The Man behind the Curtain

The Man behind the Curtain

Chapter 8

The door on the attic floor flung open, and Herbert fell forward. The creature prowling in the attic had scratched his back, and the door slammed shut behind him. He thought he would be falling on his sister and Aaron when he heard their voices through the floor, but they were nowhere to be found. And just like the attic, nothing seemed familiar, so he assumed he was in a very different building.

He picked himself off a cold, creamy, cobbled floor and rubbed his wrists where the ropes had grooved into his skin. Dried blood and vomit were stained on the front of his clothes. He touched his back where the creature had scraped him and it stung. He looked up, but the attic door had disappeared. Remembering the monster nearly got him, he shivered and sighed. In all the bustle, he had left his glasses on the floor of the attic. He squinted his eyes and looked down the long hallway. White mortar outlined the creamy stones up the walls and ceiling. Lanterns lit the hall to a blurry wooden door fifty feet ahead. He couldn’t see well, but he guessed he was in something like a castle.

“Where am I?” He murmured to himself.

He stumbled toward the door, hoping to find water because he was parched, but stopped short after hearing voices on the other side. His ear pressed against the door. Three men spoke inside. 

While he tried to make out the voices, he noticed a thin passage to his right, wandering down to a dimly lit iron door. He staggered down to it and put his ear against it like the other wooden door. 


He nudged it open, and the door creaked. It was a smoke-smeared dungeon. Chains hung from the ceiling with iron locks at the end for securing a prisoner’s wrists and ankles. In the corner was a large washbasin filled with water. Herbert fumbled to it and dunked his face in. He drank all he could handle and came up gasping. 

The water soaked his shirt and cleaned his face and clothing off. He fell to his knees, exhausted, and started weeping. But no matter how many tears you have inside of you, you must stop at some point and realize crying doesn’t really change anything—though it surely does feel good sometimes. He wiped his tears and looked around the dungeon again. Across the room, nearest the door he entered, a large red velvet curtain hung from the ceiling to the floor. It was several inches thick, and he could tell it separated the dungeon from a larger area on the far side. 

He scooted along the stone floor. Now that he had his drink, he remembered he should try to stay silent. He pressed up against the curtain. The voices of the three men came through it, dim and muffled. Herbert’s hand crawled along the fabric and searched for a seam. He pulled the curtain, keeping the light off his face, but letting his eye peek through. 

He was right in his guess. The other side was a much larger room with the same cobbled floor and creamy stone walls. Iron swords, flags, and oil painting decorated the walls. Candle chandeliers hung from the ceiling and dripped wax onto the floor. He craned his neck backward and pitched the curtain outward to see farther to his left. Two men were standing with their backs turned to Herbert. Under their feet, a long burgundy carpet led up a set of stone steps to a throne. On the throne sat a thin pale man, wearing a black suit and resting his hands on top of a cane. He wore crocodile-and-snake-skinned shoes. A top-hat rested on a pedestal next to him. In his ear, a piece of cork clogged his ear because oil and wax would drain out of it otherwise.

Mr. Dauer,” Herbert whispered to himself. 

“No, I don’t care about the mother,” one of the men yelled at Mr. Dauer, and Herbert recognized his voice as the Professor’s. “She knows nothing, and her demure temperament makes her useless to me. Maybe he could help with it. But not even my song can get through that.”

“I don’t expect the mother to be a part of the story for very long, regardless,” Mr. Dauer responded and tapped his cane. 

“What I want to know is why hasn’t my song affected the children!” The Professor hollered. “Something is protecting them, and you didn’t brief me well enough for this!”

“Please, don’t talk to me like you are in charge,” Mr. Dauer responded coolly. He took a breath and leaned forward. “The ghost had them drink from the spring. Their hearts are impervious to your song.” 

“Well, if you told me that before I got here,” the Professor remarked, “I would have just taken the boy from the home altogether. No use locking us down to this location if I’m on a time-limit now. This isn’t my fault—”

“It is your fault, Wolfgang!” Mr. Dauer raised his voice, and the hairs on Herbert’s neck stood on end. “I want that artifact, and I want it yesterday!” Mr. Dauer brought his attention to the other man. “How much time longer does the Pendulum have?” 

The other man raised his head and looked at Mr. Dauer. He spoke, and to Herbert’s shock and horror, he realized it was his father. A pit formed inside Herbert’s stomach and made him want to throw up again. Tears rushed to his eyes, and he looked all over the room, confused, gasping for understanding. 

“Every minute and moment it grows quicker,” Mr. Dolor spoke. “You do not have, but a handful of chimes before the Pendulum resets.” From the sound of his voice, Herbert knew something was still intoxicating his father like at dinner. 

“You have five chimes left,” Mr. Dauer scowled at the Professor. “Get the artifact from the boy, or so I swear it—I will forsake you to this place forever. All the doors will shut to you.” 

A knock banged on the door, the same wooden one just outside Herbert’s iron door. 

“What?!” The Professor screamed, and Herbert stuck his face through the curtain a little further to see. A short man with wild hair, a hump on his shoulder, and a bandage around his ear bumbled into the chamber, with his head down and looking altogether meek. 

“Fritz!” The Professor hollered at him. “What do you want?”

“Begging forgiveness, masters,” Fritz whined. “But I don’t think we can trust all our allies.” 

“What are you talking about?”

“I threw out that Monster after he bungled the boy’s kidnapping and didn’t kill the other one.” Fritz explained.

Aaron, Herbert thought. He’s okay.

“Now he’s back with one of the other Dolor children. I think he’s telling her things.”

“I don’t have time for your presumptions or petty differences with the Monster—”

“But sir, the clock keeps chiming!” Fritz argued. “I imagine we don’t have time—”

“How dare you talk to me about my plans!” The Professor screamed. “Get your sniveling little dirt face out of Mr. Dauer’s chambers or I’ll throw you in the dungeon myself!” (Herbert slunk back as the Professor pointed his direction.) “If the chime keeps ringing,” the Professor continued, “we will increase our tenacity. Even if it means those other Dolors perish.”

“What of the Monster and the girl?” Fritz asked.

The Professor looked at Mr. Dauer on his throne. He pursed his lips and rolled his eyes. The Professor looked back to Fritz. “I’m sure you can figure it out,” he said. 

Herbert didn’t know what that meant, but didn’t like it. A familiar knock rapped on the wooden door—Tap, Tap, Tap—And Herbert craned his neck to see.

The Professor stepped passed Fritz and opened the door. The black raven fluttered inside and rested on his shoulder. It leaned its beak into his ear, as if whispering. 

“Thank you,” the Professor said. He turned to the other men. “It seems two of the children have found the mother’s quarters.” The Professor responded to the Raven on his shoulder, “Have Wimbledon, Thimbledon, and Stopp take care of them.”  

The Raven’s wings thrust open, and it zoomed out of sight. The Professor thought he saw the velvet curtain flutter and looked toward the dungeon. But he assumed he was imagining things and returned to Mr. Dolor and Dauer at the throne.

“In between a minute and a moment,” Mr. Dauer mused, deep in thought. “Get the artifact before time corrects itself, Ludwig. You won’t have your friends after that. Not even your song will help you then.” 

“And you—” Mr. Dauer looked at Herbert’s father. “Get back up there to the Pendulum and the boy. Make sure the chupacabra hasn’t killed him yet.” Mr. Dauer looked at the ceiling chandelier. “I want my Pendulum safe.”

Fritz opened his mouth to say something, but noticed the men had already forgotten about him. He turned away as Mr. Dolor exited with him on his way to the attic. 

“Dolor children,” Mr. Dauer whispered to himself and rolled his eyes.

Herbert jumped to his feet. This was his opportunity. If that little man without the ear knew where one of his sisters was, he could lead him to her. He crawled along the stone floor and creaked the dungeon door open. Both men passed in a flurry as he hugged the edge of the shadows in the small corridor.

He turned back into the corridor of lanterns, keeping as much as thirty feet of shadows and flickering candlelights between him and Fritz and his father. At the end of the hall, two pathways led in each direction. Fritz scampered to the right. His father turned toward the left, but stopped short for some reason. Something in the air had caught his attention. He turned around and looked Herbert’s direction. Herbert dropped to the ground and pressed his body against the stone wall, hoping the candlelight was dim enough. Mr. Dolor scanned the hall like a hunter. They locked on Herbert, but he couldn’t be sure without his glasses if Mr. Dolor had seen him. Herbert held his breath and closed his eyes, praying for the power of invisibility. The zombified man sniffed the stale air and shook his head. He turned away and vanished down the left hall. 

Herbert’s legs felt like jello and his hands shook as he slithered to his feet. He took a deep breath and scurried down the rest of the hall before taking the right. Fritz was much further ahead, a hundred paces down, scuttling along quickly. Herbert slowed down and took a breath when the hunchbacked man stopped at a wooden door. 

Fritz slapped his hand on the center of the door three times and opened it. Amazed, Herbert saw his bedroom on the other side of the threshold. Fritz stepped into the dark bedroom without a thought, and Herbert raced after, tip-toeing and pitter-pattering. 

He caught the door just before it swung shut, but held it nearly closed. He peeked inside. The bedroom was empty. Fritz had already left. Herbert jumped inside, looking around his dark bedroom and letting himself take a breath. It was amusing to see a door standing upright in the middle of his bedroom, leading to a medieval hallway. He decided to leave the door open in case he needed to go back there for some reason.

He hurried around his room at breakneck speed, ripping his clothes off his body and pulling fresh ones from his drawer. An old pair of glasses were in his top drawer, next to his collector-cards and coin collection. His mother made him keep them for emergencies. They were tight on the nose and not the right prescription any longer, but they were better than nothing. He put on socks and boots and shoved his Gerber knife in his pocket. 

Next, he opened the closet door and picked up a length of rope from the floor. Dad had bought it for him. They were going to make a swing set in the tree-house next week. He shook his head, wiped a tear away, and threw the rope over his shoulder. The flashlight was waiting on top of his desk for him. He snatched it up and made way for the door. 

“Oh, wait!” Marian shouted. 

Mrs. Dolor’s door shut. Marian and Aaron stood in the dark hallway.

“What?” Aaron exclaimed.

“I saw them!” Marian grabbed Aaron’s hand. “I saw them, Aaron! Herbert and Esther!” 

Aaron and Marian stood outside of Mrs. Dolor’s bedroom door. He reached for the handle and it vibrated in his hand. A chime rung throughout the house and the children covered their ears.

“Ugh!” Marian winced. “What is that?” 

The noise dissipated. Aaron put his hands down and reached for the handle again. 

“Hello, Dolor children,” a voice that sounded full of peanut-butter greeted them. 

They turned around to see three enormous creatures filling the breadth of the hallway. Long, wispy hair covered their bodies from top to bottom. But the center one was bald at the top of his head. They had long, bumpy noses that protruded through their hair and deep furrowed brows underneath. The fat one on the left wore big round glasses that held his hair close to his face, and the one of the right carried a long club over his shoulder like a tennis player. They were trolls and the one at the center had greeted them.

“I’m Wimbledon,” he said. “And these are my brothers, Thimbledon and Stopp.”

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