Sunday, November 13, 2005

Thirteenth Day

The writing today didn't come at all as easily as yesterday's, but I still managed to write myself two thirds of the way through Tuesday, so not too bad in the end.

By the way, I know several of the people who are following along as I write, but if you're reading surreptitiously, let me know! I had a couple pleasant surprises recently of people I didn't expect to be reading, and it's always fun to have more of an audience. Keeps the motivation up. :-)

Chapter 16

Malcolm awoke to a kick in the ribs.

"Oi! What're you doing 'ere, yeh little blighter? Who let you in?"

Malcolm opened his eyes and saw the twisted form of the steward standing over him, about to deliver another kick. He tried to curl up tighter, and the kick landed on his tail. Ouch. That was going to leave a bruise, and on one of his favorite vertebrae, too.

"You in 'ere trying to nick somethin', eh? What did ya get? Turn out yer pockets!"

Malcolm realized where he was now, but had no idea how he had ended up falling asleep in the collection room. He only had the one shirt pocket, which he timidly presented, empty, for inspection. The steward grunted at it, and roughly searched over the rest of Malcolm's shirt and tie, looking for another hidden pocket somewhere. But there was nothing, and aside from his clothing, a small Tyrannosaur does not have a lot of natural hiding places for stolen valuables. The steward grudgingly gave up the search and began hauling Malcolm towards the door.

"Jus' because I can't find anything don't mean yeh ain't guilty," he snarled. "I'd report yeh to the Master this instant, if I weren't afeard o' losing me own job fer letting yeh in. But I warn yeh," he bent down to glare straight in Malcolm's eye, "if I find anything missing in 'ere, then yer in for it, no mistake."

He threw Malcolm out into the corridor and slammed the door.

Malcolm picked himself up gingerly from the stone floor, wincing as he felt the aches and bruises beginning to form. He stood up as straight as he could, dusted himself off and straightened his tie. Really! This was no way to treat one of the Master's most faithful servants. As if he, Malcolm, would ever want to steal from the Master! It was unthinkable. The steward's behavior was uncalled for and it would simply have to be reported, that's all there was to it. Malcolm wondered if he had the authority to do that.

He looked around and thought for a moment, to get himself oriented, then trotted off down the corridor in what he hoped was the correct direction. Rounding the first bend, he was bowled over by another demon coming the opposite way. A large, clawed hand grabbed him by the front of his shirt and lifted him easily off the ground, leaving his feet dangling.

"You got business down here?" Lotzi growled. Built as large and powerfully as Bratch, the other demon captain, Lotzi had no wings, but a long, lashing tail and fearsome fangs. Not the sort you want to run into unexpectedly.

Malcolm had no specific business there, regrettably, but was it so inconceivable that the Master should send him on an errand there? Surely Malcolm was above suspicion.

"Some of my lads say they been finding you out prowling around these last nights. Shandag says you led him and Vormas on a right nice little chase."

Malcolm knew nothing of this. Why would he be out prowling around? Especially without his own knowledge. There must have been some mistake.

Lotzi dropped him and gave him a thwack on the rump with the butt of his spear.

"Off with you, now! There's a patrol due on in two minutes, and if they find you here, they have my full permission to skewer you to your own bed to keep you out of trouble."

Malcolm took off. Who did that Lotzi think he was, anyway? Still, you don't argue with a demon three times your size and carrying a spear. The big bully.

As the corridor slanted upwards and approached more familiar territory, Malcolm slowed his trot to his usual bird-like walk. He found himself passing the entrance to the Great Hall and saw that the door was open slightly. The cleaning staff had probably not closed it all the way. He poked his head in.

He had always liked the Great Hall, such a regal place. It was still empty this early in the morning, and the tapping of his claws echoed off the marble pillars and cavernous ceiling as he crept inside. There was a throne on a dais at the opposite end, and Malcolm went up to it to admire it. He didn't usually get to come this close to the throne.

In fact, as long as he was here…. Malcolm took another careful look around the Great Hall. Definitely empty. He hopped up on the throne and surveyed the room. What a view! And how well the throne suited him! Then he spotted the small purple carpet leading up the steps to the throne. He hopped down again, grabbed the ends of the carpet, and wrapped it around his neck like a cape. Beautiful! He hopped up on the throne. He wished he had a mirror: he must look fantastic. Well… he looked down and straightened his tie with his claws. Yes, fantastic. Very regal. Just look at that! That puts the Rex in Tyrannosaurus Rex!

When the soft voice sounded behind him, he nearly jumped out of his shirt.

"Malcolm," said the Master, warningly.

Before you could say Struthiomimus, Malcolm had leapt up out of the carpet and off the throne and had taken cover, quivering, behind a nearby marble pillar.

"Come here, Malcolm," the Master's voice never raised over its soft murmur.

Malcolm inched forward, bowing and keeping his eyes fixed deferentially on the ground. There was an art to groveling, he knew, that was lost on most of the Master's attendants. He, however, was an expert, and he was sure this made him stand out favorably in the Master's opinion.

"Malcolm, Lotzi informs me that you have been acting oddly of late. Sneaking around corridors after hours, turning up in places you have no business being in. Is that so?"

It most certainly was not. Malcolm was a model of respectable behavior. Even now, he had just been testing the Master's throne to make sure it was in suitable condition. Why should he want to go lurking and prowling around where he shouldn't? No, no, not Malcolm. He shook his head earnestly.

"Are you quite sure there isn't anything you would like to tell me, Malcolm?"

Quite sure, yes. Malcolm wasn't about to admit that he had woken up in the collections room for no apparent reason that morning, or that he thought he had been sound asleep when other demons claimed to have seen him up and about, or that he had been having strange dreams running around as a toy cat and hunting small animals. Things like that weren't normal, and he didn't have a good explanation for them. Better just to let it all go and not mention it. It would all sort itself out in the end.

"Very well, Malcolm." The Master gave him a long, cold look that gave Malcolm the shivers and made him clutch nervously at his tie. "You may go. And no more of your little games."

Malcolm scurried backwards towards the door, head still bowed. Then, realizing that it really was quite a long way down the Great Hall just to get to the door, he simply turned tail and fled. He decided it might be best to just go hide in his room for a little while. It had been a rough morning. Really, he didn't deserve all this.

Chapter 17

Gordon was still keeping an eye out for Ixy, but he hadn't seen her for several days. He was even beginning to wonder if he had just had a series of strange nightmares, but the sight of a decapitated sparrow on the lawn one morning reminded him that if this were a nightmare, it was having awfully real effects.

He was getting rather more worried. What little he was managing to learn about exorcisms wasn’t going to do him much good if he couldn't even find the thing that was possessed. Of course, when it came to that, he was having trouble even getting proper instructions. It seemed as though people throughout history had used all sorts of crazy methods to drive out demons, and the books he had were full of incomplete and/or conflicting accounts.

Most of the modern religious descriptions focused heavily on prayer, which Gordon wasn't entirely comfortable with. Without an actual priest or someone to help him, he didn't think his own little prayers would really have the necessary oomph to do much good. As for getting the subject to pray on her own behalf, another recommended strategy, that was out of the question. It was a stuffed cat, for goodness' sake.

The older accounts focused more on precise rituals, performed with certain objects or tools by a village's local witch, healer, or even just members of the populace. There seemed to be a lot more hocus pocus involved, but Gordon figured that prayer was only a more commonly accepted hocus pocus than rabbit entrails and whatnot, and if you've already accepted that a childhood toy can come alive and start killing small animals and doing God knows what else, well then there's no point turning up your nose at any method of dealing with it.

Suspecting that he would have to come up with his own solution, Gordon had begun collecting various items that seemed like they might be useful. He had picked up a packet of white votive candles at the chemist's after school, for starters. He pinched bits of basil, rosemary, and mint from his mother's spice cupboard, since he had seen those listed as herbs believed to aid in driving out evil spirits. And when he had found the dead sparrow, he had even managed to collect some of its blood in an empty beer bottle. That had been pretty gross work, but "blood of a victim" sounded important, and he thought it might be worth having.

The after school study sessions had been improving somewhat, as Gordon got more comfortable actually talking to Lucy. He had brought one of his better drawings to show her on the second day, and she had seemed to be quite impressed. After that, he found himself getting into a habit of arriving early to history class, and leaving a small drawing on a folded piece of paper on her desk for her to find when she arrived. She smiled and complimented each one, and Gordon noticed that they seemed to accumulate in the back pocket of her binder, rather than getting thrown away.

Gordon wished he could tell Lucy about Ixy. It was a hard problem to be carrying around inside with no one to share it with. But that seemed like an idiotic thing to add to the equation just when things seemed like they might – knock on wood – actually be going well. What would she say? "Oh, you know, I kind of liked you, but now that I see you're insane, forget about it." That's what. So he didn't mention it.

On Friday, their history class had a field trip to Edinburgh Castle. It wasn't as though any of them hadn't ever been there or anything, but nobody was about to complain about a day out of school. And the tourists would be amusing to watch, at the very least. Gordon wondered if he might be able to snag a seat next to Lucy on the bus, but a couple of her girl friends managed to get there first and he was stuck up in front next to the bus driver and the class dweebs who always sat in front, wherever they were.

Gordon had been to Edinburgh Castle several times, since his father was very keen on Scottish history and often tried to instill the same sort of interest in his children. The only thing Gordon had ever managed to take away from it, though, was the silly bit about Sir Walter Scott and the crown jewels.

The silly bit was this: Once Scotland became part of the UK they no longer needed their own crown jewels – the sceptre, crown, etc. – so they locked them in a box and locked that in a room. Then they promptly got themselves all confused and started wondering if the crown jewels were really in there, and where they might be if they weren't. It was all very mysterious for about a hundred years until Sir Walter Scott came along and had the brilliant idea of actually checking. Lo and behold, the crown jewels were right were they had been left, and Sir Walter got a plaque in Edinburgh Castle for it. Gordon wished he could get an award for something easy like that.

The crown jewels were now on display in a special room with high security of course, but Gordon had seen them plenty of times before. He slipped out of the crowd to go use the loo, which was beneath the building they were currently in. On his way back, he heard someone call his name softly.

He turned and saw Lucy beckoning him over. She was in a dark, cave-like area that overlooked the partially excavated ruins of some ancient feast hall beneath the rocks that the rest of the castle was built on.

"Hi Lucy. What are you doing down here. Are they done up there with the crown jewels already?"

"The crowded jewels is more like it. No, I got tired of all that and slipped off. I like it down here. It feels like the earth is reclaiming itself, and absorbing everything people built on it."

Gordon could see what she meant. In spite of a recorded voice backed by lute music and telling tales of the royal feasting that took place here, it was really just like looking into a cavern, with the outlines of old rooms and carvings all fading into the rock.

"It's a bit cold, though," she added, giving a little shiver and slipping her arm around Gordon's waist.

"Um, yeah," Gordon agreed, hoping he didn't sound too surprised. "It's all the, uh… rock. Caves like this are always cold." He put his arm gingerly around her shoulder and tried to stand very still.

"Gordon, will you draw me a picture of the castle?" Lucy asked. "With us on it?"

"Oh! Sure. Sure, I could do that." He realized she had pulled in a little closer and was looking up at him.

"I'd like that." And she raised herself just a little bit on her toes and kissed him lightly on the mouth.

Gordon looked at her in mild amazement. What little spare processing power currently available in his brain pointed out to him that she was smiling, but that it was a slightly worried smile. Could it be that she was as nervous as he was, and worried about how he would react? Do something! that little spare bit of his brain shouted, before being overwhelmed again as Gordon leaned in to kiss her back, which seemed to do the trick.

The sound of an approaching gaggle of high schoolers filtered down into the caves, and Gordon and Lucy let go of each other just before the class trooped into the next entrance up from where they were. The two of them slipped out their own exit and mingled in with the crowd from the back, hoping they looked unremarkably casual.

There was no chance to get away for the rest of the afternoon. They did manage to sit next to each other on the bus ride back to school, but with all the other students around, they mostly just stuck to small talk, or swapping jokes with their neighbors. Back at the school, Lucy had to get on a different bus to go home, but she slipped something into Gordon's hand as she said goodbye.

He waited until he was on his own bus to unfold the scrap of paper. There was a phone number on it, followed by "Call me this weekend. – L.C." and a little heart. His own heart began to beat noticeably faster, and he looked nervously around the bus, but no one else seemed to hear the thumping. He reread the note until the bus reached his stop, then tucked it safely away in his pocket as he got out and headed home with a little extra spring in his step.

That night, Ixy came back.