Friday, December 16, 2005
The Master's Key - short story version
***Faith in Fiction had a short story competition lately, asking for fiction stories of conversions. Since I had already been writing this section for 'the child,' I redid it as a short story and entered it. Didn't win.
Posted in a slightly different version as a chapter of 'the child' here.***
Barely had they said brief good-byes to their companions, then slipped through the stairway door and closed it softly behind them - when Jack and Morgen heard the footsteps. Not the sound of the others, going on up the stairs on their own searches for captives longing to be set free. No, these footsteps were ahead of them. Off to the right.
Coming their way.
Jack froze, fighting panic. After all, here they were in the middle of the enemy's dungeons, in the middle of the night. Who else could that be coming their way but a guard?
And not just one guard. That wasn't just one pair of feet he was hearing. Two guards? More?
At any rate, the footsteps were getting closer...
Morgen, as usual, was absolutely calm. But then, not once during this long quest had Morgen ever shown the first sign of panic. All these months of traveling since they had been sent out in the Master's name to rescue prisoners from the enemy's fortress - and never once had Morgen shown the least bit of uncertainty or fear.
The man was a rock. Jack was glad to be teamed with him to find and rescue this prisoner named, um...
Oh yes, Rob. That was the name 12 had given them. In a way, 12's task had been harder, since he'd been sent ahead of the rest to infiltrate the dungeons and find the prisoners who were yearning the most to be set free.
Just like Jack himself had been set free so long before.
He recognized the layout of the dungeons here. One long corridor stretched out ahead of them, lined with doors and occasional torches. Another corridor, shorter, came in from their right. Both were empty - for the moment.
Somewhere in the many cells of this level of the dungeons was a desperate little packrat of a man named Rob. Jack remembered well his own desperation just before someone had come and liberated him. Someone sent by the Master, just like Jack and Morgen themselves had now been sent out.
The Master. Jack smiled. He would do anything for the Master.
First, though, he had to avoid getting captured. The way 12 had been captured. If only he had some plan!
Morgen, he saw, calmly took off his pack. He plunged in his hand, pulled something out, then pointed straight ahead. 'This way,' he whispered, shrugging the pack back on.
Morgen had an idea? Good - that was more than Jack had. 'Lead on,' he nodded with relief. Quickly they crossed the shorter corridor, then hurried down the longer one.
But what could Morgen possibly have in mind? Jack wondered. There wasn't a bit of cover the whole length of this corridor. The cell doors were all flush with the walls. There was nowhere to hide short of the far corner - and it was a long way away.
And the footsteps were louder now. Closer. What was Morgen's plan?
Morgen glided silently down the corridor, stopping a third of the way down. Sparing a glance back at the corner they had come from, he reached for a doorknob on the right.
Jack blinked. But... the door was locked. This was a prison, and that was a cell.
And they had the key.
Of course - how could Jack have forgotten? That's what Morgen had taken out of his pack! The Master had supplied each of them with a key that would open every door in this place. How had he forgotten?
Swiftly Morgen unlocked the door and went in, Jack crowding after him. And just in time, too. For as he passed through the door, Jack spotted a boot appearing round the corner!
The door closed behind them. The lock clicked fast. Jack pressed up against the door, listening, barely breathing.
The footsteps came closer.
Approached the door.
Passed the door.
Passed on down the corridor, and were gone.
Whew. Now they could begin their search for Rob. Turning to Morgen, Jack whispered, 'The key does work from the inside, right?'
Morgen didn't answer.
'Hmm? Morgen?' Jack whispered.
Morgen was gazing across this cell into the semidark. Jack followed Morgen's gaze - and froze.
They were not alone in here.
Panic hit Jack's brain. Why hadn't he thought? He'd been so focused on avoiding the guards, he hadn't even thought that, of course, by hiding in a dungeon cell, they would not be hiding in an empty room!
'Hello,' Morgen said. Friendly. Not a bit ruffled. Not a bit like Jack was right now.
A dim figure stood across the room, there by the bed. Someone short, sharp-faced, edgy. Someone staring back at the two total strangers who had just burst into his room in the middle of the night. Yes, very edgy.
The man's eyes glittered warily in the light of the single candle, shifting rapidly back and forth, taking in the intruders. He hunched a bit, clutching his hands together tightly at his belly, his prison chains dangling from his wrists.
Jack frowned. Something about the man's hands... Was he hiding something?
The man licked his lips nervously, suspiciously. 'Who are you?' he rasped out at last.
'I am Morgen,' the taller one replied graciously, 'and this is Jack.' Smiling, he pointed at his companion. Friendly. Non-threatening.
The man moved nothing but his eyes. Morgen? Jack? These names held no meaning for him. Why had these strangers barged in on him? They weren't guards; they weren't dressed like guards.
But they had let themselves in. So they had the key. And who had keys but guards?
His eyes widened, then narrowed again. 'Who are you?'
'As I said...' the one called Morgen began, still smiling. So disarming.
But the man shook his head, cutting him off. 'You know what I mean,' he said.
The other, the one called Jack - he was roaming his eyes all over the room. Bristling, the man barked, 'Stop looking at my things!' Then again he demanded, 'Who are you? Why are you here?'
Jack flipped his eyes back to the man. But he had already seen. The room was cluttered with stuff. Knick-knacks. Trinkets. Junk. Treasured trash. It littered the shelves, piled up almost artistically in the corners and out into the floor, massed in the shadows, and even hanging here and there from the ceiling.
Stuff. Why would one person need so much stuff?
'You know who we are,' Morgen said gently, smiling. 'And you know why we've come.'
The man scowled. 'I don't know any such thing,' he began.
But now Morgen cut him off. 'We come from the Master. 12 sent us.'
What? Jack stared at Morgen, shocked at what his companion had just said. Mentioning the Master? And 12? What if this little man screamed for the guards now? This was the enemy's territory, and too many of the prisoners were surprisingly loyal to the one who held them captives. What was Morgen thinking, to be taking such a chance?
The man was staring too. 'You've...' A shudder racked his body. 'You've come?'
His voice broke. His hands dropped, and something dropped from them. 'You... 12 said... but I didn't believe him. And then he disappeared. I thought... I thought... Where is he? Where's 12?'
Morgen held up his hand. 'Easy now. We'll get you out. But first... 12's been captured.'
'What!' the man shrieked.
'And we're going to get him out too.'
'But...!' The man's eyes were wide with horror. 'But he knows my name! He knows everything! He'll give me up! He'll... You gotta get me out. You gotta get me out now!'
'And we will, Rob. We will.'
Wait a minute. This was Rob? But... Jack shook his head, stunned. How? How could they have found the man in the first place they looked?
And they hadn't even been looking for him. No, they'd been just hiding from some guards. And they found him already? How could they find him, without even looking?
No. Not how could they find him. It was Morgen who had found the right room. But how? How could he...?
Jack shook his head again, baffled. Just who was Morgen, anyway? How could he know things no one had any way of knowing?
I need to sit down, Jack decided. Barely noticing as Rob continued to beg for Morgen take him away from here now, Jack crossed to the bed and sank onto it, sorting out the muddle in his head. How could Morgen know things no man could know?
And then Jack's eyes fell on that thing Rob had dropped a few minutes before. Curious, he leaned over and took it up. Turning it over in his hands, being careful not to cut his fingers with it, he spoke up suddenly, 'Um... what were you planning to do with this knife?'
Even by candlelight, he could see Rob go ashen. 'Give me that!' he hissed.
'The guards don't let you have knives, do they?' Jack went on.
'What business is it of yours?' Rob countered. Tears began spilling down his cheeks. 'Why should you care? Why should anyone care? Just give me back...'
'You were going to kill yourself,' Jack stated. 'Weren't you?' Where that guess came from, he didn't know. But looking at Rob, Jack knew he had guessed right. 'And we walked in just at the right time,' thanks to the uncanny Morgen, 'to stop you.'
'Give me my knife!' Rob demanded.
'Your knife? Not likely. The guards don't let you have knives. So you stole this. Right?'
'So what? Why should you care?'
'I care because the Master cares.' said Jack.
Rob stared at him. And then he began to tremble. 'That's... that's what 12 said. That the Master cares. For me. For me! Ha! I didn't believe him. But he said...' Rob looked back and forth between the two of them again '...he said the Master would send others. To rescue me. To get me... out...'
A fire of longing lit his eyes. 'How?' Rob whispered. 'How do I get free? What do I do?'
Could it be this easy? Jack marveled. 'You know who the Master is? What he did?'
'They say he made us. That he loves us. That he, uh, died. But he's alive still. Not sure I understand that.'
'Do you believe it?'
Rob hesitated. 'I don't know. I mean, it's hard enough to believe someone dead could be alive again. But...' And he flapped a hand at where they were, this place. 'If he loves us, why am I here? Would you let someone you love rot in a dungeon?'
'He sent us, didn't he? To get you out.'
'True.' He was frowning, thinking this over. Thinking hard.
'The Master loves you; the enemy hates you,' Jack went on, wondering if he was pressing too hard. 'The enemy has you trapped in this dungeon; the Master sent us to set you free.'
'With the key...' said Rob. An edge came into his eyes and voice, a calculating edge. What was this man thinking now, Jack wondered.
Morgen spoke up. 'You can't get the key to freedom from this dungeon by stealing it, Rob.'
Rob whirled towards him, eye wide, stunned.
How did Morgen do that?
'You cannot steal this key,' Morgen went on. 'You can only receive it. As a gift...'
Jack was reaching for his pack, ready to pull out his key and offer it to Rob - just as long ago, someone else had stood in these dungeons and offered the key to him.
But Morgen beat him to it.
Rob's eyes shifted, feasting on the sight of the key in the tall one's hand. 'Free?' he whispered.
'Free to you, yes,' Jack said. 'It cost the Master everything.'
'It cost the Master everything,' Jack repeated. 'They told you he died, right? Did they tell you why?'
Rob shook his head no.
'Rob, he died for you. For me. For all of us. He died - to pay the price for our freedom from the dungeons. To pay the price for this key.' He took it from Morgen's hand, held it up. 'This key cost the Master his life's blood. So you could have it. And be free.'
'Free,' Rob repeated. His eyes were on the key. 'He died - so I could be free...'
'Because he loves you, yes.'
Rob's hand, trembling, reached for the precious key. 'He loves me? He loves me?'
'And he's alive? He's not dead anymore?'
'He lives. To show that the death he died in your place was accepted for you, he lives,' said Morgen.
'To be loved like that,' Rob whispered. His fingers, twitching, reached towards Jack's. Convulsed around the key, grasping it, snatching it to his bosom. 'He loves me!'
'Yes, Rob,' said a wonderful voice. 'I love you. I made you, so I could love you.'
And he was here.
The Master! He hadn't come here; he just - was here.
With a cry of indescribable joy, Morgen fell to his knees, hands and face raised in pure delight and worship. Jack was suddenly on his knees as well - his legs had given way under him at the shock. The Master! Here!
Rob saw neither Jack nor Morgen anymore. His eyes, his heart, were all caught up in the man before him. A man - but more than man. Tears spilled down Rob's cheeks as the Master looked on him. Such love! Such love! Rob thought his heart would burst.
'I...' he said unsteadily. 'Oh, Master! I'm so sorry, so sorry!'
'And I forgive.' Reaching out his hands, the Master touched the chains that held Rob bound. Instantly they dropped away, landing on the floor like coiled dead snakes. Rob lifted his arms hungrily, looking at his naked wrists. Shaking, crying, giggling.
The Master's arms opened and Rob flew into them. He burrowed against the Master's chest, felt the Master's kiss on his forehead, smelled the fragrance of the Master's sweet breath flow all around him. He gasped, and then that breath was in him - like fire and water all at once.
'My son,' said the Master. And Rob looked up into his eyes. Such joy! Such love!
'I receive thee,' the Master beamed.
Rob had thought before that his heart would burst from delight. Now he was sure that it did. He felt it. Inside him. His heart had burst. He was dead.
But he was still alive. Or alive anew. He'd never felt so alive!
He smiled and the Master smiled. And their smiles were one.
'Jack,' said the Master. Jack scrambled to his feet instantly, swaying, a bit disoriented by the sheer joy thick in the air. 'Jack,' the Master said, 'meet your new brother. His name is Stephen.'
'Stephen,' Jack repeated. He felt drunk, and was grinning like an idiot. But who cared! He held out his hand.
Rob - Stephen - ignored the offered handshake and instead caught his new brother in a bear hug. He was laughing; they both were laughing.
The Master was laughing. And Morgen? Jack suddenly looked for him. Why wasn't he over here as well, greeting Stephen, welcoming him into the family?
There was Morgen, still on his knees. Hands raised, faces raised, wings raised as well, rapture shining from a thousand eyes.
Jack blinked. There was Morgen, still on his knees. Hands raised, face raised, rapture shining from his two bright eyes...
Jack blinked again. Was he seeing things? Maybe he was drunk. Or maybe it was the air. Because the Master was here.
'Now, my sons,' said the Master. 'I have some work for you. My son 12 must be found and rescued before you can leave here.'
'But,' said Stephen, 'I want to go now.'
'I know, my son. But 12 risked himself for you, and was caught.'
'Do you love him?' added the Master. 'Will you leave him to rot in a dungeon?'
Stephen's eyes widened at the too-familiar words. And then his face blushed deep, deep red. 'No,' he said humbly. 'No. I... forgive me. Of course I must stay and help rescue 12.'
The Master laid his hand on Stephen's shoulder and looked him deeply in the eye. 'You are forgiven,' he said somberly.
And Stephen nodded as somberly. 'Thank you,' he said.
'Now. The guards have wrested 12's key from him, and he despairs that he is forsaken. Search for him. Find him. Restore this to him.' And the Master held out a key, which Jack took and carefully pocketed. 'Search the dungeons. And if you do not find 12 there, then go above ground throughout this fortress and search Find my son.'
'But surely,' Jack began. Then checked himself.
'Yes, Jack?' the Master prompted.
'Um. Surely you know exactly where he is?'
'Yes. But be diligent to search everywhere. Then when you have found him - tell him of your search for him - how you turned this fortress upside-down to find him. Tell him this, that he may see and know how my Love was lavished out to rescue him.' And the Master smiled, but Jack saw the tears behind the smile. Tears of pain, for his son. His son!
Jack knelt before him. 'I will bring him back to you,' he promised.
'And so you will,' the Master replied. He raised Jack to his feet again.
And then he was gone. In an instant.
Jack and Stephen thought they might fall over. His sudden absence - but was the Master ever truly absent? - left their knees a bit watery.
Morgen rose from his knees. 'Let us search,' he said simply.