Scarlet moved through the crowd of frozen people as fast as she could. She stumbled around the many legs, absentmindedly apologizing to the statues. In her panic, she ran into an old, hunched-over man.
“What are you doing, girl? Can’t you see you almost pushed me over?” The old man faced Scarlet. His hair sprouted out in random patches with liver spots standing out on the bald parts. Fuzz even poked out of his ears.
The man lifted a hand, pointing at her. His nails stretched an inch past his fingers and they were the same rotten brown color as his few remaining teeth.
When she regained her composure, she said, “I’m terribly sorry, mister. I’m so scared right now. Can you hel—” Scarlet cut her own words short at the sight of the old man’s eyes. A red hue overtook any color that may have once been there.
“I don’t know what a princess is doing down here, anyway. I thought you and your father were too good to join us!”
“Princess?” a voice called out. Scarlet saw that everyone now faced her, no longer frozen. Their eyes gleamed the same red as the old man’s. The crowd lurched toward her, voices coming from all over.
“That’s her, all right,” someone said.
“What’s she doing alone?” another voice asked.
“Maybe we’ll get a prize if we return her?”
The voices collided, making it impossible to single one out.
Scarlet backed away from them, retreating toward the stage. “No, please. I don’t want any trouble,” she said. “I just wanted to watch the show.”
“Enough!” a voice rang out, refreezing everyone in place. “Enough.” She knew its owner: Maleer.
The crowd parted, allowing the giant beast through.
Maleer had to look down to meet anyone’s stare. His ears were pointed like an elf’s and his claws like a werewolf’s. His skin looked gargoyle gray and as tough as a rhinoceros’s. His beady eyes gleamed red and snake-like. When he approached, he sent his thin, split tongue across his craggy lips.
Maleer laughed and circled around Scarlet. “What is a pup like you doing down here all alone? Where is your wee knight to keep you safe from things like angry mobs?”
Scarlet scrambled for an answer. “Oh, he’s here. He’s just… He will be right back. I sent him to save… someone… from harm.”
“Oh? Where? Maybe I can help?” Maleer moved, pulling his hand up to scout. He burst into laughter. “No, that’s not right. You snuck away from your comfortable little castle and now you are here all alone.”
Scarlet glanced around, wringing her hands. The crowd still stared at her with their cemented composures. The old man stood transfixed on Maleer.
With a twirl of his hands, Maleer said, “Show’s over, folks. Go be wretched elsewhere.” Everyone dispersed, seeming to forget that they had been watching a play. The festive music resumed as if nothing had happened. Only the old man remained.
“What’s wrong with him?” Scarlet asked.
Maleer faced the old man and narrowed his eyes. Quietly, his lips shifted and he chanted words Scarlet had never heard before. After a moment, he snapped his fingers. “Go now. I need you no more.”
Scarlet saw that the old man’s eyes turned from red to hazel. He rubbed his temples before leaving Scarlet alone with Maleer.
“Now, where were we?” Maleer asked.
“What did you do to that poor man?” Scarlet stepped toward Maleer, throwing her arm up and pointing in the direction of the old man.
Maleer laughed again. “That? Oh, that’s just a trick I picked up from a little graveside reading. It’s a new game I play when I want to search for… say… a lonely princess attending a festival she doesn’t belong at, you know, without having to show my face. Believe it or not, the people here, as dim as they seem, are smart enough not to like me.”
Scarlet backed away from him.
“Where are you going, little princess? You don’t want to hear them tell of how they exhumed me, so I could help that shaman and your father build this kingdom? You don’t want to hear how they took advantage of me and then cast me away like I was refuse?”
“That’s not true!” Scarlet yelled.
Maleer grabbed her shoulder with his long arm and pulled her closer. “Let’s see what Kobold and Sarg have to say on the matter.” He waved a hand through the air.
Even though Scarlet couldn’t see the brothers, she could tell they’d unfrozen, because the marionettes fell to the stage. After a moment, the dolls stood up.
Scarlet watched the shaman and Hurlock dust themselves off, and then Kobold continued: “That was when they found the corpse of Maleer.”
The dolls stood motionless for a moment before they began moving to Kobold’s narration.
“The shaman, Hurlock, and Maleer built the kingdom of Balderdash, gathering stones from all over the seemingly endless cavern, fusing them together with the shaman’s magic. Upon completion, the shaman worked to create a stock of potions to resurrect as many corpses from the Ashcroft graveyard as possible.”
The stage flooded with different dolls, each falling in and out of the fog. They resurrected everybody they could, from infants to old people, well over a hundred. A number of bodies wouldn’t receive the potion, and no matter what magic the shaman chose, she couldn’t bring them back to life. She returned those corpses to their graves.
“Upon Balderdash’s completion, the shaman grew tired. She wanted to finally rest in peace, so she decided to choose a leader.” Kobold’s voice grew low and he spoke slower, adding to the suspense. “The shaman asked both of them the famous question: ‘We are seeds planted in ignorance and watered with hatred… Where do we grow from here?’”
Scarlet thought she heard Maleer whisper again, but when she glanced up at him, he cleared his throat and tightened his grip on her shoulder.
Kobold’s voice seemed to change. It lost its dramatic cadence and took on a forced, droning tone. “Needless to say,” Kobold paused, “Hurlock was chosen as king and Maleer was cast away like trash. The shaman ran away, like a coward. She hid in the very stone tomb that sits in the traitor king’s throne room.”
Maleer turned to Scarlet. “And there you have it, little princess. As you can see, I am the one who’s been wronged.”
People filtered around them, casting cautious glances at Maleer. Kobold and Sarg both emerged from behind the booth, seeming confused, holding
their hands to their temples.
“I think I should get back home now.”
Maleer gripped her shoulder tighter and pointed her toward a dark alley. “I agree. In fact, allow me to walk you.”
Scarlet’s voice trembled. “I can walk myself.” She attempted to wrest free of Maleer’s grasp but he gripped her too tightly. “Please, the castle isn’t even this way.”
Maleer laughed and forced her forward. “No, little princess, it isn’t, but I know a shortcut.”
The Underground Princess is available in printed and digital format.