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Chapter 5 - In the Hall of the Mountain King
The room Charlie had followed his sister to was the largest one they had seen down in the caverns, by a wide margin. It wasn't quite as robust as the main room of the church they had entered to get there, but it sure seemed like it after Charlie had been running through all the cramped, confined space of the passages for so long. It was at least the size of two or three of the storage rooms they had encountered earlier.
Charlie estimated that there was easily a dozen people surrounding him, not including Richard and his sister, and likely a few more besides.
In each corner of the room stood a glowing metal brazier atop a tall iron rod that split into four legs. The braziers contained coals burning bright and red, as well as something set alight and flickering with tall flames. In addition to the standing flames, there were candles along the walls at infrequent intervals. They appeared to have been placed their without any thought. A group of three here, then a lone candle for most of the wall, then another four all clumped together in a square and so on.
The combination of the coals and flames kept the room well lit, almost as well lit as if they had electricity running down there. In addition to the light, all the fire kept the room quite warm. It made Charlie forget that the area was deep within the throes of winter.
The orange embers and fire cast the room in an eerie glow that mingled with the colours of the stone walls and robes. Charlie saw that once again the room was built from bluestone, and with much more refined construction techniques than the ones he had been immersed in. The light cast shadows everywhere, but they were muted by the multiple sources scattered around the chamber. Still, Charlie was unsure of if there were any surprises lurking back anywhere. Not that he needed any more.
Behind Richard and the rest of his followers, the otherwise square room was broken up by the wall across from where Charlie had entered. Built into the wall was an alcove, just wide enough for a person, and only about two feet deep. Embedded into the sides of the walls in the notch that ran the entire height of the wall were a series of metal rods that still reflected the firelight off their dull, weathered surface. The rods turned the otherwise normal section in the wall into what appeared to be a ladder ascending into darkness above, and beyond the room. Charlie could tell there was the barest of breezes coming down from the shaft by the way the nearby candles flickered more than the rest.
In the center of the room, right in between where Charlie and Richard stood, was a stone pedestal rising up from the floor. It came almost to their chests, and was about twice as wide as either of them. It was raised up by a flat platform of the same stone by about six inches, and about a foot wider on all sides. It was rotated so the pedestal did not conform to the walls of the rest of the room, each corner pointing to a different wall. On the two sides Charlie could see were a single carving of the same thing upon each. A round orb resting upon a series of tentacles, each one wrapped around a smaller orb. Within the large circles were further carvings. Charlie was unable to tell what it was, if it was anything more than squiggled lines, but it made him think of a rose. The amber light from the flickering flames only added that feeling.
On top of the pedastal was a stone bowl, not quite an entire half sphere. It was low and shallow, and in the center of it rose up a long, thin stem. At the tip of the stem, it bloomed open like a stone flower. It split into several tendrils that all entwined together into a basket, with gaps between each strand, and an open top.
Water somehow flowed up through the stem and exited out into the basket, which failed to hold any water by its design, and instead allowed streams to pour out of the holes and cascade down into the waiting basin beneath.
Rather than going elsewhere, like back up through the stem as in most fountains, the basin just overflowed, sending its water down its sides in a single swell of water that broke up into thinner streams and drops as it rained upon the floor below. From there it pooled and spread across the stone, reflecting the firelight even more from its shimmering surface. The wet floor became darker than the rest, but also served to make the room even brighter, and also cast more shadows. If the stone could somehow had been made smoother than it already was, Charlie could almost see it beign a giant mirror. As it was, it still reflected, but only the vaguest shapes; more suggestions of reflections than anything else.
It was hard to see past the wall of followers, but Charlie caught glimpses of where the walls should have met the floor, but instead there was a gap where it appeared the water was running into, keeping the room from flooding.
Charlie noticed that the hems of the robes had soaked up some of the water at their feet. The water had crept up the fabric, reaching like little fingers to grab onto more of the robes the longer they remained there.
The noise from the fountain was soft and gentle, unlike anything these people might represent. It was like a light spring rain, or a faucet scarcely even turned on. It flowed just enough to keep the stone floor wet, and that was it. The layer of water was so thin, and so even, that it almost looked like it was naturally shiny and smooth, rather than cold, rough stone.
It was easy to see that Richard still had a thin sheen of sweat beaded up upon his brow. Even in the shadows covering their faces, Charlie could catch the glint of sweat upon chins and necks beneath their cowls. However, Charlie was well aware he was a little soaked from sweat himself, as much from running after his sister, and the warmth of the chamber he was now trapped in.
"I am so glad you could join us, Charlie." Richard kept smiling that smile of his which was far too familiar.
"And you've brought your sister, our sister, back to the flock. I see you're still not wearing your pendant, Adrienne. Shame on you." He spoke to Adrienne as one would to a five year old to scold them.
Richard shook his head in disappointment. "You never really belonged with us. You just wanted a quick fix to your pain, not the long term bliss the Cerulean Order can truly give mankind. Otherwise, you would have found out about this place long ago. We were ready to welcome you and all others into our open seas."
Charlie's patience for this was coming close to being at an end. "Really? Are you really going to keep up with the pop psych bullshit, even here? You've got us, we've seen through your loving seas steaming pile of crap."
A look of confusion washed over Richard's face. "That which we bring to the masses is not bullshit, Charles. We seek only to feed the people with knowledge, so they will be enlightened once our masters have returned. True, maybe we sweeten things too much, but the beliefs of the Cerulean Order are precious to us all."
"Right, your masters. I didn't think you were all that in charge here. Will they be speaking so we can get this over with, or are your masters too busy to deal with the day to day murders?"
Richard winced at the word. "What we do, we do because we must. And when I say our masters, I mean everyone's. Not just those of the Order. They once called this world their own, and everything upon it served their needs. The time for their return comes closer and closer, and we will all be called upon to serve once more."
Charlie couldn't believe what he was hearing. He knew the Cerulean Order was crazy, but this was a whole new level of nutty to him.
"Unfortunately, you're becoming a nuisance, Charlie. We once hoped you would join us, but that is seeming to be less and less likely. Each generation of your family just became more and more stubborn."
"My family?" Charlie asked, surprised. "What do you mean, each generation?"
"I didn't think you knew," smiled Richard. Charlie noted that the man seemed less talkative here, as opposed to the man who ran his mouth off earlier. He was kicking himself for making such a bad call on just how deep Richard was involved.
"Many generations of the Connellys have served faithfully in our cause. Their money has helped us in times of need, and we have repaid them in full."
Charlie gestured around, his arms raised. "Your mother's mother was one of the Order's great leaders. She helped have this place of worship built for her, and for all of us. It went unused for so long, but when I came into power, I brought us back here, to our home."
Maybe Richard wasn't so different in this guise as Charlie had first suspected. He just stood there and let the one armed man go at his story. "But your mother wanted nothing to do with the Order. She was a woman of reason, so she claimed. Foul science, tainting those against the true gods of this world." Richard gave a shrug and smiled some more. "Oh well, we'll be proven right someday, and then we'll see how valuable a large hadron collider is."
Richard turned his back on Charlie. "Your mother had forsaken us, but we had hope when her children were born. Especially the daughter."
Adrienne's eyes cleared and focused as she realised she was being discussed. Richard didn't notice her yet, and Charlie only gave a slight nod to her. She hoped her brother had something of a plan, but he had nothing. Fortunately, Richard was more than willing to blabber on and give him time to think something up.
"Truth be told, Charlie, you were always a little too unstable." Charlie was almost hurt by the accusation of being unstable coming from a room full of people in blue robes in a room far beneath the ground. He would have been, if there wasn't a certain absurdity to it all.
"Your father never knew about us, your mother never told him. Still, I did know him in the war, and we were friends. We always have our ways, Charlie. We got close to your family once more through another door. With your mother's passing, your father only came closer to us, and through him we got your sister as well. Almost, that is. Like I said, stubborner and stubborner."
Adrienne struggled within her captor's arms, and even tried to scream behind his hand. "Ah, speak of the devil. Nice of you to regain the land of the sane."
Charlie couldn't make out the words she spat at Richard through the fleshy meat of hand covering her mouth, but he could figure it out well enough. If as the saying goes, words can never hurt a person, the look in Adrienne's eyes would come close.
As she struggled, the man's cowl shifted back ever more with each try. It soon fell back and revealed the man beneath.
Charlie stared for a long time. He felt as if he should know the face, but he could not place it.
"Oh come now, Charlie boy. Surely you recognise my friend?"
He did, but at the same time he didn't. It was as if the man's face kept shifting the longer Charlie stared at it. Just as he was about to place the face, it shifted again.
"You met him today in the diner. Although I can understand why you may not recognise him. You were rather busy."
Richard grinned wider than usual, a toothy grin that made the man seemed more foul than benevolent. "Oh, and a little spell that clouds his true form. It comes in handy."
"It was you," Charlie whispered, both to the shifting man, and to Richard in equal amounts. "Why? Why did you kill Markus, just for knowing me?"
"Oh no. No no. We are far from being so petty. He knew other things, unrelated to you, that he shouldn't. Unfortunately, it drew too much attention to us, and here we are."
With a shrug, Richard reached into his cloak with his lone hand, and pulled out a long, silver dagger with gold hilt. The blade was polished to such a sheen that Charlie could see himself reflected in it from across the room.
"We had such high hopes for you, but you've become too much of a problem. It would have been good to work with the grandchildren of the greatest of us, but you've left us no choice. The Cerulean Order is not above killing its own, and while you were never officially inducted into our order, make no mistake. You are children of..."
The speech was cut short by a howling cry from the lone corridor into the chamber. It was so loud that it shook the room, and blew out several candles from the tremor.
Charlie knew well the sound, as did everyone in the room. He had been so engrossed in listening to Richard, and trying to save his sister that he had forgotten about the creature. He was so intent on listening that he had not even heard the thudding grind of its gait as it grew near. He heard it now, they all did, as each and every face turned, whether it was hooded or not.
Richard's shout even drowned out the creature. It drew Charlie's attention away from the noise, and he looked right into the raging eyes of the leader of the cult.
"You let that thing out?! You've doomed us all, you fool!"