Mike, Callie, and Edward drove back to Rynza Adreynac’s place in Charles Longstreet’s stolen car. At Rynza’s, they found that Bear, Woodrow, Spencer, and Kevin were already there. Woodrow was no longer wearing handcuffs, as one of the others had picked the lock open.
“I didn’t know this many had escaped the sweep.” Mike said.
“Some weren’t so lucky.” Bear said, “By the way, have you guys run into Kitty and Corrina? They were up the stairs before anybody, so I know they got away.”
Mike, Callie, and Edward looked at each other.
“We did but…it’s complicated.” Callie said.
“Today seems to be our day for complicated stories,” Bear said, “Rynza’s been telling us a doozy about you two and your father.”
“I told them everything.” Rynza said, “I thought it was about time someone did.”
“Wait till you hear the new stuff.” Edward said.
“Do tell.” Rynza said.
Rynza, Carissa, and the four Dreadniks listened in rapt silence to Mike, Callie, and Edward’s recitation of what had happened when they met up with Kitty and Corrina at the Boxwood Bookstore, and then what had transpired afterward, when Charles Longstreet and Rak entered the picture.
“So Rak’s like…evil, now?” Kevin asked.
“He’s under our father’s control somehow.” Mike answered.
“That would explain how the frain found us.” Bear said.
“How did your father do that?” Woodrow asked.
“Probably the same way he resurrected Kitty and Corrina.” Callie said, “He must have used his blood. It was black as ink.”
“Valtina says the blood of someone corrupted by dark magic has of old been called Malevolencia, because it has the ability to corrupt others; but nothing anywhere near the level of what your father is doing.” Rynza said.
“Can they be brought back to the way they were?” Bear asked.
“There’s no coming back for Kitty and Corrina, obviously,” Rynza said, “But Rak? It’s possible, but only a Ma’jai could do it.”
“The city employs Ma’jai all the time.” Spencer said, “Some even sell their services; you can find them in the phonebook.”
“There are Ma’jai, and then there are Ma’jai.” Rynza said, “For something like this we need one of the more powerful kind; someone with experience in this sort of thing. Valtina says she knows someone who meets these criteria.”
Callie snapped her fingers. “Rufus Kantry!” she said.
“Yes, exactly.” Rynza said, “Though first we would need to get Rak away from Longstreet, somehow; assuming he survived the black snake things.”
“Speaking of the black snake things, what DID happen to Kitty anyway?” Spencer asked, “And why was Mike and Callie’s father afraid of the ring? It was HIS ring, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” Mike said, “I never saw that ring off of him until I pulled it off myself.”
“In taking that ring off, Mike, you may have started this whole thing rolling.” Rynza said.
“I think I’m beginning to understand the ring’s true role in all of this.” she replied, “When we talked earlier, I theorized that your father was complicit in what happened to Cathim; that the ring was a symbol of a pact, as Jon called it, between him and Sinestri. But the things that ring has done, and your father’s reaction to it, makes it clear that matters are not as simple as that. I believe now that your father was more of a victim, than a co-conspirator; ensnared by Sinestri the same way Rak was ensnared.”
“With blood,” Callie said, “Sinestri’s Malevolencia.”
“Yes.” Rynza answered.
“We’re assuming, of course, that Sinestri is the primary source of this Malevolencia,” Spencer said, “What if he isn’t? What if he’s as much a servant as Rak and Longstreet, to something even worse?”
“That is beyond my knowing.” Rynza said, “And about that, my spirits are silent.”
“So where does the ring come in to all this?” Bear asked.
“Perhaps it was meant as a safety valve, to slow down the effects of the Malevolencia to a minimum. A measure of control, like a dam holding back a river, except in regulated amounts.”
“But why would Sinestri want to do that?” Mike asked.
“Maybe he wanted to control your father, but needed him to look and act normal and unchanged, for whatever task he was intended. When you removed the ring, Mike; he must have received the full blast of Malevolencia in one fell swoop. This would explain why you saw your father’s eyes go black after the ring was removed, and not before.”
“Why was he so afraid of it though?” Mike asked, “And why did it do to Kitty what it did?”
“Your father had already received the full dose. A mortal frame can only absorb so much before it collapses into darkness itself. Kitty’s dead form was corrupted first by your father’s blood, then by the ring. The ring may have been a safety valve when first worn, but after so many years of holding back Malevolencia, it now exudes it. Not enough to affect the uncorrupted, like you and Callie; but your father must have known what would happen to him if the ring touched his flesh again.”
“Black snakes.” Callie said.
“Wait, my father cut Callie’s face with that ring,” Mike said, “It broke the skin, and wouldn’t stop bleeding at first.”
“That’s probably why it wouldn’t stop bleeding,” Rynza said, “Her body was flushing out any blood that had come into contact with the ring.”
Mike slapped his forehead. “And I was the idiot trying to stop it from bleeding!”
“Callie’s fine,” Rynza said, “As are you. My spirits would have sensed anything otherwise.”
“Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, shall we?” Bear said, “We need to break this down into chewable bites. The question of the day is: what do we do next? Suggestions?”
“First things first, we need to get Jon and the others out of the clink.” Woodrow replied.
“We’ll need to get Rak away from Mike and Callie’s dad, somehow.” Spencer said.
“And then find this Rufus guy.” Kevin added.
“Callie and I can do that.” Mike said, “We even have a car---“
“NO!” Rynza shouted, startling them all, and cutting Mike off in mid-sentence, “You two must get going onward to Cathim! The sooner you leave, the safer everyone here will be.”
“We can’t just leave!” Mike said with indignation, “All the bad things that have happened to the Dreadniks are our fault! We have to help them save the others, and save Rak!”
“Your continued presence complicates matters, and will only make things worse; I can promise you that. If you want to help, you must leave. The sooner Sinestri and your father are out of our affairs, the sooner we can do what we have to do.”
Mike and Callie looked at each other and nodded.
“Alright then.” Mike said, “We’ll leave.”
The inside of what was once the Waxleaf Map Company (and before that, the Boxwood Bookstore) fell quiet. Both Rak and Charles Longstreet stood, looking like they had just crawled out of an oil slick. All around them were those black snakelet things that Kitty had become; most crushed under heel or squished in hand. Some of them were half-crushed, with their uncrushed portion wriggling like mad.
Unseen, one of the stubbier ones shoved itself into the dropped and forgotten ring, till the ring was lodged around it’s halfway point. It then crawled into a knothole in the wooden floor, and disappeared.
To what fate, is another tale entirely.
Corrina had not been as lucky as Longstreet and Rak; many of the black snakes filled her mouth and throat and eye sockets. She was now undergoing the same transformation Kitty had gone through, only a slower and messier version of it.
“We better leave before she ripens.” Longstreet said, looking down on her body, which was turning a bruised purple; and darkening.
From the corners of her eyeholes and gunk-filled nose, black droplets fell, and turned into tiny versions of the black snakes.
“Tadpoles.” Rak said in a flat monotone.
He turned and followed Longstreet out of the building. They exited only to discover that their mode of transport was gone.
“They pounded the car.” Rak said.
“You’re a thief, steal me one.” Longstreet said.
“I don’t do cars. I was a pick-pocket.”
“Crap.” Longstreet said, “I guess we’ll just have to take one the hard way.”
“That depends. Where do you think Mike and Callie would go?”
Rak thought it over. “They’ve just witnessed some weird crap. They’ll have questions. They’ll go see Rynza.”
“Do you know where this person lives?”
“Then I’ll go see Rynza too.”
They were ready.
Carissa prepared them some travel food. Rynza donated some of her sheets and pillows for when they would have to sleep on the road; these were placed by Edward and Kevin in the back seat of the car while Mike and Callie still stood in Rynza’s waiting room, saying their goodbyes. Kevin finished first and entered the building.
“Listen, I’m really sorry about all that’s happened.” Mike was saying to Bear, “We’ve ruined everything for you.”
“Just go do what you gotta go do,” Bear said, “We’ll take care of our own.”
“If--when--you see Jon again,” Callie said, “Tell him that I’m sorry he couldn’t come with us. I suppose it just wasn’t meant to be.”
“Any message for Peggy, Mike?” Bear asked.
“Tell her it’s been fun,” he said, “Tell her I’ll miss her.”
“Remember what I told you,” Rynza said, “Just keep going straight from here, until you reach Cathim. There are many shadows in your path. Be careful.”
Mike dug into his pocket and took out the now useless station wagon keys, and handed them to Rynza.
“Here,” he said, “A memento of our visit.”
“Trust me,” Rynza said, “No one is ever gonna need a memento to remember your visit.”
She took the proffered keys nonetheless.
Mike and Callie turned and exited through the front door. They got into their father’s stolen car and drove away; leaving Metromax City and their Dreadnik friends behind.