Friday, March 25, 2011

Chapter 50

The Face of the Enemy

          Callie sent half the stakes before her flying toward the Morrtog as it galloped on all fours toward them.
Babbidaz was ready for them this time. He turned on a dime and jumped onto a tree. Callie tried to grab hold of him, with her power, but there was an aspect of metaphysical slipperiness to him, and she found that she could not affect him directly in any way.
Mike threw a sekari at him. Babbidaz dodged it, and hopped onto another tree.
“Quick mother, innit?” said Jon.
The sekari hit the tree Babbidaz had just departed, and cut it in half. As the top half fell, Callie caught it with her mind, and swung it at Babbidaz, like a giant club in an invisible hand. With acrobatic agility, Babbidaz did a flip over the tree---and right into Mike’s next sphere.
“Not quick enough!!” Mike yelled.
The sekari exploded Babbidaz back and upwards. 
Callie swung the tree top like a bat once more, and connected with Mike’s pitch. Babbidaz got whacked into a rolling tumble to the ground.
Callie then threw the tree top at Babbidaz. He managed to avoid getting hit by jumping over it, but wasn’t as fast as last time; he was tripped by one of the limbs, and found himself chin to the ground once more.
He got up fast, in time to dodge another of Mike’s sekari.
Callie rocketed her remaining stakes at him.
Babbidaz sprung into a nimble forward somersault. As he vaulted over the stakes, he grabbed one with each hand in mid-air, and upon landing, tossed them twirling back at Callie.
Two of Mike’s sekari rendered the stakes into splinters. A necessary distraction, but a distraction nonetheless; as Babbidaz had jumped, and now landed among them.
Callie and Jon were smacked aside like afterthoughts.
The Morrtog grabbed Mike by the neck, and disappeared up into the treetops with him.
“NO!” Callie yelled, and levitated herself up after them; leaving Jon and his spear all alone below.
I hope this ends well, he thought.

“You’re my main problem!” Babbidaz said to Mike as he took him to a high limb, “Without you, the others will be easy pickings! Owwm! Eyowwmm! Eyowwmm!”
        Babbidaz squeezed hard on Mike’s neck to choke the life out of him. Mike poured Voss Vedu’un energy into his arms and hands, grabbed Babbidaz’s wrists, and pulled them loose. The Morrtog’s good eye boggled as the puny child, whose physical strength should have been akin to a wet noodle compared to his, pulled his hands away from his neck.
        Callie whooshed up from below, trancing eyes at full blast, and stopped at eye level with Babbidaz.
Their eyes met, and Callie initiated the Malignium.
Babbidaz dropped Mike, and Mike fell, but managed to grab hold of the limb on which the Morrtog stood.
What the hell is she DOING?! Mike thought. After warning HIM not to try to mind-read the Morrtog, here she was, doing the same damn thing; risking her mind and life doing it.
She’s trying to save YOUR worthless hide, twit! came the answer from within. As always, this self-loathing aspect of his psyche spoke to him in his father’s caustic voice.
Mike hoped she’d win, and soon; his arms were getting tired.

Callie entered the Morrtog’s mind with suspicious ease. Way too much ease, as it turned out. Before she could do anything, the mental equivalent of fangs bit deep into her mind, and began to drag her in deeper.
Callie lost control of her levitation, and began to sink; but Babbidaz caught her by the arms, and kept her at eye level.
Mike looked up and saw this happen.
Uh oh! He thought, NOT a good sign!

As Callie's mind writhed helpless under foot, the Morrtog’s laughter boomed painfully within her skull.
“Can you defend against a Ma’jai in your head, jackass?” Mike’s voice barged in. 
To Callie, it was like the voice of salvation.
Mike’s mind attacked Babbidaz’s with a ferocity and power the Morrtog was not ready for, and he retreated, releasing Callie.
Only now, both Longstreets attacked him in tandem.
Round and round the three minds battled. 
Hard fought the struggle was, and vicious. They cut him deep, and he slashed back at them with savage fury.
The girl tired first, and to the Morrtog’s relief, she backed out of the fray. But the boy was unflagging; his infuriating tenacity and ceaseless Ma’jai strength wore Babbidaz down. Until at last, the Morrtog’s mind was held down as helpless as it had held Callie moments ago.
“CALLIE! TAKE HIM!” Mike said, and she knew what to do.
She started the Malignium again; and this time, she thought, Babbidaz would not be able to stop it.
She drunk in Babbidaz, in big mental gulps. 
Mike could see the exponential increase in her power.
Judging that she could take over from here, he retracted his mind from the Morrtog’s, and reconnected to his own body; which was not pleasant. His arms hurt like hell, and his fingers were numb; he had but a few seconds of hold left in him.
He called forth the Voss Vedu’un into his hands, arms, and shoulder. Relief flowed through him as renewed strength ebbed back into tired muscles and flesh.
He retightened his grip on the tree limb, and looked up.
Callie had retaken control of her levitation at some point, and the Morrtogs hands were at his sides.
At least they had been. Only know, Mike saw Babbidaz move his left arm slowly back, and the hand start to rise.
The mind of a Morrtog is most unique. As Babbbidaz’s lay seemingly helpless under the thrall of Callie’s Malignium; a primal and unseen portion of it had branched off, in a last desperate attempt to retake control of the situation. The attempt cost him dearly, but he was able to access movement of his left arm. Now he pulled it back, so he could plunge his talons into the girl’s belly, and rip out her intestines.
There was no time to send Callie a warning, or to try to take control of the Morrtog’s body, before the killing blow. And a sekari at this close range might startle or hurt Callie, and cause her to fall.
Instead, Mike grabbed the Morrtog’s ankle with one, then the other, hand. Babbidaz was pulled off balance, his foot slipped off the limb, and the two of them fell.
Startled by the sudden breaking of the mental link, Callie lost control, and fell after them.
Below, Jon looked up and saw the three figures falling to what would be (for at least two of those figures) a bone-breaking height.
“Oh shig.” he said, and got the hell out of the way.

Callie’s mind snapped back to itself, confused; not knowing what had happened, or why she was falling. She could see, in the slow-motion with which the mind deals with disastrous and fast-moving events, Mike and Babbidaz tumbling below; as well as the ground rushing towards them, eager to crush their bones.
Three-fourths of the way down, she managed to reassert her levitation, and grabbed Mike a second later.
From below, Jon saw Callie and Mike slow to a stop in midair.
Babbidaz, on the other hand, hit the ground like a sack of bricks.
Callie lost her grip, though; and the two fell the rest of the way three seconds later. Their landing, while not a happy one, was nonetheless a less painful one than Babbidaz’s.
Ever the die-hard, however; Babbidaz was the first to rise.
From behind the Morrtog, Jon saw his chance.
He ran up to the Morrtog and, with all his strength, jabbed his spear into the small of it’s back as deep as it would go. The spear broke off at the tip, and Jon lost his balance and fell to the side.
Babbidaz arched his back and let out a roar of pain.
Mike saw his opportunity, and took it. He hurled a small sekari straight into the Morrtog’s open mouth, the explosive content of which blew the top half of Babbidaz’s head clean off, and spinning into the air.
The Morrtog’s body collapsed, never to rise again. The top of his head hit the dirt seconds later, a bit further off; eye wide open and surprised.
“That was for Edward, you SHANK!!” Jon shouted, as he kicked the corpse and spat on it.
Mike and Callie looked at him, then each other, and began to laugh; Jon joined them.
Callie then smacked Mike on the back of his head with her hand.
“OWWW! What?!” Mike said.
“WHY did you do THAT?” she gestured toward the tree-limb they had just vacated moments ago, “And WHY didn’t you warn me you were gonna do that?! I almost didn’t catch us in time!”
Rather than try to explain, Mike sent into her mind the image of Babbidaz about to gut her while she floated before him, oblivious.
“Oh,” she said, “I see. Sorry.”
“That’s okay,” Mike said, “I admit I didn’t think that through; but there was no time. I had to do something.”
“So what happened up there?” Jon asked.
“Just a minor difference of opinion.” Mike said, standing up, “It wanted us dead. 
“We said no.” Callie added. 
“I’m glad you won the debate.” Jon said.
Callie, still sitting, put a trembling hand to her head.
“Are you okay, Callie?” Jon asked, “You look nauseated.”
“It was that Malignium with Babbidaz.” she said.
“The Morrtog.” Mike said, “Callie brain-drained him.”
“It lasted only several seconds, but the raw POWER that I got from it in that time was incredible. I’m juiced up, but also sickened. Kinda like overeating on something you like until it makes you wanna puke.”
“Are you gonna need a privacy moment?” Mike asked.
“Nah, I can handle it.” she said, and stood up.
“Alright then, let’s go.” Mike said, walking in the direction Babbidaz had arrived from, “We’re one down, one to go.”

Charles Longstreet fully expected to see Babbidaz show up with the carcasses of his children, draped over his shoulders.
It was the surety of this visual image becoming reality that allowed him to wait as long as he had without submitting to worry; despite his deteriorating condition.
But that wasn’t what happened.
Incredibly, Mike and Callie (as well as some unknown boy) appeared out of nowhere, and caught him by surprise.
“How did you---?!!” was all Longstreet managed to get out, before he felt his brain come under the grip of an ice cold wrench.
Unable to move or speak, he realized that Mike was the wrench.
“Hello dad,” Mike said, “I’ll be just a moment. There are things I need to know; things I need to see for myself.”
Mike delved past his father’s surface thoughts, and went deep into his earliest memories.
He saw…
His father’s childhood, the only son of Terren and Jade Longstreet, growing up in Noah’s Oak, New Heedol; in the very same house Mike himself, and Callie, would later run away from.
A good son of kind parents, Charles nonetheless yearned to break free of small town life, and go live in a big city: Cathim, Mirridin, perhaps even Idus Alth, to find his destiny. At the age of eighteen, he purchased a used green station wagon (it was cheap, and all he could afford), and left home soon after. He spent some time in Metromax, and then moved on to Cathim. In Cathim he found a good job, and was happy there, living on his own. Then, in early 3636, he met Elizabeth Shale, and the two were soon married. Late in the year came the birth of their first child, Michael. Two years later, they had a daughter: Callendra. The family had another happy and blissful three years. Then, in 3642, it all came to a crashing stop.
Charles Longstreet’s destiny had at last found him.
And it was there, through the medium of his father’s memories, that Mike finally got a look at the face of his and Callie’s real enemy: Araboam Sinestri.      

Friday, March 18, 2011

Chapter 49

A Clash of Powers

          Charles Longstreet sat on the hood of his stolen car, awaiting Babbidaz’s return.
He had felt nothing upon seeing the remains of the destroyed station wagon. True, it had been his for ages; but not long after Mike and Callie had taken it, he had stopped thinking of it as his. It was Mike and Callie’s wagon...but no more. After only nine days in their possession, the wagon had definitively bitten the dust.
Babbidaz appeared out of the woods, carrying a body.
“I get the distinct feeling I’m not going to like this bit of news.” Longstreet said.
“The boy fell. I didn’t catch him in time.” Babbidaz explained.
“And the two creatures?” Longstreet asked.
“One I killed; one got away.” Babbidaz answered.
He shimmered into his slightly less alarming persona, as he set Edward’s body on the ground before Longstreet. “I brought the body in case you wanted to resurrect the child.”
Longstreet considered it. “No, he’s too young. They’re not very informative when you bring them back from the dead too young. They tend to come back drooly and messy; good only for shock value.”
This was true, as the girls he had resurrected in Metromax had proven. But that wasn’t the real reason he decided not to bring the boy back. He was no longer sure that the black molasses currently solidifying in his veins could turn the trick anymore. He was not even sure he’d be able to stand unassisted for another twenty minutes. All body warmth and energy seemed to be draining from him at a frightening rate.
“I wanted him alive.”
“Sorry.” Babbidaz said; though he didn’t sound at all apologetic.
“Okay, well, no use crying over spilt boy. Let’s see if you can smell where my kids went off to.” Longstreet said.
Babbidaz walked over to the destroyed station wagon, and sniffed around the inside. He could make out four separate scents. One of them he recognized as the dead boy’s. He got out of the wagon, and sniffed around outside of it.
“They were attacked.” Babbidaz said.
“I coulda told you that.” Longstreet snorted.
“A force of about thirty or so foul-smelling creatures smashed the vehicle and took the four of them---“
“Four?” Longstreet asked, “Where the hell do Mike and Callie recruit these kids to help them all the damn time?!”
Babbidaz pointed to the woods. “---that way.”
“Lead away, then…and hurry,” Longstreet said, “I don’t think I have much time.”
The two ran into the woods.

Mike, Callie, and Jon were picking the dark red berries off a Jandraberry bush they had found, when Callie suddenly swooned. Jon caught her, and laid her on the ground.
“Callie! What’s wrong?!” Jon shouted.
Callie didn’t answer. Her eyes were wide open, but she seemed to be in the grip of a powerful vision.
Mike, who had been working on another bush a few paces away, ran over to the two. He looked down on Callie, with a look of concerned alarm spreading across his face.
“Mike, what is it?!” Jon asked, “What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s not alone in her mind,” Mike replied, furrowing his brow, “She’s receiving a message of some sort, but---“
Callie came to with a gasp, cutting him off. She looked at Jon, and then at Mike; then broke into tears.
“What is it, Callie?” Jon asked.
Callie seemed unable to answer him at the moment; instead, she put her face in her hands, and wept openly.
“Oh no…” Mike said, as the waters of Callie’s mind at last cleared enough for him to see. The color drained from his face.
“What?!” asked Jon, getting frustrated.
“It’s Edward,” Mike said, “He’s dead.”
“What?! How?”
“He came to me in a vision.” Callie said, lifting her tear-streaked face and speaking at last, “He said our father is here; and he’s brought a Morrtog with him.”
“The Morrtog killed Tullam,” Mike continued, in a dead voice, “And Edward sacrificed himself to save Bell.”
“Bubba Death came for him at last.” Callie whispered.
“Oh man…Edward…” Jon said, as the weight of it sunk in.
“He said for us not to grieve,” Callie continued, “That the choice was his to make. He’s safe now, where no danger can ever reach him again.”
“But we’re not.” Mike said, “Dad is on his way.”
“I’m done running from that man.” Callie said, wiping her tears away with her hands, “But it’s the Morrtog that worries me.”
“We’ll deal with it.” Mike said, “Like we dealt with the Frellam.”
“Thing is,” said Jon, “This isn’t the Frellam encampment; you can’t go tossing fireballs around, Mike. You’ll start a forest fire.”
“Crap. I didn’t think of that,” Mike said, “I guess I could always just break his mind---“
“I wouldn’t try that either.” Callie said, “I remember Mr. Blessure trapping Mr. Balooda in HIS mind. Dad’s Morrtog may or may not have the same power; but if he does, trying to mind read him might be iffy.”
 “That does cut down our options a tad.” Mike said.
“I suggest we find as many branches as we can, and weaponize them.” Jon said, “As a sort of back-up, in case we have an interruption of service, magic-wise; if you get my drift.”
“Good idea.” Mike said.
“But how do we sharpen them?” Callie asked, “We don’t have a knife.”
“You don’t need a knife,” Mike said, “You have a Ma’jai.”

They worked fast.
Time was of the essence, and they knew it. Within five minutes, they had gathered ten branches. All but one were considered too thin or brittle to use as a spear, so they were broken into smaller pieces, so Callie could hurl them into the air, like projectiles.
Mike created a small power sphere he used to scorch spear points onto both ends of each piece of wood they had collected. When done, he squeezed the sphere until its power reabsorbed into his hand.
“Waste not, want not.” he said.
The stakes were spread out in a row, on the ground. 
Jon took possession of the one good spear.
“Now we wait.” Mike said, “Remember: the Morrtog is the greater threat; but it’s ignorant of our abilities. The element of surprise gives me one free shot. So I’m gonna try to take it out with my first sphere, but if I fail…it’s gonna be all out war with this thing.”
“Understood.” said Callie.
She glanced at Jon, beside her. He nodded.
They were ready.

Charles Longstreet stopped, and leaned against a tree, no longer able to go on.
“They’re close!” Babbidaz said, “Owwm! Eyowwm! Eyowwm! Very close! I can smell them from here; your children and the other one. They are alone! I don’t smell the creatures that attacked them.”
“Which means they must have escaped their captors.” Longstreet said, “Tricky little bastards, they always find a way! Well, I’m done playing Sinestri’s game.”
“Yes. Sinestri wanted me to kill them, true; but not quickly. It was important to him that I terrify them first of all.”
“So he could watch them die in horror and despair from wherever the hell he is, I suppose. I don’t know. I’ve never really known.” Longstreet said, “All of my hostility toward Mike and Callie came from his Malevolencia. I know this; but knowing changes nothing. It once burned in my veins like lava; giving me fury and purpose. Now it runs like cold syrup. It saps my strength and blunts my will. That’s why Sinestri had me bring you forth, I think; my usefulness to him is at an end.”
“What do you want me to do?” Babbidaz asked.
“No more games!” Longstreet said, “Go after them, Babbidaz! Kill them all, and bring me their shredded remains! I want to see their dead faces before darkness takes me.”
“As you wish.” Babbidaz said.
He changed into his true form, and disappeared into the woods; to follow what would be his master’s final command.

After what felt like an eternity of anxious waiting, the moment of crisis at last arrived.
Mike saw the Morrtog first, while it was still far off; it galloped on all fours in it’s true form, headed right for them.
“It comes alone.” Mike said, “Damn, it’s fast though.”
Mike held his hand behind his back, and created as concentrated a power sphere as he could muster. Small, but incredibly powerful; its color went from sparkling blue to a bright burning red.
Sekari. They are called sekari. The thought streaked across the sky of his mind, out of nowhere, like a forgotten memory.
Mike did not know where this information came from, but he was as sure of its truth as that of his own name. But now was not the time for such conundrums; he shook his mind free of the distraction, and focused on the pressing matter at hand.
“Here we go,” he said, “EAT THIS, BITCH!”
He flung the crimson sphere, the sekari, at Babbidaz. It crackled with energy and shrieked like a missile toward the Morrtog.
Babbidaz saw it, and tried to jump over it, but a second too late. The sekari hit him in the stomach, and the explosion at contact threw him backwards into a tree with such force, that the tree snapped in half. Both Babbidaz, and the broken half of the tree fell backward.
“YES!” Mike exulted.
The Morrtog writhed and doubled over in pain. His entire midsection was in searing, piercing, burning agony; and for a creature born in the burning lava hellworld of Xalix, that was saying something.
Why didn’t my idiot master tell me his children were magic users?! Babbidaz wondered. Now he would have to change tactics. Alright, let’s try this again, Babbidaz thought, and got back on his feet.
“Mike, he’s up again!” Jon said.
“Damn!” Mike replied, “Get ready!!”
 The Morrtog looked at them, smiled, and jumped; shooting up like a rocket and disappearing into the tree’s dense foliage.
“Uh oh.” said Mike.
“Do you see him?” Callie asked.
“Yeah, he’s moving toward us.” Mike said. He marveled at how sharp and clear his eyesight had become.
Mike sent into Callie’s mind an image of what he wanted her to do. Callie nodded.
“Okay…NOW!” Mike said.
Callie sent the stakes at her feet flying straight up at lethal speed into the tree cover above them, in a wide cone of dispersal. This worked too well, as the Morrtog fell from right above them, with a stake lodged deep in it’s thigh. The three managed to avoid getting crushed by the heavy mass that hit the ground with a painful “THUD”, but they were all knocked off balance and onto the ground; even as the stakes returning back to earth rained down all around them.
Babbidaz moved fast. He sat up, took the stake out of his thigh, and hurled it at Callie. The stake impaled her in the left shoulder, and Callie screamed in pain.
Jon, who had fallen closest to the Morrtog, reached for his spear; while Mike, who had fallen furthest from Babbidaz, sat up and sent a streamer of fire from his fingertips, direct to the Morrtog’s face. 
“CALLIE! JON! MOVE!!” he yelled, as he summoned a sekari into his free hand to slam into the Morrtog.
Before either could do any such thing, Babbidaz freed one of his hands from shielding his face, and viciously plunged its talons into Jon’s back.
Jon’s eyes rolled upward in their sockets, and his mouth opened in a silent scream Mike could hear in his mind, as Babbidaz picked him up and used him as a shield against Mike’s fire.
Mike stopped the fire.
Jon’s eyes closed and his head slumped forward.
“NOOO!” Callie screamed in fury.
Babbidaz turned his head to see her. She had the stake impaled in her shoulder fly out at him, and bury itself into his eye.
Babbidaz roared in pain. He dropped Jon face-down on the ground, grabbed the stake end, and yanked it out with a yowl.
It turned to attack Callie, but she had already rolled out of the way; and with a clear shot at last, Mike released his massive sekari, and blasted it at Babbidaz point blank.
This exploded Babbidaz upwards and backwards, and when he landed, Mike ran over to him, and did it again.
“DIE BASTARD! DIE!!” Mike shouted.
Babbidaz was sent flying into the air again.
As Mike continued to do this, Callie went to Jon; the intense throbbing pain from the flesh wound in her shoulder but an afterthought. She lifted the ripped and bloody back of his shirt, to survey the damage. She sensed that he was still alive, but fading fast.
Then she remembered something.
“MIKE!” she yelled, “COME HERE QUICK!!”
Mike stopped. He looked down at the Morrtog; it didn’t seem like it would be getting up any time soon. He ran back to Callie, already seeing what she had in mind.
She thinks I can heal Jon the way Sparo healed me, he thought, Who knows? Maybe I can. I don’t think I’ve reached yet the limits of my power.
“I know what you want.” Mike said, kneeling down beside Jon, “I don’t know if I can, but I’ll give it a shot.”
“He’s still alive, Mike.” Callie said, “You were dead when Sparo brought you back.”
“I’ll try, Cal.”
Mike focused his power into his hands. He allowed the energy to remain unintentioned; he merely gathered it together.
He then placed his hands on Jon’s wounds, and channeled the energy into them. When a green haze tinted his vision, he realized he was seeing the Voss Vedu’un with his eyes open. He could see it flutter with every thought, like a mist at the slightest breeze. He directed the energy to do its healing work, and the Voss Vedu’un obeyed.
After a moment, Mike removed his hands and saw the wounds start to close up.
The torn flesh sealed itself to its former unscarred appearance, as if nothing had ever happened to it.
Jon groaned and stirred.
“You did it!” Callie cried.
“Don’t sound too surprised.” Mike replied.
They helped Jon turn around and sit up.
He blinked his bleary eyes. “Was I just stabbed?” he asked, as Callie rained kisses on his face, still oblivious to her own bleeding wound.
“The Morrtog ripped up your back pretty bad.” Mike said.
“How am I alive then?” Jon asked.
“My whizbang Ma’jai powers.” Mike replied.
“Oh…” Jon said, “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” Mike said, “Ever.”
Jon then saw Callie’s wound. “Callie, what the hell?”
“What? Oh!” Callie said, remembering the bleeding, throbbing, hole in her shoulder, “Oh yeah. That does hurt a bit.” she said, and immediately fainted dead away.

She wasn’t out long, but when she came to, Mike had already healed her shoulder wound.
“Wake up sunshine.” he said.
“Aw damn, I fainted, didn’t I?” Callie asked, sheepishly, “I always swore to myself I’d never be a ‘fainty’ girl. Was I gone long?”
“Nah, you’re back just in time.” Mike said, as he and Jon grabbed her arms and helped her to her feet.
“In time for what?”
“Round two.” said Jon.
Callie followed his gaze. Some distance away, where Mike had left him, the Morrtog was slowly getting to it’s feet. It looked worse for the wear; but not quite enough. It brushed itself off, gave them a look with it’s good eye, and started galloping towards them on all fours.
“Are you ready?” Mike asked his sister.
The stakes that had fallen to the ground all around them levitated into the air, every one of them, and gathered themselves in front of her.
“Oh yes,” she said, “Let’s end this.”

Friday, March 11, 2011

Chapter 48


          After some time spent running, Mike, Callie, Jon, Edward, Tullam, and Bell stopped for a rest. They were all sweaty and heavily breathing. They collapsed to the ground in a semi-circle.
        “That was amazing what you did back there!” Tullam said to Mike, “How long have you had these powers?”
        “Oh, about fifteen minutes or so.” Mike replied.
        “What did you do to that Frellam?” Callie asked, “And since when do you speak Ugora?”
        “Did I mention I can read minds now?” Mike said, “Part of the Ma’jai Powers Expansion Pack, I suppose.”
        “It was more than that,” Callie said, “You…influenced his mind, right?”
        “Can you read ALL our minds?”
        “Can you also---“
        “Well!” Mike said, clapping his hands together, “I think it’s time for more running.”
        “Wait a minute, why are we running anyway?” Jon asked, “It isn’t like they’re going to follow us, not after the royal firebombing you just gave them, Mike; or the mental de-pantsing of poor Sinsak.”
        Edward reacted to that image with a bark of laughter.
        “Jon has a point, Mike.” Callie said, “The Frellam will be too busy licking their wounds to come after us again.”
        “But how much will their fear hold them back once their hunger returns?” Mike asked, “We have a reprieve, yes; but will it last?”
        “Well, the wagon’s totaled.” Edward said, “Unless your powers include instant automotive repair, it’s gonna be a helluva long walk to Cathim.”
        “How long would that take?” Callie asked.
        “I don’t know.” Mike shrugged, “Days.”
        “If the Frellam do decide to come after us again,” Callie said, “We could be in for a running battle all the way.”
        “Even if they don’t, the woods hold many dangers come nightfall.” Tullam said, “My people could help you make safe passage out of these woods, in gratitude for saving Bell and me from the Frellam pit.”
        “Where is your group right now?” Jon asked.
        “About ten miles north-east of here.” Tullam replied.
        “That’ll take forever.” Edward said.
        “Not for us.” Bell said, “Me and Tullam can get there faster, tree to tree.”
        “Good idea,” said Mike, “You two go find your group; we’ll meet you halfway, or as far as we can make it.”
        “Too bad you couldn’t just carry us.” Edward said, half-jokingly.
        “I could carry you, child.” Tullam said to Edward, “You’re short and light of weight; but your friends are too big for us to carry.”
        Could I?” Edward piped up. The thought of traveling the treetops with the Bufaaru sounded wondrous.
        “If Tullam says it’s okay, sure.” Jon said, “But it’s your decision, Edward; you don’t need our permission.”
        Edward looked back at Tullam.
Tullam nodded.
        “Maybe I shouldn’t…” he said, suddenly indecisive, “The last time we got split up was disastrous. I’d feel guilty if something happened to you guys while I was gone.”
        “Likewise.” Mike said.
        “It’s your call, Ed.” Callie added.
        Edward considered it.
        If there was no further Frellam attack, he would simply be saving himself a ten-mile hike through the woods, by going with Tullam and Bell. If he didn’t go, and there WAS another attack? Well, Mike could defend himself, Callie could defend herself, and Jon (even without benefit of magic powers) could defend himself. But he? He would have to be protected.
        Better to go with the Bufaaru, than stay and be in the way.
        “I’ve decided,” Edward said, “I’ll go with Tullam and Bell.”
        It was a decision they would all come to regret.

        “You probably won’t see us for awhile.” Jon said to Edward.
        “Cause you know, we aren’t gonna be running the whole way.” Callie said, “Maybe fast walking, but not running.”
        “We should get going.” Bell said, “The sooner we’re off, the sooner we get there.”
        “Right.” Tullam said, “Come on, Edward. It’s time.”
        Edward first went and gave a hug each to his three friends.
“Until we meet again, take care of yourselves.” he said.
“You too, Ed.” said Callie.
“Have fun!” Mike said.
“Catch you later.” said Jon.
Edward waved goodbye, then got on Tullam’s back, and wrapped his arms around his neck. “Are you sure I’m not too heavy?” he asked.
“You’re more bulky than heavy.” Tullam said, “You’ll slow me down a little, but not too much. Take it easy on my neck, though.”
Edward was carried aloft as Tullam and Bell clambored up the nearest tree with amazing speed and agility.
Once at limb level, they threw themselves at far limbs with a remarkable abandon. Hand to hand from limb to limb they swung; upward and upward, followed by a downward release into gravity’s arms, just in time to catch another limb and start the upward climb again. Edward held on tight, as Mike, Callie, and Jon got left further and further behind.

“Alright guys, let’s go.” Mike said.
“I hope they’ll be okay.” Callie said.
“They’ll be okay,” Jon said, putting an arm around Callie as they walked, “Tullam and Bell are in their element. It’s us I’m worried about."

For Edward, it was an exhilarating ride; especially whenever they hit a pocket of trees that were very tall. They would travel up into dizzying heights. Deadly heights, if one was not on the back of a Bufaaru. During these points, Edward would tighten his grip until Tullam made choking noises, as a none too subtle hint to loosen up.
But after a while, having to hold on to Tullam’s neck got to be a chore. Edward’s arms were getting stiff and achey.
So, it was to Edward’s relief when they finally arrived at the road where they had been attacked by the Frellam. This, they would have to cross on foot, as the gap between the trees on one side of the road and the other, were more than could be jumped; even by Bufaaru.
Tullam and Bell climbed down the tree near the side of the road, and walked toward the back end of the demolished station wagon.
“Is that what you and your friends came in?” Bell asked.
“Yes.” Edward said. He wiggled his arms at his sides as he walked, to get blood circulating in them again.
Suddenly, Tullam and Bell both jerked their heads toward the road behind the wagon. Their Bufaaru ears twitched.
“What is it?” Edward asked.
“A vehicle approaches.” said Tullam.
“Someone is coming.” Bell added.
Edward looked at the road from whence he and his friends had come. He heard the sound of an automobile engine; faint at first, but getting louder as it got closer. Then he saw it.
It was a car…coming in fast.
There was no doubt in Edward’s mind about who it was.
“Oh no!” he said, as his stomach went queasy with dread.
“What is it, Edward?” Bell asked.
“It’s Mike and Callie’s dad.” Edward replied, “Crap, we gotta go! WE GOTTA GO! NOW!!”
They ran into the woods to the left of the wagon; his agitation alone told Tullam and Bell not to waste time with questions. Edward got on Tullam’s back again. They zipped up the nearest tree and were on their way.
Even as they sped through the trees, Tullam could feel the anxiety in the deathgrip Edward had on his neck.
“Could you loosen the noose a little?” he asked.
“Sorry.” Edward replied, and softened his grasp a bit.
“Why do you still fear?” Tullam asked, “Surely that man cannot follow us up here.”
“Perhaps not,” Edward said, “But the farther and faster we are away from him, the better. BELIEVE me.”
Influenced by Edward’s palpable fear, Bell chanced a look back, and saw something that made her gasp.

When Charles Longstreet saw the three figures running towards the woods, he knew right then who the short one was; he had been with Mike and Callie when Charles had cornered them in Metromax City.
“Bring that child back to me alive! NOW!” he shouted.
Upon the command, Babbidaz sprung out of the open car window in a single fluid leap. Once out, he reverted to his true form; and bounded with great leopard-like strides to where the figures had fled.
He took to the trees with the skill of a Bufaaru, and sliced through them with a speed that rivaled their own.

“Tullam!” Bell cried, “Look!”
Tullam stopped, looked back, and saw a monstrous beast in the distance, moving toward them with alarming rapidity.
“What the hell is THAT?!”
“Oh shike!” said Edward, “It’s a Morrtog! Go faster!”
Tullam turned and started moving. Having no burden, Bell moved faster, and was now ahead of them. They entered an area of really tall trees, and started their ascent.
No longer able to see where the Morrtog was behind them, Edward feared feeling it’s talons at his back.
(Bubba Death can smell you!)
Could almost feel them.
(He's coming for you! You and your friends!)
He saw Bell, ahead of them, take a quick look back; and the look of horror that passed through her face said it all. Tullam, who was starting to heave with tiredness, saw Bell’s face too, and had to stop to see; as well as to take a quick breather.
He stopped on a large tree limb, and looked back.
The Morrtog (as Edward referred to it) was still back there, working it’s way to them; it had lost little ground.
Bell joined them on the limb.
“Edward, let go.” Tullam said.
Edward did as told. He looked over at the approaching Morrtog; it would reach them in a minute, if they didn’t start moving again.
“What are we doing?” Edward asked.
“I can’t outrace that thing with Edward on my back.” Tullam said to Bell, “He’s slowing me down and tiring me out.”
“What are you proposing?” Edward asked, nervous at where this conversation seemed to be heading.
“You take him, Bell. I’ll wait for the thing here, and try to distract it as long as I can.”
“WHAT?!” asked Edward, “Are you crazy?! That thing’ll rip you to shreds!“
“Tullam,” Bell pleaded, “The boy’s right! You can’t---“
“THIS ISN’T A DEBATE!” Tullam shouted, “TAKE HIM, WIFE!”
Bell gave Edward her back; Edward took hold.
She and Tullam exchanged a quick and passionate kiss, then Bell departed with Edward.
“This is nuts!” Edward said.
Once Bell and Edward were gone, Tullam grabbed a long thin branch from above him, and broke it off it's limb. He held it before him, like a staff.
The Morrtog came in fast. It had no intention of stopping; and it had no intention of letting Tullam live, either.
It had to die. It and it’s female.
On general principles, but mostly to satisfy his itch to ram his talons into something alive, and make it dead.
It extended it’s arm, to catch Tullam on the fly, and dispatch him without having to stop; but Tullam leapt at the last moment, and hit Babbidaz on the back of the head with the branch, on his way over him. Caught by surprise, the Morrtog missed the limb he had intended to catch. Instead he hit another one at his midsection, doubled over, and fell.
Alas, Babbidaz did not fall to his death.
He managed to take hold of the tree itself, with his taloned claws, and began to crawl up it with roach-like skill.
Tullam fell too, but caught a limb with his tail, and flipped himself around and up; landing on his feet upon the limb. He did this with such speed, that he turned in time to see the beast double over the tree limb, and fall; but did not see it catch on. He strained to see where it had fallen, but saw no body. He wanted to leave, and rejoin Bell and Edward, but he had to make sure the beast was dead.
He jumped around, from limb to limb, looking for him; but Babbidaz skipped and jumped with demonic skill, out of Tullam’s field of vision. Until the time was right.
“Where are you?!” Tullam hissed under his breath.
“Right here.” a voice said, from behind him.
Tullam had no chance to turn around. Babbidaz shoved his talons deep into his back. There came then the horrible sounds of tearing flesh as Babbidaz picked Tullam up, held him aloft, then tossed him overhead.
Tullam died all the way down.

At the exact moment of her husband’s death, Bell was granted full knowledge of its happening. A lifetime spent by his side in happiness and great pain accorded her this smidgen of mystic connection; it hit her like a psychic hammer to her heart, shattering it.
“TULLAM!” she cried out.
She stopped on a limb, and turned around. Tears streamed from her eyes, and she hung her head in grief. The beast was coming, she knew; but no longer cared. There was no outrunning the beast.
“Ummm…Bell?” Edward said.
“I know.” she replied, but moved not one inch.
Edward let go of her, and sat down on the tree limb.
“Go, Bell.” he said.
“I’ll let it take me.” Edward said, “It’ll have to let you go.”
“I can’t---“
“Yes you can!” Edward said, “Together we won’t make it. You know that. It's after ME anyway! Now hurry! There’s no time!”
She turned to go.
“I’m sorry, Edward.” she said, her back to him.
“I’m sorry too, Bell.” Edward said, “I’m sorry for everything. It’s all my fault.”
She took off.
Edward turned, and saw the Morrtog arrive. It had blood on it’s hand; Tullam’s blood. It stopped at Edward’s limb.
“Here I am.” said Edward.
“Such a brave child.” Babbidaz said, “And where, perhaps, is the charming female creature? My talon longs to rip her flesh!”
“Gone.” Edward replied.
“Oh, but I can still smell her! Owwm! Eyowwmm! Eyowwmm! She’s not far! I can still catch up to her! Owwm! Eyowwmm! Eyowwmm!
To Edward’s horror, the Morrtog started to go off after Bell.
Babbidaz stopped and turned around. “Yes! And I will come back for you, once I’m finished with her! After all…you’re not going anywhere!”
Edward was dumbstruck.
The Morrtog was right. If he tried to move from this spot, he would fall and die. At this height, he had nowhere to go. The Morrtog could go after Bell, kill her; then return at his leisure and retrieve him. Take him back to Papa Longstreet, where he would be made to betray Mike and Callie’s whereabouts. Then, of course, they would kill him. Worse, Longstreet might do to him what he did to Rak.
Edward had but one card left in his hand.
Was he strong enough to play it?
For the love of his friends…he found that he was indeed.
“HEY MORRTOG!!” he shouted as loud as he could.
Babbidaz turned around.
“CATCH ME!” Edward said, and pushed himself off the tree limb.
“NOOO!!” shouted Babbidaz, as Edward plummeted.
With astonishing speed, the Morrtog bounded back to the tree Edward had been on, and launched itself down after Edward, to catch him.
Edward fell a long time, or so it seemed to him. He turned as he fell, and at one point faced up to see the Morrtog, in free fall right above him; willing itself to reach him. Straining to do so. Then Edward’s body turned again, in time to see the ground rush up to meet him. His last thoughts were: I hope that stupid monster forgets himself and hits the ground after me!
No such luck. Babbidaz admitted defeat, and caught a stray vine, as gravity slammed Edward mercilessly into the ground.
Babbidaz slid down the vine, and walked over to where Edward had landed. He turned the body over; the boy’s eyes were open.
All thought of catching and killing the female Bufaaru left the Morrtog’s mind. The boy’s startling act of self-sacrifice had clearly been intended to buy her escape time.
Babbidaz was impressed. He wondered if Longstreet’s children had half the iron spine this child had just shown.
If so, their pursuit would be interesting.
With great respect, Babbidaz closed Edward’s eyes.
He picked up the body, and set off back to the road. He did not know if Longstreet would defile the boy’s memory by bringing him back with his polluted blood; but that was beyond his purview. He was a Morrtog, after all. His master’s wishes were law.