Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Return of the Hapless Hobbits - Part I

The Prisoners of Five Animals Hall

Meanwhile... about nine days earlier in Hobbington ...

Ishcandar and Lido watched as the student in the black robes closed the door behind him. They wondered vaguely if they would ever see the light of day again, but shrugged it off lightly. Ishcandar uncorked the wine on his night table and took a swig of the rich aromatic liquor. Lido sat at the desk and pulled out a piece of parchment paper and ink kit from his backpack and began studiously drawing the map of the dungeon as he remembered it thus far. Ishcandar laid down on his bed and swigged from the bottle contentedly. He felt very alert, his senses practically tingling from the Jarrow Tea. He gazed at the fine silver band with the small turquoise stud on it that was on his finger. This ring was given to him by the Guild Master Rothmon with the instructions to use it to communicate with any of the other six ring wearers when need be. Lido was another ring wearer, as was Rothmon himself. The other three rings the Guild Master had left in the wooden box and put away. All of the rings were identical, finely crafted, and softly glowing with mystical energy.

As Lido finished up his map, he heard Ishcandar uncork the other bottle of wine that was on his table. He looked up briefly, and his friend smiled congenially, raised the bottle in the air saluting him, and took a long happy swig. Lido was considering taking a morsel of cheese or piece of fruit from the tray on his night table when, at that moment he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. A quick glance allowed him to spot a rat skittering under the bed. He noticed that the rat had a brown patch over one eye and long white tail, and recognized it immediately as Bernie’s rat. He went over to the bed and knelt down to look under it. Yes, indeed it was definitely Bernie’s rat, now up on two legs sniffing. Lido took a cube of cheese from the tray, and offered it.

“Eeep eeep,” squeaked the rat, and took the cheese in his little paws and began gnawing away at it greedily. Though he didn’t really care much for Hobbits generally, the rat had begrudging respect for them, as they were practically the only creatures he knew that could in a pinch actually sneak up on him. But in this case it was no concern, he had been sent to find them, and so he had, and now they had rewarded him. He decided these Hobbits were so bad after all.

“It’s Bernie’s rat,” said Lido.

“Oh really. Well if you don’t mind, I think I’ll have a bit more of your wine.”

“Well, leave a bit of cheese, at least, will you?”

“Not too worry,” Ishcandar replied merrily. “I don’t touch the stuff.”

The rat made his way along the shadows beneath the bed, and slipped through a hole in the stonework. He was making his way back to Bernie who was waiting for his return in a nearby corridor.

After a few minutes there was a sound at the door, ever so gentle. The door handle moved. Both Ishcandar and Lido perked up and stared at it.

“I do hope they brought more wine,” said Ishcandar.

Lido went to open the door for the unknown person in the hall. However, he found that the door was locked. This did not entirely surprise him. He waited as someone from the outside unlocked the door with a skillful twist of a metal pin. Both of the Hobbits were familiar with the technique, and at this point were not surprised either to see Bernie slide the door open and slip in, quiet as a rat.

The Rat Arrives

“Bernie!” shouted Ishcandar happily, and raised the bottle in the air again before taking another three glugs. Bernie glared at him, silently slid the door shut, and looked around the room. He casually sat down by the tray of cheese.

“Friend!” exclaimed Ishcandar, now deeply puzzled, “how about a drink?”

“No thanks,” he replied coolly. “I didn’t come to drink.”

“Are you here to … ?” asked Lido with his voice trailing off.

“You may not realize it, but you happen to be in quite a bit of danger here. I’ve come to rescue you,” said Bernie finishing his sentence for him.

“You know something, then, of the Five Animals that we should know?” asked Lido.

“Why do you think the door was locked?” asked Bernie.

“Well, now that you mention it, I don’t figure it was for our protection,” answered Lido thoughtfully.

“It wasn’t,” replied Bernie as he poked a cube of cheese with his dagger and popped it into his mouth.

“Perhaps it was for their own protection from us,” offered Ishcandar grinning drunkenly.

“Yes, you do cut a fearsome figure, you two,” Bernie commented dryly with a sideways glance.

“I take it you made your way here unnoticed?” asked Lido.

“Of course.”

“And you can get us out the same way?” he continued.

“That will be more difficult,” said Bernie as he gave his pet rat a cheese cube to nibble on. “Your accommodations are in fact located at the center of a prison block.”

“I must say, this prison has the nicest bed I’ve slept on, ever, I think,” responded Lido, not quite convinced of Bernie’s story.

“Mine is a bit lumpy,” put in Ishcandar, taking another swig from his wine bottle.

“Yes, well it’s a form of torture. ‘Lumpy bed’. It’s very annoying after many many years. Quite diabolical, isn’t it?” replied Bernie sarcastically.

“I’m used to a pile of dung on the floor,” said Lido sincerely. “Sometimes there’s a little bit of straw on top of the dung. If I’m lucky, it’s fresh and soft, otherwise I must suffer with it being hard and crusty.”

“Ayeee… that’s enough. I’m leaving,” said Bernie, with a disgusted glare.

“What? My family is very poor,” said Lido with a hint of injured pride in his voice.

Bernie turned back toward the cheese plate and took another piece as he sized up the two hapless Hobbits. He glanced around the room while giving another bit of cheese to his pet rat who greedily nibbled away at it, also glancing around the room.

“What is your plan, then, good Bernie?” asked Ishcandar.

“My plan is get you out of here,” he answered plainly.

“Well as you can see, we are doing splendidly,” said Ishcandar lifting the wine to his lips yet again.

“On my way I discovered that the master of the Five Animals Hall is not such a pleasant fellow after all,” continued Bernie. “In fact, he has here quite a number of prisoners. Many of them are children. Most are emaciated. I fear he intends them no good.”

“Well,” said Ishcandar, finally perking up with a serious look around. “We must get everyone out of here, then.”

“Wait a second,” answered Bernie, putting up his hand. “I didn’t say anything about getting anyone else out of here… just you,” he concluded with a dark gaze.

“What of Hermel?” asked Ishcandar. “Is he going to get a brigade to come and break us out of here? He’s a trustworthy friend if there ever was one,” said Ishcandar enthusiastically.

“Well, um… well, I’m not so sure you can rely on him for that,” answered Bernie, annoyed at the suggestion that there might be any alternative to his own escape plan. “He did seem quite peeved any time he mentioned you two, actually. Something about Hobbits being lousy, no-good, unpredictable, drunken fools, or some such,” he concluded.

“I can’t see how that could be!” protested Ishcandar. “We got along so fondly together, like brothers practically!”

“I always thought he liked us,” said Lido.

“Well, I can see why he would like you,” answered Bernie, his eyes shifting. “But he kept mentioning something about Hobbits causing so much trouble… being so crazy…”

“He must have been talking about some other Hobbits,” said Lido, quite perplexed.

“I-I-I-I… suppose… it’s possible…” answered Bernie slowly.

“Does he even know any other Hobbits?” asked Ishcandar.

“He did mention, however, that Ishcandar’s father would be very … “ said Bernie.

“My father?” asked Ishcandar glugging down the last of his wine suddenly.

“Yes, he said your father would be rather upset that you were captured. I happen to overhear him speaking with some fellow who showed up at the Guild Hall claiming he was sent by your father to look for you. He said he was your teacher, in fact.”

“My teacher?” exclaimed Ischandar, looking down the barrel of his wine bottle to see if there was at least another drop left.

“Yes, a Mr. Stoutheart I believe,” answered Bernie.

“I need more wine!’ Ischandar exclaimed as he put the empty bottle on the table with a bang. “At any rate, I feel rather content here in prison after all. I don’t see any need to leave. We’ll get along just fine here. No need to bother. You may as well get along now Bernie. I’ve decided to stay!”

“Well, to be honest, there is another matter at hand of some import. This Mr. Stoutheart happen to mention that your father, as it turns out, is a rather wealthy man about town,” explained Bernie.

“Well yes, that can be said,” answered Ishcandar hurriedly.

“And, he went on to add that anyone who was able to bring you back home would be sure to get quite a handsome reward for the effort,” Bernie continued.

“Hmmmm…” said Ishcandar thoughtfully.

“Do you think that’s true?” asked Bernie.

“Hmmmm… my father? Offering a reward for … me?”

A Gentleman’s Agreement

“Well, as it happened,” Bernie went on, “Hermel, whom I’m sure likes you very sincerely, suggested to Mr. Stoutheart that he return to your father and advise him to use his enormous wealth to raise a large force of fighting men to come here and extract you from this prison. When I heard that I thought to myself, ‘Oh my, that would be sure to get those two poor innocent Hobbits killed!’ So I took it upon myself to come and rescue you right away. I can’t imagine what terrible fate would be in store for you if a force of fighters came blundering in here demanding your release!”

“Well, Elkron knows, I will certainly take care of you,” said Ishcandar, suddenly quite eager to depart the premises. He felt for his money pouch, but found that it was missing. Instead he found a much smaller pouch with only two silver pieces in it. He then recalled vaguely that Hermel had demanded his money back at the bar in exchange for saving his life yet again.

“Well, I don’t know… it doesn’t look like there is very much money in there,” said Bernie doubtfully.

“Well, I will certainly make sure my father pays you handsomely when I return safely home,” said Ishcandar. “Take this as a small down payment,” he added, tossing Bernie the pouch with two silver.

“That’s a pittance, but I’ll take it for my troubles thus far,” replied Bernie, not entirely satisfied.

“I’m sure Ishcandar’s father will pay you handsomely later,” offered Lido.

“Let’s just say there’s 98 more silver where that came from,” said Ishcandar.

“Ok, that sounds good then. Let’s shake on it,” he said offering his hand. They shook hands.

At that moment Ishcandar noticed an pale blue light coming from beneath the door.

“Uh… fellows?” said Ishcandar pointing to the crack at the bottom of the door. They all stared at the pale blue glow coming through the crack at the bottom of the door. Lido thought it looked rather reminiscent of the strange blue light that they encountered in the basement room at the base of Dunn’s Bridge Tower when Doctor Lobe had been doing his bizarre experiments. He thought it did not bode well.

A breeze began to blow in the room. They noticed dust floating across floor.

“Maybe there is someone coming down the corridor with a lantern,” offered Bernie whispering. He sent his rat through a hole in the wall, and said, “He will take a look and let us know who is out there.”

After a while the rat did not return. Bernie grew nervous. He decided to go and take a look outside.

“Stay here,” he said, as he opened the door, and went out into what looked like a pale blue fog. Time went by. They waited. Bernie did not return. Lido then began to hear a voice coming from outside the door. The voice sounded terrifyingly familiar.

“There is no time left, … there is no time left, … there is no time left…” said the voice in an spine chilling tone.

“You hear that?” asked Ischandar looking around for another bottle of wine.

“Yes. I’ve heard that voice before…”

Escape From Deja Vu

Some papers began fluttering across the floor. They didn’t know where they came from. One of the papers flipped against the wall and stuck there. Ishcandar went and picked it up, as Lido backed away from the door. The paper had a picture on it. Ishcandar could not quite focus on it, but it seemed to be a page from a wall calendar. Lido noticed that there were now cobwebs on the walls billowing in the breeze. The blue light became deeper and deeper.

“I think we should probably consider leaving this room,” said Ishcandar, as he noticed Lido backing away from the door with a look of terror on his face. “Come on! You only live once!” and with that he went to the door and put his hand on the brass doorknob.

Suddenly they both found themselves having been moved, as though they just woke up from a dream. Lido was sitting at the table just pulling out his parchments and ink to draw the map, and Ishcandar was laying on the bed again, taking his first swig of the wine he’d picked up from the table with the cheese. They both felt as though they were experiencing an incredibly vivid Déjà vu. They watched powerless as they went though all the motions they had before. Ishcandar drank and babbled, while Lido made the map. The rat showed up and went under the bed, and Lido gave it the cheese. Bernie arrived and they made their escape-bargain. Everything happened exactly as before down to the minutest detail. It was increadible. And then the blue light came, and the voice… “…there is no time left, … there is no time left… there is no time left…” echoing troughout the room. And again Ischandar panicked and ran to open the door. And again, upon touching the brass doorknob they found themselves again where they had started. And this went on, over, and over, and over and over again. Ten times. A hundred times. A thousand times. And each time there was no change, and no matter how hard they tried they could not break free of the Déjà vu. And each time the terrible voice echoed, “… there is no time left…”

“This is the most wonderful thing in the world,” thought Ishcandar deep down inside. “I have more wine! An everlasting replenishing of wine! And behold! No hang over!” And so it was that every time the Déjà vu started over again, Ishcandar grew happier and happier. This was, as it turned out, Ishcandar heaven.

After a while Lido noticed that he had, through sheer repetition, studied and learned every single facet of the scene down to the minutest detail. He counted the stones on the floor. There were 365. He knew the exact configuration of the rat’s spots. He had counted the number of papers blowing, and knew their trajectories, and how many flips they made as they blew across the floor. Even the number of spider webs billowing.

It wasn’t until somewhere around the 4380th time through the Déjà vu that Lido noticed something, one single thing, which was different. As Ischandar was putting his mouth to the bottle of wine (‘a fine Chianti produced from selected grapes grown in the township of Lilac Brook. It is an elegant, well-balanced, full-bodied wine with a very long aging potential’, Ishcandar had learned though thousands of readings of the label), this time, he noticed… on the plate of fruit and cheese … there was … a fly.

Lido was absolutely certain that it had not been there before. And this gave him a sudden surge of hope to try once again, as he had done 4379 times before without the slightest hint of success, to somehow break free of the Déjà vu. This time, because of the fly, he suddenly was able to move one muscle differently, and so he twitched his left eyebrow ever so slightly as he glanced at the fly on the cheese. He suddenly felt completely liberated. And so the Déjà vu was as suddenly broke as it had begun.

Ishcandar, whose senses had been heightened earlier by a cup of Jarrow tea, noticed the fly and without a moment’s hesitation swatted it. Fruit and cheese went airborne, but the fly, a tiny little thing with shiny yellow-green chitin and black wings, flitted away and disappeared somewhere.

Lido was at first rather annoyed, as he had been considering having a bit of cheese after his map was done, but then, realizing what had happened, rose and calling Ishcandar’s name affectionately gave him a great big hug.

Lido then backed up into the middle of the room and began turning himself around to the right. He then pivoted back the other way.

“For joy!” he said, “We’re not repeating ourselves anymore!’

Ishcandar, however, stared at his furry-footed friend in disbelief. For as Lido turned himself around the first time, as far as Ishcandar could tell, Lido appeared to age… older and older until he stood there a little old Hobbit with a head of long hoary hair. As Lido turned himself back the other way, he reverted to his previous age, and when he stopped pivoting he was quite back to his old self again. Ishcandar drank heartily from his bottle, emptying it in a few large gulps.

Suddenly, a rat came into the room and skittered under the bed. Lido’s memory of the extreme Déjà vu was almost completely vanished. He could not remember any details specifically, but he did have an overall sense of what was going to happen, as did Ishcandar, who went to the door to welcome Bernie. They quickly agreed on the arrangment, to Bernie’s surprise.

“Yes, yes, I understand completely, Bernie,” Ischandar said as soon as Bernie came into the room and sat down. “I’ll give you whatever you want,” he said.

“Whatever I want?”

“Yes, yes, absolutely.”

“Ok. How about 10,000 Iron?”

“Fine, fine. Let’s shake on it and be off,” said Ishcandar reaching out to shake Bernie’s hand with his other hand having crossed fingers behind his back. It was not an easy matter to deceive the likes of Bernie, but Ishcandar managed to pull it off, and so it was that they were very quickly ready to leave. Lido and Ishcandar both wanted to get away well before the pale blue light showed up again. And so they went out into the corridor together.

Trapped Like Rats

At this point Ishcandar remembered that he was wearing the mystical ring given to him by Rothmon. He had been told that it would allow him, and Lido, who also had one, to communicate back to Rothmon for up to one minute each day though a psychic link that formed between each of the six rings. So he focused on the gemstone and felt his mind reaching outward. He felt that he was suddenly in contact with another mind, and so burbled forth all of the recent events, explaining how he and Lido had come to be trapped in the Five Animals Hall, and of their current attempt to escape.

Lido, who was wearing one of the other rings heard Ishcadnar’s thoughts clear as day coming through into his mind. However, they both noticed that Rothmon’s mind could not be contacted. It felt to them that Ishcandar’s thoughts were somehow bouncing off of the walls of the corridor’s ancient stones, and not making it to Rothmon at all. They were both quite disappointed by this, and had a sense for the first time just how trapped they really were. There was nothing else to do, then, than trust Bernie and forge ahead. They quickly took a look at Lido’s map, but Bernie already knew everything on it, and so it did not provide any assistance under the circumstances, except that it made it suddenly clear to them that the Five Animals Hall was approximately twenty feet directly below the Dunn’s Bridge Tower where they had originally seen the pale blue light. They wished to be away from there.

They spent a few minutes trying to determine the best route out. In the end Bernie advised them to follow him along the route he came in. He had slipped in through the water tunnels beneath the Five Crows Tavern into the complex on the other side of the main Hall where the white tiger statue was. They quietly crept along the corridor in the direction Bernie recommended. There were doors along the way, but they were sealed.

“How many guards are there?” asked Ischandar.

“I’m not sure. I hid when I heard them coming, but the whole prison complex has guards. We have to be as quiet as possible,” replied Bernie. “Don’t get nervous. Just follow me.”

Lido wondered how it was possible for Bernie to have come into the complex through the main Hall without being seen. He speculated that Bernie might have been able to do that if he had turned into a rat. He considered that perhaps his pet rat was in fact Bernie, but then remembered that he saw them both at the same time. A little perplexed, he nevertheless thought that somehow Bernie and his rat were one in the same person. Hard to imagine how, but he just could not quite get over that impression. In any event Bernie insisted that they would be able to escape through the White Tiger Hall if they hid in the shadows and moved silently as possible. While there were many guards in the complex, the school itself tended to be occupied only by the few students of the master. Their best chance was to go straight through the tiger’s lair. But quietly!

They turned left down the corridor and headed to the large banded wooden door that the corridor ended in. They passed several doors along the way. As they passed one of the wooden doors on their right Ishcandar heard a voice.

“Help!” cried the plaintive voice. It was a girl. She sounded quite cute.

“I say was save her,” said Ishcanar immediately.

“Help us, please! Somebody!” cried cute, but sad little voice.

Lido, who was not particularly interested in taking on additional risks, crept to the main door that lead the way out of the prison block, and listened there. He heard nothing on the other side.

“It sounds like the coast is clear,” he whispered. Bernie came up behind him and also listened. He nodded his agreement.

“What about the girl?” inquired Ishcandar, a bit puzzled by his compatriots’ attitude.

“Bernie is here to save you for quite a bit of money. I, myself, wish to escape first, and then seek help from the outside to rescue anyone within the prison. We can’t help anyone if we get caught trying to rescue others,” said Lido.

Bernie took his pet out from the sleeve of his cloak. He whispered into the rat’s ear and put him down on the ground. The rat skittered away and through a hole in the stonework.

“He’ll be back soon, and let us know if anyone is out there,” he said.

Meanwhile they decided it would be prudent to check the door for traps. Bernie, who had a lot of experience with such things, took a look.

“We just came through this door on the way in,” Lido whispered, “I don’t think it is trapped.”

“It’s trapped,” said Bernie pointing to a small wire. As it happened he was quite right. The wire was rigged to trigger some mechanism inside the wall if the lever of the door handle were moved. Fortunately, having seen the trap, Ischandar, who was trained in such things, found it relatively easy to disable. He wondered what the trap actually triggered, but there was no way to know that.

While they waited, Ishcandar went back to the door where he heard the girl’s voice.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“My name is Elizabeth. I’m here with my father. Please help us.”

“Your father is there with you?”

“Yes,” she said.

Lido came up to Ishcandar. “We are going to have enough trouble escaping, without trying to rescue an old man and a little girl.”

“We will send help as fast as we can. But for now we have to get out of here,” whispered Ishcandar through the door. They heard the girl on the other side begin to cry.

The rat returned. Bernie motioned to them that the coast was clear on the other side. Lido looked at his map.

“There is no way that Bernie got in here by going through the White Tiger Hall. He must have turned into a rat!” thought Lido to himself.

“Where are you from?” asked Ishcandar through the door.

“We’re from High Street. Your voice sounds familiar to me. Please help us,” she whispered.

“What’s your name?” asked Ishcandar.

“Warden. Elizabeth Warden. My father is John Warden. I think we met on High Street not long ago. Please help us!”

“Bernie. Can you check for traps on this door?” asked Ischandar.

“No. I’m here to rescue you. I’m not taking any chances,” answered Bernie.

“Well then, maybe you can go on your own way then,” replied Ishcandar, now determined to rescue the girl.

Return of the Déjà vu

“Ok. Fine. I’ll check it. But this better not cause us any problems!" he hissed. He checked for traps, but found none. Ischandar decided to pick the lock, and took out his tools to do so. As soon as he touched the door handle, however, a bell suddenly began ringing loudly. A door at the far end of the corridor suddenly flung open with a thud. Inside they saw the silhouettes of several large hulking figures. Behind them several flames belched upward in orange billows silhouetting the enormous men rushing through the doorway with spiked clubs in their meaty hands. Several large red toads with dimly glowing yellow eyes and long yellow fangs hopped out of the room, each one belching fire as it came.

“Uhm… sorry, Miss! But we gotta get out of here! We’ll come back for you later!” shouted Ischandar as he ran back toward the exit door. Lido watched with horror as three huge men came charging down the corridor bellowing loudly. He realized suddenly as they came into the light that they were the same muliti-eyed men that Ishcandar and he had encountered down in the dungeon just before the students of Five Animals Hall had captured them. The master, if he remembered correctly, called the creatures, Polyvizus. Each of them had twelve eyes wrapped around his head, and bellowed like mad bulls. It was not comforting to have them charging with heavy studded clubs in their hands towards the mushy little Hobbits.

“Bernie!… time to get out of here…” Lido shouted as he edged backwards. Bernie was crouching over the handle of the door and with a final flick of his tools opened the lock. He rubbed his finger nails against his chest and smiled smugly.

“Let’s go,” he said. They ran though the door. Ishcandar closed it behind them and locked it. There were heavy thuds against the door as the Hobbits and Bernie turned to the right and came to the next door. There was a soft blue light emanating beneath the doorframe.

“…there’s no time left, … there’s no time left… there’s no time left…” echoed endlessly through the corridor

Bernie stopped at the door.

"There is someone with a blue lantern coming," he whispered.

“No, it’s magical light,” said Lido. "For heaven's sake, ignore it!"

“Oh great,” said Bernie, not entirely disbelieving that. He’d seen plenty of strange things in his short years, and magic was something he'd come to at least partially believe in. He reached for the doorknob. Touching it Ishcandar and Lido suddenly found themselves back in the prison room. Lido was pulling out his parchment and ink, and Ishcandar took his first sip of wine as he reclined easily on the bed.

"Ah," thought Ishcandar, "I have returned to Paradise!"

Over and over and over again for thousands upon thousands of times they repeated every single thing exactly as before. The Déjà vu was unquenchable in its ferocity. The madness resulting from seeing the same events play out thousands upon thousands of times took a strange toll on them both. Everything was exactly the same each time. Even the swatting of the fly, and escaping the first round of Déjà vu lost all sense of victory as they were entirely engulfed in the second round, over and over and over again endlessly. And all the while, “… there’s no time left, … there’s no time left, … there’s no time left…” echoed with sinister abandon throughout their souls. All the way up to the moment when Ischandar went to put his finger gingerly on the girl’s door to try to help her escape in the 52560th cycle. For the first time then he noticed that on the door handle there was … a tiny yellow fly with black wings.

“Thwap!” Ishcandar struck at the fly with his hand. Suddenly the time loop was broken! And so they escaped the Déjà vu’s deadly clutches once again. The little yellow fly buzzed away and vanished into the shadows, laughing with delight.

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