Paul awoke to Desdemona's screaming. But he was no longer in the thief's lair. He took short quick breaths, the coarse invisible noose tightening around his neck. He sat up uncomfortably and looked around. The room was expensive and posh - with a burning fireplace and green velvet armchair. A bear-skin rug covered the wooden floorboards and a shimmering chandelier hung from above, lighted with at least twenty or thirty candles.
Paul huffed, clawing at his neck.
Where was he?
“Hello?” he called.
Then he heard the slow clip-clop of boots on the floor.
“You made it then,” he heard the familiar voice say, “Well done. I am impressed.” Ben's hand ruffled Paul's hair and he came into view and knelt down so their faces were level, “I honestly didn't think you would make it out of the tunnel.”
Paul blinked, staring at the face he had seen so many times but suddenly unable to recognise it.
Ben looked so... dapper. He was dressed like a gentleman, in a green coat with brass buttons and a silk neck-tie. He wore dark cotton breeches and knee-length riding boots. He held a tall top-hat in his white gloves hands.
“What's the matter? Noose got your neck?” Ben asked.
Paul curled his lip, “What do I have to do to stop this madness?”
“Stop it? Oh, it's a very simple task,” Ben replied, “You have to kill a woman.”
Paul stared at him, “How are you even here right now?”
Ben laughed, “Oh, well that is an odd bit of business, isn't it?”
“Please, just... tell me what's going on?”
“Have you not been paying attention to my memories, Paul? Have you not inferred the most obvious of conclusions?”
“I'm short on air.”
“Mm. Pity that excuses won't save you.”
Paul coughed hoarsely and then said, “You stole a necklace from Sir Francis Drake's treasure.”
“Correct,” Ben said.
“And you gave the necklace to Desdemona Faulkner.”
“And then I got confused.”
“All the contents of the box, much to your disbelief, Paul, are cursed. That necklace, however, had a special curse. The people Sir Drake robbed were not kindly, so they managed to curse the box before the Spaniards stole it and then Drake stole it from the Spaniards. And then one of his descendants inherited it and on and on, until Mr Timothy Huntington stole it. The point of note however, is that the contents only take effect if they are removed and essentially affects the person who removes them. The necklace was given a lover's curse. And so when I handed it to poor Desdemona...”
A scream emerged from an adjourning room, and then insane yowling and babbling. She kicked the door open, her elaborate white dress in tatters, her beautiful hair in disarray and her hands clawing at the air.
And around her neck was the cursed necklace.
“Murderer! Murderer!” she rasped, “Where are you, maggot? I'll sweeten you! I'll tear you down!”
Ben went up to Desdemona and smoothed her hair down, kissed her cheeks and murmured a few words in her ear. For a moment, she looked like she had returned to normal, returned to sanity.
And then she looked at Paul.
“Kill her, then, Paul and you will be removed of the curse,” Ben tossed him a knife.
Desdemona leapt on Paul and he scuttled out of the way, crawling on his hands and knees as she screamed and barked at him. Her clawed hands found his hair and yanked his head back. Paul choked a howl of pain.
“You monster!” he shouted at Ben, “You're a monster!”
“Am I?” Ben asked, frowning, “What would you have chosen? Your lineage or the woman you love? I had no idea that I even had offspring, but as it turns out-” he raised a hand in Paul's direction, “I had some by Anne.”
Desdemona beat Paul's face with her fists, “You could have done anything else!” Paul screamed, and pushing her away, “Anything else at all! You could have let us go!”
“I'm afraid not,” Ben said, “The demon attached to the curse demands each of your lives. The way you see Desdemona is the way she is when only the demon has inhibited her to kill you. Otherwise, we live quite happily here.”
Paul huffed and puffed, “You're selfish!”
“And why shouldn't I be?” Ben demanded, “I have had only myself to care for me. All my life. I don't see why that should change simply because a man who had lived twenty-five wholesome years must die for it. I couldn't even dream of reaching that age.”
Paul stood up lethargically, feeling the pressure on his throat. Desdemona flew at him, and he slapped her across the face, throwing her into the fireplace.
She shrieked in pain.
“Ah, now you've done it,” Ben tutted. He walked out of the room, clearly having seen enough.
Paul dived for the knife and held it up as Desdemona rose out of the flames, her hair and dress burning, and her face dripping away like melting wax.
Paul stared at her, backing away as his insides went cold. She stepped out of the fireplace, her feet igniting the rug, and stomped towards Paul, slowly gasping, “Murderer... Murderer...”
Paul tried to swallow his saliva, but he could feel the invisible, impossible rope at its final strains.
It was now or never.
He took the deepest breath he could and threw himself at the demon Desdemona, stabbing her face wildly like a madman. She screamed and cried and kicked and writhed, but she would not die.
Paul then looked to the necklace, glinting up at him and slammed the pommel of the knife at the green gemstone. A scream filled his mind, but he continued to smash it. Smoke erupted from the broken stone and almost made a demonic face that tried to snap at him, but it faded to vapour and the body beneath him went still.
“Thank you...” was the last thing he heard, a pleasant woman's voice that would linger in his mind for all the years to come, before he passed out...