Friday, April 28, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 28 - 'hot pursuit'


'Oh, man - wait!' said Stephen. He shoved his way back through the stairway door and ran back up the corridor, past the dozen or so unconscious guards.

'Stephen, what are you doing?' Jack hissed after him. He and Walker hesitated in the stairway door, wondering if their unarmed companion might not be running himself back into danger.

'I nearly forgot,' Stephen called back, 'but I dropped my - here it is.' He bent and scooped something up off the floor, then raced back to his friends. 'My key,' he said, showing it to them briefly before stowing it safely in his pocket. 'Ok, I'm ready now.'

Jack had been all set to chew the little guy out for turning back. But now that he saw why - yeah. Their keys were their assurance of getting out of this fortress, so he couldn't fault Stephen for going back after his. 'Right,' said Jack. 'Let's go then.'

They took off down the stairs. It had been a long way coming up, and now it was going to be a long way going back down as well. Shortly, somewhere far, far below them, they heard what might have been the sound of a door opening and the patter of running feet. Perhaps. They couldn't be sure. Morgen was certainly down there somewhere. But the sound - if it was a sound - was not likely to be him; both Jack and Stephen were convinced that no one would hear Morgen's footfalls unless he really wanted them to.

They descended. Walker was fairly confident that he knew which level they had started out from, and he was busy keeping track of how many doors they passed as they hurried down the stairs. They were making good time, he told the others...

And then they definitely heard a door being flung open and a storm of feet invading the stairway.

Below them. Instantly they all halted.

'What's that?'

'Gotta be the guards. They're searching for us now.'

'What are we going to do?'

'What else can we do? We have to keep going.'

'With the guards between us and the way out?'

'Well, just because that's where they are now, doesn't mean they'll still be in our way by the time we get down to the ground level. I mean, if they're looking for all the teams, most of the places they'll be looking are below ground, right?'

'Ok, that's a good point. So we just keep going?'

'For now, yeah. And, uh, stay on alert.'

'I hear that!'

And on they went.

With the thunder of footsteps from below them echoing and re-echoing all around them, it was nearly impossible to hear even the sounds their own feet were making. And yet as they continued their descent, Jack suddenly stopped dead once again, frowning up at the stairs above them.

'What's wrong?' asked Walker.

'Did you hear something?' Jack responded.

'I can barely hear you,' said Walker. Then, 'What do you think you hear?'

'I think I heard a door opening somewhere up there. And I think I hear lots of feet coming our way.'

'You serious?' said Walker. He listened too for most of a minute, then shook his head. 'Well, all I can hear for sure is all that noise below us. But if you think someone's above us as well, then let's get off these stairs.'

'And go where?' said Stephen as Walker set out charging down the stairs again to find the nearest door.

'Oh, I know a few ins and outs around here,' Walker called back.

It was few landings on before they spied a door. Pausing just long enough to give a listen at it - but they weren't able to tell from listening if there was anyone on the other side or not - they sent up a prayer to the Master and spilled through the door, yanking it shut again behind them as soon as all three of them were through. Then they looked around and saw...

Corridors, as usual. And for the moment at least, empty ones.

'C'mon,' said Walker.

'C'mon where?' asked Stephen, still not at all sure they should be leaving the stairs.

'I know another way out of here,' said Walker. 'Trust me.' And cautiously he led them off, up one corridor and down the next, moving quietly, hoping not to meet with anyone. Another corridor, and then still another...

'Yeah, this is where I thought we were. Ok, we're almost to the back stairway of the place. It's not much farther up here, but to get to it might be a touch hairy, since we'll have to go through...'

Bam! The sound of a door being thrown open froze them all in their tracks. What door though, and where?

And then a burly voice called out, 'Yep, they went this way. C'mon, men! I can smell 'em from here.'

Not good!

~~~~~~~

Walker grabbed both Jack and Stephen and scrambled. 'Go! go!' he hissed. Not that they needed a whole lot of encouragement to run for their lives. 'Which way?' said Stephen as they came up on a new junction.

'Here!' said Walker. Sprinting ahead, he was digging in his pocket as they ran. 'There. The double doors. Have to unlock them.' And as they reached the doors, Walker succeeded in dragging his key at last from his pocket. Like Stephen before him, he fumbled the key a bit in his haste. But then he had the doors open. 'Ok, go!'

They tumbled in without first taking a look around. 'What is this, the spindly forest?' Jack asked as soon as he remembered to see where they were. And what he saw was a large room filled with dozens of long tables, each table bristling with scores of chairs upended and perched all along its long sides. No people, which was a relief. Turning to Walker, he asked again, 'Where'd you bring us?'

'What's in your pack there?' Walker replied. 'You got some rope?'

'Rope? Yeah,' said Jack. He rummaged in the pack briefly and produced a length. 'You gonna answer my questions?' he added.

Swiftly Walker wrapped the rope round the handles of the double doors, then tied it as securely as he knew how. 'We're in the guards' mess, of course,' he said. 'There. If those guys come this way, this ought to slow them down a mite.' Nodding at a second pair of double doors at the far end of the room, he said, 'The stairs are over there, beyond the kitchen.'

'You mean,' said Stephen, 'you led us into a room that might have been full of guards?'

'You had a better plan?' Walker snapped. And immediately apologized. 'Anyway,' he added, 'it's not a meal time, so no one's here.'

'Not out here, no,' said Jack. 'But what about in the kitchen? Won't there be cooks?'

'Yeah, maybe,' Walker admitted, taking the lead as they set out across the mess. 'But I think we ought to be able to handle a couple of... Uh-oh.'

It was an uh-oh they could definitely have done without. For the double doors they had just entered through, the ones Walker had use the rope to tie shut - those doors were suddenly shaking. Quaking. Breaking!

'Jack! Grab the other end!' called Walker. He laid hands on the closest table and, with Jack's help, flipped it onto its side, sending the chairs that had been stacked on it scattering wildly. 'C'mon, more,' Walker added. And he and Jack sent several more tables over onto their sides, doing their best to make an instant barricade.

'Ok,' said Jack, 'one more.' And as he and Walker flipped another table, Jack noticed that Stephen was just standing there between the barricade and the kitchen doors. 'Run for it, Stephen!' Jack called.

And that was when the rope failed and, with a loud crash, the doors burst open.

And in walked someone who was all too familiar.

~~~~~~~

It was the guard from upstairs, the one who had come so close to slitting Walker's throat. The demon guard whom Morgen had temporarily killed. Sneering, strutting, he pointed at the trio nearing the far end of the room. 'There they are, men. After 'em!'

About a dozen men poured into the mess behind him. They fanned out, running along the aisles between the long tables, reaching the makeshift barricades all too quickly. Grabbing the obstructing chairs, they began clearing them out of their way - by pitching them over the tables at their quarry!

'Go! Run!' cried Walker. He flung up his arms to ward off a chair. Jack, trying to do the same, was half a second too late and took a gash cross his forehead from a chair leg. Shaking his head as blood gushed into his left eye, he did his best not to faint. Stephen and Walker were already sprinting for the kitchen doors, and Jack pressed a hand to his wound and followed.

The pursuing guards were starting to clamber over the barricades now. A grim bunch they were, with cold, dead eyes. Stephen, running well ahead of his two companions, stole a glance backwards at the enemy just as he was coming up on the kitchen doors. And that backwards glance turned out to be far from the best idea he'd had all day. For just as he reached this set of double doors...

Whap! One of the doors reached out and hit him first.

Down went Stephen.

From the opening door came a voice growling, 'What the...?' A grimy-aproned cook appeared in the doorway, shocked speechless by all the mess out there in the mess. Seconds later, the man was completely bowled over as well, for Walker barreled right into him. Down went the cook, landing smack in the doorway.

'Sorry!' called Walker. Skidding to a halt within the kitchen, he quickly doubled back and grabbed Stephen, hauling him to his feet. And then the pair of them vanished into the kitchen.

Jack was wobbling after them as fast as the pain in his head would let him go. He really did not want to know how close behind him his following was, so instead of looking back, he kept his eyes only on the open door ahead of him. The guards were right behind him, he knew, just about breathing down his neck. Pouring on all the speed he could find, he vaulted over the inert cook in the doorway, then grabbed the man and drug him inside.

And the doors swung shut. Good, that's what he wanted. Knowing that he was out of rope now - not that he had time to hunt through his pack to find rope anyway - he glanced around quickly and snatched up the first thing he saw, a handful of spatulas. These he jammed through the side-by-side handles of the double doors. Kitchen doors, he knew, generally would swing both ways. Maybe the spatulas would keep them from opening in either direction.

At least, temporarily. The bash of heavy bodies against the other side of the doors told him that his pursuers had caught him up. He had no time to secure the doors any better than he already had, and precious little time to find a hiding place. In fact, he hid in the first place he saw. He dove for cover under a nearby worktable.

The door was shaking like it was going to be battered to pieces. And one by one, sure enough, the spatulas began to fall out.

'What the blue blazes is going on over here? Chollie, you drunk or something?' barked a new voice. From the far end of the kitchen came another man in a grimy apron. As he drew near the worktable, his steps faltered. 'Man, Chollie! What happened to you?' the newcomer cried.

Groaning, the cook that Jack had pulled into the kitchen sat up and started to say something. But at that same moment the last of the spatulas fell out and the door sprang open. And the guards, in their haste to invade the kitchen and seek out their prey - trampled all over poor Chollie.

He never had a chance.

'Hey!' yelled the new cook. Horrified, he let loose a blistering barrage of invectives against the brawny intruders. Until one of the guards swung his club and bludgeoned the man in the head. Down the second cook fell like a sack of potatoes, his own blood puddling around him.

Jack huddled under the worktable, doing his best to be small and unnoticeable. His best wasn't good enough though, for abruptly the worktable went spinning from over his head. And as it flew, it pasted him right in the same spot over his eye where the chair leg had hit him. Ohhh...

As the gruff voice of the demon guard said, 'There's one, boys. Get 'im.'

~~~~~~~

But there was another voice as well, nearly as gruff, coming up from the far end of the kitchen. 'Max, what the' curse 'are you and Chollie doing over there? Tearing down my kitchen? I oughta...' The voice stopped, then rumbled out, 'Who the' curse 'are you lot, and what'd you do to Max? And Chollie? They're...'

'What we did to them, we'll do the same to you, punk, so get out of our way!' the demon guard threatened.

'The' curse 'you will!' growled the latest cook. He was the biggest cook yet, and by far the angriest. Eyes ablaze, he reached over to the rack of dozens of knives hanging on the wall, snatching a mighty meat cleaver. A second later one of the many guards was wearing that meat cleaver as a decoration in his chest. Gently he sank to the floor and lay still.

'Fool!' snarled the demon guard. 'All right, boys, after him!' And what remained of his dozen men flowed round him to confront the mad cook.

Swiftly the cook seized another knife from his handy arsenal and threw it with the same deadly accuracy as the first. A third rapidly followed. And yet the guards kept coming. Hesitating for a moment, the cook changed tactics. Instead of reaching for more knives, he stretched up a hand to the rack over his head where all kinds of kitchen utensils were hanging, and he took down...

A pot.

'A pot?' mocked one of the guards pressing close on him. 'You expect to do any kind of damage against us using a pot?'

'Just watch,' the cook whispered. Turning towards a huge vat full of bubbling amber liquid, he plunged the pot into it and, before any of the guards had enough time to realize what he was doing, he took that potful of boiling liquid and flung it at the guards.

Screams and curses filled the air as the oil from the deep fryer spattered all over the advancing guards, sizzled their skin. Shrieking, they dropped their weapons to claw helplessly at the hot liquid, trying to get it off, get it off! And even as they danced and howled in pain, a second potful showered over them, and then a third.

That was enough. Slipping, sliding, skidding, falling, the remnant of the dozen men turned tail and vacated the kitchen as fast as the slick oil now coating the floor would let them.

Leaving only the demon guard still confronting the cook. With a new potful at the ready, the cook said, 'You get out too!'

With a dismissive snort, the demon guard ignored the threat. Bending down, with a mighty jerk he wrenched free the meat cleaver that had brought down the first of his men, and then launched it at the cook.

The pot of oil went flying as the cleaver found its mark. And a third dead cook lay stretched on the floor.

~~~~~~~

Hmph. His men were all gone now. No matter. He wouldn't need them anyway. He would simply find Walker and his rescuers by himself. Two fools and a wimp; how hard could that be?

Glancing first at the overturned worktable, he saw that the fool who had been cowering there had vanished. No doubt he had taken advantage of the distraction of the last cook to find better cover to cringe under. Hmm...

Slowly, watchfully, the demon guard stalked through the kitchen. Down at the far end, the place the last two cooks had come from, he saw another way out. Had his quarry already fled? But no, how could they have? If they had tried to get past the cooks, then those cooks would have been hollering about the fugitives, instead of interfering with this search.

No, they were still here. And he would find them.

There had been four of them upstairs, but he had seen only three taking refuge here in the kitchen. All the better. The fourth, he knew, had been a presence, and he did not sense that presence here. He smiled. With their protector gone, picking off the remaining three would be a piece of cake.

And here was their most likely hiding place: a row of five doors. Storage rooms, he guessed. Stepping up to the first room, he laid his hand on the handle and wrenched the door open.

Ha!

Hmm.

Empty. Oh, there were a large number of bushel baskets filled with fruits and vegetables in here, and many strings of onions and peppers and such hanging from the ceiling. But nowhere was there enough room for a man to hide in here - no, not even that shrimpy little one who carried no weapon. Not here.

He closed this door and moved on to the next.

Ha!

Ah, this was more like it! Meat. Poultry hanging up by its feet, pigs hanging by their trotters. And whole sides of beef hanging up as well. This room showed great promise. There were dozens of places in it where a man could hide.

Smiling, he closed the door again. Crossing to the arsenal of kitchen knives, he chose a sturdy paring knife, then returned and rammed it into the door jamb, effectively locking the door to the meat room. There. If they were in there, they would stay in there for as long as he liked, while he went on searching the rest of the kitchen. After all, if he were to enter the room now, before screening the rest of the storage rooms, before making sure that they weren't in some other place here - why, they might well take advantage of him being inside the meat room to try to slip away from wherever else they were hidden. Worse, they might even scrape together enough brains between the three of them to think of taking a knife as he had done and locking him up in the meat room!

Oh no. That would never do. No way would Walker and his loser friends get the better of him!

Smiling, congratulating himself on his cleverness, he moved on to the next door, grasped the handle, and...

Ha!

Frown. What sort of stuff were they storing here? Huge white sacks stacked up in great piles, but sacks of what - beans? flour? No matter; the sacks added up to lots of hiding places here as well, so he would get another knife and...

Paf!

Suddenly he found himself on the floor, white filling all his vision. What the...? He reached for his eyes, wondering that he could not see - and pulled one of the great white sacks off his face. More white spilled out of the sack, pouring out of it, puffing out of it. A huge mound of white filled his lap, while a cloud of white filled the air around him, and began to fill his breathing as well. He choked on it, sputtering, spitting out white.

Flour.

Through the mist of white settling round him, he caught a glimpse of a moving shadow. Two shadows. Growling with rage, he tried to stand.

'Jack! Let's go!' he heard.

And then he heard another sound, the sound of wood clattering against wood. What was...?

And then he was under attack by dozens of spears!

Except...

If it was spears, why was someone dropping them longways onto his head, instead of jabbing him with them?

Floop! And now a smelly, still-damp bundle of shaggy old ropes swatted him in the mouth. Bleah!

And then the mist of white cleared enough for him to see what was really happening. These were not the spears of a warrior! These were a motley assortment of brooms and mops. Someone...

Yes, now he saw. Apparently Walker and the shrimpy one had been hiding together in the room of white sacks, while the third had taken cover among the kitchen cleaning supplies. And they all had insulted his honor by throwing flour and brooms at him.

Furious, he boiled up from under that pile of ignoble toothpicks - and by the time he had finished venting his rage on the mops and brooms, mere toothpicks was all that was left of them.

The men! They were getting away!

Snarling like a wild animal, the guard stormed through the kitchen, slipping a little in the puddles of oil, heading straight for the stairway door. He would follow Walker and his friends to the very fires of Hell if he had to!

But no, here they were - two of them at least. Walker was standing in the open door to the stairs, with the other one who bore a weapon close by. The third though - where was he?

And Walker was asking the very same question: 'Where's Stephen?'

'I thought he was with you!'

'Look, the bad guy's coming. We gotta get out of here.'

'Not without Stephen!'

Stupid loyalty, the demon guard smirked as he bore down on them. First he would dispatch these two, then he would find and kill the third at his leisure.

Walker had his sword out now, and the other was drawing his. 'Back off!' one of them said.

The demon halted before them. Smiling, he looked back and forth between the two, then drew his own weapon. A dagger. Yes, the very same one he had wielded upstairs when he had tried to slit Walker's throat.

'Fool!' he sneered at Walker. 'I had you squealing like a baby earlier, and I'll do it again too - and then I'll hew you limb from limb!'

'I don't think so,' Walker answered bravely. 'I wasn't armed then.'

'You think your puny weap...!' the demon guard gloated. But even as he was menacing them, he caught the subtle shift in both men's eyes. They weren't looking at him anymore, but beyond him, at something behind his back.

What the...?

Pong!

~~~~~~~

His empty hand sprang to the point of impact on the back of his head as he whirled, enraged. Oh, here was the shrimpy one! Standing behind him, a cast-iron frying pan held in both hands, a look of triumph quickly dying in his eyes as he realized that a conk on the head wasn't going to be quite enough to fell this guard. Oh, how he loved to see fear take over someone's eyes!

Leering, the demon showed the little man his dagger. 'You see this? I'm going to use this to cut that iron thing in your hands into three pieces. And then I'm going to use it to cleave you.'

Stephen swallowed. 'It's, um, a mighty small weapon,' he ventured.

'Is it?' And before Stephen's eyes, to the little shrimp's horror, the dagger grew. Changed. Unfolded. Expanded. Became a great scimitar. An evil sword, curved, with a row of glittering barbs all along its leading edge, like the teeth on a saw. A sword to rip with. Yes, a destroying weapon.

A sword Forest would have recognized, if he had been there just then.

'Eep,' said Stephen.

The demon began to laugh.

But he had forgotten something. Oh yes he had! He had forgotten that there were two men standing behind him with swords in their hands. So when he roared out at Stephen, 'I'm going to kill you, little man!' Walker responded with, 'I don't think so.'

And he swung Morgen's blade.

Which struck true.

And for the second time in the past hour or so, the demon's head went flying from his shoulders. It made a beautiful arc through the kitchen, bounced once off a canopy above a stove, a second time off the wall of knives, and landed at last with a massive amount of sizzling - plop in the deep-frying vat.

His headless body slowly toppled over and hit the floor.

'Maybe that'll keep him dead a bit longer this time,' quipped Jack. 'You all right, Stephen?'

Wordlessly, the little man nodded.

'Then let's go.' And the three of them hit the stairs running.

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Friday, April 21, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 27 - 'out of the depths'


'Come,' said Mac. He led them off behind the platform and away across the town.

For it was in fact a town. Unlike all the other levels they had searched - all those levels of long corridors of cells - this place had the feel of vast open spaces broken up by frequent clusters of huts or small houses. Not that they could see the open spaces; what little light there was seemed to be coming only from the bonfire dwindling behind them. But there was a lack of echoes here, and the sense of sound carrying a long way all about them. It felt strange after the closeness of the other levels.

They met with few people in their brief journey through the dark town - and those that they did meet generally took one good look at them, blanched in recognition, then scattered.

After the fourth such encounter, Seth gave a chuckle. 'Guess we made a bit of an impression on 'em, eh?'

'We?' Forest responded.

Huh? What was that supposed to... Oh. Seth felt his face start to burn with embarrassment. Of course the kid was right; it had nothing to do with them. It was what the Master had done, appearing in the fire like that and setting the three of them free - that was what had scared the snot out of these people. 'Aw, man! I'm sorr...' Seth muttered.

Mac stopped suddenly. 'Quiet!' he whispered urgently, then fell silent. The others froze as well, listening. What had Mac noticed?

There. Voices just ahead of them. And as the four continued to listen, Forest whispered, 'There's a wall there too. A big one.'

Baffled, Seth started to ask, 'How...?'

'There's an echo now,' the boy replied before Seth could ask. Then, 'Hide!'

Swiftly they did as they were told, taking cover by the nearest hut. And from there they listened.

'...abandon this post, and the chief priest'll fricassee the pair of you!' said a first voice heatedly.

'And I'm telling you, there's something going on over there!' a second voice declared.

'Aye,' chimed in a third. 'They ain't never made up that bonfire so bright as all that, not in all the time we been down here.'

'And the screaming,' challenged the second again. 'What's up with all that, eh? I mean, what'd he do, toss the whole lot of the People into the fire? There's something up, and I aim to go find out what!'

'Aye,' the third was agreeing, when the first drowned them both out with, 'Whatever's going on, this here is our post, and this here is where the pair of you is staying.'

Now the four companions risked a peek at the scene between the guards. There, by the wall Forest had sensed, they saw one guard bristling with anger as he stabbed his finger belligerently at a closed door in the wall, while before him stood two more guards, both glowering rebelliously and shifting their eyes again and again towards the distant glow of fire.

'Supposing he did toss a bunch of 'em into the fire. He's mad enough,' mumbled one of the two rebels.

'Forgetting whose side you're on, are you? He can burn 'em, beat 'em, kill 'em, whatever he wants. The People ain't nothing but prisoners. Malorn's in charge.'

'No, Malorn is dead.'

Startled out of their argument, the three guards turned to find themselves facing a strange quartet. Two of them were armed with swords held en garde, the third looked like a hairy ape with his hamlike fists at the ready, while the rather scrawny fourth guy stood somewhat behind the first three. Quickly drawing their own whips and clubs, one of the guards growled out, 'Who are you?' While the main guard, the one who had been berating the others, said officiously, 'All right, none of that now. Lay down your weapons and nobody gets hurt.'

'No.'

It was the scrawny guy in the back who said that. The chief guard smirked. He had a lot of lip, that guy, for someone who hadn't even drawn a weapon. Relying on the guys in front of him to fight this battle for him, no doubt. Fair enough. 'Right then. Well, if it's a fight you want, then...'

'What you mean, Malorn's dead?' one of the other guards interrupted.

If looks could kill, that mouthy subordinate would have been in serious trouble just then. The chief guard turned a glare his way, then turned back to the ridiculous little band of warriors confronting them. 'Lay down your weapons now,' he ordered, 'before me and my men here hafta take 'em from... you...'

And suddenly the guard stopped talking. Oh, his jaw was still flapping up and down. But only squeaking gibberish came out now. And he stared - oh, how he stared!

For that scrawny little guy in the back - the one who hadn't even bothered to draw a weapon - suddenly, he wasn't so scrawny anymore. He was huge and bright and shining, with wings unfurled and too many faces, too many eyes...

'Gahhh!' With a shriek of madness, the chief guard hit the floor face down, shaking like he might shake himself right to pieces. His two companions fell straight down as well, moaning in terror before the faces of the angel.

What? Forest and James glanced at each other, wondering what had gotten into the guards. And, 'What's with them?' Seth asked. Turning round, he asked the question a second time to plain little Maccabees standing meekly behind them.

Mac merely smiled. 'Let us go forth,' he said, as he stretched out his hand and opened the door that was no longer being guarded. 'And quickly.'

~~~~~~~

Mac didn't have to say that twice. They were all more than ready to leave that level far behind them. Beyond the door lay the stairs, and Forest set out leading the way up them, taking them two at a time. And Seth was not far behind the kid. James, however...

Mac took the man's arm, supporting him. 'You need strength yet.'

James nodded, already beginning to feel winded before they reached the first landing. 'Yeah. That beating I took is still getting to me, I'm afraid.'

'Fear not,' Mac counseled. Pausing long enough to unsling his canteen, he passed it to James. 'Drink.'

'I've got my own right here, you know,' the man objected. 'You don't have to...'

'James. Drink.' Mac's voice was gentle, but there was command in his eyes.

'All right.' James accepted the canteen, opened it, and took a polite taste. And then, like a man who'd been dying of thirst in a desert, he found himself upending the canteen, drinking, drinking, drinking. Excess water was splashing over his face, but he didn't care. Oh, but this was good water! Now, he knew it was the same as the water he carried, drawn from the same stream at the same time just minutes before they had entered the fortress. And yet Mac's water was so much more, well, refreshing than his own. Delightful water. Invigorating.

He had to gasp for air at the end, and grinned sheepishly at Mac as he returned the canteen. 'I think I used it all,' he apologized.

'Not nearly,' Mac smiled back, giving the container a shake. And sure enough, it sounded nearly full again. How could that be?

'Ready?'

James drew a large breath and nearly laughed out loud. He hadn't felt this good in - how long? Since before their capture in the valley, certainly. 'Stairs, nothing,' he told Mac. 'I think I could tackle a mountain now!'

'Good.' Turning his face up the stairway before them, Mac led out again.

A few landings later they caught up with Forest and Seth. It wasn't hard, for the pair had stopped to wait for them. And Forest immediately jumped in with, 'Mac, what did you do?'

'I have done something?' Maccabees replied.

'These ain't the same stairs,' said Seth.

'Yeah. You didn't lead us back to the door we came in by. You led us out a different way.'

'Is there a problem with that?'

Forest and Seth glanced at each other. 'Well... maybe, maybe not,' said the kid. 'It's just... we've never been this way before.'

'Where are we, even?' Seth added.

'Come,' said Mac and continued climbing, while the other three fell into line behind him. 'You recall, James, that Stone indicated more than one staircase in this dungeon?'

Remembrance dawned on the man's face. 'In the cave, when we were constructing the map of this place. Yes.'

'The staircase we had been using empties out, as you know, close to the back door of the fortress.' Mac glanced at the others. 'That door has been used many times this day by most of your companions in their escapes. And the guards have now sealed it.'

'So most of them have gotten out already?' Forest was asking, eyes glowing. At the same moment as Seth asked, 'But how do you know all that?' And James, at even the same second, said, 'Then we need another way out.'

'Yes,' said Mac, and he pointed up the stairs. 'The main entrance as well is heavily guarded now. But as Walker pointed out, there are three exits from this place.'

'Three...' Forest muttered, rebuilding in his mind's eye the map in the dust on the cave's floor.

As Seth asked again, 'How's he know all that?'

'The south exit!' said James.

'Yes. This way does not lead directly to it, but will take us much closer to it than the other stairs would have. And we will have company.'

'Company?' said Forest, his hand dropping to his sword's hilt. 'You mean guards? Bring 'em on! We haven't had a decent battle against guards yet!'

Gotta love that kid, thought Seth, his own fists already curling in readiness.

'That is not exactly what I was referring to, young Forest. But I think you will have fighting to your fill soon enough. Come.'

They pressed on. Gradually Seth realized that no one had ever answered his question. But just as he started to ask again, Forest suddenly said, 'What was that smell anyway? And how come we never smelled it before?'

'That's a good question,' James agreed. 'We'd been up and down those stairs, um...' A bit of rapid counting, and he finished with, 'Yeah, that was our seventh time going near that door. Yet we never smelled anything till today.'

'You had no need until today,' Mac answered. 'And what you smelled was,' and he turned now to face them all. 'The stench of pure evil.'

~~~~~~~

They shuddered. And even here inside the stairwell, they had a sense of a cloud passing in front of the sun. 'I don't ever wanna go back there again,' muttered Seth.

'Funny thing,' added Forest as they started on climbing again. 'That Malorn - he acted like he'd never seen us before in his life!'

'What do you mean?' replied Seth. 'He recognized me right off.'

'Well, yeah, you. But remember, Seth? When you first met us, you said that James looked like ol' Melonhead had worked him over. And Malorn sure looked familiar to me, from the guys that captured us in the valley. Right, James?'

'He was the one,' James nodded. 'I'll never forget him.'

'And yet he seemed to have forgotten us,' said the boy. 'He never called you by name, James, but I know he beat that much information out of you that day. And he sure should have known my name - but all he called me just now was, Son.'

'Hush!' Mac commanded abruptly. And a second later they all knew why. For the stairs above them were echoing suddenly with the clatter of feet.

'Guards!' hissed Forest and began to draw his weapon. Only to have Mac, surprisingly, reach across and stay his hand.

If it was guards, James thought, listening, why so few? That couldn't have been more than three pairs of feet charging their way. Would there be only three guards coming down the stairs? And yet, if it wasn't guards...

Who could it be?

And then they heard a voice hiss, 'No, not there! This way!' And now the running feet were nearly on top of them. Forest pushed against Mac, struggling to get his sword free, only to find that pushing against Maccabees was like pushing against one of these stone walls.

And then the feet appeared round the stairs just above them. Three pairs, just as James had thought. The one in the lead skidded to a halt as he saw the four men waiting here, with the other two smacking right into his back. A stunned moment of tense silence...

And then Seth began to laugh.

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Friday, April 14, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 26 - 'fourth in the fire'


The first thing Seth became aware of was the galloping headache pounding through his brain. The second was the taste of metal puddled in his mouth. And rushing on the heels of those two came the overload of other pains of all shapes and sizes, all competing for his attention.

Ohhh... He felt like he'd been trampled underfoot by a herd of, of... of wild... oh... somethings. Ugh, but his brain was too fogged to come up with the word he wanted! Musta been bad, whatever happened to him, but he sure couldn't remember what. Groaning, he start to sit up.

And that's when he found out he couldn't. But not because of the pains all over his body. That wasn't what was keeping him down.

No, he was tied up head to foot.

Huh? Tied up? How had this happened?

Wait...

And now memory started to kick in. Kick, yeah. Hadn't someone been kicking him? Or no - not kicking, not a foot, but... but a stick maybe? Yeah! Now he remembered. The trip downstairs. The stench in the stairway. The unholy glow of the bonfire, and those terrible screams...

His eyes shot open then. Melonhead!

Snapping shadows mixed with dancing red met his sight, all of it surrounded by dark, dark, dark. He could see no one from where he was lying on his bruised right side. He couldn't see the fire anymore either, but could tell from the heat that it was not far away behind him. Where were James and Forest, he wondered, and where were the guards that had captured them?

Not to mention Malorn. A ton of anger hit him every time he thought of ol' Melonhead, and without even thinking of it, he started to strain at his bonds.

'Easy there,' a voice whispered faintly from directly behind him. 'Just lie still, Seth. Don't draw attention to yourself.'

And a second voice, a little further away than the first, added, 'Thank God you're not dead.'

Ah. The first voice was Forest's, and the second James'. From the sound of it, they were both on the floor the same as he was. They weren't dead at least, not if they were talking. He did his best to ignore the tiny voice inside his head that added, Yet.

'What's going on?' Seth asked, hoping he was keeping his voice low enough that only his two buddies would hear him.

'Eh, they're just getting ready,' Forest replied off-handedly.

'Ready for what?'

'They've been...' James started to answer, but his words were abruptly drowned out by an onslaught of crackling accompanied by loud cheers and jeers. And at the same moment, the dull red light around them suddenly leapt up brighter and stronger.

'...doing that,' James finished when the sounds died off enough for him to be heard again.

Dread clutched at Seth's heart suddenly. 'Doing what?' he asked.

For a moment, neither of the others answered. And then Forest said, 'Just making the fire hotter. No big deal.'

'Forest...' said James.

'Well?' said the boy. 'If we die, we die. Serving the Master is what counts. It's a privilege to give our lives for the one who gave his life for us.'

'Wait. You're saying they're gonna kill us?' said Seth.

And even though he couldn't see him, somehow Seth knew that James was nodding. 'After they had beat you unconscious,' James told him, 'the leader there - Malorn - decreed that we would, uh, be the next sacrifice.'

'Yeah, they're just heating the fire up hotter for us first,' added Forest. 'Which is good, really. The hotter the fire, the quicker it'll be over with, so the quicker we'll be outta here and with the Master.'

Forest sure sounded strangely calm for a guy who was about to be burned to death! Feeling glad that the other guys couldn't see his face right now, Seth murmured, 'I don't wanna die.'

'Well,' said the kid, 'it's not my perfect ending to a perfect day either. But being home with the Master, that will be good.'

'I still can't believe you're just giving up, Forest,' said James. 'Not you.'

'I'm not giving up. I'm looking past it. If we gotta die, dying is not the end and we'll be home. Of course,' he added, and now he started to sound more like the Forest they were used to, 'if we get the chance to break free - man, I'm going for it!'

More fuel was thrown on the fire; they heard and saw the crackle and flare of it. Moments later, the platform they were lying on began shaking with the clump of heavy boots heading their way. And then thick legs surrounded them. Burly arms reached down to them. and they were hauled up like so many sacks of potatoes and dragged off. Across the platform they went, then back down the stairs again - with their heads bouncing off each step as before - and then at last they were pitched down onto the floor. Only now they were facing the fire.

It was a conflagration, an inferno. The smoke of it curled thickly through the air, choking them, gagging them. The intensity of the heat made their faces feel blistered already. Their eyes too began to sting and feel dried out. Seth didn't know about his buddies, but he was sure praying for all he was worth: C'mon, Master, you gotta get us outta here!

And now a deep and evil laugh swept over them. Malorn. With a flourish of his priestly robes, he came and stood over them, raising his staff, beckoning to the crowds surrounding the fire. And the crowd broke out with cheers and jeers again. Chuckling, Malorn looked down on his captives, gloating over them, his grin a mask of pure malice. 'Well, boys,' he said, his eyes glinting as red as the fire, 'You hear that? That's your public; they're waiting for you. They're waiting to see you give the performance of your life.'

'You mean of our death,' Forest spoke up.

Again the chuckle and the sadistic leer. 'Don't disappoint them,' Malorn purred. He signaled, and immediately the guards surrounded them again, hoisting them up by their ropes, swinging them back and then forward.

'One...!'

'Two...!'

'Thr...'

~~~~~~~

And Malorn held up his hand. The guards unceremoniously dumped them back onto the floor. 'Now,' Malorn said dramatically, 'let's do this right. Let's give them one last chance. You.' He pointed at James. 'You don't talk much. How about I make you an offer? Join us. We'll make you a guard. Hmm?'

James said nothing.

'No? Then what about you, Logan? You'd make an excellent guard. Think of all the blokes you could beat up, eh? I know you'd enjoy that,' he coaxed.

And for a second, Seth did think of it. He always had enjoyed beating guys up... until the Master came into his life and heart.

But now - no, he was a different man now. And besides, the image of ol' Melonhead's guards laughing as they had held him back while his brother was being killed came flooding into his head. Why would he want to be one of those?

'Malorn?' Seth said.

'Yes?' The man leaned closer.

Perfect. 'Here's my answer,' Seth said. And working up all the phlegm he could muster, he took aim and let it fly.

Even more perfect! The gooey glob of spittle caught ol' Melonhead right in the left eye. Fury blooming across his face, the priest lifted his staff to strike Seth once again.

'Wait!'

That was Forest. Malorn swung towards him, rage still convulsing his features, his staff still raised high. 'What?' he bellowed.

'You didn't ask me yet,' said the boy.

Malorn blinked, then lowered the staff and pasted on the big smile again. 'Indeed I didn't - son. Are you accepting my offer? You're a mite young yet, but I'm sure you'd make a fine guard.'

'You bet I would!' Forest replied.

What? Seth stared at the kid, dumbfounded. No! No way! Man, when Forest had said he would go for it if he saw a chance to get free - surely he didn't mean this!

'Oh, yeah,' the boy went on. 'The only problem is, you make me a guard, you'll have to have all the other guards guarding me. Cause as soon as you turn your back, I'll have the cell doors open and be leading as many people as I can get to follow me out of this dungeon and off to meet the Master!'

'You...!' And this time, when Malorn raised his staff, he struck.

Forest only laughed, even as blood gushed from his lip. 'We follow the Master, Malorn. There's nothing you can offer us that is better than being his. Death,' and he nodded his head at the fire before them, 'will only be a door we'll step through and be at his side. To be absent from this life is to be present with him forever. How can your puny world top that?'

'Throw them in!' Malorn bellowed.

The guards hastened to obey. And this time, there was no count of one, two, three. They grabbed up each man and gave a mighty heave.

Seth felt his stomach turn over as he was launched towards the flames. The heat came up and smacked him hard all over as he reached the top of the arc and tumbled into the bonfire. He couldn't even put out his hands to try to break his fall...

~~~~~~~

Whump!

For a stunned moment Seth lay there, all the wind knocked out of him. And then his lungs convulsed, sucking air in. No! he screamed inside, knowing that the fiery air would only sear his lungs.

Except...

Huh?

The air wasn't hot. It should have been, but wasn't.

And to his amazement, when he looked about wondering what had happened, he saw that the ropes that had held him bound were burning off him so quickly they might as well have been melting. And yet... nothing else on him was burning. Not his clothes, not his hair, not his skin.

He looked up. There was Forest, sitting up in the flames, laughing, lifting up his arms, scrambling to his feet. There too was James, also loosed from the ropes and standing up.

And there... Ah, Seth knew that face! There was yet one more man in the fire, smiling, laughing, singing.

Over the crackle of the flames, Seth heard the song. 'Fear not, for I have redeemed you! I have called you by your name. You are mine. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned. Neither shall the flame kindle upon you! For I am...'

Yes, he is! Seth thought gleefully. 'Master!' And now he too was on his feet, walking, leaping through the flames, running to the Master's side.

Dimly he became aware of another sound, a sound from beyond the circle of flame. He looked. So did James and Forest. All around the bonfire, all the people who had chanted and rejoiced at the burning of the other man, all the people who had cheered the building up of the fire for their burning - all those people were pointing into the fire, pointing at them. Their faces were contorted with screaming and with fear as they saw what was happening. No one was burning this time. No one was dying, and there was now a fourth man in the flames with them. And even their blinded eyes could see that this man had the look of...

'Nooooooo!'

Ah, that cry came from the area of the platform. Malorn had climbed up there again to enjoy the view, only to have his pleasure completely spoiled. 'No, no, no!' he was screaming. And then, even as he was howling and pitching a fit over things going absolutely wrong - the man fell down.

He fell down on the platform, twitching. Spasming.

And then all movement ceased entirely. He just lay there.

James turned to the Master. 'Is he all right?'

'No,' came the reply. 'He is dead.'

Dead? Seth could hardly believe it. His old enemy, dead? And the weird part was that, while he had imagined pretty often taking Melonhead's neck and squeezing it till the man was good and dead, and then laughing and dancing on the body - now that Malorn really was dead, there was no joy in it at all. Only regret, and he did not understand why.

'I have no pleasure,' said the Master, 'in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.'

'Then why...' said Forest.

'Why is he dead?' the Master answered. 'He has reaped what he sowed. Death comes to all, soon or late, and generally sooner than men expect. This hour was Malorn's harvest of all that he had sown. Let men take it to heart.'

And then he led them out of the fire.

~~~~~~~

The guards had fled. The crowds had fled. There was only Malorn left, lying so still on the platform.

And one other. A figure appeared from behind the platform, holding in each hand something very long and thin. As he drew near them, he held out the long things, which turned out to be a pair of swords, each in its sheath.

Forest looked into the figure's face and beamed. 'Mac!'

'Who?' said Seth.

'One of ours,' said James. 'You haven't met him before, but he's with us. Mac, this is Seth. Seth, Maccabees.'

Mac nodded as both James and Forest took their swords and belted them on. And then to the Master, Mac bowed deeply.

'Escort them upstairs,' the Master told him, 'and give them all aid to escape. Malachi will meet them outside and take them to the cave. Once they are in his hands, I have yet work for you here in the dungeons. You will meet me with Walker.'

Mac bowed yet again.

To the rest, the Master said, 'I will come to you shortly. Tarry at the cave for me, but be ready to move out at my appearing.'

And he was gone.

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Friday, April 07, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 25 - 'chaos in the court'


All eyes in the courtroom were on Lucy as she leveled her sword at the seated judge. Rose in particular, her arms shackled before her, was so very pale and tense, hope mingled with apprehension on her weary face.

And then all the eyes that Lucy could see shifted to the door behind her, just as Linda murmured, 'Maybe not.'

Not good. Lucy started praying.

'Drop your sword,' demanded a gruff voice from behind her. No doubt a guard. The same one who had just thrust them into the courtroom? She wasn't sure.

Her sword never wavered.

'I said drop it!' the voice insisted.

'I think not,' Lucy replied.

A growl of rage erupted suddenly from behind Lucy, and at the same moment, Linda gave a gasp and began to cry out a warning, 'Lucy, watch ou...!' But it was the other sound that started at the very same time as well that concerned Lucy the most: a whistling sound. Not like a person whistling, but like something whistling through the...

Lucy jumped. Even before her brain had completely recognized the whistling as the sound of something heavy whooshing through the air towards her, she sprang away.

No, she didn't jump towards the judge to take that proud woman hostage - although admittedly the thought of grabbing the judge and pressing the blade of her sword to the woman's throat did occur to her. But no, Lucy shook off that thought and sprang instead toward her enchained friend Rose. 'Linda! Your key!' she cried as she reached Rose's side and spun to face the enemy at the door.

The very surprised guard was recovering his balance from swinging his club at full force and hitting only air. Others in the courtroom were beginning to stir to life now, some lifting their voices, some moving towards Lucy and Rose. Linda took a second to recover herself before running to her friends and fumbling to bring out her key.

Those keys. What marvelous things the Master had supplied them with! Keys able to open any lock in this fortress. Linda found hers quickly and set Rose free, then drew her own sword and joined Lucy en garde.

The clamor rose about them. Lucy's lips were moving, praying, even as she kept her eyes moving, appraising the situation. They could sure use some help here.

The judge was on her feet, banging the gavel with all her might. 'Security!' she screamed, 'arrest them!'

'That's what I was gonna do,' the guard growled. 'Just need a little back-up.' And he opened the door and left.

'Well!' sputtered the judge, and set to hammering once more with the gavel. Some of the other Committee members were attempting to surround the three women, but the two sharp swords were doing a nice job of keeping them all at bay.

'Move towards the door,' Lucy whispered to her companions. Nodding, they all three began to do just that.

'Stop them! They're getting away!' screeched the judge.

Some tried, but the edge of the blades kept turning them back. No one wanted to let them escape, but none of them wanted to get skewered either. This dangerous stuff was for the security guards!

The door was within reach now. Linda breathed a sigh of relief and reached out her empty hand towards the doorknob.

As the door burst open and a squad of guards stormed in.

~~~~~~~

Oh, and even better, right on their heels, a large and burly guard swaggered in, the sneer on his face showing that here was a man of rank. Looking round the room and taking in the outraged Committee members and the two women wielding swords, he curled his lip and said, 'What's this? A party? And me and my men not invited?'

'Arrest them!' the judge cried anew, all but breaking her gavel was her frenzied hammering.

'At once, my lady,' the officer bowed. With curt hand gestures he moved some of his men into position to take the three women. These guards too sneered, enjoying the prospect of disarming these silly women. One of the guards lifted his whip to lash at Lucy.

But in the closeness of the room, the whip first hit one of the Committee members behind him. There came a shriek from the woman he hit and still more shrieks from those around her.

'Arrest them!' screamed the judge.

'At once, my lady,' the officer repeated. Scowling at the guard whose whip had gone awry, he moved forward another set of guards, these wielding clubs.

Clubs. Shorter than the swords the women held, so the guards would need to move in close. Tensely, Lucy and Linda worked to hold the men at bay as the guards moved to encircle them. This was not good, not good. 'There's so many of them!' Linda whispered to Lucy.

'I know. Don't let them get behind us,' she replied.

But that was not easy, for the enemy was pressing on them so. Gradually the three of them were being maneuvered up against the wall, and then back into a corner. And once they were cornered, what would they do then?

Lucy was praying blindly now, so to speak, her mind focused on the skirmish around her as her spirit cried out to the Master for rescue. If not for herself, at least for Rose and for Linda! Even if I must die, let them go free! she thought.

As beside her, Linda was praying much the same thing. A guard shoved forward at her, his eyes as dead and cold as a wolf's. Instinctively - bless Forest for insisting on sword practice! - she brought her blade around, nicking his arm and sending his club scattering.

'Get them!' snarled the officer.

'Get him!' cried a pair of voices from the door. And, to everyone's amazement, two guards burst into the room and promptly tackled the officer.

~~~~~~~

Chaos. Screaming. Pandemonium. The officer bellowing, 'Get off me! Get them off me!' Most of the guards yelling the same orders at the pair of newcomers while trying to club them or whip them or grab them, and mostly managing to club and whip and grab the officer and each other. The Committee members were shrieking and quailing and trying to get out of the way (and not necessarily succeeding). And woven throughout the rest of the turmoil, the voices of the two mad guardsmen kept insisting, 'He ain't Major Tweeg! He's one of them! Don't you lot get it? He's an imposter!'

'Get them off me!' the major roared as the two continued to rain blow after blow upon him, not letting him up off the floor. It was amazing how much havoc just two guards could create. And yet it wasn't long before the whole room was a mad mess of guards tripping and stomping over one another. And gradually, one by one, even the guards who had been cornering Lucy and her companions were drawn off into the fray.

'He's an imposter, I'm telling you!' one or the other of the two mad guards went on yelling. 'Ain't you forgetting how they blinded the lot of our boys out there in the valley? They got some sort of power to cloud our minds, make us see things what ain't so. This ain't Major Tweeg! He's one of them!'

And now, though it was hard to tell at first, some of the rest of the guards began to change sides. More and more of them were trying to hold the major down, and less and less of them were trying to set him loose.

'You're all mad, the lot of you!' rumbled the one remaining guard who was still keeping Lucy and friends up against the wall. Turning, he growled at the three women, 'You're under arrest, so don't go nowhere.' And then he was wading into the brawl as well, bashing heads indiscriminately as he fought his way to the major's side.

Glancing first at Linda and then at Rose, Lucy whispered, 'Ok, let's go.' She sheathed her weapon and set out for the door, picking her way carefully round the knot of shouting men. Linda too put up her sword as she and Rose followed. To their relief, no one stopped them or even seemed to notice them as they made their way to the doorway and quietly left.

Now all they needed was to get out of the Day Room as well.

~~~~~~~

Linda closed the courtroom door softly behind them and turned to find that they were being stared at. Every woman in the immediate vicinity of the courtroom was on her feet, eyes wide, gazing at the three of them. And for a moment, they three stared back.

And then Rose smiled brightly. 'Good day, my dears,' she called out warmly. 'Isn't it a lovely morning?'

Now whispers broke out round about them as Rose said genially to her companions, 'After you, my dears.' Nodding cordially to the Day Room ladies, Rose guided Lucy and Linda through their midst, heading for the door to freedom that seemed impossibly far away. Smiling and nodding, nodding and smiling, Rose escorted her friends along through the room.

They kept moving. No one here attempted to stop them - or not yet, anyway. The women they walked by merely watched them, pie-eyed, while constantly whispering amongst themselves. Not the quietest whispering in the world, for Linda heard a great deal of it very plainly as she and her companions pressed on.

'Who can they be?'

'...came from the Committee's room...'

'Sh! No one really knows if that's where the Committee...'

'But why were they there? Were they being censured, or commended?'

'Yes, are they friend or foe? Should we stop them?'

'But what if we stop them and it turns out the Committee had invited them to tea? One could find herself in very great trouble, you know...'

And so all the standing women backed off and allowed them to pass. Thank you, Master. But, oh, they weren't out of the Day Room yet. Now they came among the ladies who were still sitting at the tables, all happily gossiping away, not a clue among them that anything untoward was going on. Table after table they passed, brunches and socials and planning committees and all. A few of these glanced up at them as they walked by. But no one stopped them.

Yet.

'Why, Ginger!' called a voice.

Uh oh.

'Ginger, surely that's never you,' said a particularly regal dowager, all dripping with jewels. 'Wearing such a dreadfully tacky frock? Why, I could never imagine you ever been caught dead in such an insipid dress as that!'

Rose smiled wanly and kept going.

Then came another voice, this one much worse, for it declared, 'But that's Carol! Didn't we just see her arrested and taken away by Security?'

Lucy was leaning forward to whisper to her companions that they'd better be hurrying along - when abruptly things got utterly dreadful. For behind them came the crash of a door being flung violently open, and with it a gruff voice bellowing out, 'You morons! You're letting them get away. After them!'

Lucy immediately condensed what she had been about to say down to a single word: 'Run!'

And they did. Lucy, in the rear, grabbed the nearest table and knocked it over, sending the prim ladies seated at it into hysteria. Ladylike yelps filled the air as Linda began tipping over tables as well. Not that any of the outraged Day Room ladies made any physical attempts to stop the three fugitives. Why, heroics such as that might result in someone ruining her dress, or mussing her hair, or breaking her nails! Oh no - horrified screeches of 'Security!' were more their speed - and they certainly screeched that word a lot.

Security, for their part, were doing their best to bulldoze through the maze of tables, knocking quite a few of them over themselves. The blare of their major's voice egged them on. 'After them! Cut 'em off! Get 'em!' he roared for all the room to hear. The whole room also heard him as he turned and rumbled at the hapless guards who had tackled him, 'As for you two braindead a...' And the noun he used there to describe the pair was such a shock to the sensibilities of the Day Room ladies that at least four of them promptly fainted, 'I'll deal with you later,' he finished. 'The rest of you lazy butts - get 'em!'

Lucy, Linda, and Rose were nearing the door now. Praying that, please, let there be no one out there, Linda wrenched the door open and shoved Rose through. Lucy charged out right on their heels and shouldered the door shut again, just in time to hear Linda cry, 'Hey!'

For it seems there was someone out there - two someones, both of them sprinting for all they were worth for the back door of the fortress. And no guards on that door? Why was that?

Linda grabbed Lucy's arm and pointed. 'Isn't that Starr?' she said.

'Never mind that now. Just go!' Lucy hissed. And the three of them pelted after the other two who had already reached the outside door and thrown it open. Raw daylight spilled in, threatening to blind them all. But they all kept running, the trio from the Day Room not five steps behind the others. They hit the door even before it had time to close again. Squinting into the sunglare, the three stumbled forth.

Strange. Even if that had been Starr - and it certainly had looked like her - where was she now? She and the short man with her surely couldn't have vanished so quickly. And yet Lucy, Linda, and Rose saw no one...

'This way!' a voice called to them. A figure now caught their eyes, standing in the sunlight, gesturing to them.

'Oh, it's Morgen,' said Linda in delight, and the three hurried over to him. He led them quickly away from the fortress and off toward the mountain. But though the three peppered him with questions about whether that had been Starr and where she might be now, he gave them no answers.

All the way to the mountain Lucy and Linda kept looking back, watching for their friend. When they reached the foot of the mountain with no sight of her, they were concerned. When they followed Morgen up the mountain side and still could not spy her on the plain behind them, they were troubled. And when they reached the cave itself and found only Joy and Talitha there - well, now they were getting downright anxious. Had they really seen Starr at all? Maybe they hadn't. 'Maybe,' said Linda, 'it was just my imagination. Or someone else.' Though she couldn't think who else she could have seen and mistaken for Starr...

And then the ivy curtain parted and in they came. Starr, and a man she soon introduced as Nat. What a relief!

Everyone's natural question of where Stone was, though - that question Starr was not prepared to answer yet. Not yet, no. And she went to stand in the entrance of the cave, peering out.

Not yet.

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