Monday, November 28, 2005

 

I will be hosting Storyblogging Carnival XXXIII


...on next Monday, 5 Dec 2005. Deadline for submissions is 11:59 pm Saturday, 3 Dec 05 (central time). If you would like to submit a story from your blog to the Carnival, please e-mail me at sheyajoie~at~yahoo~dot~com (or post in my comments). Please include the following information:

* Name of your blog
* URL of your blog
* Title of the story
* URL for the blog entry where the story is posted
* (OPTIONAL) Author's name
* (OPTIONAL) A suggested rating for adult content (G, PG, PG-13, R)
* A word count
* A short blurb describing the story

The post may be of any age, from a week old to years old.

And now, the fine print:

1. The story or excerpt submitted must be posted on-line as a blog entry, and while fiction is preferred, non-fiction storytelling is acceptable.
2. The story can be any length, but the Carnival will list them in order of length, from shortest to longest, and include a word count for each one.
3. You may either send a complete story, a story in progress, or a lengthy excerpt. By lengthy excerpt, I mean that it should be a significant portion of the story, at least 10% of the whole thing. You should indicate the word count for both the excerpt and the complete story in the submission, and you should say how the reader can find more of the story in the post itself.
4. If the story spans multiple posts, each post should contain a link to the beginning of the story, and a link to the next post. You may submit the whole story, the first post, or, if you've previously submitted earlier posts to the Carnival, the next post which you have not submitted. Please indicate the length of the entire story, as well as the portion which you are submitting.
5. The host has sole discretion to decide whether the story will be included or not, or whether to indicate that the story has pornographic or graphically violent content. The ratings for the story will be decided by the host. NOTE: I tend to be a bit more sensitive about potentially offensive material (especially sexual content) than some of the other hosts. Just to let you know.
6. The story may be the blogger's own or posted with permission, but if it is not his own work he should gain permission from the author before submitting to the Carnival.

If you'd like to be added to the e-mail list, please let me know. Also, feel free to advertise the carnival on your own blog. Finally, let me know if you want to host a carnival in the future.

Friday, November 25, 2005

 

the child, part 3, chapter 6 - 'first report'


***for the past couple of weeks, i have been thinking that there was a part here that just didn't fit with the rest of the timeline of the search for Walker. so today i rewrote it. i also found that what i had written here and in chapter 12, 'ginger' didn't fit well together - so i did some rewriting over there as well. hope it all flows better now.***



At the end of that first day in the fortress, when it was time to go downstairs and report to Maccabees, Lucy was feeling so very embarrassed. They had not found Walker, and they also had not talked to Ginger yet. Hardly anything accomplished on their mission! What was Mac going to think of them?

He was silent for a bit after Linda told him of what they had done that day - and what they hadn't done. Finally, he said, 'Well. I have not spoken to Beatriz yet either. Would you like me to help you search for Walker?'

Thinking of how hard the work had been today, cleaning all those rooms, Linda immediately responded, 'Oh, yes, please.'

At the same breath, Lucy was saying, 'But you have your own work to do: making contact with Beatriz, searching your own level...'

'I have already finished searching my level.'

'No way!' said Linda.

And Lucy said, 'But it took us all day just to search one corridor.'

'I search in a different way,' Mac replied. 'I can come and help you search as soon as I've reported in to Jack and Morgenstern. Would you like me to?'

'Uh...' said Linda, and looked at Lucy.

And Lucy grimaced a bit. 'It's not that we don't appreciate the offer, Mac. But we are so tired. You have no idea how tired we are.'

'I just want to get back to the closet and sleep,' added Linda.

Mac smiled. 'Do this first: come downstairs with me as I make my report.' And at their dismayed looks, he added, 'You may see something to energize you.'

~~~~~~~

Down the stairs they went, quietly, carefully. And there they found Jack and Morgen waiting for them - along with a new brother named Stephen. And, oh! there was joy in the meeting!

Morgen passed on to Maccabees the Master's new orders for him to search the level just above his. The group talked a while longer, catching up on what had happened that day, as well as what had not happened, and then Mac and the ladies headed back upstairs.

'You are glad you came with me, aren't you?' said Maccabees.

'Yes...' said Lucy.

'...but still exhausted,' added Linda.

'You do not desire my help in searching your level?' said he.

'Oh, we do, Mac. We really appreciate your offer. It's just that... maybe tomorrow?'

'I think,' he said quietly, 'that right now would be better.'

'Oh, come on, Mac,' said Lucy. 'We need sleep. Don't you ever sleep?'

'It is just that I believe you will find that you have a bit more energy for the work right now than you think you have.'

Lucy scowled at him. 'Well, we don't,' she said shortly. And said no more the rest of the way upstairs.

When they reached the door at the top of the stairs now. Mac paused before opening it, listening for any sound on the other side. Satisfied, he whispered to them, 'You are sure that you will not accept my help with the search even now? It is no bother for me to...'

'Mac,' Lucy interrupted. 'Just give it a rest, ok?'

'It and us,' mumbled Linda. Her eyes were so droopy now, she could barely keep them open.

Mac nodded. 'Very well then,' said he. 'I will only ask that you do for me a small favor.'

'Oh, please let it be a quick one!' Linda yawned.

Crossing her arms, Lucy asked, 'What's the favor then?'

'You have said that you left a note in Ginger's room today.'

'Yes. So?'

And as Mac pushed the door silently open, he whispered, 'I only ask that, as you go towards the broom closet to take your rest, you stop and peek in at Ginger's door to see if she has read it.'

~~~~~~~

As Maccabees left the ladies at the staircase door and went back down to the level between his and theirs to make search, Jack, Morgen, and Stephen were arriving downstairs to check in with Malachi and Joy.

'How wonderful!' Joy exclaimed in a whisper, greeting Stephen with a big hug. 'We'll be meeting with Talia as soon as we get back from talking with James and Forest.' Quickly the two groups exchanged their information, then the three went back upstairs to search for Walker on the level between theirs and Mac's, while Joy and Malachi slipped quietly downstairs to see James and Forest.

The pair of them listened quietly to Joy's breathless report of all that had gone on upstairs all that first day. 'But the best part,' she rejoiced, 'is about Stephen. Isn't that great?'

'Yeah,' Forest nodded. 'That's really good.'

Joy frowned and looked carefully at Forest, then turned and studied James as well. Neither one of them looked particularly glad at the great good news she'd just delivered to them. 'Something wrong?' she asked. 'I mean, I didn't expect the two of you to jump up and down with glee - although you might have, Forest...'

'Did something go wrong?' Malachi asked quietly.

'Well...' said Forest. 'Not exactly.'

'Saw Logan,' put in James.

'You talked with Logan?' Joy beamed.

'Well...' said Forest. 'Not exactly.'

And James took a sudden interest in studying the floor.

Joy looked back and forth at the two of them. 'So...?' said she.

Forest sighed. 'We were going to talk to him. We saw him as some guards led him to his cell right after we got here last night. And...' He trailed off and glanced at James.

James waved a hand at him to go on.

'...and we figured we'd give it about an hour, you know, to let everyone get good asleep before we going to see Logan.' Forest glanced again at James, who again waved for him to continue.

'So we went to the broom closet first, figuring we'd hide there for a bit while we waited...' Once more, Forest stopped talking and glanced at James. Only James didn't motion for him to go on.

So Forest didn't.

The silence stretched on, till at last Malachi asked, 'What happened?'

'Umm...' And now Forest took a very strong interest in studying the floor. 'We, uh... well, we...'

'We fell asleep,' rasped James.

'Fell asleep?' Joy echoed.

Forest nodded miserably. 'And by the time we woke up, everyone was up for the day.' He reached up and scratched at the nape of his neck. 'Well, we did slip out of the closet and do some searching for Walker.' A sigh. 'At least we did that much.'

'Didn't find him,' James added.

Joy was stunned. 'But how did you search for him during the day, with everyone about?'

And Malachi asked, 'What do they do all day, on that level?'

'Fight,' said Forest. 'Basically.'

'Fight?' said Joy. 'They fight?'

'Most of the time, yes. A couple of guys at a time, while the others make bets on who's going to win.'

Joy stared at them. 'But that's dumb!' she blurted.

Forest shrugged. 'They seem to enjoy it. Makes them feel alive, at least.'

'Until they get alone, and feel empty,' Mal observed.

'Yeah. Like our friend Logan.'

'And no one noticed you, right in the middle of them?' Joy asked. 'No one noticed you have no chains?'

'Not yet,' grinned Forest. And for the first time that evening, the boy actually began to look like himself.

'We need to go meet with Talia now,' said Malachi. Quick good-byes, and then he and Joy hurried back upstairs to keep their appointment.

While James and Forest slipped down the stairs to the lowest dungeon. Quietly they went, into the deepest gloom of the whole place. Forest was reaching his hand out to grasp the handle to the door at the bottom of the steps.

When the door started to open.

Instantly, the pair of them sprang behind the door, peering into the dark, hoping not to see a guard coming through that door.

Breathlessly they watched, squinting to see who this was. They saw... they saw...

They saw a big man with a sword strapped to his side. Stone!

He saw them at the same moment, and dropped immediately into a stance, hand on his hilt. 'Who...?' he whispered.

'Just us, Stone,' James replied, wincing at the pain still lingering in his abused face.

Swiftly, Forest made their report to their friend of all that had happened to everyone upstairs. And then, frowning, the boy asked, 'But, um - where's Starr? She didn't come with you?'

'Ah,' said Stone. 'Well, that's a story. Let me tell you what happened with us today.'

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Friday, November 18, 2005

 

part 3, chapter 5 - one angry man


They heard it before they saw it. A fight. Somewhere in this level of the dungeons, there was a brawl going on.

Forest looked at James, and James looked at Forest. And they hurried to chase down the sound.

They had just come up the stairs from the deepest dungeon, had just said their good-byes to the rest of their friends before coming through the stairway door onto this level. It was night, they knew, so all the prisoners should certainly be locked in their cells now. Right? So how could there be a fight?

There came a uproar, followed by a dead lull. Something had happened.

Throwing glances at each other once more, they hurried forward along the leftmost of the five long corridors on this level, moving as softly as they could. Dozens of doors they passed, all closed, all silent. The sounds of the fight were ahead of them. Round the corner, to their right.

They pulled up just shy of the corner. James made a small gesture, giving Forest the chance to look first. The boy nodded and put his eye round the corner, showing only the slightest sliver of himself in the process. He saw...

A short corridor, torch lit, with four openings at regular intervals where the other long corridors joined into it. The wall opposite was a long blank, broken only by a single door marked 'Brooms.' And there was someone up against that wall, being held up there, his feet dangling off the ground, by a large and hairy arm.

'You give?' growled the voice at the other end of the arm.

The man against the wall, eyes glassy and petrified, gave a speechless nod. And then landed in a crumpled heap when the arm let him go.

From the crowd all around them, howls erupted. Some of triumph, some of loss. Things - not necessarily money, but some sort of bets - changed hands. The hairy guy turned and grinned leeringly at the others. 'Who's next?' he smirked.

'Naw, naw,' a voice interrupted. 'Getting late. Time to clear out.'

Forest looked to see who was talking, then jerked back around the corner out of sight. 'A guard!' the boy whispered, then backed away to let James have a look.

Yes indeed, there was a guard. In fact, two of them - no, three. They were starting to herd together the group of prisoners. 'Back to your cells now,' one of them commanded.

Uh oh, thought James. What if the guards were about to bring their prisoners up this corridor? The man glanced quickly about - nowhere to hide here. Um, Master...? he began in silent prayer.

'Move along,' said a guard crisply. Tensely, James peered round the corner again, fearing to see that the guards would be bringing them all this way, hoping to see the group going off in any other direction. As the line of prisoners moved out...

Going up the furthest away of the other four corridors.

James relaxed - marginally. A quick speechless prayer of thanksgiving to the Master for the break in their favor. Silently he waited, watching till the line of guards and prisoners had all passed into that far corridor. Then he gestured Forest forward, and the pair of them slipped noiselessly into the short corridor. They reached the nearest corner and paused, glancing up the second long corridor to be sure it was clear before darting across the opening. Did the same at the third corridor. Then the fourth.

And so they reached the fifth corridor, the one all prisoners had been marched up. Both knew, without having to say a word about it to each other, that they needed to keep an eye on that crowd of guards and prisoners. After all, what if one of them - or some of them, or all - were to turn back and catch them by surprise?

From the fifth corner they watched as the guards dropped off the prisoners, one by one, locking them up into their cells. Then the guards marched the remaining prisoners round the far end of the corridor and back down the fourth, locking up more prisoners as they went. By the time the group reached the short corridor where they had started out from again, James and Forest had hidden themselves from sight round the fifth corner.

And there they waited as the guards took the prisoners back up the third corridor. Then back down the second.

'Dodged that one, didn't we?' Forest whispered as the guards turned the farthest corridor and marched their last few prisoners up it. 'That's exactly where we were not ten minutes ago.'

A nod, as James rasped out, 'I know.' And then he grimaced. It still was an effort to talk, and he always regretted afterwards even trying to speak.

Warily, Forest leading the way, the two of them slipped back through the short corridor to spy on the dwindled group of guards and prisoners. Only five prisoners remained now. And once the guards had them locked up as well - where were the guards going to go? That was the main question in Forest's and James' minds just now, and they waited to see the answer.

A cell door was unlocked, a prisoner put through it, and then the door was clashed shut again. Four prisoners left. Then three. Then two. Then...

One last prisoner to go - and that one the hairy guy who had been in the thick of the fight.

One of the guards was opening a cell door about midway up the corridor when another said, 'Here's your take.' He held out a hand to the prisoner and littered several somethings into the big man's palm.

The hairy fellow stared into his palm for a bit, then snorted.

The guard who had just paid him bristled. 'Don't you go complaining about your cut there, Logan! I ain't stiffing you none.'

Logan!

Logan's eyes narrowed. 'It ever occur to you,' he said, 'that if I had a mind to, I could just take the three of you apart? Right here, right now?'

All three guards dropped their hands to the clubs shoved through their belts. 'You just try...' said one of them, braver (or perhaps just more foolhardy) than the rest.

Logan scoffed. 'Clubs? I eat 'em for breakfast. You don't scare me.'

'Just get in your cell there, Logan,' another guard said, pointing at a door that was now standing open. His voice are low and menacing - or at least trying to be.

Snorting again, Logan stared them all down. 'If I go in that cell,' he said, 'and mind you, I said if...' baleful glare at them all, '...it's 'cause I wanna go. I don't hafta do anything I don't wanna do. My kid brother...'

'He left here in a shroud!' one of the guards exclaimed.

'But he left!' Logan roared back. 'He ain't here no more, in your grip.' He glared at the three. 'And maybe he's got the best of it.'

A guard half-drew his club. 'Just get in the cell, Logan...' he warned.

Logan's eyes narrowed, and he spat thoughtfully at the guard's feet. 'I do what I wanna do, when I wanna do it,' he sneered. Then, jerking his chin at the open cell, he added, 'And I wanna sleep. Get out of my face!'

And he stalked past them and stomped into the tiny room.

Shaking, the guards quickly slammed the door shut behind Logan. 'Man!' one of them said. 'After all that, I need a drink!'

'I hear that,' said another. And they all three hurried away up the corridor, heading for the stairs.

And then they were gone.

Forest brushed his hand across his forehead, wiping imaginary sweat. 'Wow!' he said. And then, 'Well, what do you think? Ready to go and have a talk with the gorilla?'

James turned and frowned at the boy's choice of word. 'Gorilla?' he said painfully.

'Yeah, well, you know, he...' And then Forest caught on. 'Oh. Yeah. I guess that was rude of me, wasn't it?'

Slowly James nodded. 'Very,' he grated.

Forest glanced up the corridor at Logan's cell door, then added, 'You know, I don't see how we're gonna do this. You can barely talk. How do we talk to that guy, when you can't hardly say two words together?'

A shrug and a spreading of James' hands was all the answer he could make.

'Well,' said Forest. He glanced down the corridor again. 'Either we go talk to the... um... to the guy we're supposed to rescue. Or we search for Walker. Which do you want to do first?'

James frowned. 'Sleep first.'

Forest gawped. 'We just got here, and you wanna go sleep?'

A shake of his head. 'Not us - them,' said James.

'Ohhhh. Let the prisoners all get good asleep first, and then we make our move.' He nodded. 'Sounds like a plan. But what do we do in the meantime?'

Waving a hand at the little door in the short corridor behind them, James winced a smile and replied, 'Be brooms.'

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Friday, November 11, 2005

 

the child, part 3, chapter 4 - 'dirty laundry'


One level down and a few minutes earlier, Joy and Malachi had slipped into the broom closet there to hide. 'Wait here. Rest,' Mal told Joy. 'I will return shortly.'

'Where are you going?' she asked.

'To check for Walker.'

'I can go too,' she protested.

'You are exhausted. You must sleep,' Mal replied.

Joy wanted to argue further - started to argue further - but there was no use denying that Mal was right. She was completely worn out. And just a few minutes later, immediately after Malachi left to search, she was quickly sound asleep.

He searched the level. No sign of Walker, which was exactly what he had expected to find. He knew that, while the Enemy might choose eventually to throw Walker into one of these dungeon cells - first, he would have his guards work the man over, to beat out of him everything that Walker knew.

Not to mention, to punish him for having infiltrated these dungeons.

They needed to find him, and soon. But Walker was not in this level. And Talia was.

Morning announced itself with the clatter of guards throwing open all the cell doors. 'Everybody out!' echoed and reechoed throughout the level.

The noise of it woke Joy, and it took her a moment to get her bearings. Oh yes - broom closet - that's right. 'Malachi?' she whispered, wondering had he returned from his search. This room was too dark for her to see if he was in here or not.

'I'm right here,' he whispered back.

'And Walker?' she asked. She was disappointed, but not surprised, that his answer to that question was No. Where could the poor man be? Joy wondered. Where in all this horrid fortress had they taken him?

'What about Talia?' she added. 'Did you contact her?'

'Without you? Of course not.'

That brought a moment's smile to her face. She really did not want to be left out!

The noises outside this tiny closet were fading into the distance. 'Come,' said Malachi. 'We shall see where the guards are taking them all.'

Out of the broom closet the pair crept, into the deserted corridor, then along the corridor to the far end, tracking the fading sounds of the prisoners and guards. Into the stairway - that was interesting. Up the stairs - where were they going? Pass the ground level of the dungeons, and still on upstairs - that was surprising! And into the guards' quarters? To here? Why were they taking the prisoners here?

The door was closed by the time Mal and Joy reached it. There was a small window in the door, though. Malachi glanced through it, then backed off and gestured for Joy to have a look. She had to stretch up on tiptoe to peek through it. What was going on inside?

The room beyond this door was huge, a great dormitory - no, a barracks. Rows and rows and rows of beds, most of them occupied, but who was in the beds Joy couldn't quite... Oh! These were the guards, the ones that had captured them back in the valley; Joy spotted a few faces among them that she recognized. And they were apparently still afflicted, just as they had been when last she had seen them, when she and the rest had followed them slowly to the fortress - had that happened only yesterday? She saw again their groping hands, and stumbling feet, and confused looks. And she almost felt sorry for them.

Almost.

Other guards were standing around throughout the barracks, ordering the prisoners about. Those must be the guards who weren't afflicted, Joy decided, the ones who had just now rounded up these prisoners and brought them up here - but for what reason? Joy still hadn't a clue.

The prisoners themselves were milling about, carrying things to the guards on the beds. Food, drink, books. Some of the young prisoners - and they were all young, all of them about Joy's own age - were sitting on the edges of the beds, reading from books to the recuperating guards. Whiling the time away, Joy guessed.

It didn't seem so bad...

So why was the back of her neck crawling?

And then Joy saw. There. A young girl, sitting, morosely reading to the guard lying on the bed by her. A sly smile stole over the guard's face, as his hand fumbled towards her and then slipped up over the girl's back. Her shirt rumpled, as his hand reached...

Ew! Reached up under her shirt. The girl paused in her reading, then wearily continued. The look on her face told the tale. She didn't like what was happening, but there was nothing she could do to stop it, was there?

Joy stuffed her hand over her mouth, feeling like she was going to retch. Back when she'd lived here, she had been on the first level below ground. She hadn't ever gone through anything like this!

'There's Talia,' Malachi whispered. 'The tall blonde. See her? Scar across her cheek?'

Joy didn't want to look again. But she did. Scanning faces quickly, trying not to see what was now breaking out all over the room. And there she was. The tall girl Mal had pointed out. She too had that same weary, no-way-out look on her face that the others wore. Talia's job here, unlike the others who were having to 'entertain' the guards, was apparently to gather up the guards' thrown-off uniforms that were strewn all over the beds and floor. And what a nasty set of foul-smelling clothes they must be, Joy guessed. For Talia seemed to be doing her best to hold her breath as she bent down repeatedly, scooping up uniform after disgusting uniform.

Poor Talia!

And then, as the tall girl reached for a particularly nasty bit of clothing in the middle of the floor - one of the guards kicked it up under a bed. Head down, the girl groped under the bed, trying to scoop it out - when the guard occupying that bed reared back and gave the girl a stinging swat on the rump. He roared with laughter.

Talia dropped flat to the floor, the clothes scattering. Still keeping her head hung down, she laboriously gathered again into her bosom all those horrid uniforms, then began wearily to push herself back upright. She was pushing herself up, though, by leaning her hand on the edge of the bed. Yes, the same bed that that guard was lying in, the guard who had just clouted her and laughed about it.

He must have felt that she was resting her weight on the bed, for his half-blind piggy eyes lit with an ugly glee. In an instant his hand snaked out and caught at hers. He hauled on her arm, making disgusting lewd kissing faces at her as he tried to pull her closer.

Talia's face was dead as she let him draw her near, very near.

And then she dumped that armload of filthy clothes right on top of his head.

~~~~~~~


The uproar that followed was intense. Some of the guards laughed their heads off at the girl's treatment of their indisposed companion. Others rushed towards her, yelling angrily, brandishing whips and clubs. While the one under the pile of filthy laundry was obviously screaming, shoving the nasty clothes off himself as fast as he could.

Talia just stood there, arms limp, looking like she had neither brain nor will in all her being.

One of the guards bustled towards her, shaking a coiled whip right in her face, gesturing at her to pick up the foul stuff she's dropped on the sick man. Dully, she complied, then stood up again, arms full of laundry, head hanging low.

The guard went on yelling at her, pointing at the door. This door, where Joy and Mal were now watching!

Joy glanced at Malachi. What should they do?

He nodded at the view into the room again.

Here came Talia, looking completely dull and lifeless. As she reached the door, Malachi drew Joy aside, all but melting into the shadows. The door opened, and a guard pushed the vapid-looking girl outside. 'And mind you get 'em clean!' he growled at her, giving her a kick to help her out the door.

Once again, the tall girl hit the floor full-length. With a bark of a laugh, the guard slammed the door after her. With himself inside.

Talia sighed where she lay in the midst of the foul-smelling mess. And then she sprang to her feet, snatching up the clothes in a trice and hurrying away at a strong and healthy stride. Joy blinked after her, wondering at the sudden transformation.

Malachi was smiling at the change. 'Let's catch up,' he whispered.

Joy nearly had to run to do so. The girl was hurrying along, obviously knowing just where she wanted to go. Swiftly she reached the stairs and rushed down, her feet beating a rapid staccato tattoo as they carried her to the next level down. Joy was careful to follow more quietly as she and Mal hurried down the stairs after her. They heard the stairway door open and close again as Talia passed through. Easing the door open themselves, they followed.

A door down the hallway was just swinging shut. Like the door they had spied through on the level above, this one had a small window set in it. So Mal and Joy peeped in.

Steam. That was the first impression they got. Trickles of water running down the inside of the window gave them a distorted view of the room beyond. But there seemed to be any number of great open - vats? barrels? no, washtubs - throughout the room. Steam was rising out of all those washtubs, curling through the room, dampening anything and everything it touched.

Ugh! Joy began to feel wilted, just looking at all that steam.

Malachi tapped her shoulder. 'Go in and engage her,' he whispered. 'As long as we're here, I'll check this level for Walker, then return.'

'Engage...?'

'...her in conversation. Talk with her. Offer to help with the wash she's doing.' He smiled encouragingly. 'The timing is perfect.'

'But the others!'

'Others?'

He had a point. There were only a few other people in the washroom right now, and none of them were guards. Only a handful of other prisoners, busy with laundry already in the early morning. Likely more would be here soon, since the room was large enough to hold nearly an army of launderers. Now was likely as empty as it would ever be. Now, as Malachi had said, was perfect timing.

All right. Joy nodded. Mal patted her shoulder and disappeared quickly down the corridor to make his search. Joy, with a deep breath and deeper prayer, opened the door before her and walked in.

~~~~~~~


The damp heat hit her like a slap across the face. Ugh! It was a bit disorienting, all this heat, and she stopped for a moment to look around again. There was Talia, standing by one great steaming tub, shoving the contents around and around inside it with what looked like a huge paddle. Joy walked over to her and did what Malachi had suggested she do. She said, 'Want some help?'

Talia froze. For a second the mask of dullness started to come down over her face. But then she realized there was no one there but another girl her own age - no guards. So instead, a look of wariness fell into place. 'Who are you?' she asked fiercely.

'Joy.' She said it with a smile.

Talia frowned, eyes narrowed. 'Joey is a boy's name.'

'No, I mean Joy as in, you know, happy.'

Talia's eyes narrowed even further. 'Happy? Who would be happy here?'

She had a point, and for a second, Joy thought maybe she would have done better to use her old name of Sallie. But then she thought to say, 'Well, I didn't get that name here. That's my new name.' And she picked up a spare paddle and started helping to stir the clothes in the tub.

Talia was still frowning. Slowly, she put her paddle back in and started stirring as well.

It took a bit of coordination, Joy found, to not jam her paddle in Talia's way and so wind up being more trouble than help. She had to keep her eyes on the wash constantly, which was a pity, since she would much rather be studying Talia's face and trying to fathom what the girl was thinking.

Finally, Talia said, 'Why do you have a new name?'

Moment of truth, thought Joy. 'Because the Master gave it to me,' she said softly.

Not softly enough, apparently, for Talia instantly hissed 'Shhh!' at her and glanced sharply about. None of the others seemed to be paying any attention to them, though. Relaxing a bit, Talia whispered, 'You... What...? How...?' And then came a sharp intake of breath as the tall girl realized, 'You don't have any chains!'

Joy looked down at her own arms, then across at Talia's. It was true, of course; Talia, just like all the other prisoners here, had heavy chains fastened to her two wrists, stringing across her body.

She looked up now at Talia's face. The tall girl's eyes were round with awe - and a bit of fear. In her lowest whisper yet, she asked Joy, 'Walker?'

Joy nodded.

The least hint of a smile broke in the corner of the tall girl's mouth. Again she checked to be sure no one was taking an interest in their conversation, then she whispered, 'You know where I live?'

'I know which level.' Curiously, Walker had not bothered to write down the exact location of Talia's cell in his notes.

Swiftly, breathlessly, Talia gave Joy the corridor and cell number. 'Tonight,' she added, a hungry look of hope in her eyes. 'After lock-in. You come. But,' and she glanced again around the room, 'be careful, Joy. Don't let the guards catch you.'

'I will. I mean, I won't. I mean...' Joy rolled her eyes at herself. 'Oh, you know what I mean.'

This time Talia really smiled. She had a nice smile, even with the scar that cut across her cheek and jaw. 'I'll be looking forward to it. For now though...' and wariness shaded her eyes again, '...maybe you better disappear before someone catches us talking.'

'All right. See you tonight,' Joy was replying when a movement suddenly caught both girls' attention. The door was opening! They both stiffened. Talia dropped instantly into her dull-and-lifeless routine, while Joy clashed her paddle against Talia's in an excess of nervousness.

The door stopped opening. A face slipped part-way into the room, peering with one eye straight at the girls.

It was Malachi.

All the air whooshed out of Joy in relief as her partner gestured for her to come along quickly. 'He's with me,' Joy assured her tall new friend. And then, with a brief smile of farewell, Joy hurried from the room.

Mal caught her arm and rushed her away. Off for the stairs, down them as quietly as possible, and then for the broom closet. They had to dodge guards twice, backtracking and even hiding swiftly behind an opening door, before they at last made it safely to their hiding place. Only after Mal closed the closet door, shutting them in with the brooms and mops and towels, did Joy dare to ask, 'Anything?'

Mal shook his head. 'No sign of Walker yet.'

'Then why the rush?'

He smiled tightly. 'I spotted ten guards leading a long line of prisoners, all of them carrying armloads of dirty clothes. I needed to get you out of there quickly.'

Ew. Joy shivered, glad to have such a good partner to watch over her.

'And you?' he asked.

Then she smiled. 'We meet with her tonight, after lock-in.'

'Good. Excellent.' He drew a deep breath, then said, 'Well. As we will be up in the night again, I would suggest that you to try to sleep just now. Oh, and...' He pulled something down from one of the shelves around them. 'Here's a towel. Likely you feel as if you were just in a steam bath.'

She grinned as she accepted the towel. 'I think maybe I was,' she replied.

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Friday, November 04, 2005

 

the child, part 3, chapter 3 - the master's key


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 Walker had given them. In a way, Walker'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 Walker 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 that 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. Morgen, listening as well, held up two fingers. Two guards, he meant.

And now they heard the voices.

'...you think happened to them out there?'

'No idea. Just glad it wasn't me!' The first voice was older, and the second one younger. And if the first voice was gravelly, then this second one was sandy, Jack thought. He pressed closer to the door, not wanting to miss what the pair was saying.

'They sure look in awful shape,' came the gruffer first voice. 'Bet it'll be a week before any of them comes back on duty.'

'Yeah,' grumbled the second. 'And double-duty at no extra pay for the rest of us till they do get back, too, I'll be bound. You just watch. The Boss always sees to it that we get the...'

'Hush! You mad or something, railing on the Boss like that? You wanna wind up being locked up same as all these fools?' And then in a hiss he added, 'Walls have ears, you know.'

Both voices fell silent as the steps moved on past and away. Jack continued listening, his ear pressed hard to the door to hear when the steps would leave this corridor. 'The key does work from the inside, right?' he whispered to Morgen.

Morgen didn't answer him.

'Hmm? Morgen?' Jack whispered.

Morgen was gazing across this cell into the semidark. Puzzled, Jack followed his companion'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. A short man - at least, Jack assumed it was a man and not a woman. Sharp-faced, edgy. Like a statue he stood there, staring back at the two total strangers who had just burst into his room in the middle of the night. Why wouldn't he be 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,' tall Morgen replied, bringing his hand up calmly to tap his own chest, 'and this is Jack.' With simple grace he moved his hand to point at his companion. Smiling. Friendly. Non-threatening.

The man before them 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. One of them had even mentioned a key. And who had keys but guards?

Except...

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 out, '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. Walker sent us.'

What? Jack stared at Morgen, shocked at what his companion had just said. Mentioning the Master? And Walker? What if this little man screamed for the guards now? This was the enemy's territory, and Jack remember too well how surprisingly loyal many of the prisoners were 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... Walker said... but I didn't believe him. And then he disappeared. I thought... I thought... Where is he? Where's Walker?'

Morgen held up his hand. 'Easy now. We'll get you out. But first... Walker'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? Starr had a way of knowing things she couldn't really know. So did Mac. Morgen wasn't like them, was he?

Was he?

I need to sit down, Jack decided. Barely noticing as Rob continued to beg for Morgen take him away from here right 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.

It was a knife.

~~~~~~~


Turning it over in his hands, being careful not to cut his fingers with it, Jack said suddenly, 'Um... what were you planning to do with this?'

Even by candlelight, he could see the man - 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. To Jack's surprise, tears began spilling down Rob's cheeks. 'Why should you care?' he muttered. 'Why should anyone care? Just give me back...'

'You were going to kill yourself,' Jack found himself saying. 'Weren't you?'

Where that guess came from, he didn't know. But looking at Rob, Jack knew he had guessed correctly. 'And we walked in just at the right time,' he added, staring at Morgen, 'to stop you.'

The timing of it stunned Jack.

'Give me my knife!' Rob demanded.

'Your knife? I don't think so. The guards don't let you have knives. So you stole this. Right?'

'So? What difference is it to you? Why should you care?'

'Because the Master cares.' Jack said it so softly, he barely heard the words himself.

Rob stared at him. And then he began to tremble. 'That's... that's what Walker 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 smiled. 'You can't get the key to freedom from this dungeon by stealing it, Rob,' he said softly.

Rob whirled towards him, eye wide, stunned. How did he know?

How did Morgen do that? Jack marvelled once more.

'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 was already holding out his own, beating Jack 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.'

'Huh?'

'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?'

'Yes, Rob.'

'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.'

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 after him. He felt drunk, and knew that he 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.

What???

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 Walker must be found and rescued before you can leave here.'

'But,' said Stephen, 'I want to go now.'

'I know, my son. But Walker risked himself for you. And then,' he added sorrowfully, 'he made a foolish decision, and was caught, and is now paying dearly for it.'

'But...'

'Do you love him?' the Master interruptly gently. 'Would you let someone you loved 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 Walker.'

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 Walker'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 this level and the level above. Tell Maccabees to search the level above him as well. And if you do not find Walker there, then go into the above-ground levels, where the guards live, and search throughout this fortress. 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.

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

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