After dinner the next day, Ciel and Sebastian took the carriage out into London to make some calls and purchases that had been neglected while they were undercover at Weston. Lydia returned to her room and decided to go to bed early, hoping to be rested enough the next day to begin strategizing for the meeting that was looming larger and larger in her mind. It was a well-meaning plan, but it did not last very long. Sometime after the two males left, Lydia was awoken by the sound of singing.
It was very faint and low-pitched, so low that she could not distinguish the words. It seemed to be emanating from the floor below her bedroom. She furrowed her brow and glanced around the corners of her room, faded in the coming dusk. Who was singing? Perhaps Madame Red was entertaining guests? Though it seemed strange that she would do so after Ciel had declared a moratorium on visitors entering the townhouse. Her father was the only exception, but that could not possibly be his voice. Fred Aberlaine did not sing, and if he ever did- Lydia stifled a small, sudden laugh- then heaven help all who heard. Still the low male voice continued to filter through the air, disturbing her peace. She wondered whether it was worth the pain of moving her aching body out of bed and down the stairs in pursuit of the mystery singer. Such a short distance, once easily traversable, now seemed to her like an exhausting trek. Heaven only knew how she was going to get back to her job surveying forests at this rate. The thought that she might be too fragile bothered her more than any other. To prove herself, Lydia took a deep breath, sat up, and swung her legs out of bed. Her body moved in harsh jerking motions, and for a moment the pain was so intense she couldn't catch her breath. What was she doing? Why was she leaving the safety of her bed? Once the ringing in her head died down, the quiet, lyrical tune from below stairs reminded her. She might as well practice bearing with the pain while she was alone. She was going to have to do it flawlessly in two days' time, before the Queen of England, no less.
Lydia gritted her teeth and pulled her hands into fists. I am not weak. In a rush, she stood up and forced her legs to move her into the hallway. Alarm signals were going off all over her body, indicating injury of one kind of another. It even hurt her chest to breathe. For once, she wished the rest of her body was as impervious to damage as her right arm. It was strange having an invulnerable limb connected to the rest of her soft, mortal flesh. Her body felt lopsided.
The voice became clearer as Lydia tiptoed down the deserted stairs. Its low tone sounded ominous and strangely melancholic, like a funeral dirge. "….The children prayed, the preacher preached, time and mercy are out of your reach…."
Lydia stopped, her hand still upon the railing. That didn't sound like any dirge she had ever heard before. A dirge was meant to be sad, yet comforting. This voice was….cold. Soft and dark.
"….I'll fix your feet so you can't walk, I'll lock your jaw so you can't talk…."
A feeling of sudden dread overcame her body, as if she had stepped onto unhallowed ground. Lydia shivered and crept down the last few stairs to stand before an empty lounge hall. A fire flickered in the grate, but all of the stuffed chairs before it sat empty. A grand piano gleamed from across the floor, also unattended. Lydia stared intently into the room, then jumped like a spring when she heard the lyrics continuing from the hallway above her. "….I'll close your eyes so you can't see; this very hour, come and go with me…."
"Blast it all…." The brunette murmured, reaching sideways and grasping the neck of a decorative vase. "All right, I've had enough of this foolishness! Show yourself and-!"
She cut off in shock when a tall, black figure suddenly appeared before the bay windows in the lounge. He didn't have his scythe, but even without it, his height and flowing robes made him seem enormously imposing. Long, black-nailed hands stroked the pane of the window as he stared wistfully into the dusk. "….Death I come to take the soul, leave the body and leave it cold…."
Undertaker leaned his head back on the last note, parodying a theatrical pose as he turned his head to acknowledge Lydia's presence. A wide, manic grin spread across his scarred face. It lasted for a second before she hurled the vase and struck him squarely in the forehead.
The grim reaper did not seem fazed by the blow- he did not even try to move out of the way- but that did not stop Lydia from seizing more nearby objects and pitching them at him in a kind of frenzy. "Wretch!" she shrieked, her body suddenly unhindered by pain. "Lunatic! Get out of this house!" Undertaker's smile grew wider as he calmly weathered the storm of random objects assailing him. When Lydia ran out of things to throw, she considered fleeing back upstairs and locking herself in her room. However, given all she had seen him do so far, there was no reason to assume he couldn't appear in there just as easily as he had gotten into the townhouse. Better to face him where he was. Locking her right hand into a fist, she lunged forward and swung with all her might.
The next second, Lydia found herself airborne and upside down. She crashed into the back of one of the stuffed chairs, knocking it over and sending her tumbling across the floor. Spots of light flickered before her eyes and her body seized in a violent, agonizing shudder. A raucous laugh rang out above her. "Now, now, that wasn't very ladylike at all, my dear. Such an unfriendly way to greet a caller."
"What do you want?!" Lydia demanded, staggering to her feet and bracing herself for another impact. None came.
Undertaker lifted his hands casually. "You Phantomhives always get straight to the point, hmmm? Not even a 'hello' or a 'nice to see you'?"
"Don't mock me with your ridiculous banter!" Lydia took a few steps back, glancing around in case she needed to find some other things to throw. It clearly had no effect, but somehow the act of throwing things at him felt cathartic. "I don't suppose you've come to explain yourself?"
"Maaaaaybe." Undertaker twirled his sash around his bony wrist, grinning. "But I have a price for information, my dear."
"I know that," Lydia huffed, thinking back to the time she had unwittingly hijacked his wagon in the middle of London, after which he had ended up taking her to Weston College. "I have to make you laugh, right?" The last thing she felt like doing at the moment was telling jokes.
Undertaker cackled and moved a few steps closer, grinning wider when Lydia backed away hurriedly. "Come now, that's far too easy a thing to ask of you. You make me laugh aaaaallll the time. You're a natural! Nay, what I need from you is simply one small favor. An easy thing, really. In return-"
"Are you out of your mind?!" Lydia's fist came crashing down on a nearby end table, splintering the boards in two. "You dare- you dare show up here, expecting me to humor you, after everything you've done?! You destroyed part of Weston, you set ghouls loose on the students, you nearly killed Violet, you abducted me, and you- just look at this! Look!" Lydia gestured furiously up and down her body. "You wounded me! Do you understand that? Of course you don't. You probably don't even feel pain."
The amused grin dropped from Undertaker's face as quickly as if it had fallen through a trapdoor. He took several long strides until he was directly in front of her. Lydia's sensible side told her to back off, but she was simply too furious to obey, even though she was fairly certain he was going to throw her across the room again.
"It has been a long time, I'll admit," the grim reaper spoke in a strangely solemn tone. "But I remember pain. Just look." He traced a black-nailed finger down the side of his face, following the long, ghastly scar. "This kind of wound will neeeever heal."
Lydia did not know what to say to that, but Undertaker did not seem to expect a response. He withdrew as suddenly as he had approached her, dropping into an overstuffed chair near the bookshelf and splaying out his lanky legs like he belonged there. "But I didn't come here for a fight. Do sit down."
"Suit yourself." Undertaker shrugged nonchalantly. "Tell me, my dear, have you ever heard of cinematic records?"
"….What? Do you mean….picture reels?" Lydia wavered, completely thrown off by his sudden about-face in temperament and topic.
"You can think of them like such. Only instead of rolls of film, cinematic records contain the details of the human life to whom they belong. Every moment- from birth to death, whether conscious or not- is logged inside the record. Reapers use their scythes to harvest these records during the final moments of a human's life."
"For what purpose?"
"The records are reviewed, collected, and then archived in the soul library. Once these steps are completed, the record becomes inactive and the 'judgement' of the human soul is considered to be finished."
Lydia gaped at him openly. Could something this bizarre really be true? A soul library that collected records of human lives? She was aware that strange things were possible- after all, she had a demon for a butler and an arm made entirely of light….but even so, cinematic records?
"So, these records are like….memories?" she asked slowly.
Undertaker shook his head, making his heavily pierced ears flash on either side. "Nooooot exactly. Memories are inventions. Humans can edit, distort, or erase their own memories to suit their needs or beliefs. In contrast, cinematic records are objective truth. They show a human's lifespan through clear, omniscient eyes."
"Whose eyes?" Lydia queried, to which Undertaker gave a sudden laugh.
"Look at you, already asking the big questions! Wouldn't we all like to know that!" He rapped his long fingernails against the arm of his chair, grinning animatedly.
Lydia blinked rapidly. "So, are you saying….that souls and cinematic records are one and the same?"
The grey-haired reaper laughed again. "Not at all. When a mortal dies, the soul goes where it goes, and it doesn't come back. Easy as a law of nature." Undertaker waved his hand dramatically. "Leaves behind the cinematic record, which the reapers collect. After that, there's just an empty body lying around, not doing anything. Waste of potential, if you ask me. That's why I've been taking liberties with the cinematic records of the dead to produce my lovely dolls. I can tamper with the records to produce some interesting results, but I cannot create souls."
Lydia had been so occupied trying to keep up with this stream of information that she had briefly forgotten about the bizarre dolls. "That's- you can't- you can't just experiment on dead bodies and turn them into those abominations!"
"Oh, yes I can," Undertaker interrupted smoothly. "That's why I did. I've grown so tired of life and death always playing out in the same way. I want to shift their foundations and see what they can become."
"Mmmm-hmmm. And what of it?"
"….Then what do you want with my brother and I?" Lydia demanded, figuring it was useless to argue with him about the advisability of reanimating corpses. He clearly did not think as humans did.
Undertaker popped up out of his chair so quickly that Lydia stumbled backward in alarm. "Oh no, my dear. I've given you plenty of information in return for the magnificent laughter you provided me at that lovely tea party. If you want to know moooore, you'll have to keep amusing me."
"I am not a jester," Lydia said coldly, stiffening the arch of her back. "I do not act for the sake of anyone's amusement. Go look elsewhere for your jokes."
She waited to see if he would move, but he just chuckled lowly and turned toward the windowpane. "It's not a joke I want, though you are a natural. I only ask for one teensy little favor…."
"I don't know what makes you think I'd do you any kind of-"
"You seeeeee, rumor has it that you and your little brother will soon be honoring a rather prestigious invitation. A summons from the Queen herself! My goodness, you must be dizzy with anticipation."
Lydia growled at the mocking lilt in his tone. "I would much rather stay at home."
"Indeed, but you'll go anyway." Undertaker objected. "You would never send young Ciel into that den of vipers alone."
For the first time, a ragged smile darkened the edges of Lydia's lips. "Good lord, I really am predictable, aren't I?"
"So it seems." The tall reaper smirked as he paced nearer to her. "I, however, happen to enjoy the novelty of surprises. It just so happens that I have a grand surprise prepared for Her Majesty, and you will do me the honor of delivering it."
"What?!" Lydia backed away suspiciously, only to have the grim reaper catch up to her in two quick strides and shove something hard and heavy into her chest. She choked and clutched at it, lowering her eyes to find herself fact-to-face with a grinning human skull. An involuntary spasm shook her body. "What the hell is this?!"
"That is a reminder." Undertaker's smile crept from his face as he eyed her predatorily. "Be sure to deliver it promptly."
"How d'you expect me to just walk into Buckingham Palace with a bloody skull and hand it to the Queen of England? Where'd you get this from, anyway? Whose is it?"
Undertaker shrugged, as if he were above such concerns. "Won't be needing it now, so it's no worry of yours."
"I beg to differ!"
"When you go to deliver it, give the old bat a message from me. Tell her Death is never dead and gone. In the end, I always come to collect."
"And what if I don't?" Lydia snapped, resisting the urge to hurl the skull at him.
"You will," he replied confidently, the maddened grin returning to his face. "When it comes to the Queen, you and I both have a score to settle. Do you really think she's any better than even the most prolific of grim reapers? She hides in her towers, dispensing death through the hands of your family, though she would never acknowledge you in the light of day. I, on the other hand, do my own work, and I do it with pride."
At that moment, Lydia heard the clatter of wheels outside on the pavement. Through the window, she watched as the carriage containing Sebastian and Ciel pulled round the entrance and halted before the grand doors. The moment it stopped, Sebastian came bursting out and barely paused to help Ciel down the step before flying toward the entryway. He knew something was wrong, Lydia could see it in his face. From downstairs, she heard the rumble of the heavy front door being thrown open.
Undertaker's low chuckle rang out close behind her, causing her to jump. "Give my best to the little lord, hmmmm? And tell him not to bother discussing my old haunts when the others come to call. They won't find me in those places anymore."
"What others?" Lydia asked quickly. "What's coming?"
"The others of my kind, of course! Though you'll find they aren't nearly as fun as I am. Paltry little things still bound by the rules of a blind game. But once they find out I've been here, they'll be sure to pay you a visit."
"Hold on!" Lydia said frantically, glancing around the evening-darkened room. "Just who exactly-"
"Master!" The lounge doors crashed open as if hit by cannon fire. Sebastian stormed into the foyer with eyes full of fury and flame. In an instant they latched onto the silver-haired reaper. "You!"
"See you lateeeeer." Undertaker waved at her with one last feral grin. Then his entire body shifted into a spectral shadow that folded over and over onto itself until it turned right out of existence.
Lydia was still blinking at the spot where he'd been when she found herself engulfed by an array of black-suited darkness as Sebastian lifted her bodily. The demon carried her to the sofa, set her upon it, and proceeded to reassure himself that she was still whole. Gleaming eyes glanced at the broken objects scattered around the nearby fallen chair. "Master, are you all right?"
"I seem to be," she replied, gripping his arm to steady herself. "At this point, I don't think I've got any nerves left to rattle."
The sound of heels striking the hallway floor announced Ciel's disheveled arrival. He looked to have run all the way upstairs. "What happened?" he panted, leaning onto the cane he used for formal outings. "Where's Lydia?"
"I'm here," she waved a hand above the sofa's back and heard him hasten toward them. "Ciel, Undertaker was in the townhouse. He was right there until just a moment ago."
"Confound it," the young heir growled, not missing a beat as he eyed the evidence of damage before him. "What did he say to you? Did he harm you?"
"He came to….talk? I think that's what he wanted. Also, I have a skull now." Lydia raised the heavy object to the light and watched Sebastian and Ciel stare into its empty sockets. "He told me to give it to the Queen when we go to meet her at the palace. He said it was a reminder." The brunette took a deep breath, her mouth twisting downward. "He also said we ought to be expecting callers rather soon. Not humans, either. Creatures like….like him. Reapers."
Ciel clenched his fists around his cane. "God damn that madman! His antics are completely out of control! He was a valuable informant for a long time, but now he's become a liability to our duties in the underworld."
"More grim reapers are coming here?" Sebastian looked like he had just been told they were getting a dog for a pet. The icy scowl of disgust was one he normally reserved only for canines and certain humans.
Lydia sighed and pushed herself upright, wincing at the pain in her newly sore ribs. She indicated to the cushion beside her and Ciel sat down carefully, removing his black gloves and coat. "I'll explain what happened as well as I can, but first, Sebastian, some tea. Make it robust and fortifying, if you please. We're going to need a lot of that."