That's what I thought. I needed to be sure, though. I've been recording our adventures to paper, and my facts must be as accurate as possible. I'm not simply writing all this down for posterity, after all."
Campren raised an eyebrow. "You're not?"
"Of course. If I merely wanted to kill time, I would have found and raided a music store by now. No. This," and here he paused to pluck a handfull of pages of the floor, "this is my contribution to the war effort."
"You mean against the unwriting? No offense Geoff, but how are your memoirs gonna stop the end of the world?"
The old professor rapped his fingers on the arm of the chair irritably. "That's the same mentality everyone else had. They didn't see how mere words could combat the destruction. They didn't want to sit down and write. No, they simply charged off headlong into that portal, hellbent on getting back to adventuring through the book and fixing stories."
"And that's . . . a bad thing?"
"Not bad, per se, but I don't believe it's the best way to go about doing things. Remember, the core problem is the destruction of stories. So why not challenge the very essence of the unwriting by creating new ones?"
A small, almost triumphant smirk curled across Geoffrey's face.
"And has it been helping?"
The smirk vanished.
"I'm sure it has," he said a bit too confidently. "How could it not? 'All the stories of the world have been written, and no new stories will ever be written again.' That's the idea that powers the unwriting, and I've directly contradicted it. And it's not just my own adventures I've written down. When the Champions started flooding in, I recorded their stories as well. Have a look."
He plucked a handful of pages from the floor and handed them over.
" 'The goblin glanced over his shoulder, where Artego's uninjured hand was tugging at a bulging sack Llimsey had slung across his other side,' " Campren read aloud. "I . . . have no idea what I just read."
"It makes sense in context, I assure you. You can't expect to understand it if you don't read the story from the beginning."
Campren set the pages down on the sofa cushion next to him. "Eh, maybe later. Besides, I'm still itching to know what happened to you after you left the library. You didn’t get sent to the nightmare place, did you?”
“Thankfully, no. I just found myself in yet another story. The setting was much like New York City, except magic was as commonplace as technology. The Book tried to drag me into the plot, but I was adamant to avoid involvement of any sort. I rented out an apartment on the edge of the city and steered clear of everything that even remotely resembled a story event.”
“And how’d that work out?”
“Not very well. After I’d been there for two days, someone caught me pulling a teakettle from my pocket dimension—a trick I learned from your friend Knives. I quickly found out that while magic was not uncommon in that world, dimensional manipulation is a rare skill, and those who possess it are coerced into working as ‘Drazi.’ The authorities demanded that I create a portal for a race of being known as the Utsuyan. I refused, but they beat me and threatened me until I agreed. To my own surprise, I managed to open up a gateway large enough for one of the aliens to pass through. That’s the last thing I remember from that world. I don’t even know if the portal worked or not. I just remember waking up here in the World Between and meeting the other Drazi.”
“And I guess Conflict’s prisoners showed up a little later?”
Geoffrey lifted his fountain pen from the table next to him and spun it listlessly in his fingers. “If by ‘a little later’ you mean ‘fifty-eight years,’ then yes.”
“Fifty-eight years!” Campren cried, nearly falling off the sofa.
“It wasn’t that bad, really. After one has lived several millennia, the decades seem to slip by fairly quickly.”
“But still, that's crazy! Holy crap! For me, it’s only been two days since we last saw each other!”
“The Book has an odd sense of humor, that much is certain." Geoffrey stated blandly. He set the pen back down on the table. "But don’t worry about it. The Drazi and I kept ourselves busy."
The professor nodded.
"If the Drazi all have one thing in common besides their dimensional abilities, it's their limitless creativity. They made jolly good company, to say the least. The papers you see on the floor are only a drop in the ocean of our creative pursuits. But enough about me and my past; what have you been up to?"
Once more, Campren divulged the story of his stay in Conflict's facility. The words flowed more easily as he described the events to Geoffrey than they had when he had spoken with the Big Four. He gushed about the heartache of Conflict's illusions, the terror of monstrous attacks, and the panic of the escape, and all the while Geoffrey took down notes, only stopping to ask the occasional question. Within minutes, the professor had filled so many pages that Campren became convinced that he was writing down more words than were being spoken.
After the story was completed and Geoffrey finished writing, the conversation took a more casual turn. They conversed about their pasts, reminisced about what reality had been like, and discussed various books they had read. Campren was surprised (and more than a little impressed) to learn that Geoffrey had known most of the authors.
"I was quite good friends with Gaston Leroux," he recalled, "though I only knew him when he was still a journalist. Good man. Inquisitive. Morbid sense of humor, but I liked that about him. And then there was Oscar Wilde--now he was a character!"
The South Carolina native also had his fair share of stories to tell, including his family's ties to the underworld.
"Dad wanted out of the family business, even at an early age. Unfortunately for him, he had a talent for, shall we say, 'relieving certain individuals of the inconvenience of existence.' He worked under his father and grandfather's for years, too scared of what would happen to him if they found out he wanted to quit and go straight. But one night, after the rest of the household had drunken themselves into alcohol-induced comas, he seized the opportunity and ran away from home with nothing but the shirt on his back. He didn't feel like he was safe until he arrived in South Carolina. Of course, I never knew any of this until after his death. I'm telling ya, you learn the craziest things at funerals."
"Your father sounds like he was a very brave man," Geoffrey said solemnly. Just like his son."
Campren feigned laughter.
"So what were your parents like? Or do immortal people even have parents?"
The professor thought for a moment and opened his mouth to respond, but he was cut off by the SLAM of the screen door. A young boy clad in a green scarf and pilot's cap stood at the threshold, his skin a sickly yellow and his large eyes as blank and clouded as smoked glass.
"Speaking of parenthood," Geoffrey muttered under his breath.
"I'm home," the boy exclaimed, wiping his feet on the carelessly on the carpet as though there were an invisible doormat beneath him.
"Stop that at once!" the professor said firmly, bolting up from his seat. "We've been over this: you are not to track soot all over the house."
"But I wasn't tracking it," the child protested. "I was wiping it off."
His eyes screwed shut, Geoffrey pressed two fingers to his forehead, as a person does during the onset of a migraine. "You're supposed to do that outside."
"Uh, hey there," Campren said, waving awkwardly from his spot on the couch. "Who's the kid, Geoff?"
"Didn't I mention him?" the professor deadpanned. "Campren, this is my son, Henry."
The colorless cityscape of the World Between faded into a vivid yellow, then a burning orange, and then a deep pink before the sun finally went to hide itself beyond the horizon. After Campren vaguely explained the situation surrounding him being homeless, Geoffrey agreed to give him a place to rest for the night. Campren was immensely grateful for having had the opportunity shower and scrape every last bit of dried blood from his body. He found it difficult to clean the skin beneath the tightly-wrapped strip of cloth, but he did what he could.
"That was amazing," he said dreamily, emerging from the bathroom in clothes borrowed from his host.
Down the hall, he caught of glimpse of Henry heading for bed. He, too, was dressed for bed, with the exception of the pilot's helmet he had neglected to remove.
"Are you seriously going to wear that thing to bed, kid?" Campren asked, leaning against the door frame of the boy's room.
"My Dad gave it to me," was the boy's answer, which Campren took as a yes. "He was a pilot in the military."
The boy's voice and demeanor was cold, though not unfriendly. Campren gazed at him pityingly.
"Listen, you know that Geoffrey's your foster father, right?"
"Of course," Henry stated, though not in a impudent way. "That's why I don't take my helmet off."
Somewhere, deep within Campren's chest, a small part of his heart broke.
“Hey," he said, walking over the boy's bed and sidling up next to him. "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings or anything."
"Don't worry about it," the lad replied calmly. "It's fine. It's just that my Dad's been dead for a long time now, and I don't want to forget him. But Mr. Geoffrey is very nice, even if he's grumpy, and he's been very kind to take care of me me these past few months."
"It's not like he had a choice," Campren thought, recalling the professor explaining how the Big Four had arbitrarily selected him for the task of watching over the boy.
"He's really very fond of you, you know," he said, deciding to stick to the positive side of the situation.
"I know. I like him, too. Don't worry; I'm really happy here, even if I don't show it. It's nice, living in this city. And unlike all the stories I've had to fight through, this place is safe. We have Skylar here to protect us."
Another part of his heart fell to pieces.
"Yeah. Safe. Right." He scratched the back of his neck uncomfortably. "Listen, kid, maybe you should stay here at the house for the next few days. For, uh, no reason at all."
Henry shook his head. "I can't. I have to visit Anthony."
Campren tilted his head slightly to the right.
“Anthony. He's the one who I was out visiting today.”
A smile crept across Campren’s lips. Geoffrey had mentioned Anthony.
“Right,” he said, giving Henry a knowing wink. “You were out playing with your friend.”
The boy’s face scrunched up indignantly.
“I know what you’re thinking. But he’s not an imaginary friend. He’s real.”
“Oh, I trust you!” Campren lied, using the sort of voice that nobody ever uses when speaking to an adult. “He’s totally real. Didn’t doubt you for a second.”
Henry rolled his glassy eyes and flopped down across his bed.
“You don’t have to lie,” he said sullenly, lazily kicking his legs that hung over the side of the bed. “It's fine that you don't believe in him. Nobody else does. And I think Anthony likes things better that way.”
Even though the kid was clearly delusional, Campren couldn’t help but feel a little bad for him.
“Aren’t there any other kids in this place for you to hang out with? Real ones, I mean.”
“Nope. I’m the only one left,” Henry replied. Seeing Campren’s piteous expression, he added, “but I’m not lonely; not as long as I’m with Anthony. He doesn’t have any other friends, either. I’m the only one who he feels comfortable talking to. And I've got other friends, too.”
"Yeah, Geoffrey mentioned them. Your talking roll of tape, scissors, and--what was that last one? Oh, yeah--the magical floating bag of water."
"His name is Queenhi," Henry objected. "And they're all real, whether you believe in them or not. They keep Anthony company when I'm not with him."
"I totally believe you," Campren insisted patronizingly.
Henry rolled over and buried his face into the fluffy blue comforter of his bed.
"Forgot it," he relented. "I understand. I can't make you believe me. I just don't really want to talk about this anymore."
Campren stood up awkwardly from the bed. The boy sounded very even-tempered, though he could swear he heard a faint vestige of pain behind the facade of detachment.
"I'm sorry," he said softly, without a trace of condescending affectation. "You're a good kid. And I know that thing are insane and this is no place or circumstance for a kid like you to grow up, but things'll get better. I promise."
The boy said nothing, but he removed his face from the covers and looked up at Campren with his glassy eyes. A rare optical condition, Geoffrey had said. A fluke of genetics that left his eyes devoid of any spark of life. And yet, there was a certain sagacity reflected in the slick surface of Henry's gaze.
"Good night," Campren added.
He softly closed the door behind him.
While passing through the hall on his way to his designated bedroom, he noticed a collection of framed pictures spread out along the walls, depicting images of empty fields and pastel gradients. They looked like the sorts of things that typically serve as backgrounds for family portraits, but there were no humans to be found in any of the photographs. Campren pondered the implications of this for a moment, but quickly decided that it was best not to think about it, especially right before bed.
He found the bedroom easily enough. It was a good, medium-sized room, with the bed taking up most of the floor space. The lights were out, but the room was moderately lit by the sullen blue moonlight streaming through the open window. He could see the silver hart sleeping soundly right outside the window—or at least it looked like it was sleeping. Did robots sleep? Or do they just wait for the sun to come up?
The wall closest to him was in shadows, and he couldn’t find the light switch. Squinting, he stared and groped at the wall, searching and squinting. That’s when he heard the soft sound of the bedroom door clicking shut.
“We don’t want anyone disturbing us,” Clarissa said casually as she locked the door.
“Don’t you dare scream,” she whispered sternly, pressing a finger to her lips. Her hands and arms were clean and free of blood now, though traces still remained on her vest and sweater. Her bright green clothes appeared muted in the dull moonlight, but her eyes shone as vividly as ever. “I haven’t come to hurt you. I just need someone who will listen to me, and you’re the only one around here who isn’t calling for.”
Campren stood his ground. She wasn’t the killer: that much he was sure of. On the other hand, he couldn’t say he was glad to see her. “How could you possibly know that?”
“I stuck around after the Captain and company arrived. Heard the whole conversation.”
“But I never saw you!”
A smile played at her lips, the sort of smile that never means cruelty but always means trouble. “That’s what I expect you to see when I’m watching you. Why don’t you have a seat?” She gestured to the bed. The sheets and pillows were perfectly arranged and immaculately smooth, no doubt thanks to Geoffrey’s careful touch. “Let’s chat.”
“I’m fine standing up,” Campren lied. In truth, he felt like his legs would fold from exhaustion at any moment, but now was not the time for appearing weak. “I guess you’re not here to talk about the weather.”
“Yep. I came here to talk about you.”
“M—me?” he faltered, his calm and composed façade slipping away momentarily.
“Yeah. I saw you steal the scalpel from Smiles’ suitcase,” she stated, not accusingly but with a hint of admiration. “And I saw you set the case down at the edge of the steps, its latch unfastened. You rigged it to spill at the slightest touch. You knew that Smiles wouldn’t think twice about a missing scalpel after a clumsy mishap with his suitcase.” Her mouth curled up into a victorious smirk. “You’re not the only one who sees things that others miss.”
Campren swallowed hard. This gal was good.
“Who is this lady?” he thought. Her demeanor had completely changed since their previous encounter. Gone was the small, fragile girl pleading for mercy. Now she was assertive, confident, and cheeky to an extent that was bordered on flirtatious. Was she intimidating? Definitely. Even so, Campren couldn’t help but feel impressed by her deductions.
“Listen, I needed to take that scalpel. There's a killer on the loose, and I didn't have anything to defend myself with,” he said, holding up his hands defensively.."You aren’t going to tell anybody, are you"
The woman’s smile broke into a full-on grin, revealing two rows of white, albeit slightly crooked teeth. “Are you kidding? That was brilliant. I couldn’t have done it better myself. That quack doesn’t suspect a thing! I gotta hand it to you: you’re a Faye if I ever saw one!”
“But . . . we're not related. Are we?”
“Maybe not by blood, but the Fayes aren’t a bloodline. They’re an idea,” she explained, slowly advancing closer until their faces were no more than a foot apart. It was far more intimate than Campren was comfortable with, but he said nothing.
Clarissa continued. “It’s the name for people like me—people like us. People who know what its like to steal in order to survive. Don't look at me that way; I can tell you've been homeless. Well-fed folks don’t know how to steal like we do. We’re both the same, you and I. And that’s why I want to hire you.”
With these words, she slipped her hand into her sweater and reached into her brassiere. Campren’s face burned a fierce red, but to his relief, he saw that she was only pulling out a small, shiny object that she had apparently stored there for safekeeping.
“The key,” he gasped.
“No, a key,” Clarissa corrected. “This isn’t the one that killer wanted.”
“How can you be sure?”
“’Cause it’s worthless! It doesn’t even unlock anything.”
"Then why are you showing it me!" Campren exclaimed, raising his voice slightly before remembering to bring it down to a whisper.
"If the Captain or his cronies catch me cavorting around town with this thing, what do you think they'll assume? I can't keep it; it's too risky. I need you to hold on to it for me until they find the real killer."
Campren shook his head fiercely. "No! No way am I holding on to something that the killer would want! Just throw the thing in the gutter or something!"
The woman clenched the key in both hands and held it to her chest, as though afraid that an unseen force would try to rip it from her fingers. "I can't! This belonged to . . . well, she was someone very close to me. The closest thing I had to a mother. She's dead now, and this is all I have left of her. It's the only thing that means anything to me anymore."
She stared at Campren her big, shamrock-colored eyes, and whatever remained of Campren's heart was crushed to dust.
"I held on to my Dad's jacket after he died," he confessed, fighting to keep his voice even. "When I became homeless, I never stopped wearing it, not even in the heat of the summer. So I know how you feel."
A flash of hope appeared in her expression. "Then you'll help me?"
"I . . ."
Outside the window, the hart stirred in its sleep, sending a flurry of clicks and mechanical grunts into the night air before quickly settling itself back into a robotic slumber.
Swallowing hard, Campren spoke softly, barely opening his lips.
Clarissa didn't look surprised, only disappointed. She turned and slowly made her way to the window.
"It's risky, I know," she said sullenly. She layed a small hand on the windowsill gazed out at the moon-drenched world outside. "But we're both Fayes. We've both known the same heartaches and pains. People like us should look out for one another."
"Listen, Clarissa, I'm sor--"
"I thought you were different from the rest of them, Campren." And here she looked up at him. Her eyes sparkled in the moonlight, but they weren't wide with innocence or entreatment. They were the thin slits of a cynic. And, oddly enough, she looked more beautiful than she had before. Perhaps her face was more accustomed to this expression.
Campren fought for words, but none came, other than the weak reiteration, "I'm so sorry."
"I'm not going to ask you to change your mind. But if you do, come to the Chinese pagoda tomorrow at noon. I'll be waiting."
With a graceful leap from the window, she silently disappeared into the night.
"I'll think about it," Campren said aloud, though there was no longer anyone to hear him.
He crawled into the bed and pulled the covers up over his entire being, allowing himself to be swallowed in the cushy embrace that he knew he didn't deserve.