Dusk falls earlier in Clockhaven. The tight claustrophobic streets in the east end of town slip into the gloaming by mid afternoon in winter months, with only the gaslights and fireplaces to battle the encroaching darkness. The Gangplank was battling respectfully, its fireplace blazing within the hearth, wood snapping and popping around Lilith’s sleeping figure curled just in front.
“I have never heard that.” Petra said, sneering her imitation of Malus. From behind the bar, polishing a glass, Malus sneered.
“Well yeah,” said Kaylee. “Aren’t you from Bump or somethin’?”
Malus stifled a laugh.
“I am not!” Petra said indignantly. “I’m from Falun.”
Kaylee rolled her eyes. “Same thing.” she laughed.
Petra exhaled loudly, blowing back her hair, then turned to the two boys sitting nearby. One was rotund, grinning with cookie crumbs glued to his cheeks; the other was dressed in a sombre dark suit, his face expressionless. “You guys hearda this thing?”
“Of course.” said Cyrus.
Tubby nodded. Through a mouthful of cookie he said: “Nuffah suh duh-suh-” before being cut off by a sharp rap on the back of his head, delivered by Squire Malus. “Don’t talk with your mouth full, chubby.” he sneered.
“Tubby.” said Cyrus, looking back at Malus.
“Hm?” asked the squire, annoyed.
“His name is Tubby, not Chubby.”
Tubby wiped crumbs from his face. “Ackshully, it’s Max.” he said.
“But yes.” continued Cyrus. “Don’t say…” he paused, then lowered his voice. “Dunsany. Everyone knows that.”
Kaylee grinned smugly. “See?” she said.
Petra licked at one corner of her mouth. “Alright alright.” she said, tapping Mr Lightninghouse on the floor. “So, who’s this Duns-?”
“Shhhh!” Malus covered Petra’s mouth melodramatically. “Never say Dunsany,” he whispered in her ear. “Because if they hear you call their name, they will come for you and TAKE YOU AWAY!”
Petra slapped the hand of Malus from her face. “Ugh. You taste like olives.”
“Yep!” Kaylee picked up the story. “They take you deep deep underground to their super secret kitchen, where they hang you from a meat hook and pull out your liver!”
“Then they keep you alive so the rest of you stays fresh, so they can eat the rest later!”
“First they cut your right leg off and roast it.”
“Then your left arm, and they chop it up for stew!”
As the youngster’s eyes grew wider, Kaylee and Martin tried to outdo each other in describing the horrors of the Dunsany, an inner glee growing as they had both actually seen what lay below the city. And, further, lived to tell about it. Kaylee flexed her mechanical arm so it clacked ominously. “And I’ve seen ‘em!” she added.
“Yeah Petra.” Malus crouched in closer to the others, unconsciously imitating the hunched gait of the Morlocks. “When Kaylee was your age, she got lost in the catacombs, and ended up in the caverns where the Dunsany live. And look what happened to her! Go on, Kaylee, tell them!”
“Well,” she said, looking at her shining arms. “Let’s just say many a pot of Faulkner Stew was enjoyed in the winter months below the city.”
The two boys had grown silent. Lilith swished her tail in front of the fire.
Petra’s eyes narrowed. “Balls.” she responded.
Kaylee placed one metallic hand on her heart, and the other in the air. “It’s true.”
Malus nodded. “And… it’s girls just about your age they like best. Kaylee, how old were you?”
“Close to thirteen.” she said.
Malus looked to Petra. “And how old did you say you were again?”
Petra’s mouth worked silently before any words came out. “….Tuh-twelve.”
“Oh boy.” said Kaylee.
“Well.” said Petra, swallowing. “It’s just a word.”
“Oh yeah? Dare ya to go down to the basement and yell it into the tunnels.” Kaylee said with a mischievous grin.
Malus’ face paled. That was exactly what he didn’t want Petra to do. “Yeah right, Kaylee” he said, recovering into a sneer. “You know that cave-in next door has sealed up our basement. Big dare.”
“Yeah.” said Petra, slightly relieved. Now that the imminent danger had passed, she thought back to the whispering she had heard the evening before, and unwisely offered: “Besides… the whispering is over by Jefferson Way now, not here.”
Kaylee’s face turned from Martin to Petra. She smiled. “Double dare ya ta shout it into those tunnels then.”
“Don’t do it, Petra.” Tubby warned, his eyes like saucers. Cyrus nodded once. “Whether the legend is true or not, something is certainly roaming the sewer system. Possibly more than one.”
Petra shrugged. “I’m still workin anyway.” she said. “What if Rufus the Drunk comes rollin back in? Who’s gonna run him back out?”
“Yeah,” said Malus, quickly. “She’s on duty.”
Kaylee flexed her metal arms once more. “I’m sure I can handle it.” she laughed. “And anyway, even if they get ya… lookit me, do I look like I’m worse off?”
Petra looked to Malus, then to the boys.
Kaylee grinned. “I double stripscrew dare you.” she said slowly and deliberately.
The statement broke the tension of the story. A double stripscrew dare! No one could back down from that.
“Torque it or fork it,” Cyrus said solemnly, sealing the dare.
“I ain’t a stripscrew!” Petra protested, smacking her bat on the floorboards.
“Torque or fork… torque or fork….” The boys and Kaylee had taken up a jeering chant. Malus watched helplessly. He would have told her she didn’t have to do it… if it hadn’t been a double stripscrew dare. But, it was, so he took up the chant also.
Petra fumed; her permanent reputation was now firmly on the line. Visions of the shapes she had seen swaying (dancing?) in the tunnels filled her mind, but these visions were pushed aside by the thought of being called stripscrew for the rest of her life, which she intended to be very long indeed, thank you very much. “Fine.” she said, but nobody heard her over the chants of TORQUE or FORK, TORQUE or FORK, TORQUE or FORK…
“Fine!” she called out, stamping the bat again. “Fine fine fine.” she turned to the two boys. “Let’s go.”
Tubby stared. “I ain’t goin.” he sputtered. Cyrus slowly shook his head. “Me either.”
“But I’m the stripscrew.” Petra laughed humorlessly.
Cyrus nodded. “If you don’t do the dare. Those are the rules.”
Kaylee poked Tubby. “Someone’s gotta be there.” she said. “To make sure she actually goes down in for one thing, and then yells Du-” she broke off, then grinned wickedly. “That word.”
Tubby turned green. He turned to Cyrus. “You gotta come too.”
“Fine.” the boy in black said. “I will stand out on the street.” Tubby relaxed.
Petra exhaled again, then pointed at Malus with her baseball bat. “But this ain’t comin outta my pay. Got it?”
“Wait, you get paid? YOU get PAID?”
Petra’s expression melted into one of enormous satisfaction. “Course I do. This job is dangerous.”
“She gets paid.” Malus gave Kaylee an incredulous look whilst pointing at Petra, as the girl stepped over Lilith, then walked out the door. “When do I get paid?”