Worst Nightmare

Worst Nightmare

Chapter 19

Herbert’s eyes wouldn’t open. His conscience crept back like a wispy cloud, first his emotions, then his imagination. He was in absolute darkness, floating, falling, or standing. He felt an incisor dislodge itself from his mouth. The tooth spun in front of his face, like a rotating shuttle turning over in outer space. It sailed away from him, shrinking smaller and smaller until it didn’t look like a tooth anymore. Now it looked like a woman, with long, flowing black hair and a happy smile. Her eyes were up, grinning in wonder at her spouse. 

Herbert recognized her. It was Squannit, the wife of Maushop the Giant. She was riding on his shoulder and laughing as he carried her away to safety. Tears ran down Herbert’s face, and his chest bounced rapidly. She was safe and joyful. They were finally together again, with no worry or fear. 

But she transformed again. Now she wasn’t Squannit. She was Herbert. And he was asleep, held in the arms of the Ghost of Ponce de León. He hovered over the earth and glowed in majestic blue light. His color covered Herbert, and he felt assurance. Not the sort of feeling that comes with being assured. But he felt like he actually met the Person known as Assurance. He never wanted to wake up, because he knew once he did he wouldn’t be in the Ghost’s arms anymore. He would be tied up to some chair again. And stuck under the frozen Pendulum, just as it all started. The tooth floated away into the darkness and Herbert’s eyes blinked. His head hurt and his wrists felt coarse wood against them. He was bound to a chair just as he knew he would be. 

But he was inside the dungeon, just as he had hoped to be. Only he was a prisoner, instead of a hero. He licked his teeth and made sure all of them were still intact. It was just some weird dream from being hit on his head too hard. To his left, Aaron hung from the stone ceiling, inside of an iron cage called a gibbet. Herbert recognized it from an old video game his father showed him with people tortured and left for dead. The game itself looked silly compared to the real thing. Ugly rusted iron bolts and long dangerous spikes on the top and bottom coated in dried blood. Aaron was unconscious inside of it, but he looked okay.

Opposite the room, another prisoner was bound with hands hung in iron locks. His wet hair was matted to his lacerated face. His lower lip puffed out yellow and red, swollen so big that he could see it with his own eyes. Blood dripped from it to his chest. He was watching Herbert in silence, too exhausted to speak, too afraid to move. It was Mr. Dolor. 

“Dad…” Herbert whispered. 

Mr. Dolor gasped and tried to smile at his boy, but his hope faded and his chest shook in heartache. The curtain on the wall flung wide, and the Professor entered. Herbert looked at him, afraid to speak. 

“It took a while before Mr. Dolor started screaming,” the Professor said. “But after a few sessions with the chupacabra, he loosed up. After all, we needed some good screams if we were going to get you to reveal yourself.”

The Professor pulled the curtain back to one side of the wall and anchored it with a hook. On the far side, Mr. Dauer sprawled out on his throne, just like Herbert saw him earlier. His legs crossed, and his crocodile and snake skinned shoes tapped one another. His hand propped on his cane, and the top-hat hung low over his eyes. 

“Why are you doing this?” Herbert asked. His voice quavered. 

Mr. Dauer’s top-hat raised and his eyes peered out from under. The Professor watched him and nodded. He looked back at Herbert and stepped toward Mr. Dolor. “Herbert,” he said, as if introducing a play at a theatre. “It’s what we’ve always wanted. Tell us where the artifact is and all of this can be over.” 

“I don’t—I don’t—” Herbert stammered. “I don’t know—”

“Herbert!” The Professor roared. “Tell us where that blasted artifact is now or I will end your father.” 

“Hey,” Mr. Dolor whispered. His mouth spat bloody froth when he spoke, and his voice was weak and slurred. “Leave ma boy ‘lone.” 

The Professor leaned down to Mr. Dolor’s ear and whispered. “Never forget, leech, you are the one who allowed me to come into this pitiful home. You are the one who let me play the music and take your boy.” He patted him on the back and Mr. Dolor reeled forward. “Don’t grow a nasty moral compass now.” 

The Professor looked back to Herbert. “WHERE IS THE ARTIFACT!” He screamed. 

The noise woke Aaron in the iron cage. He looked around, trying to make sense of everything. 

“I threw it away!” Herbert cried. 

The dungeon was so silent that Aaron thought he heard a mouse peep from a hole in the stone. The Professor looked at the Top-Hat Man, disconcerted. Mr. Dauer raised his hand to his chin. 

“Why would I want to keep something that reminded me of what I did?” Herbert bowed his head in shame. “It’s my fault the gate opened. My fault the creatures got out and the Top-Hat Man got in. My fault that you’re my dad’s boss.” 

“You stupid child!” The Professor screamed. “I was never in that dank forest. We were always out here. You insolent—do you have any idea what you’ve done!”

“Why don’t you tell me?” Herbert fired back. “Why do you want an artifact that has no purpose any more? There’s a new one in the gate. Mine was useless. Go get the other one out of the gate if you want it so bad!” 

The Professor ran to Herbert’s side, and Aaron thought he hovered as he did. The Professor reared his hand back to slap Herbert. “I already told you, there is no new artifact—”

“I swar to Gawd—’m gonn rip ‘ou ‘par!” Mr. Dolor screamed, and the Professor stopped from hitting Herbert. “‘Soon s’i get ou’ t‘ere—”

“No,” the Professor calmed down. “No, you won’t.” He glanced back at the Top-Hat Man. “But you will rip someone else apart.” 

Herbert heard a strange sound like a rolling pin against the stone floor, bouncing over cracks and mortar. It slid to the hallway door and ended with a loud bang against the wood. The Professor opened the door, and the chef entered with the cart the boys hid underneath. On top of it, the large silver kettle boiled the red tonic. 

La Ars Nova makes the children of men see clearly,” the Professor soliloquized. “Makes them see like we do.” 

The chef ladled out a bowl of the concoction.

“Makes them understand why the artifact belongs to Mr. Dauer.” The Professor carried the bowl to Mr. Dolor. “For there should never be a time without him.” 

Mr. Dolor recognized what was happening. “Son,” He stammered and locked on Herbert. Herbert’s heart went to his throat. He struggled to breathe and pulled on his restraints. “I ‘ove ‘ou, son—look t’me—I…love…you.”

Herbert stopped struggling and looked at Mr. Dolor. His bloody face was smiling at him. “I love you, too, Daddy,” he whimpered. 

The Professor pulled Mr. Dolor’s hair, yanking his head back. Mr. Dolor’s mouth opened in pain and the Professor dumped the bowl of red mucus into his throat. He and the chef held his mouth shut. His body convulsed and thrashed against the chains, but couldn’t get away. The boys screamed for help, but none came. 

Then Mr. Dolor’s body fell limp, and he looked asleep. The Professor nodded at the chef, who stammered to his cart and exited the dungeon. The Professor wiped his suit and brushed off his porcelain skin. He leaned in close to Mr. Dolor’s ear and whispered, “Now, you are just like us.” 

Mr. Dolor’s eyes shot open. His head twitched and his neck cracked. The cuts on his face closed up and the blood disappeared. His swollen lip shrunk to a normal size and his skin turned pale. He looked deviously at the Professor. 

The Professor pulled a key from his coat pocket and unlocked the irons around his wrists. He stepped back like Mr. Dolor was a wild animal. Mr. Dolor’s arms fell to his sides, and he lay limp for a moment. Then, his legs wobbled under him like he had never used them before. His breath spluttered in and out of his mouth and wheezed from his lungs. He looked around the dungeon walls, eyes twitching and rolling every which way. He locked onto Herbert across from him. 

“Dad?” Herbert whispered. 

“No, Herbert, no!” Aaron hollered. 

Mr. Dolor leapt across the room like a panther and tackled Herbert’s chair. He ripped at the ropes with his hands. Aaron screamed for help and banged against the gibbet, swinging in the air. 

Herbert’s ropes were free, but he was under the weight of Mr. Dolor. His fists slapped him in the face and punched his skull. Herbert shrieked in pain, a blood-curdling cry for help, but no one came. He begged for his father to cease, but he made no sense. Aaron screamed for help and rattled the cage. The slaps and tears kept lashing and Herbert pleaded to die. 

His own broken heart knocked him out. He sagged in Mr. Dolor’s arms, limp as a corpse. His father stopped hitting him and examined him like a confused dog examines a dead puppy it played with too hard. He patted Herbert’s head, and it rolled on the ground. Mr. Dolor started whimpering like a child. Herbert’s body lay across his arms. He burst into tears and threw his head back, screaming. 

“Shh…” the Professor approached Mr. Dolor slowly with arms out in front of him. “It’s alright. The boy fell asleep while you tried to get him talking.” 

Mr. Dolor looked up at him and wiped his eyes and nose with the side of his forearm. He looked around the room like a lost child, before dropping Herbert’s body on the ground. 

“We both know that the boy didn’t throw away the artifact,” the Professor said. “But we have no more time in this night. So it’s your job now, Dolor. Get Mr. Dauer that artifact. Or you’ll never feel the sunlight on your skin again.”

Aaron watched from the cage. The Professor stepped passed him, and he pressed away from him, against the bars. The Professor stood in the middle of the room and looked at the ceiling. He held his arms up at his sides and closed his eyes. 

“The Pendulum and the Song are finished,” he whispered.

Then high in the house, at the top of the attic, the walls shook. Like fidgeting gelatinous waves, the shiplap walls rippled downward in a dance. The rain on the windows turned to ice, and then a puff of steam. 

Above the solitary wooden chair that earlier held Herbert, the Pendulum hung in stasis. The rippling walls crept upward across the ceiling and down the steel chain. The Pendulum’s edges wrinkled like burnt pieces of paper. It closed in on itself like a fist before snapping open in bright colors of gold and bronze. It swung violently against the side of the rooftop. A final gong blasted from its core, melting the metal and chain into a syrup like mercury. The walls shook and split in half at the sound of its voice. The clang echoed down into every room. Halls, doors, and windows shook from its power. It reverberated through the copper pipes, drywall and insulation. Every last floorboard rattled under its mighty voice. And every door slammed, every monster vanished into dust, and every creature disappeared in a flash. All except the Professor. 

Herbert, Aaron, Mr. Dolor, and he were in Herbert’s room again, at the top of the Dolor house. Everything looked normal, and the sun was rising in the east. Aaron was no longer in an iron cage, but on top of Herbert’s bed. Herbert was unconscious on the floor rug, next to the crouching Mr. Dolor, and the Professor stood by the east window. 

A familiar whine echoed in the morning air outside. It was the sound of whistling and whirring police sirens. A sound that used to frighten Aaron. But today, made his chest burst with hope.

The Professor cracked the window open and looked up at him. “Wanna see something special, kid?” He smiled.

Aaron clenched his fists and aimed to jump at the Professor. But Professor Ludwig Wolfgang vanished in a puff of smoke. Aaron looked for him in the smog and debris, but there was no man. Only a single bat whipping about in the air. It danced in Aaron’s face, as if to mock him, and flapped out the open window, into the sunrise. 

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