Saturday, November 12, 2005

Twelfth Day

Man, I am on fire this weekend. Between yesterday and today, I've already written my way through tomorrow's word count. Awesome. I'm going to try to do it all again tomorrow, too.

I could conceivably write more tonight as well, but I think I will reward myself by going to see The Mikado over at Stanford.

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.

Chapter 15

Jaden got a ride home from the dance with Doug, who also lived in Mountain View. He was quiet for most of the ride, aside from asking Doug if he had met Zoe. Doug thought for a minute.

"Yeah, I think I did meet her," he said. "Small girl, right? Long hair, sort of elfin features?"

"That's the one."

"Great dancer. I think we did a cross step."

"Yeah, she's really good. I'd never seen her around before, though, have you?"

"Nope. I think she said she's a psych student or something. Maybe she only just got into the dance scene. Got good really fast if she did, though."

"Yes, indeed." Jaden wanted to ask if Doug had noticed anything odd about her eyes when he had danced with her, or if he had perhaps seen visions of blazing skies and cloaked horsemen. But he thought that might be going a bit too far.

The dance replayed in his dreams that night, and he woke up with the melody of "Iris" going through his head. After breakfast, he walked over to Prof. Oddbury's to talk to him about it.

"Ah, yes, I was wondering about that," was the professor's reply, to which Jaden responded with a quizzical look. "You dreamed about this Zoe girl last night, did you not?"

"Uh, yeah. How did you know?"

"I'm monitoring you, of course! I've told you that. Now, now, don't be embarrassed. It's for your own good, you know. Come, let's take a look."

They went to the computer and Oddbury pulled up the list of Jaden's dreams in iTunes, then clicked on the previous night's date. A movie began to play, and Jaden had the very surreal sensation of watching his own dream play back at him on a computer screen. He knew it could happen, since he had watched all those other dreams, but it was still bizarre. The professor fast-forwarded most of the way through, then started it playing again.

"That's her, isn't it?"

It was. There was the waltz music, and Zoe's eyes looking up at him. There was the meter change, and the pivots, and…

Jaden reached out and hit the space bar to pause the movie.

"There," he said. "Who or what is that? That's what I want to know. It was like that at the actual dance last night, not just in my dream."

"I believe you," Prof. Oddbury said seriously, and he began slowly scrolling through the following scenes. "And I believe that what we may have here," he looked sideways at Jaden, "may be your trophy hunter."

"That's him? That's the guy who took my hand? Damn it!" He shook his good fist at the screen. "That jerk!"

"Yes, well, I would say that is a fairly safe bet. You see these flames in the sky? Only once in my life have I been dreamside on a boundary rift, but that is precisely what it looked like. Now, we see him leap through it – try getting a horse of this world to do that, eh? He's only got a few seconds, and yes, there he is again, carrying his trophy, whatever it was that he managed to get this time. And there, we see the rift sealing itself again already. Classic case, I'd say."

"But how did I see all this? And why?"

"Yes, that question had crossed my mind as well. My theory is that this young lady of yours possesses some degree of psychic power."

"She's a psychic? As in, she can read my mind?"

"Not necessarily. There are many forms of psychic power aside from the stereotypical view of it, and it is possible that she may not be aware that she has it. But someone with any form of extra psychic ability will naturally be closer to the dreamlands, and other alternate realities, than the rest of us. They make excellent oneironauts. Now take a look at this."

He brought up the dream analysis program Jaden had seen running before, and queued it up to the beginning of the dance with Zoe.

"We'll just run through a short clip with her in it, so we don’t have to process the whole file. Here."

He paused the dream and clicked a button. The mouse pointer became a colorful, spinning beach ball for several seconds, and then a page of charts and data appeared.

"There. You see?"

Jaden saw nothing but incomprehensible graphs of lines and squiggles, and said so. The professor gave a tiny snort of frustration.

"This shows," he said, "that she has an unusual amount of actual presence, reality you might say, even in the context of your dream. She is partially crossed over, even though she herself might just be thinking it is an ordinary dream."

"Alright, I'll take your word for it. So what does this all mean? Why is any of it happening?"

"It may mean nothing. This girl could just have become a temporary and accidental channel, allowing you a glimpse into the dreamlands. It can happen."


"Or, I suppose, your trophy hunter could be doing this deliberately. He could be using her as a way of warning you that he's watching you, and knows what you're up to."

The last line of the waltz rang through Jaden's head. I just want you to know who I am.

"Which means…" he began.

"…that your task may be more difficult than we thought."