Friday, February 24, 2006
the child, part 3, chapter 19 - 'the rescue of walker'
'Walker.' Stephen barely breathed the word. But beside him, Jack winced. Would the guards hear what he'd said?
Yep. Instantly, every man among the guards turned to look their way. Frowning, squinting, puzzled. As if they had heard the sound, but couldn't make out the source of it.
Morgen continued to stand steadfastly between his companions and the guards, blocking the guards' view of Jack and Stephen behind him. But, Jack thought, that didn't make sense; even if the guards couldn't see the two of them, surely they could see Morgen?
They didn't act like they could see Morgen. Squaring his shoulders, the leader of the guards moved forward now cautiously, his head twisting to the side all the better to hear what he could not see. With a wave of his hand, he called forward a few more of the guards, all of them creeping closer, their eyes roving madly to make sense of what they had heard.
'Be ready,' Morgen said softly to his companions behind him. 'And be not afraid.' Strangely, though Jack and Stephen heard him plainly, the guards coming their way gave no sign of hearing Morgen's words at all.
Jack gave a tight nod and stepped up a bit, maneuvering Stephen still more to the rear of their small group. He deeply wished that there was a weapon for their new friend to wield as well - but even if they had a sword for Stephen, he'd never been trained to use one. Would having a weapon he didn't know how to use do Stephen any good against this bunch of tough brutes they were facing?
The guards crept closer, closer still, glancing now and again at each other in confusion. Less than ten feet away now, and they still plainly could not see anyone ahead of them.
'Now,' said Morgen. He stepped forward, swinging his sword. The lead guard had only the breadth of a heartbeat to register the shock on his face as suddenly this huge warrior appeared and attacked him, before his head went spinning from his shoulders to land far down the corridor, near Walker's feet.
For a split second, everyone on both sides stood frozen, stunned. Then Jack gave a blood-curdling yell and charged.
Stephen hung back, watching, as Morgen and Jack waded into the guards. Swords flashed, whips lashed, cudgels whooshed and thudded. Morgen in particular seemed to have a dozen arms as he took out guard after guard. Curiously, every so often he reversed his blade and coshed a guard over the head with the hilt, felling him. But mostly Morgen simply took the guards apart.
Jack, on the other hand, while fighting hard as well, seemed to be very careful not to kill anyone. And while Morgen was cutting a swath through the main body of the guards, Jack was more focused on getting to Walker.
And soon he did. There were only a few guards left now, and two of them were flanking the prisoner. One of those two sprang forward to engage Jack, whip flicking and cracking. It was hard for Jack to close with him, to reach him with his sword at all. Laughing, the guard pressed Jack backwards, the whip dancing like a live thing. It caught Jack on the cheek, drawing blood, and the guard laughed all the more.
Determined, Jack stood his ground as the guard moved closer. The whip now caught at Jack's arm, ripping his sleeve. Jack flinched, but stood fast. Once again the whip lashed out, this time wrapping itself round Jack's sword hand. The guard howled with glee as he pulled back hard, intending to rip the flesh from Jack's bones.
Except that, with a twist of his wrist, Jack had already deftly sliced the whip through. The guard staggered backwards, barely keeping his feet as Jack rushed on him. Using both hands, Jack swung the sword, whacking the guard in the side of the head with the flat of his blade. The guard crumpled and lay still. Breathing hard, Jack now turned towards Walker.
'Not so fast,' rasped the remaining guard, cursing Jack with some choice epithets. 'One step more, and he's dead.' The guard had the hapless Walker by the hair, pulling his head backwards to expose his neck. And this guard, unlike most, was armed with steel. It was a dagger rather than a sword - but it was plenty enough weapon to kill Walker before Jack would be able to stop him.
'Now wait,' said Jack, spreading his arms. 'You don't want to do that.'
The guard barked a laugh at him. 'Don't I? You better believe I wanna kill him. Just watch!'
No! thought Stephen. For the guard pressed harder against Walker's neck, drawing blood. Also crying aloud, 'No!' Jack lunged forward as that first bead of blood appeared.
But Morgen was faster. Suddenly the arm that held the blade to Walker's neck was gone, slashed away at the elbow. And before that limb could hit the floor, the guard's head went flying as well.
And Walker? He collapsed.
Stephen went running for Walker's side, dodging amongst the bodies strewn throughout the hallway, slipping on - well, what his feet were slipping on, he really didn't want to think of just then. Jack had already reached Walker and had an arm under him, supporting him, by the time Stephen got there as well.
'Walker! Walker! Are you all right?' Stephen asked.
'Here,' said Morgen. He pressed a cloth into Stephen's hand, and he in turn pressed it to the wound on Walker's neck.
'Walker?' said Jack.
The man was dazed - understandably. But he was blinking. And breathing. His head was lolling, and Stephen used his free hand to steady it.
Then Walker's eyes focused on his face. 'Rob?' he whispered.
Stephen burst out grinning. 'Yeah! I mean, no. No, I'm Stephen now.'
'Ste... You got a new name? Then you met...'
'The Master, yes.'
'And he said for me to give you this,' added Jack. As Walker turned his eyes towards him, Jack held up the key that the Master had given him to restore to his son Walker. Briefly, Jack related the story of their search for him, the story of turning the fortress upside-down, all for the sake of finding Walker and setting him free.
And when Jack was done speaking, Walker only stared at him for a long moment. Then, receiving the key into his palm, he whispered, 'Thank you.'
Stephen had been holding that cloth firmly against Walker's neck all this time. Now, cautiously, he peeked under it to see how bad the damage was. 'Whew,' he said. 'Man, I thought that guy had really punctured you. But he just barely cut you. And it's hardly bleeding anymore.'
Gingerly, Walker lifted a hand to touch the wound. His other hand came up as well.
Oh yeah. Chains. Swiftly, Jack took back the key and used it to set Walker free from the heavy shackles. 'Let's get you up,' he added.
Walker wasn't the steadiest on his feet as they helped him to stand. The livid bruises they could see on his face spoke of many more bruises they couldn't see under his clothes. Still, now that the chains were gone, he seemed a good bit less dazed.
'We should go,' said Morgen.
'You need to know something first,' said Walker. 'I...' His eyes flickered. 'I tried to hold out. I really did. But...' And again his eyes flickered, till he could no longer meet anyone's gaze. 'I gave you up this morning. I told them everything.'
A ragged sob. 'I've betrayed you all!'
The very thing Stephen had feared, back when he was still Rob. Hearing Walker say it now, though...
'I wouldn't have lasted as long as you did,' he assured Walker. 'We all forgive you. We all understand.'
'And we all need to leave immediately,' said Morgen.
'Right,' said Jack. 'Just let me find something to clean my sword.' He glanced about. Did a double-take. Glanced about again. 'Uh - where did all the bodies go?'
It was a good question. The few that had been knocked unconscious were still sprawled about. But all those Morgen had killed; where were they? Only that last one, the one that had been threatening Walker with the dagger - here was his body in three pieces.
Oy! Even as Jack watched, the severed forearm inched over to the stump it had been cut from and joined itself back on to the elbow. And then the headless body rolled over, pawing the floor till it found its head. Picking that up, the body jammed the head back into its proper place. Then, turning to leer once more at the three companions, the reanimated guard abruptly vanished.
'What was that?' cried Stephen.
'That was what most of your captors are,' replied Morgen. 'A demon.'
'Demons!' Jack stared at him in comprehension now. 'I wondered why you were so ready to just kill them.'
'As you can see, I have killed no one.'
'Yeah. I see now. But how do you tell the difference?'
'When you look them in the eye, and see with the Master's sight, you will know,' said Morgen. 'But come, they will be sounding the alarm already. And as Walker says, they know where each of our teams will be, and the prisoner each team came to rescue.'
Again Walker hung his head.
'Then let's get out of here,' said Jack. 'Morgen, will you go warn the others, while we get Walker out?'
Morgen nodded. 'At once.' He turned and started for the stairs ahead of them.
Then paused. Swiftly unbuckling his sword belt, Morgen turned back and called, 'Walker. Here.' And he threw the belt to him.
For a moment it spun in the air there, belt and scabbard and sword in the scabbard. For a moment Walker stood looking up at it in wonder. And then he put up his hand and caught it. He stared at it in his hands, stunned to be holding such a weapon once more. Then he looked up at Morgen. 'But now you're unarmed,' he protested.
Morgen shrugged it off. 'Use it well,' said he. And then he vanished down the stairs.
'C'mon,' added Jack. And the three of them followed.
~first~ ~previous~ ~next~
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 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.
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...'
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.
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.
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.
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.'
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~
Monday, February 13, 2006
Storyblogging Carnival XXXVIII
Welcome to Storyblogging Carnival XXXVIII, the carnival that almost got hijacked by funny smells from my computer. Seven entries this time. We have some new chapters to continuing stories that we've already been tracking in the SBC, as well as some new stand-alone offerings from favorite authors who have been featured here before. We also have the beginning of a new story from an author we haven't seen here in quite a while.
And now, the carnival...
Mark A. Rayner of 'the skwib' gives us Thag not grok god!. 600 words, rated PG 13. In this installment of our favorite caveman, Thag and the shaman have a religious debate. An absolute hoot!
Peace Moonbeam of The Peace Moonbeam Chronicles offers American Gulag. 633 words, rated PG. Once again, Peace Moonbeam assures us that this is 'a stupid story, poorly written.' And once again, she delivers a story that will have you in tears with laughter.
Dave Gudeman of Doc Rampage brings us a new chapter of Ink Magic. This is part 8, and adds 768 words to his 15,306-word work in progress. Rating is PG. In this part, the story takes a darker turn and we learn a bit more about how Steven's father was exiled. Doc had been on holiday lately, so I was very glad that he stepped up with more Ink Magic. I've been rather bugging him for more, as he can tell you...
Donald S. Crankshaw of Back of the Envelope presents The Coup, Chapter 17 of 'Fire.' (The entire story can be found here.) 4,440 words out of a total of 90,110. Rating: PG-13. Gar's past returns to haunt him as chaos erupts among the invading Orcs. More surprises in a story that has been full of surprises.
Ben Schumacher of Zeroth Order Approximation has Part I of The Pasadena Rule. 6650 words; rated PG for occasional moderate profanity. Ben says: This is a science fiction novella about a crisis during the human
exploration of Venus. A gripping story.
Here at 'tales by sheya', yours truly has posted chapter 16 and chapter 17 of 'the child' (first chapter here). This adds 6871 words to my 124,729-word work in progress. Rating is somewhere around PG. In these chapters, Starr get a bit stubborn because of a dream... and then the third day in the dungeons begins, with cliff-hangers galore.
Andrew Ian Dodge of Dodgeblogium has the next two chapters of Britannia Revived up. Chapter 23 & 24 add 10,166 words, with a rating of PG 13 for language. As Andrew puts it, the saga continues apace... And really, it never lets up.
And that's the carnival for this fortnight. Hope you enjoy the stories. Please spread the word about Storyblogging, link to the carnival, and if you'd like to host it for yourself, let us know.
Friday, February 10, 2006
the child, part 3, chapter 17 - 'the third day begins'
***rewrite 25 apr 06 - towards the end, about Stephen losing his key***
Long before the guards - or security, as Rose called them - came around to unlock the doors for the morning, she, Lucy, and Linda were already up. 'What do you plan to do today?' Rose asked the others as she rummaged through her closet to find something to put on. Hmph, she added under her breath. It's all so gaudy - what would the Master want me to wear?
'I really don't know what we'll be doing today,' Lucy replied. She slipped behind the privacy screen in the corner of Rose's room to change. Both she and Linda had washed out the mire-stained dresses they had worn during their brief stay in the deepest dungeon, hanging the dresses up behind the screen to dry. Now Lucy changed out of her only other dress and back into this one, then set about hand-washing the one she'd just taken off.
'I hope Mac comes by,' said Linda. 'He might could tell us what we're supposed to be doing now.' Mac had shown up yesterday to fulfill his promise to help them finish searching their level. And Lucy, bless her heart, had obeyed the Master's order to her and apologized to Mac. Mac accepted the apology very graciously, and then the three of them had finished checking the floor for Walker.
They had found no trace of him - of course. Rose had suspected all along that they wouldn't; with her Committee connections, she was sure that if he had been brought to this level, she would have heard of him right away.
And so the question for the day was, now that their part of the search for Walker was concluded, and now that Ginger had become Rose - what were they to do?
Lucy finished washing the dress and hung it up to dry. Coming out from behind the privacy screen, she found that Rose was standing there, a bundle of clothes in her arms. 'Oh! I hope I haven't kept you waiting too long,' said Lucy.
'Not at all, my dear,' Rose replied. She still had that redolence of nobility about her; it just came naturally to her.
Lucy crossed behind the bed to strap on her sword and shrug on her pack. Might as well be ready, even if she had no idea what to be ready for. Linda, she saw, was straightening up the bedroom, folding and putting away the blankets - basically obliterating all evidence that Rose was entertaining company in her room. Good. She and Linda had slept on pallets made of blankets on the floor behind Rose's bed, hidden from the view of the window in the door in case anyone might peek in.
'Do you have any ideas what we should do?' Lucy asked Linda.
Linda only shook her head.
'I've thought about perhaps just taking Rose and leaving,' Lucy went on. 'You know, going on up to the cave and waiting there for the others, as Forest said we might. Other than that,' she shook her head, 'I suppose we might go upstairs, as Mac said Jack and Morgen plan to do today. I just don't like the idea of taking off somewhere with none of our people knowing where we will be.'
'Could leave a message with Rose,' offered Linda.
'True... But she doesn't know the others. She wouldn't know who to trust.'
Linda went on straightening things, then suddenly pulled open the drawer of the bedside table and pulled out a pad of paper. 'You could leave a note,' she remarked.
That was a thought. Lucy took the paper and sat down on the edge of the bed, thinking what to say.
'Linda, dear, I believe it's your turn now.'
They both looked up at Rose. And Linda breathed a quiet 'wow' once again.
It was amazing. Rose looked almost entirely different from the blaze-of-glory first impression she had made on Linda a day and a half ago. She was all simplicity now - and simplicity became her. Her hair was held back from her face with a plain headband, her fingers and neck stripped of the elaborate display of wealth from before. And her dress, a muted antique blue, was the least ostentatious item that she could find in her closet.
'You look great,' said Lucy.
Rose fingered the skirt of her dress. 'Isn't this nice? Linen, like the other dress the Master dressed me in. I don't even remember having this one...'
Linda left them to their chattering as she gathering her things and disappeared behind the privacy screen to dress. She rather liked the idea of having a place out of sight from the door to be able to change clothes. Down where she had been before - and it was the same throughout most of the dungeon - there had been no privacy whatsoever. Down there, it was mandatory that all areas of the cell be visible from the window in the door. Being the upper-crust certainly did have its advantages, she thought to herself.
Like Lucy before her, she exchanged the dress she was wearing for the one she had washed, then set about washing this one out. It was enjoyable, watching the way the color came back into it as the grime of the months of travel rinsed away.
Suddenly, without the least warning, there came the hammering of a fist on the cell door. Behind the screen, Linda froze. What...?
A moment later she heard the cell door spring open and a voice declare, 'Ginger! You are summoned to stand before the Committee and give account of your actions!'
Rose's voice stammered in reply, 'I... I... what? My actions?'
The voice - it was impossible for Linda to make out whether it was male or female - continued: 'You stand accused of welcoming the company of undesirables. You, Ginger, will give account and accept your punishment!'
'But I...' said Rose.
And that was all she got to say. Brief sounds of a struggle broke out, then came the slamming of the door. And that was all. Stunned, Linda craned her ears to listen, but heard nothing more. Eyes hollow, she turned and stared at the screen that walled her off from the rest of the room, her mind whirling, near to panic. What were they doing with Rose? And where was Lucy? Had she been taken too? Was... was there perhaps a guard left out there in the room, waiting to capture her as well?
For a moment longer she stood there, frozen by indecision. Then, reasoning that it was better to move and risk being caught than to stand here forever, Linda peeked out.
The room was empty.
Swallowing with a dry mouth, she called out, 'Gin-Rose? Lucy?'
And then there came a rustling from beyond the bed. Lucy crept out, looking every bit as shocked as Linda felt.
'What happened?' said Linda, hurrying over to help Lucy to her feet.
'I... The door was opening, and I... I just bounced off the side of the bed and landed behind it.' And before Linda could congratulate her on her quick thinking, Lucy cried out, 'Oh, Linda, what a coward I am! I hid myself, and I let them take Rose away!'
Linda revised her opinion: Lucy looked far more shocked than she felt. The woman was all but ashen.
'Where did they take her? I mean, they said before the Committee, but where is that?'
'No one is supposed to know,' said Lucy. She blinked, then blinked again. And then the life started to come back into her eyes as she said, 'But I think I have a fairly good idea. If things are still much like they used to be before...'
Squaring her shoulders, Lucy added, 'Come on.'
And as they unlocked the door and slipped out into the corridor, Linda reflected: they didn't have to wonder anymore what they would be doing this day. But it was a pity now that they hadn't taken Rose and gotten her away to the cave while they'd had the chance.
Down in the deepest belly of this fortress, it was morning. Stone knew it was morning, because the bedlam of guards rousting out the prisoners was assaulting his ears. Groaning, the man stretched out his arms, working the kinks out of his spine. It wasn't easy, sleeping while sitting up and leaning against the wall. But since the alternative was lying down to sleep in the mire...
Before going to sleep the night before, he had stuck the candle stub into his pocket so he could find it again quickly when he wanted it. Now he pulled it out and lit it. Its meager light spilled out, illuminating this tiny corner-world curtained off by that blanket. And there, on the other side of the stack of their packs - there was Starr, her head resting on the packs, still sleeping.
Poor kid, he thought. She's all worn out. He would have liked to just let her sleep, but...
Reaching over, he gave her shoulder a gentle shake. As she opened her eyes and tried to focus on his face, he asked her, 'How do you feel now, honey? How's your ankle?'
She sat up, coming all the way awake. She gave his question a bit of thought, then said, 'I don't know.'
'Well, let's try standing you up,' he answered. Getting up himself, he took her hand.
And it was a repeat of what had happened yesterday. She still couldn't put any weight on it.
They both sat back down. 'All right,' he said. 'That's what I wanted to know.'
'What?' asked she.
'Whether I could get you out today.'
'Stone, I really...'
'I know, hon,' he said. 'But hear me out. I did a lot of thinking this over during the night. And... well, Walker's not here. And there must be some purpose to our being down here in this dungeon. If you could walk, I would make you go upstairs - yes, I would! - to make sure you were save. As it is...' He sighed. 'Well, the only thing I know to do is get back out there and look for someone who wants out of this place.'
He paused. And when she made no protest, he added, 'Thank you.'
'For no 'I told you so's' - for no 'just go look in Solitary' - for no... pushing.'
Again she said nothing, only looked up at him with those great wide eyes.
'I know what you think, and the dream you had, dear,' he added. 'I know you believe he's the one we were sent to bring out. But - I can't go back there. I just... can't.' Another sigh. 'I mean, all I need is another kick in the head. You know?'
'Yes, Stone,' she said quietly.
'So,' he said. 'I'll be going out there now. And I really, really need you to be praying for me. Ok?'
'Yes, Stone,' she said again.
He leaned closer, looking her in the eye. 'Mad at me?'
'...no...' she said.
Ah! Her eyes dropped. 'Maybe... But I wasn't going to say anything.'
'Little girl...' said he, touching her cheek. He saw the tears she was holding back. 'Maybe another time, with another team, the Master will break through to him and bring him out. I just don't see it happening now - and especially not with it being me. He just hates me too much.'
The tears came now, flowing out. Stone drew her close and held her. 'And you love him, honey. My little girl with the big huge heart.'
'It's not my heart,' she mumbled against his shoulder. 'It's the Master's.'
Again he yearned to kiss her. Cinching her a bit closer instead, he held her for a long long moment. Then let go. 'I'll be back,' he promised. 'You be praying.'
'Yes, dear. I will.'
He waited to a silent inner count, then said, 'I love you.'
At just the same moment as she was saying it to him! Her jaw dropped open as he chuckled madly. 'Gotcha,' he grinned.
And then he was off. She heard the sound of him unlocking the door, then closing it behind him. After a moment's thought, she picked up the candle and blew it out to save it for later. And then, into the darkness, she began to pray in words she did not know.
And then, softly, to sing them.
'Man, this is exciting!' whispered Seth. 'Sneaking out like this - prowling round the dungeons, dodging guards...'
'We're not doing it for the excitement,' Forest pointed out. 'We're doing it to find Walker.'
'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' Seth replied. 'But that don't mean it ain't exciting too.'
'Know anything about this level?' asked James. They had waited till after roll call to be reasonably sure no guards would be coming and going on the stairway and, having slipped away from the crowd of fighters, were now making their way downstairs to the next level below Seth's.
'What I know 'bout this level ain't a whole hel... a whole lot,' said Seth, catching himself in the middle there. With a shrug, he added, 'Now, there been a few times when these weird screams came echoing up outta the floor under our feet. And I mean weird. Liked to scared the sh... well, liked to scared something outta me.'
Forest scratched at his nose to cover up his grin. Old habits die hard, but Seth sure was trying his best to keep his mouth in check. It was when the boy glanced over and spotted James using the same excuse to hide his own grin, that Forest had to really fight not to laugh out loud.
Seth scowled. 'What's the matter with you two, covering your noses like that? You smell something?'
Forest was about to answer no when he realized that he was in fact smelling something. Phew, and something foul! And the closer they came to the door to the next level down, the stronger the smell became.
Except it wasn't just a smell anymore. It had already progressed to a stink, and was rapidly approaching stench.
'Feh!' said James. He took off his pack and pulled a cloth out of it to tie around his nose and mouth. 'Well, that's a little better,' he said, muffled. 'Wonder why, with all the times we've gone up and down these stairs, we never noticed this smell before?'
Forest did the same, finding also a cloth for Seth to use. Looking now rather like a trio of bandits, they gathered in front of the door.
'Smells like a couple dozen skunks that all got mad at the same time,' muttered Seth. 'Or else all died at the same time.'
Forest glanced at the big guy, but wasted no time on wondering how, in the dungeons, Seth would have ever come across any skunks. For the boy had recognized the nastiness now. 'Remember Jessie's house?' he said to James.
'The house that wasn't really hers? Yeah. Where you fought the demon.'
'...demon...!' said Seth.
Forest was nodding, pointing at the door before them. 'I smelled this same thing then,' he said. He met both of the others' eyes briefly, then reached out and opened the door.
A light that had more kinship with darkness met their gaze. And as they peered more deeply...
Seth let out an oath in spite of himself. 'We're going in there?'
Grimly, Forest loosen his sword in its sheath. 'For Walker's sake, yes, we are,' he said. And plunged in through the door.
James followed right on the boy's heels, and Seth reluctantly after them. And then the door, though no hands touched it, gave a shake and slammed itself shut behind them.
If Jack and Stephen had been shocked when the guards mistook Morgen for Stephen, imagine how the girls felt when the guards there mistook Malachi for Talitha! And what's more - Malachi seemed to know ahead of time that that was going to happen.
'Wait till everyone is taken upstairs,' he told Joy as they heard the guards coming down the corridor. 'Then follow. I will slip away and meet you.'
'Slip away? From where? Where are you going to be? It's Talitha who's going to need to slip away,' Joy objected. But Malachi only smiled in reply as he shouldered his pack and turned towards the door.
As it opened. A scowling guard looked in, jerked his head at Malachi, and said, 'Move it out here, Talia.'
And that was it. Malachi was gone, leaving the two girls standing stunned in Talitha's cell. 'Um,' whispered Talitha. 'What just happened?'
'I have no idea,' Joy replied. Heading for the door herself, she stood to one side, peering through the window, hoping to see without being seen as they waiting for roll call to be done.
Of course it took half of forever. Joy had to remind herself that there were well over three hundred cells here, all of which they had searched in the past couple of days. The girls waited endlessly as the head guard barking out name after name, and voice after voice called back 'Here.' It was so tedious; both of them yawned more than a dozen times, and Joy resorted to pinching herself to stay alert.
And then the guard yelled out, 'Talia!' And the deep voice of Malachi replied, 'Here.'
And Joy marveled. His voice was so un-Talitha-like! And yet - roll call went on. No one noticed a thing? Couldn't they see straight? Couldn't they hear?
The minutes dragged by, but then finally the order to 'Move out!' was given. Joy waved to Talitha then and the pair of them got ready to head out as well. Joy nervous fingered the key in her hand, waiting for everyone to be gone first before she slipped it into the lock.
And... There; that was the last of them. Nodding to her companion, Joy whispered, 'Let's go.'
They moved silently, reaching the stairway door and doing still more waiting before they dared to slip through it. The noise of many feet preceded them over their heads; they had to hold back and move slowly lest they overtake the crowd of prisoners. Joy found herself really hoping that no one else would decide that this would be a great time to come back downstairs.
On upwards they went, passing landing after landing. After a bit, Joy lost track of where they were. At the next door they reached she paused and glanced at Talitha. 'Here?' she whispered.
Shaking her head, Talitha pointed at the door and mimed stirring something, using both hands.
What? thought Joy, not comprehen... Oh... The laundry! And as Joy's face brightened in understanding, Talitha pointed upstairs and held up one finger. Yes, that's right, thought Joy. The barracks were one level up from here.
On they went. The noises ahead of them diminished as the prisoners reached the barracks level and plodded through the door. Joy and Talitha slowed still more, craning their heads upwards, watching and listening. Please, Joy thought, praying, please no guards coming back down again!
And then the door slammed and there was great silence. The girls looked at each other. How close should they follow now? With a shrug, Joy led the way on up.
At the landing, Joy glanced at Talitha; this was the right door this time, wasn't it? At the tall girl's nod, Joy leaned close and placed an ear to the door, listening. Were the others far enough ahead of them now for her to safely open the door? And now that she understood why Malachi had said he would slip away - where was he?
No sound beyond. Unlike the cell doors, the stairway doors didn't come with windows in them to peek through. Flexing her fingers nervously, Joy wrapped them round the door handle. Prayed a prayer both brief and earnest to the Master, she braced herself and opened the door.
Nothing. The corridor beyond was empty.
Whew. With an encouraging smile to Talitha, Joy led the way out of the stairs. But which way now?
Talitha pointed. 'Barracks are that way.'
'But do we want to go that way?' Joy whispered back.
Talitha looked around them. 'I don't know. But I don't think we want to just stand here in the hall.'
True. One more glance around, and Joy started off away from the barracks. There was no telling what was here on this level, she reasoned - but they were more likely to be able to search in solitude if they chose a place where the people weren't.
Swiftly they reached a closed door. Forgetting to listen first, Joy whispered, 'Let's start here,' and reached for the doorknob to unlock it.
Oh, but there was no need to do that. For the door abruptly opened in their startled faces.
In quiet and unseen, Mac was watching Beatriz. Watching, watching. Until he would know what he was to do next.
Stephen stopped in midstep. 'Did you hear something?'
Jack, just ahead of him on the stairs, paused as well. 'What did it sound like?' he whispered, both of them keeping their voices low. The last thing the pair of them wanted was to be heard. After all, the whole reason for sneaking upstairs like this was to find Walker, not to join him.
'Not sure,' Stephen replied. They waited, barely breathing, to see if the sound would come again.
After a minute or so, Jack shrugged. 'C'mon.'
But as they turned to continue up the stairs, Stephen clutched at the back of Jack's shirt. 'There!' he whispered.
Yeah. This time Jack heard it too.
'Footsteps, you think?' asked Stephen.
Jack frowned. 'Could be...' he muttered. 'Maybe it's the girls...'
Stephen brightened at that. At report the night before, Joy had said that she and Talitha planned to come upstairs as well today, helping to search for Walker.
But as they went on listening, as the footsteps came closer, both men frowned deeply. No, that sound was much too heavy to be the girls.
Grimly, Jack loosened his sword in its sheath. 'Stay behind me,' he whispered to the unarmed Stephen. This was really a rotten place to make a stand, Jack knew - an enemy coming from below could easily cut his legs out from under him - but there was nowhere else to go. And so Jack waited. And prayed.
The footsteps stopped now, halting at the landing just below them, still out of sight. 'Be ready to run away if you have to,' Jack whispered. His arm tensed, ready to draw his sword.
And then a quiet voice floated up to them: 'Be not afraid.'
Relief swept through both Jack and Stephen. Morgen!
Yes. He appeared round the corner now, coming to join them. 'Oh, it's you' fought with 'What are you doing here?' to be the first words out of Stephen's mouth. While Jack said, 'I sure didn't expect you.' He plunged the hilt of his sword all the way back into its place as he added, 'What are you doing here?'
'I am come to aid you in your search,' Morgen replied simply.
'But,' Stephen objected, 'you were taking my place again at work. Won't they miss you?' A pause. 'Won't they miss me?'
'I think not,' came the response.
Oh. Another pause, then Stephen muttered, 'Sure hope you're right...'
'Well, anyway, glad to have you along,' Jack said. 'Let's go.'
On they went, continuing up the stairs. For someone who had just been making enough noise to put the two of them on alert, thought Stephen, Morgen was certainly quiet enough now to creep up on a mouse...
They had long passed the ground-level where Linda's party was, and continued on up into the realm of the guards. On they went, up, up. Where exactly they should begin their search, Jack had no clue. But something - gut instinct? - pushed him on. Higher. Higher.
Hmm. Jack might have felt the slightest little click inside; it was hard to tell. But shooting a glance at the others, then at the door just above them, he stopped and said, 'Here.'
Morgen nodded. Stephen shrugged and said, 'As good a place as any, I guess.'
'Well, if we'd gone much further, one of us might have gotten a nose bleed,' Jack quipped. With an 'after you' gesture towards Morgen, he moved to flank the door on the left. Morgen took the right; Stephen crowded behind Jack. They listened for any sound coming from beyond this door.
All right. 'Go,' said Jack.
Morgen went. There was a tense moment's wait after he passed through the doorway before he called back, 'All clear.' Jack moved up, waving Stephen through ahead of him, then took the rearguard. And as Jack slipped through the doorway last of all, he had just enough time to wonder what this level would be like...
...before he saw for himself.
Well. Not a whole lot different. Endless corridors as usual, but fewer doors. No one was about.
For the moment.
They stood in a tight knot together as the door closed behind them. 'Which way?' asked Stephen.
He was asking Jack. Jack immediately turned to pass the question on to Morgen, only to find that Morgen too was looking at him in silent expectancy.
Oy. 'Um,' Jack responded. 'Um. Ok. Well, let's go lef - no, right.' He pointed the way, and then found he was leading, for Morgen dropped back to take the rearguard this time, leaving Jack with the point, since the weaponless Stephen must of course stay sandwiched in the middle.
Well. Jack took a cautious step forward, and they moved out.
They reached the first door and Stephen made ready to unlock it. He was about to fit his key into the keyhole when a lot of noise started coming their way.
From behind them. They needed to hide!
Panicking, Stephen tried to hurriedly jam the key into the lock - only to watch helplessly as it flipped from his fingers instead, landing a good yard or so farther up the corridor. He choked on an inappropriate word and started to scramble after the key.
But there was no time for that. Jack's sword appeared in his hand as he whirled and pressed his back to the wall, his free arm swinging out to grab Stephen and shove him back against the wall as well. Morgen too had sword in hand, but instead of trying to melt into the wall behind them like the others were doing, he turned and stepped forward, moving towards the sound. Strangely, Morgen seemed to be larger than usual, as if he had something - wings? - extending out from his sides, to shield his two friends behind him.
The source of the sound now rounded a corner and started their way. Stephen's stomach sank; oh, yes - it was guards.
Jack's heart, on the other hand, soared up into the back of his throat. Guards, yes, heading for the stairway door they had just passed through. And in the midst of the guards, heavily laden with chains, there was stumbling along a lone figure, with a face so battered as to be almost beyond recognition.
Almost - but not entirely. For Jack recognized him, and a moment later, so did Stephen.
~first~ ~previous~ ~next~
Sunday, February 05, 2006
requesting entries for storyblogging carnival xxxviii
I will be hosting the upcoming Storyblogging Carnival on 13 Feb 2006. Unless I lost count, it should be number XXXVIII. Deadline for entries is a minute before midnight, Friday 10 Feb 2006. If you'd like to participate, please e-mail your story submissions to me at sheyajoie ~at~ yahoo ~dot~ com (or post in my comments), including 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
And now, cribbing from Donald S Crankshaw of 'Back of the Envelope,' the founder of SBC:
The post may be of any age, from a week old to years old. More detailed information follows (same as always):
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. 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. I expect I'll be pretty lenient on that sort of thing, but I have some limits, and others may draw the line elsewhere. [Note: When Donald says others may not be so lenient, he is thinking of yours truly ~sjy.] Aside from noting potentially offensive content, while I may say nice things about stories I like, I won't be panning anyone's work. I expect other hosts to be similarly polite.
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. Finally, I appreciate folks promoting the carnival on their own blogs, and I'm always looking for bloggers willing to host future carnivals.
Looking forward to your wonderful entries. And, Doc - please, more Ink Magic!
Friday, February 03, 2006
the child, part 3, chapter 16 - 'starr alone'
Sitting alone there in the corner, without Stone, with the screams and commotion of the deepest dungeon echoing through the cell around her, Starr found it very hard not to imagine what was going on out there. In fact, she had to fight her imagination, which was spitting out picture after picture to explain the horrendous sounds she was hearing.
It was exhausting. But she saw even more clearly that Stone was right: she really did not want to know what was happening. Pressing her hands over her ears was next to no help. And anyway, when she did that, she couldn't hold her ankle. And she needed to hold her ankle.
Presently the thought hit her to pack some of the cool mire round the ankle. Finding some cloth in her pack, she made a bandage to hold the slippery muck in place, glad that the skin was not broken.
And she sat. And she waited.
And as she waited, her mind began to wander about. She wondered what was going to happen next, and whether the guards would show up here at this cell. She wondered how the prisoner was doing, and if he would ever forgive her. Not that she thought she had done anything against him - but he obviously thought she had, and that was enough.
She cried for a bit for him, then dried her tears. And her mind wandered some more.
She wondered why Stone had made this shelter out of the old, ratty blanket. He must have found it on the bed over there, so it was the prisoner's blanket. Why hadn't Stone used his own, which would have been so much more light-proof? Had he known already about this 'favor'?
But soon, as she grew chilly and pulled out her own blanket to wrap up in, she realized why. Stone had wanted the better blanket to sleep in, to keep the cold out.
And soon after that, she found a second reason Stone had chosen to hang up the prisoner's old blanket rather than sleep in it. For she gradually noticed that, in the flickering light of the candle, there were flickers across the face of the ratty old blanket that weren't merely shadows and light. Peering closer, she saw...
Tiny, tiny insects. Evil-looking insects. Things she really, really did not want coming anywhere close to her skin.
She shuddered and shrank back. Ew! They hadn't had anything like that up on the ground-floor where she had been! Oh, no - they were clean; they were superior; they were the best, the good people...
Oh! She remembered that? Was she beginning to remember things? Eagerly, happily, she pursued the memory, looking to see what else she might recall.
But no - whatever more she might have remembered had already taken to wings and flown out of her head.
Sigh. Oh, well...
Time passed, but how much time it was hard to tell. Presently her stomach announced that whatever the time, it was time to eat. So she pulled out an apple.
She looked at it. Memories flooded in. Not her long-ago past this time, but the immediate past. From that morning - the prisoner's dream. And from the day before, the poor guy's rapture at getting to bite into a real apple. And his indignation when he realized that while he was eating, she wasn't.
Why hadn't she eaten? In fact, come to think of it, she hadn't had a bite the whole time she'd been down here. Hungry she was - her stomach was plain on that point. So why...?
The word appeared whole inside her head. Fast. Yes. Fasting...
Frown. She had heard that phrase before, hadn't she?
...this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting...
What kind, she wondered. The kind that afflicted the prisoner? That made him - so small, he was - one of the victims? One of the kind of victims who hated it, she guessed.
Without really noticing it, she had put the apple away.
And almost without noticing it, she began to pray. For the prisoner - for his safety - for his heart to beat after the Master's heart - for his hatred of being a victim to blossom into a longing to be out of this prison - to be free. Free not just from the chains and the dungeon holding him captive, but free within - free of the inner chains. Free in heart.
For him to change; the very thing he thought no one could do.
Beloved, she whispered into the lonely air, praying such words as appeared within her head, speaking his will with her mouth.
Time passed. Tiredness overcame her. She prayed on, slowly wearing down. Slowly her eyes closed. Slowly her mind wandered off again.
Why, she wondered... When Stone had been lying there on the floor, while the prisoner was kicking him - why he had said, 'ta-ta'? She'd never known him to say such a thing before; he always just said 'good-bye.' Or 'I'll be back.' Or 'catch you later'...
So why? *yawn* Was he really saying 'ta-ta'? Or was it something else? Something like maybe... *yawwwwwwwn*... a name...?
Still spitting out curses under his breath, the prisoner paced. He was far too angry to sit down; as he stomped back and forth in the mire, he was throwing off energy that could all but be seen crackling off of him. How could she do that? Bring that no-good curse-curse-curse in here with him? Mitch! Of all people he hated, Mitch!
His stomach was rumbling, but he was too angry to care. Back and forth he paced, churning up the mire, churning out the curses, till...
A light. The room was growing less dark again. Were they coming back? Were they that crazy? Man! He'd trusted her...
Trusted? Since when did he trust anyone? Maybe he was the crazy one...
He stopped pacing and watched the patch of light spreading on the far wall, defining into the shape of the iron-barred window, moving down the wall and across the floor to his feet.
Whoever was coming was here now. And bearing a torch. A pretty good bet it wasn't them again, but was instead...
A heavy hand battered the door. 'Look alive in there,' barked a guard. 'If you are still alive, you,' curses.
'I'm here,' the prisoner replied sullenly.
'Want some lunch?' growled the guard.
Lunch? Oh, yes! His stomach jumped with joy.
'Well, too bad, 'cause you ain't getting any!' The sadist guard laughed with maniacal glee as the helpless prisoner's hopes fell and were crushed in the mire. No lunch? Were they going to starve him this time?
'Heh, just funning you,' the guard added. 'Catch!' A fairly microscopic something flew in through the window. The prisoner leapt to catch it.
And landed face-first in the muck. But laughing. He might be yucky from head to foot, but he'd caught the food this time! Ignoring the guffaws of the guard, he crammed the bit of stale bread into his jaws, chewing, chewing, chewing.
The light retreated. Or began to. Suddenly there was an oath from outside.
'What the' curse 'is this?' The torchlight sprang up towards the ceiling as the guard bent for the floor. Straightening, he thrust his arm inside the window on the door, shaking something at the prisoner. 'Where the' same curse 'did this come from? You been having visitors?'
Warily, swallowing first, the prisoner slinked just close enough to the guard's hand to see what was in it - certainly not close enough for the guard to be able to grab him. He knew better than that. But what was in the guard's hand? It was small, stubby...
No, the candle. That same stub of candle that Mitch had lit, which had shown him Mitch's face and shown Mitch his.
The guard waved the candle at the prisoner's nose. 'Where'd this come from?' he demanded.
The prisoner licked his parched lips. Here it was, his golden moment. He could rat Mitch out! He didn't know if the scum had gone back to his own cell that he'd told Starr he'd taken over - but who cared! Just telling the guards that there were some of them in here - the people with their precious keys - the goody-goodies... Yeah! They would reward him for ratting them out.
His vision spangled as he imagined it: food, and drink - real drink, not brackish water like they usual gave the captives. And fame - his name known and lauded - not cursed like they always cursed him, guards and prisoners alike. All he needed to do was tell...
And as his mouth opened, he saw her. Starr. So strange, so foreign. Yet so trusting. She...
She had trusted him. No one had ever trusted him before.
For good reason. Trusting people got you hurt, got you killed.
'Where'd this come from?' the guard growled once again.
The prisoner started to tell. He really did. And then, instead, he snarled back, 'How the' curse 'should I know? Probably one of you blasted guards - sneaking around to see his girlfriend!'
For response, the guard spewed out a blistering barrage of curses. Flinging the candle at the prisoner's feet, he took his torch and left.
But for some reason, the cell didn't seem so dark anymore. And the prisoner's heart certainly felt lighter than it had ever felt in all his life. Why was that?
She woke. Blinking. It was dark. Her candle?
She felt for it. Found only a still-warm, still-soft puddle of wax where it had been. It had burned out.
It had been Stone's candle. Did she have another? She'd never looked for one in her pack; she'd never needed one before. Now, she looked, feeling around and around in the depths of the pack's interior.
No candles. Puzzling. They were supposed to be provided with what they needed, right? So why didn't she have a candle?
Maybe... she didn't need one?
She started at the thought. But maybe it was right. Maybe she didn't need a candle.
All right. Then she would sit in the dark.
She thought over the dream, looking at it from every angle, pondering it and what it could mean. She was still meditating on it when a sound invaded her thoughts.
The lock - she could hear it being unlocked. The door opened. Feet sloshed in. The door closed.
In her corner, she stiffened. Suddenly she was glad to have no candle. Even with what Stone called 'favor' - if this was the guards come to look for her, she didn't want a light shining to guide them in their search.
But... The prisoner hadn't given them away. At least, he hadn't in the dream. So maybe...
'Starr? Starr, it's me.' She heard the blanket move above her head. 'Starr? Did your candle burn out?'
Relief. 'I'm here, Stone.'
'Whew. Good. When you didn't answer at first, I began to wonder were you gone.' A moment later he had a light made and a new candle lit.
She looked up at him, blinking in the light, then looked past his shoulder. 'You're alone?' she said wistfully.
'Well, yeah, I... Oh.' He understood her meaning now. 'No, no Walker still. And I finished the level just now. He's not here.'
A glum little nod.
'What about you, Starr? How's your ankle?'
She hadn't thought about it since before she fell asleep. Now, at his prompting, she moved it.
Stone knelt, gently removed the bandage she'd made. He tried to flex the ankle, but her hiss of pain let him know it was much too early for that. He rebandaged it and rocked back on his heels. What would they do now?
'Well,' he said. 'It will be the nightly lock-down soon. Once the halls are clear and the guards are gone, I can do like I said and carry you out. In fact,' he added with a smile, 'I can take you to meet Forest and James for tonight's report, and they can take you on upstairs. Though what reason I have to stay down here, I don't know. Walker's not here, and no one else seems to be...'
'I can't go, Stone,' she interrupted.
Huh? 'What do you mean, you can't go?'
Swiftly she recounted the dream to him.
And he shook his head. 'So?'
'So he didn't betray us. There's still a glimmer of hope for him. If he's the one we're here to rescue - well, how can I leave?'
'Starr, it was a dream. You can't know that any of that really happened.'
She looked him in the eye. 'It happened. That's why I dreamed it. Because it's real.'
'Starr...' And then he sighed. Shook his head. 'You and your dreams. I told you, I have a lot of trouble just living on dreams and visions and all. But... You believe it, don't you?'
'Which means you ain't budging till you know different.' He didn't wait for her nod this time, but said with another sigh, 'All right then. We'll go with that. Though how you can do anything when you can't even walk...'
'I can still pray,' she whispered.
Stone looked around at the three guys from upstairs and said, 'So, she's staying. And if she's staying, so am I - for now. She still thinks we should trust the Master to give us someone to get out of here, from right down here.'
Seth rolled his eyes. 'Man! That lady of yours, she always that loco?'
Before Stone could respond, Forest broke in, 'She saved my life with her visions and sight, Seth. And I've saved her life too. If that's what she believes the Master has for her, then I believe it too.'
The fire in the boy's quiet words shook Seth. 'Hey! No offense,' he said, finding himself actually backing away from the kid. 'I don't know her like you guys do, so,' he shrugged, 'maybe you're right.' He looked over at Stone again. 'But don't stay here any longer'n you hafta.'
'We don't plan on it,' Stone replied.
James had been thinking while this exchange took place, and now addressed Stone. 'I don't know what exactly her dream meant, except that it seems to be intended to keep the two of you from giving up on this level yet. So - keep searching. Maybe the man in Solitary is the one. And maybe he isn't.'
'Yeah, that's what I was thinking,' said Stone. And Forest, looking into James' face, added, 'That's more than you've said in three days, buddy. And I'd say it's worn you out. Let's get going.'
James nodded. He really did feel tired. And that wasn't a good sign, knowing that they might well have to cut their way out of here once Walker was found. With brief farewells, he and his men started back up the stairs.
'See you tomorrow night for your next report,' Forest called softly as Stone turned to go.
How could any of them know that there would be no next report?
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Thursday, February 02, 2006
the child, part 2, chapter 3 - 'dark night of the soul'
***This is a rechaptering of the original chapters 46-48, which were posted on 31 mar - 6 apr 05. Minor rewriting as well.)***
More days. More walking. More arguing. More pain. More circling the mountain.
More getting nowhere.
And then came a day when, as the group was descending a particularly rough and ugly passage, Starr's foot slipped, sending her slithering through rock and grit, skinning her shin from ankle to knee. A bush - prickly one, of course - broke her skid, and she sat for a moment, silent, too shocked even to cry.
Looking around, she saw that the main part of the group was still descending the slope, having not even noticed what had happened to her. The only ones who had noticed were those behind her. Stone, and the angels.
Stone just stood there, looking at her, as she sat there in her pain, clutching at her oozing leg. The angels stood watching Stone, to see what he would do.
He drew a long breath. Frowned.
Glanced at Maccabees. Gave a jerk of his head towards the girl.
And then turned away. And walked on.
And now came the tears. The skinning of her leg had not been quite enough to start Starr crying. But this was. Hot tears stung her eyes, spattering down her cheeks.
He... he walked on?
A hand reached down to her. Knees bent and rested by her. A canteen uncorked, and the cool water within was sent cascading over the long wound. Maccabees.
Starr looked up into his face as he brought out a cloth to clean away the grit and to bandage her leg. The two other angels paused, but Maccabees gave a wave of his hand to let them know he needed no aid. They walked on as well then, following Stone.
And so the pair of them were left behind for a time by the rest.
Starr winced a bit at the washing of her wound, but the real hurt was in her heart. 'He... he didn't stop!' she said, incredulous. 'He just... went!'
'I am sorry,' the cherub replied.
Starr's whole face twisted in anguish. 'I don't understand,' she whispered - a whisper, but yet with the intensity of full-throated yelling. 'What is with him? How can he just... walk away like that? I...' She shook her head. 'Is this why his name is Stone? Because that's what his heart is made of? I thought he loved me! Has he thrown all of that away? Do I mean nothing to him anymore?'
'Don't defend him!' she hissed back. 'This is ridiculous! He doesn't feel a thing anymore - not one thing! Isn't that so?'
'Starr. That is the hurt talking. And I do not mean the hurt in your leg. But do not, in your anguish, make accusations without proof.' Maccabees' own face was full of pain. 'He saw. He ached. But he thought... that you would prefer my company to his.'
'But he doesn't know that? Any more than you know what is going on in his heart. Be at peace, Starr. Trust. This is temporary. That is the word I hear ringing in my ears: temporary. Do not worry.'
She cast down her eyes, watching as he finished wrapping her injury securely. 'Are you sure?' she whispered. And this time, her whisper was only a whisper.
The angel smiled. 'Yes,' he said. 'Now. Let's get you upright.' And he stood, taking her hand, helping her to stand as well.
She tested putting her weight on her leg, and found it didn't bother her as much as she might have thought it would. She did hold on to the cherub's hand, though, as they started out after the rest.
They still had the remainder of the slope to clamber down, and Maccabees diligently made sure Starr did not fall again. It was only after they reached the flat land at the bottom and had walked a few yards on that Maccabees stopped and pointed back to the right of the rough way they had just come. 'Do you see it?' he said.
She looked. There, snaking in from the side of the other mountain, there was a second valley. Smaller, with many stunted trees and brambly bushes studding the way. She frowned.
'Recognize it?' he asked.
Vaguely, she did. 'Isn't that... isn't that the way we came in? It leads back to the start of the valley, and beyond that, to the Mountain of Spices?'
Well. That explained how they could keep circling and circling, with no one noticing what was going on. A bit more thought and then she asked, 'If that is the way we got in, where is the way we get out?'
Maccabees smiled. 'When it is time to get out, then will you see. All of you will.'
And turning after the rest, he helped Starr to hurry and catch up with the others.
Sleep fled her that night. Her leg was part of the reason. And the rest of the reason...
...was not hard to guess.
Tossing, turning - long after the others had fallen asleep. Till one particularly rough kick at her blanket pulled at the bandage on her leg hard enough to rupture the tender scab and start the wound to bleeding again.
Oh, great. She sat up then, pushing the blanket aside lest any blood get on it. Fumbling in the dark, she tried to wrap the bandage again. Suddenly, the frustrations of the day overboiled inside her, and she sprang up from her bedding entirely, thrust open the tent door, and bolted outside.
The moon peered down at her from overhead, stars dotting the sky near the pale face of that silent watcher in the night sky. Starr walked. Out from the camp, out into the surrounding woods. Not blindly, as she had that time before. She kept glancing behind her, being sure not to get too far from the dim light of the still-burning campfire huddled in the midst of the three tents.
Her steps slowed now. She was getting to the distance from the camp where one of the men should be walking his watch. Keeping a close watch herself, she slipped behind a tree, waiting. She did not want to be spotted - not, at least, until after she had spotted the watchman first.
Especially if Stone was the one on watch - she did not want him to catch her out in the night.
Stone. She was still angry inside. To just walk away from her like that! What was he thinking? What was the matter with him!
A small crunch of foot on underbrush caught her attention. The watchman! She ducked - not too quickly, for a sudden motion could easily give her away. Furtively she watched.
Ah. It was James... no... Jack. Yes, Jack. Good. If it had been James, then Stone would have the next watch afterwards. But Jack's watch was nowhere near Stone's. Perfect.
She waited while the man made his slow turn round the camp and vanished into the darkness. It would take him maybe ten minutes to return to this spot, she figured. Plenty of time to herself. By herself.
Stone. Again she pictured it inside her head - him standing there as she lay bleeding on the ground. Him turning her over to Maccabees. Him walking away.
And he hadn't even asked her over supper how her leg was!
Fury welled up again inside her. Temporary - that was the word Maccabees had told her. But meaning what? That Stone's estrangement from her would be temporary, and then he would come back? Or that the brief spring of love they had shared was the temporary thing in her life, and now was over and gone forever?
Ohhhh... This was making her head hurt. What was she supposed to think? When the man who had confessed to love her, now spent so much time ignoring her - avoiding her, as far as she could tell? What was going on?
The Master had warned her of this...
What if I don't like it? she muttered inside her brain. What if I'd rather just... What if I...
'What if I want out?' And that she said aloud.
Not loudly. But aloud.
Out? As in - what?
'Out of this relationship. If there even is one.'
Out is out. Completely out. All or nothing.
'Well, maybe I want nothing! But this - what I have - this is not what I wanted! A man who ignores me?' She was gesturing now, talking to the thin air before her, the same intense hissing whispering she had done earlier that day towards Maccabees.
She pointed back towards the camp, where undoubtedly Stone was now sleeping soundly within his tent. 'He is not what I expected. And he is not what I wanted.'
What did you want?
'To...' Her voice broke, crying. 'To be loved...'
Softly, the answer came: Don't I love you?
She began to cry in earnest now. She felt them, the arms she could not see, encircling her, embracing her. Starr...
'Master...' she whispered back.
Don't expect too much. Or too soon. He is still becoming. And I am becoming in him.
He loves you.
'He doesn't show it.'
Not at this time, no. But soon. You will see. He must go through this himself, to be sure. When he is sure, when he is ready - you will have his love. And you will have it all.
A hesitation. '...I hate this...'
Be at peace. You too are becoming. But 'out,' dear Starr - is out. Completely. That, my love, you do not want.
No... That was true. To be out completely - away from the Master. Alone from him - apart. No, that she did not want.
A sigh. A nod. 'Yes...'
'Hey! Who's there?'
Starr's heart sprang into her throat, as her hand sprang over her mouth.
And then she recognized it: Jack's voice! But too soon, and coming from the wrong direction!
Yes, here the man came, walking back from the way he had disappeared into. Peering forward as he came, suspicious, suspenseful...
And then he relaxed. 'Oh, it's only you.' A blink. 'Uh... what're you doing out here, Starr? I mean, this time of night, the only 'Starrs' that ought to be out are the ones overhead. You know?'
Sigh. Yes, that was Jack, all right.
'Sorry,' he added as he came closer. 'I suppose that was a bit lame.' A pause. 'Oh. And maybe I shouldn't have used that word. Your leg bothering you?'
To that she nodded.
'Sorry you got hurt today, Starr. I still don't see how you took such a bad tumble, and didn't none of the rest of us even notice. Hurts, does it?'
'Not really,' she answered. And shrugged. 'It, uh, started bleeding again.'
'Ick,' said he. Glanced around, then added, 'Look. I can't leave you out here, all by yourself in the dark. Want me to walk you back to the camp?'
'Not particularly.' She wasn't ready to go back yet, and knew it.
'Well, come on with me then. I still have about half my watch to go, and can't do it standing in one place.'
She hesitated. Really, she wanted some more time to herself. But how could she explain that to Jack: 'Sorry, I'd rather stand here and talk to someone who's not here'?
So she followed Jack.
He walked a bit slowly, trying to not go too fast for the sake of her injury. The woods about them were quiet, still. 'All these nights,' he said to her softly, 'all this time traveling, and no one's attacked us in the night yet.' When she made no reply, he added, 'So far, so good, huh?'
No attacks. And even as he said it, her vision gave a subtle shift, and she saw ugly squat bodies poised about the camp, vicious swords in their hands, their eyes glowing with hatred. Waiting...
She blinked, and the night was still and empty again.
'You all right?' said Jack.
'Y-yes,' she stammered. 'I think so.'
'You know,' he said after a few more minutes of circling the camp, 'I keep waiting and hoping for James and Forest to start getting along together. I mean, after all this time, for the two of them to still find stuff to clash over - man! that's persistence!'
Persistence - well, that was one way to look at it...
'James has always been like this,' Jack went on, 'ever since we were kids.' A slight chuckle. 'You know, our mom used to say there was nothing wrong with being stubborn, as long as you were stubborn for the right things. But I never saw it that way.'
He looked away into a distance Starr could not see. 'Probably one of the most wonderful sights of my life,' he said, 'was when I looked up over the Mountain of Spices, and saw a rescue party returning from the enemy's dungeons, and there among the captives set free,' he smiled, 'was my own brother Harry. That was our names before,' he added. 'James was Harry, and I was Howie.'
A wistful look passed over his face. 'But I've always expected since, for Har - James - to change. To stop with the bull-headedness. I think it's good for him, really, to have Forest to deal with, challenging him, forcing him to think about his own decisions and all.' Then he added, muttering, 'If they'd just stop with the arguing... Pig-headed, the both of them!'
Starr thought about what Jack was saying, and about what his mother used to say. 'Maybe...' she ventured. 'Maybe James doesn't need to stop being stubborn. Maybe he just needs to realize which things he should be stubborn about, and which things he shouldn't.'
Jack sighed. 'That's not really what I wanted to hear, you know.' And then he stopped, paused, and turned back the way he had come.
'Where are you going?' Starr asked in surprise.
'The other direction for a while,' he said without stopping, so that she had to hurry to catch up. 'I change directions every so often when I'm on watch,' he explained. 'See, if someone is planning an attack on the camp, I figure they might wait for whoever's on watch to go past, then think they've got plenty of time till the watch comes around again. But then I backtrack...' He smiled, the twinkle in his eye visible even in the starlight. 'Just trying to cross 'em up - if they're out there.'
Oh, they were out there, all right. But what was holding them back from attacking? Starr wondered.
A few more minutes walking, and Starr was beginning to yawn. She was also beginning to visibly limp. 'Come on,' said Jack, turning in towards the camp. 'You gotta get off that leg now.'
She made no protest, but allowed herself to be led to her tent. Good nights and thank yous followed, and then Jack went back to his circling of the camp.
And still Starr did not go in. She had a bit of unfinished business yet before going to bed. Checking first to be sure she was not being observed...
'Master?' she whispered into the darkness.
And though she saw him not, she felt his presence.
'Master,' she breathed again. 'I'm... I'm sorry. Please forgive me. I forgive Stone. I don't understand, but that doesn't matter, does it? I give you all my anger against him.'
And I take it, she heard, not in her ears.
'...and I put myself - all of me - into your hands again. To trust, with this and with everything. Master...'
'Oh, make us ready! Start with me! So that we can stop going round and round this mountain, and become what you desire us to be!'
She felt his smile. And heard: I already am.
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