Friday, April 28, 2006
the child, part 3, chapter 28 - 'hot pursuit'
'Oh, man - wait!' said Stephen. He shoved his way back through the stairway door and ran back up the corridor, past the dozen or so unconscious guards.
'Stephen, what are you doing?' Jack hissed after him. He and Walker hesitated in the stairway door, wondering if their unarmed companion might not be running himself back into danger.
'I nearly forgot,' Stephen called back, 'but I dropped my - here it is.' He bent and scooped something up off the floor, then raced back to his friends. 'My key,' he said, showing it to them briefly before stowing it safely in his pocket. 'Ok, I'm ready now.'
Jack had been all set to chew the little guy out for turning back. But now that he saw why - yeah. Their keys were their assurance of getting out of this fortress, so he couldn't fault Stephen for going back after his. 'Right,' said Jack. 'Let's go then.'
They took off down the stairs. It had been a long way coming up, and now it was going to be a long way going back down as well. Shortly, somewhere far, far below them, they heard what might have been the sound of a door opening and the patter of running feet. Perhaps. They couldn't be sure. Morgen was certainly down there somewhere. But the sound - if it was a sound - was not likely to be him; both Jack and Stephen were convinced that no one would hear Morgen's footfalls unless he really wanted them to.
They descended. Walker was fairly confident that he knew which level they had started out from, and he was busy keeping track of how many doors they passed as they hurried down the stairs. They were making good time, he told the others...
And then they definitely heard a door being flung open and a storm of feet invading the stairway.
Below them. Instantly they all halted.
'Gotta be the guards. They're searching for us now.'
'What are we going to do?'
'What else can we do? We have to keep going.'
'With the guards between us and the way out?'
'Well, just because that's where they are now, doesn't mean they'll still be in our way by the time we get down to the ground level. I mean, if they're looking for all the teams, most of the places they'll be looking are below ground, right?'
'Ok, that's a good point. So we just keep going?'
'For now, yeah. And, uh, stay on alert.'
'I hear that!'
And on they went.
With the thunder of footsteps from below them echoing and re-echoing all around them, it was nearly impossible to hear even the sounds their own feet were making. And yet as they continued their descent, Jack suddenly stopped dead once again, frowning up at the stairs above them.
'What's wrong?' asked Walker.
'Did you hear something?' Jack responded.
'I can barely hear you,' said Walker. Then, 'What do you think you hear?'
'I think I heard a door opening somewhere up there. And I think I hear lots of feet coming our way.'
'You serious?' said Walker. He listened too for most of a minute, then shook his head. 'Well, all I can hear for sure is all that noise below us. But if you think someone's above us as well, then let's get off these stairs.'
'And go where?' said Stephen as Walker set out charging down the stairs again to find the nearest door.
'Oh, I know a few ins and outs around here,' Walker called back.
It was few landings on before they spied a door. Pausing just long enough to give a listen at it - but they weren't able to tell from listening if there was anyone on the other side or not - they sent up a prayer to the Master and spilled through the door, yanking it shut again behind them as soon as all three of them were through. Then they looked around and saw...
Corridors, as usual. And for the moment at least, empty ones.
'C'mon,' said Walker.
'C'mon where?' asked Stephen, still not at all sure they should be leaving the stairs.
'I know another way out of here,' said Walker. 'Trust me.' And cautiously he led them off, up one corridor and down the next, moving quietly, hoping not to meet with anyone. Another corridor, and then still another...
'Yeah, this is where I thought we were. Ok, we're almost to the back stairway of the place. It's not much farther up here, but to get to it might be a touch hairy, since we'll have to go through...'
Bam! The sound of a door being thrown open froze them all in their tracks. What door though, and where?
And then a burly voice called out, 'Yep, they went this way. C'mon, men! I can smell 'em from here.'
Walker grabbed both Jack and Stephen and scrambled. 'Go! go!' he hissed. Not that they needed a whole lot of encouragement to run for their lives. 'Which way?' said Stephen as they came up on a new junction.
'Here!' said Walker. Sprinting ahead, he was digging in his pocket as they ran. 'There. The double doors. Have to unlock them.' And as they reached the doors, Walker succeeded in dragging his key at last from his pocket. Like Stephen before him, he fumbled the key a bit in his haste. But then he had the doors open. 'Ok, go!'
They tumbled in without first taking a look around. 'What is this, the spindly forest?' Jack asked as soon as he remembered to see where they were. And what he saw was a large room filled with dozens of long tables, each table bristling with scores of chairs upended and perched all along its long sides. No people, which was a relief. Turning to Walker, he asked again, 'Where'd you bring us?'
'What's in your pack there?' Walker replied. 'You got some rope?'
'Rope? Yeah,' said Jack. He rummaged in the pack briefly and produced a length. 'You gonna answer my questions?' he added.
Swiftly Walker wrapped the rope round the handles of the double doors, then tied it as securely as he knew how. 'We're in the guards' mess, of course,' he said. 'There. If those guys come this way, this ought to slow them down a mite.' Nodding at a second pair of double doors at the far end of the room, he said, 'The stairs are over there, beyond the kitchen.'
'You mean,' said Stephen, 'you led us into a room that might have been full of guards?'
'You had a better plan?' Walker snapped. And immediately apologized. 'Anyway,' he added, 'it's not a meal time, so no one's here.'
'Not out here, no,' said Jack. 'But what about in the kitchen? Won't there be cooks?'
'Yeah, maybe,' Walker admitted, taking the lead as they set out across the mess. 'But I think we ought to be able to handle a couple of... Uh-oh.'
It was an uh-oh they could definitely have done without. For the double doors they had just entered through, the ones Walker had use the rope to tie shut - those doors were suddenly shaking. Quaking. Breaking!
'Jack! Grab the other end!' called Walker. He laid hands on the closest table and, with Jack's help, flipped it onto its side, sending the chairs that had been stacked on it scattering wildly. 'C'mon, more,' Walker added. And he and Jack sent several more tables over onto their sides, doing their best to make an instant barricade.
'Ok,' said Jack, 'one more.' And as he and Walker flipped another table, Jack noticed that Stephen was just standing there between the barricade and the kitchen doors. 'Run for it, Stephen!' Jack called.
And that was when the rope failed and, with a loud crash, the doors burst open.
And in walked someone who was all too familiar.
It was the guard from upstairs, the one who had come so close to slitting Walker's throat. The demon guard whom Morgen had temporarily killed. Sneering, strutting, he pointed at the trio nearing the far end of the room. 'There they are, men. After 'em!'
About a dozen men poured into the mess behind him. They fanned out, running along the aisles between the long tables, reaching the makeshift barricades all too quickly. Grabbing the obstructing chairs, they began clearing them out of their way - by pitching them over the tables at their quarry!
'Go! Run!' cried Walker. He flung up his arms to ward off a chair. Jack, trying to do the same, was half a second too late and took a gash cross his forehead from a chair leg. Shaking his head as blood gushed into his left eye, he did his best not to faint. Stephen and Walker were already sprinting for the kitchen doors, and Jack pressed a hand to his wound and followed.
The pursuing guards were starting to clamber over the barricades now. A grim bunch they were, with cold, dead eyes. Stephen, running well ahead of his two companions, stole a glance backwards at the enemy just as he was coming up on the kitchen doors. And that backwards glance turned out to be far from the best idea he'd had all day. For just as he reached this set of double doors...
Whap! One of the doors reached out and hit him first.
Down went Stephen.
From the opening door came a voice growling, 'What the...?' A grimy-aproned cook appeared in the doorway, shocked speechless by all the mess out there in the mess. Seconds later, the man was completely bowled over as well, for Walker barreled right into him. Down went the cook, landing smack in the doorway.
'Sorry!' called Walker. Skidding to a halt within the kitchen, he quickly doubled back and grabbed Stephen, hauling him to his feet. And then the pair of them vanished into the kitchen.
Jack was wobbling after them as fast as the pain in his head would let him go. He really did not want to know how close behind him his following was, so instead of looking back, he kept his eyes only on the open door ahead of him. The guards were right behind him, he knew, just about breathing down his neck. Pouring on all the speed he could find, he vaulted over the inert cook in the doorway, then grabbed the man and drug him inside.
And the doors swung shut. Good, that's what he wanted. Knowing that he was out of rope now - not that he had time to hunt through his pack to find rope anyway - he glanced around quickly and snatched up the first thing he saw, a handful of spatulas. These he jammed through the side-by-side handles of the double doors. Kitchen doors, he knew, generally would swing both ways. Maybe the spatulas would keep them from opening in either direction.
At least, temporarily. The bash of heavy bodies against the other side of the doors told him that his pursuers had caught him up. He had no time to secure the doors any better than he already had, and precious little time to find a hiding place. In fact, he hid in the first place he saw. He dove for cover under a nearby worktable.
The door was shaking like it was going to be battered to pieces. And one by one, sure enough, the spatulas began to fall out.
'What the blue blazes is going on over here? Chollie, you drunk or something?' barked a new voice. From the far end of the kitchen came another man in a grimy apron. As he drew near the worktable, his steps faltered. 'Man, Chollie! What happened to you?' the newcomer cried.
Groaning, the cook that Jack had pulled into the kitchen sat up and started to say something. But at that same moment the last of the spatulas fell out and the door sprang open. And the guards, in their haste to invade the kitchen and seek out their prey - trampled all over poor Chollie.
He never had a chance.
'Hey!' yelled the new cook. Horrified, he let loose a blistering barrage of invectives against the brawny intruders. Until one of the guards swung his club and bludgeoned the man in the head. Down the second cook fell like a sack of potatoes, his own blood puddling around him.
Jack huddled under the worktable, doing his best to be small and unnoticeable. His best wasn't good enough though, for abruptly the worktable went spinning from over his head. And as it flew, it pasted him right in the same spot over his eye where the chair leg had hit him. Ohhh...
As the gruff voice of the demon guard said, 'There's one, boys. Get 'im.'
But there was another voice as well, nearly as gruff, coming up from the far end of the kitchen. 'Max, what the' curse 'are you and Chollie doing over there? Tearing down my kitchen? I oughta...' The voice stopped, then rumbled out, 'Who the' curse 'are you lot, and what'd you do to Max? And Chollie? They're...'
'What we did to them, we'll do the same to you, punk, so get out of our way!' the demon guard threatened.
'The' curse 'you will!' growled the latest cook. He was the biggest cook yet, and by far the angriest. Eyes ablaze, he reached over to the rack of dozens of knives hanging on the wall, snatching a mighty meat cleaver. A second later one of the many guards was wearing that meat cleaver as a decoration in his chest. Gently he sank to the floor and lay still.
'Fool!' snarled the demon guard. 'All right, boys, after him!' And what remained of his dozen men flowed round him to confront the mad cook.
Swiftly the cook seized another knife from his handy arsenal and threw it with the same deadly accuracy as the first. A third rapidly followed. And yet the guards kept coming. Hesitating for a moment, the cook changed tactics. Instead of reaching for more knives, he stretched up a hand to the rack over his head where all kinds of kitchen utensils were hanging, and he took down...
'A pot?' mocked one of the guards pressing close on him. 'You expect to do any kind of damage against us using a pot?'
'Just watch,' the cook whispered. Turning towards a huge vat full of bubbling amber liquid, he plunged the pot into it and, before any of the guards had enough time to realize what he was doing, he took that potful of boiling liquid and flung it at the guards.
Screams and curses filled the air as the oil from the deep fryer spattered all over the advancing guards, sizzled their skin. Shrieking, they dropped their weapons to claw helplessly at the hot liquid, trying to get it off, get it off! And even as they danced and howled in pain, a second potful showered over them, and then a third.
That was enough. Slipping, sliding, skidding, falling, the remnant of the dozen men turned tail and vacated the kitchen as fast as the slick oil now coating the floor would let them.
Leaving only the demon guard still confronting the cook. With a new potful at the ready, the cook said, 'You get out too!'
With a dismissive snort, the demon guard ignored the threat. Bending down, with a mighty jerk he wrenched free the meat cleaver that had brought down the first of his men, and then launched it at the cook.
The pot of oil went flying as the cleaver found its mark. And a third dead cook lay stretched on the floor.
Hmph. His men were all gone now. No matter. He wouldn't need them anyway. He would simply find Walker and his rescuers by himself. Two fools and a wimp; how hard could that be?
Glancing first at the overturned worktable, he saw that the fool who had been cowering there had vanished. No doubt he had taken advantage of the distraction of the last cook to find better cover to cringe under. Hmm...
Slowly, watchfully, the demon guard stalked through the kitchen. Down at the far end, the place the last two cooks had come from, he saw another way out. Had his quarry already fled? But no, how could they have? If they had tried to get past the cooks, then those cooks would have been hollering about the fugitives, instead of interfering with this search.
No, they were still here. And he would find them.
There had been four of them upstairs, but he had seen only three taking refuge here in the kitchen. All the better. The fourth, he knew, had been a presence, and he did not sense that presence here. He smiled. With their protector gone, picking off the remaining three would be a piece of cake.
And here was their most likely hiding place: a row of five doors. Storage rooms, he guessed. Stepping up to the first room, he laid his hand on the handle and wrenched the door open.
Empty. Oh, there were a large number of bushel baskets filled with fruits and vegetables in here, and many strings of onions and peppers and such hanging from the ceiling. But nowhere was there enough room for a man to hide in here - no, not even that shrimpy little one who carried no weapon. Not here.
He closed this door and moved on to the next.
Ah, this was more like it! Meat. Poultry hanging up by its feet, pigs hanging by their trotters. And whole sides of beef hanging up as well. This room showed great promise. There were dozens of places in it where a man could hide.
Smiling, he closed the door again. Crossing to the arsenal of kitchen knives, he chose a sturdy paring knife, then returned and rammed it into the door jamb, effectively locking the door to the meat room. There. If they were in there, they would stay in there for as long as he liked, while he went on searching the rest of the kitchen. After all, if he were to enter the room now, before screening the rest of the storage rooms, before making sure that they weren't in some other place here - why, they might well take advantage of him being inside the meat room to try to slip away from wherever else they were hidden. Worse, they might even scrape together enough brains between the three of them to think of taking a knife as he had done and locking him up in the meat room!
Oh no. That would never do. No way would Walker and his loser friends get the better of him!
Smiling, congratulating himself on his cleverness, he moved on to the next door, grasped the handle, and...
Frown. What sort of stuff were they storing here? Huge white sacks stacked up in great piles, but sacks of what - beans? flour? No matter; the sacks added up to lots of hiding places here as well, so he would get another knife and...
Suddenly he found himself on the floor, white filling all his vision. What the...? He reached for his eyes, wondering that he could not see - and pulled one of the great white sacks off his face. More white spilled out of the sack, pouring out of it, puffing out of it. A huge mound of white filled his lap, while a cloud of white filled the air around him, and began to fill his breathing as well. He choked on it, sputtering, spitting out white.
Through the mist of white settling round him, he caught a glimpse of a moving shadow. Two shadows. Growling with rage, he tried to stand.
'Jack! Let's go!' he heard.
And then he heard another sound, the sound of wood clattering against wood. What was...?
And then he was under attack by dozens of spears!
If it was spears, why was someone dropping them longways onto his head, instead of jabbing him with them?
Floop! And now a smelly, still-damp bundle of shaggy old ropes swatted him in the mouth. Bleah!
And then the mist of white cleared enough for him to see what was really happening. These were not the spears of a warrior! These were a motley assortment of brooms and mops. Someone...
Yes, now he saw. Apparently Walker and the shrimpy one had been hiding together in the room of white sacks, while the third had taken cover among the kitchen cleaning supplies. And they all had insulted his honor by throwing flour and brooms at him.
Furious, he boiled up from under that pile of ignoble toothpicks - and by the time he had finished venting his rage on the mops and brooms, mere toothpicks was all that was left of them.
The men! They were getting away!
Snarling like a wild animal, the guard stormed through the kitchen, slipping a little in the puddles of oil, heading straight for the stairway door. He would follow Walker and his friends to the very fires of Hell if he had to!
But no, here they were - two of them at least. Walker was standing in the open door to the stairs, with the other one who bore a weapon close by. The third though - where was he?
And Walker was asking the very same question: 'Where's Stephen?'
'I thought he was with you!'
'Look, the bad guy's coming. We gotta get out of here.'
'Not without Stephen!'
Stupid loyalty, the demon guard smirked as he bore down on them. First he would dispatch these two, then he would find and kill the third at his leisure.
Walker had his sword out now, and the other was drawing his. 'Back off!' one of them said.
The demon halted before them. Smiling, he looked back and forth between the two, then drew his own weapon. A dagger. Yes, the very same one he had wielded upstairs when he had tried to slit Walker's throat.
'Fool!' he sneered at Walker. 'I had you squealing like a baby earlier, and I'll do it again too - and then I'll hew you limb from limb!'
'I don't think so,' Walker answered bravely. 'I wasn't armed then.'
'You think your puny weap...!' the demon guard gloated. But even as he was menacing them, he caught the subtle shift in both men's eyes. They weren't looking at him anymore, but beyond him, at something behind his back.
His empty hand sprang to the point of impact on the back of his head as he whirled, enraged. Oh, here was the shrimpy one! Standing behind him, a cast-iron frying pan held in both hands, a look of triumph quickly dying in his eyes as he realized that a conk on the head wasn't going to be quite enough to fell this guard. Oh, how he loved to see fear take over someone's eyes!
Leering, the demon showed the little man his dagger. 'You see this? I'm going to use this to cut that iron thing in your hands into three pieces. And then I'm going to use it to cleave you.'
Stephen swallowed. 'It's, um, a mighty small weapon,' he ventured.
'Is it?' And before Stephen's eyes, to the little shrimp's horror, the dagger grew. Changed. Unfolded. Expanded. Became a great scimitar. An evil sword, curved, with a row of glittering barbs all along its leading edge, like the teeth on a saw. A sword to rip with. Yes, a destroying weapon.
A sword Forest would have recognized, if he had been there just then.
'Eep,' said Stephen.
The demon began to laugh.
But he had forgotten something. Oh yes he had! He had forgotten that there were two men standing behind him with swords in their hands. So when he roared out at Stephen, 'I'm going to kill you, little man!' Walker responded with, 'I don't think so.'
And he swung Morgen's blade.
Which struck true.
And for the second time in the past hour or so, the demon's head went flying from his shoulders. It made a beautiful arc through the kitchen, bounced once off a canopy above a stove, a second time off the wall of knives, and landed at last with a massive amount of sizzling - plop in the deep-frying vat.
His headless body slowly toppled over and hit the floor.
'Maybe that'll keep him dead a bit longer this time,' quipped Jack. 'You all right, Stephen?'
Wordlessly, the little man nodded.
'Then let's go.' And the three of them hit the stairs running.
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