Friday, March 31, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 24 - 'free at last'


His arms gathered her in and held her, as he dropped a kiss into her hair. 'My Starr.'

She clung to him. 'Beloved...' And then she began to sob.

'Come, dearest,' said he, 'tell me why you weep.'

'Oh, Master, Beloved! I messed up so badly! Everyone was telling me to run. Even you, I knew, wanted me to run. But I stopped instead. I disobeyed. And now Stone...!'

'Do you want me to forgive you?'

'Oh. Oh, yes. Of course I do.'

'You need only ask,' he prompted gently.

Nodding, she responded, 'Please, sir. For-forgive me.'

He smiled on her. 'I forgive.'

'But, but Stone! He...'

'You have no guarantee that he would not still be in the same circumstances if you had been obedient, dear.'

'What?' Her mind reeled, not comprehending. 'But... but your promises...'

'...are by no means voided by the current situation.' And as she continued to stare up into his face, her head shaking back and forth in bafflement, he added, 'Do not worry nor be afraid, my love. Soon shalt thou see my glory.'

'Um,' put in the prisoner. His eyes had finally grown accustomed to the splendor of daylight, and he glanced back towards the fortress. 'Not wanting to break up this tender reunion and all, but what if people start coming outta that door looking for us? We're in plain sight here.'

'People have already come out of the fortress in these few minutes, and have not seen us. More shall soon pour forth, and they also shall not see us. Much that is in plain sight never gets noticed at all.'

'Um... What?'

'Dear Starr,' said the Master, turning again to her, 'I want you to sit here and be comfortable while I speak with your brother for a few minutes. You will do that for me? There is nothing to be afraid of.'

'Yes, sir,' she said. Her eyes were shining once again with little-girl trust.

'My Child,' he said fondly. 'And I want you to set aside what happened in the deep dungeon, for that is forgiven. On the stairs you obeyed me well. I am well pleased.'

He kissed her once again on the forehead, and smiled as she sat down just as he had told her to, without a care in the world. Then, gesturing to the prisoner, the Master said, 'Come.' He walked a short distance away from Starr, just far enough for their conversation to be private.

'Now,' he said to the prisoner, who had followed him reluctantly. 'You know who I am?'

'Well, she called you Master,' the prisoner replied, jerking his head towards Starr.

'Such I am,' said the Master simply. 'Would you like me to set you free?'

'I'm outta the fortress. Don't that mean I'm free already?'

'You are forgetting about these?' And the Master pointed, drawing the prisoner's attention to the fact that his wrists were still bound with chains.

Oh. Yeah.

'And these physical chains,' the Master continued, 'are in great part symbolic of the chains that still bind your heart and your mind.'

Now it was the prisoner giving the Master a blank and baffled look.

'Your attitudes I am speaking of. Your hatreds. Your lusts for vengeance. Many such spirits hold you captive, and they have been with you for so long that you do not even recognize them. These things act like part of you, but they are not truly part of you. And from them I will set you free - if you want me to.'

'I... I...'

'Or would you prefer to stay chained?'

'Well... no...'

'Some of the chains have already begun to come loose from you. Did it not take you by surprise on the stairs when you realized that you pitied he whom you call Mitch, that you no longer desired vengeance on him?'

A curse word popped out of the prisoner's mouth. 'How you know that?' he cried.

'I am Master. I know all.'

'Well, well... Look. If you know all, then how come you let all this,' he waved a chained arm at the fortress, 'evil go on? Huh?'

The Master smiled. 'That is a tangent. But I will answer it. Yes, I know all. That does not necessarily imply logically that I also have all power - but I do. Why then do I stand by and let evil happen?' He leaned closer. 'Because I have rules by which I live. And, unlike Mankind, I do not lightly break those rules.'

There was a rebuke in that statement, and the prisoner hung his head.

'Yes, I allow men to sin,' the Master went on. 'Do I desire them to? No. But I permit them to choose. Their own way, or mine. You see, it was a blessing that I blessed Mankind with - the privilege to choose to obey me or not, so that Mankind might choose to love me freely, to live as my sons and daughters. A free choice to love, rather than mindless obedience which is not truly love at all. But my Enemy,' and he nodded towards the fortress, 'took the blessing I gave and twisted it - as he twists all good things - into a curse by deceiving Mankind into hating me instead. And so now sin runs rampant, and men blame me for permitting them to have their own way. And many are hurt by the sins of others. In fact, in a larger sense, every man's sin affects everyone else, living and not yet born.'

'And you let it happen,' the prisoner dared to say.

'I do. Does that make me evil?'

Their eyes met, and the prisoner began to tremble.

'Suppose for a minute,' said the Master, 'that I were to remove Mankind's free will. Completely abolish it. What would happen? All of Mankind would obey me perfectly and nothing evil would be able to happen. But also... nothing real would be able to happen.' He let that sink in for a bit, then added, 'And so, instead, for now, I permit Mankind to choose for me or against me. And I continue to love, and to send forth those whom I love and who love me to raid the fortress of my Enemy and set the captives free.'

'Why not just level the fortress entirely and set everyone free at once?'

'But there are so many who have chosen against me. Set them free, and what will they do? They will only continue on in their sin and be swiftly gathered up once more by my Enemy and made captives again. How would razing the fortress change anything if the hearts of Mankind are not changed?'

'Well,' said the prisoner. 'Well...' And then, sullenly, 'Anyway, you knew it would happen.'

'I knew all of it would happen, yes,' the Master agreed. 'All the wickedness. All the hurts rained on the heads of the victims of evil. Yes, I knew. And I also knew,' and he held up his arms, 'the price it would take - the price I myself would pay - to break the power of the Enemy and set Mankind free once and for all. The price of Love, to woo and win the hearts of Mankind.' He turned his arms, showing the wounds there on his wrists, the terrible terrible scars of his own death. 'You know the price that I paid, my son. To give you the right to become my son.'

The prisoner shrank back from the sight of those scars, unable to tear his eyes from them. 'Don't call me son,' he whispered.

'You have never known a father who was worthy of the name,' said the Master, his arms still open, 'one who would love you and protect you the way a father ought to. Therefore you fear to be called my son. Until I sent Starr to you, you never even knew Love. But now has she become a sister to you, and so has begun the unlocking of your heart.' And as the prisoner began anew to tremble, this time uncontrollably, the Master added, 'Will you choose now to become my son? To let me free you in every way?'

The prisoner fell to his knees, tears streaking his face. 'But I'm so evil,' he whispered, seeing for the first time his own heart and his own choices. Not just the evils done against him all his life, the ones he had always railed about - but the evils he himself had done in return and felt justified in doing. His own evil heart. 'Why,' he added, 'would you even want me?'

'Because I do,' said the Master. And when the prisoner looked up, the Master said something to him that he had never really believed from anyone's lips ever before.

'I love you.'

'M-master!'

He couldn't even stand up. Having fallen to his knees, the prisoner didn't have the strength to get to his feet again. All he could do was inch forward, on his knees, to go to the Master.

And the Master met him. Held him. Forgave him. Swept aside every chain from him. And into his ear he spoke a new name.

And called him, 'Son.'

~~~~~~~

There on the ground sat Starr, just as the Master had said she should. She watched as guards came pouring out of the fortress, just as the Master had said they would. Round and round they ran, searching, scouring the grounds for them; like so many ants they looked. But though they passed close by her - one of them nearly treading right on her - none of the guards gave any sign of noticing her, or the Master, or the prisoner.

Finally one of the guards called the rest together. He yelled at the others quite a bit, then, scowling, marched them back inside the fortress. And this time he left two of them guarding the outside of the door.

'Come. Let us go now.'

The Master was now standing over her, holding down his hand. Starr took it and he raised her to her feet. Automatically she glanced at the prisoner who was at the Master's side. The little man's eyes were bright with recent tears. His flimsy rags had been transformed to fine linen, clean and bright.

And his arms... Yes! his chains were gone!

Joyfully she smiled at him, but was surprised to see that his own smile back to her was no more than half-hearted. Why was that, she wondered. And she started to ask. But the Master was on the move, so Starr hurried to follow instead.

Swiftly he led them away from the fortress, round the northern face of it, and off toward the mountain beyond. Starr had to all but run to keep up. And every so often, she would glance back.

No, not because anyone was following them from the fortress, for no one was. But for a different reason...

'Master?' she said at last.

'Yes, my Starr?' the Master replied. He paused long enough for her to draw close. Then, taking her hand, he strode on. 'Tell me what troubles you,' he prompted.

'You already know, surely?'

'But I like for you to tell me.'

Furtively, not wanting to draw attention to what she was doing, she pointed at their companion. He had been trailing behind them all this way. 'Is something wrong?' she whispered. 'Because he just doesn't look as happy as I was expecting him to. He's free, but...'

'But he does not understand something, and that has him in turmoil within.'

Oh. Poor guy. Glancing back again, Starr added, 'But you're going to fix that, right?'

The Master caught her eye. 'First he must ask.'

He does? 'But... but what if he doesn't ask?'

'He will,' said the Master confidently. 'And when he does, you will explain to him, and he will be comforted.'

'I will? But...!'

'Do not worry,' he said, as he stopped and turned to face them both, 'I have urgent business yet to attend to within the fortress. Here I must leave you.'

Now Starr was even more stunned. 'But I don't remember how to get to the cave!' she protested.

'Do not fear, my love. Malachi knows the way.'

Malachi? But he wasn't anywhere arou... Oh.

For abruptly, where a moment before no one had been, now Malachi was standing a little distance away from them. He bowed to the Master, then swept an arm toward the mountain before them. 'Come.'

They followed, with the prisoner again lagging a bit behind. As for Starr, she barely took three steps before glancing back once more, hoping to see again the confidence in the Master's face. Her own face, she was sure, was a tattered mask of diffidence.

But he was no longer there. He had already completely vanished from sight.

With a sigh, Starr whispered to herself, 'I sure hope his urgent business is rescuing Stone.' And then she hurried to catch up with Malachi.

~~~~~~~

As the Master had before him, so now Malachi led them swiftly along, as if on eagle's wings. Shortly they were at the edge of the woods bordering the foot of the mountain. Malachi plunged right through the underbrush, finding the pathway once more and leading them up the mountainside.

The way was every bit as steep as Starr remembered it. At places she had to grab onto branches to keep going, or even roots. And, as before, she glanced back regularly to check on the prisoner behind her, noting that each time she looked back, his face was glummer than the time before. What ailed him, she wondered.

The prisoner... She was so used to thinking of him as 'the prisoner' - but he wasn't anymore, was he? She needed a real name for him now, but neither he nor the Master had yet mentioned to her what the man's new name was. Pausing in the climb, she waited till the little guy caught her up, then asked, 'Hey, what did the Mas...?'

'Starr,' he interrupted, not even noticing that she was talking. 'Starr, you gotta tell me something!'

'Ok,' she said, bewildered.

'Starr, do you think... do you think maybe the Master doesn't... like me?'

'Not like you? Whatever gave you that idea?'

'Well, it's just...' He rubbed at his eyes, looking utterly stricken. 'It's just that... The Master gave you a beautiful name. He even gave Mitch an interesting one. But me...'

'Why, what'd he name you?'

Sigh. 'He... called me Nat.' And the shame and disappointment in his voice wrenched Starr's heart. 'I didn't want to say anything to him,' he rushed on. 'I don't wanna be, like, ungrateful or anything. But why did he have to name me Nat?' And even as Starr was about to ask what could be wrong with that name, he added pitifully, 'Is it because I'm short?'

Short? Nat? What was...?

And suddenly, as if the answer had just been dropped into her brain, she understood.

'He didn't name you gnat-with-a-g,' she said softly, gently, being absolutely sure not to hurt his raw feelings. 'He didn't name you for an insect. He gave you a man's name. Nat is short for Nathaniel. And Nathaniel means gift of God.'

His eyes sparked up. 'Really? Gift of God?' Relief washed through him - not just his face but his whole being. 'Wow. I like that.' But then, soberly, he added, 'And now I feel stupid for doubting him.'

'Then ask his forgiveness,' she counseled.

'But he's not here.'

'He'll hear you. Trust me.'

'Ok...'

Moments later, the prisoner - Nat - began to smile at last. And they moved on. Shortly they caught up with Malachi, who was standing patiently awaiting them. And so they climbed on.

After a good while Malachi led them off to the left and began to descend slightly. Oh, Starr remembered this last bit! Eagerly she scanned the mountainside ahead of them, looking for the curtain of ivy that both marked and concealed the entrance to the cave. Soon now, she thought, very soon... There!

She pushed aside the tendrils and ushered Nat inside. And now they found that they had already become too used to the brilliance of daylight, for they could make out nothing of the dim interior of the cave. Someone inside certainly saw them, though, for immediately they were surrounded with a clamor of voices.

'Starr!' said the first voice. 'There you are! We were wondering what became of you.'

'Yes,' came a second voice, 'didn't you hear me call to you as you were about to go out the backdoor? I hollered Hey, but you didn't stop.'

'And we couldn't have been more than five steps behind you coming out of the fortress,' put in the first voice again. 'But once we got outside, you were nowhere in sight! And then we managed to get here to the cave before you as well. Where have you been?'

And then still another voice asked, 'Wait a minute. Where's Stone?'

~first~
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Friday, March 24, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 23 - 'up and out'


Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, completely exposed in this empty corridor. And with the door opening, they were about to be caught! Starr nudged the prisoner behind her and drew her sword as quietly as she could. And prayed. Oh, she prayed!

'What the' curse 'do you think you're doing?' came a thunderous voice from beyond the door. 'Sneaking off from the job?'

The door shuddered and arrested, open only a few inches.

'I ain't sneaking!' came a second voice. 'Thought we was supposed to be searching all the levels.'

'Idiot. Don't you never listen? The major says we're gonna start at the bottom and work up. Flush 'em out, see?'

The door remained rebelliously partly open. 'Huh. Be smarter, seems like, to start at the top and flush 'em down to the bottom.'

'Yeah, well... you ain't no major!'

'And anyway,' the second voice went on, 'there was squads being dropped off on some of them other levels up there as we was passing. Why not here?'

'Cause them was the levels the spy ratted out that his friends was on, moron. Ain't supposed to be no one here.'

'Hmph. Well, if I was the major, we'd search it anyway!'

'If you was the major, I'd be a rat's...' A loud voice interrupted then, bellowing out something that sounded like, 'Slackers!'

The first voice cursed heartily. 'See? Now you done got me in trouble to boot!' There followed a sound that might have been a scuffle. In the midst of it, the door suddenly slammed shut. And there was silence.

Starr and the prisoner stood for a long moment, stunned, before she at length slid the sword back into its sheath. 'Well. They're gone.'

'Think it's safe to get back on the stairs now?'

'Let's listen.' Each glued an ear to the door briefly, then looked at each other and nodded. Easing the door back open, they stepped out into the quiet stairway and began again their ascent.

We dodged another one, thought the prisoner to himself. But how many times, he wondered, could their luck manage to hold out? And for that matter, how come their luck was holding out, when Mitch's hadn't?

He pictured again the last glimpse he'd had of the big guy, all buried under that vicious, murderous mob. And he shuddered. Poor guy!

Wait - poor Mitch? He was actually feeling sorry for Mitch? After all the cursed things Mitch had done to him? How could he ever possibly feel even an ounce of pity for that lousy... Why, he oughta be celebrating the scum's downfall instead!

But he wasn't. He genuinely felt bad for the guy. But why? Why would he feel that? What had changed?

Mitch had changed, that's what. He had become... The prisoner struggled to put it into thought. Mitch had become... a man, capable of, of really loving someone. Of loving so deeply that he could - man! That he could lay down his life for someone.

That was it, wasn't it? Mitch loved Starr so much, it didn't matter what happened to him as long as she was safe. Laying down his life...

The prisoner shuddered again and cringed away from the thought. He didn't want to think about this any further. Because from that last thought immediately sprang up two more thoughts, and he didn't want to deal with either of them. The one thought was: laying down his life - that's what they said the Master had done, even for him.

And the other thought was: if someone like Mitch could change, then maybe...

He wanted to slam his hands over his ears to block out the rest of the thought.

...maybe he could too?

~~~~~~~

Gritting his teeth, he shook his head hard to disperse those thoughts. Nobody could change! he growled under his breath.

Starr was leading the way on up the stairs. Funny how, now that it was no longer life-and-death for them to find a door immediately - now they saw doors aplenty. A new one popped up at regular intervals as they hurried up the stairs. And as they reached each door, the prisoner noticed that Starr slowed down and stared hard at it before frowning and moving on.

'What are you doing?' he asked at last.

'Be nice if these things had labels,' she said, mostly to herself.

Huh? 'You mean we're lost?' he hissed.

'I mean...' she sighed. 'I mean I'm pretty sure Forest kept track of how many levels down it was when we first got in here. But I didn't. And even if I had, I have no idea how many doors we passed coming back up. Especially...'

Yeah, especially since she'd been blind for the very first part of the journey. Man. 'Looks like we gotta peek through one of the doors then,' he suggested. 'Figure out where we are.'

'Well that's the problem,' Starr replied. 'I thought of that. But every time we reach a new door, all I get is a very strong No.'

The prisoner's steps slowed as he tried to figure out what that was supposed to mean. All she got was a very strong No? 'What the' curse 'are you talking about?' he asked. And then, to his surprise, he found himself adding, 'Sorry,' for having cursed.

'I mean,' said Starr, 'that every time we come up on a door, I pray and ask the Master if I should stop and look through that door. And each time, I get, No - keep moving.'

There was a new door on the next landing they were just now approaching, and the prisoner pointed at it. 'You mean to tell me that a voice is telling you whether or not you should stick your head through that door and look around?' Skeptical didn't even begin to describe his tone and his look just then.

'Actually, yes,' she replied. And she stopped as usual. And then her eyes popped wide. 'C'mon!' she said urgently, making a grab for his arm.

'What?' he said, jerking his arm back out of her grasp.

'That was the strongest yet! We need to get out of here now. Come on!' And she all but ran up the stairs and round the next corner.

Grumbling out a few choice curses, the prisoner deliberately sauntered along after her. What was her big flaming hurry anywa...

And then he ran for it too. The door was opening!

~~~~~~~

Muffling an oath - or some other noise - the prisoner dove up the stairs and out of sight round the next corner. He clutched his chains to himself with one hand as he landed, throwing the other hand over his mouth to hush his panicked breathing, hoping he wouldn't be heard. If only his heart wasn't pounding so loudly!

Starr was standing on the steps just above where he had landed. Standing? Why was she just standing? Shouldn't she be running? Shouldn't they both be? After all, who would be opening the door below but guards - and they were either gonna be heading down the stairs or up, right? Down would be fine, but what if it was up? Why wasn't Starr running?

And for that matter, why wasn't he?

But then she looked at him. And without a word, she answered the questions he hadn't asked aloud. She answered by cupping a hand round her ear.

Fine, we're listening! he scowled back in return.

'...didn't do nothing wrong!' came a voice, loud and clear.

'Yeah?' said a second voice, mockingly. 'Then you don't got nothing to worry about, eh?'

'Yeah,' added a third. 'You just tell it to the major. He'll be so happy, why, I'm sure he'll pin a medal on you!'

Raucous laughter then, not quite as loud or as clear, pierced by the first voice again: 'I ain't lying! Look, he was there this morning. Answered roll call like usual, and then we chained him to his work station same as we always do. No way he coulda just disappeared!'

The voices were definitely fading with distance now. 'Then where the' curse 'is he?' came the second voice. And after that, quickly, the words became too indistinct to make out, and then too soft to even hear.

And now Starr and the prisoner were alone once more.

Slowly the prisoner uncovered his mouth and drew a long breath. Dodged another one! he thought. And then he stared up at Starr, his eyes seriously freaked out. 'You knew that door was gonna open, and then you knew that they wasn't gonna come our way! How the' curse 'do you do that?'

But Starr was busily muttering to herself. 'He. They said he. He answered roll call; he disappeared. Hmm...' Rapidly ticking off her fingers, she added, 'Walker gave us five names, and only two of those were men. They couldn't have meant Logan, because he was a long way downstairs, so we surely passed his level doors and doors ago. So this,' and she pointed in the direction of the most recent door, 'must have been Rob's level. Well, Stephen's...' Turning to the prisoner, she sparkled, 'Isn't the Master great how he works things out? Now I know where we are and how much further we have to go!' Grabbing his hand, she helped him to his feet. 'Won't be long now,' she promised.

But what the prisoner was thinking about as he trailed her up the stairs was, Hey - did she say Rob?

~~~~~~~

It wasn't much further at all. Almost before they knew it, they were standing before a door with Starr nodding. 'This is it. This is the ground floor.'

And likely crawling with guards, the prisoner thought darkly. Starr, without any hesitation, reached for the door to open it. Only to find her companion blocking her. 'You're nuts, right?' he said.

'I'm hearing to hurry,' she replied.

'You and your voices!' he began to protest. Only to find that, somehow, she had reached past him - or through him? - and now had the door open.

Great.

And the place was empty. Off to the left were the corridors with all the cells, just like downstairs (but a lot cleaner). In front of them was an large area with a door on the far side. 'The Day Room,' Starr pointed out - and then wondered that she remembered. And well over to the right, yet another door. She recognized it as well, but from very recently. 'That's how we got in, and that's how we'll get out.'

'We go out that door?'

'Yes. It opens straight outside.'

His frown deepened. 'Then why isn't it guarded? How can you be sure this isn't a trap?'

A good question. But almost immediately a moot one. For the door to the Day Room suddenly began to open, and both Starr and the prisoner instantly took off running for the outside door.

'Hey!' came a cry from behind them. Which only made them run all the faster, although it did occur to the prisoner to wonder why the voice behind them sounded more female than male.

Starr reached the door first and burst through it, the prisoner right on her heels. Ugh! The sunlight all but blinded them. Three days in the deepest dungeon had accustomed Starr's eyes to near-darkness - how much more so the prisoner's eyes after a lifetime down there? Still they stumbled on, instinctively holding their arms out before them, squinting severely.

'This way.'

Now, that voice came from in front of them. But who could it be? Through the dazzle of sunlight, Starr could barely make out the outline of a human shape before them. The arms looked like sticks, waving them forward. 'Quickly, dear,' said the voice.

Oh! 'I know that voice!' Starr cried with delight and plunged onward, blindly trusting as she ran straight for his arms.

The Master!

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Friday, March 17, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 22 - 'as you love her...'


In her worry - yes, the very thing Maccabees had told her not to do! - over Stone, Starr had stopped paying attention to that unnerving noise that had been coming closer and closer all this time. Now she saw the source of the noise. Now, when it was too late.

'Well, what the' curse' do we got here?' rasped a husky voice from all too close by. And from every corridor, Starr now saw people pouring forth. Dozens and scores of people. Maybe the entire population of the prisoners who lived down here.

And they did not look very friendly.

Least friendly-looking of all was a big, ugly, brutish lout with an unholy glint in his eye, weaving his unsteady way towards her. 'Where'd you come from, little girl?' he sneered leeringly, drawing even closer. He might have been spawned right out of the slime that covered the floor. His eyes raked over her, enjoying her apprehension. 'We don't get a whole lot of pretty little girls down here,' he said. 'Do we, boys?'

'Back off, Butch,' said Stone, his voice low and still a bit gravelly from the abuse he'd just taken. Coming up alongside Starr, Stone made ready to draw his sword for her defense.

'Ohhh!' said Butch, mockingly. 'Now I get it! Now I see why ol' buddy Mitch don't wanna drink with us no more. He went and got himself a girlfriend.' And there was something in the way he slurred the word that turned it into an obscene insult.

'Leave her alone. Your quarrel is with me,' said Stone.

'Quarrel? Ain't no quarrel here, Mitchie. Naw, we just gonna have us a party, eh, guys? And Mitchie's little girlfriend here - why, she gets to be the live entertainment!' He leered at her evilly. Leaning close, he hissed into her face, 'Won't that be fun!'

'I said leave her alone!' said Stone, stepping between her and Butch. At the same moment, the prisoner bravely stepped up too. 'Ain't it a tad early to be soused already?' said he disparagingly. 'How 'bout you just go sleep it off somewhere, Butcher Boy?'

'You,' Butch turned savagely towards the little prisoner, 'get the' curse 'outta my face! And you...' He turned back towards Stone, acting like he had something to say to him. But instead of talking, Butch suddenly launched his knee into Stone's gut, doubling him over, sending him sprawling. 'Get him, boys!' Butch cried, as he himself reached for Starr.

'The' curse 'you will!' growled the prisoner. Locking both hands together, he swung at Butch so that the chains hanging from his wrists whipped hard into the drunkard's face. Down went Butch.

'Go, Starr! Run!' cried the prisoner. And this time, she didn't hesitate to obey. Spinning, she started for the stairway door.

And then she was sprawled on the floor as well, face down in the mire. Stunned, she tried to fathom why she was down there; what could she have tripped on? But then she felt the strong hand gripping her ankle. Butch. From where he lay in the floor, he had lashed out at her anyway. 'Not so fast, little lady,' he growled, starting to get his knees under himself to stand.

'Let her go!' yelled the prisoner. Starr, blinded with mire in her eyes, could only guess at what was happening now. But it was an easy guess; the sound she heard now were the same as she had heard the day before: the crunch of a foot connecting with human flesh, over and over and over again. And punctuated with the words, 'Leave. Her. Alone!'

And then hands grabbed her at the waist. Still mire-blinded, she wasn't sure at first if this was friend or foe - particularly since right now there were plenty of foes about and precious few friends. She started to struggle...

'It's me, Starr. It's just me.' The prisoner's voice, very close by her ear. He lifted her, guiding her somewhere. The confusion of voice all about disoriented her. Where were they going? And where was Stone?

A door opening. Herself being thrust through the doorway. She balked. 'I can't see. Where's Stone?'

For a moment, the prisoner paused and looked back. He shuddered. Better she couldn't see! He could barely spot the guy himself. Somewhere under that pile of angry violent men was Stone, being punched, kicked, smothered.

And yet... Now he saw him, looking up at him from under that mass. Stone caught the prisoner's eye. And somehow, over all that din of angry voices, Stone made himself heard. 'As you love her, get her out of here!'

The prisoner nodded. 'I will.' And closed the stairway door.

~~~~~~~

Now it was he grabbing Starr's hand. 'C'mon.'

'Where's Stone?' But he gave her no answer. He just tugged her on, scrambling up the stairs. She stumbled badly over the steps as he dragged her along, and more than once she fell entirely, so that he had to help her up again. There was no way she could see where she was going.

The prisoner knew how that felt. He'd had mire splashed and smeared and ground into his eyes a few times during his long years down here. He knew how it must burn and sting her. If only he had something to cleanse her eyes, something that would get rid of the mire and soothe the burning. But he didn't have a thing - not even a rag, not a drop of water...

Wait. Hey, yeah! He didn't have anything, but she did!

He stopped running so abruptly that she nearly fell up the stairs again. 'What's happening?' she cried as he spun her about, jerking at the leather strap across her body. 'Stop that! Who...?'

'It's just me, and hush your squalling before someone hears us! I just need your canteen.' He pulled it off her. She heard it uncorking. Then a hand shoved her chin skyward.

And now water was coursing over her face. 'Oh yeah. Hold your breath,' he added as she spluttered and flailed to push the canteen away.

'What...?' Ah, but then the water hit its mark and she comprehended what he was doing. She stopped fighting it and instead dug at the mire in her eyes, receiving the cool cleansing relief of the water.

'All better?' said he, and stopped pouring. Oh but she looked a mess, what with stripes of clean and dirty all down her clothes marking where the water had flowed and where it hadn't. And her eyes - ugh, but they were red and swollen!

But she could see now. She blinked. A lot. Looked around.

'Where's Stone?'

'Oh no you don't. Don't you start with that again.'

Bafflement gave place to horror on her face. 'We left him behind? We have to go back!'

He caught her arm as she turned to head back downstairs. 'What are you, part mule? We can't go back!'

'But Stone! They'll kill him. They'll kill him!'

He didn't argue the point. He was sure she was right. In fact, well, he figured they already had...

What was that?

For now they heard a sound, way above their heads. It might have been the sound of a flash flood roiling down a hillside, or perhaps a rockslide carrying devastation in its path. But Starr knew what it really was.

'It's the guards,' she whispered, her face pale.

'Guards? What now?'

Swiftly she related to him what Maccabees had told her that morning about Walker. And when she was done, the prisoner's face was pale as well. 'We gotta get off these stairs!' Panicked, he looked up, down, all around. No doors here. Had they passed any already? He couldn't remember if they had. Muttering curses, he tried to think. The only door he knew for sure was below them was the one they had just fled through. No way they were going back there. So that left...

'C'mon,' he said again. And grabbing her hand once more, he lit out upstairs as fast as he could go.

At least now he didn't have to drag Starr along. She ran too, sometimes outpacing him. He gathered his chains and pressed them to his bosom as they ran, trying to minimize the jangling, trying not to draw any attention to themselves.

They ran. Landing... landing... landing... No doors? Where were the doors? Had they missed seeing one?

Oh, the guards were coming closer, closer. They could hear now individual footfalls up there, could make out rough voices and rugged breathing, coming closer, closer.

They ran. Stumbled. Ran on. 'Oh please, Master!' Starr's lips moved silently. 'Please, let there be...'

A door! The prisoner sprinted ahead, yanked it open. They both tumbled through and he dragged it shut again behind them.

And here came the guards. Like a thundering herd, they swept past the door and on down, down. So many of them, rumbling past! When had there ever been so many guards this far down before?

We really dodged that one, the prisoner thought to himself. Imagine if they hadn't been able to get off the stairs in time!

He was standing right by the door, his hand at the knob, just waiting for the guards to all go past so that he and Starr could get out of there. He was feeling mighty nervous about this whole thing and kept casting glances behind him at the empty corridors surrounding them, wondering how long these corridors could stay empty.

And so he happened to be turned away, scanning those hallways, when he heard and saw Starr stiffen and stifle a gasp.

What? He spun back - and found himself stifling a full-blown shriek. The door was opening!

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Friday, March 10, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 21 - 'run!'


In the deep darkness, in the curtained-off corner of a small cell carpeted with mire, there she had prayed and prayed. And there, eventually, her head had drooped and her whispered words had swirled to a stop in sleep.

Dreamless sleep. What awareness she had while unconscious was a vague uneasiness, a nibbling sense of something going wrong.

And then a hand touched her side. And a voice called to her: 'Starr.'

Like swimming up out of a great abyss it was, that waking up. And the light round about her was puzzling. She distinctly remembered blowing out the candle; in fact, the bit of stub was there in her hand. So where was all this light coming from?

'Starr. Rise up. It is time to go.'

Blink. And blink again. And at last things began to come into focus. The curtain Stone had nailed up with the two forks was now gone. And standing there before her...

'Maccabees?'

It was him, wasn't it? But not his usual self. She saw now that he was the source of the light, standing there all wings and eyes and faces.

Blink. Focus. Strain to think. 'Go...?'

One of his hands reached down to take hers. 'Yes. Out. Walker is rescued, but not before the guards beat out of him all that he knew. And now the guards are spreading throughout the fortress hunting for us. We must go.'

Her thoughts might as well have been wading through mud, so slowly was she processing what he just said. The only thing that stood out to her at first was...

'Walker's rescued? Did Stone find him?'

'No. Jack did, far upstairs.'

Oh. Thinking some more. Go. Yes. 'Stone! He's out there somewhere, still looking for someone to rescue.' And then she remembered something very important. 'Oh. And I can't walk.'

'You cannot?' Maccabees' hand tightened on hers, drawing her suddenly upright and standing. 'Are you sure about that?'

Stunned, she looked down to see that already she was putting her weight on her injured foot, the foot that had consistently collapsed under her for most of a day now. 'Oh,' she said. 'Well. Maybe I'm not so sure about that after all.'

'You will need to hurry,' Maccabees counseled as he plucked up her pack and helped her shrug it on. 'Waste no time. Go first towards the stairs.'

'But Stone! I need to find him first,' she objected.

Maccabees glanced at the door and obviously beyond it as well. 'He will be along directly,' said the angel. 'Waste no time worrying nor wondering about him. Go quickly. Run.' The door opened itself for them, and he escorted her out of the cell, then pointed up the corridor. 'Now. And Starr...'

'Yes?'

'Forget not why you came here.'

And on that bewildering note, before she could ask or say anything more, her angelic friend simply vanished.

~~~~~~~

Stone plunged through the corridors of the deep dungeon, slipping in the mire, running for his life ahead of Butch and all his crew. Two thoughts coursed through his head as he ran. One was, how would he escape this enraged mob at his heels? And the other thought was, what about Starr? It was more important than ever that he get her out of this dungeon entirely. She was not safe as long as she was down here - though at least as long as she lay hidden in the cell they had taken over, she was relatively safe.

In his headlong dash from the danger behind him, Stone suddenly realized he was passing the fourth corridor. Automatically his eyes shifted to pick out the door up that way, the one Starr was concealed behind.

Except... Stone's heart almost failed him, and his feet slipped badly in the mire, as he saw a figure running up that corridor. Only a momentary glimpse did he catch before the figure disappeared round the far corner. But there was no mistaking the long hair trailing from the figure's head, nor the long skirts flying round its form.

Starr, running? But how? And why had she broken cover? Who or what could she be running from?

On impulse Stone turned to follow her, to catch her up and protect her. The slick flooring made the sudden turn all but impossible, so that he nearly went sprawling. Mire spattered from his heels as he scrambled to regain both his lost traction and lost momentum. Ah, but now he was up and running again, his mind screaming out Starr's name.

Whump!

And now he was down, measuring his length in the mire. What? He struggled to rise and couldn't. Something was wrapped round his legs; a weight pinned him to the floor.

'Got him, Butch!' crowed a high thin voice. And Stone knew that voice. It was Elliot, one of Butch's toadies. The something wrapped round his legs were Elliot's skinny arms. Desperately, Stone heaved himself up anyway, fighting to throw Elliot off, straining to be free again, to be off and running once more. And all he could think was, Run, Starr! Run!

~~~~~~~

She ran. Her focus was all ahead of her, so that she never saw what was going on behind her, down the fourth corridor. She turned the corner, then passed the other corridors, running for the stairs. Stone would be waiting there for her, wouldn't he? Wasn't that what Maccabees had told her?

But, no, Stone wasn't waiting at the stairway door. Her steps faltered. What? But then - what had Maccabees said? That Stone would, um, um... 'be along directly.' What did that mean?

And the other thing Maccabees had said that made no sense to her: 'Forget not why you came here.' What was that supposed to mean?

Ohhh... What indeed!

Abruptly she whipped away from the stairs and down that one lonely corridor nearby, fumbling for the key she knew she would need. Finding it, she ran for the only door in the dim corridor. Reached the door. Jammed the key into the lock. Then turned it. Wrenching open that miserable door, she leaned against it, panting, and gasped out, 'Come on if you're coming.'

A movement in the deep dark within. 'Huh? Oh, it's you. What are you doing back? What the' curse 'are you talking ab...'

'We have to go, and we have to go now. Now is the time to decide. Are you coming, or aren't you?'

'I... I...'

Starr turned. The sound of some great commotion was heading this way. The guards? Who knew?

'Well, I'm going,' she said. She took hold of the door to Solitary, about to shove it shut again.

'No, wait! I'm coming, I'm coming.' The prisoner lurched to his feet, hesitated, snatched something up off the floor, then stumbled out. Starr pushed the door shut behind him, and the click of the latch as the door automatically locked itself back sounded so very, very final. No going back now. With a groan and a curse, the prisoner mumbled to himself, 'Oh, I've done it now.'

'C'mon,' said Starr, grabbing his hand. Or at least, she tried to. But something was in his hand, something hard and small. The something he had snatched up from the floor.

'What's that?' she asked.

'Nothing. Never mind.' He quickly transferred the thing to his other hand, feeling pretty silly about the whole thing. Why had he even bothered to pick up Mitch's stupid candle anyway? And why didn't he just go ahead and drop it now?

But he didn't drop it. And as Starr grabbed his other hand and took off running for the stairs, he only clutched the candle all the tighter.

What, Starr wondered, was she leading him into though? What was that noise growing ahead of them? She had no idea what they would find once they reached the end of this short passageway. The best case, the one she hoped for, was to find Stone alone - but why he would be making so much noise, she hadn't a clue. The worst case - ugh, there were an awful lot of worst cases! The horrendous possibilities ambushed her mind like an enemy army. Ruthlessly forcing the worries away, she began to pray as they ran on. She didn't know what awaited them - but the Master surely did. And, oh, Master - Beloved! - she needed to know what to do!

Already they were almost to the end of the corridor. Only one idea had popped into her head for them to do, so...

'We're going to make a break for it,' she said. 'Don't stop running.'

'Are you nuts?' her companion replied. He could hear the commotion ahead of them just as clearly as she could. And he had a better idea of what it could mean. 'Just barge in on whatever that is?'

'Element of surprise,' she answered. If they would just run and keep running, they might be able to plow right through whatever was out there and reach the stairs and be gone before... well, before whoever or whatever was out there could have time to react.

No, it didn't sound like a great plan, or even a practical one. But it was all she had. 'C'mon!'

Ducking her head, she ran even faster, dragging him along behind her. And now they burst out of the passage and into the last corridor leading to the stairs, only to be confronted by...

Nothing.

~~~~~~~

Nothing? So great was Starr's puzzlement, that she stopped running abruptly, not even thinking that she was forgetting to follow the plan. Nothing?

'Ow! Hey, warn a guy!' the prisoner complained as he ran straight into her.

Nothing - but then where was all that noise coming from?

Oh!

For now, from the fourth corridor, there stumbled out a figure. In the dim light it barely looked like a man. Or maybe it looked like a grotesque caricature of a man - hunchbacked, with something large trailing off its left leg and dragging along behind it as the figure lurched along.

'Starr,' it croaked. 'Starr. Run!'

It... it knew her name? Terror started to close round her heart.

And then, with the suddenness of a flash of lightning, she saw. The hunch on the figure's back was a small man or a boy riding on his shoulders, arms locked round the figure's neck in a chokehold. And the thing dragging off the figure's leg - that was a second man or boy, trying to trip the figure up as he staggered closer, closer.

Starr's eyes went wide as she recognized who this was. 'Stone!'

'Run, Starr!' he said again, waving his arms. His face was turning a ghastly color, and he was barely upright anymore. And now it dawned on Starr that, whoever these two people were that were hanging off Stone, the one on his back was indeed trying to choke him.

'Run...' Stone gasped out once more. He was so obviously nearing the end of his strength now. And if he should fall - what would happen to him then?

Starr's hand dropped to her sword's hilt.

A curse word popped into the air close to her ear. 'Man, don't you ever listen? The guy is telling you to run, not fight!' The prisoner scowled at her. 'So run, idiot.'

'But, but Stone needs help!' she replied.

'What he needs... Ok, fine, I'll help him, and you run.' Turning about, the prisoner juggled that bit of candle he'd been carrying, then abruptly fired it with all his might. 'Back off, Weezer!' he yelled as he made the throw.

The candle flew true, smacking the guy on Stone's back square in the head, sending him tumbling to the floor. Sucking in air gratefully, Stone now was able to jerk his leg loose from Elliot's grip.

'Run, Stone!' cried Starr.

'Yeah, Mitch - Stone - whoever you are - run! And you!' the prisoner added, turning back to face Starr. 'You're still here! You shoulda been running for the stairs alrea... uh oh.'

Uh oh? Now it was the prisoner's eyes that had gone wide, as he stared fixedly at something beyond Starr's head. A deep chill settled into her heart as she turned around to face whatever it was behind her...

Oh my. Things had just become a whole lot worse.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 20 - 'first team out'


The guards gone, Joy and Talitha spun around to find themselves now face-to-face with Malachi. 'Mal!' Joy whispered in relief.

'What just happened?' added Talitha.

'A bit of blindness,' Malachi replied. 'Or, looked at another way, a bit of favor. But now we must go.'

'But we just got here.'

'Yes, we haven't done any searching for Walker yet.'

Malachi turned the two girls and began steering them towards the stairway. 'You did hear what the guards were saying, did you not?' he asked.

'Something about, uh, guts spilling...?' Joy ventured, her nose wrinkling at the thought.

'He was speaking of Walker,' said Mal.

Horror coursed over both girls' faces. 'Oh, no! They didn't kill him, did they?'

'Not that kind of spilling of guts,' said Mal patiently. 'They meant that he broke this morning.' At their looks of non-comprehension of the term 'broke,' he added, 'That is, he told them everything.'

Uh-oh.

'But don't we still need to look for him?' asked Joy as they reached the stairway and started down.

Malachi paused and looked upstairs. 'That will not be necessary,' said he.

~~~~~~~

Morgen flew downstairs - literally. With no eye to see him, he no longer needed to maintain his human guise. Wings spread, he pressed on with all speed, zooming down the stairs.

Then, as he reached a certain landing, he slowed. A tattoo of rapid footbeats was just ahead of him. And a girlish voice floated up.

'...still need to look for him?'

A deeper and very familiar voice replied, 'That will not be necessary.'

Yes. Without bothering to adopt human form again - or visibility - Morgen caught them up. Walker is rescued; we must leave now, he told his confrere.

Yes, I am taking these little ones to the cave even now. I will return as I am able to help evacuate the rest, Malachi responded.

In the Master's will, Morgen replied and swept onward, downward. He neither slowed nor stopped as he reached the ground-level where Lucy and her companions were, but continued on to the next floor below that. Maccabees must be informed now, that he might join in aiding their assignments to escape.

Again, Morgen wasted no time on assuming a shape that Maccabees did not need to see. It is time, he said. Walker is rescued.

Ah, that is what I sensed, Mac replied.

But he told all he knows this morning before his rescue. The enemy knows all that he knows, and is moving against our people even now.

Then we must evacuate them.

Yes, said Morgen. I will continue on downstairs to aid the two teams down there. You will...

With permission? Maccabees interrupted.

Yes?


If I may, I would request that I go downstairs to aid the final two teams down there.


Morgen registered surprise for a moment, but only for a moment. Very well, said he. Then I will return to the ground level to bring out Lucy and her companions.

And so they parted, each to his work.

~~~~~~~

While Malachi hurried Joy and Talitha down the stairs. They did have an advantage, he knew, for the girls were not where they were supposed to be. The guards would be looking for them either on the level downstairs where Talitha lived, or on the level upstairs where she and the others of her level were taken daily to, ah, work. But as they were in neither of those places, they would be harder to find.

However...

They also had a disadvantage, for they were now on the stairs. And in order for the guards to spread throughout the fortress to ferret out the six teams, the guards would no doubt soon be...

There. A sound above their heads in the stairwell, of a door opening and of many feet - a cacophony of feet - rushing onto the stairs like a flood.

'The guards are coming!' gasped Joy.

'Hurry on,' counseled Malachi. 'And be not afraid.'

Urgency gave their feet wings. Down, down, down the stairs they went. Incredibly, as fast as they were going, the noise of the guards behind them seemed to be catching them up! Panting, the girls ran faster. They were nearing a door now; if only they could reach it, then they could get off the stairs and let the troops go on by...

And then Talitha tripped. Sure-footed Talitha! Her hands flew out, trying to catch herself as she fell.

When something else caught her fall. Or someone else. Somehow, Malachi's arms surrounded her, setting her back on her feet. With a wordless nod she thanked him, collecting herself to run on. But that break in the rhythm of their descent now threatened to cost them dearly.

For here came the guards.

~~~~~~~

Joy had turned as Talitha began to fall, looking up the stairs towards her two companions behind her. And now with horror she glimpsed the first of many feet coming into view beyond them. At the same moment, she saw Malachi push Talitha back against the wall. His other arm swung out, shoving her up against the wall as well, pressing both girls out of the path of the guards, protecting both from being trampled by the on-rushing stampede of guards.

And stampede it was. Joy would not have believed there were so many guards in the entire fortress! Running, jostling, leaping down the stairs. Fierce faces, angry faces. Dozens, scores of faces.

And none of them saw the three companions on the stairs? How weird was that?

From the corner of her eye, Joy could see Talitha off to her left and a stair or two higher, also puzzled that no one was noticing them. Malachi stood between them, arms out-spread, shielding them with his...

Hey! Joy peered closer. Since when did Malachi have wings? Or... were those wings? Or was she seeing things? For though she could see the shining of an outline of something bright and vaguely feathery in front of her, between her and the guards, she also saw the guards quite plainly through the brightness before her. What was this?

And... suddenly she realized this was not the first time today she'd seen such a thing. Upstairs, when the two guards had opened the door in their faces and then walked past them without any recognition of them being there... Yes! She hadn't noticed it then but now she recalled - there had been something just like this then, something right between her and the guards, barely perceived.

What was going on?

~~~~~~~

The sound from above them was growing less, and the mass of guards thinning down. A little longer, and there were only a few still coming into view from above - fewer still - then none. Malachi did not relax just yet though, and the three of them waited through another two or three minutes before he slowly dropped his arms and nodded. 'It is now safe,' he said softly.

'What did you do?' asked Joy.

'And how did you do that?' added Talitha.

'Ask me later,' he replied. 'When you are safe, and well away from here. Come.'

They fled on, still going downward. Now that the guards were ahead of them, they needed to be careful not to blunder into them. Joy had long since lost track of which floor they were on. She knew they needed to get off at the ground-level, but where was it? They especially didn't want to go too far and have to backtrack up the stairs again.

'You know where we are?' she asked Talitha.

But the tall girl shook her head. She had lost track too.

'Come,' said Malachi. Reaching a door, he laid his hand to the knob and his ear to the door itself. 'It is quiet beyond - for the moment. Stay close to me.'

Crowding in, the two girls followed him through the door. Corridors, as in all the levels where the prisoners were kept, ran off to one side. Off to the other side, beyond an open space - Joy didn't remember any open spaces in the lower levels - was a door. But between the stairway and that door there was another door. And as she looked at it, Joy remembered it.

Pointing, she whispered, 'That's where we came in.'

Malachi nodded. 'And it is where we will go out too. Come.'

'But...' she began. That door had been guarded when they came in; she remembered Forest telling how he had bluffed his way past the guard. So shouldn't there be a guard there now?

A clatter over that way. Oh yes, there was the guard. No, three guards. The two were standing ramrod straight, looking to the third, who was apparently giving them orders. And now the third turned away and went through that other door, leaving the two guards to block the back door, the door that Malachi was leading them towards.

As they drew closer to the guards - perhaps it was a trick of the light, thought Talitha, but suddenly Malachi looked massive. As if he had doubled in width. Or as if he had grown... wings?

The girls jammed together behind him, trying to look small. Somehow they had not been seen in the corridor upstairs, and again on the stairs. Would they escape notice yet a third time?

Malachi led them right up to the guards. Just as they got there, one guard's eyes narrowed, and he gave a hiss to his companion. 'Hey!'

'Hey what? You wanna get us in trouble, talking on duty?'

'Hey, I thought of something. Major Tweeg there - strike you he was acting funny?'

A snort. 'He's an officer. They all act funny.'

'Yeah, but - how come he went into the Day Room there?'

'What's wrong with him going into the Day Room? You gonna second-guess officers? You want a vacation in the deepest dungeon?'

'Ain't you forgetting? Three days ago, when all that troop came back from chasing these intruders round the valley - what was wrong with 'em?'

A shrug. 'They was blind.'

'Aye, blind! Them intruders can mess with a bloke's eyesight.' Leaning closer and jerking his head towards the Day Room door, the first guard muttered, 'What's to say they ain't been messing with our eyesight? Eh?'

The second guard gawped at him. 'What, you mean the major? You think he's one of them?'

'Tell me he ain't.'

The second guard frowned. And then the frown cleared off to be replaced with a crafty grin. 'You know, there's sure to be a reward for catching these intruders. And if we was to turn in one what was impersonating the major...'

They both guffawed. 'Let's get him!' they cried. And, abandoning their post, they bolted for the Day Room to get the 'imposter.'

'Quickly,' said Malachi as soon as the Day Room door closed behind the guards. And he did not have to tell the girls twice. In seconds they were through the door and out of the fortress. With Joy leading the way and Malachi shielding them from behind, the three sped away, glad to leave the dungeons behind them for good.

~~~~~~~

They made it across the plain to the mountain without incident. Here Malachi took the lead, searching out that same obscure path he had lead the group down - was it only three days ago?

Up they went, sometimes having to scramble through the underbrush, sometimes needing to grab on to trees to boost themselves up the barely-seen trail. Joy stole glances backwards every now and then - so did Talitha - but neither ever saw anyone following them.

Malachi, on the other hand, never looked back even once, but simply forged ahead, straight up the mountainside. The girls had to hurry to keep up with him.

'We're going to need to rest soon,' Joy finally told him. She could hear Talitha stoically gasping along beside her, and she herself was trying to ignore a nasty stitch building in her side.

'You will be able to rest very soon,' he replied. And suddenly he was no longer climbing the mountain, but leading them off to the left and a bit downhill. The pace he was setting was still faster than either of the girls would have liked, but at least they weren't climbing anymore.

'Are we almost there?'

'Almost, yes,' said Malachi. And then he stopped.

Talitha looked around, but there was nothing to see. Shrugging, she asked, 'Where are we?'

'Joy?' Malachi prompted.

She too shrugged. She had been here before, but even she saw nothing out of the ordinary - nothing that told her, 'Here is the cave you stayed in before.'

Malachi nodded. 'Good. You cannot even see it when it is right here before you.' And sweeping a section of dangling ivy tendrils to one side, he ushered the two young women into the cave beyond. 'Rest now,' he added. 'I will return soon.'

'But where are you going?' said Joy, surprised.

'You're not going back, are you?' added Talitha.

'To help the others evacuate, yes,' said Malachi. 'Wait here for them, and do not be afraid. I will rejoin you shortly.'

'Oh, but, Malachi...!' started Joy. Only to find herself talking to the swinging curtain of ivy, for Malachi was already gone. 'Oh, no,' she sighed. 'I really needed to ask him something.'

'What?' asked Talitha.

'It's just,' Joy replied, 'when they said that Walker told the guards everything,' and she looked up at her tall new friend, her own eyes troubled and anxious, 'I just wonder: did that mean he told them about this cave as well?'

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