The Teatro del Maggio echoed with screams and discordant notes that could no longer be called music. Clay couldn't worry about Graves. He was a ghost. The people who were still breathing had to be his main concern.
Crowds rushed the exits, shoving and jostling and cursing each other. But some of the members of the audience had decided to intervene. Either they had not seen the bloodshed that had already taken place - the violinist murdering two people in the front row - or they thought themselves heroes. The last thing Clay needed right now was anyone playing hero while he was trying to keep anyone else from dying.
The musicians had slowed down a little, and that was helpful, but even if Graves was distracting the conductor, they were still following whatever commands he'd already given them, and they were still influenced by the soul tethers that linked them to him. There were dozens of them and only one of Clay. A tuba player and a fat man with a French horn kept playing, as did the cellist who went through the motions without a bow to draw music from the instrument. The others carried their instruments off the stage with dull, lifeless eyes and a homicidal urge.
"Back off!" Clay barked as the violinist grappled with him again. He backhanded her so hard she flew out of her shoes and hit the floor, rolling into the first row of seats. She lay unconscious, and he hoped she would wake up eventually.
Each of the members of the symphony was linked to the conductor with a soul tether. Somehow he - or whatever was inside of him - was controlling them all. Things would have been much easier if they were just mindless zombies. But the musicians were alive, and he wanted to try to keep them that way; not an easy task, given that they were trying to kill him and anyone else within reach.
A quartet of angry looking men ran out from back stage. One might have been some kind of manager, because he started shouting in Italian, directing the others. They ran at the musicians who were piling down off of the stage. A flutist grabbed a fistful of hair and dragged one of the men over the edge, then leaped on him as he struck the ground. The flute rose and fell, and blood spattered with each blow.
"Damn it!" Clay shouted.
He tried to push past the musicians around him, but there were just too many of them now.
The trumpet player swung his horn again. Clay snatched it out of his hand and flung it into the balcony. The trumpeter and a tall, wiry, white-haired woman grabbed his arms. Thick hands reached up from behind him and grabbed his head, clawing for his eyes. One finger found his right eye socket and plunged in.
Clay roared in pain as his eye popped, spouting blood and vitreous fluid that dripped down his face.
With his single intact eye he saw a fourth musician coming at him. The man held a golden cymbal in both hands, and as the others held Clay steady, he swung it toward his neck like a guillotine blade.
Clay had held off this long because there were so many civilians still in the theater. It didn't matter anymore. With a single thought, he willed his body to change. His flesh flowed, and bone grew, a new eye replaced the ruined one. In a heartbeat he had shed his human guise and taken on his true form, the massive creature of hardened clay. The cymbal struck his chest with a hollow clang, gouging the earthen substance of his body.
With a shrug, he knocked away the trumpeter and the white-haired woman. He grabbed hold of the thick wrist of the large musician behind him, even as the man tried to hang on to his towering, monstrous form, fingers digging into hard clay.
In the thrall of the conductor, the man did not even cry out as Clay snapped his wrist. Other musicians started toward him. He slammed his fist into the trumpeter's face, shattering his nose, causing a spray of bright red blood. The man's eyes cleared, and even as Clay watched, the soul tether connecting him to the conductor dissipated.
The man began to scream in pain.
Finally, Clay thought. The conductor's control was weakening. Whatever Graves was doing inside of the man must have been having an effect. The musicians were becoming more sluggish, their eyes duller than before. The conductor slumped across his podium, baton still lazily bobbing in his hand, head lolled onto his chest.
Several musicians started up the center aisle in pursuit of audience members who had not yet escaped. No one was still trying to interfere. Once they had seen Clay in his true, golem-like form, even the bravest among them had decided to quit the place. But even as he glanced toward the crowd pushing and trying not to be last out the door, a tuxedoed musician staggered after them, swinging a trombone like it was a club.
Clay plowed through a pair of musicians as if they were children and leaped a row of seats to get to the aisle. The trombone player had begun to beat at the departing crowd. He struck a young dark-haired woman in the temple, and she crashed to the ground. The horn swung again and a well-groomed, handsome man put up his arm to block it. The impact broke bone, and he clutched his arm, screamed, and staggered backward.
The trombone player swung again, but by then Clay had arrived. His patience had run out. He gripped the man by the head and hurled him back down the aisle. The audience members still inside the theater screamed louder than ever, more terrified of him than of the murderous musicians.
The orchestra stalked through the theater, soul tethers still linking them to the conductor. They prowled along the seats, streaming toward the central aisle, moving toward Clay. The dark-haired woman lay unconscious at his feet, and no one was stopping to worry about whether she would reach safety. He wasn't going to wait here for her to be killed.
Cracked, dry clay flesh shifted again. Black fur sprouted, and he hunched over, massive fists pounding the carpet. A mountain gorilla, he charged down the aisle at the musicians. As a wave they lunged at him. Instruments swung and stabbed at him. The gorilla batted a viola and a saxophone away. Hands twisted in his fur.
Clay backhanded one man. His foot shot out, and he kicked another in the chest hard enough to send him tumbling back down the aisle to collide with the stage. Then he was just fighting on instinct. Bones broke and blood spurted, but he did his best to make sure the injuries were not fatal.
There were too many of them.
Soon, he would kill someone, and he could not allow that to happen. As they piled on top of him, he shifted again, from gorilla to python. The huge snake coiled around three musicians in seconds, crushing them, cutting off their oxygen. With his serpent's eyes, he saw all three of their soul tethers dissipate.
It would help, but not enough. If he couldn't free them all, and soon, he would end up killing them.
The Whisper fires, phantom bullets punching through the swirling wisps and ghosts all around them. Souls cry out in pain they never imagined feeling again. One of the bullets strikes Graves in the left shoulder, and his roar of anguish turns into a snarl of pain as it tears away a piece of his soul, a bit of his spirit that is destroyed forever.
Then he is in the soulstream and the current takes him, sweeping him toward the Whisper. Graves thrusts his arms up out of the churning ectoplasm and fires both guns, pulling the triggers again and again.
Broderick fires one last time before the first phantom bullet strikes his chest. A second and third hit his torso. One creases his temple. A fifth hits his right shoulder, and he drops his pistol. It lands in the soulstream and is swept away, another piece of his soul gone for eternity.
He splashes into the soulstream, arms and legs moving, struggling to force himself to stand against the current. His hat is swept off and sails away toward the Ivory Gate. Graves does not turn but knows that those twin spires must be visible in the distance by now.
The ghosts all around them begin to whisper, a hiss of white noise like a rainstorm on a tin roof.
But the Whisper is the most focused spirit Graves has ever seen. Even with bits of his soul torn away, he thrusts himself out of the stream as Graves rushes by, carried on the current. He could manifest another gun, but that would take moments he does not have.
Broderick lunges. Graves pulls both triggers again. One phantom bullet strikes the Whisper in the throat but the other goes wide. And then the ghost is upon him, and Graves feels his true strength at last. The Whisper clutches him around the throat with one hand, and with the other grabs his right wrist. Graves drops one of his guns.
He raises the other, but the Whisper drives him down, submerging him completely in the soulstream . . .
A strange calm envelops him. This is how it was always supposed to be. Why has he fought so long to avoid this peace, this cradle of comfort and tranquility? This rest.
His hands open, and the other gun falls from his grasp, bits of his soul sucked away by the current. He could manifest the guns again, but for what purpose? He is traveling at last to the gate and beyond, to whatever awaits there. A smile touches his lips. Gabriella waits.
He hears the music again, the ghost sonata.
His eyes open, and Graves looks up through the surface of the ectoplasmic river flowing around him and over him and he sees the face of the Whisper staring down at him with those laughing, glittering eyes.
He thrusts his free hand up and clutches Broderick's throat. His legs drive downward, find solid footing, and even as he fights the current he pistons himself up out of the soulstream.
"That's right!" Broderick sneers. "Fight it, Doctor. I want to carve your soul to shreds so that you're nothing but a wisp when you finally pass through the gate."
Thrashing against one another, they stumble together, slipping deeper and deeper into the spirit world. Graves hammers the Whisper with his fist, over and over. Broderick clutches his throat, hate burning in his eyes. Any trace of sanity has departed and now he is only the lunatic Graves watched leap to his death from the roof of St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Wisps and ghosts swirl above them, the gray storm clouds of the spirit realm attracted to the furious emotion roiling between them. The soulstream rushes around them and their brawl twists them off balance. Together, they splash into the soulstream once more, and now the current has them.
Faces gaze down. As the Whisper strangles him, the ghost of Dr. Graves stares up at the specters hovering above them. He catches sight of the twin spires of the Ivory Gate, looming larger than he has ever seen them before. The sight fills him with longing, and now the soulstream tugs at his heart as much as it does the ethereal substance of his spirit. Peace awaits.
His final reward.
But the Whisper does not deserve to pass through those gates.
With his forearm, he forces Broderick back and twists around. His upper body is above the rushing stream of souls now, and he gazes at the Ivory Gate ahead and the current churning between the spires. Ghosts mass on either side of the soulstream, lingering on this side of the gate, gray mist figures, some only wisps, but some so distinct they look almost solid.
Some of them look familiar.
They are nearly at the Ivory Gate when Graves sees Hank Reinhardt's ghost standing beside the soulstream. The substance of his spirit streaks and runs in the air from the pull of the gate, but the hulking killer does not move.
"Mister Whisper!" Reinhardt shouts, pointing.
And he understands. As powerful a specter as Broderick has been, he has avoided those phantoms that would have pursued him even into the afterlife. But they have waited for him, knowing that some day he will pass through the Ivory Gate. Perhaps they sensed his nearness or perhaps they've been waiting all along. What matters is that they're here.
"Yes!" Graves calls, tearing the Whisper's hands from this throat. He drives his feet down, dragging his enemy toward the edge of the stream, fighting the current. "Take him, Reinhardt!"
"Damn you, Graves!" Broderick snarls, trying to tear at the very substance of his soul.
"It's not me that damnation awaits," Graves replies . . . Graves whispers.
He summons up all of the strength of his soul, musters the courage and endurance of his heart, and he fights the current of the soulstream. The Whisper fights him, but Graves drives them both out of the deepest, most powerful current, off to one side of the gate.
Where Reinhardt is waiting.
And the killer isn't alone.
"Simon Broderick!" Graves shouts, striking the Whisper again and again. He holds him down, twisting his ethereal substance, and now the Whisper tries to escape. Broderick's spirit grows less substantial, attempts to slip into the soulstream, to ease himself from the grip of Dr. Graves.
"I think not, Whisper," Graves says darkly. "We're all ghosts here. You've nowhere to run."
They come for him then, dread specters darting through the mists, the lost souls of every one of the criminals whose brains the Whisper had mutilated and rewired, these men whom Simon Broderick had then murdered.
They fall upon him like ravenous animals.
The Whisper screams, and all Graves can do is step back and watch as they tear his soul to shreds. In tatters, his spirit cannot hold. If there is a final rest for Simon Broderick, it will be anything but peaceful.
One by one, the ghosts of those tainted men slip into the soulstream, their spirits blurring and stretching until they merge with the current and are carried through the Ivory Gate.
Reinhardt is the last to go. He nods, clutching the Whisper's scarf in his massive fist. Graves nods in return, and then Reinhardt gives his soul over to the pull of the gate. He is lost no more. His wandering spirit is at rest. If there is a hell awaiting him on the other side of the gate, he has surrendered his soul to fate, having lingered in the world between life and death long enough to take his own vengeance.
His specter elongates until he is only a wisp, and then he too is gone.
The ghost of Dr. Graves stands alone, and he gazes down at his hands and sees that he too has begun to blur. The soulstream has him in its grasp. Peace calls to him, and he yearns to surrender.
The mystery is solved. Whatever awaits - Heaven, Nirvana, or nothing at all - surely he has earned it.
He glances up at the Ivory Gate, and between those twin spires, he sees the silhouette of a familiar figure standing on the other side.
Clay could have transformed himself into a lion or tiger, into a bull or a stag, but in any of those forms merely fighting the possessed musicians would likely have ended up with some of them dead. His only choice was his true form, and he wore it now, the towering golem of cracked, dry clay. Musicians attacked him from all sides, now. Men in tuxedoes beat him with stools and instruments; women in elegant uniform clawed at him and stabbed him with whatever they could lay their hands on.
He shouted his frustration, and it echoed off of the perfect acoustics of the theater. He could leave. Just get the hell out of here and try to keep the musicians inside. But even as he considered this option he discarded it. Soon the police would arrive. They were probably already outside the building, trying to get through the panicked crowd. If Clay just left, the musicians would be free to go as well. They might continue their homicidal rampage outside, and surely that would end up with many of them being shot.
A tall, thin scarecrow of a man lifted the double bass above his head, face impassive, eyes dull, and prepared to bring it down on top of Clay's skull.
With a snarl, Clay reached out a massive, earthen hand and grabbed the huge instrument by the neck, snatching it away. He raised it, anger boiling over in him, and began to swing it at the man, thinking to knock him away, and broken bones be damned.
In the last instant before impact, he saw the man's eyes clear and widen with sudden awareness. The bassist saw him and screamed in terror, and then Clay hit him with the heavy double bass, unable to stop his swing. Something broke inside the man, and he was tossed into a row of seats where he struck painfully, tried to rise, and then slumped into unconsciousness.
"Shit," Clay whispered.
All of the musicians had stopped. Some of them staggered as if drunk, and others collapsed onto the ground. A woman shrieked, pointing at him and screaming in Italian. The soul tethers connecting them to the conductor evaporated, slipping away as if on an errant breeze and dissipating completely. Even the strange ghostly halo around the conductor was gone, and the man slipped from his podium and collapsed to the ground, moaning.
"Graves!" Clay called, and he started for the stage.
The musicians who were conscious and aware shouted and fled for the exits.
At any moment, others would regain consciousness even as the police arrived, and so he shifted his form again, his mercurial flesh altered in an instant, and the golem was gone. Only handsome, ordinary Joe Clay remained.
He leaped up onto the stage and ran to the conductor. The man's eyes were rolled back and the lids fluttered as he mumbled something.
"Doctor Graves," Clay said, lifting him up, talking to the conductor in a low voice. "Are you in there, Leonard? What the hell's going on?"
"I waited," Gabriella says.
Graves touches the Ivory Gate, bracing himself so that the soulstream - almost impossible to resist so close to the gate - will not drag him through. On the other side of the gate is an image of the only woman he had ever loved while he walked the Earth. She is barely a wisp, a specter haunting the afterlife, an apparition even to ghosts. But her eyes, that face . . . it can be no one else.
For the second time, he says her name.
The sorrow in her gaze tears at his heart, and she beckons to him. The soulstream does not seem to affect her, and perhaps it is because she has already passed through the gate.
"I waited here," she repeats. "At first I was so confused . . . nothing seemed real. But when I passed through the gate it was like waking up from a terrible dream, and I knew . . . I knew what I'd done. I held on. The music calls me, Leonard. My heart is torn. I should be at peace here, on this side . . . but I waited."
Graves cannot speak. How long has he waited for this moment? Eternity and more, or so it seems. His business in the world of flesh and blood is complete at last. He can rest. And here Gabriella is, awaiting him.
"You helped him. The Whisper."
Those lovely eyes are downcast. "You don't understand."
As if struck, Gabriella's ghost flinches, and she fades ever so slightly. She lifts her gaze.
"He was there, all the time. He was with me, saying the most frightening things. I felt him in my head, don't you see?" she pleads, and her voice is wracked with anguish. "I'm so sorry, darling. So very sorry."
Graves never imagined that a dead man could feel such heartbreak, never imagined that a ghost could be torn so completely apart. The Ivory Gate feels warm to his touch, and there is comfort there. He longs to pass through, where he will never feel such sadness again.
"But you knew, didn't you, Gabriella? It wasn't all the Whisper. How much did you fight him?"
She shakes her head, this insubstantial phantom of the woman he had once loved. "I only wanted you to love me, to marry me and be the husband you always promised that you would be."
The Whisper's bullet had torn pieces of his soul away forever, fragments of his spirit lost to the ether for all eternity. The loss of his guns had done the same. But still he had felt whole and strong, had felt that he would endure. This loss is far greater. Whatever piece of his soul is ripped from him now, Dr. Graves knows he will feel its absence for as long as his consciousness endures.
"Our time is here, don't you see?" Gabriella says. "Come to me, now, Leonard. Please, my love. Our time at last, to be together the way we always dreamed."
The longing in him almost destroys him. He wishes he could surrender to her pleas and to the pull of the soulstream. Her eyes are full of guilt and repentance, but also love and hope.
Graves uses the spire of the Ivory Gate to brace himself, and he turns his back on Gabriella's ghost. Bending low to fight the current, he starts back through the soulstream, back across the spirit world. He can hear Gabriella calling to him, but her voice becomes fainter with every step, until even that is nothing but a ghost . . . and then the rush of other spirits around him takes over, and he hears only white noise.
With a thought, he manifests new phantom guns in the holsters under his arms.
Perhaps there is still business for him to tend to in the world of flesh and blood.