|The Golden Paradigm
Author: Raha PM
Steampunk. Familiars. Freudian Psychology. String Theory. And Monsters Under the Bed. Henrietta Howell has grown up in a world full of secrets and lies, where Inner Demons have been dragged into the light, and magic and machine go hand in hand.Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Fantasy - Chapters: 3 - Words: 21,101 - Reviews: 29 - Favs: 17 - Follows: 14 - Updated: 11-09-11 - Published: 10-29-11 - id: 2965401
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The Golden Paradigm
Monster From Under The Bed
What the devil?
Henrietta Howell jerked awake and sat up, with no barking idea why.
Twisted shadows were thrown up onto the walls, and her things were strewn about in a disheveled mess, but as far as she could tell, there was nothing amiss. Yet somehow...something didn't feel right. It was as if someone had stolen in while she slept and painted the walls orange. But they were the same old butter yellow, all covered in stripes of flowering green vines crawling up to the ceiling.
She'd left her window open a crack, and slivers of moonlight played across the floor through sheer lace curtains. It fell across her bookshelves and small writing desk, bent under the strain of a large stack of books. One thick volume lay open, its pages ruffling softly in the night air. Stuffed animals peered from nearly every surface with wide marble eyes, and a troop of tin soldiers stood at attention in the corner, beneath the looming shadow of a tall, gilded hat-rack. All manner of flying contraptions were stung up with wire; aeroplanes, and zeppelins, and kites, a flying pig, and some strange copper contraption with bat-shaped wings and a weather vane sticking out of the top. Winding across the ceiling there was even a magnetic railroad track, and if she'd looked up she might have noticed the train was quietly starting and stopping in a jerky, disjointed kind of way, like a wind up toy that was slowly running down. A jester marionette was slumped over in her reading chair, a vacant smile spread across his face.
Lights moved across the window, catching her attention. Henrietta hesitated a moment, before she threw her comforter off and climbed out of the four-poster bed. The eyes of her toys watched as she padded across the room, and some even twisted their heads around to peek up at her when she pushed the window open further to poke her head outside.
And they were careful to watch out for the thing lurking beneath her bed, because it was watching her, too.
The street lamps had been put out ages ago, and across the way several creatures were scurrying along the rain-gutters, their eyes flashing green in the moonlight. Henrietta had to screw up her face in order to see in the dim light, and jerked back with a sharp gasp once she'd realized what they were. Rats were scurrying along the gutter beneath her window, and there were more moving along the eaves across the road. Her brows furrowed at the lights clutched in their teeth. It wasn't the flickering of a fire, but a steady glow, like...
"Night-lights?" she muttered, surprised, and worried at her bottom lip with her teeth. But all lit up on their own...?
Something chattered behind her, and Henrietta whirled to find a fat brown sewer rat blinking up at her from the door way, her own night-light clutched in its hoary hands. Her stomach did an odd little somersault, and then shriveled up completely.
"Criminy!" she yelped, tripping towards it, but the rat uttered something that sounded suspiciously like a laugh and then its naked tail was whipping around the door frame and it was gone. Henrietta skidded to a halt, her skin suddenly crawling as her room was plunged into darkness. Somewhere in the house, a clock struck the third hour, and Henrietta's heart tried to claw its way up her throat.
She was jimmy-jacked.
She needed that night-light, because horrors happened to children who were caught out of bed in the dark, when the all lights went out. There were things that moved in the night, things that sat and waited for someone to do something stupid. Something like stand out in the open, completely unprotected. Heart pounding, Henrietta half turned to race back under the covers before anything had the chance to come out—
It was already perched up on her head board. A pair of jack-o-lantern eyes glittered in the dark, and he leaned up against the wall with his legs crossed in lazy satisfaction. A malevolent, zig-zagging grin full of scissored white shark's teeth was stretched impossibly wide across his face.
"'ello, luv," said the The Thing From Under the Bed with a thick Cockney drawl, in a nastily pleasant kind of way. "This be the part where I eat your 'ead."
Henrietta froze, her lungs shriveling up like a couple of wet paper bags. She knew very well what this monster was, had feared it ever since she'd moved into her own room. Adults didn't believe in them, not anymore now that they were Grown Up, but the Under Things had been troubling children for ages, since before anyone could remember. They lived in closets, or under the stairs, or beneath the bed—any small, dark space where the light of day couldn't reach. Most children were smart enough to be in their beds by the time the Under Things could come out, because those that weren't had a nasty tendency of disappearing. Henrietta gritted her teeth, unaware that her hands were fisting in her night-dress. She should have known better. Her Under Thing was a devious sort, she should have at least suspected...
"Just a warning," Henrietta replied, with a bravado to hide the tension in her voice. "My father will kill you if you touch me, I hope you know."
"Well, that's a crock o' clanker, if I ever 'eard it. Nice try, kid, but you and I both know 'e ain't killin' what 'e don't believe in," the creature shrugged. "It's a right shame, ain't it? You were almost there. Too bad yeh won't be livin' long enough to outgrow me."
That was true. Parents never believed their children when they insisted there were monsters under their bed. All grown-ups seemed to forget the days when they, too, lived in mortal terror of the dark and the nightmare it held—or at least only remembered enough to be indulgent and comforting by checking all the usual hiding places for these imaginary monsters. But these things were not imaginary, and every child knew never to venture into the dark alone, or to climb out of bed at night, unless they wanted to come to a very messy and painful end.
Henrietta paused, weighing her options, her eyes flicking between the Under Thing and the light-switch, wishing for the hundredth time that it wasn't all the way across the room. If she could only get to it...but the Under Thing seemed to know what she was thinking, because its mad grin grew wider, and it leaned forward eagerly.
"Trust me, yeh won't make it," he told her with an amused shake of its head, laughing quietly. "Not before I rip them eyes o' yours out, at any rate. Yer welcome to try, though." He gestured with a black, clawed hand, his smiling eyes glinting in the gloom. "Might be fun, chasin' yeh down."
Henrietta remembered when the creature had moved in. She had been five. Naturally, neither her father or mother believed her when she told them, and she recalled the first week or so she hadn't slept at all. Before she'd gotten the night-light, and had grown too big to be tucked in, she'd always had to hit the light switch, then sprint across the room, and leap at the last moment to avoid those snatching claws. Several times, there had been near catches when she'd had to kick it off when it seized her ankle.
Thankfully, there was some rule that said it couldn't crawl right up onto the bed and have a proper got at her, but that knowledge didn't help her get to sleep any sooner. She'd stay awake shivering, and listen to the Under Thing roam around the room; tugging playfully at the foot of her bed, or pawing through one of her books, or snoring lightly in her reading chair...
But then she got her night-light, and everything changed. For the first time, the little monster was trapped underneath the bed full time, and Henrietta was free to get up whenever she pleased. If she was thirsty or had to use the bathroom, she no longer had to wait until morning, and slowly her fear of the horror skulking beneath her bed had begun to fade. She'd never seen the creature, except for a few unenlightening glimpses, but it looked like the Under Thing had begun fading, too. At least, he'd looked much more solid several months ago, but was now reduced to a nearly-transparent bit of blackness, a half-congealed nightmare. He hardly had any form at all, since he seemed to keep blending in with all the other shadows around him, his edges ragged and fuzzy, as if she were looking at him through a thick fog, or distorted glass. All except for his eerie eyes, glowing like jack-o-lanterns, all fiery orange and yellow, and despite the disconcerting grin, they positively blazed with fury. The Thing From Under The Bed was not happy, not at all, at being locked up for six months, and Henrietta knew exactly who it blamed. If it had been alarming before, it was positively terrifying now, and suddenly she was wishing she'd never gotten that night-light in the first place.
Then maybe the Under Thing wouldn't be quite so angry, and might have made her death fairly painless.
The creature jumped down from the head board and landed on her pillow, his claws rending deep gouges out of the fabric as he padded across her bed towards her, his fiery glare holding her in place. He leapt lightly up onto the foot board and leaned over her, now just a few inches away.
"Shouldn't yeh be runnin'?" he suggested. "It ain't no fun if yer just gonna stand there like a ninny. Come on, I 'aven't got out in so long, at least make it interestin'."
Henrietta swallowed and took a small step back, only to bump lightly against her desk. Again, her eyes flicked to the light switch over, and then to her bedroom door, and her fists clenched stiffly at her sides. A sudden determination seized her brain and stopped it melting from panic. She was not going down without a fight. She looked back at the Under Thing, and he laughed delightedly at the defiance in her eyes. She would run, and scream until she woke the whole house, and slowly she reached behind her to pick up a thick, heavy book...her muscles tensed like rubber-bands...she was going to wallop that thing as hard as she could—
And then Henrietta's blood froze when she saw something stirring on the other side of the room. Now what? She thought, panicking as her imagination suggested ways in which this night could get much worse, and for a wild second that made her insides squirm, she thought there might be another monster.
But then whatever it was moved into a thin sliver of light across the floor and it was all she could do to keep her jaw dropping. Clanking crickets. Her entire troop of tin soldiers was marching silently across the floor, gripping their toy bayonets resolutely, a look of grim determination upon their painted faces. The captain caught her eye and held a tiny finger to his lips, before pointing at the Under Thing. Henrietta understood at once and, her ears filled with a rushing sound that she prayed wasn't a sign she was about to faint, she tore her stunned gaze away from them and rounded on the Thing From Under the Bed.
How her soldiers had sprung to life she had no idea, but they were obviously trying to help her and she wasn't about to stop and ask silly questions. There would be time for that later...if she lived long enough. Her hand rested on one of the books lying on her desk and she set her chin.
"Look, I know you're sore at me for keeping you locked up like that," she said, with a tight smile. The Under Thing raised a brow, but let her continue. "That was a downright mean and nasty thing to do, I won't lie. I expect you've been real bored trapped under there for so long...I expect you might want to have a little fun, now that you're free."
"And just wot are yeh tryin' to suggest, luv?" the monster asked archly, and his glinting eyes gave her the feeling that he knew exactly where she was going.
"W-well...why don't we...why don't we play a game?" Henrietta suggested, trying to hold his gaze, and hid her shaking hands behind her back. The Under Thing arched a brow.
"Yeah. Yeah, a game," she said, swallowing as her throat constricted. "A hiding game. A chasing game. You...You give me twenty seconds, and I'll go find somewhere to hide—I won't wake anyone up," she added hastily when the creature narrowed his eyes, "and you come and find me. If you can find me, you...you can eat me, I guess. But if you can't, you have to let me go. Okay?"
The Under Thing regarded her with eyes like two dying coals, and considered her proposal for so long she thought about making a break for it now, while its guard was down, she was sure this would never work, and she didn't dare look at the tin soldiers, afraid she might draw attention to them...
But then a sharp, vicious grin spread across his face, and his jack-o-lantern eyes blazed in the dark. "I'll give yeh ten seconds," he said. " And I assume yeh know what'll 'appen if yeh break the rules and run to daddy, right?"
Henrietta swallowed, and bravely tried to return his feral grin. "Yeah," she nodded, her heart leaping when she spotted the soldiers climbing up her bedsheets. "I wouldn't want to deprive you of your fun, after all. And if you really want to make it interesting, why not give me a head start?"
"That's the ticket," the nightmare said, and his grin grew positively wicked, stretching so wide she was sure she could count every one of his awful teeth. His claws sunk into the wood of her foot board, tensing to spring like a cat on the hunt, and he was looking at Henrietta like she was something small, furry, and soon to be very, very dead. Fortunately, he was so focused on her that he didn't notice the tin soldiers creeping into position from behind. "One fer the money..." he said in a sing-song kind of voice. "Two fer the show..." The tin soldiers brandished their bayonets, each a sharp sliver of glinting light and cutting steel. "Three to make ready..." Henrietta braced herself against her writing desk, her hand closing on the biggest book she could reach, "...and four to—"
"GO!" Henrietta shouted, and sprang forward to whack the nightmare in the nose with a leather bound first edition of Wind in the Willows. The monster let out an indignant, angry shriek and toppled over backwards—where his cry pitched into a high, keening, squealing screech as he fell onto the dozen upthrust knives waiting below.
Henrietta didn't waste any time. She turned and fled past the rest of her toys, all of which were climbing down from the shelves and marching across her carpet towards the bed. A small part of her brain wanted to stop and ask just how they'd managed to animate themselves, but the rest was more preoccupied with escaping, and the majority won out. Henrietta crashed out into the hall so fast she hit the wall with a thump that jarred her to the bone.
The Under Thing was still screaming. Echoes of its blood-curdling howls bounded up and down the hall, bouncing off the walls so exuberantly she was sure the whole house would be roused by the noise. Despite herself, Henrietta glanced back through the door and saw the monster writhing in her bedsheets. He thrashed and flailed, as a dozen tin soldiers danced to avoid its snapping jaws, stabbing at every bit of flesh they could reach with their two-inch weapons. Several of her toys turned their heads towards her, and motioned for her to run. Henrietta stared in stunned disbelief, before she scrambled to her feet and bolted towards the second floor landing, where her parents' room was.
"Father! Father, wake up, there's a monster in my room—my toys are holding it off, but we don't have much time—we've got to get the bloody hell out of here!"
But her father didn't move, no matter how much she shook him, and, getting desperate, Henrietta seized his shoulder and attempted to pull him upright—and then sat back with a surprised "Oh!" when his entire arm came off in her hands. Henrietta dropped it in mute horror, a scream ballooned in her lungs, but she bit down on it when a trickle of sawdust fell into her lap from the severed limb. Gingerly, her every hair standing straight up, she turned the body over and found herself staring down at what looked like a shoddy scarecrow. Its mouth was a twisted wreck of stitches, its staring black eyes were full of rusting nails, and there were several things moving beneath the burlap of its wounded face. Henrietta scrambled away from it, and bumped into what would have been the body of her mother, but found it to be another moldering scarecrow. She screamed then, and threw herself off the bed.
Shrieks and howls were still ringing from above, and something was thumping around on the ceiling. Breathing so fast she was nearly hyperventilating, Henrietta hurried back towards the door and pressed her ear against it, listening intently. The Under Thing was still causing quite a bit of noise, but the sounds it was making now was vicious and violent, somewhere between the hissing of a cat the snarling of a very angry dog.
The result was utterly bone-chilling.
Move...! she told herself. You've got to move! Shaking, Henrietta pushed the bedroom door open again, poking her head out to peer into the hall, poised to slam it shut if she saw any sign of the creature. But it seemed the Under Thing was still in her room, and from the snapping cracks that drifted down the stairwell Henrietta guessed that it was making short work of her tin soldiers. She edged out into the hall and padded into the opposite direction as fast as she dared, trying to be as quiet as possible, jumping at small noises. Any second now, that mad thing was going to come looking for her...
She reached another set of stairs and descended towards the first floor, hesitating in the entrance hall before she scurried towards the front door. The servants' quarters were on the other side of the house, near the kitchens, but she had a sinking feeling that whatever had happened to her parents had befallen the other occupants of the house, too. A series of loud banging noises sounded directly above her, making her nearly jump right of her skin, and then everything went abruptly silent. Henrietta slammed into the front door and was trying to pull it open, distracted as she listened feverishly for any sign of the Under Thing, her head turned in the direction of the stairs. Any moment that monster was going to appear at the top, and it was this mounting terror that kept her from realizing that the door hadn't budged an inch, no matter how hard she pulled on it.
Nearly screaming in frustration, Henrietta whirled on it—and felt her stomach plunge in horror. For a moment, her brain refused to accept what her eyes were seeing, and insisted that they go back for a second look. They did, and the fact remained the same: marching around the entire frame of the door—along the floor, up one side, across the top, and down the other—were locks of every kind and fashion imaginable. Shiny brass deadbolts, rusting padlocks, locks that needed keys, silver chain latches, locks with combinations, and locks with no apparent way to open them at all stood out clearly in the dark. To top it all off, a heavy wooden girder with metal fittings and iron studs solidly barred the door, and made it absolutely sodding clear that she was not getting out.
Were those there before? She wondered as her eyes slowly traveled up the length of the door, a giddy kind of disbelief mixing with the panic churning in her gut at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. She let out a choked, breathy sound, something between a nervous giggle and a soft sob. This was impossible.
"You've gotta be kidding me...!" she muttered.
A sound from the top of the stairs froze Henrietta's blood to sludge. She knew what it was before she'd even turned around, but that didn't help with the solid lump of leaden dread that had settled into her stomach. Skin crawling, she turned and met the burning gaze of the Thing From Under The Bed. The unearthly creature stood on all fours at the top of the stairs, a dozen little swords sticking up out of his arched back like porcupine quills. The gutted hide of her favorite toy fox draped his ragged form, and his eyes burned from within the shredded remains of the toy's mouth. Black antlers sprouted like tree branches from the fox's empty eye-sockets, splitting off into a dozen knife-points, and each one pointed at Henrietta. She might have been angry if she weren't so preoccupied with being scared out of her mind. The nightmare reached around with a black, clawed paw and plucked a blade out of his spine with a jerk and a flash of teeth. He looked at the dark blood dripping from the bayonet, and then, with eyes thin and mean, looked at Henrietta.
I'm going to die, she thought, while her feet cemented themselves firmly to the floor. The nightmare pitched the little knife away and snarled the sort of snarl that started in his throat and inevitably ended up in someone else's. In the next moment he was charging down the stairs towards her like a freight train, growing bigger with each step until his flanks cracked the hand rails and his talons tore chunks out of the wood and his huge yellow eyes were like a pair of on-coming headlights in the dark...and Henrietta could do nothing but wait for him, pressing so hard into the door she might have welded her spine into the wood. A sense of dread stuck in her throat and sat like a lump of lead in her gut, seeping a sort of poison that twisted her insides, and seized her muscles, and squeezed her heart. Suddenly her legs wouldn't listen to the frantic orders from her brain no matter how much it howled, and Henrietta could only stand uselessly and wait in frozen horror as her death rushed closer, watching wide-eyed as the monster expanded impossibly until his burgeoning bulk blacked out her vision and his antlers were fit to pierce the sky—
It happened when the Under Thing was right on top of her, serrated shark's teeth barely an inch from her face.
That was when something slammed against the other side of the front door. It was so forceful she was knocked right into the monster, and instinctively grabbed him around the neck to keep herself from falling. A second later, she let go with a yelp, as if she'd been stung, and toppled right over. The Under Thing had skidded to a halt, his jack-o-lantern eyes widening in surprise. Still on her hands and knees, Henrietta looked around in bewilderment. She scrambled to her feet, acutely aware of how close the Under Thing was, but there came another resounding crash against the door, and she bounced on the balls of her feet, unsure of which way to run now. She was quickly approaching blind panic, and the third booming crash sent her bolting in a random direction, tripping haphazardly—
She was thrown to the floor a second later, so forcefully the wind was knocked from her lungs. Henrietta struggled helplessly, gasping, and tried to twist around to see—the Under Thing was standing on top of her. Henrietta let out a squeak of fright, but the monster didn't seem to notice. One massive black paw was holding her firmly to the floor, but his glittering eyes were fixed on the door and the grin cracking his face in two was madder than ever.
"Don't run off now," he said, gently pressing his claws into her shoulder. "Yeh might just see somethin' interestin'."
There was another crash at the front door that shook dust from the rafters, and it sounded to Henrietta as if something very big was trying to break into her house. She was vaguely surprised the door was still standing, but by the look of the spider-web of splintering cracks all around the frame, she thought it wouldn't be standing much longer. She was right. With a harsh, splintering CRACK the door flew off its hinges in a shower of broken wood and slid fifteen feet across the polished marble floor before it crashed heavily into the opposite wall. Scattered locks and debris were strewn everywhere. The iron girder had been flung through the air so hard it was embedded upright in the floor. But Henrietta was only occupied with the spectacular mess for a moment, before her eyes were pulled towards the open doorway, and the complete and utter blackness beyond. She couldn't see outside at all—it was as if the world abruptly ended at their threshold.
Something stepped from that impossible void, something darker than black, something that seemed to eat up every scrap of light. And for a moment, all Henrietta could comprehend was a pair of gleaming yellow-green eyes, before the shadows around them congealed into a shape she could understand. Small and sleek and serenely smiling, a solid black cat sat primly within the shattered doorway.
No. It was a barking lady, now. Henrietta blinked, and shook her head, and looked again. There was a definitely a woman standing where the cat had been a moment ago. She was very petite, with her hands clasped demurely in front of her, and a soft smile gracing her rosy lips. Her coal black hair was long and straight and held up in a chignon that reminded Henrietta of the Geisha doll her sister had gotten one Christmas. Her skin was clear and white and almost glowed with an ethereal light. It was almost as if she were standing beneath a full moon and stars from some other world, rather than Henrietta's dusky doorway. The Lady was dressed in flowing satin robes of palest pink and spring green, while glittering jewels dangled from her pale throat, and her ears, and her hair. Her eyes were the only thing that had remained unchanged. Gleaming cat's eyes, they were, of a translucent yellow-green. She was the most beautiful woman Henrietta had ever seen.
The Lady met Henrietta's stunned gaze for a moment, and smiled gently before she turned her shining eyes upon the Under Thing. And then she spoke.
"Hello, Master Howell," she said cheerily, and Henrietta nearly fell over in shock. Her voice... It was like this woman had been eating nothing but rocks all her life. She sounded like a chain-smoking fishwife, one that did nothing but nag everyone all day, until her voice was as gravelly and grating as an old nanny goat. "It's so wonderful to see you again."
Where before, the Under Thing had practically been strumming with excitement, his shoulders suddenly slumped and he huffed out a disappointed sigh.
"Oh," he said, sounding a little deflated. "It's you."
"Well, that's a fine way to greet a lady," the Lady-Fishwife snorted reprovingly (like a choking chainsaw), and shot the Under Thing a sever look.
"I'd 'ardly call yeh a lady, yeh old hag," the Under Thing replied loftily, and the Lady gave a very unladylike snort. But then her smile returned, and she arched a finely sculpted eyebrow at the monster.
"Just who were you expecting, then, sugar?" she asked.
"I was 'opin' it were a burglar," the Under Thing replied nonchalantly. "Certainly not you. Acquaintances don't go about breakin' into each other's houses, after all, now do they?"
"Oh, piffle, I had rather thought we were more than just acquaintances by now," the Lady huffed, then dipped her head a few inches, so she could look up at him through her lashes with her sharp, sly eyes. "You must be simply starved for some excitement, if you're looking to a break-in for entertainment. Now surely you haven't forgotten about the plans for this evening?"
The Under Thing rolled his eyes. "Don't you got enough guests to dote on yeh? Yeh know I hate them kind of affairs."
"Oh, but it is our last night and I had so hoped to see you at my going away party, it's just gonna be the bees-knees don't you know, and you're so dismally antisocial I just knew I'd have to come fetch you in person. And here I am!"
"Do I 'ave a choice?"
"Of course you don't. Speaking of which, you aren't going like that, are you?" the Lady said, not even attempting to hide her disdain, as her eyes traveled from the antlers scraping the ceiling, to the tatters of the fox hide fluttering from their points, and the flickering shadow form.
"I were in the middle of a nightmare, in case yeh was wonderin'," the Under Thing replied silkily.
"The Thing From Under The Bed?" the Lady said doubtfully. "Really, Howell?"
"Wot can I say? I like the classics, and they've always sent 'em runnin' fer mommy before," the Under Thing shrugged, before he added with a nasty little sneer, "As if you could do any better. Never were one for subtlety, eh?"
"I did knock," the Lady pointed out, her lips pursed into a thin line, determinedly ignoring the jibe with haughty reservation.
"Yeh smashed the bleedin' door down, woman," the Under Thing said in a flat voice, casting a pointed glance at the splinters of wood strewn across the floor.
"But I had to," the Lady replied tartly. "You never answer when I come to call, otherwise."
"I wonder why?" the Under Thing muttered to himself, too quietly for the Lady to hear, but Henrietta caught it. And then the monster was suddenly coming apart. Hundreds of little black scales were scattering everywhere, and the flickering shadow-form was shrinking smaller and smaller, and falling through the cracks in the floorboards like sand through a shifter—until nothing was left but a boy.
He stood with his back to Henrietta, one clawed hand on his cocked hip, the other running through his dusky purple hair, so that it stuck out in all directions. He looked to be in his early teens, maybe fourteen or fifteen. A strange set of horns (or were they ears?) jutted out of the top of his head like lightning bolts. There were black markings around his sharp eyes, still the same Jack-O-Lantern jaundiced orange. His outfit looked like a strange cross between a court jester and a samurai, in shades of dark purple, gray, silver, and black.
"I'm sorry...but what's going on?" Henrietta asked suddenly in a slightly shriller octave than she'd intended. She was still sitting on the floor, given that her legs were doing a very good impression of a pair of wet noodles, and had to crane her neck to look up at the boy.
"Oh, nothin'. Better you run along back to bed, 'enry," the Under Thing said, in a somewhat put-upon tone, and made a vague shooing motion towards the stairs, dismissing her. "We'll continue this some other night, I s'pose."
"Your contractor, I presume?" the Lady asked. "Such an adorable little thing, isn't she?"
Henrietta gaped at them for a moment, still reeling with fear and shock and confusion, before suddenly her temper snapped in two and the feeling that marched into the forefront of her mind now was a very indignant anger. She jumped to her feet, lifted her chin, and glared down her nose at the boy with cold disdain.
"My name is Henrietta," she snapped peevishly, with a lot more force than was probably wise at the moment, but she was too shaken up to care at this point. "It is not Henry. And who are you to order me about, after you've just been tearing up my house and threatening to eat me? It's your barking fault I'm here in the first place, and as such I think I have a right to know just what the hell is going on, thank you very much."
"Don't cast a kitten about it," the Under Thing replied dryly, which set her teeth grinding. "Besides, I would 'ave figured yeh'd notice by now. Ain't the sharpest tool in the shed, are yeh?"
"For crying out loud, notice what?" she half-shrieked, and for a moment had the mad impulse to do something childish, like stomp her foot or throw her hands in the air. But that seemed like something her sister, Charlotte, might have done, so Henrietta crossed her arms instead and settled for grinding her teeth. The Under Thing was simply impossible.
"Oh, Howell, do stop tormenting the poor girl," the Lady interjected in a simpering tone. She stepped deftly around the Under Thing and offered Henrietta what she must have thought was a comforting smile. It would have been, if it weren't for her gleaming fangs.
"You're dreaming, sweetie," she said kindly, though her gnarled voice butchered the tone somewhat. She also seemed to think that settled the matter, because she didn't go on to elaborate.
"...Dreaming," Henrietta repeated after a moment. If the Lady heard the skepticism in Henrietta's tone, she didn't show it. "Horsefeathers," she added firmly, just to drive her disbelief home.
"Oh, no, not at all. But it's all over now, and it was such a pleasure meeting you, but Master Howell and I really must be going..."she glanced at the Under Thing, who let out a long-suffering sigh, but motioned towards the door. And just like that they were both turning away and leaving Henrietta feeling distinctly off-kilter.
"Wait a minute!" she shouted. The two paused on their way out the door and cast her politely inquiring glances over their shoulders.
"I don't know who you think you are, or what's going on here, and honestly I don't think I really want to. But if you think you can terrify me all evening and then waltz off to who knows where without even a by-your-leave, then you've got another clanking thing coming, mister!"
"And just wot are yeh goin' to do about it, sweet'eart?" the Under Thing grinned. Henrietta paused for a moment, knowing she hadn't thought this through very well.
"I'm not your sweetheart," she said finally.
"O' course you ain't," the Under Thing replied, looking acutely amused.
"And...if this is a dream...then I can do whatever I want, right?" Henrietta said. She was grasping at straws, she knew, and suspected she may have just lost her mind. They certainly had.
"That's typically the way o' things," the Under Thing replied. "But you ain't convinced this be a dream, are yeh? It don't work if yeh don't believe."
Well, there was only one way to find out. Henrietta shut her eyes and wished for a weapon, anything to cold-cock that little high-hat senseless.
Nothing happened. Of course.
"It helps if yeh visualize it," the Under Thing said helpfully. Henrietta thought harder, thinking of the guns that were used at the end of the New Year's parade, and opened her eyes at the sound of a soft, admiring whistle. Her jaw dropped. Standing next to her was the biggest cannon she'd ever seen. Dusty gray and ten feet long, with a pair of legs crafted from steel girders and interlocking gears, it crouched on the floor like some sort of huge, metallic bird.
Henrietta was staring at it in shock when abruptly her brain flipped over and shuffled her memory like a pack of playing cards. It was almost like waking up, like that one instant where you realize who and where you are and what's real and what isn't. And suddenly, she wasn't a frightened little girl anymore. She was Henrietta Howell, thirteen years old, and certainly not afraid of any under from under the bed. There was no room in her world for such nonsense, and none of this was real, and the more she thought about it the more she kicked herself for not realizing it sooner.
"I'll be switched," the Under Thing said, peering with interest down the dark barrel. "Didn't think you was clever enough to figure it out." Then his eyes flicked up to catch hers, and for a moment she felt like he was looking deeper, right into her—"And don't beat yerself up, too much. Nobody ever realizes when they're dreamin'."
Henrietta blanched, and looked away quick.
"Quite the imagination you have," the Lady said, moving to examine the cannon more closely, particularly rather impressive the detail carved along the shaft. Vaguely, Henrietta wondered what would happen to the two of them if the thing happened to go off. Neither looked all that threatened.
"I would like to wake up now," Henrietta said a little breathlessly, and with all the haughty dignity she could muster.
"Sorry, kid, but yeh missed yer chance," the Under Thing shrugged. "'ad I not been interrupted," and at this he shot the Lady an accusing look, to which she coquettishly batted her pretty eyes, "yeh would 'ave woken up screamin'. As it is, you ain't wakin' without a kick, so you'll 'ave to kip 'til mornin'. You're good at doing what yeh're told. Be a good girl and run along back to bed, now."
Henrietta narrowed her eyes on the demon. "...It's not my room," she replied tightly.
"That's right, it's yer sister's, ain't it?" the Under Thing mused, tapping his chin, but something in his false tone told her he'd already known that. And then his eyes turned sharp and steely and pinned her to the spot with their madness. "But that's okay, right? I know yeh like that room better, anyway. Yers is so drafty, after all. Did yeh notice I jazzed up the decor a bit? I always 'ated them dolls she keeps...don't you?"
"I am not going to sit in that room and do nothing while you go gallivanting off to some party," she snapped peevishly. "Either end the dream, or take me with you."
"Take you?" the Lady shrieked, making both Henrietta and the Under Thing wince. "Child, you wouldn't last five minutes where we're going!"
A crack like a gunshot split the air, and then the whole blitzing floor split open like a gigantic tooth-ed maw. For a fleeting moment, Henrietta was left hanging out in space, before gravity decided to kick in and dragged her screaming to the floor of the basement. She hit with a sickening thud that shook her to the bone and rattled the teeth in her skull. She expected a black-out. Or copious amounts of blood. Or at the very least a modicrum of pain. Instead, all that happened was jarring sense of disorientation, and then she slowly climbed back to her feet.
Something wrapped around her waist and hoisted her up into the entrance hall—some forty feet in the air. She was set back on her feet, and the chasm in the floor resealed as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Henrietta looked up, and noticed the Under Thing's long, sinuous, black tail. A bit like a lion's really, but instead of a tuft at the end, there was what looked suspiciously like a hand...
"I can't end the dream," the Under Thing said. "The only way to do that is to kill you, and it won't work if you know it ain't real. You're just goin' to have to stay put. And that...is...final."
On the last word, the Under Thing snapped his fingers, and Henrietta was back in bed, in a room that wasn't hers. The stuffed toys were gone, and so were all the contraptions hanging from the ceiling. Instead of green and yellow, the walls were a pastry pink and covered with tiny rose-buds. Glassy-eyed dolls sat on the shelves among picture books and make-up kits, and lacy curtains blew gently in the breeze. A vanity sat where her desk had been, glittering with scattered necklaces and ear-rings vomited up from the gilded silver jewelry box. A velvet canopy hung over the four-poster bed, all decorated in pinks and whites like a giant birthday cake.
Henrietta kicked off the lavish duvet and padded across the floor to the door. There was no night-light, and the room was dark and silent, but for the moonlight streaming ion through the arched floor-to-ceiling windows. She hesitated, listening to the stillness, before she finally opened the door and quietly made her way downstairs. The cannon had vanished. The mess in the hall was gone. The front door was back where it was supposed to be, and there were no more locks. It was as if nothing had ever happened. Taking a breath, Henrietta grasped the knob and slowly opened the door.
The world ended at her threshold, and there was nothing beyond the frame but a solid wall of black.
What she was thinking was probably stupid. But the prospect of sitting in that room all night with nothing to do in a dream that seemed to have descended into limbo didn't sound very appealing, either. Hadn't the Lady mentioned a party? She glanced back towards the staircase, listening to the eerie quiet. Not a creak, or groan, or even a noise from outside. So she was still trapped in a nightmare, that apparently couldn't end. She could deal with that.
And slowly, Henrietta grinned, and then she stepped through the door.
After all, what was the worse that could happen?
Hello, all. Some of you may recognize me from the sister site, fanfictiondotnet. Well, I've been working on this story for a while, but I could never sit down and make myself write it. I am the Queen of Laziness and Procrastination, after all. It seems I work better when I have an audience, so I was quite pleased to discover this little site. Chapters will be sporadic and random at best, and will probably get edited daily even after I've posted them, but I make a vow here and now to finish this. I hope someday to see it adapted into a manga or anime, for it is my greatest dream to see people cosplaying my characters in anime conventions. Oh, and the fanfiction. We mustn't forget all that. And I suppose the millions of dollars in royalties wouldn't hurt either. Ah, sweet delusions. You taunt me so.
Anyway, here is the first installment of The Golden Paradigm. It will ultimately become a three part series, set in a steam-punk Industrial Age America, in an alternate-universe somewhere around the 1920's, which would explain the slang. The idea's been stewing in my brain for about ten years, and has grown into a veritable monster that haunts my every waking moment (and sometimes sleeping moments, too). It scares me sometimes. I won't give too much away here, though. Just means you'll have to keep reading, don't it?
Chapter Two is forthcoming, and if you review, I'll return the favor (hint,hint).
Thanks for reading, and ta-ta for now!