There was something almost suffocating about that steamy cavern, hidden from the world, deep beneath Mount Hoffman, where a pool of ancient radiolarians bubbled and frothed. It was as though the pool had the power to suck the oxygen straight from your lungs. Had his hands been free, Malus would have wiped his brow.
“So, you have heard me out,” said Joseph, looking tired as he lay against the cave wall next to the bubbling pool. “Tell me, what do you plan to do?”
“I plan to kill her.” Malus nodded his head toward Nefertiti.
“Pretty boy,” Nefertiti grinned as a look of excitement flashed across the pale grey features of her face. “Have you forgotten? Mama’s got a gun.” She pulled the sheriff’s revolver from within her robes and strode to where Malus sat. Ever so gently she began to caress his cheek with the barrel of the handgun.
“You plan to kill her or you are going to kill her?” said Joseph as he watched the interplay between Nefertiti and Malus, though he did nothing to intervene. “They mean two different things. Before you act, however, I would advise you to consider this – Nefertiti has many uses. An effective leader needs a means of instilling fear in his subjects. Who better suited to the task of instilling fear than a killer as hideous as she?”
“Thank you, father,” said Nefertiti, as she moved from caressing Malus’s cheek to slowly circling his lips.
“Still, there is a certain pragmatic wisdom to your plan,” Joseph continued. “She is strong and you are clearly not yet ready to control her on your own. One day perhaps, but not yet.”
“You don’t understand, grandfather,” said Malus, while keeping his attention on Nefertiti. “I came to Falun to meet you. I will kill her and bring her head back as a prize. For Thomas.”
“Thomas?” Joseph sounded surprised. “Of all my children I miss him more than any,” said the old doctor in the manner of one thinking aloud.
“I’ll pass along your greeting.” The stress of the past few hours was starting to wear on Malus’ nerves. Maybe this is all a nightmare, he thought. But no, he was better than this. He must not babble and gloat like Joseph. He had to focus.
“Forget Thomas,” Nefertiti said so quietly only Malus could hear. “He is subject to moral reflection. I am not encumbered by such weakness. Choose me and one day you and I shall dine on the hearts of your enemies.”
Malus stared back into the eyes of the monster in front of him. “I only need your head, freakshow. Your head will bring me the hearts of all the others.”
“You will never have the kind of fun with Thomas as you could with me,” she whispered. “I lust for power just like you.”
“Nefertiti,” Joseph called. “I require your presence. Come.”
Nefertiti shifted her eyes to Joseph lying on the floor near the bubbling pool then glanced back at Malus. “You are too cruel, father,” she pouted. “It was just getting fun.”
“Give me the gun, child,” he said gently as she knelt by his side. “And help me into a better position.”
She turned the gun and handed it to Joseph, then gently lifted him so that his back was better supported by the wall of the cave.
Joseph appeared to examine the gun for a moment. He then, without warning, aimed it at Nefertiti’s chest and shot her at point blank range. The report was so sharp it made Malus jump. He felt his limbs shaking with the tingle of adrenaline as he watched Nefertiti’s look of incomprehension gradually give way to one of great sadness. She tried to speak but all she could produce was a pitiful gasp. With great tenderness she reached out and caressed Joseph’s cheek. Her final act, then, was to slowly raise her father’s head and smash it back down against the stone wall of the cave.
It all seemed unreal as Malus tried to process this sudden change of events. All was silent but for the popping sound of the boiling mud. He managed to get into a stand and run to where his sword lay near the entrance to the cave. He lay down beside it, feeling for the blade with his fingers. Once he’d managed to hook the end beneath the cord binding his hands it was only a matter of time before he cut himself free.
He went to the body of Joseph and checked his front coat pocket, where he found both the lighter and the glass vial. He held the lighter a moment, turning it over twice before returning it to Joseph’s pocket.
Malus knelt beside the pool and held the vial just beneath the surface. As the small bottle began to fill he was surprised to see the pool assume the skin tone colouration of his fingers but not the crystalline appearance of the glass.
When the vial was about three-quarters filled with the radiolarian goo, he removed the vial from the pool. It was no longer with surprise, but rather a curious fascination that he watched the pool coalesce into the form of his own fingers and thumb, holding empty space in the shape of a bottle, rise from the pool. The form remained in place for almost a half minute before dissolving back into the mud.
“What is going on? Did you do this?”
Malus jumped up, completely caught off guard by Lottie’s silent arrival. “Yes,” he said.
“You killed them both?”
“I just answered you,” Malus snapped. “Are you deaf?”
“The female was shot,” Lottie pointed out. “You do have powder residue on your hand but so does the dead man lying beneath her. The wound is consistent with the position of the dead man.”
Lottie waited, but Malus did not respond. After a moment she added, “If you shot the Dunsany, then am I to assume the dead man shot the sheriff?”
“Move, clank!” Malus said curtly.
The automaton turned to look at Malus, brow furrowed. “I do not ‘clank.’”
Malus walked over to where Lottie was standing and reached down for his sword. He turned back to the two bodies, leaned down and grabbed Nefertiti by the hair. With a single heave he managed to pull Nefertiti free of Joseph Foehammer, and lay her in the centre of the cavern where he hacked her head from her body.