Friday, February 17, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 18 - 'meanwhile...'


'This way,' said a determined Lucy, her hand already on the hilt of her sword. Rose's door snicked shut behind them as Lucy turned to the left, heading for the stairway and what lay beyond it.

'No, this way!' Linda hissed urgently, grabbing Lucy's arm and trying to run in the opposite direction.

'No...' groaned Lucy, pulling back against Linda's tugging. But she was hearing the same thing Linda had just heard: the ominous sound of the stairway door opening and of many voices spilling through it, and many feet.

The guards. The guards were coming. Lucy and Linda had to hide.

'Rose's room,' breathed Lucy, trying to shrug off Linda's grasp as she fumbled to find her key in a hurry.

'No time,' Linda responded. 'The closet!'

'But...'

But there was no time left for but's. They ran because they had to, trying to keep their footfalls soft as they did so. Linda reached the closet door first and wrenched it open, and Lucy pushed her inside and yanked it shut behind them both.

And footsteps echoed into the corridor beyond the door. The two women huddled in the closet floor in the dark and silently prayed.

Time passed. It might have been all morning for all they knew; there was no way to tell how long they hid there as the corridors outside buzzed with activity. Gradually the voices beyond the door died away, finally settling into silence.

'Do we go now?' whispered Linda.

'I think so,' Lucy replied. But, oh! she wished they could have followed Rose before the guards had shown up! 'It's going to be really crowded now,' she muttered to herself. 'With our swords and packs, we're sure to draw attention.'

'We could leave the swords and packs here,' answered Linda. 'Or drop them off in Rose's room, now that the way is clear.' And then she added, 'Crowded? Crowded where? I don't hear a soul stirring out there now.'

'Crowded in the Day Room,' said Lucy.

'The where?'

But Lucy's mind was back on the other part of the conversation. 'Not sure what we should do about the packs,' she said, 'but the swords - very likely we'll need those. Also, we likely haven't a moment to spare, since there's no telling what's happening with Rose just now... No, we need to just go find her, and take the packs with us.'

But,' said Linda as she struggled to her feet, 'what's this Day Room?'

Lucy only shushed her in reply as she laid an ear to the door. Satisfied, she cautiously cracked it open. 'Looks safe,' said she.

'And the Day Room?' Linda prompted once more.

A sigh. '... is where the people of this level spend their days, of course. It's over there, beyond the stairs. One vast room, with lots of smaller rooms all round the edges. I used to think that a particular one of those smaller rooms was where the Committee held its meetings. And if I'm right, and if things haven't changed since I left here - that's where I expect we'll find Rose.'

'Fair enough,' said Linda. 'Lead the way.'

They passed through the empty corridors quickly enough. Soon they passed the stairway door as well. Beyond that, to their right, they saw the back door of the fortress, the one Forest had bluffed their way in through. And to their left...

Linda frowned. Had that door been there before? She didn't remember having seen it till now. Muffled sounds - merriment? - spilled out at them from the other side of it.

'The Day Room?' she mouthed to Lucy. And received a nod in reply.

Nodding as well, Linda made ready to draw her sword if need be; Lucy was doing the same. For a brief moment Lucy paused, considering which would be the greater element of surprise: to crash the doors and come in noisily, or...

Or to do it this way. Laying a hand on the doorknob, she turned the unlocked latch and went in.

Noise assaulted them. Not raucous noise, to be sure - not an earth-shaking din - but a greater level of sound than the pair of them had heard in days. The lighting was brighter here than what they had grown accustomed to, so that they squinted at first and had trouble making out their surroundings.

One large room, as Lucy had said. Many, many tables scattered through it, accommodating an impressive array of Ginger look-alikes, all dripping with pearls and fine jewelry and expensive clothing. They sat at their tables or mingled among them, like so many little girls playing tea party, all of them laughing their brittle little laughs and looking wise and grand and gracious. Linda's stomach churned just looking at them.

None of them were looking at her. Or at least, not yet. Lucy eased the door shut behind them and gestured off to their left. Linda followed as they skirted the edge of the room, passing by the many parties in progress, trying for their part to look invisible.

They almost succeeded.

'Carol!' piped an irritatingly nasal voice.

'Oh, never,' said a second. 'She disappeared long ag...' A gasp. 'Carol!'

Great. Lucy studiously ignored the two voices, pushing on past them and their friends at tea, hoping that if she didn't respond, the women would conclude that she wasn't Carol after all.

'Carol!' sprang up yet another voice. And still another, 'Carol, dear! Why, it can't be!'

Go with that thought, she muttered inside her head as she pressed on. They had nearly reached the small room she suspected Rose had been taken to. How they would get in there now without being noticed, Lucy hadn't a clue. Maybe...

'Carol!' And this time a determined hand caught her shoulder and swung her around. She found herself looking into the eyes of...

Her heart sank. Not one of the silly highly cultured women who might fear to break a nail, but the steely face of a guard.

She drew herself up, facing him squarely. 'What do you want?' she demanded.

'You. For disturbing the peace,' he replied. He wrapped a beefy hand round her upper arm and began to steer her ahead of him. And before Lucy could finish the thought of, At least Linda will get away, the guard glanced at her as well and added, 'And you! You're not from this level. Trespassing!' Grasping Linda's arm as well, the guard propelled both women through the stunned crowd towards a doorway not many steps further on. Not having a free hand to knock at the door with, the guard used the toe of his boot to do his knocking. 'Open up!' he ordered.

The door cracked open and a frowning face peered out at him. 'Please!' said a stilted, dignified voice. 'Court is in session.'

'And I have here two more prisoners for your court to try,' the guard replied. He thrust the pair through the door, rapidly jabbed a finger at each and repeated the charges against them, then disappeared back through the door and vanished.

Leaving all in the room stunned. Rose, her arms shackled together in front of her, gaped at the two of them. The judge, sitting on a high bench above the rest, did the same. As did the remaining members of the Committee wedged into this room, acting as prosecutor and jury members and spectators. They were so shocked, they might as well have been statues.

Lucy recovered first. Realizing that the guard who brought them here had neither shackled them nor disarmed them, she brashly drew her sword and leveled it at the presiding judge. 'We'll just be taking our friend now and be on our way,' said Lucy.

'Um,' said Linda beside her. 'Maybe not...'

~~~~~~~

Meanwhile...

Five times he nearly turned back to the little cell where Starr was waiting for him, praying for him. It was so hard, being down here. Stone was constantly having to avert his eyes from the sort of things Starr had been turning her thoughts away from imagining. Worse, roaming about down here, scanning faces for anyone that might be interested in getting out, was giving him flashbacks to the old days of prowled about down here, looking for...

Ugh! He shook his head violently, trying to scatter from his mind those awful thoughts. But like a flock of unclean birds, they only swooped in to take roost in his head once more.

Oh yeah - he was forgetting something.

Master, Stone prayed softly. Here. I take these thoughts captive and hand them over to you. And inside his head, to his amusement, he saw himself casting a net over the whole flock of thoughts, bundling them up, then placing the whole mass of it into a very large hand where - whoosh! - it all instantly puffed into ashes and blew away.

Whew.

Now - to look again. Stone walked on, slowly, again scanning faces. But now his sight was so much clearer as he looked on the men around him.

No - not on them, not on the outside appearance, but on... hearts? And not the physical beating hearts either. But... motives - desires - thoughts, intents. What he was seeing seemed so strange to him that he wanted to shake his head clear again. But he didn't. Was this how the Master saw people?

And then Stone spotted him. Sitting alone, apart, heart broken, spirit broken. Hardly more than a kid.

Stone walked up softly. 'Can I help?'

The kid nearly jumped through the wall he was slumped against. 'Who are you?' he squeaked. 'Don't hurt me!'

'I'm Stone. I won't hurt you.' And again, 'Can I help?'

'No one can help. I'm gonna die here. They already nearly killed me,' he swept a hand at the crowds of prisoners round about, 'over and over again. If I stay here much longer, they will kill me.' His eyes were so wide and pain-filled.

This is it; this is the one, Stone thought gladly. 'Let me tell you about the Master,' he began.

When suddenly a hand closed on his shoulder, spinning him about. Boozy breath wafted into his face, all but gagging him. 'Hey, hey, hey! Mitch, ol' buddy, ol' pal! Where the he...' a belch interrupted the curse word, 'you been all this time? Ain't seen you in ages!'

'Um, hi there, uh, Butch,' said Stone. 'I, uh...'

'Here, have a belt,' said the drunk, shoving a sloshing mug into Stone's chest. 'Hey, guys!' he added to the crowd at large, 'look who's here! It's ol' Mitch!'

'I, um, really don't want...' said Stone, trying to dislodge the mug without taking a soaking from it. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the kid backing off furtively, trying to disappear before anyone but Stone could notice him. Man, and he didn't even have a chance to ask the kid his name...!

'C'mon, Mitch ol' buddy, take it!' Butch ordered, shoving the mug so hard into Stone's chest that Stone was sure he now had a bruise there. The man's booze-bleared eyes narrowed suspiciously. 'Whazza matter, Mitch. Doncha wanna drink with me no more?'

Not really, no - but Stone figured it wouldn't be a good idea to say that out loud. The kid had disappeared now and he had no idea where or how to find him again. Sighing, he looked again into Butch's face...

...and read danger there. 'Hey, guys!' the drunk hollered. 'Something's wrong with our ol' buddy Mitch. He won't drink with us. What's up with that?'

'And look!' cried someone. 'He's wearing a sword!'

That tore it. With an oath, Butch flung down the mug, sending amber liquid spewing in all directions. 'He's one of them! One of the traitors! Traitor!'

Suddenly the cry was echoing all about Stone. 'Traitor! Traitor!' Ripping their clothes, howling like mad animals, the crowd pressed towards him. To Stone's eyes, they looked for all the world like a great hundred-armed creature, reaching out to grab him and tear him to pieces.

Guessing his time of favor was passed, Stone did the first thing he thought of. He ran.

~~~~~~~

Meanwhile...

The dark was too comprehensive, and the reek foul. With the only illumination being the oily non-light coming off the torches, there were times when Seth could barely see Forest and James walking just ahead of him.

And there were also times when he really would have preferred not to see anything. For what he could see, in those few moments of clarity, was dark and twisted. Depraved.

I thought where I was, was bad, Seth told himself. Hel... I mean, heck... I thought where Stone is, is bad. But this...!

From the darkness forward of him to his left, he heard the tzhing of a sword being drawn. A second later, the same sound sang from forward of him to the right as well.

'You guys think you're gonna need to use them swords?' Seth whispered.

'Pretty likely, yeah,' Forest replied softly.

They went on. Ahead of them they began to make out a black vertical line of division. To the right of that line, all darkness; to the left of it, a deep and sullen reddish glow, gradually growing stronger.

It took a moment to make sense of it. Then James said, 'It's a corner. Wall on the right.'

'And a fire beyond the corner,' Forest finished.

'Check it out, buddy,' James said to the boy. And while James and Seth hung back, Forest slipped forward, flattened against the corner, glanced round it.

Then came back. 'It's a fire, all right. Big one, like a bonfire. Lots of people standing round it. Not sure what they're do...'

A shriek of horror split the air just then. 'Nooooooo. No, you can't! I'm loyal! I never went against the People once, not even in my thoughts!'

'Count it the ultimate honor then,' a second voice cut in, as oily as the lights.

Now many voices joined. Chanting. The words were impossible to make out. And over that, the second voice, laughing great oily laughter. While woven through it all, that first voice echoed out, still shrieking, shrieking.

Then the shrieking stopped, suddenly, as if cut off by a... knife? At the same moment, the chanting reached a frenzy. And the fire-glow leaped up, as if in a frenzy of its own.

'What can they be doing?' said James, not bothering to keep his voice low. Both he and Forest bolted for the corner, Seth a reluctant step behind them. They looked, and they saw...

The crowd of people, leaping, dancing, encircling the great bonfire, jumping and rejoicing. A tall man bearing a staff stood on a platform off to one side, holding his arms aloft, his laughter resounding over the crackling of the fire.

The fire. Squinting, the three companions gazed at the fire. Something about that fire seemed very, very wrong. Something was moving there, in the heart of the fire - and it wasn't just the flames.

In fact, something was falling down there in the fire. Part of it rose up again, a part that looked like, like...

Like an arm! It lifted momentarily, clawing at the flames. Then dropped to rise no more, fully ablaze.

'The ultimate honor,' James whispered in horror. 'My God, they sacrificed that poor guy. They burned him alive!'

'Man,' Forest growled, his face ashen in the red glow. 'If we'd only figured out what they were doing a couple of minutes earlier, we coulda rescued that guy. But now we're too late.'

'Too late?' boomed a voice that was none of the companions'. 'Oh, on the contrary - you're right on time!'

The man on the platform. He was turned now towards the three, pointing with his staff at them. The crowd turned to look at them, then began to surge forward, coming after them.

Forest brought up his sword immediately, and James a half-second later. Seth cracked his knuckles and joined the line with them. Sword or no sword, a fight he understood!

But there was no fight. Without warning, from behind, while their attention was on the crowd in front of them - nets suddenly spun over them. And then ropes snapped around them as well. Before any of the three could do a thing about it, they were all trussed up and their weapons stripped from them.

The ambushing guards, laughing among themselves, knocked all three over and dragged them along by the ropes, yanking them over to the platform where the tall man towered over all, grinning evilly. 'Let's see what we got here,' he crowed. 'Haul them up here!'

The guards did just that, delighted to bounce the three men's heads on the stairs as they pulled them up before the leader with the staff. A long scar creased the leader's cheek; evil fairly pulsed from his eyes. His arms were thick like the limbs of trees. His head was unnaturally large as well. Devoid of hair and highly domed, it looked rather like the shape of a...

A growl boiled forth from the largest of the three nets. 'Melonhead!' yelled Seth. 'This is where you went! Malorn!'

Scowling savagely, the tall man smashed his staff into Seth's head. The big guy's yelling voice stopped abruptly. And the blood flowed.

~~~~~~~

Meanwhile...

The door was opening right in their faces, and Joy and Talitha had nowhere and no time to hide. Joy's hand reached for her sword only to be arrested far short of drawing it; Talitha had clutched at Joy's arm in a death-grip, and then the taller girl had gone petrified.

The door swung open to reveal guards - two of them. Apparently they didn't see the girls at first, for the one in front was partly turned away so he could speak to the one following him.

'...finally spilled his guts this morning,' he was saying, 'and it's bad. They're all over the place, and the Boss wants them rounded up pronto. You'll need...'

The girls just stood there, waiting for the two guards to grab them. The two guards just went right on talking.

And walking. They stepped out of the room, pulled the door shut behind them and then, with one of them passing to the right of the girls and the other to the left, the two continued their conversation as they walked on down the corridor and rounded the nearest corner, out of sight.

What? Joy and Talitha turned to stare at each other. How had that happened?

'Be not afraid,' said a low voice directly in their ears. 'But come; it is now time to go.'

~~~~~~~

Meanwhile...

Mac stiffened. Somewhere, down there, below his feet - bad things were happening. While at the same time he knew, up there, high above his head - things were changing.

It was time to be ready. And Beatriz wasn't.

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

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