In the dusty old restoration room of the Louvre, littered with priceless, forgotten pieces of world history, between beautiful old vases and sculptures, there was a single piece. Placed in the center of the room where it would catch the most light, away from the deadly dew-forming walls, it outshone all the other artifacts around it. ‘The Cherry-Blossom Tree’, one of the most controversial, influential, mysterious paintings of the pre-Renaissance period, artist unknown, origin unknown, history unknown; all that we know about the eerie masterpiece is that it was found in an underground crypt under Jerusalem, far, far away from the French artistic style that the masterful brush strokes seem to spell out.
But as mysterious as the origins of the paintings are, the crypt in which it was found is even more mysterious. They say that on a quiet night, one can hear a thousand voices scream from deep inside the crypt. No one has explored the catacombs thoroughly till date, but in one of the larger rooms, lies a fountain. The water in it seems clear and sweet to the eye, and chemical tests show it as pure, but a single sip can kill a person in seconds.
None of the locals seem to know anything about the catacombs, “No one has walked those tunnels for years”, they say. And yet, there is one, but a shadow, who freely roams these catacombs, making them a home. Once upon a time, Arya Stark was her name, but now, a girl has no name. Only one person in the whole world knows of a girl. Azog.
Azog, the most feared goblin from The Shire to Mordor. Azog, who had tortured and killed King Thror, father of the great King Thorin who stole the riches of the dwarves back from the mighty dragon Smaug. Azog, who had seized the entire dwarvish kingdom of Moria for himself. Azog, who everyone thought had been beheaded by Dáin, son of Náin. Yet, here he was, and he was looking for Arya Stark.
Azog wanted one thing, and one thing only. He wanted to make himself immortal, so he could go back and kill that wretched Dáin and seize Moria for himself again. The Fountain of Death worked both ways. While it could take a life in seconds, it could also give a thousand lives in the blink of an eye, but only Arya knew how to do that.
But where was Arya Stark?
A girl was on her own mission. The painting, the Cherry-Blossom Tree, was found in the halls of the Many Faced God. It was an ancient relic that pre-dated the Night’s Watch and the White Walkers, dating long before the first men walked the land, carrying much history, but it was more than that. It was the one thing that seemed to link the Tree God to the Many Faced God, Arya Stark’s God to a girl’s God. And that made it personal. When it was taken from its place in the crypt, a girl made it her personal mission to find it and bring it back to where it belonged.
And so, Arya had made tracks for Paris, where she had traced the painting to, and Azog made tracks for Paris, where he had traced Arya to. Little did they know of each other’s intentions.
Meanwhile, also making tracks for Paris was the Hollywood superstar actress, Anne Hathaway. While shooting for Gravity and Interstellar, she’d had some long and interesting conversations with the on-set science consultant, which had led her to make a few of her own enquiries. They had all pointed her to the mysterious old painting, ‘The Cherry-Blossom Tree’. Somewhere, hidden in those vivid colors was a clue. A clue that could unravel the mysteries of the space-time continuum, for, some of the craziest conspiracy theorists suggest that ‘The Cherry-Blossom Tree’ was not painted by a human hand. Anne Hathaway, after much research, was inclined to agree with them, and she was off to see for herself.
Now, paparazzi are never far behind and soon enough, Twitter was buzzing with the news that Anne Hathaway was heading for Paris. Perking her ears up at this was the melodramatic teenage pop sensation, and apparently, fan of Anne Hathaway, Justina Beilor.
“Book a flight for Paris, Andy.”
“What, now? Ma’am?”
“You think Annie will wait for me?”
“I don’t think ‘Annie’ knows you, ma’am.”
“Just book me the flight.”
And so it happened, Arya Stark, unseen assassin, Azog the terrible, fearsome goblin, Anne Hathaway, Hollywood superstar, and Justina Beilor, teenage pop sensation, all arrived at the Louvre doors at the same time.
“No, please, after you”, Anne Hathaway said, and the tall, graceful blonde nodded and glided past her into a side corridor and disappeared behind a pillar. Three seconds later, a male security guard came out from behind the pillar and strode off, decisively, towards the restoration room. Meanwhile, Anne Hathaway walked the other way, towards the security office, to get permission to view ‘The Cherry-Blossom Tree’.
From the bushes outside, two figures watched carefully.
“Are you sure this is a good idea, ma’am?”
“Shush! Andy. She’ll hear you.”
“She’s inside the building ma’am, and we’re outside.”
Whispers did carry, for up in a tree, ten feet behind them, was Azog. He too was watching the entrance for his quarry, but the two newcomers puzzled him. He stared at them for a while, and then, deciding they were no threat, he pushed them from his mind. He had a job to do.
Far more silent than his bulk should allow, he slipped past the duo in the bushes, and past the guards at the door, and was soon inside, looking for some hint of that Stark girl.
At that instant, Anne Hathaway walked out of the office ahead, and, with her back to Azog, walked off towards the restoration room.
Azog saw only her back. “Aha!”, he thought, and stole off behind her, ready to grab her.
Meanwhile, Justina Beilor was entering the building, and, on a quick enquiry, found out that ‘Annie’ was off to the restoration room.
“Ma’am, who wants to know?”
“I’m her…er… personal assistant”
“And the man with you?”
“He’s my personal assistant”
“Why does a personal assistant need a personal assistant?”
“We’re very busy people, you know?”
Before the guard could respond to that, she was off.
It was pitch dark in the restoration room, all was silent. Suddenly, a scream rang out in the air. The lights came on, revealing a strange scene. Azog had Anne Hathaway by the throat from behind. Justina was frantically tapping on her phone, apparently in an attempt to snap a selfie with her idol. Andy was at the switch, staring at Azog in shock, and… Arya?
Suddenly, a stick flew out of nowhere, hitting Azog square on the back of his head. Crying out, he released Anne Hathaway and flew around to face his assailant. Anne Hathaway frantically scrambled away, looking for the painting she had come to see.
“It’s gone!” she gasped.
Suddenly, she was blinded by a flash of light.
“Hi, Annie, you look beautiful today! What’s your secret? That was a great pic… Can I get another? Would you mind taking a selfie with me? Thanks a lot! You won’t regret it. Did you know I’m famous too? Well, not as famous as you, of course, I mean pshaaw! You’re like totally on top of the world, but…”
Annie just stood there blinking at this barrage of words being thrown at her, trying to process what was happening.
On the other side of the room, there was a fierce fight going on. Azog’s sword pitted against Arya Stark’s lightning speed and reflexes. She was unarmed, and yet, he seemed to be losing the fight. In the blink of an eye, it was suddenly over. As Azog swung his sword, Arya caught it flat between her palms and pulled, overbalancing him. As he fell, Arya jumped on his back and twisted his neck hard, breaking it. He was dead before he hit the ground, and Arya was nowhere to be seen. Nor was the painting. The lights went out again, a soft thud, and then they came back on to show Justina lying on the floor, unconscious.
Anne Hathaway suddenly realized she was alone in the room with…. Whoever this was, and the painting was gone, probably for good. Still trying to process what had happened, and more than a little disappointed, she walked back out, to report the theft.
“The Cherry-Blossom Tree is gone.”
“What cherry blossom tree?”
“The painting… the one that was found in Jerusalem”
“Found in Jerusalem? I don’t know what you’re talking about, ma’am”
Confused, she said, “Never mind”, and headed to the airport to catch a flight home.
Behind the even more confused security guard, a shadowy figure disappeared behind a pillar, an empty vial in its hand. Three seconds later, a tall, graceful blonde walked out from behind the pillar and walked out of the Louvre, a hint of a smile playing on her lips.
Back home, Anne Hathaway’s phone pinged. It was an e-mail from some Justina Beilor…with selfies of her and a very confused looking Anne Hathaway in a dusty old room in France. Ah! So that’s who she was.
As she idly scrolled through the pictures, one caught her eye. She sat up excited. There, in the background, clearly visible in the bright light at the center of the room, she could see someone just about to pick up the painting. Ten minutes later, she had a digital copy made, and was soon sitting down trying to find the clues she was looking for.
There was still hope.