The Bell Tower, Chapter Two: Down
*Author's Note: This is the sequel to a book I wrote last year entitled "The Whispering Gallery." If anyone is desperate enough to read the first book, email me at thetravelingmagpie @ gmail. com and I'll send you a PDF copy of The Whispering Gallery, with the stipulation that you have to give me a bit of a critique. :D Enjoy, and as always, any questions, suggestions, or comments are welcome!*
Matty hadn’t been Down in nearly four months. Not since she had emerged, bruised and dirty with tear-tracks staining her grubby face. She was fine, physically, but her heart hurt like a toe does after you stub it hard. Tender to the touch – or in this case, tender to the thought.
Henry was gone. Henry, the not-really-a-ghost-boy Matty had discovered in the ancient whispering gallery hidden under the City, had died saving her life and the entire City. He’d done something Matty didn’t even pretend to understand, somehow melding himself with the Machine that controlled him and destroying it.
Matty refused to think about it. She held the thought away from herself and pushed it into the dark corners of her mind when it tried to remind her. She had cried enough, she told herself one night, as she lay in her bed and watched the shadows on her ceiling through tear-blurred eyes.
And she took the memories – the Mayor, the Machine and especially Henry – and she locked them in a tiny blue box in her mind. And that was that.
Except it wasn’t.
Now, once more dressed in an old dress and solid boots, she was sneaking through the seldom-used passages of her house – through rooms that had been locked for years and furniture that had been covered in dusty sheets until a few weeks ago. And that tiny blue box was rattling in the corner of her brain.
Matty’s boots, practical for Down with their heavy soles and sturdy laces, were difficult to walk quietly in. She held them in one hand and hurried, in her sock feet, down the long flight of stairs leading to a basement parlor. There, a bookshelf to the right of the fireplace (long cold) led to a spiral staircase that threaded between forgotten walls and drilled into the depths of the Under-City. She pulled on her boots, tied the laces tightly, and ventured down the dark stairwell. Here, she had no need of a light – she knew these steps like she knew the cracks in the ceiling over her bed. But at the bottom, a secret stash of lanterns and matches waited.
Matty’s foot found the last step and scritched against bare earth. She reached for the lantern she had left hanging on a hook in the wall, and was relieved to find it still there. Good thing Butler didn’t find these, she thought. Though, knowing Butler – the family’s only employee other than Cook, who was only an automaton and didn’t really count as an employee – he had found the stash just fine, but had quietly left them there for Matty. That was just Butler’s way.
She struck a match from a box sitting on a small shelf below the lantern’s hook and lit the oil-soaked wick, turning it up to light the narrow tunnel. Tucking an extra pack of matches into her pocket (a habit that had proved handy more than once), Matty ventured into the musky dimness.
The corridor eventually became a hallway, which was lined with branching halls and doors. Matty thought this between-the-worlds sort of place had probably once been a kind of servants’ secret highway, threading between houses and rooms and giving access to any door one had a key to. Ignoring the first dozen or so doors, she came to one that stood open – a relic of her last time here, when she had fled blindly through the streets of the Under-City until her father and Butler had found her and carried her home.
Matty pushed that thought from her mind and entered the hallway, making her way over the old and somewhat soggy carpet toward the end of the hall where an ancient front door led out onto the remains of a cobblestone street.
A rat waited at the bottom of the front steps, its bright eyes reflecting the yellow of Matty’s lantern in friendly, winking way.
“Lord Fauntleroy,” Matty said in surprise, recognizing the rat’s torn left ear. “Good to see you again.”
The rat chirruped and twitched his whiskers, and Matty smiled. No need for a ruffled petticoat to impress Lord Fauntleroy – just a bit of the cracker she found in her pocket. “Here you are, my lord,” she said with a mock curtsey, dropping the cracker to the pavement.
Lord Fauntleroy picked it up delicately and nibbled, watching her expectantly.
Before, when she had ventured into the gloom, Matty had imagined herself the queen of her underground realm, ruling the rats and mice and grey-bodied spiders with a benevolent (and often crumb-dispensing) hand.
She missed that version of herself. Four months felt like a lifetime – she was nearly fifteen, and fourteen-year-old-Matty already felt like a child. That Matty was a bumbling, naive thing who thought she could save the world without anyone getting hurt in the process.
The echo of a scream whispered along the clammy stones, and Matty shivered.
“Enough of that,” she said aloud to Lord Fauntleroy, breaking the thick silence. “I’m back.”
She set off with firm steps and Lord Fauntleroy scampering behind, no real destination in mind other than the goal of forgetting every frilly, harpsichord-filled afternoon of the last few months. Down here, she could re-become the real Matty – the Matty who befriended ghost boys and read adventure novels and danced waltzes in dust-choked ballrooms to the tinkling-clanking sound of a rusted music box. The Matty who was bumbling and naive, sure, but who was much more comfortable than the dressy, silly girl Mrs. Lee was trying to turn her into.
Though the City above was in a state of upheaval – what with the Mayor’s Machine destroyed and his Fog dissipated – the world of Down never changed, except perhaps to dilapidate another step toward oblivion. But the darkness and the stillness held the Under-City in a sort of paused state, with only the slow growth of mold and moss and the successive generations of rodents to mark the passing of time. Somehow, though, Matty had expected it to have changed.
Her skin drank in the cool dampness of the air, and she could hear little more than the placking of her booted feet on the worn cobblestones and her own heartbeat in her ears. It was comforting, in a way – and yet, in another, it felt wrong. As if something tangible should have been different in some way. At the very least, it shouldn’t have been so peaceful and still, not when her last memories of the place were of noise and of stones falling and Henry’s dying scream ringing in her ears.
“No,” she said, again using her voice like a shield to fend off the unwanted memories. Somewhere, rain was dripping through some hidden place and dropping into a puddle with a sound like falling pebbles. The noise soothed her.
Matty passed old landmarks with a feeling of comforting nostalgia – like the shop window full of forlorn mannequins abandoned for new and better models when the shop moved upward. Their blank faces were resigned and somewhat cynical in the dirt-patched light that filtered through their window from Matty’s lantern. They reminded Matty of the women who stood on the outskirts of the dance floor at the ball she and her mother had gone to last week – middle-aged debauntées resigned to criticizing the rise of the next generation.
A few blocks later, Matty came to the small city square she had dubbed Lion Park after the half-crumbled statue of a lion who stood, silently yawning, on a pedestal in the center of the square. Once, the area had been grassy and sported a perimeter of small trees – long since cut down – which raised their branches to a sky that was now dark with mold-creeped brick.
Matty was never sure what caused people to take some things and leave others when a layer of the city was built over. Some houses were completely empty – even their walls stripped of paper for reuse elsewhere. Stairs and floors were even sometimes ripped out to be installed in some new, upper level.
On the other hand, there were stores with wares still sitting, unbought, on dusty shelves. And in one house in a deep, deep level where even the rats seldom ventured, someone’s dinner lay abandoned in the dining room. Matty had shivered when she saw the dust-mounded plates, and there wasn’t much in the Under-City that frightened her. She never returned to that level.
As she walked now, Matty felt weeks of tension and parental expectations melt from her shoulders. It was odd – in a city newly returned to the sunlight after years of the Mayor’s Fog, Matty found herself craving the safety of the shadows. They wrapped around her like a soft blanket, soothing away the stress of being everything her socialite parents needed her to be.
Suddenly – so suddenly that she nearly stepped on Lord Fauntleroy – Matty stopped.
A pile of rubble blocked her way where she didn’t remember there being a pile of rubble before. There was a back-of-your-nose-and-down-your-throat kind of smell in the air, a smell like dust and dry and ruin that cut through the softer smell of mold and damp and made Matty sneeze. Lord Fauntleroy squeaked, as though to say ‘gesundheit.’
“Thank you,” Matty said. She picked her way around the pile, and found another, taller one beyond that.
She knew what this was. She knew her world in the Under-City better than most people knew their own neighborhoods. But she didn’t want to admit to herself what she knew to be true.
Maybe I’ve actually gotten lost, she thought. I should turn around. But one foot crept ahead, deeper into the maze of rubble, and the other foot followed.
Maybe it was a cave in. She refused to hold her lamp high enough to see the roof, knowing perfectly well that it was entirely intact.
Then she came out from behind a fallen pillar and her light fell on the pocked staircase leading up to what had once been the Old, Old Courthouse.
“Hello,” she whispered – and as soon as the word left her lips she winced at the way it plunked into the silence like a rock in a mud puddle.
And of course there was no answer.
Matty took a deep breath and looked down at Lord Fauntleroy, who was staring at her inquisitively.
“I want to go in,” she told him. “I don’t know why but… I do.”
Lord Fauntleroy flicked his tail as if to say, ‘well, then?’ and bounded a few steps forward.
With a sigh, Matty followed.
The place was almost completely destroyed. What had once been a grand foyer was now an Arient-inspired rock garden of large boulders and a dust so thick that her boots left tracks as if through snow. The large marble staircase that had led up into the whispering gallery was entirely gone. But the grand doors leading into the courtroom, where the City Council had once presided, were now blown open – one leaning crazily off its hinges. Always before, they had been locked and shut tight.
Matty squeezed through the gap between the doors and held up her light.
This was the epicenter of the destruction. Blast marks, black against the white marble floor, radiated outward from a twisted wreck in the middle of the room.
The platform that had been able to raise the mechanical monstrosity into the air and to the round gallery above was shattered like a broken plate beneath the mangled heap of metal. Matty heard a squeak behind her and glanced back to see Lord Fauntleroy perched on a boulder outside the door, refusing to come in.
“Smart rat,” she muttered. Uneasy herself, as if the machine might suddenly come to life like the trollish monster it looked to be, she inched across the room toward it.
Actually, up close, it didn’t look nearly as intimidating as she remembered. As her light fell across the melted, shattered surface, Matty relaxed. The Machine couldn’t hurt her – or anyone – anymore. Henry had seen to that.
Henry, stepping through – no, into – the Machine, melting into the brass and copper as if he were liquid metal. The Mayor, scrambling to his feet, trying to throw a switch on the console, and the explosion of sparks that threw him back.
Run, Matty heard Henry’s voice in her mind say. I’m going to do something stupid.
And then light and noise like the center of a thunderstorm and a scream that went on and on and on…
“Stop it!” Matty threw her hands over her ears, dropping the lantern on the floor. It sputtered and went out. “Stop it, stop it – just stop!”
Silence and darkness.
Matty felt wetness on her cheeks and dashed it away with an angry hand. She was finished crying.
She stooped, feeling for the lantern. “Stupid, stupid, stupid…” she muttered, hoping it hadn’t broken.
A flicker of light caught her eye.
Matty froze. There – so dim that she couldn’t see it if she looked directly at the place, there was a gleam of golden light.
Abandoning the lantern for the moment, Matty moved toward the glow. She tested each step for rubble, and as her eyes adjusted to the darkness the glow seemed brighter. It was buried in the depths of the Machine – but she couldn’t quite see what it was.
Matty held her breath and reached into the mangled body of the Machine, half expecting it to snap shut on her arm like the jaw of an injured beast. Her fingers closed around something smooth and round, and she carefully drew it back out again.
It was a small glass vial, and it glowed with Henry’s golden light.