I licked my dry lips; they tasted like ash. “And?”
“Beginning to end,” Paul said.
I stared at him. I had to force my words to sound even. “But there’s nothing.”
Paul looked at his feet. “He told me to dig.”
Dee said, “I’ll help.”
I hadn’t even realized she’d been standing there behind Paul. I looked at her eyes and nodded, because I couldn’t say anything.
We started to dig. We scraped away the topmost layer of white ash, which was dry and cold and dead, and burned our fingers on the still-hot coals buried deeper. We dug until Dee gave up because of the heat. And then we dug until Paul gave up too. And I kept digging into the still-hot core of the bonfire beneath all the ashes. My skin stung and blistered as I moved crumbling, smoking pieces of ash and wood aside.
I felt fingertips. And fingers, long and graceful, and then her hand was gripping my hand. Paul grabbed my arm, pulling me, and Dee pulled him, and together, we pulled her up.
And it was Nuala.
“Holy crap,” said Paul, and then turned around, because she was smeared with ash and naked.
She just looked at me. I didn’t want to say “Nuala,” because if she didn’t respond, then I’d know for sure she’d forgotten me. It was better to hang in this moment of not-knowing than to know for sure.
I tugged my sweatshirt over my head and offered it to her. “It’s cold,” I said.
“How heroic of you,” said Nuala, sarcastically. But she took it and pulled it on. On her, it came down to the middle of her thighs. I saw goose bumps on the rest of her legs.
I realized she was looking at Dee, who stood beside Paul, watching us. When Dee saw me look at her, she turned around and put her back to us like Paul had, as if for privacy.
Nuala whispered, “I thought you’d left me behind.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said. I rubbed my eye to fight the sudden urge to cry and felt stupid for it. I muttered, “I’ve got some damn ash in my eye.”
“Me too,” said Nuala, and we wrapped our arms around each other.
Behind us, I heard Dee’s voice—and then I heard Paul, hesitant, reply, “It’s a long road, but it’s the only one we’ve got, right?”
He was right.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Ian Everett Johan Campbell, the third and the last. I hope I can hold your attention. I must tell you that what you see tonight is completely real. It might not be amazing, it might not be shocking, it might not be scandalizing, but I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt: it is real. For that—I am deeply sorry.
Brigid Hall was full. It was more than full. Each chair had a butt in it. Some laps had people sitting on them. There was a row of people by the back door, standing. The red door was open so that a few people could lean in and watch. It wasn’t too long to lean—it was only a half-hour play.
And this time, it felt more real than usual, because clouds had made the night come early. So the audience sat in pitch blackness. The stage was the only solid ground in the world, and we were the only people in it. Life out there was the metaphor, and we were the real ones.
I stood before the audience on the stage, Ian Everett Johan Campbell, and I made Eric/Francis vanish. The audience gasped. It was only a trick of the stage lights, but it was still amazing. After all, it was real. They all knew magic was real.
Paul played Nuala’s theme on the oboe as Wesley/Blakeley called me out.
“You have sold your soul,” Wesley said.
I smiled at him. “You’re guessing.”
“You’re the devil.”
“You flatter me,” I said.
“What man can do what you do? What man with his soul?” Wesley asked. “Make men disappear? Make flowers spring from a rock? Tears fall from a painting?”
I paced around Wesley. Sullivan had told me to do that, back when we had rehearsed with him as Blakeley—told me it made me look arrogant and restless, which Campbell was. Paul’s oboe paced and twisted as well, winding up toward the cue that invariably he always missed, the one Nuala had said was so important.
“You know the answer. You don’t want to say it,” I sneered. “It is too frightening. No one wants to know. It’s right in front of you all.”
Dee sat in her usual seat by the wall. I’d convinced her not to go back home—to give Thornking-Ash a real chance. She still had so far to go, but Paul and I were doing what we could for her. And how could I let her go home by herself, when I knew the faeries were still watching her?
“You mock me,” Wesley said. His eyes slid away from me, toward the audience, for just a moment. He wasn’t supposed to do that; he flicked them back to me. “What is it that can perform these deeds? What is it that is so obvious that it is in front of me? Who—”
Nuala signaled wildly for Paul to stop. Paul stopped on his cue so perfectly that I almost missed mine.
“Everyone,” I said, a little hurried.
Wesley made an irritated gesture with his hand. “And I thought you’d tell the truth. As if you have been burdened with the truth a single day of your life.”
“It is the truth, Blakeley! The most magical, sinister, deadly, fabulous creature alive is a—” I stopped. A movement at the edge of door in the very back of the hall had caught my eye. Just another person leaning in, trying to catch the play.
Only this person had massive black wings behind him, disappearing on either side of the door. And nobody else seemed to notice him, which was good, because he was mouthing my line at me—“a human”—and giving me a look like you’re making an idiot of yourself.
The audience was watching and waiting, and I was just standing there, staring at Sullivan with a half-smile on my face.
My arms were covered with goose bumps.
“I’ll see you again,” Sullivan said, and no one else seemed to hear. “I’m sorry for that. Be ready.”
Wesley prompted me. “ … is a what ?”
“A human,” I said. “The most dangerous and wonderful creature alive is a human.”