It was just past midnight; still early by Gangplank standards, though business had been down dramatically of late due to the ongoing feud amongst the city’s tavern owners. Emerson and Junie were dancing what they’d assumed to be their final dance of the night when the front door opened admitting a rather large and imposing figure.
The Gangplank’s co-owners stopped dancing at once, regarding the man with a sense of trepidation. There was something inherently intimidating about his presence Across the breadth of his shoulders he’d hoisted a large burlap sack bulging at the sides with whatever it contained.
“Good evening, sir,” Emerson warily greeted the stranger. “May we offer you an ale?” He hoped the man would say ‘no’ and carry on his way.
“Special delivery,” The man replied tersely through the stump of the stogie clenched in the corner of his mouth. His speech was colored by an unidentifiable accent that may or may not have been Eastern European.
“Oh?” replied Junie, glancing from the man to Emerson. “Did you order something?”
Suddenly, and without further word, the stranger strode to the center of the room and upended the sack he’d been supporting on his shoulders, spilling a pile of human skulls across the floor.
Shocked, Emerson and Junie each took a wide-eyed step back. Upon completing his ghastly delivery and giving the sack one final shake, the man made his way back to the door. “Compliments of Mistah Underby,” he said before disappearing into the dark streets of Clockhaven.
Emerson and Junie remained shocked for several minutes. It wasn’t until Malus arrived from the cellar where he’d been taking inventory that they began to fully process what had transpired.
“Oh, goodness, Martin,” said Junie with a look that conveyed alarm. “We just had a rather unfortunate delivery.”
“What the?” Malus froze in his tracks, eyes widening and jaw dropping. “Those are human!”
“It was dreadful!” Junie quickly apprised the squire about what had transpired. Malus listened to her every word in rapt attention before letting out a deep exhale.
Junie took a step towards the skulls, gently nudging one with the toe of her boot. It rolled back, the cavernous and lifeless eyes staring blindly at the ceiling. “Where could they have come from?” she asked barely above a whisper.
Malus pursed his lips. “Listen,” he said. “Just get me a sack. I’ll take them to the catacombs. No one will notice.”
“How can you be so sure?” asked Emerson, nervously combing his fingers through his hair.
“There’s bones all over the catacombs,” Malus replied. “C’mon, it won’t take long.”
Emerson glanced at Junie. “Did he just say ‘come on’?” clarified Emerson. “As in come on to the catacombs?”
“I know how to get in,” said Malus. “But I can’t carry all of these in one load!”
“Don’t look at me!” said Emerson. “I just got these shoes buffed. Besides…” he glanced again at the skulls littering the floor. “They are kind of freaking me out.”
“What are they going to do?” Malus sneered. “Bite you?” Malus started to flick his fingers nervously as he looked around the bar. “We need a couple of sacks – or a crate.” He quickly crossed the bar and started removing bottles from some crates. He then brought the empty crates over and started to fill them with the skulls.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never been to the catacombs,” Malus muttered.
“Are you kidding?” Emerson laughed nervously. “Of course I’ve never been to the catacombs.”
“Actually, me either,” confessed Junie.
“C’mon then.” Malus continued to work at a frenetic pace. “This won’t take long.” He looked up at Emerson and Junie with a wild look in his eye. “We really don’t want to get involved with this bar war thing.”
Emerson and Junie just stood there.
“JUSTGETTHEFREAKINGSKULLS!” Malus shouted.
“OKAYOKAYOKAY!” said Junie frantically, hastening to help him fill the crates.
“You really need to cut back on the coffee, Squire,” said Emerson. Malus glared, then linked his fingers into the eye sockets of a few skulls in order to be able to carry more.
“That is just plain nasty,” said Junie wrinkling her nose at a skull she before dropping it in a crate.
“I might gag,” choked Emerson, using a corkscrew to hook one of the eye-sockets and gingerly deposit the skull into the crate.
“Don’t be a wuss!” said Malus, scooping up the last of the skulls. Emerson glanced at Junie and mouthed ‘Did he just call me a wuss?’
Once the skulls had been gathered, the three Gangplankers, led by Malus, made their way outside and as quiet as any thief, made their way down an alley to the gates of the catacombs. Junie raised an eyebrow as Malus knelt and picked the lock.
“There’s an old passage here,” explained Malus. He swung the door wide and went inside.
“Good thing I brought the lantern,” Emerson said to Junie as the two of them passed through the gates and entered the catacombs. The flickering shadows cast by Emerson’s lantern cast disturbing shadows that danced across the walls.
“This is most unsavoury,” said Emerson, making a face as he glanced around.
Malus peered through the gloom at the weirdly stacked bones as if assessing the best possible placement before taking the skulls from the the crates and fitting them into available spaces. Before long they had emptied the crates, slipping the skulls neatly within the other bones. Malus just had one left which he held in his hand. He took a second to regard the bones for a moment. “All the bones but the radius and fibulas,” he commented softly.
“What was that?” asked Emerson.
“The oldest families remove those and have them ground into mortar,” the teen explained. “That way they become part of the city. It’s an old ritual.”
“That’s fascinating…” said Junie in all sincerity.
“I used to go deeper in as a kid. We all did.” Malus boasted with a hint of a nostalgic grin. “There’s old family crypts through that door. I even snuck into the old quarter once.”
“What was in the old quarter?” asked Junie.
Malus shrugged putting the last skull in place, and adjusting it into a casual angle. “Buncha geezers.” Malus took a deep breath. “Did the man say anything after he dumped the skulls?” Malus asked.
“He said ‘compliments of Mister Underby’,” said Junie.
“‘Mistah…” said Emerson. “Mistah Underby.”
“Underby!” Malus hissed.
“The wretched old corpse,” Junie concurred.
“The Bucket!” Malus shook his head then narrowed his eyes. “Maybe I should go see Njal.” He paused. “But I can’t leave the Gangplank unguarded.”
“We can cover,” said Emerson. “But are you sure you’re okay to go out? You’ve been kind of… off these past few days.”
Malus wheeled on him wildly. “WHATDOYOUMEAN?”
Emerson glanced at Junie uneasily. “What do you mean what do I mean?”
“What do you mean OFF?” Malus articulated very precisely, the sides of his neck becoming red and blotchy.
“You know…” said Emerson, “‘off’… as in not your normal sullen self.”
“You seem more tightly wound than usual, Martin,” said Junie using a gentle tone of voice.
“What Junie said.” Emerson nodded.
“Where are you from anyways?” Malus said with an air of accusation.
Emerson looked around. “Me?” He pointed his thumb at his chest.
“YES!” said Malus with an intense focus.
Emerson narrowed his eyes. “I’m from Wheatstone Waterways.”
Malus shook his head, never breaking eye-contact with Emerson.
Emerson whispered to Junie behind his hand, “Remind me not to let him smoke the hookah anymore, it makes him paranoid.”
Junie quietly nodded.
“WHERE ARE YOU REALLY FROM?” an edge of agitation rising in his voice.
“Well…” said Emerson uneasily. “There are various theories about that.”
“I’M LISTENING!” the squire folded his arms.
“Martin,” Junie said. “You know he doesn’t remember.”
Malus drew himself up, “YOU’RE A STINKING FOREIGNER. YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!” He took a deep breath then ran his fingers through his hair.
Junie softened her voice to barely above a whisper, but it carried authority. “Martin….you’re obviously distressed. Let’s go back up for something to eat.”
Malus hesitated a moment before the tension lessened somewhat. He nodded, then walked past the couple, making his way back to the bar.