Monday, November 16, 2015

Untitled: Chapter 6

They had barely gotten a block when the commotion began; shouts at first and then a police whistle, thin and shrill in the night, which resulted in a handful of whistles at various distances around them. The police had been notified.

“I knew it was coming,” said Wendell, “But I had hoped to be further along.”

“It won't take long for them to converge.” said Mr. Baine, “Our chances of escaping the city are dwindling.”

The two men turned down an alley and emerged into what felt like a large open space, though neither of them could be certain in the gloom. Creeping forward, they encountered a large wall, running off to either side of them. A row of dark windows peered at them from just above their heads, all locked, as was the solitary door they found nearby. Set into the bottom of the wall, several low openings yawned at them behind rows of iron grates. Wendell tugged at several of the bars to see if they would give, but they refused to budge. The action resulted in a hot spike of pain radiating down from his wounded shoulder into his arm.

Somewhere to their left, a horse entered the area and clopped slowly towards them.

“Not good,” whispered Mr. Baine.

A gentle creak down and to their right caused both men to jump; one of the grates had swung open. Wendell looked at Mr. Baine, who shrugged and made for the hole. Bent nearly double, Wendell followed his companion through the opening and stepped gingerly down into a large cluttered cellar, careful not to use his arm any more than necessary. He reached up and shut the grate as quickly and as quietly as he was able. One breathless moment later, the horse and its unseen rider made their way past the opening, against which the two men had flattened themselves, one on either side.

“How long do you think we should hide?” Wendell whispered.

“The longer we stay still, the harder it will be to get out of the city,” said Mr. Baine, “But without knowing our way around, we are almost certain to be caught.”

“Quite the predicament, yes?” A man's voice floated to them out of the darkness. His wound forgotten, Wendell immediately crouched into a fighting stance, ready to spring; Mr. Baine drew a sharpened stake from his bag and brandished it at the darkness surrounding them. A musical laugh was their reply.

“You look ready to hop, Mr. Grasshopper,” said the voice – Wendell felt as though he had been addressed, “And you, Mr. Scorpion, have a stinger, albeit a primitive one.”

“What do you want with us?” said Mr. Baine to the empty air.

“You are running from the authorities, yes?”

“There was a … misunderstanding.” said Wendell. He kicked himself mentally for the lame explanation. He was suddenly very aware of the damp circle of fabric over his shoulder and hoped that the blood soaking his robes was not visible in the darkness.

“Oh, I know all about misunderstandings.” said the voice.

Leaning towards Wendell, Mr. Baine whispered, “Where is he?”

“I cannot locate him,” said Wendell, “He is using some sort of trickery with his voice – pipes in the walls maybe.”

This prompted a laugh that seemed to bounce around them.

“Where are you?” said Wendell.

“Why, Mr. Grasshopper, you cannot locate me because I am everywhere. There are no secrets in my house except mine own.”

“And on whom do we have the pleasure of calling?” said Mr. Baine, with insincere formality.

“Call me Erik,” came the reply.

“We are in your debt, Erik,” said Wendell.

“Indeed you are,” said Erik, “But it is not safe to talk here. Go to the far corner of the cellar, there you will find stairs leading down. I will wait for you at the bottom.”

Wendell looked at Mr. Baine; a shrug was his only reply.

The two men began to wind their way through a maze of crates and stacks of lumber. There were sheets of wood cut to look like trees and streetlights and ocean waves, then ornate furniture, cans of paint and long rolls of cloth. Wendell brushed past a rack of gaudy dresses, followed by shelves lined with armor from various periods of history and a barrel stuffed full of blunt swords.

Rounding a pile of paper mache rocks, Wendell and Mr. Baine found themselves facing set of flat wooden pyramids and palm trees leaning against the wall. Using his good arm, Wendell shifted them to the side and uncovered a large trapdoor. He unbolted it and pulled it open; the men could just barely make out a set of stone steps leading down into a darkness even deeper than the one which they stood.

“Join me below,” said the voice, “and we shall decide your fate.”

“I don't like the sound of that,” said Mr. Baine, “We have no idea what is waiting for us down there.”

“Can it be worse than what is waiting for us outside?”

“Absolutely it can.” said Mr. Baine, “A pack of starving vampires, for example.”

From somewhere in the shadows, Erik laughed. “I have seen people die on the stage,” he said, “but so far, none have yet returned. If you please, gentlemen, voices tend to carry down here.”

“I agree that this is unusual,“ said Wendell, “but we have no reason to assume he means us harm. He did let us in here. And he is clearly not a vampire, so if there are some down there, he would not meet us there.”

“Your friend speaks the truth. Come.” Erik's voice drifted up to them, this time very clearly from below. Wendell could not help but think this was intentional.

Mr. Baine, to his credit, bit his tongue. Wendell could tell he wanted to say something – a sharp retort, most likely - but the mysterious Erik seemed to hear even their whispers. Instead, he open his bag and exchanged the wooden stake for a pistol; he also withdrew a candle which he lit. To Wendell's surprise, Mr. Baine hannded him the bag.

“I can't carry all three,” he said, indicating the candle in one hand and the pistol in the other.

“You would not risk me holding it before.” said Wendell.

“Just set it down if you start to get … wound up.” said Mr. Baine.

If Erik heard this exchange, he made no comment. Instead, once they began to descend the stairs, he said, “Mr. Scorpion has improved his stinger. Was it you stung the grasshopper?” Wendell felt himself blush in the darkness.

“No,” said Mr. Baine, “and why do you keep calling us that?”

“Why?” said Erik, “There is no 'why.' Simply what is.”

“Come now,” said Mr. Baine, “There is always a 'why.' You studied this nonsense in the Orient,” he said, turning to Wendell, “tell him - everything happens for a reason.”

Wendell openend his mouth to reply and felt a familiar mix of emotion wash over him – sadness, loss, fear, anger, dispair, shame, guilt … but what he did not feel - hadn't felt for a long time, in fact - was a deeper purpose to give it all meaning.

“I … am not sure what I believe these days. But I do know that a cause is not necessarily the same thing as a reason.”

“Semantics.” sniffed Mr. Baine.

Preferring not to continue the discussion, Wendell addressed the darkness, “I forgot to shut the trapdoor behind us.”

“Worry not,” said Erik, “No one dares tresspass here.”

“They fear you so?”

“It is in the nature of man to fear the unknown,” said Erik, “and I am unknowable.”

“Mmm.” said Mr. Baine in a way that Wendell had some to recognize as a sign that his companion definitely had something to say on the matter, but was working very diligently to keep to himself. Thankfully, the two of them had arrived at the bottom of the stone stairway and Mr. Baine was now preoccupied with trying to make out his surroundings using the light of his solitary candle which flickered defiantly against a darkness so deep Wendell could feel it pressing in around him like cool velvet.

The floor on which they stood was stone. The room itself was dry, but there was an earthy dampness wafting up from somewhere ahead that was almost tangible – they were close to water. At the edges of the candlelight on either side of them, they could see rows of barrels stretching away into the darkness. The bare walls would not have been visible to Mr. Baine, but Wendell had no trouble making them out.

“Can you smell him?” said Mr. Baine in a whisper, “Probably hiding among these barrels ...” He crept silently to the nearest row, peering into the darkness, his pistol at the ready.

Wendell took a deep breath and froze. Suddenly, he leapt across to Mr. Baine and, before his companion could react, blew out the candle.

“What the devil are you doing?” said Mr. Baine. “Not all of us can see in the dark!”

“Black powder,” said Wendell, “In the barrels.” Mr. Baine went silent.

“Interesting.” said Erik.

“What are you planning to blow up?” said Mr. Baine, no longer making any attempt to mince words, “Assuming all of these barrels are full of the same thing – that is far more gunpowder than you need to deal with the likes of us.”

“Indeed.” came the reply, “This is for a grand finale of sorts. I am something of a composer, you see, and have very nearly completed my masterpiece. But now that you have seen what I have planned, I fear you will ruin the surprise.”

Wendell, who had not minded the evening chill nor the cool humidity of the subterranean room suddenly went cold. “You never intended to let us go, did you?” he said.

“That remains to be seen,” said Erik, “If I were to show you a safe egress from the city, what would you do?”

“It's none of your concern,” said Mr. Baine.

“It is if you decide to ruin my surprise by running to the authorities.” came the reply.

“We simply want to leave and continue our journey East, nothing more.” said Mr. Baine.

Wendell put a hand on his companion's arm, as much as he wanted to be out of the city, his conscience would not allow him to ignore Erik's machinations below the city, “If he intends to harm innocents, we are obligated to do something.”

“I have no intention of hurting anyone” said Erik, “In fact, the reason I have stored the barrels down here is so that they can be quickly washed away, should the need arise. There is a small lake down here that has more than enough water to neutralize the powder.“

“Will you give your word?” asked Wendell.

“I will, if you will,” said Erik, “Leave the city and say nothing of what you witnessed here.”

“Done.” said Mr. Baine.

“It is the grasshopper's word I want.”

The silence which surrounded the monk betrayed nothing of the turmoil that roiled up within him. His heart felt like a ship on a stormy sea, rocking to and fro, ready to tip over at any moment into one swell of emotion or another. If they left Paris and this lunatic killed even a single person, it would be his fault. If they tried to apprehend Erik, there was a very good chance that someone would die – Erik, Mr. Baine, possibly all three of them - blown to pieces. As desperate as he was to cure his condition, suicide was not yet an option. As far as he knew, though, Erik had not lied to them – though he seemed like someone to whom truth was a subjective matter. Was it fair to assume Erik would break his word because he was …. what – eccentric? Weird? 'Unhinged' did not necessarily mean 'evil,' but what if this man was unable to tell the difference?

“Well?” Erik's voice brought the runaway train of Wendell's thoughts to a screeching halt.

Dear God, he thought, please let this be the right decision. “We will leave the city.” Beside him, Mr. Baine exhaled. "But, if news of an explosion in the bowels of Paris reaches me, I will return for you."


Wendell didn't need enhanced vision to know that Mr. Baine was giving him a look. He could practically hear it - a look that  said 'You're going to get us killed!'

Finally, Erik said, "No such news shall reach you." Wendell found himself analyzing the reply, looking for a loophole in the words that had been selected.

After another tense moment of silence, Erik continued, “You have given your word, but grudgingly. I will now let you choose your fate – choose correctly, and your word is good and you go free; choose poorly, and I will know you were untrustworthy.”

“Because we'll be dead, right?” said Mr. Baine.

“By that point, it will not matter.” said Erik. “Now, there two paths at the end of this chamber; one leads to the forest, one leads to the river. Which will you choose?”

“How is this supposed to prove anything?” asked Wendell.

“Let's choose and be done with it,” said Mr. Baine, “I'm sick of these games. I'll see us out of here one way or another.”

“Choose.” said Erik.

“Since we came from a forest into the city, I suppose we should follow a river out?” said Wendell.

A brief pause, and Erik said, “At the end of this chamber are two arches. Go through the right arch at and follow it to the edge of the lake. Follow the edge of the lake until you reach the river's head, the river passes through the sewers of Paris and merges with the Seine, which you can then follow out of the city.”

"Was that the correct choice?" Mr. Baine asked. There was no reply.

Wendell took Mr. Baine by the arm and led him out of the chamber, following the instructions Erik provided. As they walked, the scent of gun powder dwindled until it was barely noticable in the increasing odor of stagnant ground water.

“I think we are safely away from the barrels.” said Wendell.

“About time,” said Mr. Baine, re-lighting the candle, “do you think we're walking into a trap?”

Wendell shrugged and said, “We are definitely headed towards water.”

They continued walking, taking care to follow Erik's directions lest they loose themselves in the maze of tunnels and subterranean chambers which seemed to meander below Paris. The floor began to slope down until at last the it ran into the still black waters of the swamp upon which the city was built. Off to the side, the muddy bank of the lake curved out into the darkness beyond the range of Mr. Baine's candle. Thick stone columns stood a random intervals, still and pale in the darkness, supporting the massive edifice overhead.

Skirting the lake by means of a narrow stone ledge, the two men walked until a tunnel branched off to the right, away from the main body of water. The fluid below them did not run so much as it oozed away from the lake and into the tunnel. Turning to follow the passage, Wendell noticed that the darkness lessened here and there where grates opened to the streets above them; tendrils of fog seeping lazily down to probe the pitch black veins of the city.

Finally, after what felt like an hour of walking, the pair rounded a corner to find a large circular opening. Stepping out onto the bank of the Seine, Wendell took a deep breath. Despite the runoff from the sewer and the general smell of the city hanging over the river, he found it refreshing. They were finally out of the sewers and nearly free of the city, at that.

“You know,” said Mr. Baine, breaking the silence, “I can't help but think that we narrowly avoided disaster back there.”

A grunt was all Wendell offered in reply. He was suddenly aware of how tired and sore he was, and could think of little else beyond finding a safe, quiet place to get some sleep.

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