I was putting chairs up now and Wuju had turned his back to the bar to continue telling me his story.
"A narrow escape," I commented as he paused to finish off his drink.
Wuju, crunching an ice cube, nodded. "The funny thing is, I never would have made it without the Jack of Clubs," he said. "I guess we'd made a pretty bad impression on one another at our first meeting, but he turned out to be a real trooper once the chips were down."
"Maybe he just needed to get out from under Big Al's and Agent Cheshire's shadows," I suggested.
Wuju nodded thoughtfully. "That could be it," he said. "Certainly, it was one of the few times he was associating with someone who had even less idea of what was going on than he did."
"Right. But hey, his quick thinking got us out of a tight spot," said Wuju. "He made only one mistake."
"Well, it wasn't actually a mistake in the long run, but boy did it cause some awkwardness before it was over."
"What did he do?"
"Capturing Destiny Lad was the one thing I could have lived without him doing."
"You said you thought you recognized him," I remembered.
A wry smile crossed his face. "I'll get to that."
The elevator came to a stop after we'd risen some ten or fifteen levels. Far, far below, I could still hear the four Tweedles cursing one another in sequence.
"We're about up to ground level," figured Jack.
"We should get off this elevator," I said. "I wouldn't have been fooled for very long by you yelling at me to climb down when we were really going up, so it's a cinch that the other Woo-Julanski won't be either."
Jack gave me an odd look and it occurred to me that I had just unconsciously used the same reasoning and nearly the same phrasing that my counterpart had used minutes before in the hallway.
"You're right," he agreed. With that, he shoved the unconscious Destiny Lad into a maintenance tunnel that intersected our elevator shaft and climbed in after him. I followed just as our elevator started to descend back into the subterranean depths.
The tunnel was about three feet wide by four feet high and dim service lights flickered every fifty feet or so. I had to stoop quite a bit, but Jack was able to walk almost comfortably. He stepped over Destiny Lad and started dragging him along by the cape.
"So what should we do now?" I asked again as I followed him.
"We do exactly whatever you wouldn't do," said Jack.
"If you were the other Woo-Julanski, what would you think you'd do?"
I turned the question around in my head a few times. "Try to escape, I guess," I answered.
"But," said Jack, "you have to remember that the other you is also paranoid, so if you were him, you wouldn't expect you to try to escape. You'd expect you to come back and try to get revenge on you."
Suddenly, I felt that headache looming near again. "So we don't try to attack him, we try to escape," I said hoping he'd agree and end the conversation.
"Wrong!" said Jack excitedly. "You also have to remember that the other you knows that you are not as aggressive as he is. If you were him, you would know that, unlike yourself, you want to avoid trouble, so the first thing you'd do is secure the Aerie to prevent you from trying to escape."
"I've got an idea," I said. "Let's find the Janets before it's too late and work from there."
"Brillig!" shouted Jack clapping his hands and dropping Destiny Lad who just groaned. "If you were him, the very last place you'd expect you to go is into the dungeon levels. And even if you'd second-guessed you, you'd assume that you third-guessed you and would leave the dungeon uncovered because you'd know that the last place you'd look for you would actually be the first place you'd go to avoid being found; and knowing that, you'd...."
"Jack, thank you for saving my life," I said. "Now shut up."
"Fine," huffed Jack. "Be that way. Now, where were we going?"
"I have no idea."
"Follow me," advised Jack.
The tunnel seemed to wind on for miles, criss-crossing other tunnels just like it. Several times I asked Jack if he knew where we were going, but all he said was "Trust me." Actually, I really didn't trust him to know where he was leading me, but since there was no way I could have done any better, it didn't really seem to matter which way we went. That turned out to be another error in judgment on my part.
I glanced at my watch and was shocked to find that it had only been an hour since the raid on the press conference. I hoped the Janets were okay.
Thinking about Janet made me suddenly feel guilty. I had been so wrapped up in my own problems lately that I hadn't thought about her. Maybe that was understandable considering the fact that my own problems largely had to do with various people and creatures trying to kill me, but I still felt bad about it.
And then, without warning, I got the feeling like I got whenever she gave me the warm toasty look. "Jack! Jack!" I said excitedly. "She's somewhere two levels below us." I knew it as plainly as I knew my name was Martin Miles Woo-Julanski.
Jack was just ahead of me at a three-way intersection, staring down at Destiny Lad.
"Jack?" I whispered.
Destiny Lad had regained consciousness and was looking up at Jack, whose eyes had glazed over.
"You will uncuff me," insisted Destiny Lad in a hushed voice. "You will uncuff me."
"Well," said Jack slowly, "okay." He began searching his pockets for the key which, luckily, I still had.
"That's enough of that," I said pushing past the dazed Jack of Clubs. I yanked off Destiny Lad's mask and stuffed it in his mouth. "Sorry," I told him, "but I can't have you giving my friends bad advice."
"Mmmph," argued Destiny Lad. Without the mask on, he looked even more irritatingly familiar, but I still couldn't match a name to the face.
"What happened?" asked Jack muzzily.
"Destiny Lad almost hypnotized you into letting him go," I explained.
"Nonsense!" snorted Jack indignantly. "My mind is like a rock!"
I decided to side step the argument that would surely follow and changed the subject. "Janet's being held somewhere two levels beneath us," I said. "Can you get us there?"
"Trust me," assured Jack. "Follow me."
I trusted him for about six steps down the tunnel to the right, and then the floor gave way under our feet. All three of us slid helplessly down a long chute to a rough landing on a stack of feed bags. Well actually, Jack and Destiny Lad had a rough landing on a stack of feed bags; I landed on Destiny Lad and knocked him silly, which was just as well.
I got up and looked around. We had come to rest inside a huge empty chamber that seemed to be a combination of a garage and a stable. Sunlight streamed in through dirty windows near the ceiling some thirty feet up and a long wide ramp led up to a closed garage door on the far side of the room. The air stank of burnt pot roast.
|"But while he was seeking
with thimbles and care,
A Bandersnatch swiftly drew nigh
|And grabbed at the Banker, who
shrieked in despair,
For he knew it was useless to fly.
Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark
I was trying to remember when and where I had last encountered that particular smell when Jack yelped. I turned and saw him leaping to avoid being par-broiled by a blast of flame. The source of the flame was bandersnatch lumbering toward us, wisps of smoke still drifting from its flaring nostrils.
I looked for cover. There was none. The chute we had come in through was a good ten feet up and I didn't have time to climb. Anyway, that would have meant leaving the handcuffed and semi-conscious Destiny Lad at the monster's mercy and, for some reason, I was none too comfortable with that notion.
The bandersnatch had been after Jack, but apparently decided that Destiny Lad and I would make a better meal. I grabbed the JILer by the cape and started dragging him away from the hungry brute. As the bandersnatch turned to follow, it managed to smack Jack with its clubbed tail and bowled him into the nearest wall where he spent the next few minutes looking at the pretty stars.
I hit the dirt as the bandersnatch let loose another blast of flame that made my hair singe and my uniform smoke. As I tried to get up, I somehow got tangled up with Destiny Lad's cape. The cape tore and Destiny Lad went one way and I went the other. I landed on my backside and looked up just in time to see the huge bandersnatch looming over me. It opened its mouth to bite off my head with a half-dozen rows of needle-like teeth.
I quickly made my peace with God. Somewhere a fat lady sang. At least I wasn't about to die at the hands of someone named Tweedledumdum. Then I noticed the name stenciled on the bandersnatch's shell. It read: Scooter. That was par for the course. I also regretted that the last thing I'd ever smell would be bandersnatch breath. I only hoped that there was someone around who'd be able to get Janet out of the mess I'd gotten her into.
Then, in what should have been my last moment alive, I noticed something else. In the back of the bandersnatch's mouth where its uvula should have been, there was a small flickering blue flame.
I blew it out.
The bandersnatch leaped backward as if it had stuck its nose in a light socket. It rolled into a ball like a giant armadillo and remained motionless. High-pitched whimpering noises came from within the great shell.
"It's okay, Jack!" I called. "He won't be giving us any more trouble!"
Jack, still a little dazed, just pointed at something behind me.
I turned around and saw four more bandersnatchi clumping down the ramp toward us.
"This is not my day," I said.
The bandersnatchi -- Scruffy, Peewee, Muffin and Cujo -- were apparently none too pleased with my treatment of their comrade, because all four of them ignored Jack and Destiny Lad and came straight for me. I ducked behind some barrels, which went up in flames seconds later.
"Jack!" I shouted.
He just gave me a what do you expect me to do? kind of look and shrugged helplessly. Destiny Lad, for his part, was still sprawled out on the floor and out of immediate danger. I would have given anything to trade places with him, and, as it turns out, it wasn't the first time I'd wished that. Or the last.
The bandersnatchi had paired off and were lumbering around to either side of me in hopes of boxing me in. Because of their great size and weight, it took the creatures a long time to turn around or move any distance, especially in a relatively confined space like the one we were in. I figured I'd just dart between them and be able to escape while they were turning to follow.
They guessed my intention and there was suddenly a wall of fire in front of me.
"Wuju! What's happening?" It was Art's muffled voice from inside my belt pouch. "You and Janet should have been back by now."
Another wall of flame sprang up behind me.
"Art! Get me out of here!"
"What's going on?"
Flames in front, flames in back and a pair of fire-breathing bandersnatchi on either side, and he wanted to know what was going on. I pulled the mirror from my pouch. I tried to put my panic aside and collect what was left of my wits.
The bandersnatchi leisurely clumped closer.
"Art," I said unsuccessfully trying to keep the hysteria out of my voice, "I've got a situation here. Maybe a fatal one." I held the mirror up so he could see the approaching monsters.
"Wuju," he said, "I am so sorry for getting you into this."
"Thank you. CAN YOU GET ME OUT OR NOT?!?"
"Oh." I could smell the beasts' ruined pot roast breath. Pretty soon I'd be ruined pot roast. "Can you find someone to get Janet out safely?"
"No, but you still have a chance. Hold the mirror at arm's length," he said. "I'm sending you a very dangerous magic weapon. Use it sparingly and be very careful with it. I won't be able to contact you for some time once it comes through."
By this point, I was pretty much able to take anything Art said at face value. Now when he said a dangerous magic weapon, I expected anything from a magic wand full of useful gimmicks to a tactical nuke. A silver sword with a three-foot blade slid through the mirror and clattered to the ground.
"A sword?!" I screamed at the mirror. "Four armored monsters are about to turn me into Cajun-style Wuju and the best you can send me is a sword?!"
"It's a vorpal sword," replied Art's fading voice, and once again I found myself staring into a blank mirror.
The bandersnatchi were within ten feet on either side of me. If one of them so much as sneezed, I was a well-done dead man. I grabbed the sword off the ground and shouted, "Who dies first?" Besides me, that was.
Naturally, the bandersnatchi were not taken back in the least by my bold threat. The thing that startled them was the same thing that surprised the heck out of me. Without warning, some unseen force grabbed me by the sword arm and sent me hurtling blade-first through the air at one of the approaching monsters.
The sword made a loud "snicker-snack" sound as it clanged against the beast's shell. The bandersnatchi behind me both let loose blasts of fire, but before I had any say in the matter, the same mysterious force yanked me around so that the vorpal sword intercepted and absorbed the deadly flames. The deed done, I found myself hanging onto the sword as it flew through the air at another bandersnatch.
"Snicker-snack!" went the sword as it yanked my arm in a graceful arc that neatly sliced off a bandersnatch horn.
"Snack-snicker!" it went as it twisted my arm behind me to intercept another jet of fire.
"Snackity-snicker!" as it clanged against a bandersnatch shell.
"Snicker-snack-snick!" as the pommel sternly rapped one of the offending brutes on the nose.
"Snicker!" A thrust.
"Snack!" A slice.
"Snack-snack-snicker!" A bandersnatch horn and three flank spikes lay on the ground.
"Snacker-snick!" Another blast of flame absorbed.
Throughout the entire battle, I was basically a passenger, and not a very comfortable one. The sword was wrenching my arm with not a shred of compassion for the limits of human anatomy. What's more, it seemed more interested in teasing the bandersnatchi than killing them. I have to assume that the vorpal sword had a mind of its own because none of what was happening was any of my doing as far as I could tell.
"All right Wuju!" cheered Jack from the safety of the sidelines where he had pulled the half-conscious Destiny Lad.
"Snicker-snack!" went the sword apparently accepting the compliment.
"Jack!" I shouted as the sword neatly trimmed the top layer of scales off the head of a bandersnatch, "I can't control it!"
"But you're doing great!" protested Jack.
"There's no time for this!" I shouted back. "We've got to find Janet!"
"Snack-snack-snackety-snack!" The vorpal sword shaved all the flank spikes off one of the bandersnatchi and dragged me helplessly away from the melee toward Jack and Destiny Lad. Both blanched as the sword flew toward them.
"Snicker-snack!" it went cutting a perfectly round hole in the floor at their feet.
Jack shoved Destiny Lad down the hole and jumped after him. The sword spun me around at the edge of the hole to face the monsters who were clumsily turning to pursue.
"Snicker-snack! Snackety-snick-snicker-snackety! Snick!" it went as it led me through some impressive-looking sword tricks. It reminded me of the scene where Indiana Jones was challenged by -- and then calmly proceeded to shoot -- a black-garbed swordsman. Luckily, the approaching bandersnatchi had never seen Raiders of The Lost Ark, and were momentarily cowed.
With a final "snicker-snack," the vorpal sword pulled me down into the hole and sheathed itself under my belt.
At the bottom of the hole was a dank dimly lit tunnel with stone walls. Jack and the gagged and handcuffed Destiny Lad were waiting for me.
"That was great!" gushed Jack as we hurried down the hall and away from the hole. "I haven't seen swordplay like that since Miraculous Max died!"
I shrugged off the praise and then winced. My shoulder ached from the workout. "Maybe so," I said, "but it sounded like dueling candy bars out there."
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