The Scheme of Worlds by Nicole Dragonbeck

For Sasha Player

If you are reading this, I am sorry to say that I am not around anymore.

Lucy Westborn looked at the first line of the note, scrawled in a child’s hand, her mind failing to comprehend what this meant. Just a moment ago, she had walked through the row of adjoining bedrooms on the third floor of the Bradley Manor to look in on the Lord’s six sons one last time before she retired herself.

Henry, John, and Samuel were already asleep. Thomas stirred slightly, rolled over, and nestled back into the covers. William was sitting up, waiting to be tucked in.

“I heard a strange noise the other night,” he said. “Brandon said there was a ghost.”

“There are no ghosts in the house,” Lucy assured him. “The old wards set by your ancestors, the very first Bradleys, are still in place, carved into stone pillars at the corners of the estate. Nothing supernatural or evil can pass through or harm you.”

William pulled the blanket up to  his nose and peered at her with solemn eyes. “Even down in the dungeons?”

Lucy paused. “Why would there be ghosts in the dungeons?”

“Because people died down there,” William said in a reproving tone. “Brandon says that means there have to be ghosts.”

“Perhaps there were ghosts,” Lucy replied, and then bent over to blow out the lantern beside his bed. “But I’m sure the wards would send them away in short order. Good night, Lordling. Dream well.”

“’Night, Lucy,” William mumbled.

And then Lucy went into the final suite, to tuck in Brandon, the youngest son of Lord Bradley. Brandon’s bed had been empty. He hadn’t even thought to put a roll of blankets to make it look like someone was sleeping. A piece of paper lay folded on the pillow.

If you are reading this, I am sorry to say that I am not around anymore. The first line taunted Lucy with sinister implications, her imagination feeding her worse and worse fates. She read on, her hand trembling, her breath caught in her throat.

There’s something here, and I tried to tell them, but they wouldn’t listen, so I’ve gone to find it myself, and they’ll see I’m right, even if I’m dead.

Lucy swallowed. Brandon had always had a flair for dramatics. But if he thought he might die going to wherever he thought he was going…Lucy looked down, but that was all the note held. It just stopped. He hadn’t even signed the note. She wondered if perhaps he was somewhere in the castle sulking. That would be more like him than to disappear like this. She sighed. She was going to have to search for him. Bradley Manor was not small, and she was tired.

William said Brandon said something about the dungeons, Lucy recalled. Perhaps he’s gone down there.

The young woman shuddered. The dungeons were below the Manor, the main house built over it. They had been abandoned and boarded up a hundred years ago when a more civilized age had been ushered in. It would be dark, cold, and most likely full of rats and spiders the size of dinner plates. But Lucy had no choice. She could not leave a son of Lord Bradley down there for the night, no matter how much she wished to fall into her own bed.

Lucy saw the lantern was already gone from Brandon’s beside table. She went to the closet and retrieved another. She stalled for time in lighting it. When the flame lit and golden light threw flickering shadows about her, she felt a little braver.

Making her way through the dark corridors of the Manor, she tried to stifle her over-active imagination. Ghosts couldn’t hurt the living, she told herself. Lord Bradley’s books say so. It’s a person’s fear that undoes them, not actually anything the ghost does.

She tried to hang onto that as she descended the stairs, down, down, down, down, into the underbelly of the Manor. She stopped on the final landing before she went into the dungeon proper. The big wooden door stood ajar, an ornate key head in the lock. Lucy pulled it farther open and peered into the darkness. Smells assaulted her, but nothing so foul as rotting human flesh. It was just old and musty, with the cold damp smell of water seeping through stone walls.

Lucy glanced longingly up the stairs. A prickling at the back of her neck made her glance over her shoulder. A shadowy figure watched her from just inside the door. When her gaze fell on it, it fled, speeding into the blackness like a breath of wind. She stood for a moment, holding out the lantern.

Thoughts sped through her head. It was a fake. This was no ghost. This was an intruder of flesh and blood. She should alert the Lord, who would alert the proper authorities.

The Shadow was getting away.

At once Lucy took off, chasing down stairs and narrow halls between stone cells and torture chambers. The figure flitted always just out of sight, taking her down, through the dungeons, and even deeper into the bowels of the castle, places where no one had set foot for a hundred years.

Finally, she couldn’t run anymore. She stopped, leaning against the cold stone wall, panting to catch her breath and massaging a stitch in her side.

“Psst!” She started, leaping back, brandishing the lantern like a weapon. Two shining eyes blinked at her from a hidden alcove, then moved towards her. A small body followed. It was Brandon.

“What are you doing down here?” she chided, rushing forward and clutching the child in a relieved hug, her heart thudding in her chest. “You know you’re not allowed to wander around the castle, especially not down here.”

“I know,” Brandon said with a stubborn pout. “But none of my brothers would believe me when I told them there was a ghost, so I went to find it.”

“Why on earth would you do that?” Lucy asked, her voice faint.

“Because they wouldn’t believe me,” he replied with perfect little boy logic. “I brought him cookies, and he liked those.”

“You did what?” She couldn’t keep up with the twists and turns of this tale.

“I stole some cookies from the kitchen and gave it to the shadow. I thought he might be hungry,” he told her in a small voice, looking up at her from under his lashes, eyes begging her not to be mad, as if this was the worst of the things he had done.

“Ghosts don’t eat cookies,” she said firmly.

“This one does,” he countered. “But I don’t have any more.”

“Come.” She took his hand. “Let’s go back up where it’s light and fresh, and get some more cookies, and leave this nonsense behind us.”

“No.” He pulled away. “I have to prove there is a ghost.”

She sighed. “Even if there is a ghost, he won’t come out and introduce himself just like that….”

“Excuse me,” a voice interrupted. “I couldn’t help but overhear you talking about me.”

Lucy shrieked. Her head went light and she was falling towards the floor, but she sank into a black cushion of oblivion before the stone caught her. She opened her eyes to see two faces staring at her. One was Brandon’s. The other was older, blurry around the edges and more transparent.

“Is she going to be okay?” the new face asked.

“I think so,” Brandon answered. “Miss Lucy? Miss Lucy, are you okay?”

Lucy struggled to sit up. “What happened?”

“I’m afraid I startled you,” the blurry face said. “I’m terribly sorry.”

“See?” Brandon stated proudly. “I told you there was a ghost. This is my friend Hemsworth.”

Lucy was frowning at the ghost, and her frown deepened the longer she examined him. He wore odd clothes. Lucy was no history expert, but she was fairly certain that had never been a fashion in any part of the realm. His features were odd too, too broad, too coarse, even for the Nethernorthmen.

“He’s not a ghost,” she said. Brandon looked all ready to argue, but she held up her hand. “Ghosts don’t eat cookies,” she continued. “Your friend is is a Shadow.”

Hemsworth smiled. “You’ve studied interdimensional particle physics then?”

“I’m not sure what that is, but I have studied the Scheme of Worlds from books in Lord Bradley’s library, and I know that some people can pass through the fabric of the walls of one world into another entirely separate world.”

“Well, not entirely separate…” Hemsworth’s eyes lit up. “You see…”

He began to ramble at some length about quantum mechanics, quarks, leptons, and something called a Higgs field. Lucy’s eyes began to wander, and her chin to droop. Brandon, however, remained enraptured.

“And so you see, that is how I came to exist here, in a fashion,” Hemsworth exclaimed, looking at her expectantly.

“That’s fascinating,” Lucy lied. “But…” she looked around. “You can’t be here. They’ll have you exorcised.”

Despite the fact that he did not know her world as she did not know his, the concept was clear. But instead of looking frightened, his eyes lit up once more. “Perfect!”

“What?” Lucy almost shouted. “You can’t be serious. No one knows what happens to ghosts and Shadows that get banished. No one knows where they go.”

This gave Hemsworth pause. “Well, I’ll just have to take that chance,” he said at last. “I’ve been stuck here for too long.”

Lucy was still doubtful. Brandon was the one who settled the matter.

“You said yourself he couldn’t be here. And if we have someone banish him, then I can prove there was a ghost!”

“Besides,” Hemsworth added. “The choice is not yours to make.”

“Very well,” Lucy said, though she did not think it was very well at all. “What is your plan?”

Brandon and Hemsworth looked at each other. They told her what to do. Lucy nodded, and hurried out of the dungeon. She took the note to the Lord of the House and showed it to him.

“He went down to the lower levels and the dungeons, I’m sure of it,” she told Lord Bradley. She refrained from pointing out he was a stubborn and proud boy like his father and would not be deterred or shamed.

“There are no ghosts in Bradley Manor,” Lord Bradley declared.

“No,” Lucy agreed. “But he may be a Shadow, wayward from another world.” Lord Bradley would not hold with ghosts, but the Scheme of Worlds, that could not be disputed.

“I suppose something like that could have happened,” he allowed, and a gleam of excitement lit up his eyes, eyes his youngest son had inherited. “I shall call the scholars and have them perform an exorcism.”

“And what of your son?” Lucy reminded him.

“After we find Brandon, of course.” Lord Bradley gestured to the Chief of House. The man nodded and disappeared. After a few moments, the house turned into an ant hill that has had a stick thrust into it. Lights came on, people were running about. A Scholar was procured from the town, rushed in on the carriage. He was not happy to be woken at this hour, but when he saw the bag of coin from Lord Bradley, he became most eager to help.

A train of people followed the Scholar down, but they would not go through the old door. Only Lucy and Lord Bradley accompanied the Scholar.

“There,” Lord Bradley pointed.

The dirt was scuffed. Two sizes of footprints were there: a boy-sized shoe, and a much larger boot. The Scholar set up his exorcism, drawing the lines in red and white chalk, and arranged the tallow candles at the appropriate points. He lit them with his consecrated matches. The air grew hazy, and a wind began to stir in a lazy circle.

“Brandon won’t be harmed by this?” Lucy asked anxiously.

The Scholar shook his head. “Only preternatural creatures, and they will not be harmed as such, only banished to…well, wherever they go.”

Lucy didn’t think it wise to point out this could constitute harm, so she kept her mouth shut. She stood by as the Scholar put the lodestones at the cardinal points of the compass. The wind got stronger. Lucy felt herself being tugged into the center of the whirlpool. Lord Bradley put his arms around her, strong like an oak.

“There,” Lucy whispered.

The vague form of Hemsworth drifted in the wind, going around and around, faster and faster until he was just a blur. He raised a hand in salute and was sucked into somewhere. Lucy sent a prayer for his well being after him, hoping the vortex would take it to him. After Hemsworth disappeared, the wind stopped suddenly, as though it sensed its mission accomplished.

“Father?” a small voice piped up.

Brandon Bradley followed his voice out of the shadows. He looked like a small boy in a blue dressing robe, hair tousled. “Father, you’ll tell them I was right, so they’ll believe me?”

Lord Bradley knelt down so he was eye to eye with his son. “My boy, I want you learn this lesson. Sometimes, in this life, you will be right, and others will not see it. Now, the right thing to do is not always to go off chasing proof that you were right. Sometimes you just have to know that you’re right, and leave it at that. Other men’s belief is not worth that much.”

“Yes, sir,” Brandon said, looking at his feet.

“Now, how about we lay this to rest, and go to bed?”

Brandon nodded. Lord Bradley smiled, stood, and led the party out of the dungeons.

 

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