Friday, December 31, 2010

Chapter 38

Edward Proves His Worth

        It was supper time when Edward saw his chance.
        There were trays of food to be taken upstairs, and Edward managed to get in with the tray brigade. They trudged single-file up the stairs in a cautious, but speedy, fashion.
Speed had to be sacrificed when they started up the second floor staircase, which was steeper, and whose steps were less wide. Once on the third floor, they filed into a room whose door had been left open for their ingress. It was the room opposite Zedda’s divination room.
The room they entered was an ordinary one, emptied of all but a long table and three chairs. They set the food trays down on the table in no particular order. Two girls, who carried nothing but silverware, dishes, and napkins, set these items in their proper places. Each diner would decide what to put on their plates, and extra plates were left so they would always have clean dishware every time they ate something different.
The beverage bearer did his job last.
With this done, the group (all of whom looked upon the food spread before them with undisguised longing) filed out of the room. Edward lingered, and was the last one out. When the group started their way downstairs, Edward backtracked, headed in the opposite direction, and turned the corner.
Just then, the door to Zedda’s room opened. Zedda stepped out, followed by Mr. Blessure. Edward wondered whether Callie would also step out; but she didn’t.
Edward held his breath and hoped neither of them would come his way. That would be bad. They seemed, however, to be headed to the dining room that had just been prepared for them. They tarried awhile, in the hall, speaking in the same strange language Edward had heard Blessure and Balooda speak earlier.
What they were saying was this:
Mr. Blessure: “May I ask again why you are apprenticing this girl? Granted she’s Conjuura material, yes; but may I remind you what happened to Uraja Jeuke when she taught it to you?”
“Uraja was an ancient, and weary of life, when I challenged her.” Zedda said, “That wisp of a girl is no threat to me, and I’ll have dealt with her well before she becomes one.”
“Perhaps you’re underestimating her. She did give you a nasty surprise when she reversed the link on you.”
“She merely caught me by surprise. I seriously doubt she has any more surprises left in her. After only a taste of despair, she is utterly enslaved by the hunger. I’ll let her have all she wants, and strengthen its hold over her. When the time is right, I’ll add her power to mine.”
“How will you know when the time is right?”
“There’s a reason why the Conjuura code forbids teaching the Malignium to someone that young: it tends to blow out their moral center. They become selfish, arrogant, and rash.”
Mr. Blessure raised an eyebrow. “Like you?” he asked.
Zedda ignored his jibe. “Sooner or later, she will consider herself strong enough to challenge me. A tragic decision as, unlike Uraja Jeuke, I am still a Conjuura in the plenitude of my powers.”
“Still…I’m not sure I like how training this girl has distracted you from your established routine.” Mr. Blessure said, sounding concerned, “You haven’t even consulted your Seer’s Basin once, since she’s arrived.”
“My omniscience is already a well-settled matter amongst the children. I need not constantly re-prove my ability to see what is hidden; their own fear keeps them docile. You worry too much, my old friend.”
The two continued chatting, but took their conversation into the dining room, closing the door behind them.
Edward wondered what they were talking about, and what language they were speaking in. Although he spoke only Thrist, he had heard a smattering of Yapul and Sardossian spoken; but this didn’t sound like either of those.
The sound of footsteps coming up the stairs broke his train of thought. Edward peeked around the corner and saw Balooda walk up the hall and turn into the dining room. He opened the door, and went in.
Edward went to the door Zedda and Blessure had emerged from; the door without a knob. He looked at the circular symbol drawn upon it and remembered that Balooda had traced the circle with his finger as he spoke the words that opened the door; words that Edward had made it his business to memorize.
Maqwa Tevvis Geffah...
“Crud.” Edward muttered under his breath.
What the shig was that last word? he thought, straining his memory, Something with a “J” sound…and an “M”… Jimmy? Jammy? Jammook… Jammuk… Ah! That was it! It was JAMMUK!
Edward traced the circular seal clockwise with his finger and whispered: “Maqwa Tevvis Geffah Jammuk.”
The door opened, and Edward stepped inside Zedda’s divination room.
Up ahead, on Zedda’s couch, Callie sat; her eyes closed. She seemed to be meditating, or concentrating very hard on something. She didn’t seem to notice his presence.
He walked up the center of the room intending to talk with her, but instead veered off to look at the tripod upon which there was an ornate jade basin, filled with eerie green glowing water. He remembered having seen it when they were brought in front of Zedda; but hadn’t, at the time, had the opportunity to check it out.
He went over to the basin, looked into it.  
“Show me my future.” he whispered, half-kidding.
The water shimmered and swirled for a few seconds, grew dark, then returned to its regular glow. Edward slumped, disappointed.
Oh well, he thought, was worth a shot, though.
“What are you doing here?!” Callie’s voice pierced the silence.
Edward was so startled he bumped into the tripod, and knocked it onto only two of its feet. A slosh of glowing water went up in the air, as he stopped the tripod and its basin from falling over. A spillage of its mysterious liquid seemed inevitable, but to his astonishment, the liquid hung in the air. He reset the basin in its place, and watched as the water began to fall back into the basin in slow-motion; without even so much as a drop lost or splashed.
“What are you doing here, Edward?” Callie asked again.
“I suppose I could ask you that very question.”
“You’re not supposed to be here.”
“Neither are you.” Edward countered, “You’re supposed to be with us. Instead you are here. Why?”
“You wouldn’t understand.” Callie answered, “You should get out now, before Zedda finds you here.”
“I don’t think so.” Edward said, “Not until I get some answers.”
A thought then entered Callie’s head.
A terrible and un-Callie-like thought.
Before Zedda had left to go eat, she had given Callie some mental exercises to do while she was gone; promising her that before the day was done, she would get a chance to use the Malignium. The exercises were to strengthen and ready her mind for her coming exertions.
Callie felt ready right now, and even had a victim in sight.
“I’m sorry Edward,” she said, “Come on over here and we’ll figure things out, together.”
As she walked towards him, a hungry look passed over her face. Edward knew that look well; he had seen it on Zedda’s face before she had brain-drained him.
This was no longer the Callie he knew.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Edward asked, feeling the familiar pangs of fear and loss enter his heart, “Get away from me!”
He turned and ran. 
When he got to the door, it opened for him; and shut itself behind him.
Callie was left alone. The look of hunger on her face was now replaced with a look of confusion. The fear that was visible in Edward’s eyes (fear of her!) disturbed her greatly.
Gods, what was I thinking? she asked herself, but knew well the answer to that question.
Oh Edward…I’m so sorry…
She turned and walked towards the tripod and basin Edward had almost overturned. She looked at her reflection in the water.
“I’m losing myself.” she said to her reflection, “What am I becoming?”
The water shimmered, and then a face appeared in the water.
It was Zedda’s face, or so she thought at first. Then, the truth of it hit her harder and cut her deeper than her father ever had.
It was her.
Rather, an older version of her, with a forehead splotch identical to Zedda’s. It was her as she would be, years down the road, if she let things continue as they were. 
“No! Please no!” she cried, and clapped her hands to her eyes to blot out the vision.
But the obscene hunger inside of her also spoke.
Oh yes! It said, And when the time comes, you won’t be strong enough to resist me!

Leaving behind, for the moment, the depressing conundrum of Callie’s upsetting behavior, Edward decided to risk checking out another room. He went to the end of the hall and turned the corner. Doors to rooms were arrayed before him; all of which looked alike, except one. 
At the end of the hall was a knobless door painted in a manner identical to the one on Zedda's divination room.
He went over to it, traced the seal on the door with his finger, and said: “Maqwa Tevvis Geffah Jammuk.”
The door opened, and he entered.
He immediately realized that this had to be Zedda’s private room. 
There was a lush, four-poster bed on one side of the room, an antique rocking chair next to the window, and a large roll-top desk.
On one wall, there hung a painting of a dark forest. Edward wondered if there was a safe behind it, like in the movies, and tried to move the painting. It swung open, like a door. Behind were shelves, built into the wall like a medicine chest. On the shelves were clear crystal eggs, on little stands; with things encased inside of them.
Some of these were stones with symbols drawn on them, odd geometric shapes, tiny scraps of paper with runic designs, and some even had colorful gems inside.
Two in particular caught his eye. One had a tiny version of the Sarrgoset Hotel in it; the other had a tiny scale model of the town of Murgent itself.
Edward decided to take one of these eggs for closer inspection later. He chose one, closed the picture door, and departed the room.
He turned the corner and ran right into Egann.
“There you are!” Egann whispered in an angry voice, “Alixa told me you didn’t return from the tray brigade. What do you think you’re doing?! Do you want to get us all in trouble?!”
Egann didn’t wait for an answer. He tightened his grip on Edward’s shoulder, and led him back down the stairs. Once they were on the second floor, Egann breathed easier, and released Edward from his deathgrip.
“What were you trying to do?” Egann asked again, “Get yourself torn to shreds? Trust me, it’s rather unpleasant.”
“I was information gathering.” Edward replied.
“Well...did you gather anything useful?”
“Not really.” Edward said, thinking it best to keep his stolen trinket a secret for now, until he could study it in private.
Egann sighed. “Edward, I used to think like you do, a lot of us did. We thought we could think our way to a solution. We plotted and planned, to no avail. Nothing has worked; Zedda is as protected by her magic as by Blessure and Balooda. She can’t be killed; not by the likes of us, anyway. We just have to deal with the fact that while she’s alive, we’re stuck here; and she’s gonna stay alive for a long time.”
“But if we could find a way to negate her magic…” Edward said.
“You’re forgetting one thing,” Egann said, “Zedda’s magic keeps us alive---all of us who have died at the hands of Balooda or Blessure. This includes your friend Mike, remember? If Zedda dies, so do we; and if we go, he goes too.”
Edward had to admit he hadn’t thought of that.
Their situation now seemed even more insurmountable than it had before. 

Friday, December 24, 2010

Chapter 37

The Ick Box

When Donna returned from her errands, she retook her post from Alixa, who in turn returned to her washing duties. Edward was relegated to drying and storing.
The pile never seemed to diminish, since new batches of dirty dishes, silverware, pots, and pans were added every few minutes. The enormous table in the center of the kitchen was quickly filling up with trays of food: from meats and vegetable platters, to pies and cakes.
Edward spotted Egann as he entered the kitchen. He put down his drying cloth and ran over to him.
“Hey! Where’s Mike? How is he?” Edward asked.
“He’s better now.” Egann said, scrutinizing the food on the table, “He’ll be here in a moment. Go back to your post. If there’s time later on tonight, I’ll fill the both of you in on the house rules in detail.”
We didn’t come here to follow the shigging house rules, Edward thought to himself, but said nothing aloud.
He returned to his duties.
When Mike at last found his way into the kitchen not five minutes later, Edward shouted “MIKE!” aloud; incurring a spate of shushes from the other kids.
“Oh go shush yourselves!” Edward shot back at them, defiant.
He ran to Mike and wrapped his arms around him.
“I am sooo glad to see you!” he said, “I thought we’d lost you there, pal.”
“I’m glad to be seen!” Mike replied.
“It’s so hard to believe!” Edward said, releasing Mike at last, “You were dead, really awfully dead, but…there you are! Alive!”
“I know, it’s bizarre.” Mike said.
“You’ll have to compare notes later,” said Egann, walking in among them, “Look.”
He pointed to a kid entering the kitchen. The kid saw them and started walking toward them. Both Mike and Edward remembered him as the kid in Balooda’s office, polishing Balooda’s boots.
“I don’t think Balooda’s quite finished with you yet, Mike.” Egann said.
The kid, whom Egann had referred to earlier as Jimmy, had the wretched look of someone who had just gone through hell, and still had more yet to go.
The kid walked up to Mike and said: “Mr. Balooda wants to see you. Now.”
“Do try to behave yourself this time, Mike.” Egann said, “Be humble and apologetic.”
Mike gave him a look.
“I’m serious!”
“He wants you there too, Egann.” Jimmy said.
“Oh,” said Egann, “It’s to be the Ick Box, then.”
“The what?” Mike asked.
“Tell you later. C’mon, we gotta go now. Hurry!”
Edward watched as the three rushed back to Balooda’s office.
Now what? he wondered.

Mike, Egann, and Jimmy entered Balooda’s office.
Mike’s blood had been removed from the walls and the desk, but the girl, now joined by two others, was still having a difficult time getting it all out of the carpet. Jimmy, having delivered Balooda’s message, went back to work with the others at this labor.
“There you beee!” Balooda smiled his big ugly smile at Mike, “How nice to see you again! Are yoo feeleeng better now?”
His voice dripped with sarcasm blunt as a sledgehammer and about as subtle; his humorous bearing as trustworthy as a crocodile’s smile.
“Are wee readee to tryee again?”
Mike considered the situation.
If he was to find a way out of this mess, he would need time to think and observe. That goal would not be well served by being at the wrong end of this dangerous and black-hearted freak in front of him.
Mike swallowed his pride; and it was bitter as hell.
“Yes… Sir.” he said.
“Good! Veree good, boyee!” Balooda crowed, “Now tell meee, what ees your name?”
“And your seester’s?”
“And your leetle friend’s?”
“Good! Good! Now…aren’t yoo sorree yoo speet at mee?”
“Yes what?”
“Yes SIR.”
“Veree good! Now, as puneeshment for your prior eensolence, yoo weell bee taken to thee basement. There yoo weell spend thee rest of thee day and thee rest of thee night. Unteel tomorrow morneeng, weell yoo bee let out. Eeegan, see to it!”
“Yessir.” Egann said, and motioned Mike to follow him out.
Is that it? Mike wondered, befuddled.
Once out of the hall, Mike asked, “What was that all about? What’s so bad about the basement? What kind of punishment is that?”
Egann led him through the hotel, to a large utility room in the back. In there, was a door marked BASEMENT.
“Up until three months ago, there was nothing wrong with the basement,” Egann said, “Other than cobwebs and cockroaches, the basement was little more than storage space.
“Then one morning, three months ago, Zedda called both Mr. Blessure and Balooda up to the top floor. She sounded excited, or frightened; maybe both. They were up there the whole day; the Morrtogs coming downstairs only to scrounge for wood, metal, and tools. The basement had a lot of all that stuff, then. They cleared it all out. I know, because many of us were sent down there to sweep and mop the floor. The sound of something being built could be heard from above. Then came the sound of some sort of ritual.  
“That evening, we were all told to go to our rooms and go to bed early; which is unusual because a lot of us on any given day don’t get to bed until very late.
“That night, Balooda and Blessure carried something big and heavy down to the basement. Everyone heard it; it made a loud thud when they dropped it on the basement floor. Not long after that, the two Morrtogs went out somewhere. I know this because my room window looks out the front of the hotel. They took some sort of crate with them. When they came back, there was something inside the crate; struggling. I think it was screaming, or shrieking, or something, but I can’t be sure; the windows in the rooms don’t open, except on the third floor of course.
“They took it down to the basement. Then Zedda went into the basement. Some with rooms on the first floor say they heard more ritual sounds wafting up from below. She and the Morrtogs were down there a good long time. No one is quite sure when they came back up. Our days are long and tiring, and we all tend to fall asleep pretty quickly; no insomniacs here.
“Next morning, everything was business as usual, as if nothing had happened. Of course, nobody dared to ask questions. Two weeks later, Balooda started using the basement as a punishment; locking people down there for hours. We’ve come to call it ‘The Ick Box’. It’s one of the punishments we dread the most.”
“Why? What’s down there?” Mike asked.
“A monster.” Egann replied. He took a key hanging from a nail, and unlocked and opened the basement door.
All Mike could see of the basement was a long narrow stairway going down into darkness.
“Are you telling me there’s something down there worse than Balooda all bugged out?”
“Yes, but not in the way you think.” Egann replied, “Don’t worry though, it can’t get to you; it’s locked in a box. The box is a cage surrounded by magic circles to keep it from escaping.”
“And it’s in a cage to boot?” Mike asked, “What’s got everyone freaked out here?”
“You’ll see,” said Egann, “It’s horrible down there.”
“Has anyone ever had to spend the night down there before?”
“Nope.” Egann replied, “You’re the first. You really made an impression on Balooda.”
“Lucky me.”
“The record is six hours. Daniel Pebcry, about five weeks ago. When we got him out, he was a basketcase. A blubbering and useless mess, until Zedda drained him. Believe you me, when Zedda drains you after your time in the Ick Box, you’ll call it a blessing.”
“Is there even a light bulb down there?”
“There used to be,” Egann answered, “But the bulb was never replaced after it went out.”
“Fantastic.” Mike said. He looked down into the blackness of the Ick Box, and took his first few steps down the stairs. He turned and looked back up at Egann, “This is going to be harsh, isn’t it?” he asked.
Egann nodded slowly. “See you tomorrow.” he said.
He closed the door, and locked it.
Mike was left in the dark, but not alone. From the pitch blackness somewhere below, the thing locked in a cage suddenly knew that there was someone close by, and bellowed in an impossibly loud and blood-freezing manner that tore a jagged hole in Mike’s nerves, and sent a dagger of mortal dread into his soul.
Mike grabbed the handrail with both hands, and closed his eyes; as much to still his heart, as to acclimate to the darkness.
There was no way he could have been prepared for the effects brought on by the monster’s roar. Above and beyond the terrifying nature of the sound itself; it had about it a supernatural quality that attacked the core of one’s being with the depths of existential terror, and almost spiritual despair. Had Mike not faced a similar sensation before (when Callie put their father’s ring on Rynza Adreynac’s Spirit Table), he might have been reduced to screaming and scrabbling at the door, pleading to be let out (with a wet patch on the crotch of his new pants, to boot).
But Mike had faced such an overwhelming sensation before, and had been the stronger. He used the memory of that to steel his resolve.
He opened his eyes.
The stairway no longer seemed the black pit it had a moment ago. Gloomy, yes, but there was some manner of light here.
The long stairway was enclosed like a hall, and one had to reach the bottom to get past the wall. Once past the dividing wall, there was a turn to the right, and you were in the basement proper.
Mike figured he should get a look-see at his companion, while there was still some light left in the day. There would be time for cowering in the stairway, when night fell, and all light was gone.
He took a deep breath, and (as quietly as he could) descended the stairway to its end, and turned the corner.
The basement was actually better illuminated than the stairway; lit by the afternoon sun filtering through a single grimy little window near the top of the ceiling. The window was no more than a rectangle of glass, too small to squeeze through. The basement itself was large and empty, except for that which occupied its center.
There it sat; a large, heavy wooden box about five by five by five: a perfect cube. There were magic symbols burned into the sides and top of the dark cherry wood. The front of the thing had crisscrossing metal bands set into its frame with sturdy bolts.
All around the box on the concrete floor, drawn with different colored chalks, were magic circles within circles within circles; with the box at the bull’s-eye. Between the circles there was writing, in some cabalistic script, in heaven knows what language.
But it was the creature inside the box that commanded Mike’s complete attention.
That it had daggers for teeth, malevolent red eyes, and razorblade claws was easily ascertained. Beyond that, it’s exact shape was difficult to make out. It constantly shifted out of focus whenever the eyes tried to pin down it’s exact dimensions.
Visually incoherent, it hurt Mike’s head to look at it too long.
The thing in the box was not silent throughout Mike’s observations; it kept roaring in it’s marrow-freezing manner. Mike’s whole body clenched whenever the thing made a sound, even when it just shifted it’s weight.
He wondered how many others, if any, had ever gone this far down the stairs to look upon that which made such terrible noise.
That’s enough of THAT, Mike thought, and went back behind the wall and up the stairway a few steps, this is gonna be a long night.
He had no idea.

Egann returned to the kitchen, to find Edward there, waiting to accost him with questions.
“Where’s Mike?” he asked, “What happened? Balooda didn’t kill him again, did he?”
“No, he’s okay.” Egann said, “He’s in the basement.”
“The basement? Why the basement?”
“It’s just one of the punishments Balooda makes us suffer. He’s in there till tomorrow morning. I wouldn’t worry about him, he’ll be okay. Now get back to work.”
Egann went back to his supervision of the food preparation. Edward went back to his drying. Donna had brought him a footstool, so he could better reach the sink. So now he stood side by side with Alixa.
Edward understood, in his gut, that every moment that passed with them still trapped here, the possibilities for resolving their sticky situation dwindled away like forgotten dreams. However, with both Mike and Callie currently unavailable, it now fell to him to do the resolving.
Well, you wanted to be needed, Edward thought to himself, Here’s your chance to prove your worth.

Mike was startled awake.
Had he fallen asleep? He had, but it couldn’t have been for more than a few minutes. He had just leaned back on the stairs, to get his thoughts together. Now he was here.
But where was here?
He wasn’t on the stairs. He seemed to be face down on the basement floor, a few feet away from the monster in the box; facing it. Mike looked up at it, and it looked back at him with focused malevolence. What had awakened him was not it’s sounds, but it’s silence; which, in a way, was more unsettling.
Mike started getting up, and noticed that the palms of his hands had a yellowish powder on them. When he realized what this was, he looked down with a gasp.
A good size section of the outermost magic circle, which his outstretched hands had reached, was smudged off. He had smudged it during his nap. Some of the writing within the circle had also been rendered a yellow blur.
“Oh snot.” Mike said.
Even as he wondered whether the other magic circles would be enough to “hold the fort”, so to speak; he was hit with a wave of drowsiness beyond his ability to resist.
“What is…this…?” he muttered, as wakefulness became a burden too great to bear.
He slumped back face down on the floor, and was almost asleep again, when some part of him realized what was happening; and panic brought him up from the quicksand.
“IT’S YOU!” he yelled at the beast, “You’re…doing this!”
The thing made no sound in response; it just stared at him.
Mike tried to get up, but his sluggish body was too heavy. He fell back to the floor with a thump. He turned onto his back and tried to slap himself awake, but the energy required to do so was denied him.
“oh gods…no…” was the last thing he managed to say, before sleep overtook him. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Chapter 36

Once Upon a Town

“Most of what I’m about to tell you is gleaned from what I know and saw with my own eyes; mixed with what others have told me, and also some speculation based on bits of information Zedda has let slip.” Egann said, in a precise manner that reminded Mike of Spencer.
I wonder what the Dreadniks are doing right now, Mike thought to himself, Peggy especially.
“I don’t know if Zedda was born here in Murgent,” Egann continued, “But I do know she spent most of her childhood here. From what I gather, it was a lousy childhood.”
“She has my sympathy.” said Mike, with no small degree of sarcasm.
“When she was old enough,” Egann went on, “Maybe even before then; she left Murgent. She was gone a long time, twenty some odd years, by my calculations. At some point in that span, she gained access to a buttload of magical powers.”
“No duh.”
“Here, speculation ends; and the true facts, as I know them, begin. Five years ago, Zedda came back to Murgent, and she didn’t come alone. With her, came the one we know as Mr. Blessure.”
“What about Mr. Balooda?” Mike asked.
“He didn’t come until later. Anyway, the day Zedda came back was the worst day in the history of Murgent, and only the first of many. She worked fast; setting up the invisible force field upon arrival. Then, every animal other than human keeled over and died: cows, chickens, fish, horses, dogs, cats, etc. Birds fell from the sky in a rain of thuds; and every creature that died, putrefied in minutes.
“Zedda had only just begun.
“Soon after, every town water source: the tap, the well, the lake; became foul and undrinkable. Even the thirstiest person in creation would not be able to stomach even smelling it. Boiling didn’t help; it just made the stench more pungent.
“Vegetation came next. Every crop, fruit, vegetable, flower, blade of grass, and weed in Murgent took on a yellowed and desiccated look. Trees became dark, twisted things.
“Of course, nothing was edible; anyone doing so would suffer violent spasms and horrible horrible hallucinations.
“Stocked away foods fared no better. Frozen, refrigerated, and pantried food all went bad overnight. Canned foods, boxed foods, preserves, the whole deal. You’d open up a jar or can of something, only to get squirming maggots, or rotting filth.”
“Didn’t anybody realize it was her doing all this?” Mike asked.
“Eventually,” Egann answered, “But there was a lot of confusion in the beginning, as you can well imagine. Zedda and Mr. Blessure took over the Sarrgoset Hotel, after driving everyone in it out, with dread illusions. By then, the people of Murgent had put two and two together.”
“Did they try to stop her?”
“Oh yes. But nothing worked. Any gun or rifle aimed at her would jam, and then turn red hot, burning the would-be assassin’s hand. Anyone getting close enough to attack her would be torn to ribbons by Mr. Blessure. They tried burning down the hotel, but the fire wouldn’t take, even with gas. Some tried lobbing explosives through the windows, but they wouldn’t go off, until Zedda had them fly back to the throwers.
“It was impossible to communicate with the outside world, as well. Help could not be called. At last, the townspeople decided to go after Zedda and Mr. Blessure en masse, with torches, knives, and clubs.
“Zedda made them all go insane.
“In one fell swoop, with one powerful incantation, every person in Murgent, above the age of fifteen, went stark raving bonkers. They started attacking each other, and other buildings in town, but never the hotel. They never get too close to the hotel. That’s a method in their madness Zedda made sure of.”
“Why did she spare the kids?” Mike asked.
“I was getting to that.” Egann said, “That night, the night all the adults went nuts, we were all summoned. An irresistible urge to go into the hotel possessed all the youth of Murgent. It was like we were sleepwalking. Only when we were there, did we awake to where we were. Zedda addressed us all from the balcony, and told us that this was our new home, and that from now on, our lives were to be lived in her service.”
“I assume that didn’t go down very well.” Mike said.
“No, but with the Bitch Goddess and her thug on one side, and insane townspeople running amok on the outside, we had no real options but to comply. Some did try to rebel, or escape; but there was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. Those were the first to taste death at the hands of Mr. Blessure, and the awful return to life. Zedda had him kill us all, one by one, slowly; and everyone else was forced to watch.”
“Damn.” Mike said.
“After that, everyone pretty much fell into line, myself included; my rebellious days are long behind me. I’m sure my parents, were they sane, would be amazed.
“Anyway, at first Zedda ran the show around here hands on. She wasn’t as heavy as she is now; she could still run things herself, with Mr. Blessure as back-up. Then, about a year-and-a-half later, she introduced us to Mr. Balooda, who started running things down here, while she and Mr. Blessure retreated to the top floor. Now, we only see her when she summons us up to be brain-drained.”
“Where did Mr. Balooda come from?” Mike asked.
“Haven’t you guessed? Blessure and Balooda are not human.” Egann said, “They’re some sort of demon, summoned by Zedda’s witch magic, to serve her.”
“I figured it had to be something like that.” Mike said, remembering how Balooda had grown monstrous and oversized, when he spat on him. He shivered at the recollection.
“I’ve heard her refer to them as Morrtogs.” Egann added.
“Morrtogs, huh? The name certainly suits ‘em.” Mike ruminated, “Wait a minute! I just thought of something.”  
“Where are the older kids?” Mike asked, “You said that everyone below the age of fifteen was spared the insanity. That was five years ago. Those who were fifteen then, are now twenty; but I haven’t seen anyone around here that looks that old.”
“We’re here,” said Egann, “But the same spell that keeps us from dying, keeps us from visibly ageing. We have six and seven year olds among us who still look like toddlers. I myself am pushing twenty.”
“Okay,” said Mike, “Next question. If the food and water and vegetation all went bad, and all the animals died; what do you people eat? What does Zedda eat, for that matter? She lives here too, doesn’t she?”
“The hotel is the only place in Murgent where good water runs from the tap, and pantried foods stay fresh. Once every other week, Zedda sends Mr. Blessure to the nearest towns to get food and other supplies. He goes in a truck that used to belong to the grocer, and returns with the truck full of stuff. Neither the force field, nor the townspeople, gets in his way; Zedda controls both. The food, though, is only for them. Zedda’s spell is all that keeps us alive,” Egann said, bitterly, “We’re not allowed to take the merest sip of water, or the slightest taste of food. Punishment is severe for any infraction, and Zedda always knows.”
At that moment, a boy of about (seemingly) twelve entered the bathroom. He carried a bundle of clothes with him, which he handed to Egann, who handed them to Mike.
“These will do until we get the blood out of yours.” Egann said, “By the way, this is Ray.”
“Hi, I’m Mike.” Mike said, offering Ray his hand.
“I heard.” Ray said. He took Mike’s hand and shook it. “I also heard you pissed off Balooda big time and he messed you up good.”
“He spit in his face.” Egann said.
“Whoa!” Ray said, “You’re either very brave or very stupid.”
“It’s a combination.” Mike replied.
“Ray is working the laundry room this week.” Egann said, “Before you put these on, feel free to use the sink here to clean up; there’s washcloths in the shelf there. Just don’t taste a single drop of water, no matter how thirsty you are, if you know what’s good for you. Don’t ask how Zedda can possibly know; she just does.”
“Need help getting up?” Ray asked.
“Nah, I think I got it.” Mike said, but when he tried to get up, the walls started to move on him, and he had to fight to keep from swooning.
Egann and Ray helped him up. Once up, Mike stood and tried to get his bearings straight.
“Death’s a bitch, ain’t it?” Ray said.
“It’ll pass,” Egann said, “Once you’re clean and dressed, you’ll find me in the kitchen; I’ll have to put you to work somewhere. You can go ahead and leave your dirty clothes in the hamper there; I’ll have Ray pick them up later. Any further questions?”
“Where’s my friend Edward?” Mike asked.
“I have him working in the kitchen.”
“Is he okay?” Mike asked, “He looked kind of vacant when Zedda was finished with him.”
“That’s just a temporary side effect of the brain-drain,” Egann replied, “Though, the shock of your death seemed to have knocked it out of him sooner than usual.”
“Oh yeah, he was there, wasn’t he?”
“He saw the whole thing.” Egann said.
“Crap,” Mike said, putting his hand to his face, “Poor Edward…”
“Mind if I ask you a question?” Egann asked.
“What happened to the girl who came in with you and Edward? Why didn’t she get sent downstairs?”
“The girl? That girl is my sister, Callie,” Mike said, “And that’s a question I’d like answered as well.”

Friday, December 10, 2010

Chapter 35

The Corridor and the Cave

“EEEEGAN!” bellowed Mr. Balooda.

From his place in the kitchen, Egann Ackbe shivered. Everyone in the place had heard Mr. Balooda’s rage and violence.
“Dammit, I knew those new kids were going to be trouble.” he murmured to himself.
He motioned to two boys to go with him, but they looked back at him with scared eyes, and shook their heads.
“COME ON, dammit! Or I’ll tell HIM you refused to help!”
That did it.
Egann and the two boys entered the hall that led to Mr. Balooda’s office. Upon seeing them, Mr. Balooda kicked Mike’s body into the hall, right in front of them.
“You know what to do with THAT.” he said.
By now, Mr. Balooda had regressed to his previous size and configuration. He grabbed a gibbering Edward by the scruff of his shirt and tossed him also into the hall.
“Put thees one to work.” he said.
Mr. Balooda turned to the two kids still in the office: the boot-shine boy and the carpet stain girl; both of whom looked scared crapless.
“And you two…” he said, “CLEEN UP THEES MESS!!”

Egann and the two boys carried Mike’s lifeless body out of the hall.
Edward followed them. The apathetic expression that he had worn on his face since leaving Zedda’s room was now replaced by shock.
The boys carried Mike through the foyer, and a side door; down another hall, to a luxurious bathroom. There, they laid the body on the tiled floor; and then left to start cleaning up the trail of Mike’s blood that had spattered here and there along the way. Egann, however, stayed behind with Edward.
Edward put his ear to Mike’s chest to see if he could hear a heartbeat. There was none. No heartbeat, no breathing, nothing.
“Mike’s dead.” he said, in an empty voice.

“What the hell was that?!” Callie had asked Zedda, when the loud racket from below first reached their ears. 
“It is none of your concern.” Zedda responded.
Callie might have agreed, had she not had a gnawing feeling in the pit of her stomach that Mike and Edward were in trouble of some sort. She made to leave, but only got as far as a few steps.
“Leave now and the training ends.” Zedda said.
That stopped Callie in her tracks.
“Leave now and the full power of the Malignium will never be yours.”
Callie suffered a moment of terrible indecision, trapped between doubt and desire.
“No more sweet, sweet despair.” Zedda added.
That did the trick. Callie turned back, and pushed Mike and Edward out of her mind.
Zedda smiled.
Look how quickly the hunger devours her, she thought, Just a little bit more, and those two boys will mean nothing to her.  

Edward put his head in his hands and began to sob.
“Sorry, kid.” Egann said, “I know there was no way you could have been prepared for that, but calm down. Wait.”
“Wait?” Edward looked up, “Wait for what?!”

Mike was alone in the dark.
Suddenly, a pinpoint of light pierced the darkness. The pinpoint grew into a line; broadened until it became a pillar. The pillar came closer, until Mike could see that it wasn’t a pillar at all, but a corridor. A long narrow corridor of light.
From the depths of the corridor, a voice spoke.
“Guna shaal isanno a’dahj.” it said.
“In my heart, not in my head.” Mike replied, and walked inside.
He had gotten only a few steps in, when everything changed. He now found himself in a vast cave of black rock. All around him were sections where the rock was polished smooth and reflective, like a house of mirrors. Only what was reflected back was not him, but a different moving image for each polished section.
In one, he saw an image of Edward, falling.
Another showed Callie, surrounded by blood and gore, her face contorted in a full-throated scream.
Still another showed Rynza Adreynac, conversing with Rufus Kantry.
Mike turned and turned, trying to drink in all he could see.
He saw:
His father, looking down upon a dead body, and smiling.
His mother; a knife held to her neck by the blood-smeared hand of someone standing behind her.
A blasted landscape, lit only by flashes of lightning.
A dark mansion on a mountaintop.
A dying sun.
An open door, slowly closing.
Then, one by one, the images started to blink out.
Mike noticed that they were disappearing at the same rate as the door image was closing; and the door was now a crack away from closure.
He reached for the polished rock with the door image, and his hand went through the black rock as if it were not there. The image, however, was solid. He grabbed the knob, opened the door, and jumped through.

“Here he comes.” said Egann.
“What?!” Edward asked.
Egann pointed to Mike’s body, which began to show signs of life. The physical damage done to it seemed to be repairing itself.
“How can this be?” Edward asked, “He was dead!”
“Don't you see? That’s the hell of it.” Egann said, “We can’t die. No one can die in Murgent. Didn’t you see the townspeople? They try and try, but can’t. Zedda’s magic keeps us all alive, against our will.”
A tortured gurgling breath escaped Mike’s lungs, as they began to work again.
“See?” Egann said, “He’s breathing.”
Mike’s broken nose and smashed face righted themselves. Blood stopped flowing as open wounds and broken flesh sealed themselves up. Though still smeared with blood, Mike no longer looked messed up or dead.
“Will he wake up?” Edward asked.
“Yes.” Egann said, “But it will take a while longer. Heavy blood loss tends to slow down the process.”
“You talk like this is an everyday occurrence.” Edward said.
“Around here…” Egann said, “It IS.”
A blonde-haired girl peeked in.
“Oh good, Donna; could you help me here?” Egann asked.
The girl walked in, and glanced down at Mike. “Jeez, Balooda really did a number on the new guy.” she said.
“Could you please take---“ Egann turned to Edward, “What’s your name, kid?”
“Could you please take Edward here to the kitchen, and get him set up there? I’d hate for Balooda to catch him not working yet. I’ll stay here and help this one---Mike, you said?”
Edward nodded.
“Help Mike here get it together. Oh, and tell Ray we’re gonna need some clothes, until the blood gets washed off of these.” he motioned to Mike’s blood-sodden clothes, “About my size, would you say?”
“Yeah, that’s about right.” she said.
She turned to Edward, “Come with me.”
Edward was unsure; he did not want to leave Mike.
Egann nudged him toward Donna, “Go on,” he said, “I’ll let you know when Mike is up.”
Edward followed Donna.

She led him to a large kitchen, where several other kids were busy working, preparing a large meal.
“Supper-time is only two hours away.” Donna said.
“Is this food for everybody?” Edward asked.
Dropped utensils and sudden gasps silenced the noise and activity in the kitchen. Everyone stared at Edward as if he had uttered a blasphemy.
“No Edward.” said Donna, slowly, as if to a slow-witted person, “All of the food is for THEM.” She pointed upward, “For Zedda, Mr. Blessure, and Balooda. Don’t ever even THINK about tasting their food. They’ll know; and you’ll bring their wrath upon us all.”
“Well, when do you all get to eat?” Edward asked.
“We don’t.” said a boy of about Edward’s age.
“We don’t eat or drink anything.” Donna said, “Zedda’s magic alone keeps us alive.”
“Don’t you get hungry? Thirsty?!”
“Oh gods, YES!” Donna said, “But we’re not allowed to taste their food, or sip their water; not even the wash water. Zedda knows everything that happens here. She sees every secret.”
Edward started to ask another question, but Donna cut him off.
“Enough questions! We better get you started on something.”
She led him to a sink, and a pile of dirty pots, pans, and dishes; which was being worked on by a tall red-headed girl.
“This is Alixa.” Donna said, “Alixa, this is Edward.”
The girl gave him a perfunctory look. “Hi.” she said wanly.
“Edward’s taking over for you, Alix. I need you to take over for me a minute.” Donna said.
Alixa nodded and dried her hands.
Donna turned to Edward. “Start working.” she said, “Wash ‘em and dry ‘em. Be fast, be thorough; and for the love of all that is holy, don’t break, crack, or chip anything!”
She turned and left the kitchen.

Mike awoke at last, groaning in pain.
Egann helped him to sit up.
“Sit still for a few minutes,” Egann said, “If you try to stand up too fast, you’ll fall flat on your ass. You’re not gonna have any balance right now. You gotta give the process a good five minutes at least, to finish up all the detail work; and with all the blood you lost, I’d give it ten or fifteen. I don’t know what you did to piss Balooda off that bad, but it must’ve been something supremely stupid.”
“I spit in his face.” Mike said, his voice gravel.
“That was unwise; and after I warned you explicitly not to tick him off.” Egann said, “You have made trouble for all of us; when Balooda loses his temper, he spreads the suffering around. I shudder to think of what poor Jimmy and Rosy are going through right now.”
“The two who were with Balooda in his office; who are probably still there, trying to get your blood out of the carpet.”
“Sorry.” Mike said, and coughed up a clump of congealed blood.
“Sorry doesn’t cut it around here.” Egann said, “Just don’t pull another stunt like that again. How much do you remember?”
“Everything, up to where he grabbed me.”
“Hmmm. The first time I died, it blew out my short term memory; I lost that whole day. The others had to tell me about it. But then, different people are affected differently.”
“Died?” Mike sat up straight, “What do you mean, ‘died’?”
“Balooda killed you. In a rather brutal fashion, I might add. Take a look at yourself, you were dead.” Egann said, “But now you’re back.”
“How is that possible?!”
“The answer to that is rather complex; but you’ll need to know.”
“Can you get me a drink of water first?” Mike asked, “My throat is groggy and sore as hell. It feels like I just swallowed some kitty litter.”
“No.” Egann said.
“Why not?”
“Just sit there and shut up,” Egann said, “Rather than answer these questions piecemeal, and risk confusing you all the more; I’ll tell you how things got to this point. The story of Murgent’s fall, so to speak.”
“Alright, let me hear it.” Mike said. 
He sat back and rested his throbbing head against the wall.
Egann took a deep breath, and began.