The terror of the catacombs is the terror of your childhood fear-of-the-dark nurtured to a level of horrific maturity; a visceral fear emanating from the primal instinct lurking deep within the marrow us all. It is so very silent down here in the caves… but for the occasional drip, drip, drip… and the pulse of your own heart pumping madly with that delicious infusion of adrenaline. You barely want to breathe for fear of not hearing the monster that is most surely awaiting in ambush around the very next turn.
With this sense of trepidation our four travellers cling to one another in intimacy and angst as they make their way with great care through the deathly maze. Their eyes saucer-wide… their world no larger than the flickering glow cast by a single torch. Within every shadow lurks something malicious. What was that? Did you hear something? No.
Emerson, Malus and their two companions, the princess (whose parents, with unintentional cruelty, had named ‘Princess’) and her maid named Marian, had been wandering the haunted tunnels beneath the cartel’s compound since escaping the tower through a secret passage several hours earlier. Above them the siege raged on… but it may as well have been a thousand leagues distant… for deep within the very depths of the earth silence and stillness reigned supreme.
Malus was leading the small party when he abruptly halted in his tracks, “I hear something moving about up ahead.” his whisper sounding as loud as a shout.
“Go kill it.” encouraged Emerson, “I’ll wait here and protect the young ladies.”
“It is okay, Sir Emerson.” said Princess Princess, “I have a knife.”
“What a relief.” replied Emerson.
“No,” Princess Princess clarified. “I meant Marian and I will be fine. You are free to go up ahead and assist Mr. Malus in slaying whatever fell demon awaits.”
Once upon a time the creature may have been more deserving of our sympathy…and perhaps to those of a more charitable nature it still is. Never very bright, the creature had once been a man, a shy farm boy, who dreamed of the vastness and mystery of the empire beyond his small island home.
One afternoon as he combed the beach for relics washed ashore from the ships caught upon the shallow jagged reefs surrounding the island, his ill luck would bind him forever to a curse. He came upon a wooden charm, fashioned by an enchantress on the very day she was to drown in a wreck upon the reef. Though despicable to the core, the talisman sang to the boy with such a sweet song of promise that he wasted no time in wishing to live forever and a day with the power to control the physical movements of other living beings.. a wish which the dark-arts-fashioned charm most cruelly granted. For the boy had not wished to stay young… nor had he wished not to age… he had simply wished to live and to control a very minor magical skill.
Thus the boy lived… year after year… making young ladies dance and young men crawl. Yet it was not long before his body became twisted and gnarled with the weight of old-age. With each passing year, with each forgotten decade, he moved just that much further from sanity. Soon nothing remained of the boy, he’d become a breathing bitterness… a cruel husk housing a vile soul. No longer able to abide the taunting light of the sun, he burnt the talisman (but not the curse) in a fit of rage, and descended to the dank depths of the catacombs, forgotten but for tales shared round the campfire.
It had been years since the last of his playmates had died… but today, Fortune had brought him a family… standing frozen in his spell as he smiled in welcome.
“One chance I give…” the creature grinned, always enjoying the torment and terror experienced by new playmates as they realized they were trapped. And always the promise of freedom… the promise of life… but only if they played by the rules. The rules were sacrosanct… inviolable. The game was riddles.
“Ask me a riddle I cannot answer and you are free to pass. But should you be unable to answer one of mine…” the creature flashed festering, cankerous gums as it grinned, “you are to remain here with me in the depths of these catacombs until you fall down and die.”
The creature began the contest. “What is broken every time it is spoken?”
Emerson felt a sense of relief at how easy the first one proved to be. “Silence.” he replied before offering his first challenge: “A boat with four men capsizes and all four fall in the water… yet not a single man gets wet.” Emerson paused to let the creature process the set-up before asking, “How is that possible?”
“Clever man“ the monster hissed, “but not as clever as I. The answer is… the four men are all married.” The creature scratched his chin before asking: “What is always coming, but never arrives?”
“Tomorrow.” replied Emerson decisively, then rapidly shooting back: “There are two errors in this statement: If I lose this riddle contest I will go free. Identify the two errors?”
“Well, first if you lose, you will not go free, that is one. The other…” The creature scratched his head, “wait… I get it, Mr. Clever-man, the second error is that there are no other errors.”
“But, if that is the second error then there are two errors and the second error is no longer an error.”
“What?” The creature started to sound confused as it’s tired old mind tried to grapple with the conundrum.
Malus started to laugh. “He got you!”
“No wait… if it is not an error then there is only one error which means it is an error…
“Which means it isn’t… so what is your answer?”
“My answer is…” The creature wrapped it’s long frog-like fingers around its head as if trying to hold it together. He was sorely tempted to have Emerson dance over the edge of a precipice. But the creature was a creature of rules… and the rules had been established. He could not break the rules, especially his own. “Oh bother! I don’t care what the answer is. Loathe am I to suffer a moment more of your torment. Be gone. Go, before I change my mind… be gone I say and let me be!”
The battle was not going well for the Sagrada Lucia cartel. The King, having regrouped his forces, rallied support from the nearby islands. Many of the outer islands were only a few short years away from their own century harvests and were becoming increasingly worried about the cartel’s ambitions. The steady sound gunfire could be heard from the gallery yet the building itself was quiet and deserted.
“May I borrow your knife Princess?” Emerson asked distractedly as he examined the door.
Princess Princess watched as Emerson quickly and apparently without effort, popped open the lock before returning her knife.
With three boxes of Sagrada Lucia’s tucked under his arm, Emerson was about to join Malus at the far end of the hall when he caught sight of a portrait on the wall that stopped him in his tracks.
“That is my great, great, great aunt, the Virgin Queen, who ruled this land when the century crops were first envisioned and sown. It was a fabled time, before the fall.”
“She was a virgin?” Emerson studied the rather curvaceous image of the young queen.
“Yes, she never sullied her rule.”
“Who is that man in the portrait with her?”
“That has always been a mystery… the exact identity of the gallant young investor has never been known, though for a time it was rumoured he kept close council with the queen.” Princess Princess smiled, “Legend tells of a romantic deed. One afternoon, as the two inspected the recently ploughed fields ready to be sown by the sacred seed, they came across a great heaping pile of oxen dung. He most chivalrously threw down his cape that the young queen might not dirty her shoes.” The princess smiled at the recollection of a favourite story.
“That is very noble.” Emerson mused, shifting his study from the queen to the curiously familiar looking figure standing beside her.
“But what a selfless man he must have been.” Princess Princess continued. “To fund this poor island’s planting endeavours knowing he would never live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his investment.”
“Remarkable.” said Emerson as he pulled one of the drapes free from the window. He had just finished wrapping the painting when Malus returned with the portrait of General Poe. “Are we collecting art now?” asked Malus, noting the second painting.
“Something like that.” said Emerson, come on let’s get out of here.”
Princess Princess and Maid Marian led the way to a small stable containing just two stalls. “We will have to ride double.” She informed them, “the main stable is too close to the fighting and likely all the horses are being used in combat.”
“Malus will ride Samson with me,” said the Princess. “Sir Emerson, you will ride Brutus with Marian.”
“Yeah… the thing is.” began Emerson, “it has been my experience that horses don’t seem to trust me… and it is completely unjustified.”
Marian laughed as she, without any apparent effort, mounted Brutus. “Come Sir Emerson, do you mind if I ride?” Brutus whinnied as Emerson approached.
“See” Emerson gestured, “What did I tell you.”
Marian laughed, “Emerson you will be fine.”
“Malus,” called Emerson, seeing no other option, “help me up onto that thing will you.”
Ten minutes later, our group of four, astride the two horses, started off down the secondary road that would lead them to the far side of the island.
They had been riding for close to eleven hours by the time they reached the beach where Sir Emerson and Squire Malus were to rendez-vous with Captain Maynard Quinn and his amazing sub-aquatic vessel. However, the King’s army, having taken the more direct main road had made better time. A thousand soldiers in rank and file filled the beach, surprising the four riders as they emerged from the heavily wooded trail.
The King’s champion, Sir Martin Medeski, the Duke of Woodshire, approached the small company. “Your father’s army was victorious.” he said standing before Princess and Malus. “The kingdom is secure and the outer islands are rallying to our banner.” He paused to clear his throat. “It is with deep regret and profound sadness that I must tell you… your father, though he led with bravery and distinction was killed in battle, shot in the throat by a cowardly sniper.” He paused again , casting a glance at Malus. “Sir, I ask you to remove your hands from the person of Her Majesty.”
“Sir, the gentleman’s hands are fine where they are…” Princess, began to reply before she’d had the chance to fully process the significance of the Duke’s words… my daddy is dead, she thought, and I was so ambivalent at the end. Her eyes brimmed with tears though she regained her composure before a single drop fell.
The Duke of Woodshire turned to face the Queen’s army. “The King is dead!” he shouted, “Gods save the Queen!”
“GODS SAVE THE QUEEN!” a thousand men shouted as they took to the knee.