The Exquisite Corpse Adventure
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The Beast Pit
By Shannon Hale
“Joe, do the Flying Watermelon!” Nancy said.
Without hesitation, Joe performed a backflip off the tree branch. While he was still mid-air, Nancy tossed baby Max in a graceful arc (he weighed about the same as the watermelons they used back in the circus). Joe landed on the forest floor, his arms outstretched, and the baby plopped safely in his hands, while Nancy leapt after them hands-first, finishing off with a cartwheel. She bowed automatically before remembering there would be no applause in this villain-infested woods – only certain death.
“Run!” said Joe.
And so they ran – away from the unfamiliar and unfriendly voice that had startled them out of the tree, away from the boxing ring beside the river, away from the stopped train and bridge wreckage – far away from all the strange events that had shaped their life into a nightmare. They ran, but not fast enough. It was one thing to catch a baby/watermelon in a spectacular circus stunt, but another to lug one through the woods. Joe panted with the effort.
And just where was Genius Kelly? Nancy was turning to look when a shadowy figure dropped out of a tree, moonlight glinting on her long knife.
The twins veered away, but another shadowy figure appeared, and another, until Joe, Nancy, and baby were encircled by dozens of men and women in frighteningly black garb, all with moon-licked daggers, all smiling in a supremely villainous manner. The smiles gave Joe the creeps. Nancy didn’t notice the smiles, being suitably creeped-out by the daggers. But baby Max was enchanted by the glinting of moonlight. It made the daggers look wet and sweet.
Baby Max said, “Lollipop.”
Joe held the baby tighter. Nancy raised her hands in karate pose and turned slowly, daring the villains to attack.
“Now don’t be foolish,” said the unfamiliar and unfriendly voice behind them.
Into the circle of shadowy figures strode a man so large, so horrifying, so disquieting that I tremble to describe him. Let me simply say that his rear was where his face should be and his rear . . . spoke.
“I am Leonardo Dubenski, Lord of Thieves, and these are my loyal followers.”
He was dragging poor Genius Kelly by his ears and dumped him beside the twins.
“We’re too late,” the pig whispered. “Leonardo Dubenski found the Exquisite Corpse.”
“Bad,” said baby Max, pointing at Leonardo, who had offset his horrific visage by putting on a jaunty hat.
“Indeed,” said Nancy. She was getting a bad feeling about all this.
But Joe giggled. Sure, they were facing death by a cowled horde of thieves, but really, can you blame him? The man’s bum-head was speaking, and with an Eastern European accent.
Leonardo picked Joe up by his hair, and our valiant boy’s laugh squeaked to a stop.
“You find my appearance humorous, boy?” Leonardo boomed. “I assure you, before yesterday, I was quite becoming. Isn’t that so, minions?”
The thieves muttered quick assent.
“But last night I discovered something hidden in my woods, and when I touched it, the thing exploded, turning me into this monstrosity! You trespassers are responsible, I can feel it in my whiskers. Tell me how to undo its dark deeds, or your lives end before dawn!”
“I don’t know . . .” said Joe, trying not to whimper. His hair really hurt.
“Let him go!” said Nancy.
Genius Kelly whimpered. “No way to fix things now. Hopeless. . . .”
Leonardo dropped Joe and roared an angry roar . . . that sounded like he’d eaten some bad meat.
“To the beast pit!” yelled the Lord of Thieves, and his horde of minions cheered.
In moments, Joe, Nancy, Genius Kelly, and baby Max were tied up together in yards of thick rope and dangling from a hook. Beneath them yawned a pit of disturbing depth, and from its disturbing depths came snaps and growls of such horror, they could only be produced by ferocious beasts. Of the biting variety. Biting and tearing and eating.
“For shame!” Nancy yelled as the villains lowered them into the pit. “Picking on two kids, a baby, and a pig. Haven’t you anything more constructive to do with your time?”
The shadowy figures only smiled as they lowered our captive heroes into the subterranean darkness. The growls and hisses grew louder.
Joe said, “I hope it doesn’t hurt to die.”
Nancy said, “I wish we could have met our parents.”
Baby Max said, “Lollipop.”
Genius Kelly growl-oinked. “I’m sorry, children. Our plan failed. I hid the pieces of the Exquisite Corpse in this villain-infested woods, where I thought it would be safe from everyone . . . except–”
“The villains themselves,” said Joe.
“Right,” the pig said sadly.
Nancy struggled against the ropes, but it was useless. Down they went. Lower, lower. . . .
“I thought the broken robot would stay hidden until sunrise,” said the pig. “But clearly Leonardo found it. You see, the Exquisite Corpse is extremely powerful, and so came with a protective mechanism. Only someone with Sloppy DNA can handle the pieces without suffering . . . consequences.”
Leonardo, watching their descent from above, scratched his cheek and “burped.” Nancy shuddered. Not because of the burp (though that was morally objectionable). But just how did Leonardo see them?
“Your parents wanted to leave you out of all this,” Genius Kelly continued, “and so we constructed Max, a clone of your father. He has Sloppy DNA, you see, and we hoped that with the Einstein hologram’s help, he could assemble the robot alone. But his baby hands were too small, and we can’t risk waiting for him to grow any bigger. So we hid the Exquisite Corpse and I came back for you. I felt sure the three of you together could successfully reanimate the robot and use it to save your parents. But now, it’s too late.”
“It’s never too late!” Nancy said pluckily.
“That’s right,” said Joe, somewhat less pluckily. They were nearing the bottom of the pit, where death-by-beasts awaited. “As Ringmaster used to say, the show must go on.”
“I don’t see how,” said the depressive swine. “When Leonardo touched the Exquisite Corpse, the protective mechanisms not only . . . maimed . . . him, but caused an explosion that launched each of the pieces to unknown locations. It would be impossible to track them all down. Unless . . . unless the red arrows can direct us not to the whole cache but to each individual piece. . . .”
“So that’s what they were for!” Nancy reached through the ropes and tore off her shoe. The little red mark on her pinky toe no longer pointed forward, but due east, where the morning sun was just breathing gold into the black sky.
Joe pulled off his own shoe to see that his arrow mark pointed in the same direction as his sister’s. His shoe slipped from his hand into the depths, and the beasts yowled and snorgled and ripped it to bits.
“The arrows will lead us to each piece of the exquisite corpse,” she said, “and once we have them all–”
“We can rebuild it and go free our parents from that nasty other dimension!” said Joe.
“But in order to succeed, we must stay alive,” said the pig.
That prerequisite seemed unlikely. They were so deep in the pit now, Nancy could feel the spray of beast saliva on her bare foot. Joe shed one silent tear.
“Lollipop,” said baby Max again. Only this time, the twins noticed that he was holding something – a silver dagger.
“Well done,” Joe said, admiring the work of a fellow pickpocket.
The baby beamed.
“But just this once,” said Nancy, who couldn’t encourage a baby to play with daggers, even with lives on the line. She pried the weapon from the baby’s sticky hand and assessed their situation.
Above them at the edge of the pit, Leonardo Dubenski and dozens of weaponed thieves watched their descent. Below them, the darkness crawled with noxious beasts.
They had one dagger between them. And in precisely three seconds, a creature with blood-stained teeth would leap for Joe’s throat.
Audio recordings provided by National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
The National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance and the Butler Center for Children's Literature at Dominican University have developed a companion educational resource center (external link) to support “The Exquisite Corpse Adventure.”