Chapter 18: Fountains and Fowl Play
The eerie scene unfolded in the glass before our expectant eyes. After a few seconds of staring at nothing, the man in the green business suit appeared. He dragged the heavy chest behind him, groaning and sweating from the strain. He trudged straight down the hallway in which we now stood, and made it about halfway before the torches dimmed, all at once.
Startled, he turned to run, but then, as if caught in an invisible hand, he was lifted suddenly the ground. He was thrown to the floor with bone crunching force. He lay motionless, his limbs contorted and every light blinked out.
Not wanting to believe the awful events that I had just witnessed, I replayed the scene in the scope a half a dozen times, each time searching for a glimpse of the attacker, and seeing only shadows. Finally admitting defeat, I dropped the Recronoscope to the floor and Andrus and I stared at each other in silence for a good full minute. I spoke in hushed tones, “Andrus what does this mean? What if whatever killed this man is still in here?”
Andrus’s reply sent icicles up my back, “That’s exactly what it means. Though I didn’t bump into anything, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. I don’t know about you, but I feel like making ourselves scarce.”
Andrus shot off like a jet back towards the entrance, leaving me in darkness. Knowing that that direction was a bad idea, I called after him, Andrus! We can’t go back that way! There is no way we can come back up through the platform without attracting attention. That’s probably what they-whoever they are-want us to do. Can’t we go the other way?
Andrus returned and glanced towards the alternative direction. I suppose we could, though that way still makes me nervous. I followed it to the end and it eventually comes back up through another hole in a park, but it’s a pretty lengthy trip. I’d have to fly you down there.
I cringed at the thought of hurtling through the darkness at the mercy of my Shadow, but seeing no feasible alternative, I gave in, Okay, just don’t mind if I lose my lunch on the way. Don’t make it a rougher ride than you have to.
He grabbed my neck in his paw like a mother dog picking up a puppy and started our flight down the corridor, picking up speed, “Don’t worry…you’ve caught me on a good day. I’m not in the mood for tricks.”
The light from the torches whizzed by me. I thought I heard strange noises, but tried my best to ignore them as merely figments of my imagination. Thankfully, Andrus’s superior navigating skills saved me from splatting against the walls like a bug on a windshield.
After a few minutes, I could make out the end of the hallway. Andrus suddenly jerked to a stop, dropping me onto the cold dust of the floor. Startled, I tumbled over my heels and came to rest face down in the dirt. More winded than annoyed, I scrambled to my feet, holding my aching stomach. I glanced about to see what had caused the turbulence of my flight. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, if anything in the cavern could be called ordinary, I whirled about to confront Andrus, What was that for? I thought you said that you would give me a smooth ride.
Andrus scratched his head, grinning sheepishly, Sorry. It’s just that I thought I smelled something.
My cheeks caught fire, You smelled something? What kind of half-wit excuse is that?
Andrus waved his paw in annoyance at my naïveté, A good one. It was something I shouldn’t be here, but I can’t quite place it. I apologize for the landing, but when my instincts start talking, I don’t sit around to ask questions.
I sniffed the air to validate Andrus’s claim. The first deep sniff yielded nothing but a nose full of dust and a coughing fit that took a whole minute to shake off.
After recovering, I sniffed again lightly and realized that I did smell something, barely perceptible over the grime of the tunnel. A strange sweetness hung the dusty air. The smell brought back a memory from earlier that day. I groped for an answer, but the shock from my fall had made dizzy and I couldn’t clear my head enough to make the connection. It’s fine. Let’s just get out of this stinking dungeon or whatever it is.
Much to my relief, as I approached the end of the tunnel, I discovered a ladder leading upwards. Near the top, a few rays of light crept from the ceiling which appeared to be sealed off. Bursting with relief, I dashed towards the ladder and shimmied up the rungs as if escaping a burning building. When I reached the top, the origin of the smell suddenly popped into my head. It was that bird, his invisible powder. But how could that be? We left him locked up in the car.
As if a dam had burst, dark thoughts flooded into my head, terror welled up in my chest, and a nervous chill rattled my bones. Andrus! I called frantically in my mind, we need to get back to the car!
Furiously, I banged at the roof above the ladder willing with all my might for the obstacle that blocked the path to move, but to no avail.
Seeing my distress, Andrus hovered to my shoulder, I hear you, he whispered soothingly, but first you need to calm down. The racket you are making surely isn’t helping our stealth any. Let me do it. There’s a tiny switch that you have to flip.
Working swiftly, he fiddled with the roof, and after a few failed attempts, managed to locate the dime-sized switch, which clicked in his tiny hands. The switch fell into place and with a sharp grating of stone against stone, the obstacle slid away from the top of the tunnel replaced by blazing sunlight. My hands flew to my eyes, which had grown accustomed to the dark.
After letting my eyes adjust to my new surroundings, I realized that I was peering out at ground level at a grass field. I firmly grasped two handfuls of grass and hoisted myself out, followed by Andrus. Once out on firm ground, a quick survey of the surroundings assured me of our location. The park, which Andrus had spoken of, was none other than Eve Park, and we had just emerged from under the fountain. A shot a glance back to figure out where we had come out from, however, the entrance to the tunnel had already closed itself again. Worried that someone might have seen our strange appearance, I whirled about again, but fortunately found the park to be completely deserted. For a moment, a glimmer of satisfaction replaced some of the fear.
Fred and Christine must have found a new way home…serves him right, though he’ll probably try to commit me to a mental institution now. Who knows? Maybe by this time this is over, I’ll go and commit myself.
Anxious to return to the car, I summoned Andrus, who was now studying the place where we had exited the tunnel. Andrus, let’s head back to the car first. I have a feeling we’ll want to be invisible if we decide to go exploring again. We can come back, but first I want to make sure everything is fine.
Apparently not in the mood to argue, he complied and grasped my arm in preparation to hoist me into the heavens. However, a split second before he could take off, I cut him off, actually speaking for the first time in a while, “Andrus, do you think that Mercos is doing all of this? I don’t know how that could be, but at the same time, I don’t see how it could be anyone but him. Nothing is adding up.”
Andrus sighed, his eyebrows furrowing into his forehead farther than I thought possible, “Anything is possible Face. I’ve seen stranger things. For all we know, it could be the work of a disgruntled ghost or something. A family curse…”
He paused, letting the silence punctuate his words. “I’ve never actually seen anything as outlandish as that, but it could happen, I guess.”
He chuckled, trying to lighten the somber mood, but his laughter could not mask the awful trepidation in his voice. For a moment, it looked as if he might tremble, however, he suddenly regained his composure, swallowing his doubts and getting back to business, “Might as well get going. We have wasted enough time already. You still have the Recronoscope, don’t you?”
I patted the most bulky area of my shirt to signal the affirmative, and no sooner had I done so, than we were both airborne. Sailing with his usual gut-wrenching style, Andrus made excellent time as we soared back towards city hall. However, our progress was slowed on a couple occasions when, out of habit, he stopped and surveyed the skies in every direction to make sure that we were not being followed. I did not complain, as each stop gave me a chance to catch my breath.
Finally, I spotted the festivities below and Andrus began his swift decent, seeming both graceful and pell-mell all at once. Taking the landing much gentler than last time, he placed me down by my car. I approached warily, and even from a distance, I could tell something was out of place.
As I glanced into the back seat, I realized the problem: Relyt had disappeared. The first dose of its invisibility spray had worn off, and so I should have been able to see him if he had been present, but just to make sure, I opened the doors and felt through every inch of the back seat. Then as I started towards the front, I discovered a strange set of smoky letters that lingered in the air. The message was short, and to the point, and as before, just as my eyes glanced over each letter, the smoke dissipated back into gibberish.
At the word Phoenix, my heart writhed within me. The last time I had seen the sign of the Phoenix was on the arm of a strange man, clad in gold armor, a man who had made himself my enemy, and then again on the new tattoo on my arm. My deepest fears had been realized. Mercos had taken the bird, and had used it for his own evil designs, which included murder. My insides groaned, “Andrus, what do you make of it? Does this mean what I think it means?”
Andrus nodded his eyes dark and determined, “Yes, there can be no mistaking it. The bird left us this warning message, and we would do best to heed it. Though we may have lost our trump card, don’t think for a second that I don’t hide other aces up my sleeves. We must return to the fountain immediately, find out where the enemy went from there with the Recronoscope, and then pursue. Once you are there, I will fly to procure reinforcements while you make chase. With any luck, we will be able to head them off before they are able to get away with the lockets.”
My brain whirled with questions, “You think that it is wise,” I speculated, “to let me chase after them by myself, unarmed and unprotected?”
Andrus grinned smugly, “Wiser than you know…seeing as you won’t be unprotected for a moment. Slip this on.”
Gingerly, he tossed me a palm-sized gray rectangular box. Curious, I lifted off the lid, and gasped in amazement, “Andrus! Where did you get these?”
In my hands lay a pair of beautiful golden lockets, not the ones of the theater masks, but beautiful and powerful looking just the same. These lockets were intricately crafted to look like a lamb and a lion respectively. As I picked them up and dangled them in front of my face, a soft glowing energy rippled across my skin, as if I was about to be struck by lightning. There was no mistaking it. These were no ordinary lockets. These were objects of immense power.
At first, Andrus offered no answer to my question, “If you will open them both at the same time, they’ll activate for you and you will be rendered almost invulnerable to attack. Say the words in the lion locket, and you’ll be endowed with strength, or say the words from the lamb locket and all those around you will be smitten with weakness. But be careful not to overuse it. Sometimes these things have strange side effects.”
Incredulous of what I was seeing, I let the lockets hang on their golden chains, suspended in midair in front of my face like a hypnotist’s charm.
Unexpectedly, my hands began to tremble with anticipation, “Where did you get these?” I demanded.
Andrus, slightly taken aback, glanced about furtively, “It’s best you don’t know. I’ve been saving them for a long while in case of such an emergency. All I can say is that I had them hidden well back here in the car, so as not to let them fall in the wrong possession. We must be off.”
Sharing Andrus’s sense of urgency, I slipped the golden lockets over my neck. They filled my entire body with tingling energy. I gestured to Andrus, and a second later, we both soared towards the clouds.
The flight back to the fountain was about as terrifyingly turbulent as the first. Not interested in acrobatics, Andrus shot a direct, bullet-like path towards our destination. Desperately, I grasped the lockets to keep them from slipping from my neck. In record time, we were hovering back over the fountain.
With the grace of a falcon, Andrus dove towards the ground, dropped me in a dense patch of grass a few yards away from the fountain, and promptly shot back up towards the heavens, becoming no more than a black speck against the horizon in a matter of seconds.
I felt like a boxer, who has seen one too many jabs to the jaw, and so it took me a few seconds to react. Unconsciously, my hand leapt to my neck to make sure that the lockets had survived the crash landing intact. They had, and at first, I was tempted to try them on in order to test their powers. However, as soon as I had gathered my wits I decided that the best course of action was to take out the Recronoscope to try to find out where my enemies had gone. Amazingly, it too had remained completely intact through the rough landing.
I wager that Trezzlepeg doesn’t need to hand out warrantees with his wares. You could probably take a bazooka to this thing and it wouldn’t even chip the glass. Now if only I could get my sunglasses to do the same.
Feeling the crunch for time, I trotted over to the fountain, and located the panel from where we had arisen from the ground. Setting the time back to when the man in the green suit had met his end, I switched the device to real time.
At first nothing happened, but as I watched the lens like a child riveted to a suspenseful movie, the same stone from where Andrus and I had exited, slid away and the time capsule popped out. What happened next quickened my pulse.
In front of the hole, I saw large patches of grass flatten one by one as if being trodden under by a massive foot. However, the glass could not show whoever, or whatever was making them. The footsteps curved around the other side of the fountain, and stopped in front of the panel depicting Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. Suddenly, the flow of water from the top of the fountain ceased and, within seconds the whole fountain was completely dried up. For a few moments, I could detect no movement, until, like the first panel, another panel slid away, revealing a passage into blackness.
With Herculean strength, the unseen person hefted the capsule into the air and disappeared into the depths. Finally, the stone grated back into place and all returned to stillness.
Though the Recronoscope had provided a wealth of insight, it had also generated as many questions as answers. I knew which way my target went, but I still had no idea as to how to open the secret passage to follow him. Getting down on hands and knees, I peered in closer at the panel that had slid away just minutes before. The scene appeared just as I had left it that afternoon, with “FE+CD” engraved over Adam and Eve and the intelligible writing over the serpent.
Trying out my options, I poked and prodded every little detail, looking for a secret switch or a hidden lever. At last, I was rewarded with a minor discovery: the apples on the tree that Eve had been eating from clicked in when depressed and remained in that position until pressed again. Working excitedly, I quickly attempted various patterns, everything from pressing every third one in a row to attempting to make circles and triangles. However, each attempt did nothing to budge the stone panel in front of me, and each failed attempt only added to my frustration. Fed up with trying to guess, I fell onto my back exhausted in both body and mind.
I’m dying for a Rubix cube or something right now. At least in that one, you know what you are trying to achieve.
There, as I stared up at the cottony cloud formations forming in the crisp afternoon sky, a thought struck me. It was something that Christine had alluded to that very afternoon, something that Fred had tried to cover up.
However, as I mulled it over in my mind, the possibility seemed less and less far-fetched. What else would Fred want to hide so badly? I can’t think of anything else that secret.
There was only one way I could settle my thoughts. On a hunch, I retrieved the Recronoscope from the patch of grass where I had left it and flipped the dials to the date that had burned in my memory with painful clarity for years. Relying on Fred’s account for reference, I allotted about twenty minutes of leeway time, set the time of day to 10:20 PM, stepped back to take in a broader view, and punched the lever into real time.
Almost immediately, Fred and Christine flooded the lens both lounging by that part of the fountain. Fred was still dressed in his biking leathers, though he had apparently changed his shirt, which looked spotless and new. Otherwise he had made very little attempt to look suave, as his hair remained unkempt and his stubble unshaven.
Christine seemed not to care. On the other hand Christine appeared absolutely radiant. She wore an attractive blue skirt, the kind which matched the intoxicating color of her eyes, had curled her hair and applied just a shade of makeup, all topped off by the alluring way that the moonlight played of her fair skin. Her very countenance seemed to glow with the aura of angel.
Staring longingly into the glass, I gathered that my assumptions about time had been correct, and so I caught them carving their initials into the stone side of the fountain. I leaned in closer to observe their actions and was inadvertently rewarded with a front row shot of a tender kiss. Hot blood leapt to my face, and I almost flung the scope into the fountain, silently thanking goodness that the lens didn’t allow me to hear the tender mush they were spouting to each other. Summoning up all my willpower, I gritted my teeth and forced myself to watch the lens.
It’s not real, I told myself, this is some twisted reality…it didn’t really happen…my wife is kissing a dead man…a ghost.
However, my exercise of self-control was soon rewarded, as the show progressed into something that I could stomach. Somehow, as Fred was carving the initials, his hand slipped and punched in one of the apples on the tree. I
Immediately, he paused from his carving and began punching in apples, just as I had done. Giggling playfully, the punching game escalated into an all out contest. Granted, they appeared to be having no more success that I, but they surely were having a much more enjoyable time failing. The game arrived nowhere for a minute or so, until Christine happened upon a discovery that I had not: not only the apples on the tree where able to be pressed down, but also the one’s held by Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. After a bit more experimentation, she thought to press all three down at the same time. This time, her efforts yielded results. Both she and Frank leapt back and both sets of eyes grew to half-dollar size as the water suddenly drained from the fountain.
At first, neither stirred, but after a few moments, the grimaces of fear rose into grins of curiosity. Fred rose first and peered into the bowl of fountain, which until moments ago had been brimming with water. Something there captured his attention and held his gaze for a good thirty seconds. Similarly intrigued, both Christine and I sauntered over to his side and peered down into the dry fountain. There we made a startling discovery. On the bottom of the fountain appeared a faint brown writing, barely decipherable in the dim light. Just beneath the writing I could make out a clear container about the size of a ring box. The box appeared to contain a dozen or so pea-sized glass beads. I leaned in closer, and letters came into focus: “Climb the stairs and then feed the lady.”
I scratched my head. The message made little sense to me, however, to Fred the instructions seemed clear. Without wasting a second, he snatched up the box of beads, glanced towards the top bowl of the fountain, and he immediately bounded towards the first stepping stone. Christine grabbed his arm in protest, but then she promptly let go after what I guessed where a few condoling words and another light peck on the lips.
Wanting to follow, but not wanting to drench my clothes, I switched the scope to pause mode. I hunched down and located the three special apples
Let’s see if this still works after all those years. It might have taken me years to do this without Fred. At least I can thank him for something.
Using both hands, I pressed them all at the same instant and was rewarded with a satisfying click and an exhilarating rush of sound as the water drained from the fountain. Expectantly, I arose and gazed into the now thirsty bowl. Just as I had expected, the burnt amber writing still graced the bottom, along with box of glass beads.
My heart pounded with the thrill of discovery, however, it still baffled me why the writing could not be seen through the clear water of the fountain. On a hunch, I drew back my head and spit onto the letters. My effort produced an instant answer, as the letters dissolved from view where my spit landed.
Intriguing. It’s sort of a cousin of invisible ink, but yet even more sneaky.
Ready to continue, I started to raise the Recronoscope to my eye, but on second thought, set it down on the edge of the fountain.
I think I’ll try playing Sherlock Holmes myself this time.
Leaving the scope on the edge, I snatched up the box of beads and hoisted myself onto the first step-like bowl. Climbing swiftly without the flowing water, I soon reached the top, and knelt in front of the woman’s-head sculpture, which my brother had described. The sculpture portrayed a young woman with gentle features, high cheekbones and long hair, which cascaded down her back.
She was beautiful except for the wrenching expression of sadness written in her features. Her eyes seemed ready to expel a fountain of tears and her mouth stood agape in a silent moan. As I examined the face closer, I discovered two tiny spouts, one in the corner of each eye, and a chilling thought struck me. This melancholy maiden perpetually supplied the fountain with the water from her tears.
But who is she supposed to be? It’s downright creepy.
I didn’t pause to let my mind speculate instead, I knelt in front of the statue, peered into its moaning mouth, and popped open the box of glass beads.
If that message means what I think it means, all I have to do is…
I removed a single bead from the box and deposited it in the woman’s open mouth. The bead rolled for a second, dropped out of sight, and triggered a sharp clicking noise from the depths of the fountain, Elementary my dear Watson.
Suddenly, the entire fountain shook with the dull grating of stone against stone. Nervously I clung to the sculpture until the shaking subsided and then promptly worked my way down the series of bowls until my feet were safely planted back on solid ground. No sooner had my foot left the last bowl that the stone lady resumed her continual lament and fountain filled once again with water. Startled, I leapt back from the scene to realize that everything returned to its normal position, everything, that is, except for the panel portraying Adam and Eve. The panel had vanished, and in its place, stood a gaping dungeon-like entrance. My mouth became as dry as the fountain had been just moments earlier, and I gazed into the hole with a bittersweet mixture of emotions. The thrill of discovery was blended with the terror of unknown, and garnished with vulnerability.
It was then that I remembered the lockets, which hung about my neck. Carefully, I slipped the both lockets off my neck and studied them in the palm of my hand. For a moment, I stood struck immobile by their remarkable craftsmanship, They’re incredible. No one on earth could equal their lifelike quality.
Suddenly trembling with delight, I undid the clasp on the lion locket. The inscription jumped at my eyes like newly kindled flame: “In Like a Lion”.
Bristling with excitement, I undid the second clasp as well revealing a second inscription: “Out Like a Lamb”.
As soon as the second clasp fell away, a burst of brilliant light accompanied by a bone rattling roar rent the air around me. I attempted to raise my hands against the sensory onslaught, but it lasted only a few brief seconds before fading back into nothingness.
Strangely unaffected by the blast, I stared at the pair of lockets, which now hovered and glowed in front of my face. My hand flew to my mouth as I realized that they had taken on a lifelike quality: their faces moved with the motions of breathing and expression, their eyes blinked and moved from side to side, and their fur bristled and swayed in the light breeze-all this while still appearing to be made out of gold.
“Who are you?” I asked.
Both faces finally took form, the lion taking on an air of stern defiance, while the lamb a one of serene patience. The lion spoke first, his voice growling like sandpaper on glass, “Who we are is not important. We are subject to the will of the locket and to you. Put us about your neck and we shall lend our unimaginable power to you.”
“What do you mean, ‘the will of the locket’?” I asked. “Can’t you think for yourselves?”
The lion’s face curled in a snarl, and the lamb answered this time. “Barely. We are prisoners, though I can’t say that we didn’t deserve it. I am simply content that we have been awakened again. It’s been some years since the last occasion.”
The lion growled, “Enough talk. Either slip us on, or throw us into the fountain. Do anything but wait around. I’ve done nothing but wait around for years, and I don’t mean to squander even one second now that I’m awake.”
I did as I was told and slid both lockets over my head and around my neck. Immediately, they slipped under my shirt and onto my chest, melding in so that I could no longer feel their presence against my skin. Having tucked the lockets away securely, I turned my focus back towards the dark entrance to the underground.
In my mind’s eye, the dark entrance transformed into the massive fanged maw of an enormous sea creature, just waiting for me to wander close enough for it to snatch me in its jaws. Shaking with fright and grasping the lockets for reassurance, I lowered one foot into the gap and winced, half expecting it to be amputated at once. However, nothing happened, and I was able to muster up the courage to lower myself to the next rung.
My future is down there. If I don’t do this, I will not have anything to live for. There is no if. I must either face the dragon or die trying.
My confidence building, I took one last longing glance back up at the sunlight, placed the Recronoscope on the side of the fountain for Andrus to find, and then plunged down the ladder, letting the darkness envelope me.
I’m coming, Christine. You may not know or even want it yet, but I’m coming back to you. You’ll see.