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Chapter 19: A Wrenching Rendezvous

The darkness oozed over me like maple syrup as the entrance shut fast behind me. My eyes gasped for light in the dim corridor, lit with only half as many torches as the previous tunnel. In many ways, this passage resembled the one I had just left: the same rotting stone walls, the grainy floor, and, most of all, the musty crypt-like smell. However, one feature set this hall apart: a series of vivid paintings on the walls. All about the entrance area, snippets of bright green and bold magenta pranced across the walls in a mosaic of graffiti.

As I leaned in closer, to my surprise, I recognized the handwriting. The frenzied writing belonged to Fred and Christine. I was sure of it. Years of comparing notes with Fred, and reading love notes from Christine, made me almost an indisputable authority. After a bit of squinting and adjusting to the light, I figured that most of the messages held little or no meaning, but were rather the naïve scribbling of two infatuated lovebirds. In my scrutiny of the wall, I glimpsed more romantic graffiti than I would care to admit.

So they have been here, and often I would expect. I just wonder how they were able to keep it a secret for so long.

Suddenly, a deep rooted pain wrenched inside of me, a wound which had lain dormant for a long while, We never shared anything like this.

Abruptly interrupting my pity, a growl rose from under my shirt, “Are you just going to stare at scribbles all day? I hunger for action! Why don’t you at least try my powers? If you wish to navigate this tunnel quickly, I can empower your legs run like a bounding cheetah or leaping gazelle. All you have to do is say the words.”

Nervously, I felt for the locket under my shirt, Andrus said there might be side effects, though I doubt Leo here is willing to admit it.

However, as I glazed off into the dank and dismal corridors of the path in front of me, rationalizations slowly materialized in my mind like ice on a windshield. The trek ahead would prove ominous, and soon, the dread of plodding along in the dark as defenseless as a worm on the end of a fisherman’s hook overcame my sense of good judgment. Letting my eyelids drape closed, I gripped my chest and whispered the appointed words as I had been instructed by Andrus, “In like a lion.”

No sooner had the last syllable rolled from my mouth, than an ear-shattering roar filled the silent space. For a split second, the cavern shone as every torch blazed with the intensity of a bonfire. Every muscle surged with energy, a constant, intense, heat. Around me, the air glowed with a faint halo.

At first, I felt as if all my particles would become so excited that I was in danger of evaporating; however, after the first few seconds, I grew accustomed to my newfound invigoration. My legs and arms danced with life, each individual finger trembling with excitement and, almost without thinking about it, I shot off down the dark hallway in a charge.

With barely time for conscious thought, my nimble feet sent me barreling into the darkness, which provided me with some small measure of comfort. If anything had planned to lay in wait and pounce on me, it would have to have had the response time of a lightning bolt, if it ever saw me at all.

A minute or so of blurry, high speed travel had worn on when I began to notice, a strange sound, almost like the sound of a human voice, but somehow different, underwater sounding, “Fraghnk.”

At first, I ignored the sound, dismissing it as my overactive imagination. However, the voice refused to be quieted, “Frendgk, qwvihicklkely.”

Not knowing the voice to be friend or foe, I only pushed harder along the tunnel. It wasn’t until the voice snapped into clear focus that it halted me in my tracks.

“Frank! Fred! Quickly.”

Abruptly, I gouged my heels into the ground, immediately stopping my rapid advance. Frantically surveying the area, I found myself to be alone.

That’s Christine’s voice. But why is she here?

Not stopping to think, I attempted to resume my dash, but to my disappointment, I had returned to my normal strength. Not stopping to ask questions, I dashed forward with my normal strength. After the explosive energy of the locket, my own dash felt like crawling.

Desperately, I attempted to renew the power of the locket, “In like a Lion!” I cried.

Fueled by fear and uncertainty, I sprinted ahead with boldness, however, my legs remained as frail as before. Suddenly enraged, I screamed at the locket,

“Do as I say! I need to catch them, before they kill anyone else or maybe you’d like to spend the next thousand years underground buried in sand!”

The lion remained silent. Instead, the gentle voice of the sheep spoke up, “You’ll just going to have to be patient. You’ve used up all of your energy for now. You’re going to have to wait a few minutes before he’s ready to give you another boost again.”

The blood burned like lava in my face, “A few minutes! I don’t have a few minutes! Christine is in trouble and Mercos probably already has those lockets! I need the power now!”

As I bolted forward, the craving for the lion’s power overwhelmed my will power. I finally glided off the serene river of sanity and plunged off the waterfall of madness. I lashed out at the air, screaming, ranting, and kicking wildly. . Finally, my head bashed against the wall, hitting with the force of a battering ram, abruptly ending my tantrum.

Hazy shapes passed before my vision, and I felt myself drifting from consciousness. However, I just managed to cling on, staring up at the ceiling and willing myself to stay awake, like a traveler trapped in a blizzard. As I lay there, the towering rage that had engulfed me just seconds before drained from my body, as did blood from a gash near my right temple. Alone in the dark sea of sand and stone, bitter guilt and fear rushed in to take the place of madness.

What was that? I’m so stupid.

I could not recall even once in my life, being so consumed by anger, even under extreme duress.

I couldn’t find the word for what had brought my insides to a boil, until, I looked down. The lion’s face had slipped out from under my shirt during my tirade, and now sat there grinning devilishly, looking like a mad scientist. “It was you.”

The lion chucked with a low rumble that mimicked distant thunder. “Of course it was. Do you think I get my power for free?”

I nodded, biting my lip and tasting iron, “I had assumed so, but I guess I’m too naïve for you. Why don’t you enlighten me, oh great one.”

“I thought you would be clever enough to put the pieces together,” he scoffed, “but I guess, you’ve taken one too many blows to the head. So, since I’m in a charitable mood today, I will enlighten you, though you don’t deserve it.”

“Go on,” I muttered weakly slipping the lion back beneath my shirt, “I’m going to continue on now, without your help.”

He’s crankier than Andrus…

If the lion was offended by my words, he made no attempt to show it, “Fine. Go on. But listen while you go. Each of the lockets does not posses unlimited power. We all need nourishment, fuel for the lack of a better word. We no longer eat, but that doesn’t mean we don’t feed. We need essences, emotions, to use our powers, and to make sure we don’t ever go hungry, we are all built in with a sort of guarantee. In addition to my primary power, I also posses the power to incite anger in anyone when I’m about to run out of fuel. Allowing you to run like the west wind, used up all of my power, and I guess you can figure out the rest.”

“So you just threw me into a frenzy without warning?” I asked, agitation rising in my voice.” That just about knocked me out cold. You could have killed me!”

“Who,” the lion snarled, “do you think should pay the price? You reaped the benefits and so you need to pay for them. Anyway, it’s over now, and I’m full and ready to empower you in an instant. Just say the words. You’ll find that sometimes anger can be directed in a powerful way by itself.”

In disgust, I promptly ended our conversation. I had heard enough. Internally, I resolved to let the lion lie dormant under my shirt unless I found myself in a dire situation.

As I trudged on, I soon came to a dramatic change in the tunnel. A new section, much cleaner looking, lay in front of me. The sand floors had been done away with, replaced with the same bluish stone that formed the walls. Along the sides, light trickles of moisture meandered down the walls. Approaching the passageway, a nervous longing came over me, Where’s Andrus when I need him? What I would do for reinforcements right now.

Gazing into the darkness behind me, I couldn’t shake the sneaking suspicion that I was being followed, and this time around, I couldn’t have Andrus fly back to make sure.

Attempting to clear my head, I closed my eyes and let Christine’s angelic face flood my memories. I imagined her voice calling for me to fall into her embrace and begging for me to stay there. Longing for her, I stretched out my arms towards the tunnel ahead and tore off down it as fast as my legs would carry me.

On the stone floors, each individual step echoed like gunshots. If anyone was waiting anywhere nearby, they now knew I was coming.

I plodded onward uninterrupted until my stride was immediately cut short by a disturbing sight: a strange trail of color scattered in drops and splatters. Blood.

Incredulous, I stopped and knelt over the crimson stains. The trail was still fresh from the looks of it. The spatters were flung at various angles landing both on the floor and the walls, causing some of the moisture to drip red.

The breath caught in my throat as if an invisible hand were wrapping its fingers around it. The blood could belong to anyone. Though I tried not to jump to conclusions, I could not help my overactive imagination from taking center stage,

What if it’s Christine’s blood and she’s dying? Or another hapless city official caught in the crossfire. Yes, that’s probably it, but then again, if Christine is here, Fred probably is too. In that case, it could be his.

Suddenly, the clapping of another pair of footsteps resounded through the hall, still distant, but approaching.

My legs kicked in before my brain, and I bolted off down the path lending the clamor of my rhythmic stride to that of my pursuer. At first the two strides beat opposite each other, like dueling drummers in a subway tunnel, until at last, my pursuer matched my step and our strides beat as one. Desperately, I glanced back over my shoulder to catch a glimpse of my pursuer, but saw nothing.

Seriously wondering if the darkness had finally driven me insane, screeched to a stop and listened to see if the other set of footsteps followed suit. The other footsteps continued for a few seconds, but then too fell silent. There, locked in a breathless standstill, I considered running back myself, in hopes that my pursuer was in fact part of the reinforcements from Andrus.

However, as I waited there, listening intently to the silence, I decided that the behavior of my pursuer better resembled that of a hunter playing mind games with his prey, and so I ran, having no desire to end up a crumpled heap on the cold stone. As soon as my feet resumed striking the paving stones, my follower quickly picked up the pace to once again match mine.

Now genuinely frightened, I pumped my legs against the pavement with the rhythm of pistons. However, as a tore deeper into the tunnel, the water from the walls poured onto the floor with constantly increasing speed, coating the blue stones with a thin layer of liquid. My feet fought for traction against the slick surface as I floundered about, trying to keep track of the quickly vanishing trail of blood.

I stamped and sloshed through the frigid water, spraying torrents in every which direction, throwing up an obscuring mist in front of my vision. All at once, one foot caught in pothole created by the absence of a floor stone while the other foot lost traction of the floor, planting myself face first onto the floor. Water rushed into my vision, and for a moment, I lost all sense of direction as my legs tumbled over my head towards the ceiling. I hit the floor with a bone-jarring thud, causing my vision to blur.

Forcing myself to my knees, I chanced a backward glance, I saw, to my horror, a shapeless mass of color swiftly advancing on me from the distance. Clawing into the ground, I managed to scramble away blindly, not daring to look back again. Fortunately, the tunnel finally split ahead into two separate paths, both equally ominous-looking. Hoping to lose whatever was following me, I didn’t pause to weigh my options as to which direction to go.

After a short distance, this tunnel broke off into another branch, which I followed to the left. This in turn broke into a series of other paths. I zigzagged from path to path leaving my pursuer to guess at the path that I had taken.

The winding tunnels, however, had left me in a difficult situation. The dampness had erased all but the tiniest traces of the blood, and so I no longer had any indication of which way I needed to follow in order to pursue the lockets. I continued through the darkness, making a steady pace, and constantly vigilant for any traces of crimson on the floor or walls.

What if Christine isn’t down here at all? What if I’m running blindly through this lab rat maze, just inches away from the end where they’ve set the mousetrap.

At once, my legs buckled out from under me and panic welled up so tightly in my chest, that I had to clasp my hands over my mouth to prevent a scream. I looked up in despair. The tunnel in front of me cut off sharply in a dead end.

The cavern at once opened into a more spacious, dome shaped room half choked with jagged boulders impeding any further progress. The room ahead was free of the dampness of the previous tunnels, and was lit by a meager torch, which shone dimly from the left wall.

I advanced to the nearest boulder and lost myself behind it. Heaving with all my might, I attempted to pry it even an inch from its position and was unable to budge it even the smallest distance.

My head rested against the gigantic boulder, and I let my eyelids close. Once again conjuring up images of Christine, I began to drift off into a stupor. Longingly, I caressed the finger where my wedding band had been just the day before.

Finally, I let the hand drop onto my heart and onto the locket. Suddenly, my eyes flew open with a flash of inspiration.

Of course! How could I forget? I have all the strength that I could ever wish. That is, if I want to chance the consequences.

Gradually, I raised my frigid, sopping-wet body from the boulder and reached inside my shirt for the lion locket. Where there should have been two lockets, only a single locket remained. Terrified, I yanked the remaining locket from my neck, hoping against chance, that I still had the lion, and was aptly rewarded. The lion had remained securely around my neck; however the lamb was nowhere to be found.

Incredulous, I broke my rule of silence and screamed at the lion, “Why didn’t you tell me that the lamb was missing?”

The lion gazed off indifferently, “Why should I? I’m not in charge of him…you are. Besides, I don’t really need him now that I’ve been activated. It just wasn’t really that important.”

At that instant, the devil on my shoulder tempted me to grind the obstinate locket into a fine powder with a boulder. However, as I sat there, huffing and puffing, I came to the realization that I really needed its help if I was ever going to manage the path ahead. Drawing in a deep breath, I attempted a calm response, “Listen,” I muttered through clenched teeth, “I hate to admit it, but need your help again. I could just as soon leave you down here with your friend the lamb if you give me any trouble, so you had best cooperate. I don’t want to die from the side effect this time, so try to tone it down.”

The lion scoffed scornfully, “You wouldn’t dare leave me down here. That would be nothing short of suicide. Your pursuers would undoubtedly pick me up, and I would be forced to serve a new master. I don’t play favorites.”

Annoyed, I curtly wagged my head back and forth, “Then why do you think the lamb was expendable? What makes you so sure that someone would pick you up? I could hide you.”

To this, the lion only chuckled, “Oh, I’m deadly sure. We lockets have a precious little to do most of the time, and would do anything to be borne again. On the same token, every living being craves our power. They are drawn to it, even if they don’t know what they are being drawn to. Even you are becoming dependent on it. You couldn’t cast me off if you wanted to.”

I almost flung the lion off as far as I could throw him, just to prove him wrong. However, a frail voice interrupted my thoughts. “Frank, Frank…”

Though just barely audible, Christine’s gentle pleading cut through stone and rubble. Craning my ears to locate the direction of the source, I realized that the voice seeped from behind the center of the mound of rubble. Suddenly panicked at the thought that Christine might be crushed under the jagged stones, I leapt towards the direction of her voice and called in a husky tone, “Christine! Where are you? Are you hurt?”

Almost pressing my ears into the stone, I heard nothing. Frantically, I tore for the locket, shouted the designated words and immediately flung the first stone aside. Glowing like a live wire, I cast aside each stone as if it had been no more than a pebble, and soon I developed a steady rhythm, each stone banging and splintering like mortar fire around me. Jagged shards of stone flew about like shrapnel from an explosion, cutting and biting into my skin.

Hang on, Christine, please hang on.

Working rapidly with the aid of the locket, I quickly cleared an arm span sized gap through the avalanche of boulders.

Those muscle men at the Olympics couldn’t hold a candle to me…maybe not even a spark…

Peering through the gap into the darkness, I could make out little. As I ducked in farther, however, two vague, shapeless forms came into view. Still trembling with gargantuan strength, I dropped on all fours and thrust myself through the gap. Straining to see in the barely existent light, I shuffled over to one of the forms and placed my hand its head. To my surprise, I discovered that the person lying before me was not Christine, but a man. I withdrew my hand, and took away wet, warm, stickiness. I whispered frantically into the man’s ear, “Are you alright? Can you hear me?”

The man stirred just barely, and muttered, his voice as prickly as a sea urchin, “Face, how? Where did you come from? Go back.”

At that instant, I realized that this man was no stranger, “Fred!” I gasped, “what happened? Where is Christine?”

Just barely hanging on, he managed to croak out a few words, “Over there…” he gasped, his lungs laboring heavily for air, “you left, we came back down here, we were attacked…I don’t even know is she is still alive.”

Suddenly, he burst into wracking sobs, hacking and coughing as if the chamber had been filled with smoke, “You can’t stay here,” he groaned through his tears, “they’ll come back. I’m such a fool.”

He punctuated his words with another wrenching sob, and the rest of his words were drowned out. His hair was matted and clotted with dried blood.. Tearing frantically at my shirt, I ripped a section off and applied it over the site of his head wound in an attempt to halt the blood flow. Despite my efforts, the section slowly became soaked. Unable to take the strain any longer, I knelt close to his ear and whispered, “I’m going to check on Christine. I’ve already sent for help. So just hang on.”

He might have protested had he more strength, but at this point, he couldn’t even muster up a reply. A grapefruit sized lump welled up in my throat, the animosity I had held earlier for him melting clean away.

Again, he remained silent, and I turned my attention to Christine. Fearing the worst, I scrambled over to the other shape in the darkness and gently took her head in my hands. Not wanting to make my presence known to anyone who might have be laying in wait, I leaned in closer and whispered with the urgency of a man hanging by a branch off the side of a cliff, “Christine! Can you hear me? It’s Frank! Oh, please wake up. I’m going to get you out of here.”

Waiting for a response, I realized that my hand was collecting more sticky wetness from the side of her head as well. As before I ripped another section of my shirt and wrapped it around the area of the wound. Again, I attempted to arouse her back into consciousness; nevertheless, she remained silent and lifeless. Desperately, I grasped her now icy hand, “You can’t do this to me,” I pleaded, “you need to wake up. Help is on the way. You need to tell me who did this. Christine!”

Despite all my pleading, she stirred no more than rag doll. Falling into the depths of panic, I leaned over and kissed her blood-streaked forehead.

As, I gazed into the darkness, my eyes ached for a chance to see her face just one last time. Gently, I slipped my hand along her pale cheek and leaned in closer, “Christine, I need you to wake up,” I murmured, both gentleness and strain creeping into my voice, “I’m going to get you both out of here, and then I am going to make things right, the way things should have been. I never should have messed things. I thought that would finally fill this emptiness I’ve fought to fill for all these years, but instead, it’s only left me more broken, empty and miserable than I ever was before. I know you probably don’t understand.”

I winced with the thought of the curly blonde-haired elf that at once been my daughter, “If you could only see our life together Christine, you’d fight to live. I don’t know what’s going on, but we can’t fix anything if you don’t wake up. Please Christine, do it for me.”

I paused, and added on a second thought, “Do it for Annie, wherever she is.”

The whisper hung in the air, unanswered and unheeded. Christine barely stirred, though I could tell that she was still breathing, though very weakly. Not daring to admit defeat, threw my hands to the ceiling and pleaded more vehemently as one pleads for his own life before a jury, “Oh, please, let them live! They don’t need to be a part of this! It isn’t fair! I started this, and I should be the one to pay, not them. I don’t know if Trezzlepeg will fix this one.”

Sensing the utter helpless of my situation, I collapsed into my own hands, I guess possessing all the power of the cosmos won’t do me any good now. I don’t even have the strength to save the ones I care about…

“When will this nightmare ever end?”

From behind me, a growling voice replied from out of the darkness, “Don’t cry too hard Tomas. Your nightmare ends now and here your eternal sleep begins.”

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