Victor re-entered the hall, looking sharper than the mansion’s previous hostages had looked on their second day there. He stooped and prodded the python stretched out by the wall; it made no response. He lifted its tail, and then dropped it.
“Hmm. Too bad. You know, little friend, your death may have saved my life—if that’s any consolation.”
He walked down the end of the hall; the door to the fireplace room was on his left. He took the door to the right.
The ballroom was brighter now with sunlight flushing through the grand windows, though the light showed nothing of the world outside. He looked to the far end of the room, where the candles burned.
“No curse here,” he assured himself.
He crossed the once elegant floor, imprinting the decades-long accumulation of dust with a trail of footprints. To his right, away from the dance floor, elaborately fashioned tables and chairs sat trapped in time. He ran over and lifted a chair, carried it back across the room and threw it into one of the windows. The chair bounced off the glass without inflicting the slightest damage.
“Well, best to be sure,” he said, picking up the chair again.
He lugged the chair back to its companions and set it down. Nearby, a tall, narrow table stood draped in a long red sheet; Victor went over to investigate. He crouched and lifted the sheet, revealing shelves of glasses and bottles. He took a bottle.
“Admiral’s Choice Gin,” he read from the label. “Ha! I know this one, they still make it. Garbage.” He returned the bottle to the shelf. “Cheapskate kept the good booze in the pool room. Guess he didn’t want party guests drinking his best stuff.”
In the corner behind the bar was a doorway with high saloon doors. Victor pushed them open and looked in. A block of daylight spilled from the ballroom through the doorway, interrupted only by a stretched, Victor-shaped shadow; the rest of the room was dim. Steel benches, two sinks, stacks of dishes, stacks of platters, a large oven and a refrigerator—and no light. Not a candle, not a bulb. He entered and walked around the cold, deserted space, and came to a thick door jutting from the rear wall. A small, numbered circle, like a clock face, was set in the middle of the door. Victor took hold of the solid metal handle and pulled, and pulled again, until the door’s rubber seal loosed its long-held grip. With a painful creak the door opened, and triggered the light inside.
The room was a tiny, dome cave, with damp rock walls and an electric globe screwed into the ceiling. The base of a thick stalagmite rose from centre of the floor, to a height of about two feet, where it had been cut level and polished to serve as a table. A short, three-legged wooden stool sat on the near side of the table, while on the other side towered an imposing throne: seven feet high, frame of gnarled hardwood branches overlaid with gold, red velvet cushions on the seat and back, wooden armrests carved into snarling wolves. Victor stepped up to the table and touched its cool, sleek surface. A gleam of light flashed across the table, and a chequered pattern appeared.
“Who enters the Cavern of Ancient Mystery?” spoke a deep, commanding voice.
From behind the throne a curved blade emerged, followed by an old man wearing a long white cloak and matching beard. He dramatically threw back his hood to reveal a gaunt, leathery face. His nose was a crooked beak, his eyes specks in black puddles. Long wisps of hair skirted his otherwise bald and liver spotted scalp, and his earlobes sagged like belly skin after a rapid forty kilogram weight loss.
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