Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Chapter 24

Seamus and Cassidy stepped into the darkness and onto the stairs that led downward from between the huge tree's roots. After the first curve in the stairway, what little moonlight had been coming through the entryway was entirely gone, and they were left to feel their way along with careful steps and a hand on each wall.

They had a distance of five stories to travel, since this passageway bypassed all five levels of the Zoo of Death, filled with animals for Prince Humperdinck's violent pastimes. On the first level were the Animals (Prince Humperdinck called them the Enemies) of Speed, on the second were those of Strength. Beyond that were the Poisoners, and then the Enemies of Fear. The fifth level was kept empty, in hopes of one day an animal being found worthy of that status. Nonetheless, it still contained a deadly menace guarding the entry to the room below.

Seamus was quite glad to be taking the short cut. The stairway they were on would lead them straight to the torture chamber, Count Rugen's laboratory of pain, below the other five levels. Not that that would be a pleasant place either, of course, but at least it shouldn't be crawling with vicious animals.

The stairway was just wide enough for Seamus and Cassidy to walk down it shoulder to shoulder, each of them keeping a hand on the wall next to them. After the first minute or two in complete darkness, Seamus felt Cassidy take his hand, and the two of them settled into a comfortable rhythm, heading slowly downwards. The temperature crept down along with them.

"Does it feel like it's getting colder?" Cassidy whispered.

"Yes. Probably because we're getting older."

"Huh? What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing. I just hope it's clean."

Cassidy gave a laugh that time. "I see. You're playing the rhyming game."

"The very same."

"Just like Inigo and Fezzik."

"Uhh… drat. Thwarted! I can't think of a rhyme for Fezzik."

"That's alright," Cassidy told him consolingly, with a smile in her voice. "I'm sure you could have thought of one if the lighting were better. It's far too dark to hear properly down here."

It was Seamus' turn to laugh at that and it was good that he did it while he had the chance, because shortly after they came to the door at the end of the stairs. The room on the other side was not conducive to laughter.

The light was dim in the torture chamber, with only a few torches still burning, the others having gone out during the hours since Inigo and Fezzik had left. Still, it seemed bright to Seamus and Cassidy now that their eyes were no longer straining through complete blackness. The center of the room was dominated by an enormous cage. Inside the cage was the table where Westley had been chained for several months before being connected to The Machine, which occupied the rest of the available space. The main features that could be seen of The Machine were a large wheel, a dial and a lever. The rest of it was far too complex to make sense of, and was covered with an unimaginable array of suction cups of all sizes, dangling limply all around now that there was no one for them to be attached to.

The walls of the chamber were lined with weapons and instruments of torture. Axes, whips, an Iron Maiden, a hanging cage, and others Seamus was glad he couldn't recognize. There was also a desk and a table, both covered with books and papers – all of the Count's research and writings on the subject of pain and distress.

They headed for the desk, and Cassidy found a candelabra which she lit from one of the remaining torches to add a little more light. The loose papers all seemed to be Count Rugen's notes on The Machine: its construction, his preliminary experiments on animals, the first round of testing he had done on Westley. They started picking up books to look at. They all had titles like Pain for the Connoisseur, or Treatise on Agony, and they all looked quite unpleasant.

Then, at the bottom of a pile of what appeared to be Count Rugen's lifetime subscription to Executioner's Quarterly, Seamus found it. A leather bound book, large, though not so large as the one under the library. The gold, embossed symbol on the front showed a book, with a hand reaching out of it.

"This is it!" he called to Cassidy, who had been searching around another stack of books and papers. She dropped a copy of How It Hurts and Why and hurried over to him. Seamus opened the book.

It appeared to be a blank journal, similar to the original ones he and Cassidy had found. Count Rugen had apparently used it as a notebook for a little while, before setting it aside and forgetting about it. The first few pages contained technical notes on some of his various tools and machines, a list of subjects he needed to procure for an upcoming experiment, and a few other painful jottings and reminders. It didn't appear that the book had written back to him, or that he had realized what is was.

As they looked at the pages though, the words and letters on the paper began to shift, crawling around each other like ants in an ant farm, or like a marching band going into a new formation.

"It's going to tell us something," whispered Seamus. "It's going to rearrange the Count's words to make a new message."

But at that moment, their attention was distracted by a faint, echoing shriek. They looked up quickly and scanned the room. Opposite the door they had entered was another door, smashed and dangling on its hinges. From the dark hallway beyond that door came another shriek, far louder this time. Seamus and Cassidy looked at each other, and the fear they saw in each other's eyes did nothing to help the situation. They got to their feet just as a Blood Eagle swept into the room with the loudest, most blood-curdling cry yet.

It had a wingspan of over eight feet, its feathers black except for on its head and wingtips, where the color became a deep, blood red. It shot across the chamber straight towards Seamus and Cassidy, who dropped the book back on the stack and threw themselves to the floor. Seamus rolled under the desk, and Cassidy ducked behind the Iron Maiden, a large sarcophagus-like contraption with spikes on the inside. The eagle swerved to avoid hitting the wall behind them, swooped up to the high ceiling, and immediately headed back down again, this time towards Cassidy, who was the more exposed of the two. Its shrieks were filling the room.

Seamus saw the eagle starting to dive, grabbed a random book that had fallen to the floor beside him, and threw it. Given the circumstances, there was no way he could have expected a hit, but it crossed the bird's path a mere foot in front of its beak, again causing it to react and swerve. In the meantime, Cassidy had pulled a mace down from the wall next to her. She brandished it in front of her as she wedged herself as far back in the corner between the wall and the Iron Maiden as she could. The lid of the giant metal casket was open, so she pulled it partly in front of her, with the inner spikes now pointed out.

The eagle came in to attack again, and for a moment all Seamus could see was a terrifying flurry of feathers, with Cassidy somewhere on the other side of them. Her location had given her some protection, but limited her to just poking and jabbing with the mace, without being able to get a good swing.

Seamus gave another frantic glance around the room. If there was one thing they didn't lack here, it was weapons. He spotted a cat o' nine tails on the wall just past the eagle, and made a run for it. The eagle heard him, pulled back from Cassidy, and headed for Seamus, who took the whip from the wall, and spun around flailing it wildly all in one movement. A stray lash caught the bird across the face and sent it back to wind up for another attack. This time, Seamus was ready and lashed out with more strength and aim. The cords of the cat o' nine tails caught around the eagle's talons.

The eagle tried to rise up into the air again, panicking slightly now with its feet trapped, but Seamus kept hold of his end of the whip. Cassidy had come out of her hiding place, still carrying the mace. Seamus jerked down on the whip and Cassidy took a swing which knocked the bird to the ground, stunned. Another swing and its head was crushed against the stone floor.

They stood panting over the body of the dead Blood Eagle, then Cassidy collapsed into the chair at Count Rugen's desk, leaned over, and vomited. Seamus sank down to the floor on a pile of scattered papers next to her.

"Where did that… thing… come from?" Cassidy said, as she caught her breath.

"It must have gotten loose from the zoo," said Seamus, "though I don't know how, since Inigo and Fezzik would have had to deal with it if it had been free earlier."

"Somebody else must have let it out, then," said Cassidy.

"Yes," said a new voice from the doorway, calm and menacing. "Somebody certainly did." Count Rugen stood there, his gloved, six-fingered hand toying with a long, Florinese dagger. "I thought I would send one of our little friends down to greet our visitors, though you didn't turn out to be very friendly, did you? But no matter. There are plenty of other entertaining ways to deal with you."

He took a step into the room, and then for the first time noticed the cage in the middle, now no longer contained his previous victim. It threw him off his stride.

"What?!?" he roared. "Where is he? What have you done with the body?" He rushed over to the cage, his attention momentarily removed from Seamus and Cassidy who were both on their feet again.

"Run!" shouted Seamus, giving Cassidy a shove in the direction of the other door as he dove for the book that still lay on the pile behind them.

Count Rugen remained distracted for barely an instant, and as he turned back to them his dagger flashed across the room, landing on the book a fraction of a second before Seamus' hand did, impaling it easily and pinning it to several pages of what was to be the Count's definitive book on pain.

Cassidy, halfway to the door, heard a gasp and spun around. Seamus and Count Rugen were both staring at the book as the dagger sticking out of it slowly dissolved.


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