Friday, February 25, 2011

Chapter 46

The Frellam

        “Something bad is coming.” Callie said, all of a sudden.
        Everyone’s head perked up.
        It was now several hours since they had left Murgent. The morning sun had risen. Breakfast had been enjoyed by all. Jon had relieved Mike of the wheel some time ago; Callie sat beside him in the front seats. All around them, the woods grew thick and close; but till now had shown only minimal signs of life. Callie’s words broke the comfortable silence into which they had all relaxed.
        “Is this a Conjuura thing?” Mike asked, “Or one of those ‘woman’s intuition’ things?”
        “I don’t know, I just work here.” Callie replied.
        “Is it something behind us? Ahead of us?” Edward asked, “From the woods maybe?” 
        He glanced nervously out of his window.
        “Beats the hell out of me.” Callie said, “It’s just a vague feeling; a sense of unease.”
        “Should I go faster?” Jon asked.
        “What part of ‘I don’t know’ are you people having a problem with?”
        “I’ll go faster.” Jon said, and stepped on the gas.
        “There is a way to find out.” Edward said.
        “How?” Mike asked.
        “YOU, Mike. You’re the Ma’jai. You can use your wizbang powers to scope things out.”
        “My wizbang powers haven’t quite checked in yet.”
        “That’s not entirely true.” Callie said, “Last night you were able to astral project, or whatever the hell they call it. Maybe you should try that now. See if you can see anything up ahead of us.”
        “I didn’t do it on purpose, it just sort of happened on its own.” Mike said, “I wouldn’t even know where or how to begin.”
        “If you are a Ma’jai, it should come naturally, no?” Jon asked, “Just rattle around in your noggin a bit, and see what pops out.”
        “Alright, I’ll give it a shot.” Mike said.

        Mike spent the next several minutes trying to recreate his out-of-body experience. He closed his eyes, relaxed, and tried to find that place within himself that already knew how to accomplish that feat.
        After some searching, he found at last the outer edges of that mysterious place that had always been there, hidden away. Once found, it was only a matter of mastering the controls.
        Mike detached himself from his body, and floated up through the roof of the station wagon; keeping pace with it as he ascended. Looking down, he realized that, if he tried hard enough, he could see through the wagon’s roof at Callie, Jon, Edward, and his own body. Knowledge of this ability came to him as easy as in a dream; as if he had always known, and was now merely remembering.
        He flew above the tree-tops, and the exhilaration was incredible. The trees were glowing bright green with what Sparo had told him was called the Voss Vedu’un. The same power he had drawn on to rekindle his strength, during his tussle with Sparo in the basement of the Sarrgoset Hotel.
        The trees graciously gave of their bounty to him, but he had to stop himself from taking all that was offered; he had a task to perform.
        He pulled ahead of the wagon, and looked through the trees, until he saw a sight that sent him flying back to the wagon in a headlong rush.
        He dropped back down into his body like a lead weight.
        His eyes flew open, and he yelled: “JON, STOP THE WAGON!”
        Jon slammed the brakes as a large log, with branches still sticking out of it, landed in front of the station wagon. They stopped short of hitting the log, but were all jolted by the sudden stop. Had they not stopped when they did, the log might have crushed the passenger compartment.
        “What the hell?!” said Jon.
        “Reverse, Jon!” cried Mike, “Back up!”
        But he was too late, and another log fell behind them, trapping them.
        “Lock the doors!” Mike yelled.
        “I don’t think that’s going to help.” said Jon, pointing at what had thrown the logs.
        Two seven-foot tall hairy men, broad of shoulders and wide of body, walked out of the woods and slouched toward the wagon. They were dressed in sewn-together tattered rags that served as pants, girded with ropes.
        “Are those…Ridlaks?” Edward asked.
        “Yes,” said Mike, “But they’re not alone.”
        From behind the Ridlaks came forth a horde of wild men of more human size. They were dressed in a fashion similar to the Ridlaks, and were about as hairy. They moved quickly to surround the wagon.
        “Azzamats?” Callie asked.
        “Worse,” said Jon, “Frellam.”
        The first Ridlak reached the wagon, and bashed down on the wagon’s hood, again and again. It then peeled off the hood like the skin off a grape, threw it aside, and began to work on the wagon’s innards.
        Callie turned her back on the destruction.
        “What do we do, Mike?” she shouted over the din.
        Before Mike could answer, the other Ridlak reached the back of the wagon, and smashed in the back window. A rain of shattered glass filled the back cargo area. The giant tore off the back door hatch, with a grunt.
        “CALLIE GET DOWN!” Jon cried.
        Callie turned to see the front-side Ridlak take a swing at the windshield. Jon pushed Callie down to the floor of the wagon and hunkered down over her as the Ridlak’s arm and fist crashed through and showered them with broken glass.
        Meanwhile, the Ridlak at the back walked over to Edward’s door, and punched through the glass. Mike pulled Edward to him as the Ridlak grabbed the door with both hands and pulled it off its hinges. It tossed the door aside, reached in, and grabbed Edward’s legs.
        Edward held on tight to Mike, as the Ridlak tried to drag him out. 
        “MIKE!” he shouted in panic, “DON’T LET IT GET ME!!”
        Mike tried to hold on to him, but the creature pulled hard and yanked Edward out. Mike went after him, but once out of the wagon, a Frellam grabbed him. Jon and Callie were likewise forced out by the Frellam. The Ridlak with Edward had him hanging upside down by the legs, and started to swing him around. It smiled with malice as Edward screamed and yelled; until the other Ridlak came over and gave him an open-handed whack on the back of the head. It dropped Edward and snarled at the other.
        “Fatta ozga, Gridumpidu!” it growled, “Krada nootch gra nalanan!”
        “Ovudo ozga bujog, Grogguch.” the other replied.
        Edward got up and started to run over towards Mike and the others, but one of the Frellam grabbed him and cuffed him on the side of the head hard enough to knock him out.
        “HEY!” Mike yelled, and tried to run to him. As he started to do so, he saw from the corner of his eye, Jon and Callie falling to the ground. He understood what was about to happen a second before he felt the blow to the back of his head.
        Then came darkness.

        Mike awoke to the sensation of being carried.
He was strung over the shoulder of one of the Frellam; his face irritated by it’s coarse back-hair (not to mention it’s awful stench). 
He turned his head, and saw Callie, Jon, and Edward also being carried over Frellam shoulders. He couldn’t tell if any of them were awake yet.
There was no telling how long he had been out, but he could at least find out where they were being taken.
Mike closed his eyes, and concentrated on detaching himself from his body. The act came easier this time; Mike willed himself up beyond the treetops, and looked down.
There were about thirty Frellam in the group, plus the two Ridlaks, who followed at the rear. Most of the other Frellam carried sacks of animals big and small that they must have caught hunting. They had carried Mike’s group deep into the woods.
They now approached a clearing with a large encampment of primitive huts. There were more Frellam there: females, children, and those males left behind to guard them.
At the center of the encampment was a huge black cauldron. It looked like a communal area. Many bones were scattered around its perimeter; from small stick bones, to thick and substantial bones.
A meal had been had here, and recently.
Nearby was a deep rectangular pit, with a wooden house door set into it. The door was locked with an iron latch.
Mike looked through the door at two forlorn figures, trapped inside. Curious, Mike willed himself down into the pit to get a better look at them, as they were of a race he had never seen before, except in books.
Treehoppers! Mike thought, in wonder, Bufaaru, they call themselves. What are they doing here? They only live in the vast Ferren Forest, where the trees are HUGE.
The two Bufaaru in the pit were male and female; the female lay with her head on the male’s chest, and the two were holding hands. Their prehensile tails were intertwined. They were about five feet tall, they were furry, like monkeys; but their faces were hairless and human-like.
The two looked up at Mike, and gasped.
They can see me! Mike thought, until light filled the pit, and he realized that they were reacting to the opening of the wooden door; perhaps fearing that their time was up.
But it wasn’t; not yet.
The Frellam that had captured Mike and the others had reached the hole, and had opened the door to deposit their new catch.
Mike turned towards the opening, in time to see his own body tossed down, through, and past himself. When his body landed, Mike felt himself jerked back into it. He opened his eyes and got up, only to have Jon fall on him, followed by Callie, Edward, and several sacks worth of dead animals. The Frellam then shut and locked the door, leaving them in darkness.
The others had already regained consciousness, and now they fumbled around blindly in the dark (except for Mike, who could see in the dark, but was at the present moment pinned at the bottom of the pile).
“My HAIR! Someone’s caught my HAIR!”
“Oh, is that what that is?”
“AHH! Who hit me with their elbow?”
“What is that SMELL?!”
“The stench of death, I believe.”
At last they unpiled themselves, and felt around their new prison.
“Why does everyone we meet want to lock us up?!” Callie lamented.
“It must be our sparkling personalities.” Edward replied.
“Is everybody okay?” Mike asked, “Considering the Concussion-Fest we’ve all just gone through…”
“I come for the head trauma, I stay for the service.” Jon said.
“I’m okay.” Edward said.
“Me too.” Callie said, “I could do without the luxurious aroma of dead things. Any chance of a good breeze?”
“No chance of that.” Jon said, testing the door’s give by pushing up on it with his hands, “The door’s shut tight. I think they must have put something heavy on it.”
“No, there’s a metal latch thingy.” Mike said.
“By the way, we’re not alone.”
“What?” Callie asked.
“There are two Bufaaru in here with us.”
“Treehoppers?” Jon asked, “Here?”
“Yeah. Gimme a minute and I’ll go see what’s up.”
“Last time I checked, you don’t speak ‘Jingo’, or whatever the heck the name of their language is.” Callie said.
“I think it’s ‘Jargo’.” Mike replied.
“Actually, it’s ‘Jogo’.” the male Bufaaru said, “But we can speak Thrist as well. Our race learned it long ago, in order to trade and barter with the Thrist. My name is Tullamigannan, and with me is my companion, Bellaillazuu.”
“Just call us Tullam and Bell.” the female said, in a delicate voice, “Bufaaru family names are always so needlessly long. Anyway, we were captured by the Frellam just as you were; but there were ten of us.”
“What happened to---” Edward started to ask, but stopped when Mike gave him a gentle nudge, “Oh…sorry.”
“Yes,” Tullam said, his voice sad, “They saved us for later. In case the hunters came back a little low.”
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Mike said, “What are Bufaaru doing in these here woods?”
“I could ask the same of you.” Bell replied.                                        
“Granted, but isn’t your race situated predominantly in the Ferren Forest?”
“Yes it is,” Tullam said, “But about nine years ago, the Gistren, the most powerful of the tree-tribes of Ferren, began a war of conquest. Many trees were conquered. Bell and I were leaders of the Sedare tree-tribe. We and our allies fought hard against the Gistren Alliance for nine long years; but in the end…”
“We lost,” Bell said, “And were exiled.”
“Exiled?” Callie asked, “To the ground?”
She remembered reading that, for the Bufaaru, being expelled from the tribal tree, to scrounge a living off the forest floor, was a great humiliation; and tantamount to a death sentence, since the forest floor was full of predators.
“It was worse than that.” Bell said, “They gathered up the surviving heads of the tribes that had allied against them, and exiled us and our families; not just from our trees, but from Ferren itself, on pain of death.”
Bell stopped, and Mike could see a silent tear stream down her face.
Tullam continued for her: “Bell and I led them out of Ferren, enduring many painful losses along the way. These were the closest woods available to us, so we came here; only to discover that a tribe of Frellam from the north had also made their home here.”
“And the Frellam are always hungry.” Bell added.
“So how did you get captured?” Jon asked.
“Like the Frellam, we have to eat too.” Tullam said, “These trees are not as rich in sustenance as those in Ferren; and we’ve had to start hunting for food on the ground. A dangerous proposition, let me tell you. So we instituted a ground-hunting force.”
“It worked well,” Bell said, “Until last night…”
“And now eight of my friends are dead.” Tullam said, shame and grief palpable in his voice, “Food for the wretched Frellam!
Mike saw Bell take Tullam’s hand, and kiss it.
“So now you’ve heard our sad story,” Bell said, “What is yours? How did you get here?”
“Long story short: we’re running away from one ruthless enemy, toward an even worse one.” Mike said, “It’s complicated.”
“Confusing as well.” Edward added.
“The Frellam somehow knew we were coming.” Mike went on, “They attacked us and destroyed our vehicle.”
“How could they have known you were coming?” Bell asked.
“I don’t know.” Mike replied, “But I can guess.”
“So what do we do now?” Edward asked, “Wait to die?”
“No.” Mike said, “We’re getting out of here. All of us.”
“You have a plan?” asked Callie.
“Nope,” Mike replied, “Something better.”

Friday, February 18, 2011

Chapter 45


        A little more than an hour after the departure of Mike, Callie, Jon, and Edward; an ash grey car drove into the desolate town of Murgent. It stopped in front of the Sarrgoset Hotel.
        The car door opened, and Charles Longstreet stepped out.
        He walked over to the hotel; its front door was ajar.
        Longstreet entered the hotel, passed through the hall, and walked into what appeared to be the aftermath of a full-scale slaughter.
        “Gods!” Longstreet said, “Those kids are a wrecking crew!”
        He went up the sticky red stairs; then up another flight of stairs, to the third floor.
        He found the room he was instructed to find.
        The door was open.
        There he found more bodies, more blood and gore.
        He found the one he was looking for: a hefty woman with a knife in her back; she looked cut up and battered, to boot.
        He removed the knife from her back and, with a grunt of effort, turned her over; face up.
He took the knife, and sliced across the palm of his hand. He poured his thick polluted blood into the body’s open mouth.
Longstreet smiled. “Behold the wonders of magic.” he said.
Zedda’s eyes fluttered open, and her terrible scream could be heard for miles.

It was about an hour ago, as his children were leaving Murgent, that Charles Longstreet had received a communiqué from his current employer, master, and all-around string-puller; Araboam Sinestri.
He had been driving as fast as he dared, in the night; trying to make up the running head-start Mike and Callie had on him. Suddenly, the radio in his stolen car turned itself on, and tuned itself, to a static-filled realm between stations.
The static thinned out, and a voice spoke.
Hello again.” it said.
“You.” said Longstreet, “I wondered when I’d hear from you again. I take it you’re none too pleased at my rate of success. Well if that’s the case, you only have yourself to blame; you’ve been of no help to me at all. You give me very little information and no back-up of any kind; you throw me out here and expect me to do it all on my own. Well I’m sorry, that’s going to take some time---“
On the contrary,” the voice interrupted, “All things are going as planned. Do not think for a moment I had not taken your incompetence into my calculations. As a variable, it has been quite predictable; and yet more useful to my ends than you can imagine.”
“Oh.” Longstreet said, unsure of how to take that.
Nor will you be alone in your task for very long. I have instructions for when you reach Murgent, and you must follow them to the letter.”
“I will do as you say.” Longstreet replied.
Listen close…”

Zedda wouldn’t stop screaming, and Longstreet was about out of patience.
“Stop that!” he shouted.
Zedda stopped screaming; but began, instead, to moan. 
“Leave me be!” she said, “Let me stay dead!”
“No.” Longstreet said, “You’re a witch, you know how this works; you gotta do as I say.”
“I’m of no use to you as a corpse,” she said, “My power is gone.”
“That's not entirely true, now is it? There’s still one thing you can do.” he said, “One little thing, and I'll return you to your final rest.”
What do you want? I'll do it!”
“I want you to conjure up a Morrtog for me.” he said.

Longstreet cleared an unbloodied area of loose debris, as Zedda went to her room, to fetch some manner of magical paraphernalia. She returned with colored chalksticks, and a golden ceremonial knife.
“There are more elegant, safer, and…genteel versions of the ritual I’m about to perform,” Zedda explained, “But this is the quickest way; the ancient way.”
She handed the knife to Longstreet, and bent down to her knees and drew a crude circle about twenty inches in circumference, with one of the chalksticks. Using various colors, she drew strange runes around the inside wall of the circle, and a major symbol at its center.
“Jammuk Jarru” she said, “The Door In.”
She put aside the chalks, got back to her feet, and started removing her bloody and tattered clothes; until she stood naked before him, and utterly unabashed about it.
“This next part requires blood.” she said.
She handed him the chalksticks, and took from him the golden knife.
Its blade was shiny and sharp, and with a single flick, she cut across the tops of her index and middle fingers. The blood that came forth from these openings was not red, but a darkening burgundy. She used this blood to draw another circle, this time on her ample belly. A runic symbol, different to the one on the floor, went in the center of the new circle.
“Jammuk Parra.” Zedda said, “The Door Out.”
“Swell.” Longstreet said.
He was anxious to get back on the road.
“Before I begin, I must warn you.” Zedda said, “The code of my order forbids any Conjuura from summoning more than one Morrtog in her lifetime. I myself broke that code, among others, when I summoned my second Morrtog, Mr. Balooda.”
“Was he out of control?” Longstreet asked.
“No, it wasn’t a problem of control. Balooda was just as servile as Mr. Blessure, my first. It was a problem of palatability. Balooda came out just skewed; demented in both appearance and character. It’s a matter of diminishing returns, you see. Every time one reaches into that bag, one gets a less stable specimen. I shudder to think what a third summoning, from a dead Conjuura with corrupted blood no less, will produce.”
“We’ll soon see, won’t we?” Longstreet said.
Zedda stepped into the chalk circle.
“Now begins NiyaChakNya, the dark summoning,” she said, “You must not touch nor interrupt me in any way; no matter what you see.”
“No problem there.”
“The Jammuk Parra will expel the Morrtog in it’s true form. I must give it a name before it’s free. So it is important that you not make a sound or distract me---“
“Understood!” Longstreet shouted, getting antsy, “Let’s get on with it!”
Zedda interlaced her fingers and brought them up behind her head. She arched her back to an unpleasant degree, and closed her eyes.
“Peyya Korrien, MorrCha Ard sah KunChuReen!” she spoke in a loud voice, “Ussa Zedda Stanetta, um KunChurra, NaGarr tevvis Jammuk NaHwa Xalix shessa Maqwa! Umma um MorrTog, ChaNya sah MorrCha, shessa agraffa ChunTra!”
Silence alone, answered.
Minutes ticked by.
Zedda’s eyes remained closed. Her unsettling posture did not waver in the slightest.
Then…there came a sudden and awful ripping sound, like flesh being torn, from the vicinity of Zedda’s midsection.
“It has begun!” Zedda gasped, as a hole appeared on her stomach, in the shape of the blood circle.
Longstreet’s mouth gaped, as a horrid red light poured forth from the hole, along with what sounded like a million lions roaring over the aural backdrop of exploding suns. Worse yet was what he could see. A hellworld painted lava red; burning so bright it lit up the rest of Zedda’s torso like a candle in a pumpkin. And in that hellworld could be seen moving mountains of crawling black beasts that climbed over each other like a swarm of roaches; mountains that that tottered, fell, and rebuilt themselves.
“GODS!!” came out of Longstreet’s mouth in a dry croak.
“QUIET ASS!” Zedda screamed, her voice almost lost in the din. Her eyes were open now; so wide, they looked as if they might pop off.
“Ussa, KunChurra, NuallYa ChunTra YanNya Xalix um MorrTog, um ChaNya sah MorrCha, NaHwa grawpus!” she recited.
At this a massive talon came through the hole and grabbed the side of it. Another talon appeared and grabbed the other side, and a black bumpy head consisting of needle-sharp teeth and red eyes pulled itself through, and roared. It looked at up Longstreet and smiled.
The beast pulled it’s arms through, one at a time, then popped it’s shoulders out. The hole showed no sign of expanding beyond the borders of the blood circle, so the Morrtog had to squeeze itself through mercilessly, to climb out of the hole. It’s talons now reached the floor, and it skittered at the hardwood, looking for purchase. The good thing about all this was that it blocked and muted the sounds and visions of that other place.
Throughout all this, Zedda continued to maintain her arched posture; a vision of surreality beyond even Longstreet’s experience.
The Morrtog was now halfway out; the rim of the hole at it’s middle (around where it’s navel would be, if it had such a thing). It was coming much faster now, and would pull itself free in seconds.
Zedda removed her hands from behind her head and placed them gently on the thing’s jagged back.
“I NAME YOU…” she began to say.
Then something unexpected happened.
Upon Zedda’s first word, the Morrtog somehow turned itself around within the hole until it faced up, bent itself toward her, and grabbed her shoulders. All this lightning quick.
As it’s talons sunk into her, her pronouncement was cut short. Her mouth opened in that deep intake of breath before a shattering scream. Then, with an upward thrust, the creature lunged at Zedda’s neck and chomped off enough of it that the head fell backward; where it met her back, kept from falling off by a single strap of flesh. Eyes open in horror, mouth open in a scream that never came.
The Morrtog propelled the rest of it’s body all the way out of the hole so fast, it was out before the body could fall. 
Behind it, the hole to it’s realm faded away and turned to flesh once more.
The Morrtog arose, as Zedda’s ruined body at last succumbed to gravity, and collapsed.
The Morrtog turned toward Longstreet; grunting in a gravel-filled voice something like: owwmm! eeyowwmm! eeyowwmm! eeyowwmm!
The sound of that cut through Longstreet like a knife, but he showed no outward annoyance or fear. He stood his ground as Sinestri had instructed him.
“KenJa ved RaFa ChorrGen?” it asked in it’s throaty voice.
“Speak Thrist.” Longstreet said.
The Morrtog looked at him with curiosity. It looked back at Zedda’s body.
“She brought me forth, but she was not my master.” it said.
“Neither are you.”
“No.” said Longstreet, “But I serve the one whose dark blood brought you forth. Do you wish proof?”
The Morrtog shrugged. Longstreet lifted the hand he had cut to resurrect Zedda, and held it under the Morrtog’s snout. It sniffed at the caked and clotted blood at great length, and made that annoying “Owwmm! Eeyowwmm! Eeyowwmm!” noise.
“Is that sufficient?” Longstreet asked, with disgust.
The Morrtog bit off his pinky and ring finger with such quickness, that Longstreet didn’t know what had happened until he saw his fingers in the Morrtog’s mouth; when it started chewing them with open-mouthed glee.
“It’ll do.” It answered, opening it’s mouth and showing him the black gristly mess on it’s forked tongue.
Black blood poured from the stumps like warm syrup, but Longstreet felt no pain; only a minor throbbing that dissipated within seconds.
Sinestri’s Malevolencia, Longstreet thought to himself, It’s numbed me. In more ways than one, no doubt.
With his good hand, he took out a clean handkerchief, and wrapped the damaged hand; but already, the black blood was down to a dribble.
It’s getting thicker all the time, thought Longstreet, How much time do I have, before it solidifies? Could that be why Sinestri wants this creature? To take over for me when I turn into a useless lump of coal?
But those were questions for later.
“You will not do that again.” he said.
“As you wish.” the Morrtog said with feigned servility, as black drool ran down the sides of it’s mouth.
“And you will take a more human-looking size and form.”
“As you command.” the Morrtog replied. It closed it’s eyes and began to shimmer, decreasing in size, just a bit. When the shimmering stopped, a tall and pallid man stood before him. He had long jet-black hair and wore a black raincoat. His eyes, however, remained red; and his smile was still an alarming array of white daggers.
“Close enough, I guess.” Longstreet said.
“What name will you bestow upon me?” It asked.
“Name yourself.” Longstreet said. He turned and walked out of the room, down the two sets of stairs, and out of the hotel. The Morrtog followed. When Longstreet got back in his car, the Morrtog joined him in the passenger seat.
“Babbidaz.” It said, “My name will be Babbidaz.”
“Good,” said Longstreet, and started the car, “What does that mean?”
“Death.” Babbidaz replied.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Chapter 44

Sparo’s Tale

        “Mike!” Callie cried out, and knelt by the body of her fallen brother.
        “Wait!” Sparo shouted, “I might still be able to bring him back!”
        “What?” Callie said, “You can?”
        “Yes,” said Sparo, rubbing his hands together, “He’s not as far gone as the others. He’s just within the grasp of my power. I just hope I have enough strength left in me.”
        Sparo knelt beside Callie and placed a hand on Mike’s forehead, and the other on his chest. He closed his eyes and furrowed his brow in intense concentration.
        Edward and Jon crouched around Callie and watched along with her, as a healthy glow steadily crept back into Mike’s face.
        Mike gasped back to life like a man awakening from a nightmare; startling the hell out of the four around him. He sat up.
        “SHIG!! What the---! What happened just now?” he asked.
        “He’s back!” cried Callie, embracing him.
        Mike’s bewildered face looked at the people around him. “Did I go somewhere?”
        “You were dead, again.” Edward said, “And you were brought back from the dead; again.”
        “This is becoming a habit with you, it seems.” Jon added.
        “Dead? How---?” Mike asked.
        “Zedda’s final spell was broken. Callie explained, All who were kept alive by it, including you, fell dead when she was killed. This guy, Nurrek---”
        “Sparo.” Sparo corrected.
        “He was able to bring you back.”
        “Why only me? Mike asked.
        “You still had some life force in you, Sparo said, Not having died multiple times, like the others.”
        Mike turned his head and looked over at the bodies of Egann and Ray. “I feel so sorry for those guys,” he said, “Without their help I don’t know how much of this victory would have been possible.”
        “At least it’s over for them.” Edward said, “I mean, I wish they could have lived to enjoy life without Zedda, but…at least their nightmare is over. They can finally rest in peace.”
        “That’ll have to do, I guess.” Mike said.
        He got up to his feet, the others did as well.
        “What now?” Edward asked.
        “I don’t know about you guys,” Sparo said, “But I’m hungry.”

        They went down the red and sticky stairs, to the kitchen.
        It appeared to be empty, but they found two dead kids in the lower cupboards, where they had hidden themselves during the night’s noisy and chaotic battles.
        “Oh, poor things.” Callie said with regret.
        They respectfully removed the bodies to another room. They cleared out all the trays on the preparation table, and then scrounged around for chairs to set around said table, until they found the necessary five.
        They prepared for themselves a quick supper, and then sat down to eat, and talk.
        They began by comparing notes. What each had done and gone through since they were separated. Mike, Callie, Jon, and Edward each told their tale; when they were done, they turned at last to Sparo.
        “So what’s your story?” Callie asked.
        “MY story,” Sparo said, “Is a bit long and involved.”
        “Just give us the hits, then.” Edward said.
        “Okay,” Sparo said. He organized his thoughts for a moment, and then jumped straight into it: “Up until three months ago, I was just another ordinary kid from an average family. Or so I thought. I had not the slightest inkling that I was, in fact, a Ma’jai.”
        “How could you not know such a thing?” Callie asked.
        “It’s complicated.” Sparo said, “Ma’jai powers are hereditary, but they don’t tend to appear until one is in his or her late teens, thereabouts. Now, unless one or both parents are Ma’jai themselves, most don’t know what they are until their powers begin to arrive. That’s how it was in my case; both of my parents were ordinary.
“It turns out magic doesn’t always follow hereditary rules; it’ll disappear from families for generations, for no apparent reason, then reappear just as mysteriously. Or, one child in a family will be one, while the others will not. And then there are many different types of Ma’jai. Not just variations in strength, but variations in abilities. There are powers common to all, powers only some have, and powers that are very rare. There are Ma’jai who specialize in only one or two, and some who have a smidgen of everything.”
“What kind are you?” Jon asked.
“I’m an Icarin.” Sparo answered, “The most powerful and rarest of the Ma’jai. The rule of thumb on Icarins is, that one appears maybe once every hundred years or so; although there have been some notable exceptions to that rule. Most of my powers are still dormant, though; Zedda was right about that. And I am much too young to have developed what little I have, but I’ll get to that.”
“I doubt your powers seemed ‘little’ to either Zedda, or her Morrtogs.” Mike said.
“True enough.” Sparo replied, “Anyway, as I was saying, three months ago I was ignorant of all this. My parents and I were visiting relatives in Briston, and on our way back home, we missed a crucial turn or something, and got way off course. We ended up in Murgent.”
“Rotten luck, man.” Jon said.
“Zedda knew I was coming, and what I was; she also knew that my powers were as yet latent. She and her Morrtogs built a special box to contain me. Once in the box, I would be encased within its spells; even after my powers developed. That way, when the time came, she could drain me at her leisure; without a worry.”
“Why didn’t she just drain you right off the bat?” Edward asked.
“No powers mean nothing worth draining.” Sparo said, “She had to be patient, for once.”
Callie nodded silently, in understanding. How enticing it must have been for Zedda, she thought, At the prospect of draining a Ma’jai! How much power, I wonder, could be had from such a transaction?
Sparo continued: “Upon entry into Murgent, my parents were struck mad by Zedda’s insanity spell. Then, Blessure and Balooda descended upon our car, tore the roof off, and plucked me out. The car kept going until it hit a tree. I was thrown screaming into a crate of some sort, and taken to the hotel, the basement, and finally the magic box of illusion that would become my cage for the next three months. Zedda drew the circles of containment, and I was left there in the dark; in shock, and alone.”
“That’s awful.” Callie said.
“My first week down there was hell. I was terrified, and when Balooda started sending kids down there as punishment, it was worse. I tried to talk to them, plead with them, but never got any reply other than screams and whimpers. I didn’t know that the box translated my appearance to something monstrous, and my pleas to terrifying roars.”
“Why did Zedda allow Balooda to lock kids down there?” Jon asked.
“She had faith that the illusion was fearsome enough to prevent anybody from tampering with either the box, or the circles drawn on the floor around it. That’s what the illusion was created to do, and it worked. Most kids were too terrified by the sounds to even come down the stairs and have a look at me. As a plus, for Zedda, the experience added a new level of torment to their despair…and mine.
“With nothing to do, nothing to see or hear, I turned inward; and the first faint whispers of my power arrived, much earlier than they should have. I didn’t know where these powers came from, or why I had them; but I had all the time necessary to study them. Very soon I was able to see the movement of time itself. I saw many great events of the past, accumulated much knowledge, and thus came to know the history of my kind. 
“What I was…what I was born to do.”
“What were you born to do?” Callie asked.
“To fight against a coming darkness. That’s what all Icarins are born for; why the birth of one is considered a bad omen.” Sparo said, “It is a sign of a terrible struggle yet to be fought.”
Sparo visibly shuddered. 
He continued: “I had at last found myself, but too late. I could not break through Zedda’s magic circles. Nor could I communicate with anyone. I was, however, able to set my mind free and explore beyond the confines of Zedda’s sphere of influence. I saw you guys coming, and knew you’d be instrumental in getting me out.”
“Why us?” Callie asked, “And what was so different about Mike that you were able to get him to fall asleep and take over his body, and not any of the others who had been brought down there in the past?”
Mike groaned inward. This was the subject he had been dreading.
“In order for me to influence a mind through all of Zedda’s magical encumbrances, it had to be a mind on the same wavelength, if you will, as mine.” Sparo replied, “It had to be the mind of a fellow Ma’jai.”
Callie, Edward, and Jon’s mouths hit the floor.
Mike shook his head.
“Yes, Mike, you.” Sparo insisted, “I made contact with you upon your entrance into Murgent, though you did not know it consciously. It was I who influenced you into spitting in Balooda’s face, because I knew it would get you thrown in the basement.”
“It was I who decided to spit in Balooda’s face!”
“Yes, but it was I who suggested it to your conscious mind.” Sparo retorted, “Like a whisper from the back of your head. I regret what you had to undergo, but it was necessary; plus I knew you’d come back to life. What I didn’t foresee was that your death would kickstart some of your powers, as my imprisonment kickstarted mine. You know what I’m talking about, though you glossed over it in your recounting. How you fought me tooth and nail, when I started taking over your body. Your strength was impressive, but not enough to stop me.”
Callie, Edward, and Jon, meanwhile; were still reeling over the initial revelation.
“Did I hear you right?” Callie asked, “Did you just say---?”
“You heard me.” Sparo said, “Why are you so surprised that your brother is magically-inclined, Conjuura?”
“That’s different,” Callie said, “Zedda had to teach me---“
“Please!” Sparo interrupted her again, “How many would-be Conjuuras do you suppose could levitate on their first day of training? Or intuitively figure out how to reverse a mind-link, for that matter?”
Mike cut in. “Look, whatever I saw or did after you put me to sleep had to have been a fluke, no doubt caused by all the weird magical crap in this place. Besides, how could it be true? In all my life, I’ve never done any of these things before. Not once.”
“That’s why they’re called dormant powers.” Sparo said.
“Why are we having such a hard time believing this?” Jon asked, “Sparo’s clearly a Ma’jai, and if he says Mike’s one too, why don’t we take him at his word? Callie levitated before our eyes, and we took it in stride. Sparo says Mike’s a Ma’jai, and we freak out! Why?”
“Because I’m nobody.” Mike said, “I can easily believe Callie is something special. But me? Besides, if I was a Ma’jai, Zedda would have known it, like she knew about you, Sparo. But she didn’t, did she?”
“You can’t go by that.” Sparo countered, “Divination is an art, not a science. It’s possible Zedda mistook Callie to be the ‘person of interest’ her readings perhaps foresaw.”
“He’s got you there, Mike.” Edward said.
“Alright already,” Mike said, throwing his hands up in surrender, “Let’s say I AM a Ma’jai. Fine. What the hell does that entail? Do I get a pamphlet or something?”
“Just go on with your life, and don’t worry about it.” Sparo said, “These things unfold slowly. When they begin to show up, you’ll know how to use them.”
They had all finished eating by this point, and a feeling descended upon them that the time for talk was coming to an end.
“So, what will you do now, Sparo?” Callie asked, “Where will you go?”
“There are people I must find now, and join,” Sparo said, “Brave Ma’jai who guard against the coming dark.
“Well, we have an extra vehicle now,” Mike said, “Since Jon brought us our wagon back. Can you drive?”
“If I sit on a thick enough pillow, I can.” Sparo answered, “For a little while, at least. Once I start hitting the towns, I’ll probably get funny looks.”
“Yeah, that might be a problem.” Mike said. He took the Macatto Insurance car keys out of his pocket, and handed them to Sparo. “I wouldn’t let the frain see you either. You don’t look a day over eleven.”
“I AM eleven.” Sparo said, “But don’t worry about me, I can take care of myself. After taking down two Morrtogs and a Conjuura, I doubt the frain will be much of a challenge for me.”
“Any further matters to discuss, before we take our leave of this hell-hole?” Mike asked.
“What about our dead friends?” Edward asked, “Are we just gonna leave them here to rot? Without Egann and Ray, we couldn’t have put a stop to Zedda’s reign.”
“Ed’s right,” Callie said, “We owe them big.”
“What can we do?” Jon asked, “We can’t bury them all. I don’t know how far behind your dad is, Callie; but I do know he will be showing up sooner or later, and we don’t want to be here when that happens.”
“Funeral pyre.” Callie replied, “We can set the hotel on fire. Burn it to the ground. What do you think?”
Mike shook his head. “This whole town is kindling. If we set the hotel ablaze, it’ll spread fast and consume all of Murgent.”
“Which is bad why?”
“Because Murgent is nestled right up against the same woods we intend to enter.”
“I’m afraid we can’t do anything for our dead friends, Ed.” Jon said, “Perhaps in time, the woods will retake this place. As for us, we have to keep moving.”
“I understand.” Edward said, “Let’s go.”
The five got to their feet.
“Can I ask you one last question, Sparo?” Callie asked.
“Sure.” Sparo replied.
“Why the hell did Zedda keep calling you ‘Nurrek’?”
Sparo smiled. “That was Zedda’s little joke at my expense. Well, less a joke than a jibe. In XaliXal, the language of the Morrtogs, ‘Nurrek’ means ‘Monster’.”

They raided the hotel’s pantry, and loaded up the vehicles.
Sparo finished first, and pulled Mike aside for a private conversation; the subject of which would come to importance…later.
When they were finished, they gathered between the vehicles, in front of the hotel.
“So Sparo, this is goodbye.” Callie said, giving him a hug, “Thanks for saving Mike’s life, as well as our collective asses.”
“Take care of yourselves.” he said.
“I noticed you never asked us where WE are going.”
“I know where the road you’re taking leads.” Sparo answered grimly, and left it at that.
Sparo got in his new car, while Mike, Callie, Jon, and Edward turned toward the station wagon. Edward dashed to stake his claim to the wagon’s front passenger seat.
“Mike can drive first.” Jon said, “After all, he spent most of his time here asleep.”
“Funny.” said Mike, but he was already getting in behind the wheel.
Callie and Jon got in the back seats, and snuggled.
Mike looked through the rearview mirror, and saw Sparo drive away in the direction they had entered Murgent from; back toward civilization.
“Something just occurred to me, Mike.” Callie said from behind him, “What if Dad and Sparo cross paths, and Dad recognizes the car? What if he tries something?”
“We should be so lucky.” Mike said, “If that happens, my money's on Sparo.  
He put the key into the ignition, turned it, and the wagon came to life. Mike gave the steering wheel a light kiss. “Glad to have you back, ol’ girl.” he said.
They drove through the now empty town, and reached the rickety bridge that led out of Murgent. They passed over the groaning bridge, reached the “YOU ARE LEAVING MURGENT. SEE YOU AGAIN SOON!” sign, and crossed it unobstructed.
“We’re through!” Callie said, with a sigh of relief.
Jon kissed her and held her tight.
Ahead of them, the road seemed to stretch forever, bracketed by a dense and dark wood.
“Here we go.” said Edward.