The Corridor and the Cave
“EEEEGAN!” bellowed Mr. Balooda.
From his place in the kitchen, Egann Ackbe shivered. Everyone in the place had heard Mr. Balooda’s rage and violence.
“Dammit, I knew those new kids were going to be trouble.” he murmured to himself.
He motioned to two boys to go with him, but they looked back at him with scared eyes, and shook their heads.
“COME ON, dammit! Or I’ll tell HIM you refused to help!”
That did it.
“EEEEGAN! DON’T MAKE MEE HAVE TO CALL YOU AGAIN!”
Egann and the two boys entered the hall that led to Mr. Balooda’s office. Upon seeing them, Mr. Balooda kicked Mike’s body into the hall, right in front of them.
“You know what to do with THAT.” he said.
By now, Mr. Balooda had regressed to his previous size and configuration. He grabbed a gibbering Edward by the scruff of his shirt and tossed him also into the hall.
“Put thees one to work.” he said.
Mr. Balooda turned to the two kids still in the office: the boot-shine boy and the carpet stain girl; both of whom looked scared crapless.
“And you two…” he said, “CLEEN UP THEES MESS!!”
Egann and the two boys carried Mike’s lifeless body out of the hall.
Edward followed them. The apathetic expression that he had worn on his face since leaving Zedda’s room was now replaced by shock.
The boys carried Mike through the foyer, and a side door; down another hall, to a luxurious bathroom. There, they laid the body on the tiled floor; and then left to start cleaning up the trail of Mike’s blood that had spattered here and there along the way. Egann, however, stayed behind with Edward.
Edward put his ear to Mike’s chest to see if he could hear a heartbeat. There was none. No heartbeat, no breathing, nothing.
“Mike’s dead.” he said, in an empty voice.
“What the hell was that?!” Callie had asked Zedda, when the loud racket from below first reached their ears.
“It is none of your concern.” Zedda responded.
Callie might have agreed, had she not had a gnawing feeling in the pit of her stomach that Mike and Edward were in trouble of some sort. She made to leave, but only got as far as a few steps.
“Leave now and the training ends.” Zedda said.
That stopped Callie in her tracks.
“Leave now and the full power of the Malignium will never be yours.”
Callie suffered a moment of terrible indecision, trapped between doubt and desire.
“No more sweet, sweet despair.” Zedda added.
That did the trick. Callie turned back, and pushed Mike and Edward out of her mind.
Look how quickly the hunger devours her, she thought, Just a little bit more, and those two boys will mean nothing to her.
Edward put his head in his hands and began to sob.
“Sorry, kid.” Egann said, “I know there was no way you could have been prepared for that, but calm down. Wait.”
“Wait?” Edward looked up, “Wait for what?!”
Mike was alone in the dark.
Suddenly, a pinpoint of light pierced the darkness. The pinpoint grew into a line; broadened until it became a pillar. The pillar came closer, until Mike could see that it wasn’t a pillar at all, but a corridor. A long narrow corridor of light.
From the depths of the corridor, a voice spoke.
“Guna shaal isanno a’dahj.” it said.
“In my heart, not in my head.” Mike replied, and walked inside.
He had gotten only a few steps in, when everything changed. He now found himself in a vast cave of black rock. All around him were sections where the rock was polished smooth and reflective, like a house of mirrors. Only what was reflected back was not him, but a different moving image for each polished section.
In one, he saw an image of Edward, falling.
Another showed Callie, surrounded by blood and gore, her face contorted in a full-throated scream.
Still another showed Rynza Adreynac, conversing with Rufus Kantry.
Mike turned and turned, trying to drink in all he could see.
His father, looking down upon a dead body, and smiling.
His mother; a knife held to her neck by the blood-smeared hand of someone standing behind her.
A blasted landscape, lit only by flashes of lightning.
A dark mansion on a mountaintop.
A dying sun.
An open door, slowly closing.
Then, one by one, the images started to blink out.
Mike noticed that they were disappearing at the same rate as the door image was closing; and the door was now a crack away from closure.
He reached for the polished rock with the door image, and his hand went through the black rock as if it were not there. The image, however, was solid. He grabbed the knob, opened the door, and jumped through.
“Here he comes.” said Egann.
“What?!” Edward asked.
Egann pointed to Mike’s body, which began to show signs of life. The physical damage done to it seemed to be repairing itself.
“How can this be?” Edward asked, “He was dead!”
“Don't you see? That’s the hell of it.” Egann said, “We can’t die. No one can die in Murgent. Didn’t you see the townspeople? They try and try, but can’t. Zedda’s magic keeps us all alive, against our will.”
A tortured gurgling breath escaped Mike’s lungs, as they began to work again.
“See?” Egann said, “He’s breathing.”
Mike’s broken nose and smashed face righted themselves. Blood stopped flowing as open wounds and broken flesh sealed themselves up. Though still smeared with blood, Mike no longer looked messed up or dead.
“Will he wake up?” Edward asked.
“Yes.” Egann said, “But it will take a while longer. Heavy blood loss tends to slow down the process.”
“You talk like this is an everyday occurrence.” Edward said.
“Around here…” Egann said, “It IS.”
A blonde-haired girl peeked in.
“Oh good, Donna; could you help me here?” Egann asked.
The girl walked in, and glanced down at Mike. “Jeez, Balooda really did a number on the new guy.” she said.
“Could you please take---“ Egann turned to Edward, “What’s your name, kid?”
“Could you please take Edward here to the kitchen, and get him set up there? I’d hate for Balooda to catch him not working yet. I’ll stay here and help this one---Mike, you said?”
“Help Mike here get it together. Oh, and tell Ray we’re gonna need some clothes, until the blood gets washed off of these.” he motioned to Mike’s blood-sodden clothes, “About my size, would you say?”
“Yeah, that’s about right.” she said.
She turned to Edward, “Come with me.”
Edward was unsure; he did not want to leave Mike.
Egann nudged him toward Donna, “Go on,” he said, “I’ll let you know when Mike is up.”
Edward followed Donna.
She led him to a large kitchen, where several other kids were busy working, preparing a large meal.
“Supper-time is only two hours away.” Donna said.
“Is this food for everybody?” Edward asked.
Dropped utensils and sudden gasps silenced the noise and activity in the kitchen. Everyone stared at Edward as if he had uttered a blasphemy.
“No Edward.” said Donna, slowly, as if to a slow-witted person, “All of the food is for THEM.” She pointed upward, “For Zedda, Mr. Blessure, and Balooda. Don’t ever even THINK about tasting their food. They’ll know; and you’ll bring their wrath upon us all.”
“Well, when do you all get to eat?” Edward asked.
“We don’t.” said a boy of about Edward’s age.
“We don’t eat or drink anything.” Donna said, “Zedda’s magic alone keeps us alive.”
“Don’t you get hungry? Thirsty?!”
“Oh gods, YES!” Donna said, “But we’re not allowed to taste their food, or sip their water; not even the wash water. Zedda knows everything that happens here. She sees every secret.”
Edward started to ask another question, but Donna cut him off.
“Enough questions! We better get you started on something.”
She led him to a sink, and a pile of dirty pots, pans, and dishes; which was being worked on by a tall red-headed girl.
“This is Alixa.” Donna said, “Alixa, this is Edward.”
The girl gave him a perfunctory look. “Hi.” she said wanly.
“Edward’s taking over for you, Alix. I need you to take over for me a minute.” Donna said.
Alixa nodded and dried her hands.
Donna turned to Edward. “Start working.” she said, “Wash ‘em and dry ‘em. Be fast, be thorough; and for the love of all that is holy, don’t break, crack, or chip anything!”
She turned and left the kitchen.
Mike awoke at last, groaning in pain.
Egann helped him to sit up.
“Sit still for a few minutes,” Egann said, “If you try to stand up too fast, you’ll fall flat on your ass. You’re not gonna have any balance right now. You gotta give the process a good five minutes at least, to finish up all the detail work; and with all the blood you lost, I’d give it ten or fifteen. I don’t know what you did to piss Balooda off that bad, but it must’ve been something supremely stupid.”
“I spit in his face.” Mike said, his voice gravel.
“That was unwise; and after I warned you explicitly not to tick him off.” Egann said, “You have made trouble for all of us; when Balooda loses his temper, he spreads the suffering around. I shudder to think of what poor Jimmy and Rosy are going through right now.”
“The two who were with Balooda in his office; who are probably still there, trying to get your blood out of the carpet.”
“Sorry.” Mike said, and coughed up a clump of congealed blood.
“Sorry doesn’t cut it around here.” Egann said, “Just don’t pull another stunt like that again. How much do you remember?”
“Everything, up to where he grabbed me.”
“Hmmm. The first time I died, it blew out my short term memory; I lost that whole day. The others had to tell me about it. But then, different people are affected differently.”
“Died?” Mike sat up straight, “What do you mean, ‘died’?”
“Balooda killed you. In a rather brutal fashion, I might add. Take a look at yourself, you were dead.” Egann said, “But now you’re back.”
“How is that possible?!”
“The answer to that is rather complex; but you’ll need to know.”
“Can you get me a drink of water first?” Mike asked, “My throat is groggy and sore as hell. It feels like I just swallowed some kitty litter.”
“No.” Egann said.
“Just sit there and shut up,” Egann said, “Rather than answer these questions piecemeal, and risk confusing you all the more; I’ll tell you how things got to this point. The story of Murgent’s fall, so to speak.”
“Alright, let me hear it.” Mike said.
He sat back and rested his throbbing head against the wall.
Egann took a deep breath, and began.