Heart of Stone
This is the continuation of my story, "Will Rise Again," that appeared in issue 307. This story will be better if you've already read the first one.
The cloaked figure slipped inside unnoticed. His clothing trailed behind him, noiselessly caressing the floor. He entered the circular room that was cast in shadows, examining the ring of statues, each casting an odd, long shadow on the stone floor.
It was easy to find his way to the center of the circular room to get a better look. Moonlight slanted lazily through the windows on the far side of the room, making the room more eerie than it should have been. This was a room that showcased fame, nobility, and honor, but at night, even such great things can look frightening.
The creature in the cloak was not frightened, however. He took his time floating around the circle, reading the inscription at the base of every statue. Every stone figure received a snort, a mocking laugh, or, in the case of the great statue of a mighty Lupe, a sneer and mumbled, inaudible words that could not be mistaken as nice in any case.
The figure stopped in front of a statue directly across from said Lupe, and this statue received only a contemplative silence. What this figure gazed upon, however, couldn’t quite be termed a statue any longer. It lay in a perfect mess of rubble. Any traces of what it might have been were long gone. All that was left were broken pieces, shards of jagged rock, and cold stone. It would be impossible to piece this statue back together, and yet...
The figure turned his head left to right, scanning the darkness with keen eyes, and then slowly, cautiously, the hood of the cloak was drawn down, and a haunting green face appeared.
Dr. Sloth reached inside his cloak, rummaging deep into a bag he carried, and pulled out a book. The red book was an exact replica of the book that contained the Gallery of Evil. He’d easily stolen it, copied it, and replaced it before anyone had noticed. He’d needed it; he’d needed a guideline. He’d used up his two main choices: Balthazar and Jhudora, and now he needed help deciding who he would seek for help next.
In the partial darkness, Sloth flipped open the book and paged through until he came to the end. He studied the sketch of the Darkest Faerie in the gloom. His eyes shifted from picture to the rubble of the statue and back again, considering.
The book claimed the faerie was trapped in a statue.
What other statue could this book be referring to besides the one that lay in a heap at his feet? Sloth wondered.
The plaque at the base of the statue claimed that this had been, at one point, the recognizable statue of the Darkest Faerie, the evil-doer who’d nearly caused the destruction of Altador.
It was too bad those heroes had made it here before him, too bad that the statue was now completely unrecognizable, and too bad that he had no idea how to awaken her even if the statue had been whole.
Annoyed, Sloth slammed the book and, with a swift movement of his hands, it disappeared under the depths of his cloak again. What was he going to do now? It had been foolish, he realized, to take the risk of sneaking into the city of Altador and gaining access to the Hall of Heroes, driven by the foolish hope that when he had gotten here, the answers would reveal themselves.
His sigh died in his lungs when he heard a shuffling noise and an annoyed cough. Fear snaked up his spine. Those imbecile Grundos he’d left at the door! Could they do nothing right? Could they not stand outside and make sure no one else entered? He’d been a buffoon to believe they could carry out such a simple task. Sloth whirled, head snapping left to right, searching for the noise, but he saw nothing.
But certainly he’d heard something...
The gruff voice, emitting from the darkness right in front of him, had Sloth jolting. The villain was slightly taken aback to find that the noise maker had been right before him all along. The Yurble was short and stout, but he was standing in front of him nonetheless.
Sloth had to aim his gaze at the floor to see him. The Yurble was a burnt orange color, garbed in the traditional Altadorian clothing, and he had a scowl on his face he didn’t bother to hide. He didn’t appear to be affected in the least by the obvious size difference between himself and the intruder. He leveled the unwelcome guest a look and lifted a mop, something Sloth hadn’t realized he’d had, off of his shoulder to wag it at him.
“What are you doing here? Don’t you know tourism is only allowable in the daytime?”
Sloth realized immediately that the Yurble hadn’t recognized him. He took a calculated step backwards, masking himself further in the shadows.
“I wasn’t aware,” he lied.
The Yurble harrumphed. “Well, now you are. I’m the Janitor here, and it’s my job to keep this place the way it should be. You’ll have to come back in the morning.”
Sloth didn’t move. “I’m sorry. I’ll go, but, before I do, could you tell me about this statue?”
The janitor studied the strange silhouette Sloth had become when he’d further encased himself in shadows, and then sighed. He scratched his furry face and glanced over his shoulder at the massacred statue. Sloth saw him considering, saw his nature for enjoying a good story winning over, and smiled happily in the darkness when the desire to hear his own voice won the Yurble over to his side.
“Well, the Betrayer doesn’t come with a pretty story. She wasn’t always known as the Betrayer, but no one knew what lurked in her heart.”
Sloth sensed the janitor was about to deter from what he really wanted to know.
“I’ve heard the stories,” he interrupted smoothly, “but, what got me was the part about her being encased in this statue. It’s broken.”
The janitor nodded. “The story doesn’t necessarily pinpoint the statue it speaks of, does it?”
He didn’t bother to clear the annoyance from his tone at being interrupted at the very beginning of his story. He scowled at the figure in the darkness. No one understood how dull it was to be a janitor in this place. There was never anyone to talk to except these statues, and they obviously weren’t the type to speak back.
Sloth let the annoyance roll off of him. He had no pity or compassion for anyone, so he didn’t have the slightest idea, nor did he care why the interruption set the janitor back.
“No, it doesn’t, but where else could it be?”
The janitor dropped his mop to the floor and began to scrub at something only he could see. He shrugged his broad shoulders.
“How should I know?” he grumbled. “What do I look like? That crazy Lenny archivist? Go ask him.”
“Perhaps I will,” Sloth conceded, though he had no true intention to. The Lenny would undoubtedly recognize him if he was as wise as they claimed. “I’ll leave you alone now.”
His words reminded the janitor abruptly of his forgotten purpose. “Yes, yes, you do need to go. Remember, the Hall of Heroes can only be toured during the day if you decide to come back.”
Sloth didn’t answer, and he easily ignored the mumbled complaints about rudeness and lack of respect. He stayed in the shadows on his way out, knowing he had no intentions of returning to this place.
As far as he was concerned, the Darkest Faerie was lost. He had no idea if she was in the broken bits of statue in the Hall of Heroes or miles and miles away, or perhaps if she even existed at all anymore. Legends were only legends. They were never guaranteed to be fact. He didn’t have the time to be chasing the uncertain, and he didn’t have the patience for puzzles.
Sloth stepped out into the cool night air, ignoring his surroundings. Altador slept around him, and his guards fell in line behind him as he left the legendary place.
Hours later, seated at a desk in a cluttered, cramped room, he pulled the book back out of his bag, flipped it open, paged to the back, and marked out the Darkest Faerie.
Two down. Though it was only two, it already felt like his options were becoming suffocating narrow. Shifting in his seat to find a comfort that was alluding him, Sloth pushed the book closer to a lamp on the desk and began to consider the rest of his options in the dim light.
The faces drawn in the Gallery of Evil grinned wickedly up at him in response.