The Lost Ones: Vulcan

When Catherine heard the voices from within the chamber, she hesitated just outside the door. His gentle voice drifted softly through the air as he continued his instructions. She knew he would sense her presence, but she did not want to interrupt his lesson and from the sounds of it, they were almost finished any way. She peeked around the corner to see which class was with him today.

"The next American poet we'll be studying is Robert Lee Frost, and I'd like you to read his poem Mending Wall." Vincent closed the book as he addressed his young students.

Luke's blond head bobbed up in surprise. "I know him!" the young man exclaimed. "He wrote The Road Not Taken."

"That's right, Luke. He also wrote, Acquainted With The Night," Vincent added as the other children began gathering their materials and slowly filtered out to their other duties or classes. He could hear them greeting Catherine as they passed her in the outer tunnel.

"Yeah, but I like the one about the two paths. It always reminds me of when we're exploring the tunnels. I always wonder what I'm missin' by not going the other way."

Vincent smiled at the teenager, but found his attention quickly drawn to her silhouette as she stepped into the doorway. She wore her tan trench coat and delicate shoes. He knew she must have come straight below after work or she would have worn something more practical for travelling in the tunnels. Vincent felt a familiar warmth tinged with something he could only describe as excited anticipation begin to envelope him, as it always did when he saw her.

Luke turned to see what had captured his teacher's attention and ducked his head with a knowing smile, mumbling quickly, "Well, I gotta go. I have sentry duty. Nice seeing you again, Catherine."

"Bye, Luke." Catherine laid her hand on his shoulder as he passed.

"Catherine," Vincent greeted.

She sighed wearily and scuffed her feet as she approached him, throwing herself into his arms as if every muscle in her body had suddenly turned off.

"God, I missed you." Her voice was muffled in his arm.

"You've been busy."

"Busy isn't the word for it — used, abused and pushed beyond endurance — that might be enough for an introduction." She pulled out of his arms and flopped bonelessly onto his bed with a moan. "Every muscle in my body hurts right now, plus a few I didn't even know I had."

Vincent smothered a smile at her familiarity, but he could not help feeling frustrated with the way her work, at times, drove her to the brink of exhaustion.

"Really, Vincent, you don't know what a relief it is to be able to come below like this. No phones, no paperwork, no P.D.'s, no reporters — sometimes I think this must be heaven."

Vincent took a seat in the chair next to his writing table. "I take it the case is over?"

"Signed, sealed and delivered... finally! I don't think I've ever been so tired before in my whole life. Depositions, precedents, court appearances — I didn't think it would ever end."

"It was a success?"

"Mmm," she nodded and started to drift off. "Joe gave me next week as a vacation. It seems his conscience got to him when I threatened to start a political career so I could outlaw fourteen-hour work days."

"A whole week?" He paused, considering, "Do you know what you will do?" Vincent asked cautiously, his mind beginning to form a tentative plan.

"No, not really." Her hand came up to cover a yawn and she snuggled down into the pillow.

"Catherine," he began before he could change his mind, but was suddenly overcome with a deep dread. What right do I have to ask? She's so tired.

"Hmmm?"

Vincent nervously fingered the pages of the book that lay open on the table. It's such a long trip. A whole week with her — alone with her. It was at once enchanting and terrifying to him.

"What is it, Vincent?"

"Would..." he began and stumbled, then tried again. "Would you like to spend your week here?" In his mind, he replayed the promise he had made to her. It wasn't a Connecticut weekend in the sunshine, but they would be together.

"What?" Now she was awake!

He swallowed hard. It was too late to take back his question. He wasn't even sure he wanted to; he only knew that part of him wanted this time with her and another part of him simply wanted to let her get the rest she would not find above.

"Would you like to see the Crystal Cavern? I could take you there."

She rolled over, leaning up on one elbow. "Just the two of us? Isn't it several days away?"

"It's takes several days for the round trip, but we would go slowly, so it would be relaxing for you." He raised shy, hooded eyes to read her expression, for he could sense only shock and amazement from her.

A first step — small and tentative, but definitely a first step. A slight smile softened her astonishment. He's nervous, she realized. "I'd love to," she whispered as she tried to project her encouragement to him.

***

So far, their journey to the Crystal Cavern was delightfully uneventful. Warm, companionable conversations and pleasant, unharried silences were just the prescription for tense muscles and pounding headaches. Breathing the damp, musky air as if it were fresh from the mountains, they sighed deeply together in contentment and then looked at each other, slightly surprised by the coincidence. Trying to hide their embarrassed smiles, they chuckled and each gave the other's hand a loving squeeze.

"I can't remember the last time I went 'roughing it'." Catherine said in a whisper. The natural echo of the tunnel amplified her words to a conversational level. Early on in their trip, she had learned that speaking normally was out of the question, for the sounds seemed to boom around them.

"Then what is your definition of camping?" Vincent asked as he led her through a low section of tunnels, shifting his pack to one shoulder.

"My parent's summer cottage, a cabin in the woods — if there are trees and you can build a camp fire, then you're camping." Catherine spoke hesitantly as she concentrated on her footing. Large rocks were haphazardly strewn about and pot holes filled with water belied their true depth.

"In other words, a kitchen, a bed and in-door plumbing. Anything less is considered roughing it, in my book," she added. She smiled mischievously at his expression and tried not to giggle when he lifted the lantern to study her. She knew he felt a little guilty at the lack of conveniences available for their trip, but she just couldn't restrain a little friendly teasing. She was enjoying herself too much and was in too good a mood to worry over it.

When Vincent sensed her amusement, he dropped his eyes from her bemused expression and tried to hide the smile that tugged at his lips. He knew she wouldn't chide him for his concerns, but she had no qualms about pointing out how silly it was to worry about such trivialities. The only thing that mattered was that they were together.

"We'll set up camp at the end of this tunnel. There is a small, dry chamber at the other end." Vincent turned slightly to speak to her as they continued walking.

Just as he finished speaking, Catherine slipped on the wet, uneven stones and stumbled into his chest. His arms came up to catch her, but the force of the impact had caught him off balance and together they stumbled against the tunnel wall. His cloak protected him from getting cut by the sharp rock, but the force with which he was propelled backwards had knocked the wind from him. He stood dazed for a moment — precariously propped against the wall, but never releasing Catherine from his protective arms.

When Vincent brought his head up, he could feel Catherine's cheek and nose lightly brushing his ear. Still trying to catch his breath, he slowly pulled his head back. Catherine did not move and he felt her hold her breath and tremble in his arms as her cheek rubbed softly against his. Vincent suddenly felt dizzy to have her leaning so intimately against him. His eyelids drooped as if he were experiencing some wonderful dream and he moistened his lips with his tongue as he swallowed convulsively.

The breath that he had such a necessity for a moment ago, caught in his chest as he unconsciously turned to face her and found himself nose to nose with the most beautiful woman he had ever known. Every breath he took caused her to press harder against him. At one moment, he wanted to fill his lungs as much as he could to sustain the touch, and in the next moment, he was afraid even to have his heart beat. He felt like a mythical deer, frozen by her eclipsing beauty.

He felt her breath whisper warmly against his wet lips. Being this close to her, he could see the gold and gray highlights of her eyes as she gazed at him with a longing he had seen once before. He tightened his arms instinctively at the memory.

We aren't on the balcony. No one will interrupt us — no phone, no unexpected guests at the door, and no one from my world... we're too far from the central hub.

He suddenly realized that nothing could rescue him from her inviting lips. Do I want to be rescued? When Elliot kissed her, she wanted it to be me. Can it be true?

He tried to reassure himself and searched her eyes, but he found no amusement when she moistened her lips — only expectation, and hope. He felt their hammering hearts beat against each other and the moment he decided to respond to her invitation, his stomach was overrun with butterflies. He leaned forward so slowly that at first he didn't even recognize the fact that he was moving — that he had actually come to a decision. He wasn't sure if he had decided for himself or if his body had made the choice for him. They were so close, and yet he thought it would take him forever to reach his destination.

Lips closed, he only intended to touch the soft fullness of her mouth, but the contact was sweetly unbearable. His neck and jaw muscles tensed violently from the delicious agony — a pain unlike any other he had ever experienced, wonderful and terrible. Every nerve felt as though it had caught fire and he wondered how he had the strength to continue it, then he wondered where he would find the strength to end it. He felt as though he were floating, and all thought and reason fled before the sensations awakened by their kiss. Gently and with slow precision, he rubbed his lips against hers.

His eyes squeezed tightly shut as he felt Catherine work her hands free and slide them lightly up his chest and rest there at the base of his throat on either shoulder. Barely a caress, even through the heavy layers of clothing, he felt as though his skin had been scorched by her loving brand. Her lips move under his. He heard himself moan at this symbol of her acceptance, and he responded in turn. He spread his hands across her back and slid them down to rest on her hips — pulling her tightly to him, and then their lips parted slightly and he tasted her. He felt the shiver begin low in his spine and allowed it to travel up between his shoulders until he quaked violently and finally found the strength to control himself.

They pulled apart and pressed their foreheads together — clinging to each other, and a reference point in reality, in a world that had suddenly tilted and dissolved away. Catherine felt dizzy with the restrained passion that his innocent kiss spoke of. Her vision darkened with the racing of her blood and she trembled with the intensity of sensation that he evoked in her. Vincent, likewise, was breathless and his panting breaths rasped through his open mouth. His muscles felt limp as if he had run a great distance and his heart continued to race along at a thundering pace.

They remained pressed together until their breathing slowed to a manageable rate. With their eyes closed, they fed their senses on touch until their reasoning faculties returned to them, surviving on the whisper of each other's breath on their faces, the warmth of their bodies, the small caress of hands and fingers.

Catherine wrapped her hands around his neck and moved to rest her cheek on his shoulder, sighing contentedly. A small happy smile grew on her lips and she hugged him hard. Vincent, sensing her happiness, also smiled — realizing that together, they had overcome another major hurdle — and returned her hug.

Some tiny voice of reason finally broke through their feelings of accomplishment and shouted to them that they were both standing in a puddle of water. "We should..." Vincent paused to sigh and try again to control his voice, "make camp... dry our boots."

"Thank you," Catherine told him. Prompted by his puzzled expression, she elaborated, "For catching me."

"Are you hurt?" Vincent pushed them away from the wall, keeping a hand on her elbow to steady her in case she had injured herself in her fall.

"No, I think I just twisted my ankle a little." Catherine slowly put weight onto her foot. It wasn't painful, but it was definitely uncomfortable. "It'll be all right if I just walk it out."

Vincent handed her the lantern and shouldered the pack, then bent to scoop her up into his arms.

"Vincent!" she exclaimed in surprise, "what are you doing?"

"You shouldn't stress your ankle here. The ground at the camp site will be less dangerous."

"Remind me to trip more often," she mumbled.

"What?"

"Nothing. I suppose it's better than risking a sprain and having to go back early." She relaxed in his arms and let herself enjoy his attention and concern.

True to his word, Vincent did not release her until he could set her onto the soft, sandy ground of their camp. He excused himself to go for the firewood and left her with a warning not to go back into the old tunnel.

"Vincent, I'll be fine, really. I'll just wander around a little to work out the stiffness," she insisted.

"Don't go too far, Catherine," was his only precaution. He knew he couldn't ask her not to do a little exploring on her own. Apart from the fact that she was quite independent and wise enough to take care of herself, he knew the personal pleasures that could be found in the quiet exploration of the natural beauty below. He took comfort in knowing he could find her through the bond if anything should happen to her or if she became lost.

Catherine spent the first moments of her solitude investigating the small chamber that would be their resting place for the night — at least she assumed it was night. Vincent seemed to know when it was dawn or dusk and kept them to a regimented schedule of breakfast, lunch and a light dinner. He had insisted that she leave her watch behind so she might make the most of her vacation without worrying about the time or how many days were left, and he promised to have her back in time to prepare for her return to work. At first, she was hesitant about being without her watch. It was almost an extension of herself — something she consciously needed to refer to throughout the day, but she admitted that not having it with her now was truly allowing her to feel free. Uninhibited was the word she found most pleasing — her time with Vincent wasn't being measured in minutes or seconds and they had finally found their own way to measure their time together.

There were several auxiliary tunnels that were connected to their camping chamber and Catherine decided to explore the one with the least debris on the floor. She checked the walls to make sure they were dry and wouldn't topple down on her, remembering all too well the conditions in the hazardous maze that nearly killed Father and Vincent.

These tunnels, unlike the area in and around the central hub, only had two forks at every junction she came upon. Pulling out a pencil and a small memo pad that she kept in her jacket, she began making notes to herself. Each junction was given a sequential number with an 'R' or an 'L' next to it to signify which tunnel she took. She invariably opted for the safest looking passage, confident that she would do nothing to aggravate her ankle.

There were many things that urged her to continue; rock formations, mineral deposits, small chambers with pools. She made a mental note to ask Vincent about these water sources, a small tingle of discovery adding to her anticipation. Perhaps these pools could be another resource for the community. She entered one chamber and reached out to scoop up a small handful of the dark liquid. Surprised at how cold it actually was, she brought her had to her mouth for a drink and noticed a subtle, yet distinct, smell. It didn't offend her, but she knew that clean water should be odorless.

Catherine swung her flashlight around the chamber, trying to determine if the pool was stagnate and noticed an unusually dark area along the pool's bank to her left. It sloped downward into the water and seemed to be another type of mineral deposit. Pulling out a small pocket knife that Jamie had given her, Catherine scraped the blade against the substance. It was hard, yet malleable like copper — almost black in color. She assumed it was some sort of lead substance which would mean the water might be contaminated. She furrowed her brow trying to recall her college chemistry. Never having an interest in the subject and not planning to go into the medical field, she hadn't committed the many little facts to memory. It didn't seem likely that lead-poisoned water should have a smell, even if this metal deposit were truly lead. It could have been any number of things, but she would tell Vincent about it just the same so he could warn the others about the danger these pools might present.

She continued to explore although she knew Vincent must have returned to camp by now. She tried to project her feelings of curiosity and well-being so he would know she was all right and just doing a little "Christopher Columbus-ing", when suddenly the entrance to a large chamber appeared around a twist in the tunnel's passageway.

The soft, flickering glow of a single torch lured her into the spacious room. The small cot and table were further indication that the chamber was inhabited, but who? she wondered to herself. Narcissa lives apart from the others and she was the one who told Vincent of the Crystal Cavern, the silent dialogue continued.

There were unwashed cooking utensils and bowls littered on a modest slat-board table. A small cardboard box shelved two or three canned goods and some instant, dehydrated potatoes. A fat, content mouse sat on top of a bag of corn meal, enjoying his choice selections.

The entrance to another chamber waited at the other side of this space, casting an unusual blue-white light onto the soft dirt floor. No torch or flashlight she had ever seen produced such light and with her curiosity aroused, she moved into the alcove-type chamber.

What she found there made her eyes grow wide with wonder and her mouth drop open. In sharp contrast to the humble antechamber, this room was filled to overflowing with all sorts of rich bric-a-brac. A small, antique table embossed with gold leaf supported a crystal monolith and a collection of bronzed sculptures. Catherine had attended an art exhibit which touted the ancient art of "Lost Wax Bronzing" only a month before and recognized the medium immediately. Bottles of all shapes, sizes and colors were standing wherever there was a natural shelf on the walls and some were strewn about the floor gathered close to the other pieces of furniture and boxes making a crude pathway through the odd treasure trove. Glass figurines tipped with gold, silver goblets, bolts of cloth, bundles of colorful paper, paintings, vases: Catherine was reminded of an estate sale she had attended with Jenny several years before. An eccentric, old woman — a hermit, really — had stored her entire life in her home and when she had passed away, her family was left to sort out all of the bizarre collections.

In the midst of it all, standing majestically in its place of honor, was a large, three dimensional, glass landscape. A combination of cut, stained and hand-blown glass, it stood nearly three feet high and was twice as long, It had been positioned under a heavily dripping stalactite and the water fell musically onto the glass waterfall which cascaded into a miniature pool. A torch or lantern had been placed behind the blue tinted mountain and was the source of the light that had attracted her attention. Small evergreens were sprinkled here and there among the autumn fauna. Some of the deciduous trees still held their brightly colored, glass leaves while others held their dark, bare arms heavenward.

Catherine moved closer, but as she stepped through the door she heard the small grating sound of rock sliding against rock and felt herself sinking. She jumped to one side and realized too late that she had activated some sort of trip switch in the floor. Almost instantly, a large slate-like door dropped into the entrance way with a heavy, echoing thud followed by an ominous snap.

"No!" She raced to the door of her prison, pushing against it in what, deep down, she knew was a futile effort. A small window was carved into the granite about eight inches square. Catherine stood on her toes to see if there was some sort of release mechanism outside of her lavishly decorated cell.

What she found on the other side of the door was a small, twisted being that she could only assume was a man. Not more than four and a half feet tall, the lanky form was dressed in only frayed and torn pants, quite inappropriate considering the pervasive damp chill of these deeper tunnels. They were belted with a piece of rope and hung on his skeleton-like frame. The term 'skin and bones' aptly described the pitiful man — his collar bones and ribs clearly visible under his grey-tinted skin. His head was too big for his body and his eyes were large and unnaturally round, like an owls. The eyes were so reddened, they had an almost glowing quality. Likewise, his ears were too big for his head: long and wide, they stood out from the sides of his face. He was smiling at her, fully displaying the few teeth he had left in a mouth surrounded by short, grey stubble. What there was of his hair, grew in small, thin clumps — the long, white threads had grown unevenly past his shoulders. His hunched and twisted body was held up on large, bony feet that pointed in different directions. All in all, the sight of him reminded Catherine of a deformed hobbit from a Tolkien story, a conclusion that was further confirmed when she heard him speak.

"Weelll," he drawled in a thin, crackling voice, "what have we here, we wonder, hmmm? We think we have a visitor. Yes, that is what we think."

"Who are you?" Catherine asked. The fantasy description of an odd, little hobbit quickly changed to one of a captor and enemy, possibly even a threat to her life.

"Who we are is not important, but if you must know — sometimes we are called Vulcan." His long, bony fingers wiped along his brow and rested along his cheek as he continued. "We have not had company for a long time."

His words were slowly formed and strung out, but true to the total contradictions of his appearance, his voice was high pitched and squeaky. As he spoke, Catherine began sizing him up, trying to determine how she could escape her odd prison and its guard. Although she could have easily overpowered him, she could not reach him from her side of the door, so her only hope lay in reasoning her way out.

***

Vincent had been stacking the wood for their evening fire when he felt Catherine's feelings of discovery turn quickly from a flash of startled fear, to anger tinged with determination. When he had felt her joy and excitement of discovery earlier, he forced himself not to follow after her, knowing the personal feelings of accomplishment she was finding in her excursions. Although he could sense no immediate threat to her, he was compelled by anxiety to find her and be certain she was all right.

It had been hard enough to resist the temptation of finding her earlier, but now his own growing sense of urgency, fed by her odd emotions, propelled him unerringly through the tunnels to her.

***

"Pretty you are, aren't you? We've been watching you. Yes, watching. A long time, mm-hmmm," he said. "We thought you were here to take it all away and we can't have that. No, we can't."

"Let me out of here," Catherine insisted, a steely determination edged her voice.

"Out? Out?" Vulcan echoed. "No, not out. Stay. Yes, stay with the pretties. All pretties must stay. Safe here, mm-hmmm. Safe..."

"What do you mean, stay?" Catherine interrupted. Her toes and injured ankle were starting to protest as she continued to stretch up to see out the small window.

"Stay! Treasures remain. We keep them, collect them. Yes, forever. Forever and ever and ever and ever," he started chanting. He rocked back and forth and side to side, as if preforming some odd little dance. Vulcan stopped suddenly and was wracked with a coughing seizure. He scurried away to one side of the chamber and wrapped his thin arms around his chest, choking violently.

When it passed, he pressed his hands to his temples, the long fingers interlacing on the top of his head. "Shh, shh. We are all right now," he crooned as he comforted himself. He turned back to sidle his way to his previous spot before the granite door. "Comes and goes, goes and comes. Gone. Yes, gone. We are fine, thank you. Fine, fine."

"You've got to let me out of here," Catherine tried to keep her voice calm, hoping to take advantage of this new information to win her freedom. "You're sick. I can get help for you — bring you medicine. I might be able to help you."

"No!" Vulcan barked suddenly and for an instant, brilliant intelligence pierced the fevered haze of his eyes. "We are fine and we have decided that you will stay!"

He rubbed his pencil-like fingers over his chest and up onto the muscles of his shoulder and neck as if trying to massage away an ache. The tension in his body seemed to ease and take with it the spark of reason.

"You can't keep me here!" Catherine insisted with nearly a shout.

Vincent burst through the room and when he saw the queer little man taunting Catherine, he roared a warning.

Vulcan spun around to face the newcomer as Vincent charged into the room. He paled in utter fear and raised his thin arms around his head. "No, no, no, no. Leave us alone! We did nothing! Go away, go! Leave us alone, leave us alone!!"

His insipid screeching was unbearable, but Vincent did not feel threatened by him. He could almost smell the blinding and total fear of the dwarf, so he rushed past the whining creature to free Catherine. He quickly examined the barrier and braced himself against it, lifting with all his strength, but it wouldn't budge. He tried sliding it to one side with the same results.

"It fell from an opening up there," she pointed, relieved just to have him near.

"Stand back, Catherine," Vincent warned as he backed up a pace and prepared to break it down. When he knew she was safely away from the door, he threw himself forward using his shoulder as a battering ram. The impact dazed him slightly, but left the door obstinately intact.

His second attempt proved to be just as fruitless, but the more he failed, the more determined he became. Catherine, however, could see the uselessness of his actions and began to fear for him.

"Vincent?" She hoped that somehow he would recognize the futility of his efforts before he hurt himself. Even with his great strength, he was no match for a slab of granite that was almost six inches thick.

With his third attempt, he gathered as much strength as possible to topple the cursed rock. The force of the blow knocked his senses from him and his vision darkened for an instant. He didn't move from the door — instead he rested his cheek against the cold surface hoping it would keep him conscious.

"Vincent! Stop it, please!" Catherine ran to the door, crying at the sight of him half dazed and defenseless in his current state. She reached through the window to touch him, hoping the contact would help him steady himself. He reached desperately for her hand, holding it close to his face and forced himself to take slow, deep breaths.

"Are you all right?" she whispered, trying to move her fingers in a comforting caress.

He thought she was trying to withdraw her hand from his and he brought the other hand up to still her. His grasp was almost painful as he clutched for her. He said nothing until his vision cleared. He could feel her fear for him pressing against his heart and mind, it was so palpable. Her concern and love wrapped him in a warm, impenetrable cocoon until he could straighten up and stand firmly on his feet. He reassured her with his eyes, then whirled on the cowering figure that tried to hide in a small crack in the wall.

Vulcan whimpered when he realized he was again the object of Vincent's anger. "No, nooo, nooooo. Go away! Leave us alone!"

Vincent stalked over to Vulcan and stood before him, trembling with his exertion and resentment. "Release her," he grated in a commanding tone.

Vulcan shook his head in denial and spread his hands over his ears and balding head. Vincent yanked him by the elbow into the middle of the room, raising his free clawed hand in a pose that spoke of imminent death.

"No! Let us go! Yes, go, go, go, go. Don't hurt us! Free, free, free." Vulcan tried to pull away from Vincent's grasp.

"I will let you go after you open the door." Vincent's voice was cold and harsh as he again pulled on the little man's arm to force him to face him.

"If you hurt us we won't open the door. Locked it is, locked it will stay. Yes, locked forever," Vulcan spat in mock courage.

Vincent hesitated as he quickly tried to find his alternatives, but there were few and none of them were good. If he left to go for help, he risked the possibility that the little man would take Catherine away or even hurt her, and he now knew he could not open the door himself. He could take the man with him, to insure Catherine's safety, but Vincent could tell that he was very sick. If he should die, he would take the answer to unlocking to door with him and Catherine would still remain imprisoned. The quickest way to resolve the situation was to find out why he wished to do them harm.

"I won't hurt you." Vincent released Vulcan's arm, but was determined to get some answers. If force or threats wouldn't persuade the little man to release Catherine, then perhaps reason would. "Who are you? Why are you doing this?"

"We are called Vulcan. We have done nothing wrong. No, nothing," he squeaked and shuffled cautiously away. He knew he could not escape this strange being, but he would at least stay out of his arm's reach.

"Why won't you open the door?" Vincent asked, even as he wondered how such a weak and sickly being could devise such a trap. He knew that the stone which comprised the door was not native to this part of the tunnels.

"The pretty walked in. She chose. Yes, chose she did and freely, too!" Vulcan cradled his arms to his chest, locking this narrow fingers around his elbows.

"Vincent," Catherine interrupted from behind her prison door.

This time Vulcan heard her. "Vincent? Vincent? You?! You are him? The one?"

Disturbed by Vulcan's reaction, Vincent was instantly on guard. "My name is Vincent. How do you know me?"

"Him, him. He comes once in a while. He talks to us. Brings us more pretties." Vulcan reached two fingers into what appeared to be a pocket and withdrew a gold coin.

Catherine gasped at the sight. Vincent whispered the name like a curse, "Paracelsus."

"Yes, yes. Him. We have not seen him for a long time. We make things, get things and he gives us pretties for them. He gave us pretties to make a hurt," Vulcan chattered as he played with the gold piece, "then he took all the pretties away from us. Yes, all gone, mm-hmmm. All but this one. We hid it, we did. Clever of us, yes? Yes, we are clever. He even said so."

"What do you mean, 'make a hurt'?" Vincent asked warily.

"A box! He brought a box. We wanted it for a pretty, but he hurt us. Pretty, pretty box. Flowers, flowers, flowers. Pretty box. We almost didn't do it, but he gave us other pretties and called us clever. Quite clever."

"Flowers," Vincent repeated, his blue eyes shadowed to grey as he squinted in anger.

"Nice, pretty flowers. Silver, sparkling silver rose."

"The chess set! My God, Vincent — Vulcan built the bomb in the chess set." Catherine voiced Vincent's thoughts.

Vulcan was attacked by another wracking cough which doubled him over in pain. Vincent's compassion got the better of him; stepping forward, he eased the frail body back and moved him onto the cot. He then reached over for the bowl on the table. It appeared to have water in it and he tipped the lip of the bowl towards Vulcan when he thought the little man could safely take a drink.

"Hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt," Vulcan rasped in pain as he cradled his ribs.

"Where? Where does it hurt?" Vincent's voice was grudgingly sympathetic.

"All over," Vulcan admitted as he gasped for air. "We will be all right. Ship shape, ship shape." He continued to cough. "Yes, yes, that's it. Ship shape."

"Vulcan, you are very sick." Vincent had felt the fever heat of his skin when he touched him. "Release Catherine and we will bring you medicine to make you well. We will take the hurt away."

Again, the brilliant flash of intelligence shone in his eyes as he replied, "No medicine. We know we dying. A long life we have had. Yes, very long. It is almost time for us to move on."

"Then why not release her? If you die, she will be trapped."

"Take them with us. Take all the pretties with us. Yes, yes, we will take them with us when we go." Vulcan acted as though he were explaining some obvious fact.

"You cannot take her with you in death." Even as Vincent said the words, he felt the fear seeping into his stomach.

"Are you so sure?" The look in Vulcan's eyes and the way he said the words stunned Vincent, but before he could question his intentions, Vulcan continued, "We must know something before we go. Yes, we must understand. You must make us understand."

"What is it you want to know?" Vincent asked, suddenly uncomfortable under the gaze which was pinned on him. There was a dark calculating mind behind that fevered brow.

"He is obsessed with you. Why?"

Assuming that Vulcan was baiting him for information about the community, Vincent became still and quiet. He would not tell Paracelsus' accomplice of the tunnel world if he didn't already know of it. Slowly, he lowered the hand that held the bowl of water.

Vulcan watched his unwilling benefactor's reaction with growing curiosity. "You have something he wants. Yesss, something. Valuable it must be — important, pretty even," he said as his eyes moved to Catherine who was desperately trying to stay aware of what was transpiring between the two men, even as she searched for a way to escape.

Vincent's heart seized up like iron in his chest. He couldn't let Vulcan know how valuable Catherine was to his very life. If the lanky elf decided to use her as some sort of bargaining tool with Paracelsus, he would be defenseless against them. There had to be another way...

"I can get things." Vincent's voice was a mere whisper. The fear he turned inward was quickly fanning into rage and his contempt for his situation — bartering for Catherine's freedom from this strange creature.

Vulcan's eyes narrowed as he returned his gaze to the golden being before him. A long, silent moment passed, and Vincent could almost see the designs being formed about his and Catherine's fate.

Without warning, Vulcan sprang off the cot with a speed belied by his illness. Vincent swiveled in his seat, but did not rise. He merely followed Vulcan's movements with exacting precision. Vulcan realized instantly that another foolish move would bring the stranger on top of him.

"Get things? Get things? What kind of things?" Vulcan quipped, cocking his head over so far that one large ear brushed against his bony shoulder. The exaggerated gesture only added to his contorted form.

Vincent glowered through squinted eyes and furrowed brow, delaying his answer in order to control the resentment growing thick in his voice. "Pretty..." he forced out, then added quietly, "things."

"What kind of things?" Vulcan repeated in an greedy squeal, unknowingly grating against his bargainer's nerves even more.

"What ever you desire." Vincent turned away, not able to watch the gleam of victory appear in his opponent's eyes.

"Prettier than her?" Vulcan responded doubtfully. "More valuable, perhaps? Yes? Precious? Dear to you, hmmm?" He suddenly drew an astonished gasp and took an involuntary step backwards, realization dawning upon his face as he said, "Valuable to him?"

Slowly, without taking his eyes from Vincent's, Vulcan backed toward the granite door. "We knooow," he taunted in his crackling voice. "We know what he wants. Yes, we do, mm-hmmm. Very valuable to him it is. Yes, yes, val-u-able."

Quickly, Vincent rose — tensed and ready to spring on this unobtrusive threat. He didn't fight the darkness that slowly started to touch his mind and cloud his vision as the menace approached Catherine. That darkness screamed in outrage as Vulcan moved closer to her.

Unimpressed, Vulcan timidly turned to Catherine. "Please, my pretty — would you do us a small favor? Yes? Grant us this, hmmm?"

Catherine looked to Vincent for some reaction to this request, but there was none. He was as a marble statue as he directed all of his concentration on the diminutive midge.

"Why should I?" she challenged.

"Help you it might. Yes, yes, help you, mm-hmmm," Vulcan offered.

Catherine was not convinced. "What do you want?" she asked skeptically.

"The monolith." His voice seemed almost normal as he said it and for the first time, Catherine heard the evil in his words and grew afraid.

Just as quickly, however, he returned to his bizarre dialogue. "Pretty, pretty color, mm-hmmm. Tricked it away from her, we did! Clever we are, Yes, yes — very clever. We wanted her pretty shells. Oh, oh so beautiful as we have never seen before, those shells, but we were fooled by her eyes. Yes, her eyes. We thought she wouldn't see us. Nasty, nasty old woman. But still, we were too clever for her. We have her monolith. Yes, we have it. It is there. Give it to us." As an after thought, he added, "Please."

Another glance at Vincent confirmed what she was beginning to feel. She could see the rage start to take control of him as Vulcan turned his attention to her. She knew how hard Vincent tried to keep her from seeing that part of him and if fulfilling this small request would distract Vulcan's attention from her, then perhaps Vincent wouldn't feel that the little man was threatening her. Not knowing why he wanted it, but willing to do anything to prevent Vincent from having to take action, she found the crystal form and passed it to him through the window.

"Ohhh, yesss. Pretty, pretty crystal. All our lovely pretties," Vulcan crooned as he stroked and caressed the smooth surfaces. "Vincent," he extended his slight, sinuous hand, "we know. Come to us. Yes, that's it. Come."

Vincent moved forward as Vulcan continued to speak. The further Vulcan moved away from Catherine, the more control Vincent regained.

"Something valuable. Yes, valuable, mm-hmmm. Something he wanted, but we will get it first. Yes, get it first we shall. Make him pay for hurting us, cheating us. Never again, never again. We will have won. Yes, beat him."

"Know what it is, do you? Hmmm? You have it. It is here. He wants it. Do you know?" When Vincent remained silent standing before him, he continued, "Tell you we will, mm-hmmm."

Vulcan crooked a finger, indicating that Vincent should lean closer, and whispered, "Your soul. Soul, essence, spirit. Yes, that is what it is. That is what he wants. Bargain you want? Hmmm? Deal you want to make with us?"

"What do you want?" Vincent asked, already knowing the answer.

"We want what he does not have. We want what he wants."

"My soul." Vincent dropped his eyes to the obelisk that Vulcan held. If it was indeed taken from Narcissa, there was no telling what powers it held.

"A swap — swap for the pretty." Vulcan indicated to Catherine.

"No! Vincent?" Catherine tried to make him look at her.

Vincent tilted his head towards her, but refused to meet her gaze, knowing what her would see there for he could feel it in her. "You will release her?"

"Vincent!" She couldn't believe he could even consider it.

"Yes, yes. Release her we will, mm-hmmm."

Vincent sighed as he ground his teeth together. His pride and dignity raged against his lack of options, but he knew he would sacrifice anything for her. "I have your word?"

"Word?! Word?! You doubt us?" Vulcan seemed incensed, but readily conceded with a wave of his hand. "Yes, yes. Our word is given."

Vincent stood and finally faced her through the door of her prison. He moved forward as she began to plead with him.

"Please, Vincent — don't do this!"

"There is no other choice." His eyes were soft and loving, but shaded with regret, as he reached into the window to caress her cheek.

"You can't! I won't let you!" She grabbed his hand and pushed her lips to his fingers.

He felt as though his heart were ripped from his chest and thrown to the ground. "I must." He moved his fingers and felt the scar at her cheek. "I love you, Catherine Chandler." His voice had never held such conviction before — his eyes were set and focused. He stared at her a long time, willing her to know that his words came from the deepest part of himself.

"I'm ready," he said to Vulcan without turning, unwilling to deny himself this final moment with her. Finally, quickly, he withdrew before he lost himself completely in her growing despair.

"Vincent, no!" she choked in a whisper, clutching for him through the door's window.

Vulcan began to giggle hysterically knowing that Paracelsus' failure would be his greatest triumph. "Yes, yes, yes. Ready we are, mm-hmmm. Ready, ready. Come now. Here, come. That's it, yes."

Vincent knelt before him, trying to ignore the blinding panic he felt from Catherine and wishing she wouldn't have to witness this.

"Your hand, your hand. Put it here, like this. Yes, like this." Vulcan had set the obelisk onto a small stool and placed his palm against one of the four sides, indicating to Vincent that he should place his hand directly opposite his own in the same manner.

The moment Vincent complied, the monolith turned a milky white and became warm to the touch. An electrical sensation slowly crawled up his arm and over his shoulders — making his skin prickle along the way. It reminded him of a static electricity generator that Mouse had shown him months ago. The field spread around his neck and down his spine, inching its way over his thighs and making the muscles in his calves spasm rhythmically. He began panting heavily as his heart jumped into excited motion.

The monolith turned a faint pink and then darkened to blood red. Vincent's mouth went dry. It felt as though a rough wad of cotton was suddenly thrust between his teeth. He sensed the intensity of the field grow, but strangely, there was no pain. Vincent found himself staring into the circular orbs of Vulcan's intense eyes, but he didn't feel as though he were seeing them. His eyes would not co-operate with his command to focus, causing him to blink in an effort to clear the fuzzy images.

The red dissolved to orange, then quickly washed into a yellow tint. A buzzing sound hummed in his ears. Like a powerful engine, it started low and constant and gradually built in intensity until it leveled off as a high pitched whirring. Vincent's corded muscles slowly began to lose their tension, allowing his shoulders to slump forward.

The monolith was deepening to green now, with a blue tinge. He felt very tired, but tried to fight back the weariness. His neck refused to hold his head up and his back began to bow. He felt like a balloon that was slowly being deflated and his breathing began to slow dramatically until it was shallow and barely discernable. His jaw fell open and he vaguely wondered how he was able to keep his hand upon the terrible object, when a painless throbbing in his head wiped even this meager thought aside.

The blue washed away to violet and Vincent's world tilted suddenly and grew dark. Feeling as though someone had pulled a rug out from under him, he felt vertigo descend upon him and he couldn't see the violet continue to change to a deep, dead black.

He knew the process would soon be at an end, and with all his great strength and determination he convulsed into a tense mass. He gulped desperately for the air to bid one final farewell to Catherine, who he knew was still helplessly watching.

"I... love...," he managed to grate out between clenched teeth. With only enough strength for one more word, he hissed, "Always!"

And he crumpled against the wall.

"Vincent!" Catherine screamed, staring in horror at the sight of him slumped lifelessly against the rock. Her mind went blank and she slid down the smooth surface of her prison door. This isn't happening. It isn't possible. You can't take someone's soul! They only do that on TV. I must be dreaming. My God! Somebody wake me up!! Her expression of utter shock and disbelief was shadowed by the reality of what she had just witnessed. Her eyes focused on some unseen point as her mind again watched the scene that had just taken place before her: Vincent — slowly drained of his spirit.

"It is done," a voice whispered in dismay. "We have done it. We are here and we have it!"

The words registered in Catherine's mind, but she did not have the strength to move. Her arms fell from her lap as she too, felt as though she were drained of her spirit, her life.

Vulcan began a new inspection of himself, looking at his arms and down at his chest. His long, sinewy fingers rubbed slowly across his prominent collar bone and over his ribs, stopping to rest just over his heart. A dawning light passed over his eyes as he reached out for the obelisk and gazed at it in surprise.

"Not here...," he murmured as he caressed the black stone. "Here!" He moved his hand back to his heart. "A transfer. Yes, a transfer. He is here, here."

Catherine jerked her head over her shoulder as she listened. Quickly, she struggled to her feet. "Let me out!"

Vulcan suddenly remembered her and stared at her with new eyes. "Catherine..." His mouth fell open in amazement, when just as suddenly his brow furrowed and his shoulders pulled forward as though they might cave into his chest. He clutched the now black, opaque monolith to his stomach.

"No... NO!" Vulcan stumbled away. "It is wrong, wrong, wrong. We cannot do this. It is not right. No, no!"

"Vulcan! Let me out of here," Catherine shouted. "You gave your word! Dammit, you have to let me out! Now!"

He looked at her and mechanically obeyed, moving to the farthest point of the antechamber. Catherine thought he was going to leave, keeping her trapped. She shouted his name again, but if he heard her, he made no indication. He stopped against the wall and reached out with his free hand. With his back to her, Catherine could not see what he did, but suddenly a snapping sound came from above her head and the door slowly began to ascend.

Catherine scrambled under the partially opened door and, never quite standing up completely, stumbled on her hands and feet to Vincent's side. Kneeling beside him, she received no reaction when she pressed a hand against his shoulder and tried to push him back so she could see his face. She grabbed the front of his cloak on either side and gave a violent yank causing him to fall forward into her lap. Pushing him with a strength she didn't recognize, she was able to maneuver him onto his back.

Vulcan stepped forward and watched her in confusion as she slid the back of her fingers along Vincent's temple and down his cheek. He stared at the couple in disbelief, his wide eyes darting around — trying to comprehend what exactly had happened. The wrinkled skin of his forehead creased and furrowed even more when Catherine began to speak to the unconscious form in her lap.

"Vincent, don't do this to me. Don't do this to me, damn you!!" Catherine shook his lifeless form with vehemence. "I can't live without you," she cursed through clenched teeth. "Why would you sacrifice yourself, when I would die without you anyway!"

Vulcan quietly moved behind her, staring nonplussed. Her terrible confession shocked him, but he couldn't understand why. She was only a pretty thing to be kept and hoarded like the rest of his wonderful possessions, yet part of him felt choked with fear — as if her words had jolted him into an unthought of realization. "No," he whispered, abashed.

Catherine spun around on him. "Why!?" she demanded. "Why did you do this? Was it worth it? Was it worth destroying us?"

Her use of the word, us, surprised him. Us? Who, me? Him?

"We never..." Vulcan stumbled, shocked by her violent despair. "We didn't know... We... A bond? We know of it, but we do not feel it now." The words were spoken, but the whirlwind of thoughts in his mind prevented him from voicing his utter puzzlement.

Catherine heard the words, but didn't hear. "Let me go with him. Take both of us," she pleaded as she reached for the obelisk.

"No! No, don't!" Vulcan jerked away, pulling the black object away from her outstretched hand. Some part of him knew that he had to protect her from the danger the obelisk represented.

"Vulcan! Please!" came her anguished plea.

"No," he whispered, confusion still evident on his face. He found it useless to think and in that inevitable moment, he listened to the only thing left — his heart: the voice that had been silent until just a moment ago, when the unknown power of the obelisk had awakened that which had long been dead.

"Both of you will go." His voice had been given the strength of conviction. "It is wrong." And with that, Vulcan flung the sculpture against the rocks where it exploded in brilliant flash of light.

The shards of glass scattered outward, forming an odd pattern on the stone floor — almost as if someone had purposefully placed them, end-to-end along the radius of the circle of debris. Not having enough weight to settle, fine crystalline dust floated just above the pattern, appearing like an odd bicycle wheel with diamond spokes. Amidst the broken fragments, several distinct clumps of smoke began to circle slowly and climb, attracting the dust like a magnet. Gradually increasing their speed and number, they whirled around in a tight circle that grew outward until it encompassed the entire chamber.

Catherine watched in alarm as the strange gaseous substance came to life in a repetitious dance. She was completely distracted by the whipping gas clouds when a strange, blue light engulfed the two men and caused their bodies to arch with pain, the tautness of the muscles bowing their backs and cramping their shoulders.

The torches that hung in their sconces flickered violently without a draft and then extinguished altogether. Catherine felt herself physically and viciously pushed away from Vincent's prone by a force that she could neither see nor feel. Without the light from the torches, she could see nothing but the glowing forms of Vincent and Vulcan, and the circling haze whose iridescence strobed chaotically off the walls.

A wild wind from no where began to rush around the room, whipping her hair into her eyes, picking up the fringes of Vincent's cloak and causing them to thrash into the air. A siren like wail began as the wind lashed across the jutting rock of the chamber, rising and falling with the undulating speed of the gale. The hellish sounds were like that of a banshee come to claim the dead.

The temperature dropped dramatically in the small area and Catherine watched in horror as her breath formed before her in clumps of mist that also took life and joined the others near the ceiling.

A burst of color shot from the broken fragments of the obelisk like an explosive rainbow. The individual colors coalesced into frenzied spheres of energy and shot around the room like rubber balls, reflecting their colors on the circling clouds . Catherine shrieked and ducked her head as one came flying at her. It left an ugly, black scar on the wall where it had scorched the surface. The weaker parts of the walls and ceiling began to shed its looser rocks and showered the immobilized trio with its debris, dropping dust into the air that snapped and evaporated when it fell into the path of the energy balls.

The shrieking wind grew in intensity, but it was not enough to cover the agonized cry of pain from Vulcan when suddenly a blue ball of light struggled out of his chest. He fell to his knees as though his life-force had been ripped from his body. The blue globe continued on a straight course towards Vincent and hit him with such force that his body recoiled as if he had been bounced off of the floor.

"Vincent!" Catherine screamed in horror, but she was pinned against the wall by some unseen force.

As if they had been waiting for this moment, every other ball of colored light struck Vincent and the cloud-like substances that were swirling around the room, descended upon him — shrouding him in a blanket of white.

The wind disappeared as suddenly as it had come and the cloud that encompassed Vincent slowly faded away. The torches burst back into life, and Vulcan fell forward onto his hands as if his bones had suddenly turned into sponge.

The force that held Catherine did not dissipate until Vincent moaned and rocked his head back and forth, trying to regain consciousness. Once free, she pushed herself away from the wall and to his side. "Vincent?" she cried. "Vincent, are you all right?"

His eyes fluttered open, but he was unable to speak.

"Get out of here," Vulcan rasped from across the room. "Go! Go! Get out, now!" He crawled towards the entrance to his treasure chamber. "It is almost over. You must get out before we are gone or you will go with us. Quickly... quickly!!" He began choking and Catherine could see the blood at his mouth.

She stared in shock at the crawling man as she bent to pull Vincent along by his arm, struggling to get him to his feet or knees. "Vincent, hurry! Come on, get up. You've got to help me! We've got to get out of here!"

When Vulcan reached his treasure room, he reached along the wall and did something that made the room began to quake, loosening more of the rock and even dumping the larger boulders from the ceiling. "We will take it with us. It is ours. Ours, ours."

Catherine succeeded in pulling the disoriented Vincent through the outer door before the entire ceiling collapsed in a deafening roar and blinding cloud of dust. She managed to get him a safe distance away, before collapsing herself in terror and shock. She leaned against him and started crying uncontrollably, unable to comprehend all that had transpired in the last fifteen minutes — crying even harder with relief when she felt Vincent's arm come around her.

They lay there in the outer tunnel even after the dust had settled around them, covering them with a fine layer of powder. Catherine had cried herself into exhaustion and simply lay next to him in shock, not wanting to face the reality of the nightmare they had just lived through.

"Catherine? What... what happened?" she heard him ask.

Catherine raised her tear-streaked face to his and sniffled. "Vincent," she ignored his question, the adrenaline coursing through her body left her numb and needing the comfort of his name upon her lips. "I don't understand. This isn't real."

Vincent was still struggling to regain his full faculties and felt as though he had been beaten by some unseen and now forgotten foe. "I don't remember," he said with sorrow, wanting to ease her fear. She trembled in his arms.

"Vulcan tried to take your soul." Her voice was mechanical and monotone as she absently related the recent events to him.

As she spoke, he became more coherent and tried to complete the puzzle with his own recollections. "I couldn't feel you, our bond — it was gone. It was terrifying. I think Vulcan felt it as well — the emptiness, the hollowness. There was nothing."

"Vincent, tell me it didn't happen. Tell me that none of this was real," she pleaded in a small voice, hoping to regain some of her fleeting sanity.

"I can't. I'm sorry." Vincent pulled her closer and wrapped his other arm around her. He closed his eyes, wishing that the pain of his bruised body would allow him the comfort of having her safely in his embrace. "We should go back. Tell the others what has happened."

Catherine pushed herself up from him and looked into his shadowed eyes. "Are you all right? Can you walk?" she questioned dubiously, recalling quite clearly what had happened to his unconscious body.

He pushed himself up against the wall quite unable to hide the extreme effort that it took to make the small movement. "No," he answered honestly. "At least — I don't think I can make it all the way back."

"What should we do? I don't know where we are. Is there a safe place we can go, until you're stronger?"

Vincent took a deep, labored breath and let it out with a gust. "Perhaps we can make it back to the campsite."

Catherine brought herself to her knees at his side and wrapped his arm over her shoulders as he pushed against the wall of the chamber to gain his feet. The plush wrapping around his boots scuffed softly through the dirt as he pulled his feet under him, trying his best to keep as much of his weight off of her as he could manage in his current condition.

Using her free hand as a brace against his chest, she tried to help him straighten up and they slowly made their way back to the campsite. The journey was made in silence in order to conserve their strength — the unsettling, supernatural events finding a place in the haze of unbelievability that numbed their minds. The only sounds were of the scuffing of their boots.

They arrived to Vincent's small fire waiting patiently in the corner of the chamber, crackling softly to itself and lapping hungrily into the air. Their packs were as they had left them, propped against each other for support to prevent the contents from spilling out.

Catherine helped him settle against the wall close to the fire and reached out to bring his cloak to safety. She kneeled before him, still resting her hand on his shoulder. She stared at him a moment watching him close his eyes to hide his exhaustion. A feeling, not quiet recognized, began to stir in her, but she pushed it aside — unable to deal with it. The sensation, however, was enough to get his attention, and he looked a question at her.

Ignoring him, she reached for the strap of their canteen and pulled it to her side, twisting the cap off and offering it to him. Sensing her reluctance, he hesitated only a moment before taking the proffered container.

"Catherine?" he asked and set the distracting canteen aside. "What is it?"

Vincent's acknowledgement of the feelings that she tried to suppress caused them to flare brightly into life, churning violently in the wake of all they had suffered.

"Why Vincent?" She spun on her knees next to him so that she too, was leaning against the wall. "Why would you sacrifice yourself — your soul, everything you are, for me?"

"You are everything to me. Your happiness, your safety is a part of me. There could be nothing for me without you."

"And do you think you mean any less to me? Do you think there can be a life for me without you? I'm not just biding my time here, Vincent, waiting for the next best thing to come along. Everything I do, I do for you, for us. You told me that I carry our light. Our light — not mine, not the image of what you may think that light may be. It belongs to both of us, just as our love belongs to both of us. I belong to you, just as much as you belong to me. For you to knowingly sacrifice yourself, is to sacrifice me as well." She looked at him beseechingly, willing him to understand. "Know that, Vincent."

He sat quietly for a long moment, considering her words — hearing bits and fragments of his own words coming back to him now from her lips. The sidelong glance that he held on her, dropped beneath the wave of ferocious love that emanated from her. In response to those feelings, he opened his arms, showing her that he did indeed, hear and understand her words.

***

Deep within the collapsed chamber, a thin hand slipped silently open. Lifeless now, the fever warmth of the skin quickly chilled and a tiny bulb of blue rose from the opened palm as if finally being released from the confines of flesh and bone. The bulb struggled valiantly into the air and wafted upon the gentle currents.

It struck a path into the heavy debris, sliding furtively through the narrow gaps between the fallen stone. The blue sphere traveled its path until it came upon a dead end, finding that it would have to backtrack to another trail through the maze. When it chanced upon a barrier of dust, it would glow brightly causing the settling dust to snap and disappear, until at last it breached the entire rocky impasse.

Drained of its mystic energy, it flittered down the tunnel like an effigy of Peter Pan's Tinkerbell, rising and sinking in its flight as it traveled. The light growing ever dimmer.

***

"You're very quiet," Vincent observed as Catherine poked a thin stick at the glowing embers beneath their fire.

"Why do you think he let us go?"

"Vulcan?"

She nodded. "It doesn't make sense. He was greedy, selfish. He believed he could take his treasures with him into death. Why do you think he would suddenly care if we escaped the chamber before he destroyed it?"

As she spoke, a faint sputtering sound invaded their senses. Turning towards the direction of the sound, Catherine gasped in fear when she saw the tiny globe dancing weakly in the entrance of the tunnel that led to Vulcan's chambers.

Vincent stared in confusion, not understanding Catherine's fear of the tiny light. He had no recollection of ever seeing its like before, but it looked, for all the world, like the fireflies the children would bring back occasionally from the park.

He looked at first to the light, then to Catherine. "What is it?"

"From the obelisk... when you were unconscious." Her eyes never left the terrible menace that the light represented.

It fluttered hesitantly forward only to retreat again, as if asking for permission to approach.

"It's alive?" Vincent questioned her, returning his attention to the odd spark. As he spoke, the bulb dropped low to the ground battling gravity to remain airborne.

"I don't know." Catherine picked up a small log that rested near their fire. I don't know what good it'll do, but any weapon is better than no weapon at all.

"It appears to be... afraid," he observed.

"Well, I don't care if it is." She moved to his side to protect him with her log. "Its brothers — or whatever they were — attacked you back there and I'm not going to give this one the satisfaction."

The orb drifted slowly forward and stopped demurely in front of her — accepting its fate. Catherine lifted her log in warning.

"It doesn't appear to be dangerous," Vincent whispered when the light didn't flee. "It's dying."

Catherine cautiously lowered her weapon, never letting the ominous reminder out of her sight. It was visibly getting dimmer and dimmer as the seconds ticked by.

Vincent slowly reached toward the meager speck. Instantly, Catherine tried to stop him. "Wait," he insisted, restraining her with his other hand

The light bobbed forward clumsily and crawled up to hover above his open palm. Holding his hand out and away from him, Vincent allowed the light to rest there.

"Vincent! What are you doing?" Catherine whispered in shock.

"Give me your hand."

"What!?" She stared at him in disbelief, finally complying with no slight reservation and making sure he was aware of her exasperation through their bond.

Gently, Vincent took her wrist and guided her hand, palm up, into his. The curious little orb accommodated them and raised itself to make room for her. Under their combined gazes and resting in their stacked hands, the little light brightened slightly, never increasing in size, but spreading its illumination across their fingers and onto their arms.

Never knowing when the process actually began, they now recognized that the little ball of light was dividing. One half settled like a snowflake into Catherine's hand and disappeared — the other half simply faded away.

They sat, entranced by the event — so completely unlike the ordeal in Vulcan's chamber, until Vincent shivered violently, shaking Catherine from her reverie and bringing a new surge of fear for his well-being.

"What is it? Are you all right?"

He took a deep breath and released it with a heavy sigh. "Vulcan," he simply replied.

"Vulcan?"

"Yes. He must have kept some small portion of us — our love. Surely you feel it, Catherine."

She searched her feelings, turning her awareness inward to that place in between — their place — where together, they were one. She had been so concerned for him, knowing his body stilled ached from the encounter in Vulcan's chambers, that she hadn't even known anything was different. It wasn't a lost feeling or even a sense of incompleteness. It was simply a feeling of release. As if other parts of her had picked up the slack for the missing part, but now that it had returned everything was put right again, allowing it to flow naturally like a clear, unobstructed stream bed.

"A part of our love," Vincent continued, "so that he might die knowing that such a love exists." He turned to face her now, making certain that she understood the importance of what had just occurred. "A lost one has been found."

The dying flames of their fire supplied only enough light to comfort them and for the first time Catherine noticed an odd pattern on the farthest wall. It took a moment for the image to register in her mind. Vincent watched the knowledge of it grow in her eyes and smiled as his gift was revealed.

The opposite wall was cast in a faint light, as if it were from a failing flashlight. The stain of light shrouded a dark shadow which resembled an elephant.

"Look," she said in amazement, pointing to the image. It slowly drifted across the wall and was soon followed by a shadow that reminded her of a dragon. "What is this place?"

"I call it the Chamber of Shadows." He cast his gaze to the ceiling, scanning it as one would search the heavens. "This entire area has isolated crystal formations as you may have noticed earlier. It's about noon up above and on sunny days, the sun somehow finds it's way below, reflecting off of mirror-like surfaces that have been worn smooth by time and water. If a cloud passes before the sun, it's shadow is transported here — sometimes altered slightly by an outcrop of rock that may be in the way of a true reflection."

He returned his eyes to her. "I found this place when I was here before, looking for a piece of my world to give to you. I would stand before the shadows and imagine their counterparts above... passing over your head."

Catherine smiled at his easy reminiscence of that time, remembering what she had been doing during those few days before their first anniversary, in preparation of her gift to him.

"I'm sorry we won't be able to complete our trip, Catherine, but... this," he gestured around the room, "was one of the chambers I hoped to share with you on our way down."

"Vincent," she sighed, not willing to give up the battle to make him understand that none of that mattered. She moved into his arms and snuggled against him, resting her cheek against his chest. "Even though I love seeing all the different parts of your world, I didn't come just to see the crystals. I came because I wanted to be with you. That's all. Is it so terribly hard to understand?"

"Sometimes — yes."

She wouldn't argue with him because it was true. The moments she spent with him often seemed like a wonderful dream come true. She smiled compassionately, wrapping her hands under his cloak and around his waist and said simply, "My vacation was complete the moment you asked me to come with you, and made all the more memorable when you kissed me."