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. 

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