Monday, November 21, 2005

Twenty-first Day

I'm back. And I'm afraid I haven't done the best job of figuring out precisely what's going to wrap up the last 10 days of noveling here. So I'm still just kind of muddling along in the dark, hoping it all works out. I'm also kind of tired, which doesn't help much.

Mom's bad title suggestion of the day: "Oddbury's Oddest Odyssey."

Chapter 23

Jaden followed the river towards the mansion, trying to keep to what little cover was available. There were a few bushes and shrubs lining the banks, though the trees didn't start until farther on. Also, it was getting darker, so he hoped that would help him remain unnoticed until he got closer and formulated an actual plan.

As he drew nearer, he could tell that this was indeed the dark mansion he had seen superimposed on 250 Richards Street, though here it seemed even bigger, or perhaps it was just that the space it was in was actually big enough to hold it now. The same eerie light came from the windows, and the halls and towers seemed to stretch out farther than before, making it hard to tell exactly how bit it was. A long, dark pool stretched out in front of one wing of the building, with a fountain in the middle stirring the water.

Jaden was approaching from the side with the pool, and he crouched behind a low hedge on the other side of the tall, cast iron fence next to it. He wondered if it really was water in there. It moved and sounded like water, but looked as black as tar.

He inched along quietly, thinking to prowl the perimeter for a while and get his bearings. There was a small gap in the hedge, and he was scooting quickly across it when his toe stubbed against a large, thick root sticking out of the ground. He looked down in surprise at the feeling, since the root had seemed to squish and bend, rather than yield a solid resistance, and then the root peeled itself off from the ground and practically reared up at Jaden like an angry snake. In a split second, Jaden saw that the underside was lined with small suction cups, and the root was actually a tentacle, trailing off into the pool. Then it lashed out at him, flinging itself around his waist in a tight grip, and yanked him forward.

Jaden threw his left arm up to block his face as he was slammed against the metal fence. Then tentacle continued on through the bars, but Jaden's body wouldn't fit, and he continued to be buffeted against the fence as it jerked him forward repeatedly. Between the bruising blows, Jaden could see other tentacles poking up and slapping the surface of the water, and he could hear an eerie wail coming from somewhere in the middle, near the fountain. He tried to pry the tentacle off, but it was latched on like a boa constrictor. He didn't know how long he could keep getting whacked like that before it beat him into a pulp.

And then he heard shouts and running footsteps, and suddenly large, clawed, hairy hands were seizing him and others were striking at the tentacle and peeling it off of him. After a brief struggle, the tentacle let go, doled out a few extra slaps all around, and then retreated back into the pool. Jaden was being held down on the ground, though he probably wouldn't have felt much like getting up just then, even if he hadn't been restrained.

"Looks like ol' slime gills here has caught a bigger rabbit than usual, eh Vormas?"

"Yess, indeed, Shandag."

"Lucky for us we got outer East wing patrol today. He'll make a fine catch to bring in. Not often we get to take a real prisoner." Jaden heard a snuffling sound close behind his head. "And this'll be a good one. He's not one of us. He's got the smell on him, from the Other Side."

"Ssso ssstop gloating already and tie him up ssso we can take him in."

The one holding Jaden down yanked Jaden's arms around behind his back.

"How am I supposed to tie his hands together? He's only got the one of them!"

The other one gave a hiss of annoyance, and Jaden felt scaly hands replace the hairy ones and haul him to his feet. A gray-green snakelike head stared down at him contemptuously, and grabbed at his arms. His left arm was crossed across his chest, and the shortened right one pulled in as close as possible, then he was wrapped in a rope, creating a makeshift straight-jacket. His captors held one end of an attached rope as a leash, and ordered him to march.

They followed the border around for a while until they came to a large iron gate, which the taller, reptilian demon – the one that had been called Vormas – opened with a key from a ring at his belt.

Well, thought Jaden, at least this solves my problem of getting inside.

A second key unlocked a solid wooden door leading into the mansion itself. Up close, Jaden wondered if it was actually big enough to be called a castle. It seemed slightly different every time he looked at it, though. This was not the main entrance they were at, but something on the side, and the stone corridor led downwards immediately from the entrance.

As they turned a corner, the shorter, hairier demon caught sight of something in the shadows and lunged after it. He hauled a smaller, wriggling creature out into the light. It looked like a very small Tyrannosaurus Rex, in a shirt and tie. Shandag gave it a shake.

"Listen here, Malcolm," he said, roughly. "We've got a new prisoner that we're taking down to the dungeon. An important prisoner. You go find Bratch and let him know. He'll want to see this one. Then tell the next shift to get on outer East wing patrol while we're in here. Go!"

He shoved Malcolm off with a kick, and the smaller demon scurried away, whimpering slightly. Jaden's captors laughed as he ran.

The dungeon was cold and dank, but seemed basically empty of prisoners. Jaden was tossed into the first cell and locked in. He tried to say something once or twice, but Shandag and Vormas just told him to shut up and save his stories for the captain.

After a few minutes, the dungeon door burst open and two enormous wings made the torches flicker as a huge demon entered and towered over the other two. Shandag and Vormas leapt up from where they had been lounging by a wall and gave a hasty salute.

"Well, what have you found for me?" rumbled the voice of the demon captain. "I hope for your sakes that you are not troubling me with trifles."

"No, sir!" barked Shandag. "This is a good one! Right there, sir, in Cell One." He pointed to Jaden.

Shandag and Vormas had to leap out of the way to avoid Bratch's wings as he swept around and glared into Jaden's cell. Jaden shrank back against the wall, but the cell was too small, and a long arm reached in, hooked a claw in the rope around his chest, and drew him up to the bars. Bratch peered at him closely, and sniffed, then his eyes fell on Jaden's amulet. He grabbed it, and snapped the cord off of Jaden's neck, then turned on the guards again.

"You fools!" he growled, "Never leave one of these on a prisoner. They can use them to escape back to their own world."

He turned back to Jaden again.

"Now," he said, "what exactly are you doing here? And don't tell me you're just dreaming, because I know better. You don't dream with one of these on." He waved the amulet in front of the cell bars.

Jaden tried to speak firmly, without letting too much tremble into his voice.

"I am here to recover something that was taken from me."

"Oh, really. And what might that be?"

"My right hand."

Suddenly Bratch's arm was in the cell again, and he had wedged a claw in Jaden's bindings, loosening the rope so that he could see the stump of Jaden's elbow.

"Mmmm," he rumbled, "Excellent. The Master will be most pleased." He withdrew his arm and addressed Shandag and Vormas again. "You have done well. Leave him here for now and make sure no one touches him without orders from the Master or myself."

With a bound assisted by his wings, he was up the stairs and out the dungeon door. Shandag and Vormas congratulated themselves, looking at Jaden and snickering.

After several minutes of eternity passed, Bratch returned.

"The Mater wishes the prisoner to be presented at court," he said. "Open the cell."

Shandag and Vormas rushed to obey, and hauled Jaden out by his rope, heading towards the dungeon stairs. But Bratch grabbed the rope from them.

"I will take him. Do you think the Master wants you two at court? Get back to your patrol."

The two guards looked disappointed but knew better than to argue. They saluted glumly and left. Jaden was left with Bratch, who, he noticed, now wore Jaden's amulet around his own neck. Bratch saw him looking at it and grinned a snarling, fanged sort of grin.

"I'll just be keeping this for you," he said. "Wouldn't want anything to happen to it, would we? Now march!"

He gave Jaden a shove towards the door and they left the dungeon. As they ascended the corridors, they gradually moved into more populated areas, and passed more and more demons, or other beings. Many stared at Jaden in curiosity, but refrained from getting too close or asking any questions of his fearsome captor.

At last they came to two enormous double doors, guarded by two trolls. The trolls were as tall as Bratch, and at least twice as wide, but seemed to be mostly mindless brute strength and not much else. Bratch barked an order at them and they each grabbed an iron ring in one of the doors and pulled them slowly open.

Jaden found himself at one end of an immense hall, the towering roof supported by marble pillars. A purple carpet paved a path all the way down to a dais and a throne at the other end, and crowds filled the hall between the carpet and the walls. A general buzz of excited conversation hushed as everyone turned to see the newcomers.

Bratch strode purposefully down the aisle, yanking Jaden along after him. Jaden looked around him as he went. The crowd seemed to be made of demons, fairies, dwarves, elves, human-like people of various kinds, and probably many other things that he wouldn't know names for.

When they reached the foot of the dais, Bratch pushed Jaden down to his knees and gave a low bow, saying nothing.

The figure on the throne rose. He was tall and thin and pale white, and his black robes swirled around him and pooled on the dais. A crest of long black feathers from some giant bird arched from the back of his robes, framing his white face starkly against them.

"Thank you, Bratch." His voice sounded like a whisper in Jaden's mind, but he had no doubt that it was heard just as clearly at the opposite end of the hall. "You may go now. We have some entertainment planned for our… guest here."