The cliff stairway turned left into an arched tunnel and came up in the bottom of a pit. It was just as dark as the tunnel, with narrow twisty buildings of dark wood and brick rising six and eight stories all around, and the black clouds overhead blocking out the sky. Cold wind blew through the square, whipping up dust devils in each of the five or six corners and raising goosebumps on Sandy's skin. Mel stepped up beside her, shivering and hugging herself with the arm not full of magic bed parts. Sandy noticed Mel's nipples were sticking out through the thin shirt, which was kind of tacky but also kind of hot and what kind of wizard wouldn't want to help out a girl like that?
People lurked around the edges of the square, their dark clothes blending into the shadows under eaves and in doorways. They had tall hats with buckled bands and tall buckled boots, and long coats with more buckles, or cloaks wrapped tight around them, but she couldn't see more than that.
Someone behind her cleared their throat, and Sandy almost jumped out her skin. She did shriek and drop the bundle of bed parts, which crashed to the black marble paving.
Everyone in the square stopped, and turned to look right at her with eyes that glowed green or red in the dark. She bit back another shriek, and after a moment they all looked away.
The man who stepped around in front of them must have been official, because he had a double row of gleaming brass buttons down the front of his dark red jacket and fringed epaulets on the black coat over it. His face was handsome, but the right half was jet-black and clean-shaven, while the left side was lighter than Mel and had a goatee that ended exactly at the midline. "Your pardon, visitors," he said in a voice barely above a whisper. "I did not intend to frighten you."
Mel grabbed her hand, but faced the official bravely. "No harm done. Are you the, um, Master of the Stair?"
"I am," he murmured. Something about his eyes seemed off, and then Sandy realized that he was checking her out with his ruby-red right eye while giving Mel the same with his hazel left. No, not checking them out: his eyes didn't stop at Mel's chest or her own legs. Checking them for contraband. "May I inspect your papers?"
Sandy tried to remember what Matrissin had told them to say here, but Mel got there first. "We are new-come to this city, but bear only good will. Matrissin Ironleg, Master Carter, commends us to your hospitality." She squeezed Sandy's hand, reminding her to get out the paper Matrissin had given them.
The Master of the Stair scanned the note with both eyes, although to Sandy the greyish ink on the brownish paper was barely visible, and nodded. "Very good. Master Carter Ironleg is a respected citizen of our city." He pulled something out of an inner pocket, making the skirt of his coat flap open over skintight — indecently tight, she could see the outline of everything! — red pants and held something out, a small notebook and a quill pen. "Please sign here. I will need a strand of hair from each of you."
Mel flinched and looked up with a mortified expression. Sandy stifled a snicker, but her heart sank a little. So that was what Mel liked? Well, she'd looked too, so it wasn't guaranteed.
The book was full of names, some old-fashioned ("Jebiah Smithson", "Mary O'Toole"), some alarming ("Desolation, of the Ancient Tower", "Nine Skulls") and some just weird ("Ngrek Taker-of-Silgbs") and strands of hair and feathers and a bit of shed snakeskin stuck in with what looked like scotch tape. So much for old-fashioned! They signed — Mel's middle name was Tanith, much cooler than her own Emily — and let the Master of the Stair tweeze one hair from each of them. He didn't pull out a plastic tape dispenser, at least, just a stick with tape wrapped around it. "Very good, Miss Mason, Miss Clarke." He tucked the book away. "May I direct your steps?"
What had Matrissin called it? "The Ouroborous Circle Eccentrics' and Lunatics' Sodality." Sounded more like a mental hospital, but what Matrissin had told them about wizards here made them sound just as weird as in any game or movie.
"If you would just follow East Spine to Lunar Crescent, proceed to your left until you reach Ouroborous Circle, and then look for the orange paper laterns, you'll find yourself there in moments." He gestured toward the largest street out of the square, gave a very slight bow and disappeared into the darkness.
The group loitering at the entrance to East Spine slunk away as the girls approached, but Sandy saw that one black-haired girl's cloak was actually leather bat wings ribbed with brass, and the old man holding her hand had a face that jutted forward under his muttonchop whiskers. "This is totally Halloweentown," she whispered.
Mel looked up at the iron sign hanging at the corner of the castle-tower-like building. There was a skull hanging from it on a giant fishhook. "Abandonhope Alley," she read. "Yes, this is Halloweentown."
It was only a little ways to Lunar Crescent, past Catgut Lane and Nightmare Close, but it seemed a lot longer in the dark with monsters who crossed the street to avoid them and then gave them the side-eye and whispered to each other. Lunar Crescent itself was wide enough for some light to get through from overhead, but that let the freezing wind through full-force. There weren't even any doorways to hide in, just garage-door things over what would be open-fronted shops when they opened. By the time they found the street they wanted, Sandy was so cold her nipples hurt, and she couldn't feel her feet at all.
Ouroborous Circle wasn't a circle, or even much of a street, just irregular gaps between buildings, made entirely out of corners for monsters to lurk behind. Only the horrifying cold behind Sandy, and her superstrength (if it impressed Matrissin, it had to be pretty good), could get her to go in there.
No monsters ambushed them; they didn't even see anyone, although there was a clatter like high heels somewhere ahead of them, and a little kid's laughter fading out. "That's not creepy at all," Mel muttered. "But there's the orange paper lanterns as tall as Matrissin." The door between them looked like it was made out of a solid piece of iron with stripes of some kind of ornamentation around the edges and a huge keyhole right in the center. Yellow firelight showed all around the edges, which made it the most inviting thing Sandy had seen in the whole town.
Mel knocked, but no one answered.
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