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Mundementia One: The Book of the Matriculation
The flames crackle upwards.
I prepare, at last, finally, to perish.
The world shifts...
All in a mind-breaking Escherian calisthenics session...
* * *
I am in a room... with... white walls...
From somewhere nearby, there is the blip-blip-blip noise of one of those things that you see in hospitals that tells you if the person is alive or not. It's making the noise that means I'm alive, which is in essence a good thing, I suppose. Suspended all around me is a fantastic array of life-giving machinery of a highly technological nature.
There is also a nurse. She's pottering with something, and doesn't seem to see me.
"Hunhrrrrgh." I say, as it's about the best I can do at the moment.
She turns. Her eyes widen slightly.
She rushes out of the room. On her way out, I hear her calling out the word, "Doctor!"
I am alone, briefly.
And then, Doctor Benjamin "Reggie" Harte appears, the nurse at his side. Doctor Harte has thrown on a white lab jacket over what appears to be a strange-looking tight-fitting black jumpsuit of some kind. Perched on his head is what appears to be a bulky sort of Virtual Reality visor type thing, raised out of his eyes. He's still carrying the onyx-headed cane in one hand. He looks pleased and surprised to see me.
"Mister Glass!" He says.
"Whuhmmmmrhghhh." I say.
He mutters a few technical-sounding things to the nurse, and she rushes out of the room. Then he turns back to me.
"Good to see you with us again!" He says. "How are you feeling?"
"Shwwwurrnvnngghh." I say, becoming vaguely annoyed at the fact that Reggie keeps asking me these questions when he knows perfectly well that at the moment I have the ability only to speak in assorted consonants and the vowel "U." Still, he nods sagely in that officious way that doctors everywhere have and sits down next to my bed. I notice an I.V. stand nearby.
"Bit of a dicey time. Almost lost you, in fact. And now, look at you! Practically back to normal. Can you sit up?"
I shake my head.
"All right." He says, sympathetically. "I realize you're probably pretty worn out. Extended periods in hallucinatory comas will tend to do that to you. I'll just tell your visitors you're still feeling a bit under the weather.
"Vummmwhwrmmh?" I say.
He nods. "You've had friends here waiting for you practically night and day since you came in here. A... ah... Miss... Dimmesdale? Does that sound right to you?"
"Fmmmewhhhmuh!" I say, slipping an "E" in there.
"I understand she's been _very_ concerned about you since your mishap. But if--"
There is the noise of a bright-sounding explosion from very nearby. I can see nothing, but Reggie is on the alert, instantly, his eyes racing but thoughtful.
"Whhmmmmh?" I demand. Almost simultaneously, the blipping from the life-monitors grows quick and frantic.
"Whh_MMMMH_?" I say, attempting to gesture at the monitor. But Reggie is paying no attention. "Nurse!" He yells, and instantly the white-suited aide is back in the room, moving quickly, Fiddling with the life-giving machineries, prepping drugs, and so on. I just manage to make out the words "Slipping back into it..." as the colors of the white walls bifurcate and trifurcate and split prismatically into spinning rainbows which lead onwards into the blackness...
* * *
And then, there is the noise of a bright-sounding explosion from very nearby. This is accompanied, and in fact slightly _preceeded_ by the glare of a bright-_looking_ explosion from very nearby. The explosion is a sickly green and bright-sand color, blending onwards towards the edges into the color of July Fourth in Hannibal, Missouri.
It starts in the location that I last remember Feeb as being in, but progresses rapidly from there, bouncing and caroming in a bright lance of searing light across and around the little funeral pyre / barbecue clearing. Anthropomorphic rats scatter before it, squeaking and whuffling panickedly.
The light fizzes brighter and increases in speed, continuing to hit things but now knocking them over to boot. It strikes one end of the spitstick that is currently supporting Luke, and he chitters wildly as it falls, leaving him supported only bare inches above the licking tongues of flame. Meanwhile, the ancient roller-coaster struts sizzle with grounded electricity at each hit.
Then, with one last hit, the light lance _FIZZES_ upwards into the dark, cavernous undersky of the Mall Netherrealm and bursts into a bright ochre sun that heats my face and burns my exposed skin for the three or four milliseconds that it lasts.
Then, darkness, but for the torches above and the fires below. Frightened Rats swarm all about. One of them, the smallish sober-looking one wearing the ceremonial headdress, has the presence of mind to haul out an ABC fire-extinguisher, and sprays it in choking, asphyxiating clouds over the sacrificial fires, leaving me and Luke coughing and gasping.
There is dizziness for a few moments, wherein I cannot see. And then, there is the snick of a knife, and the ropes binding me to the spitstick loosen, dropping me to the pit of soft ashes below.
"Charles!" Says Feeb's voice.
"Feeb..." I wheeze. "What the _Hell_ was..." Wheeze. "That?"
"_That_," She says, "Was _brilliant_, Charles. Fantastic. I couldn't have thought of a better escape myself, and from me, that's quite a compliment!" She beams through the smoke and ash. All around is still tumult. "Just tell me one thing. How did you figure out that when the Censorship Device got re-broken by the Monks of Saint Sabrina, it in fact caused it to go on response-block status, meaning that while it could still sense our potty-mouth behavior, it could not respond, only store up the energy that it _would_ have used in responding had it not been broken, in essence allowing the potential energy of every obscenity we uttered to be crammed up behind the blockage, putting it in a dangerous critical overload state which only required the further spike input of your long, cathartic scream of "Shit!" to, figuratively, break the dam and cause the device to expend all its stored potential in one giant pyrotechnic blast which would serve to frighten the primitive Rat tribesmen into thinking that we all were powerful magicians and ergo, should not be killed and eaten?"
"Lucky... guess...?" I say, uncertainly.
"Well." She says, laughing, "Whatever it was, it was, excuse my Mandarin Chinese, Fucking Brilliant."
"Thanks..." I say, my head still swimming and woozy.
"I tell you what, Charles." She says, in the Minnewegian style. "You so frequently appear as an ineffectual lump of confused protestations that I sometimes forget that you are, indeed, La Guardya de la Duche Verdue, former Angelic Being in Training and Banisher of the Darkness. But it's times like this that... well... make me remember that you _are_ something rather remarkable, rather than the hopeless lily-spined tweed that you normally seem to be."
"Uhm. Thanks..." I say, trying frantically to work out whether or not I've just been complimented or insulted.
"No Problem!" Says Feeb, brightly. And directly on the heels of this utterance, the officious-looking Rat says something. It's a loud, commanding utterance that causes the rest of the milling Rats to group themselves in a rough circle around us and regard us warily. I straighten my clothes and do my best to sweep soot off of them with one hand as Luke gingerly walks up behind us, doing the same with his fur. "Frink," he mutters to himself.
I listen to the exhortation of the priestly Rat for a short time. Then, I turn to Feeb.
"What's he saying?"
Feeb narrows her eyes at the Rat as she speaks. "He's saying something about how that we are indeed powerful magicians, and have shown much skill in our Arts, and are therefore to be respected and not eaten. However, he says, to gain the _true_ friendship of the tribe, we must do them some form of service so that we will be indoctrinated as Honorary Mall-Rats."
Wonderful. More requirements. "What do they want us to do?" I ask.
Feeb frowns, staring at the Rat some more. "Something about slaying the Great Beast who lives to the west of the village... some kind of huge dragon, fifty meters tall with diamond-like scales and a breath like the inferno of ten thousand campfires."
"Great..." I mutter to myself, massaging my temples once again. Luke, on the other hand, seems to have perked up slightly, and with prosimian grace, he swings effortlessly over to the holdalls and begins rummaging around in them.
Feeb hops on Buddy's back to get a better view of the Loquacious Rat. "'Yea,' he says, 'this beast hath slain scores of our finest warriors, rending them limb from limb with its mighty claws and scorching the remains until nothing remains of them but charcoal and cinders, whereupon the beast crumbleth the charcoal and cinders beneath his mighty claws and useth the resulting dust to fertilize its vegetable gardens.'"
Luke finds what he's looking for in the holdalls-- his Mall Armory-issue flechette minipistol. He grins triumphantly and then, with nary a word, leaps to one of the struts and vanishes into the blackness.
"'And Lo,' he continues," she says, "'this ageless beast hath done its evil nastiness for countless generations of Rats, for even as our forefathers and our forefathers' forefathers have written...'" Feeb pauses then, as if attempting to work out exactly how to do a triple-embedded quotation. "'"And Lo, Today we discovereth a Mighty Dragon that Suren must be the Spawn of The Enemy himself, for it is of such prodigious size and fierceness that Death itself, were He to visit us in Corporeal Form, could not be more effecacious in dispensing doom in the form of rending claw and ripping tooth and blazing fire."'"
"So... um... we... ah... actually _need_ to become honorary members of the tribe here, do we?"
Feeb looks at me. "Obviously, Charles. That's how it _always_ works in these sorts of situations."
"Well..." I say, speaking quickly and gesturing a bit more than is technically necessary in order to work off tension, "it just seems to me that, well, this is an awfully dangerous sort of initiation ritual. Doesn't it seem that way to you, maybe, perhaps?"
"Ssh." She says. "I'm trying to hear what he's saying." Feeb narrows her eyes and begins translating again. "'And _Lo_, even though the Dragon hast throughout the ages rendered hundreds upon hundreds of our greatest warriors into reddish, pulpy liquid of only slightly firmer and more constant consistency than Dairy Queen (tm) Mister Misty Fruit Slushes, it is _still_ the ruling of Those Who Speak that the strange Wizards from beyond shall face in Mortal Combat, this beast, and lo, whatever of them shall be left at the end of this combat will truly be indoctrinated into the Tribe and be given full benefits of inclusion therein.'"
The Rat turns to the three of us (Feeb, Buddy, and myself) and intones a question that needs no translation. He awaits an answer.
I turn to Feeb.
"Feeb, Don't do it. Don't do it. Don't do it don't do it don't do it don't do it don't do it don't--"
"We accept your challenge!" Says Feeb proudly, in a response that, itself, apparently needs no translation, for the Rats around us erupt into a sudden chorus of glee.
"--do it..." I finish.
Feeb turns to me. "Relax, Charles. Surely you'll be able to think up _something_ when the time comes--"
"_ME_?!? Feeb, why the HELL is it Me-me-me-ME all of a sudden? What happened to--"
"Well, I _thought_ that, seeing as you were the one who thought up the thing with the Censorship Device that _surely_ you could--"
"--_I_ didn't think up the thing with the Censorship Device! It just _Happened!_ I thought I was going to _die_, and it wasn't--"
"--Well, if _that_ was the case, maybe you should have _said_ something about it _before_ we agreed to--"
"--I _TRIED_ to say something before, but you wouldn't--"
"--I mean, BEFORE, Before... before I started out on--"
"--What do you _MEAN_ 'Before, before'?!? There _Wasn't_ any Before before. We went directly to--"
There is a pause.
From somewhere far off to the West, there is the sound of a mighty, crashing roar. Even odds whether the noise is _actually_ coming from a fifty-meter tall dragon with lungs like organ-bellows and a voice like solid thunder, or is instead emanating from a collision of about seventy-five diesel-driven freight trains that were formerly in the process of hauling the surplus damned from one level of Hell to another on an infernal cattle-run.
Silence. Silence and fear. The tension is thick enough that you _couldn't_ cut it with a knife, nor with the better grade of metal saw.
All eyes gravitate West.
There is another hideous noise. Asked to describe this one, I think the best simile would be as follows:
It is a hideous noise like a smallish somewhat-over-one-meter-high prosimian wielding an absurdly powerful hand weapon midway through the process of reducing a fifty-meter tall dragon into Potted Meat Product with the careful imposition of approximately seventeen-thousand armor-piercing explosive-tipped splinter flechettes at each of three extremely vital and organic places on its anatomy.
Rather a lot like that, actually.
More silence, deadly and quiet. In the silence, there is the noise of an approaching figure.
And then, with a couple careful, faintly clunking leaps, Luke ascends the support tower into the light, an adorable little peaceful smile on his face and a red-hot hand weapon clutched in one paw.
"Frink." He says.
And there is much rejoicing.
* * *
We remain with the rat-creatures for several weeks, learning the ways of their language and culture. Inasmuch as I question anything anymore, I ask Feeb about this, gently suggesting that if when we started, our appointment with Queen Voria the Starbender was only one week away, surely spending several weeks here amongst the Rat tribesmen would not, in itself, be the wisest of all possible moves. Feeb, however, reassures me (after consulting with a complicated device with many gimbals and dials which she calls a 'Universal Chronolocator') that, in fact, because of my hopping back and forth and using uncalibrated Time Portals in my misadventure earlier in the Late Cretaceous Period, we had actually ended up several weeks earlier than we had begun. This, of course, raises another question: if we were, indeed, earlier than we had begun, couldn't I go Topside and stop myself at a point before any of the awful business with Ashraak even got started. No, replies Feeb, for that would screw up something that she calls the "Space/Time Continuum" and that we are best sitting here in this isolated Rat city until we are back on schedule again. I'm beginning to get the distinct impression that this whole "Space/Time Continuum" thing is something that people like Feeb made up with the fear that otherwise, things would be too easy for us normal folks, but when Feeb is presented with this philosophy, she simply sniffs disdainfully and mutters something about the linearity of human temporal thought.
At any rate. Despite a rather rocky start with the whole broiling-over-an-open-fire thingy, I eventually become quite chummy with the soberish dark-brown Rat, who is apparently some kind of high priest or medicine man amongst his people. Day in and day out, the little guy (whose name, I discover, is a sort of garbled consonant-vowel string sounding a little something like "Maa'at-HICE") travels from his spartan little lodging in an ancient concession stand to what he calls his "Place of Seeing." One day, I get audacious and ask him if I can accompany him, and after staring right through my skull for a while in a nice friendly fashion, he nods brusquely and motions for me to follow him.
He leads me through the twists and turns of the ancient City of the Rats, through tunnels and across scrabbles, to a place where the air chills before me and my breath fogs and mists as it comes. Maa'at-HICE motions me forward still, and I follow, until he and I gaze upon a scene of frozen quiet: an ancient and abandoned ice-skating rink here in the depths of the Mall. Electricity obviously still courses to the refrigeration coils and the one or two bright Halogen lamps above; the combination of white light and ghost-hued ice gives the place an eerie and ethereal feel. Treading gently, the priestly Rat steps out onto the ice, the claws on his bare feet clicking against the frozen surface. I follow.
We make our way, he skilled and unerring, me with the occasional slip, towards a raised pedestal placed directly upon the central puck-drop circle. Atop the pedestal is a bright and symmetrical square-shaped board, with several brightly colored pegs sticking out of its various holes. I regard the construction with curiosity, this scrying-tool of the People of the Mall, placed in this sacrosanct place, most likely, because many who gazed upon it simply would not understand.
I count myself amongst those many.
"'Trouble.'" I say. "Milton-Bradley."
"Ssh." Cautions Maa'at-HICE. "Speak not the Sacred Words in levity."
"Right." I say, regarding the Parcheesi-like board game before me. "No levity. Gotcha."
He nods. And then, with an expression of such seriousness on his little face that I literally ache in my attempts to repress my levity, he solemnly reaches out and depresses the little plastic dome in the middle of the board and then releases it with a hollow 'ka-PONK' sound. The little die trapped within the Pop-o-Matic (tm) bubble rattles around wildly for a brief moment before coming to rest.
"Four." Says Maa'at-HICE. And with a look of fierce contemplation, he carefully moves one of the green-colored pegs four squares forward, apparently displacing a red-colored peg that he lands it upon. This seems to give him some pause, and it is some time before there is any speaking. Eventually it is I who must break the silence.
"What? What do you see?"
Another pause. Maa'at-HICE strokes his whiskers thoughtfully. Then, in ancient tones, he says, "Trials ye shall face, La Guardya de la Duche Verdue. Men of Orange from the Skies and Men of Black from On High. Ye shall take onto yourself the Crystal Cylinder and set yourself on dangerous pathways, though ye mean well. Those Fair may become Foul and those Foul may become Fair. Above all else..." He pauses, as though for emphasis. "Ye must know who ye be, trusting naught in friend nor foe, naught in Heaven or in Earth." He finishes off this last sentence with what is almost a fatalistic tone.
I frown. "What?" I say.
He shakes his head. "I have seen what I have seen." And with that, he begins walking away. "The turn has ended," he says. "Play proceeds counter-clockwise."
I take one look back at the board and follow after him. "Wait!" I say, gesturing behind me. "What happens when the game is over?"
Maa'at-HICE does not even gratify me with a look back. "When the game is over, the pieces will be put away and the board placed back in its box." He leaves the ice rink and treads softly back in the direction of the city.
"I don't understand." I say, simply.
"You will." He says, bluntly.
And he is gone.