Friday, April 21, 2006
the child, part 3, chapter 27 - 'out of the depths'
'Come,' said Mac. He led them off behind the platform and away across the town.
For it was in fact a town. Unlike all the other levels they had searched - all those levels of long corridors of cells - this place had the feel of vast open spaces broken up by frequent clusters of huts or small houses. Not that they could see the open spaces; what little light there was seemed to be coming only from the bonfire dwindling behind them. But there was a lack of echoes here, and the sense of sound carrying a long way all about them. It felt strange after the closeness of the other levels.
They met with few people in their brief journey through the dark town - and those that they did meet generally took one good look at them, blanched in recognition, then scattered.
After the fourth such encounter, Seth gave a chuckle. 'Guess we made a bit of an impression on 'em, eh?'
'We?' Forest responded.
Huh? What was that supposed to... Oh. Seth felt his face start to burn with embarrassment. Of course the kid was right; it had nothing to do with them. It was what the Master had done, appearing in the fire like that and setting the three of them free - that was what had scared the snot out of these people. 'Aw, man! I'm sorr...' Seth muttered.
Mac stopped suddenly. 'Quiet!' he whispered urgently, then fell silent. The others froze as well, listening. What had Mac noticed?
There. Voices just ahead of them. And as the four continued to listen, Forest whispered, 'There's a wall there too. A big one.'
Baffled, Seth started to ask, 'How...?'
'There's an echo now,' the boy replied before Seth could ask. Then, 'Hide!'
Swiftly they did as they were told, taking cover by the nearest hut. And from there they listened.
'...abandon this post, and the chief priest'll fricassee the pair of you!' said a first voice heatedly.
'And I'm telling you, there's something going on over there!' a second voice declared.
'Aye,' chimed in a third. 'They ain't never made up that bonfire so bright as all that, not in all the time we been down here.'
'And the screaming,' challenged the second again. 'What's up with all that, eh? I mean, what'd he do, toss the whole lot of the People into the fire? There's something up, and I aim to go find out what!'
'Aye,' the third was agreeing, when the first drowned them both out with, 'Whatever's going on, this here is our post, and this here is where the pair of you is staying.'
Now the four companions risked a peek at the scene between the guards. There, by the wall Forest had sensed, they saw one guard bristling with anger as he stabbed his finger belligerently at a closed door in the wall, while before him stood two more guards, both glowering rebelliously and shifting their eyes again and again towards the distant glow of fire.
'Supposing he did toss a bunch of 'em into the fire. He's mad enough,' mumbled one of the two rebels.
'Forgetting whose side you're on, are you? He can burn 'em, beat 'em, kill 'em, whatever he wants. The People ain't nothing but prisoners. Malorn's in charge.'
'No, Malorn is dead.'
Startled out of their argument, the three guards turned to find themselves facing a strange quartet. Two of them were armed with swords held en garde, the third looked like a hairy ape with his hamlike fists at the ready, while the rather scrawny fourth guy stood somewhat behind the first three. Quickly drawing their own whips and clubs, one of the guards growled out, 'Who are you?' While the main guard, the one who had been berating the others, said officiously, 'All right, none of that now. Lay down your weapons and nobody gets hurt.'
It was the scrawny guy in the back who said that. The chief guard smirked. He had a lot of lip, that guy, for someone who hadn't even drawn a weapon. Relying on the guys in front of him to fight this battle for him, no doubt. Fair enough. 'Right then. Well, if it's a fight you want, then...'
'What you mean, Malorn's dead?' one of the other guards interrupted.
If looks could kill, that mouthy subordinate would have been in serious trouble just then. The chief guard turned a glare his way, then turned back to the ridiculous little band of warriors confronting them. 'Lay down your weapons now,' he ordered, 'before me and my men here hafta take 'em from... you...'
And suddenly the guard stopped talking. Oh, his jaw was still flapping up and down. But only squeaking gibberish came out now. And he stared - oh, how he stared!
For that scrawny little guy in the back - the one who hadn't even bothered to draw a weapon - suddenly, he wasn't so scrawny anymore. He was huge and bright and shining, with wings unfurled and too many faces, too many eyes...
'Gahhh!' With a shriek of madness, the chief guard hit the floor face down, shaking like he might shake himself right to pieces. His two companions fell straight down as well, moaning in terror before the faces of the angel.
What? Forest and James glanced at each other, wondering what had gotten into the guards. And, 'What's with them?' Seth asked. Turning round, he asked the question a second time to plain little Maccabees standing meekly behind them.
Mac merely smiled. 'Let us go forth,' he said, as he stretched out his hand and opened the door that was no longer being guarded. 'And quickly.'
Mac didn't have to say that twice. They were all more than ready to leave that level far behind them. Beyond the door lay the stairs, and Forest set out leading the way up them, taking them two at a time. And Seth was not far behind the kid. James, however...
Mac took the man's arm, supporting him. 'You need strength yet.'
James nodded, already beginning to feel winded before they reached the first landing. 'Yeah. That beating I took is still getting to me, I'm afraid.'
'Fear not,' Mac counseled. Pausing long enough to unsling his canteen, he passed it to James. 'Drink.'
'I've got my own right here, you know,' the man objected. 'You don't have to...'
'James. Drink.' Mac's voice was gentle, but there was command in his eyes.
'All right.' James accepted the canteen, opened it, and took a polite taste. And then, like a man who'd been dying of thirst in a desert, he found himself upending the canteen, drinking, drinking, drinking. Excess water was splashing over his face, but he didn't care. Oh, but this was good water! Now, he knew it was the same as the water he carried, drawn from the same stream at the same time just minutes before they had entered the fortress. And yet Mac's water was so much more, well, refreshing than his own. Delightful water. Invigorating.
He had to gasp for air at the end, and grinned sheepishly at Mac as he returned the canteen. 'I think I used it all,' he apologized.
'Not nearly,' Mac smiled back, giving the container a shake. And sure enough, it sounded nearly full again. How could that be?
James drew a large breath and nearly laughed out loud. He hadn't felt this good in - how long? Since before their capture in the valley, certainly. 'Stairs, nothing,' he told Mac. 'I think I could tackle a mountain now!'
'Good.' Turning his face up the stairway before them, Mac led out again.
A few landings later they caught up with Forest and Seth. It wasn't hard, for the pair had stopped to wait for them. And Forest immediately jumped in with, 'Mac, what did you do?'
'I have done something?' Maccabees replied.
'These ain't the same stairs,' said Seth.
'Yeah. You didn't lead us back to the door we came in by. You led us out a different way.'
'Is there a problem with that?'
Forest and Seth glanced at each other. 'Well... maybe, maybe not,' said the kid. 'It's just... we've never been this way before.'
'Where are we, even?' Seth added.
'Come,' said Mac and continued climbing, while the other three fell into line behind him. 'You recall, James, that Stone indicated more than one staircase in this dungeon?'
Remembrance dawned on the man's face. 'In the cave, when we were constructing the map of this place. Yes.'
'The staircase we had been using empties out, as you know, close to the back door of the fortress.' Mac glanced at the others. 'That door has been used many times this day by most of your companions in their escapes. And the guards have now sealed it.'
'So most of them have gotten out already?' Forest was asking, eyes glowing. At the same moment as Seth asked, 'But how do you know all that?' And James, at even the same second, said, 'Then we need another way out.'
'Yes,' said Mac, and he pointed up the stairs. 'The main entrance as well is heavily guarded now. But as Walker pointed out, there are three exits from this place.'
'Three...' Forest muttered, rebuilding in his mind's eye the map in the dust on the cave's floor.
As Seth asked again, 'How's he know all that?'
'The south exit!' said James.
'Yes. This way does not lead directly to it, but will take us much closer to it than the other stairs would have. And we will have company.'
'Company?' said Forest, his hand dropping to his sword's hilt. 'You mean guards? Bring 'em on! We haven't had a decent battle against guards yet!'
Gotta love that kid, thought Seth, his own fists already curling in readiness.
'That is not exactly what I was referring to, young Forest. But I think you will have fighting to your fill soon enough. Come.'
They pressed on. Gradually Seth realized that no one had ever answered his question. But just as he started to ask again, Forest suddenly said, 'What was that smell anyway? And how come we never smelled it before?'
'That's a good question,' James agreed. 'We'd been up and down those stairs, um...' A bit of rapid counting, and he finished with, 'Yeah, that was our seventh time going near that door. Yet we never smelled anything till today.'
'You had no need until today,' Mac answered. 'And what you smelled was,' and he turned now to face them all. 'The stench of pure evil.'
They shuddered. And even here inside the stairwell, they had a sense of a cloud passing in front of the sun. 'I don't ever wanna go back there again,' muttered Seth.
'Funny thing,' added Forest as they started on climbing again. 'That Malorn - he acted like he'd never seen us before in his life!'
'What do you mean?' replied Seth. 'He recognized me right off.'
'Well, yeah, you. But remember, Seth? When you first met us, you said that James looked like ol' Melonhead had worked him over. And Malorn sure looked familiar to me, from the guys that captured us in the valley. Right, James?'
'He was the one,' James nodded. 'I'll never forget him.'
'And yet he seemed to have forgotten us,' said the boy. 'He never called you by name, James, but I know he beat that much information out of you that day. And he sure should have known my name - but all he called me just now was, Son.'
'Hush!' Mac commanded abruptly. And a second later they all knew why. For the stairs above them were echoing suddenly with the clatter of feet.
'Guards!' hissed Forest and began to draw his weapon. Only to have Mac, surprisingly, reach across and stay his hand.
If it was guards, James thought, listening, why so few? That couldn't have been more than three pairs of feet charging their way. Would there be only three guards coming down the stairs? And yet, if it wasn't guards...
Who could it be?
And then they heard a voice hiss, 'No, not there! This way!' And now the running feet were nearly on top of them. Forest pushed against Mac, struggling to get his sword free, only to find that pushing against Maccabees was like pushing against one of these stone walls.
And then the feet appeared round the stairs just above them. Three pairs, just as James had thought. The one in the lead skidded to a halt as he saw the four men waiting here, with the other two smacking right into his back. A stunned moment of tense silence...
And then Seth began to laugh.
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