The phosphorescent glow shining from the lanterns illuminated the Falunian underground in an eerie, greenish light that lacked the comfort and homey sense one often associates with the light of a natural flame. Malus supposed it to be of a biological origin as opposed to mineral though it was only just a hunch. In the roughly twenty hours he had been in the Falunian underground the lights had dimmed and brightened in a cycle simulating night and day.
Following rumours of a monster terrifying random citizens, Malus had descended to the lowest levels of Falun. The city under the mountain now stretched out above him as he approached a stone bridge traversing a natural crevice. On the far side of the bridge was the opening to a cave. According to the Falunian lady he had met last night, that cave was the opening that led to The Forbidden Zone a series of tunnels deep beneath the mountains deemed too dangerous to mine.
“Best watch yerself,” she had told Malus after making him a hot chocolate. “Legend says old Torbern himself haunts the caves of the Forbidden Zone.”
“Torbern?” Malus questioned.
“A right wicked little gnome who’ll grab hold of ye and not let go til ye be nothing but bones. They say he gots sour milk breath, they do.”
“Your fairy tales don’t scare me,” said Malus, slurping his hot chocolate.
“Well they should,” the lady chuckled. “That’s what fairy tales is supposed to do.”
“Martin Malus! You stop right there, young man!” a voice called out from behind him as he was just starting across the bridge. “You are wanted in connection with the murder of the Widow Vorpal.”
Malus spun around to face a small, thin man with a weathered face who wore some sort of official tan coloured uniform. The sheriff, Malus assumed, was flanked on either side by two deputies who looked rather smug in their snappy red shirts. Had the sheriff not been pointing a gun there would have been nothing particularly threatening about these three men.
“Drop your sword!” the sheriff instructed. “Then lay on the ground with your hands behind your head.”
Malus crouched down, maintaining eye contact the whole time. He was considering his options, whether to lunge in a desperate bid to make it past them, or whether to wait until they approached and then attack. He was just readying to charge between the sheriff and the deputy on the right when the lawmen seemed momentarily distracted by something approaching the far side of the bridge.
There would never be a better opportunity. Malus leapt forward, diving on the sheriff and knocking him to the ground. The sheriff was more wiry and resilient than he looked, however. He gave Malus a solid crack in the side of the head with the butt of his gun. Malus responded with a sharp jab to the sheriff’s belly with his right hand while he attempted to wrest the gun away with his left.
While the Sheriff was strong, Malus was stronger. He slowly managed to maneuver the officer’s hand over the side of the bridge, if he could only force it open the gun would fall into the crevice and smash on the jagged rocks no less than a sixty feet below.
The sheriff, perhaps sensing that he was starting to lose the struggle began to thrash about wildly, knocking Malus precariously close to the side of the bridge. The sheriff pulled the gun down between them again, trying to reposition it to point against Malus.
“Stop it!” Malus hissed between gritted teeth. “You’ll kill us both.”
Malus felt the barrel of the gun scraping along his chest. He head butted the sheriff in an attempt to break free. A single muffled shot rang out before the two men finally came to rest.
“OH BUGGER ALL!” Malus shouted with an uncontrolled shakiness in his voice as he struggled to push himself up off the body of Sheriff Knotsinham. “YOU BASTARD!” Malus continued to scream at the dead lawman with a wild-eyed sense of denial. “I SAID TO STOP IT! I DID! BY THE BUILDER! NO! BUGGER ME! NO! No…” he started to shake his head from side to side. “I said to STOP! I did! Did you not hear me?”
“I heard you, dear one,” a harsh, raspy voice grated its way across the chamber. “Your first kill? My, how you make an old girl proud,” Malus spun; in his hand he still clutched the sheriff’s gun. Crossing the bridge from behind him was Nefertiti, who was radiating a look of pure glee. The tall Dunsany securely held the struggling deputies, one in each hand, her long bony fingers wrapped tightly about their throats.
“You shot the sheriff…” with alarming force Nefertiti slammed the two deputies heads together then tossed their limp bodies from the bridge. “And now I’ve killed the deputies.” She narrowed her eyes coyly while moistening her cracked grey lips. “Imagine how productive you and I could be if we were to come together for a common purpose.”
Malus looked at the gun in his hand, then to the body of the sheriff whose blood had begun to spill over the edge of the bridge. Though there was a profound hyperreality to the scene paradoxically something about it seemed so unreal. Malus felt his chest constricting with each laboured breath. He looked again at the gun. It felt heavy, the grip warm in the palm of his hand.
Nefertiti continued to approach with a slow and exaggerated sway to her hips. She was utterly abhorrent. Slowly Malus brought the gun level with the rogue Dunsany’s chest.
“What are you talking about you crazy old bat?” Malus said. His mouth was so dry his voice cracked as he spoke. “What common purpose?”
“My, my, my…” Her voice dropped, taking on an almost husky quality as she neared to within an arms reach of the New Babbage youth. Paying no heed to the gun aimed at her chest, she tilted her head to the side in a decidedly flirtatious manner. “Father failed to tell me just how pretty you are. You know, a little heated tension between the two of us can be the only natural outcome of all this. How do you suppose we should resolve that, my sweet?”
“You disgust me.” Malus spat. “And you still haven’t said what you were talking about!”
“I am talking about handing you the world,” Nefertiti gushed. “I am the only one who can. Anyone else who offers the same would be lying to my precious.”
“Am I supposed to listen to you just because you say people lie?” Malus shouted. Though he tried to focus on the tall Dunsany, in his peripheral vision the body of Sheriff Knotsinham continued taunt him, filling him with waves of a suffocating nausea. “That doesn’t make any sense!”
“What I say need not make sense, sweet boy.” Nefertiti licked her lips most lasciviously as her gaze wandered with undisguised lust over the length of Malus’s body. “I am not a sensible creature. I act on instinct and design. When I form a bond I act with a devotion that is complete. Stay strong and the bond is inviolable. Show weakness and I will eventually eat you.”
Nefertiti took a step closer, daring Malus to shoot her. “You look as father did,” she whispered, “when I first met him.”
“I am going to take your head back to Thomas in a flour sack.” Malus waved the gun.
“Thomas is good,” Nefertiti said softly, There was something both repulsive and compelling about her that was impossible to characterize. “Thomas would have had the potential to be a king if it weren’t for the subservience that was bored deep into the marrow of us all – a gift from father. Listen close to what your sweet Auntie Nef has to say, my pretty little dear. As good as Thomas is, he will never be as good as me. In order to excel you have to love your job. At the end of the day, Thomas has his little Spurgan. I would devote every moment to your needs.”
“You say this, yet you say you are still bound to Joseph Foehammer,” said Malus. “That does not sound like undying loyalty.”
“Who ever said loyalty was undying? Tsk. tsk.” She waved her finger. “You were not listening. I follow vigour. I love father and will to the end, but he weakens before my eyes. His own body betrays him. Father will not leave these mines. But you could, my precious boy. And with my devotion, attending to the dark deeds all princes require in order to truly lead…” she paused coyly, “you could be a great ruler.”
“Prince?” Malus sneered. “You think the world still has room for princes?”
She took another step closer, smiling as the barrel of the gun pressed between her breasts. “I have room for a prince.”
“Nefertiti!” A commanding voice broke into the scene, startling Malus into shifting his focus to the far side of the bridge. Joseph Foehammer was emerging from the mouth of the cave to the Forbidden Zone.
“Bring him here.” Joseph said. “But do not hurt him.”
Malus’s moment of distraction was all Nefertiti needed.
The punch came so fast that Malus had no time to process the visual sensation of a fist flying through the air, nor the slapping smack that sent out alternating waves of a chilled numbness and a burning heat. The world slipped sideways then went dark.