Friday, May 30, 2008

Chapter 66: Prime Time

~ Sarah finished painting over his spider bites and "bringing out his cheekbones" ("He looks positively ethnic!" gushed Joel) and Kevin managed to add a surprising amount of gel to his hair before Jaden escaped from the chair. Joel stood back and surveyed the trio.

"Oh that is just loads better. You almost look human!" he laughed aloud, as if his joke were actually funny, and turned to Kevin and Sarah. "Clear this up then. Hurry along now. We've got to make room for the wardrobe carts." Andrew cleared his throat.

"Hey, about that, Joel, ol' buddy. I think we'd probably all be more comfortable if we just stayed in our race uniforms. That alright with you?" For a moment Jaden thought that Joel wasn't going to go for it, but he finally nodded his head in begrudging consent.

"Ok, if that's what you want. I won't force anything on you." The expression on his face said that he thought that the world would be a better, prettier place if he could force his style upon it, but he didn't press the issue with Team 6.

"So what about this show?" asked Takyle. "Can you tell us when exactly we're going on, and if you don't know what we're going to be doing, is it possible for you to send somebody to us who does?"

"You go on whenever they're ready for you, and yes, I can try to find someone for you to talk to. But no promises!" Joel warned in a sing song. Jaden felt his skin crawl a little, then he thought that maybe there was just something wrong with him. So far the only person that he had liked in this race was a wizard that had had it in for them. That couldn't be healthy.

Joel waved the make-up team out of the room with little flipping motions of his hands.

"Alright darlings, I'll be back!" he sang over his shoulder and shut the door with a slam. And just like that the room was left blessedly silent. Jaden looked from Andrew to Takyle and back again. Andrew opened his jaw, moving his lips.

"My face feels stiff," he finally said.

"Haven't you ever worn make-up before?" Takyle asked him.

"Uh, no, as a matter of fact I have not ever worn make-up before. And if I have my way, I will not ever wear it again after today."

"Killjoy," said Takyle, sitting back down on the couch.

"I'd eat another apple," Andrew said to Jaden. "But I'm scared of messing up my lipstick."

"You're not wearing lipstick, Andrew," said Takyle.

"Well maybe that's not what you call it, but they did put something on my lips," Andrew assured her. "And it was of a stick-type form, so, by definition..." He tapered off, leaving that thought to rest. After a few moments he spoke up again.

"Our friend Joel is taking his time isn't he?" Takyle nodded.

"Yeah, I wonder which show we're gonna get. Remember last time there were like five shows that all filmed special race episodes."

"You mean EPICsodes," corrected Andrew with a pained smile. Takyle groaned.

"Oh my gosh, they did call them that, didn't they? That's awful. And they're probably doing the same thing this year," she said. Jaden stifled a big yawn behind his hand, slumping back down into the chair at the dressing table.

"Mmh, sorry. I guess the adrenalin and caffeine are wearing off. "

"Yeah, and we didn't exactly get a full eight hours last night," agreed Andrew. Jaden thought back to the wizard telling them to sleep while they could in the white box house with the fireplace and short door. That had only been a little more than 18 hours ago, but it seemed like weeks. Jaden's thought processes wandered from there and ended up at the usual place. Always returning to: "I wonder how the other teams are doing..."

"Like a loyal dog. Always coming back. Predictable. That's what my thoughts are," Jaden mused drowsily to himself, laying his head down on his folded arms, and closing his eyes. "I'll just rest for a minute. Just for a minute..." ~

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Chapter 65: Just Below The Surface - Bonus Chapter

~ Andrew sat down on the couch and Takyle scooted over and leaned her head on his shoulder.

"How's your stomach?" she asked.

"Mmh, not too bad. The meds helped. Couldn't exactly take a normal shower with this bandage on though." He lifted his arm and put it around her shoulders, holding her close. She sighed quietly. "That sounded downright feminine, Ta. You sure you're feeling alright?" She could hear the smile in his voice.

"I can just be a girl sometimes you know."

"Well yeah, theoretically. I mean you have the equipment and all, but..."

"The equipment?" Takyle laughed. "What's the matter? Don't you like the technical term: Girly Bits?"

"I'm ok with that phrasing, I just blush very easily is all and I didn't want to lose that machismo that swathes my very being," Andrew told her. She laughed again.

"Oh yeah, sure, machismo, totally." Takyle felt him kiss her damp hair, and she closed her eyes, listening to his heart beat.

"Andrew?" she whispered.


"I panicked back there in the tunnel."

"Well that's understandable."

"You didn't," she said.

"Well that's because I didn't get a proper chance to. If I'm going to panic, I need to do it right. It's a matter of pride for me," he told her.

"You don't need to try to make me feel better. I just wanted to tell you thank you for keeping me going. I... I would have tried to go back otherwise. I know I would have."

"I wouldn't bank on that. We surprise ourselves sometimes," Andrew said. Takyle began to open her mouth to answer when Jaden came back out of the bathroom. Takyle sat up, pulling away from Andrew.

"Well that was fantastic," Jaden proclaimed, sitting sideways on the dressing table's chair to put his shoes back on.

"Was it as good for you as it was for me?" asked Andrew.

"Oh yeah, I think so. I hope so." Jaden turned around to look at himself in the mirror, raking his fingers back through his hair to give it some semblance of order, and for the most part failing. He leaned close and gingerly touched the angry red bite that was swelling his left eye half closed, wincing as his fingers brushed it. "So I take it the guy hasn't come back yet?"

"No, not ye-" Andrew began to answer, when, as if on cue, the door burst open for the second time and the blonde man came waltzing in again, this time with three other people in tow.

"Oh, now don't the lot of you look so much better!" he proclaimed, bouncing on the balls of his feet and looking inordinately pleased that Team 6 were slightly cleaner now. "Karen, take these dirty clothes and have them laundered, chop chop now." He clapped his hands at a pale redhead that looked nothing like a "Karen".

When no one else in Team 6 said anything, Andrew stood up to address the man.

"Hello there. I'm Andrew, and you are...?" He extended a hand politely over the coffee table. The blonde man grasped it with the tips of his fingers.

"Joel Hampton, pleasure. Now who wants to get their make-up first?" Joel looked around excitedly, as if he was expecting one or more of them to jump up and down and beg to please, please, please let them go first. Andrew reclaimed his hand, and Jaden saw him immediately wipe it on the seat of his pants, as if he'd just been holding a wet fish or something.

"About that make-up, care to tell us exactly why we would need such a thing?" Andrew pressed. "And while you're at it can you give us some sort of assurance that Karen will have our clothes back by the time we're ready to move on?" Joel took a deep breath and then used it to sigh noisily.

"You don't have to have make-up. If you want to go on stage looking like you do, then fine, but you'll look awful under the lights, just trust me. And of course you'll have your uniforms back, honey, what kind of place do you think this is?"

"Ok, so we're going on stage. To do what?"

"It's some sort of game show, I don't know, I just have to have you ready, so if you don't mind..." Joel seemed to be losing his bounce and pizazz along with his patience. Andrew looked at Takyle.

"Boss?" She shook her head and shrugged.

"This seems to be the next task. Let's not hold it up." She turned to Joel. "Where would you like me for make-up?"

"Over there," he said, pointing to the vanity. "Sarah! Kevin! Let's go, people!"

Sarah and Keven jumped to do Joel's bidding, one attacking Takyle's face with various liquids and powders and the other pouncing on her hair. Joel hovered, tsk-ing, and giving advice, and sticking a hand in wherever possible.

"No, her hair's too flat for that style, try something more "up"," he commanded Kevin.

In eight minutes Takyle was expelled from the chair and Joel gestured for either Jaden or Andrew to step up. Andrew moved hesitantly forward and took a seat.

"I love your hair color!" Joel gushed, as Kevin and Sarah worked away. "Tell me it's natural!"

"It's natural," Andrew told him, obligingly.

"It's fantastic is what it is," Joel informed him. Jaden thought that Joel seemed to have a thing for hair. After another few minutes, Jaden was in the chair, taking his turn under the brushes. Joel grimaced at the reflection in the mirror, gesturing impatiently at the bite under Jaden's eye.

"Can't you do something about that, Sarah?" he demanded. "It's awful!" Sarah didn't reply, but began painting it with some kind of skin tone liquid. Jaden winced away from her fingers.

"Ouch! Please be careful, it hurts."

"No doubt, but you'll feel so much better about yourself once we all can't see as much of it," Joel told him. Jaden glared back at him.

"I'll feel much better about myself once I can't see as much of you," he thought bitterly. ~

Monday, May 26, 2008

Chapter 64: Refreshing On Many Levels

~ "Well, my guess is that we're not in the mansion anymore," observed Andrew.

"I can't say as I care," said Takyle. "If this is a dressing room than one of these doors probably leads to a bathroom and I call dibs on the shower." Andrew raised an eyebrow at her.

"You do realize that those spiders were probably a sim and that this stuff is in fact not actually on us?"

"It feels like it's real and on me, and the bites hurt, and that's all that really matters. I want to change clothes," she said, trying the door beside the dressing table and finding that it did indeed lead to a bathroom. "Four minutes, time me," she told them, grabbing her pack off the floor and carrying it into the bathroom. Jaden looked at Andrew, shrugged, then marked time on his watch. They began to move over to the couch to sit down, but stopped when they realized that their pants were still smeared with spider gook. Instead of sitting they just stood silently in the middle of the room, looking around. Behind them the other door burst open and they both spun to face it. A small man with unnaturally wavy blonde hair came running in.

"Well it's about time you all got here! Team 6? Yes, I can see that you are. You're going on quite soon, you know that right? Where's the third?" Jaden stood with his mouth open, staring at the man, and Andrew pointed silently at the bathroom door. "Getting cleaned up? Well that's a good idea. No offense, but I dearly hope you two plan to do the same! Hurry though; I'll be back in ten with make-up and wardrobe." With that he gave a flip of his hand and left the room, slamming the door behind himself. A silent moment passed.

"Did that just happen or did I hallucinate it?" asked Andrew.

"Wardrobe?" asked Jaden.

"Make-up?" responded Andrew.

"What the hell?" added Jaden. The bathroom door opened and Takyle strode out, wearing a relatively clean set of clothes and pulling her fingers through her loose, wet hair in lieu of a comb. Her cheeks were pink and her eyes bright. All in all she just looked much happier. And cleaner.

"And, time! How'd I do?" Jaden glanced at his watch.

"Three point five," he told her automatically.

"What's going on? You two look fishy." Andrew turned to face her.

"Some guy just came bursting in here and told us to get cleaned up because make-up and wardrobe would be here in ten minutes, then he left. And he never took a breath." Andrew shrugged after relaying that and, picking up his pack, went into the bathroom and shut the door. Takyle looked at Jaden for an explanation. He shrugged too.

"I dunno. He acted like we were expected or something. I think that we must be in the next level."

"Ok well, that's good I guess. Did he give an idea of what we'd be doing?" Takyle asked.

"Not really. But he'll be back "in ten" and you can ask him yourself what we're doing."

"Wow, you guys sure are good at digging information out of people," noted Takyle, with amused sarcasm.

"Hey, you weren't here. He seriously didn't pause longer than three micro-seconds," Jaden protested. Takyle smiled and shook her head.

"Oh gosh, it sure feels good to rest and have a shower," she said, sinking down onto the couch and leaning back with a satisfied sigh. For the first time Jaden took some interest in what was on the coffee table.

"Saints above! There's sodas!" he exclaimed, grabbing a can of cola off of a tray.

"Jaden," said Takyle, with her eyes still closed. "Did you just say: "Saint's above"?"

"Uh, yeah. What about it?" He popped open the can and took a long drink.

"Nothing. I've just never heard anyone except my great-aunt Rose use that particular phrase is all."

"Huh, well obviously she has discerning and classy taste," he told her, picking up a handful of crackers and a few squares of cheese to go with his soda.

"Oh yes, most definitely." Just then Andrew emerged from the bathroom in a wave of steam, dirty clothes slung over his arm. He dropped his pack on the floor.

"Oh hey! Sodas!" He grabbed one of the chilled cans and grinned happily. "Did that fella come back?" Jaden shook his head.

"Nope, not yet. I'm gonna clean up. Holler for me if he comes back whilst I'm in t'shower."

"Sure thing," promised Andrew, choosing a red apple from a basket and taking a bite. Jaden moved towards the bathroom then turned around, gingerly feeling below his eye.

"Think I should put something on this bite? It's pretty swollen up, and it hurts a lot worse than the others, but if it's not real there's really no point is there?" Andrew stepped over to get a better look at Jaden's face.

"I'm not sure. Want to let it wait for a few minutes and maybe we can find out something when that guy comes back? Maybe he'll give us more of an idea of what's next."

"Yeah, ok." Jaden turned and stepped into the bathroom. As he closed the door behind himself he heard Takyle moan from the couch.

"Ugh, I hate spiders!" ~

Friday, May 23, 2008

Chapter 63: Heart's Content

~ The bite under Jaden's eye burned and itched and he could already feel it beginning to swell. He found that concentrating on that one bite removed his mind somewhat from the hundreds of spiders swarming over the rest him. Where the hell did they all come from? Not that that mattered all that much, what was important was that they kept coming.

The tunnel turned a sharp corner and just around it Jaden bumped into a panel blocking the path. A door. Blessed saints above, it was a door. Jaden grabbed the handle with both hands and and gave it a hard twist. And nothing happened. He jerked at it again with one hand, using the other to beat at the wood, in the illogical hope that that would jar it open.

"It's locked!" he cried desperately.

"Takyle, the key. Give it to me," ordered Andrew. He sounded so friggin' firm and calm and in charge. How the hell did he do that? Jaden, on the other hand, sat in the tiny tunnel, waiting for the key, his heart hammering away like it was trying to break out of his chest, reminding himself to breathe in as well as out. Turns out it is exponentially harder to sit still with hundreds of spiders on and around you, than to crawl over them. At least then you're doing something to get away from them.

"Hurry up, please!" he begged Takyle, shocked, first by the panicked sound of his voice, and second by the fact that he'd added "please". Takyle continued to fumble around in her pockets, looking for the key she had found back in the desert.

"Ugh! There's spiders in my pockets!" she cried. At the moment Jaden couldn't imagine a place on his person where they weren't. "I got it!" she shouted. A moment later Andrew passed the unassuming silver key up to Jaden. Now it looked like sparkling salvation. He jammed it into the lock on the door and in that split second before he tried it a thought entered his mind.

"Maybe it won't work."

It did. The key turned to left with a smooth click and the catch disengaged. Jaden threw his pack out of the tunnel and scrambled after it, never in his life so glad that a door had unlocked for him. He jumped up and began beating at the things crawling over him before he realized that they were now all streaming off, running back to the tunnel. That knowledge did not stop him from helping them on their way.

Jaden shivered all over, began to raise his hands to itch his scalp, and stopped when he realized what was crushed all over them. His pant legs from the knees down were also coated with the sticky, leggy remains of the more unfortunate of his arachnid attackers. He shuddered again, trying to wipe his hands off on his pants, the only thing available.

Andrew and Takyle were standing next to Jaden, Andrew attempting to rub one hand clean on his hip, while hugging Takyle with the other arm. Jaden was a little shocked to see tears running down her face. Never, ever had he seen Takyle actually, seriously cry. A tear now and again sure, but not like this, and he had seen her hurt pretty bad. He didn't really know what to do, so he just stood there... Feeling awkward.

"Wow, this is familiar," said his mind.

"Shut up," he told his mind.

After a minute more Takyle stopped crying (apparently by force of will) and pulled away from Andrew. She started to wipe her face off with her hands, but stopped just in time. She grimaced and looked a little ill for a moment. Jaden pulled something from his pocket and shook it to make sure there were no hangers-on, then handed it to Takyle. She looked at him for a moment with an unreadable expression, then she started giggling. Jaden glanced at Andrew to find out what he'd done wrong, but Andrew was busy still trying to get spider guts off himself.

"Jay, you packed a handkerchief? I... I'm not sure what to say."

"I, thought I might get a cold or something," he told her, still not sure if he should be laughing with her or defending himself. He shot for a middle ground and smiled a little.

"Jaden, I love you. Thank you. Thank you for thinking you might get a cold and being prepared and giving me your handkerchief." Takyle gratefully wiped her eyes, being careful not to soil more of the white cloth than was necessary.

"I'm prepared too," Andrew inserted, peevishly. "I brought... Granola bars." Takyle stood on her toes to give him a quick kiss.

"I appreciate you too, hun." She suddenly shivered all over. "Ugh, that was awful. I never want to see another spider again as long as I live." Andrew shook his head.

"The chances of that happening are slim, seeing as how they're smashed all over us. First order of business, I say we find some water."

"Great idea!" agreed Takyle. "So where exactly are we?" The first response that sprang to Jaden's lips was: "Not in the tunnel!", but he kept that to himself and looked around the room that they had exited into. It was green and not too big, with modern furniture, including a vanity with a big mirror framed by lights on the wall in front of it. To another side was a couch and a small table with some fruit and other snacks laid out on its surface. It looked like a dressing room. ~

Monday, May 19, 2008

Chapter 62: Cartoon Heroes

~ The tunnel that Team 6 crawled down seem to go on forever. About 50 feet from where they had entered it through the trapdoor, it narrowed slightly and the ceiling moved down a little.

"Good call on the not wearing our packs, Jay," said Andrew. Jaden very nearly smacked his head right into the wall when he turned it to answer, but halted the motion in time.

"Thanks, I'm just hoping that it doesn't close up any more. I'd like to think that we could turn around if we wanted to."

"Yes, escapism is a beautiful thing," grunted Andrew as he lowered himself to his stomach to creep under a low beam. "Da, geez, that doesn't feel very good."

"Maybe now would be a good time for a couple of those pain killers?" suggested Takyle from the back.

"I think I agree with you," said Andrew and Jaden heard him stop and rummage through pockets until he came up with the little, white packets that the medic had given him. He read the directions on one of them carefully, and then counted them. He tore open one and shook it over his hand. Two blue and green capsules fell into his palm. He put one in his mouth and returned the other to its plastic wrapper, rolling it closed and placing it along with the others in his pack.

"You only took one?" Takyle asked. "Is that a full dose?"

"No, but I've only got ten packets, I need to make them last. Half a dose is probably plenty anyway." With that he tapped Jaden's shoe to indicate that he was ready to go again. They crawled on and Jaden's knees began to get sore. The tunnel narrowed one more time so that now the top brushed their heads, and the sides were just barely shoulder width. Jaden also noticed that it was getting quite a lot dustier, with cobwebs draped from corners like macabre Christmas decorations.

Jaden had never been claustrophobic per se, but he wasn't exactly enjoying this set up. A moment later he heard a small sound from Takyle. He would have described it as half shriek, half gasp. He heard something thump against the wall.

"What is it?" he demanded.

"Ugh, there was a spider right on my hand." A moment later there was another thump, and a near silent curse from Andrew.

"And I got one too."

"Gross. Where are they coming from?" asked Takyle. And then it started. Jaden felt something on his neck and slapped at it. A black spider, writhing and broken, but not dead, fell down in front of him, next to his hand. He caught another in the act of climbing up his arm and quickly swatted it away. He heard Takyle gasp again as he felt something on his scalp. He was positive that it had to be his imagination but he put his hands in his hair and scrubbed them back and forth. Two spiders fell from his head, one dangling by a silken thread in front of his eyes. Jaden frantically knocked it off and his eyes followed it to the floor.

"Shit!" The tunnel was teaming with the things, all kinds, all scurrying towards him. For a moment he panicked, but Andrew put a stop to that fast by pushing him hard from behind.

"Move, Jaden, we've got to get out of here!" Jaden began to crawl forward, forcing himself to breathe. Forcing himself to not try to scurry backwards.

"Think about something else," he commanded himself, just as his hand landed directly on a largish gray spider. He felt it move under his palm, and then its abdomen squish and flatten. "Think about something else, dammit!" He could hear Takyle muttering behind him.

"Shit, shit, shit shit, gross, gross, gross..." The two words had become her chant. Andrew was stonily silent. Jaden knew that he very much disliked spiders.

"Really? That's the best Something Else you can come up with?" his mind demanded. He could feel them all over him now, their prickly little legs on his arms and neck, crawling down his back, wriggling into his pant legs. He could feel them under his hands, and dropping onto his head. Then he felt a burning prick on his upper arm.

"Ah, one bit me!"

"I know, keep going!" yelled Andrew.

"They're just going to get worse!" said Takyle, and Jaden heard a choking sob in her voice.

"It's ok baby, just keep going!" Andrew coached.

Five times Jaden heard Takyle squeak as the spiders bit her, and just as many times he hoped to God that these weren't venomous. How could you possibly tell? Each one he got a decent look at seemed to be a different kind. Pushing his pack along in front of himself temporarily cleared a spot for him to set his hand, but the spiders were jumping on his pack and then just scampering up his arm. He cried out as a spider bit him just below his left eye and couldn't stop himself from pausing to slap it away. Andrew pushed him again.

"Keep moving, Jay! If we stop we're going to die here!" Jaden heard Takyle choke back another cry, and the thought entered his mind that they were probably going to die here regardless. ~

Friday, May 16, 2008

Chapter 61: Onward and Upward

~ Takyle stood biting her lip and staring up at the hatch in the ceiling.

"Well hell. What are we supposed to do now?

Andrew lay still on the floor, studying the rest of the room. Jaden finished writing down a description of the artifacts that they had cleaned in a log book that he assumed was there for cataloging.

"Are we going to finish up here or move on? Votes?" asked Takyle. Jaden set down the log and joined Takyle beside the second table.

"Well maybe the least we could do before we decide is hop up there and take a look at what's on the other side of that door," he said.

"Good suggestion, Jay," said Andrew. "My vote is for doing that." Jaden nodded and picked up four goblets, moving them to the first table. Takyle gathered the remaining few artifacts from the second table and cleared them out of the way. Jaden slipped his pack off, jumped up on the table and stood to slide the panel above his head up and to the side. He placed his hands on the lip of the roughly two by two foot opening, testing its strength. He hoisted himself up far enough to look around, then dropped back to the table.

"Just looks like a crawl space. It's a couple feet high, maybe two, two and a half feet wide. Wooden panels, insulation, exposed beams in a couple of places."

"Shall we take it?" asked Takyle. Jaden knelt on the table, looking back and forth between Takyle and Andrew, who was still on the ground. No one said anything, so Jaden finally broke the silence.

"I don't like the lady. Let's go." Andrew sat up.

"Well I'm not opposed to doing that, but I can tell you one thing." A soft groan escaped his lips as he stood."I'm not going to be able to pull myself up into there like Jaden just did."

"What if we stacked a chair on top of the table?" asked Jaden.

"Yeah, that might do the trick, but there are no chairs in here."

"I'm sure one of the other rooms on this hall has a chair in it," offered Takyle. Jaden jumped down from the table.

"I'll find one." He moved to the door and opened it a crack, peering out into the hall. Seeing no one, he slipped out and and strode over to the next door on the hall. He listened at it for a moment, heard nothing and so tried the knob. It was unlocked and the door opened silently. The room looked to be some sort of bedroom suite and next to one of the windows were two heavy easy chairs. Jaden forwent those ones and instead took the small chair from in front of a vanity which was a good deal more compact.

After he got it back into the room he lifted it up and set it on top of the table.

"How's that Andy, think it'll work?"

"Yeah, I think it will. Shall we go then?" Takyle stepped over next to Andrew and touched his hand. He gazed down into her eyes.

"I'll only ask you this one more time Andrew, I promise. Are you sure want to go on with this?" He bent his head and pressed a light kiss to her temple.

"Yes babe, I'm sure. Let's not lose this now," he murmured. He picked up his pack and began to put it on.

"Might as well not, Andrew," advised Jaden. "The space is small enough that we'll need to go single file and push our packs in front of us. Want me to take point?" The question was directed at Takyle. She nodded.

"Yeah. Andrew, you go after Jaden and I'll take last." Andrew smiled a little.

"So you guys can protect me?" Takyle began to open her mouth to respond but Andrew held up a hand. "No, it's ok. I appreciate it. I actually really do... Let's get this show on the road."

Takyle handed Jaden his own pack from the ground and he hoisted it up and pushed it through the opening. He gave Andrew a hand up onto the table and then pulled himself through the trapdoor. Once in the narrow passage he actually managed to get himself turned around to take Andrew's pack from him, and help to pull him up.

"Hey, thanks," said Andrew. The two of them edged further up the passage to give Takyle room to crawl in behind them. Once she had, she slid the hatch panel back into place.

"I'm not sure why you did that," said Jaden. "The chair on top of the table right underneath the trap door is kind of a dead give away, isn't it?"

"Yeah, well when you put it that way I'm not sure why I did it either," agreed Takyle. "Let's move out." ~

Monday, May 12, 2008

Chapter 60: Not Unheard Of

~ Andrew made his way around the room, tapping on wall panels with the butt of his flashlight and feeling at seams, sliding his hand around where bookshelves met the wall while Takyle and Jaden continued to busy themselves with brushing hard packed dirt off and out of pottery.

"Wonder how the other teams are doing?" Jaden mused aloud.

"Mm, let's just assume that they're ahead of us," said Takyle, absently.

"Well that's very... optimistic..." Takyle raised her eyes from her work long enough to give him a look that was mostly amused with a bit of admonishment tagged on the edges.

"We're in a competition. It's dangerous to be optimistic," she stated succinctly. "I prefer to think more realistically, that way I'm a lot less likely to be disappointed."

"Well I suppose that's, um... logical," conceded Jaden, reluctantly. Takyle laughed.

"I'm not telling you to give up hope, Jaden. You keep being optimistic, I'll worry about the other end of things." Jaden reached over and set the shard of painted pottery that he had been cleaning on the end of the table, adding it to the short line of objects that had already been cleaned.

"These aren't very dirty. Makes me think we're just doing busy work," Jaden said.

"Yeah, well we probably are. Part of the race name is 'endurance', I just didn't think it would be this type," Takyle said, using a tiny brush to scrub grit out of the chain of a necklace. She looked up as Andrew rejoined them and raised an eyebrow in question.

"I didn't find anything. As far as I can tell, all of these walls are solid." He reached across the table to pick up a brush and gasped, pressing his hand to his stomach. Takyle was around the table in a second and holding his arm.

"Are you alright?" Andrew nodded, but remained leaning heavily on the table's edge, his breaths coming shallow. "Why don't you lie down for a bit, Andy? Jaden and I can finish this." Andrew paused for a moment before answering, and Jaden knew that he was trying to decide whether or not it was worth the small time set back that that would cause. Finally he agreed with another nod of the head. Jaden quickly pulled off his pack and unrolled his sleeping bag on the floor for Andrew to rest on. Andrew thanked him, laying down and closing his eyes.

Jaden and Takle went back to work, silently this time. After a while Takyle pulled the pad of paper with her translation on it back in front of her.

"This has to be right," she muttered to herself. "It says there's a passageway."

"Maybe it's not even talking about this room, Takyle," Jaden whispered across the table. "Maybe it's not even for this task. It could be anywhere."

"I suppose so, but races in previous years never really required strategy that was that far reaching or obtuse." She shook her head. "I just don't know."

"Uh, hey guys," called Andrew from the floor. Jaden turned around to look at him. He had rolled over and was now lying on his back and gazing at the ceiling. He pointed one finger upwards silently. Jaden's eyes followed his direction to immediately above the second table. There in the ceiling was a trap door. Jaden laughed.

"Oh hello. I think Andrew found it after all." ~

Friday, May 9, 2008

Chapter 59: When in Rome

~ After a few minutes Jaden left Andrew and Takyle at the first table and stepped over to look at what had been lain out on the second. More pottery, several trinkets, and a cracked tablet. The tablet looked to be marble and its face was delicately carved with words and symbols. Jaden carried it gingerly back to his team mates.

"Hey guys, what do you make of this?" Andrew leaned over to look at the tablet, then glanced over his shoulder at the other objects on the table.

"All that stuff looks Greek or Roman to me, Jay." He took another look at the writing. "Think you could translate that Takyle?" Jaden lay the tablet on the table in front of Takyle.

"Yes I can. It is Greek, very old Greek granted, but I don't think that'll be a problem." Takyle set down the copper cup she had been cleaning and pulled a pad and pen from a pocket, leaning close over the table to study the piece of marble.

"I have a second cousin that lived in Italy for a year," Andrew said helpfully. Jaden tilted his head and studied Andrew. Andrew gazed back, not a hint of humor showing on his face. Jaden wondered if Andrew had ever tried playing poker.

"That's um... That's good to know, Andy. So how do you feel about Five Card Stud?"

"You're a Five Card Stud," Andrew responded automatically.

"Your mom's a Five Card Stud," threw in Jaden, putting a question mark at the end of the sentence with his voice and making Andrew laugh.

"This seems to be a set of instructions," broke in Takyle. "These phrases here are talking about a passage, and I think these symbols might be a combination. A code maybe," she said to her paper.

"Instructions for what exactly, Ta?" asked Andrew.

"I think it's how to get to the next level."

"Why would that be sitting here on this table waiting for us to find it when we're in the middle of this task?" said Jaden. Takyle shrugged.

"Maybe it's a shortcut," suggested Andrew. "Not everyone would think to translate it." Takyle nodded in agreement.

"Yeah, I suppose so, or maybe we're just supposed to use it later? After this task is done I mean."

"What exactly does it say about a passage, Takyle?" Jaden asked.

"Not a lot, just that there is a hidden door, and I think this here says something about a hollow wall. So maybe a fake panel? Tell you what Andrew, why don't you look around this room real good for any hollow panels, and me and Jay can keep doing this cleaning stuff. Then maybe we'll be prepared for either case."

"Ok, I'm all over it... Like hair on an ugly man's a-"

"Thanks Andrew, that'll be fine. No need for analogies," Takyle interrupted him.

"Haha, you said anal-ogies, and I was just talking about as-"

"Yes, thank you! We all see how funny it is." Andrew grinned at Takyle, and left the table, handing the brush he'd been using to Jaden. Once he was across the room Jaden leaned toward Takyle.

"It was pretty funny," he said.

"Yeah ok, it was funny," Takyle conceded, hiding a smile.

"It wasn't that funny," Andrew called back at them. ~

Monday, May 5, 2008

Chapter 58: Getting Somewhere

~ Jaden pressed close and peered over Esther's shoulder, trying to get a glimpse into the room that she had finally gotten around to escorting them to.

"Here is where you will work," she announced, confirming Jaden's theory that it was, at long last, time to get to the task of this level. As he stepped into the room with Andrew and Takyle right behind him, Jaden looked around for some indication of what that task might be, any clues as to its nature or form.

The room was sunny and open, containing a couple of high tables, wooden, serviceable. There were also a few shelves of tools, and a couple that held various other objects. The tables each contained a scattering of things as well. Other than that, the room was depressingly void of anything that would hint at what they might be asked to do.

Behind them Esther Barcelworth cleared her throat daintily. Jaden hated the sound.

"There are a few things here that need cleaning and cataloging. When you are done Samuels with check your work." She turned as if to leave the room. Andrew raised an eyebrow.

"Um, excuse me? Cataloging? Cleaning? Are you serious?" Esther looked back at him. She looked serious.

"Please don't be too long, there are other things to be attended to. You should find everything that you need here." And with that, she walked out, closing the door behind her.

"Ok, what the hell?" demanded Andrew. Takyle moved over to the first table and surveyed the objects on it.

"Apparently we are to clean and catalog these artifacts," she responded, calmly.

"Yeah, so I gathered. But why?" Takyle shrugged.

"Because she told us to. Either of you study archaeological methods much?"

"I've got a passing knowledge of techniques from what I've read, but I've never done any of it myself," offered Jaden. Takyle nodded.

"Well it looks like that's the best we've got. Tell us what we're supposed to do." Jaden moved to stand beside Takyle and looked over the items spread out on the table. Several pieces of pottery, a roll of papyrus, some metallic jewelry, coins, and goblets.

"Ok, for the pottery you're probably just going to use these brushes to clean the dirt off of them. After that, maybe a little water, unless there's painting or pigment of some kind. If that's the case I'd leave it alone for fear of messing it up. The jewelry could probably be cleaned like any other jewelry, and the scroll... That could be delicate. I'll take care of that one. Then if I mess it up she can just blame me and not you guys."

"We're in this together, Jay. We act as a team," Andrew reminded him.

"Yeah, but she already doesn't like me, so I've got no favor to lose. It might make a difference later, you never know." Takyle nodded thoughtfully.

"You do have a point."

"Thanks Takyle," said Jaden. "You know how I like positive affirmation."

"Yes, yes I do," she agreed, pulling a tarnished, silver circlet towards herself and picking up a cloth.

"Positive affirmation, my ass. You're an attention whore," Andrew laughed, just loud enough for Jaden to hear him. Jaden shook his head and tossed Andrew a soft, horsehair brush.

"The best kind. Get to work." ~

Friday, May 2, 2008

Chapter 57: Room For Advancement

~ Jaden ran up the stairs two at a time to catch up with the rest of the group. Esther had stopped on the landing and had started talking again about another painting, a portrait of an ill-looking man. Takyle stood still, both feet planted rigidly on the floor. The effort to keep from tapping her toe impatiently was probably killing her. Andrew was staring at the painting and nodding thoughtfully at everything Esther said. From the look on his face, Jaden could tell that, though he was giving a good show, Andrew's mind was altogether somewhere else.

The entire group continued on to the next landing, where the scene played out again. As he stood listening to Esther prattle on, a discordant and random thought slipped through Jaden's mind.

"If my father could see me now..." Jaden shook his head slightly, stopping when he realized that if anyone was paying attention it would just make him look psychotic. Nothing his father did or said or thought mattered anymore. And all the better for it. His loss.

As they began climbing to the third landing, Andrew winced and his hand crept to his stomach. He caught Jaden looking and forced a thin smile.

"Whatever the doc gave me to sew me up seems to be wearing off." Jaden immediately began worrying accordingly.

"How bad does it hurt?" he asked.

"It's nothing I can't live through," Andrew assured, straightening up a little. Jaden stepped closer to him and lowered his voice.

"Andrew, there's no reason to kill yourself for this race."

"I'm not killing myself for the race, it just hurts a little is all. I'll be fine." Takyle turned around at the voices and fell back to walk on the other side of Andrew.

"You're in pain? How bad is it? I knew we should have thought more seriously about stepping out of the race." Takyle stopped talking and bit her lip, looking at Andrew expectantly for answers. He shook his head.

"I'm fine, it just hurts a little. The doc gave me some pain pills, I'll take one after a while."

"Why don't you take one now?" asked Jaden.

"Because I want to see how bad it gets and I don't want to waste the pills and they might have side affects that could interfere with this task that we're eventually going to do. Are those reasons good enough for the two of you or should I go ahead and think of a few more?"

Jaden glanced at Takyle, fairly sure that she would go off on Andrew for his snippiness. She didn't. She took a deep breath.

"Ok, just please don't hurt yourself, Andrew." She sounded surprisingly calm. Jaden felt the need to throw in his own thoughts.

"Yeah Andrew, don't be an idiot," he said. Andrew glanced sideways at him.

"I try Jaden, but it's just so very hard to deny my true nature."

"Oh hardy- har. I'm serious."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. Would the two of you just calm the hell down?" Jaden felt that he and Takyle were already being pretty damn calm, especially considering the circumstances. Their good friend in absolute agony. Well maybe not agony as such, but still.

"We're calm," was all Jaden said. "We just love you sooo much is all," he added, leaning in towards Andrew with his eyes squeezed shut and his lips forming a grimacing, over the top purse.

"Oh for crying out loud!" Andrew shoved Jaden away from him, but he was laughing as he did it. "Freak."

So he wasn't in enough pain that he wouldn't laugh. Jaden took that as a good sign and let most of his worry go, simply determining to keep a careful eye on Andrew for now.

The three finally reached the third floor where Esther stood, holding a door open and looking huffy since they'd made her wait for five extra seconds. That, and all their attention wasn't on her now. Jaden figured that that was most of it.

"Come now," she snipped. "There's a task you need to get started on." ~