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XIII: SIGNS OF THE TRICKSTER


Chapter 9

“What do you think, Gus?” Nigel whispered, gingerly holding his left arm, bound with a belt as a sling. He shone the flashlight around the passage. Not tall enough for him to stand straight in, it narrowed as it went straight into the hill for a dozen feet, where a barred timber door blocked it. They looked back at the main one, wider and curving gently to the right.

“Interesting,” Gus said, “look at the debris there. Maybe this is the one – the other tunnel doesn’t look half as inviting. Be careful: watch for signs.”

They tiptoed, testing the passageway’s every step. “We got one at the cost of Reuben,” Gus whispered. “We’re going to have to risk even more to get the rest.” Suddenly around a bend in the corridor they saw the glitter of metal amid broken remains of a casket scattered in the dust.

“Wow,” Nigel said. “Looks like this is it.”

Gus crouched, thinking. A trail of glinting gold coins led towards a pile of chests at the far end. “Count, we found something,” he called. “Take a look at this.”

The Count came just far enough to poke his head past the curve. “Interesting,” he said, “and worth investigating. Don’t you think, Mister Journalist?” He stepped back, and Jesús prodded Nigel forward. He fended him away from his broken limb with his other hand.

“Okay, okay, don’t push, I’m going,” the reporter said. “Jesus.”

Gus said softly, “Remember Doc’s show, Nigel. Go slow, keep your eyes peeled.”

“Doc’s show?” Nigel asked, and nodded, “ah, treasure map signs. Right.” Keeping his arm close to his side, he flashed the light around as he nervously crept forward.

Suddenly the light caught a lightning bolt carved on the wall. Beneath his foot, plaster cracked and fell away into nothingness. Nigel threw himself backwards. Dropping the light, he caught himself against the wall with his good hand. A black hole stretched across the tunnel.

Gus hauled him back. “Okey-dokey, maybe not that way, then,” he panted.

They carefully moved out of the corridor. “Bloody hell, man. Too close.”

“Looks like this is it, then,” Gus said. Count Roland silently gestured to proceed. This tunnel narrowed, blocked by a sturdy-looking wooden door. A sturdy bar held it shut, stretching across the ancient planks through two brackets into slits cut into the wall.

The men crowded in. Gus silently pointed at two engraved lightning bolts – one facing forward and the other down on the solid rock surrounding the portal. Near the floor upon either side were also cut two small crosses. “Tricky,” Gus whispered.

They returned to the entrance, where the doctor worked with Lacnuit on Sir Gordon while the Count watched, calmly sitting on a rock and smoking. His men stood nearby, silent.

“As you can see, there’s a door that opens in toward us, blocked by a heavy bar, but it’s cramped. There’s very little space,” Gus reported. “Not much room to maneuver.”

The Count nodded, so Jesús slung his weapon and went into the black opening without a word. Gus motioned to Nigel, who moved further back into the side hall, shining their lights. The archeologist followed, kneeling in the entrance. The Count squatted behind the main opening with the astronomer, peering around the doorway.

Everyone aimed their torches at the door. Jesús lifted the wooden bar off and out of the grooves. Setting it aside, he grabbed the iron braces and pulled. The others held their breath. Nothing happened. He tried again, arching backwards.

A third time; with a scraping sound, the door began to move, slowly at first. But instead of swinging out, it fell forward towards him. The floor beneath Jesús pivoted beneath his feet also. For a moment, he dangled from the metal brackets. Then the door slammed to the floor.

“Down!” Gus yelled, pushing Nigel down as a row of crossbows spat darts with sharp twangs. A bolt bit into Gus’ right bicep. Behind them, another zipped by Count Roland’s head, striking sparks off the rock.

Shouts came from beneath the fallen door. “Help!” Jesús cried. “Get me out of here!”

“Hold on, Rodriguez!” The Count scrambled forward with the driver. They tried lifting the door, but it would not budge. “Help us,” Roland commanded, and Gus reluctantly squirmed into the tight space. Even straining together, the door rose just a few inches. No matter how hard they tried, they could get it no higher. Jesús’ boot pawed at the edge trying to get a purchase.

Red-faced, the Count strained hard. But they could not lift the door high enough. With a gasp, he suddenly let go. Gus and the driver had to drop it also and it crashed to the floor. A sharp cry came from below, and the door quickly pivoted upwards back into place. As it closed, they heard a mechanism behind it click, automatically reloading and cocking the weapons.

“My God,” Roland said. “What have I done?” The Count collapsed in horror, but Andre kept the others covered. The doctor ignored him and extracted the dart from Gus’ arm.

Finally, Count Roland sat up again. “His sacrifice must not be for naught,” he said with grim determination. He slapped his thighs and rose. “Let’s finish this now.

“This is what we’ll do. Augustine, get the bar. You two, move that rock here. Upon my signal, roll it in front of the door. When the portal drops, stick the bar in the gap to keep it open, Gus.” Noting the look on the driver’s face, Nigel, prone upon the floor, gripping his arm, said, “Sorry, he’s done for: I saw stakes down there. Jesús didn’t have a chance.”

“Now, gentlemen,” Roland ordered. With a heave the men rolled the stone onto the plate in front of the door. The door tipped over and the block fell with a loud crash into the pit. They ducked as bolts whistled past, clattering against the rocks. Behind them, thin as a knife blade, the first light of dawn streamed in.

Gus awkwardly shoved the bar one-handed into the gap, but it worked. The door stayed down. They were in.

By now, the soft glow heralding the arrival of summer imperceptibly crept down the tunnel. It glinted off the trio of crossbows beyond the opening and slowly defined a larger room carved out of solid rock beyond. Near the base of the far wall sat a dust-covered wooden chest.

They crept past the weapons array into the room. Save for the wooden box on the floor, the chamber was empty. Gus spotted a small heart carved into the side wall, the point detached from the rest. He nodded at it for Nigel, who grimaced in response.

Roland and Lacnuit crept in along the other side. The Count squatted before the casket, trembling hands together as if praying. They fumbled slightly as he slowly raised the lid. Within the box sat a cracked grey stoneware bowl, half-full of jewels and coins that softly glittered in the growing light.

Count Roland gasped, giggled, and clapped like a child. Covering his mouth, he chortled with wordless glee. The others approached, staring in awe for what seemed a long time.

Lacnuit cleared his throat, the first to break silence. “We must be gone, Roland,” he said matter-of-factly. “Let’s get this to a safe location before the authorities arrive.”

“You’re as greedy as the rest,” Gus said from behind.

“No, just pragmatic,” the scientist said. “There will be many complications arising from this night’s business. Let’s not surrender our sole card.”

“Good thinking, Lucien.” The Count sighed, softly closing the lid. “I suppose you want us to take it to your lab at the Chateau?”

The old man held up his hands. “Naturally, I can’t wait to study it,” he said, “but at your discretion, sir. Security first, then science. It’s yours, Excellency, as agreed.”

“I’m glad you understand,” Roland said with a smile. “Okay, help me with this.”

He looked around. “Andre? Where’s my driver gone? And where’s Doctor Faustino?”

Neither could be found. From outside the entrance there came a weak laugh. “They fled, Roland,” Fawkeslorne called. “Like the devil was on their tail. Serves you right.”

Gus went to him. Gordon continued, “Fitting they should abandon him. His greed betrayed us all.” Silently, he gave the old man water from a bottle. “It’s ours,” Fawkes suddenly said, fiercely gripping him with surprising strength, “ours. After us, it’ll be up to your family. Charles is still a Knight of the Maundy Grail, and he will be the Heir. But it’s your responsibility, too. Save it from them,” he said, as the hold upon Gus’ sleeve grew weak.

Gus sighed wearily, rose, and turned back to the chamber. Nigel stood still next to the entrance, watching. Within the chamber Count Roland rose from his knees. He said, “At last, the Holy Tub, finally and literally in our hands, Lucien. We did it. Shall we collect our reward?”

The astronomer said nothing but also stood. In unison, they bowed, each one grasping a handle upon either side of the wooden casket.

Together, the two men warily raised the box. They lifted, and kept lifting. The base of the casket was far longer than it appeared. It had not sat upon the floor, but rose out of a hole cut into the stone into which it fit perfectly.

“Roland – what?” Lacnuit exclaimed.

Sand flooded into the hole in the floor from beneath the rear wall.

Behind them, the chest opened as Lacnuit stumbled in haste, who dropped it as he fell and rolled. The pot slid out of the box, spilling treasure across the floor. “Hell no!” Gus yelled. He lunged past Nigel.

Scrambling in desperation on all fours amid the rolling coins, Gus instinctively reached for the tub clattering on the floor. “Get back, you fool,” Nigel yelled, yanking him back with his good arm toward the entrance.

Holding onto his belt, Nigel hauled Gus backwards through the small doorway behind them, the archeologist protesting every inch. “What the hell, man? Let me save it!”

The Count scuttled forward and scooped up the bowl. He breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Then, with a terrible grinding of stone on stone, the entire rear wall descended upon him. “Mine!” he screamed as the monolith pivoted with a reverberating crash. The edge of the stone caught the ceramic basin. It spun and struck the stone floor, shattering into countless shards.

The dust slowly settled. Behind where the false wall had stood, a crude, smiling Death’s head painted upon the rear wall of the chamber was now visible in the growing light. Beneath it a caption read, “MUNDUS VULT DECIPI.”

Outside, the birds again resumed their songs, happily greeting the arrival of summer as the warm light and breeze of daybreak drove the last mists away.

 


 

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“The dreamer believes the dream is real.
Dreams may die,
but illusions
never bleed:
only dreamers do.”

– Jean-Baptiste Beauregarde,
Betrayers of the Red Cap, 1839

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