Saturday, November 12, 2005

Chapter 14

Ixy looked up at the large, ornate, wooden door before her and wished she could read. If she could read, she would be able to tell that the engraved letters on the door marked it as The Collection Room. Then, with a start, she realized that she must be able to read after all, since that was precisely what it said. Slightly fuzzy through her near sighted lizard eyes, but there it was. She wondered what a collection room was. It sounded very grand.

It was the next night after her rough encounter with the demon guards Shandag and Vormas. It was her next dream, anyway. Did she dream every night? She didn't know. Since she wasn't really awake in between, it was hard to tell.

This time she had taken a different route upon leaving her room, or if not her room then the room she always started her dreams in, and had avoided the soldiers' quarters. She knew she should be on the look out for the patrolling guards, but at least she didn't have to deliberately go towards the highest density of them. She had taken a winding corridor that sloped and curled downwards as though it knew as little of where it was going as Ixy did. The few times that other creatures had passed her, she had heard them coming and found a shadowy alcove to hide in, or a ragged tapestry to sneak behind, and she had gone unnoticed. But there were also long stretches of bare corridor, with no alcoves, tapestries, or side halls branching off, and these she skittered nervously through as quickly as she could.

She didn't really know why she had picked this corridor for the night's explorations, but now that she was in it there seemed no point in turning back. She figured her curiosity would surely get the better of her some day, and she wondered if she could get killed in a dream, or what would happen to her if her dream body got hurt. She didn't really think it was her body, so it might not be that catastrophic. She would be careful, nonetheless, just in case.

The door was immense, and Ixy's miniscule arms could barely reach up to the latch. She gave it a tug, but it was locked. She tapped at the large iron lock, and tried to stick a claw into it. But the keyhole sealed itself over at her attempt, and the lock now appeared to be nothing but a flat metal panel. She tapped it again, and spikes jutted out of it, nearly poking her. It was clearly a lock that did not wish to be disturbed. She left it alone.

Ixy heard the sound of footsteps coming down the corridor. Two pairs, one a steady clopping of boots in a purposeful stride, the other an irregular pounding shuffle, with the clacking of claws on the stone floor. Ixy looked around hurriedly. There was a turn in the winding corridor just next to the door, and she ducked behind it just as two figures rounded a bend from the other direction. The torch carried by the second figure illuminated the hall in flickering light, and Ixy peered out from her corner in the shadows.

The leading figure wore a long, flowing, dark cape that swirled around him as he stopped in front of the door. He examined the lock.

"Someone has been at this door, Bratch," he said, his voice a smooth, silky glide that seemed to carry unseen menace. He tapped one of the spikes, and they receded, then he rubbed a thumb over the metal panel and the keyhole reappeared.

"It wasn't one of my lot, Master," Bratch replied. "They been told what's off limits 'round here. They're just the patrol, and they knows it." He was a rough, jagged demon, with long, heavily muscled arms that reached down past the knees of his short, slightly bowed legs. Two large, bat-like wings curved out from his shoulders, occasionally flexing as if of their own volition, to tap the walls of the corridor. One clawed hand held the torch aloft like a matchstick, and the shadows it cast were like demons themselves.

"So you say, Bratch. But I will know if any of them happens to 'forget' his place. Hold this for me."

He passed a small bundle to the demon, then reached into his cloak and brought forth a thin, rectangular strip of metal. He held it in one hand and laid his other index finger perpendicularly across it. As he ran his finger along its length, bits of the metal vanished, leaving behind a bizarrely curved and twisted key. The key fit into the lock without even so much as a whisper of scraping metal, and the door swung smoothly open.

The Master swept into the room, and Bratch followed, stooping slightly and pulling his wings in tight to fit through the doorway. Ixy crept closer so she could peek in behind them. Bratch lit a second torch on the wall from his own, but most of the room was still dark. In the circle of torch light, Ixy could see rows of chests and cabinets, as well as cages of various sizes and shapes. A few indistinguishable sounds of unknown creatures disturbed in their sleep burbled up from somewhere in the back.

On a straw pallet near the door was a lumpy, sleeping form. The Master strode over to it and jabbed it roughly with his boot.

"Up, steward! Up! We have a new addition."

The steward grunted, and made some indistinct and groggy complaint, then seemed to realize who was addressing him and struggled hurriedly to his feet, rubbing his eyes.

"Yes, Master. Sorry, sir. Just catching a few winks, y'know. Door safely locked an' all, charges all asleep. Just restin'."

He was a short, stumpy figure, with twisted features and miscellaneous lumps scattered around his body. He wore a long tunic that looked like a rough burlap sack, and most of his skin was calloused and scarred.

"Spare me the details, steward, and prepare a new cage. It needn't be large. Bratch, give me that."

Bratch handed back the bundle he was holding, which was quivering slightly, and the Master began to unwrap it. Inside was a small, mewling kitten, which he took by the scruff of its neck and held up.

"Ah!" The stewards eyes lit up with interest as he inspected it. "Not one of our kind, is it, eh? Another one from Over There?"

"Yes, the second one in a week. The boundaries between the worlds are tearing more easily these days. Put this next to the other one."

"Yes, Master. And I know just the cage to put it in, all ready and waitin' for just such an occasion. Right this way, please."

As the three of them moved off down one of the rows, Ixy slipped inside the door, keeping to the shadows beyond the torchlight. The sight of the pitiful, crying kitten had struck a chord in her, though she didn't know why she should feel so sorry for it. She crept along under the tables in the row next to the one that the Master, steward and demon had taken, and watched from an awkward angle as the kitten was deposited in a grimy cage with a rough blanket and a bowl of cold water.

"There, y'see?" said the steward, "It'll be just like home. He'll be right happy and comf'table in no time."

The kitten's mewing did not seem to agree, but the Master had already turned his attention to a large glass enclosure next to it. A hand lay inside it, attached to most of a forearm, but nothing else. It wasn't bloody, and didn't seem to have been detached from a body. It was just there, being a hand.

"Ah yes!" The steward scuttled over. "Your finest catch yet! It's receiving the best of care. Hands are very sensitive, y'know, so I been finding it lots o' nice, soft things for it to touch and play with, to keep it happy. See that lovely rabbit skin? It likes to stroke that, to pass the time. And I even found a few shiny rings for it, in case it likes to decorate itself."

The enclosure did seem to have a variety of objects in it. There was even what looked like a stress ball, for squeezing, and some silly putty that had been pulled and prodded into vague shapes.

"Now, to tell the truth, I haven't rightly figured out what I ought to feed it," the steward continued, scratching his head, "but it seems to be doing right enough so far, eh?"

"Yes, it does," the Master intoned. "You have done well, steward. Continue to give this the utmost priority, however. I have a feeling that it will lead me to an even better catch, if we use it correctly."

"Yes sir, certainly sir. Always the best, sir."

"Very good. Come, Bratch. We are done here."

The Master glided back down the row towards the door, with Bratch following, looking uncomfortably cramped and trying not to knock anything over with his wings. The steward followed with a rolling waddle, looking very pleased to have earned a compliment.

Once the door was closed and locked again, the steward extinguished his torch and lowered himself back down onto his straw bed, grumbling something about midnight duty and needing his beauty sleep. Soon he was snoring again.

Ixy came out from under her table, looking for the little kitten. Her eyes were of hardly any use in the dark, but she could smell it without a problem. She crept up to its cage and pressed her nose to the bars. She wished she could let it know that she was a friend, that she wanted to help, but the kitten was terrified. It gave a cry even louder than before and cowered in the far corner of the cage, knocking over its water bowl. Ixy pulled away, sad but not wanting to make things any worse.

She knew she wouldn't be able to get past the steward, or out the locked door, so it seemed that she was trapped here as well. So she huddled in a corner where she hoped to remain unnoticed, and went to sleep. Or perhaps she woke up.


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