END GAME

By Joan Stephens

 

John Pater stood in the doorway out of Vincent’s sight and watched him weakly struggle with the chains that bound him to the wall. The drugs the man had been given sapped his strength and left him weak and disoriented. The bane of the tunnel world’s existence had learned from his last mistake and had captured Vincent first, and then it was so easy to bring Catherine to his domain. I’ve done it, Paracelsus crowed to himself. I’ve got both of them where I want them and now begins the END GAME. It had been three days since he had captured Vincent, and the man known to the tunnel dwellers as Paracelsus had enjoyed every thrilling moment of it, drugging him, tormenting him with descriptive visions--that the drugs would only intensify--of what he planned to do with Catherine. With a contented smile, he strolled into the stony room and stopped in front of Vincent, gazing at him with a self-satisfied smirk, appraising his captive.

When he had seen his hated enemy enter, Vincent had stopped his futile struggles. He would not give the man the satisfaction of seeing him wrestle with the hated chains. Balefully he stared at the tall, thin man who radiated evil from every pore of his body. Breathing heavily, he asked once again about the one who was closest to his heart, “Where is she? What have you done with her?” They had gone through this charade from the moment he had felt her fear and felt her drawing near to him. Now she was confined a bare wall away, and he was unable to do anything about it.

“Oh, she’s quite well, I assure you.” Paracelsus smiled, taunting the bound man. Turning, he sauntered to the entryway and just before leaving tossed over his shoulder, “For now.” He knew that the fear and horror that Vincent would imagine would resonate through the man, weakening him further. How he delighted in tormenting him. Expansively happy and content, he even had a kind word for the sentry posted at the doorway. The guard’s puzzled eyes followed him as he strolled to the room where the woman was being held.

Vincent’s heart sank at those ominous words. Paracelsus had never before promised so obliquely that she was safe. He knew then with certainty that Catherine was in mortal danger. His captor had come only to taunt him and inflame his fear for her safety and was now leaving him alone to worry over it as a dog worries a bone, knowing that the drugs would only increase his fear and his helplessness. He could feel her fear wrapping itself around his heart, but he realized with a start that her fear was for him, not for her. She was surprisingly calm and accepting about what she felt would be her fate.

*

Later that day, he heard the familiar confident stride of Paracelsus. He forced himself to be calm, to be unafraid. Struggling to overcome the confusion caused by the drugs, he had the beginning of a plan in the back of his mind, but the next words that Paracelsus spoke to him sent it flying from his thoughts.

With his hands clasped behind his back, Paracelsus posed artfully in front of the chained man, and he looked at him sadly, his head canted obliquely to the side. It was not true sadness; he was incapable of that. It was only an act, as if he was playing out a role that he had assigned to himself. He opened his mouth and the words poured out full of pathos and dismay, “Since you won’t join forces with me, I am forced to go with an alternate plan. I really didn’t want to do this, but you compel me to by not cooperating.” Shaking his head sadly, he accused Vincent, “It’s all your fault.” Beckoning with his fingers, he had two of his followers drag a struggling Catherine into the chamber and hold her upright before the man she loved.

“Vincent!” she screamed and almost broke loose from the two men holding her. She wrestled with them, but they were too strong and soon she was firmly back in their grasp.

“No!” he roared. “No!” Cursing his weakness, he struggled with the confining chains. Unable to break them, he slumped back against the wall. Shaking his head at the futility of his efforts, he shouted, “Let her go!”

“Hold her, you fools!” The tall, emaciated looking man hissed then turned back to his prisoner. “Let her go? Are you mad, Vincent? She would only bring a rescue party to save you. I simply cannot allow that to happen,” he finished smoothly.

Knowing what was about to happen, Catherine had prepared herself for this eventuality. Paracelsus had described it to her in glowing terms, hoping her fear would further weaken the man he had coveted as his son. Smiling serenely at the keeper of her heart, she said in a clear, firm voice, “Goodbye, my love. Remember . . . I love you throughout all time. Don’t follow me. Stay and protect our family.”

Straining in his shackles, Vincent continued his efforts to pull free then watched, rigid with panic, as Paracelsus quickly came up behind her, pulled her head back and, with a wicked leer, slit her throat. She fell lifelessly to the ground as the two flunkies fled to the door and turned, thinking themselves safe, to watch the unfolding disaster.

Struck dumb with horror and grief, Vincent stared at the body of the woman he loved. He had failed her. With even more horror, he watched her killer stoop and pick up her body. “What are you going to do?” Vincent gasped.

“This!” he replied viciously and threw the body at the bound man. Vincent tried to duck but the chains held him firmly in place and her flaccid body struck him in the chest over his shattering heart. He watched in horror as her body slid bonelessly down his torso and then down his legs to lie in a heap at his feet. He stared at her lifeless body, noting absently that she still had a smile on her face. This was more than he could bear, and he gave himself up to the darkness that hovered around him. If not in life, then in death, he thought. He would not be separated from her. His eyes glazed over, rolled up in his head, and he sagged heavily in the restricting chains, not breathing.

*

Vincent halted his headlong flight into the darkness of death as the Beast cried, “No, brother!! If you die you take me with you; who then will avenge her?”

Turning slowly, he stared at this once hated part of him. He realized that he had been wrong to reject the Other, recognizing at last that he had been a vital part of him all these years and that he had as much right to live as he did. But he also knew that he couldn’t stay behind without her. “I can’t live without her. I don’t want to live without her.”

“If we die you leave Paracelsus to plague the community without us there to stop him,” the Other reminded him.

“But . . .”

“She has charged us to stay and to protect the family. We must do as she says,” he further reminded the grief-stricken man.

“But I can’t . . .”

The man was not to be persuaded otherwise. “All right,” the Other agreed, “if you can’t, then sleep until it is time for us to go to her.”

“Yes.” Vincent agreed after a moment’s thought. “I’m sorry . . . brother . . . to leave the long, lonely years to you . . .”

“I know; I understand. Sleep, my brother, sleep.” At last he knew what it was to be accepted by the man as an equal partner. He rejoiced in their reconciliation after all these long, dark years.

With a final nod, Vincent retreated into the depths of his mind, leaving the Beast in control.

“I did it; I did it,” crooned Paracelsus, waiting for the Beast to emerge. He wanted to caper around the room but as future emperor of the tunnel world--being a king just wasn’t grand enough--it just wouldn’t be seemly. He closely watched the deathly still body, waiting for the Beast to appear. At last, the body twitched and took a shuddering, deep breath then rose to its full impressive height, balefully staring at the man.

Instead of being the mindless animal that Paracelsus thought to manipulate, this was a reasoning creature. The uncontrolled rage came from the man. The Beast merely supplied the strength and ability. Deep inside the man had known and had been horrified and ashamed, and not being able to face it, he had blamed everything on the Beast.

In a cold, stark rage, the Beast wrenched free of the restraining chains.

Paracelsus, blinded by his greed and spite, failed to notice what was happening. He only saw the rage of an unthinking animal. Gloating, he praised him as he would a pet dog, “Good boy. Now come here.”

As he carefully stepped around the body of the woman he worshiped, the Beast spoke, “What have you done?”

Paracelsus paled and backed away from the ominously advancing creature. This was something he had not anticipated: that the beast would be intelligent. Somehow he had to interest the Beast in his plans. “I’ve freed you. I’ve given you the chance to be a god,” he cried, defending his actions.

“Godhood!? Bah! I want nothing to do with your grandiose schemes. You killed her, and I am to thank you for it? Foolish man,” he uttered with distaste.

Paracelsus began to think that maybe he had made a terrible mistake and back pedaled until he was stopped by a wall. “We can rule the world Below. We can be kings,” he whined.

“I thought you said I could be a god.”

“I did; I did,” the frightened man babbled. “Don’t you want to be a god? A king?” He had been so sure that the Beast would thank him and work with him to take back what was rightfully his. Vainly he called for the guards and the two henchmen for help. There was no answer; they had wisely fled the scene.

“I only want Catherine beside me, but that can never be since you killed her.”

“But I - I didn’t know,” Paracelsus shouted, his eyes fixed on the upraised, lethal left hand. They widened as he watched the swift descent and then almost popped out of his head as he felt the painful shredding of his throat. As he crumpled to the floor, his final glimpse of Vincent’s dark face was the satisfied look of his executioner.

*

Now that the deed was done and the evil was destroyed, the Beast returned to Catherine’s body. He remembered the last look of love and devotion that she had bent on him. Dropping to his knees, he cradled her in his arms and held her possessively to his breast. Throwing his head back, he let out such a roar of misery that it reverberated throughout the entire underworld. He would never again in this life be the beneficiary of one of her glorious, loving smiles.

In another part of the underworld, Father raised his head sharply as he wondered, “My god, what was that? It sounded like Vincent.” It renewed his hope that his son was still alive but that hope would fade over the years as he never came again.

Tears streamed down the Beast’s face to fall gently as a soft summer rain on Catherine’s serenely beautiful face. Running a loving finger over every plane and valley of her face, he committed it to memory. A kiss. He had to have one last kiss from her sweet lips. Softly he pressed his lips to the cool lips of his beloved then, staggering to his feet, he carried his cherished burden to a small cave that he had found on one of his many explorations through the tunnels. Tenderly he placed her in the cave with one last kiss then covered her with rocks and stones, creating a barrow over her. Finally, he sealed the entrance with a slab of stone that had fallen from the ceiling.

Weary with grief and despair; he slid down the wall of the tunnel to rest against it. What was he to do? She had charged him, just before Paracelsus killed her, not to follow her but to live on in her memory. And he would do that. He could not go back to the Community. It mattered not that he looked like the man. He was not Vincent; he was only one part of him. Even if they could accept him, he would be a constant reminder of what they had lost. But the most important reason he remained unknown to the tunnel world was that he would not leave Catherine to dream alone in the silent, dark tunnels. He had watched over her in life and would continue to watch over her in death.

But he was alone, more alone than he had ever been. The other one had always been there for him to rage against and to envy, but now he was the custodian of this body and of the sleeper there. And his love slept behind a slab of stone in silence until death came for him. He was alone.

Neither Vincent nor Catherine was ever seen again, but the community had gained a phantom guardian angel who protected them from flood, fire, and all dangers. Slowly over the years, the community learned to protect itself, and he was no longer needed, but even so, he could not abandon his charge and remained its silent guardian. As long as he lived, he would allow nothing and no one to harm the tunnel world or to desecrate her everlasting rest.

It was several years before Father was able to stop worrying about Paracelsus. But it seemed that he was gone. Most likely killed by one of his followers. They never learned the real story, but Father always felt that Catherine and Vincent’s disappearance could be laid directly at the feet of his one-time friend and earnest enemy. Father never ceased mourning for his lost son and the woman he loved, waiting, hoping that one day he would raise his head from the book he was reading to see them standing at the top of the little metal stairs: Vincent’s arm around Catherine’s shoulders and her head resting on his chest. He went to his grave with the hope still strong in his heart.

After many long, lonely years, the Beast felt Death dogging his steps. It was time. He returned to her resting place, removed the slab of stone, and entered the burial cave for the last time. Before he did, he scratched his name next to hers on the slab of stone that sealed the crypt. He had inscribed that beloved name there years ago when he had first laid her to rest. Sealing himself within, he laid beside the barrow and waited for Death to take him and Vincent, who still slept, to Catherine, restoring the triangle of love as it had been in life.

Fini