Sunday, September 10, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 29 - 'not without stephen'


They all but flew down the stairs. If you can take stairs two at a time while going downstairs, then that's what they did. After all, there was no telling when Ol' Ugly back up there in the kitchen would pull himself back together and come roaring after them again.

It wasn't the easiest thing in the world, hurrying down stairs like these. As soon as they set foot in this stairway, they realized that it was barely half as wide as the other one they'd grown used to. Not only that, but most of the torches here weren't lit - hey, a goodly number of torches weren't even there - so plainly these stairs weren't in use very much. On top of that, Walker, who was in the lead, kept bursting through great curtains of cobwebs every few steps. Those and the cobwebs over their heads, all strung across the ceiling and dribbling down the walls, were so thick that Jack reckoned you could just about make clothing out of them.

And then they got to the first landing with a door. And Jack and Stephen, fast as they were going, skidded to a stop to stare.

What was this? There wasn't just one door at this landing; there were two!

'Two doors?' said Jack, looking for Walker who was already racing on to the next landing down. 'What's the other one for?'

Walker paused only long enough to shrug. 'How should I know?' he said briskly, and rushed off again.

'What do you mean, how should you know?' Jack called after him in the loudest whisper he dared. 'You've been scouting in this place for how long now? Didn't you bother to find out where the second door goes?' But Walker had disappeared around the corner below without another word.

Jack glanced at Stephen, but all he could do was shrug back at him. 'Don't look at me,' said the little man. 'Before you guys rescued me, the only places I knew were my cell, the workroom, and what came between. I'd heard rumors there was this stairway here, but...' And he gave another shrug.

'Hmm...' Jack murmured, taking another look at the twin doors. He reached for a doorknob.

'Hey, you two coming or not?' Walker appeared again round the lower landing, glaring up at them.

Sigh. 'Yeah, coming!'

Walker didn't wait for them to catch up before he scampered away again. Jack and Stephen followed, trying to keep up. Through light and shadow (mostly shadow) the three of them ran on. Landing after landing. Cobweb after cobweb. Twin doors after twin doors. Down, down, down... oh, a long way down! But then of course, it had also been a long way up.

'...thirteen...' Jack overheard Walker mutter at last.

'Thirteen what?' he asked.

Walker nodded back at the set of doors they had just left behind. 'That was the thirteenth level we passed since we came out of the kitchens. And the kitchens themselves were on the fourteenth level up. So...'

'So that means we're almost there. The next level will be ground level,' said Jack, a tired smile spreading across his face. And on they all hurried, glad that their descent was nearly over. Knowing they were almost out seemed to give such wings to their feet, that before they knew it, the next set of doors came into sight. Jack and Stephen both slowed, and Jack reached out a hand to one of the two doors...

'No, not there! This way!' Walker hissed. He was already beyond those doors, still rushing on down the stairs. But going where? Jack wondered. A glance at Stephen showed the same puzzlement mirrored on his face. But with Walker already gone, there was nothing the pair of them could do but follow.

They clattered on down the stairs, Walker in the lead, Jack and Stephen doing their best to catch him up - when Walker suddenly skidded to a halt. Before they could stop themselves, Jack and Stephen had smacked right into the man's back. There was a stunned moment of tense silence as the three of them realized...

That four men were waiting here, on the landing just below them. Three of them were wearing swords, and one of those was struggling to draw his sword even as another wearing a sword restrained him.

And the fourth? Big and burly, with hands like hams, he stood a bit apart, looking up at Walker, Jack, and Stephen.

And then the big man began to laugh. Turning to the rest, he pointed up the stairs and said, 'Hey, look! It's Walker!'

~~~~~~~

Stunned, Walker drew back a step, nearly treading on Jack's foot behind him. Stephen hid himself behind Jack's back, peeking cautiously out at the four men blocking their way downstairs. Who was that group? Guards? They sure didn't look like guards.

The one who had been struggling to draw his sword - the youngest of the four - had given that up now and was instead beginning to chuckle himself. 'Hey, it is Walker! And, look, there's...'

'Jack?' That from the fourth man, the one who had neither laughed, nor gone for his weapon, nor stopped the boy from drawing his sword. 'Jack?' he said again, peering closer. 'Man, brother! What happened to you?'

Jack peered back. '...James?' he said at last. 'James! But you look...'

And now the lot of them all began speaking at once. 'Forest!' 'Logan!' 'Mac!' 'Is that Stephen?' And in the next moment they had rushed together and were slapping each other on the backs, or punching each other on the arms, breathing easier in their great relief.

Swiftly Jack introduced Stephen to the four newcomers, and James introduced Seth to the three from upstairs. And while the others gabbled together, catching their new friends up on their adventures, James drew Jack aside. Brother caught brother in a relieved embrace, and then they pushed each other out to arm's length and took a good look.

'What happened to your face?' said each man in the same breath. And then, chuckling, they added, 'You go first.' 'No, you!' 'No...'

'All right, I'll go first,' said James.

'Yeah, how could all those cuts and bruises heal this fast? There's barely a scar left!'

A nod towards Mac. 'You should have a drink from his canteen.' Touching the still-bloody welts on Jack's face, James added, 'Seriously. Right now, you should. Hey, Mac!' And in between sips, then gulps, from Mac's canteen, Jack spilled out the short version of the battle in the kitchen.

'We must go,' said Mac, taking back his canteen and corking it. Turning away - even as Jack and James were exclaiming over the swift changes in Jack's wounds - Mac called to the rest. 'We must go now!'

'Right,' said Forest briskly, and he started up the stairs.

'Wrong way!' said Walker.

Huh? 'What do you mean, wrong way?' said Seth. 'We're getting outta here, and out is up those stairs.'

Walker looked at all the faces staring at him. 'Aren't you forgetting someone?' he said. Then, pointing, he said, 'You! Mac. You're supposed to be my partner, right? Well, did anyone get Beatriz out?'

Silence. And then, softly, Mac repeated to Walker the woman's insistence that she would trust no one to set her free but Walker himself.

'Yeah, that's what I thought. You remember what you said upstairs, Jack? About not leaving without Stephen? Well, I'm not leaving without Beatriz. Mac, you're my partner. Let's go get her!'

Mac slowly shook his head. 'I cannot.'

'What?' Walker's eyes all but bulged from their sockets. 'What's the matter with you, man? You plan to leave her here to rot while you save your hide?'

'Hey, now! Wait a second, that's just not fair...' Stephen started to protest. But Forest cut him off with, 'Look, Mac has his orders, Walker. The Master met with us downstairs and told Mac to make sure we get outside first, and then he's to meet up with you again, Walker, to...'

Mac held up a hand to forestall the rest. 'We must go. I will return to your side as soon as can be, Walker.'

'Hmph.' Walker glared one last glare at them all, then plunged on down the stairs to find the second level where Beatriz lived. Mac turned and gestured the rest of them up the stairs before him. 'And be ready to draw swords,' he added.

~~~~~~~

Forest got there first, and was frowning at the pair of doors as the others gathered behind him. 'Which one?' he said.

'And why are there two doors for each level in this stairway, anyway?' added Jack.

'This door,' said Mac, reaching through them all to lay a hand on the door to the right, 'leads into the ground-floor level as usual. And this one,' his hand moved to the door to the left, 'is for maintenance.'

'Maintenance? Meaning... what?' asked Jack.

'Come and see,' said Maccabees. And he opened the door.

They crowded in through it. A narrow passageway stretched before them. Narrow, dark. Smelly.

Damp.

Someone sneezed, and the sound of it echoed away into nothing.

'Where are we?' said Jack, his voice automatically dropping into a whisper. 'This place smells like...'

'...like what it is,' said Mac.

'The garbage dump,' said James.

It was the truth. Intermittent torches played sickly yellow light over the stacks and stacks of - faugh! - putrid stuff! All along the right-hand wall, up by the ceiling, were dark holes, each with its own personal pile of muck directly under it. Ancient stains oozed down from the blind gaping holes.

Oh, and the flies. Mustn't forget them! The air was alive with them; the piles alive with their larvae.

The six of them picked their way carefully past the nasty reeking heaps, squinting to avoid getting anything with wings into their eyes. With a sigh, Forest pulled that same bit of cloth out of his pack once again to tie over his mouth and nose, and shortly the rest were doing the same.

'This is the day of stinks,' muttered Seth.

'The day of something else, too,' frowned Jack, peering deep into the dank passage ahead of them.

'Draw swords,' Mac told them. And for good reason. For there in front of them, blocking the narrow way...

...was their old friend from upstairs, the demon with the deep-fried head.

~~~~~~~

Naturally, he was not alone. A cadre of guards - Jack wondered briefly how the guy had managed to gather a second set of reinforcements so fast - were clustered behind him, their clubs and whips at the ready in their hands. The demon guard grinned leeringly, his face not a bit improved by its sojourn it the deep-fryer. 'There they are,' he growled to his men. 'Take 'em!'

In just moments, the battle was joined. It was not easy, fighting all strung out along a narrow, trash-strewn passage like this. Even so, Forest - first into the fray, of course! - managed to take on two of the guards simultaneously. Seth was right in there behind the lad, popping one great bare fist into his opposite palm, grinning. One of the guards lashed a whip his way, only to find that the hulking Seth reached out to catch the whip, wrapping it securely round his massive forearm and jerking the guard wielding the whip right off his feet.

James and Mac too spread out up the hallway, moving into position to confront their men, ready to fight for their freedom. As for Jack, he fell back slightly, scanning the putrid tunnel for a hiding place, then thrust Stephen into it. 'Stay here and stay out of sight,' he said to the small and unarmed man. 'We'll do all we can to protect you.' Stephen nodded mutely, and then Jack turned and, with a yell that could freeze blood, charged after the rest, finding himself quickly eye-to-eye with a guard bearing a cudgel.

How long could a fight last, cramped up like this is a claustrophobic burrow? And yet time and again, as soon as Forest or Seth or James or Jack managed to vanquish one of the foe, another would spring in to keep the battle going. The demon guard seemed to have an endless supply of minions to throw at them, while he himself, they noted, hung back, not engaging any of the small and intrepid band.

Mac fought valiantly alongside his companions, calling out encouragement to them every time anyone's spirits flagged - calling also attention to any attempts by the guards to outflank the little group, or to overwhelm them. Again and again they rallied. Again and again fresh guards poured in at them, but they repulsed them all.

And what of Stephen? Peering out from his hiding place, he witnessed his third battle he had seen this day. How he wished he had a sword as well and the skills to use it, instead of having to cower in the shadows like this! And yet - he knew in his heart that he was also glad to be able to hang back here, not having to risk his own neck like the rest were doing. Did that make him a coward? Maybe, he admitted. He hoped not, but - maybe.

Stephen sank down on his haunches in that little nook among the garbage, trying hard not to let any of the muck actually get on him, still thinking. He didn't like the idea of being a coward, but what could he do? He had no weapon...

Wait - suppose he were to rush out there and grab up a weapon dropped by one of the fallen guards? Now, that was a thought! He wouldn't know how to wield a whip anymore than he did a sword, but what could be hard about using a cudgel? It was just a knobbed club; all he'd have to do is swing it, hit people, and be sure to duck.

Yeah, he could do that! After all, it wasn't like he'd have to duck a sword; the guards his buddies were fighting were only carrying whips and clubs. Only the demon over there on the other side was bearing a sword, and he hadn't actually gotten into the fight yet. As long as he could avoid him, Stephen reasoned, he should be fine.

All right then, he decided, bracing himself to spring out there - on three...

One...

Two...

Mrph!

~~~~~~~

From out of nowhere, a hand had slammed over his mouth while an arm snatched him, not to his feet, but completely into the air. A moment later he was tucked under a massive arm against a foul-smelling side, and he was being transported away, away.

Stephen squirmed to see what was happening. And received a cuff on his head for his efforts. 'Keep still, you!' he heard through the spangle of stars that flooded his vision for a few seconds. Once the stars cleared off again, he made a second, less obvious attempt to look around. And now he saw...

He was being carried rapidly away from his companions, who were still busy fighting the guards. None of them seemed to have noticed he'd been kidnapped, and with this noxious hairy mitt still clamped over his mouth, he couldn't cry out for help.

Now he looked up to see who it was who had snatched him and was bearing him off like he was a sack of potatoes. He caught a glimpse of that face, its lips curled into a cruel chuckle, its skin covered with a crisp, golden-fried coating. And he nearly fainted.

The demon!

The demon? But how? He had been behind his men, directing the fight from the other end of the passage. How could he have gotten over here to spirit Stephen away without anyone seeing?

Again Stephen glanced back at his companions. And again he saw that they were still fighting, with no sign that any of them had yet missed him. What, he wondered, was he going to do?

And now the demon's chuckles grew audible. 'Not without Stephen, that one fool said! Well, we'll see now if he meant it. Now that I've got his precious Stephen.' The demon glanced down at his captive and shook him gleefully. 'Either they mean it and they'll come after you - in which case I'll have them. Or they don't come after and leave you behind,' he grinned ferociously, 'in which case, I'll have you!'

For supper? Stephen couldn't help thinking, as a cold sweat broke out all over him. At least the demon didn't have his magic size-changing blade out - for the moment.

The demon jogged on, and Stephen realized where they must be going. They were heading back towards the door that led to the smaller stairway. And once the demon reached that and took him back through that door - why, there was no telling where he would wind up then! Mustn't go out that door! Stephen thought determinedly. But how to stop the demon? Oh, my Master! he prayed. What do I do?

And then a thought hit his brain and he acted on it immediately. Reaching up, he dug his fingers into some of that golden-brown crust on the demon's cheek. And he pulled.

A shriek like a thousand wildcats filled the corridor as Stephen hit the floor. Stunned, he tried to get his bearings, to get away, to get back to his friends. He crawled, trying to get up.

A foot slammed into his side, crumpling him. The next second a boot stomped down hard on his knee, immobilizing him. A flurry of curses swarmed around him as the demon loomed above. 'Maggot!' the demon said at the last, the strip of skin dangling from his cheek under crazed red eyes. 'I'll deal with you now!' And he drew his weapon.

The dagger blade glinted an unholy light as, once again before Stephen's horrified eyes, the weapon shifted and changed, becoming obscenely huge and cruel. It was poised over the hapless captive, ready to come slicing down and end his life. And a very small voice said, 'Oh no, not again!'

Huh?

Stephen blinked. He hadn't said that - so who had? Focusing his eyes beyond the wicked blade, he saw that the demon was no longer looking down at his prisoner, but up the corridor beyond him. And he read there in the demon's face terror!

Stephen, unable to turn over with that foot pinning his knee down, brought his chin upwards to look at whatever was behind him. And again he blinked. Surely this upside-down perspective was causing him to see things? For it certainly looked to him as if great white wings were coming this way, with a sword outstretched before them!

'No!' screamed the demon. Recovering his wits, he raised high his weapon. Whether he intended to use it to defend himself, or intended instead to plunge it into Stephen to kill him - all that immediately became moot. For even as Stephen on the floor hid his face in his arms, the great white wings came upon the demon - the sword flashed once - and for the third time this day, the demon's head went spinning from his shoulders and away to parts unknown.

The crushing weight on Stephen's knee vanished as the demon's body wilted, tumbling over to rise no more. Arms surrounded Stephen - gentle arms this time, and they raised him to his feet. A canteen was uncorked and pressed to Stephen's lips. 'Drink.'

He drank, and felt his fears wash away as relief flooded in. He looked up.

'Mac!' he grinned. 'Oh, I am so glad to see you! You know, for a minute there, I thought I was going nuts. You wouldn't believe what I thought I saw coming to kill the demon!'

Mac only smiled and said, 'Come. Let us be going.'

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Comments:
I've been missing you at the Carnival. Glad to hear that Rosie's OK, although I didn't know she was sick...

Hope you are able to get back into it soon.
 
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