The Lost, the Found, and the Taken
The first rooftop they had to get to was almost level with theirs, only a floor or two lower; the problem was its distance. There was a large parking lot between the two buildings.
Mike, Callie and Jon linked arms, and Callie levitated them across. Although power-wise, this was no problem (thanks to Babbidaz); the concentration necessary to accomplish this was an exertion. Mike and Jon remained silent, so as not to distract her; nor did they make any unnecessary movement (not an easy task considering that every look down brought a massive dose of vertigo with it). Still, she flew them across the span at a considerable clip.
Once on the second rooftop, they looked back.
The Cathimites had not yet caught on to their escape. The three ran over to the opposite side, to see where the next jump would take them.
Another level rooftop, across another long span.
Again, Callie got them across.
Again they ran across to the other side to see the next building.
There was a problem with this one.
The next building was closer, but at least twice the size of the one they were on; its rooftop was not even visible to them.
“That one might take some doing.” Callie said.
“The hell with that.” Mike said, “Let’s just go through this one.”
He summoned a sekari into his right hand and launched it at the building, where it hit and shattered a window.
“Give me a few seconds, would ya?” Callie said, rubbing her head.
“Sure, Cal.” Mike said, “Take a breather.”
He and Jon walked back to the side they had just landed on to see if they could detect any change in the Cathimites. Although they could see the top of the building they had first entered, they could see one side of its body through the reflection off the tinted windows of another of the buildings on the other side of the street from it.
The Cathimites that were now about halfway up the sides of the building, were dropping off in droves, as if whatever magic that allowed them to defy gravity was being shut off in each of them from top to bottom. The cascading effect was almost beautiful.
“They know we’re not there anymore.” Mike said.
“And you were worried about hurting them.” Jon said with a smile.
They ran back and told Callie what they had just seen.
She got to her feet.
“Let’s go then.” she said.
The three linked arms and flew across to the next building; in through the broken window. To their surprise, the inside of this room looked clean and ready for business. It was a conference room, with a large table.
“It must have been closed up when the curse fell.” Callie said.
The door was indeed locked. They unlocked it and exited the conference room.
They entered the more familiar sight of violently overthrown offices and workrooms smeared with dried goo.
They made their way through the building, until they reached a corner office. One set of windows looked across the street; the other across to the next building on that line.
Jon and Callie looked through that one.
“Next jump’s a doozy.” Callie said.
“No need,” Mike replied, “We’re here.”
Callie and Jon walked over to the window Mike was looking through. From it, they could see that they were just about across from the hole; which still disgorged an unending supply of Cathimites, though they were flowing slower than they had been.
Mike used a sekari to break the window, then used a chair to cleaned out the shards.
“One more jump, then.” Callie said.
“Not for you two.” Mike said.
“I don’t have time to explain this. I have to go down there alone. It was a Ma’jai who did this, and only a Ma’jai can put it right. You guys have done your part, you got me here…now let me do mine.”
“What if something happens to you?” Callie said, “What if they kill you? What the hell do we do then?!”
“You can escape.” Mike said, “It isn’t you they’ve been after, it’s me. They sense somehow that I’m a Ma’jai, like the one that cursed them. They won’t go after you two.”
Escape to WHERE?! Callie wanted to exclaim, What about Sinestri?! she wanted to shout; but her arguments collapsed before she could compose them, and she understood then what was happening.
Mike had his sneaky mental Ma’jai fingers in her and Jon’s heads, instilling passive acceptance of his order; there was no time for any other tack. No time left to argue or debate, though that was what she wanted to do most at that moment; to argue him out of doing this alone. Already, though, she felt passive acceptance suffuse her mind.
“Send me over there, Callie.” Mike said.
He stepped out on the ledge. Callie and Jon followed.
“You better not die,” Callie said, “Or I swear I’m gonna kill your ass.”
Callie floated Mike off the ledge and toward the street. The sudden speed and the vertigo of it made his stomach lurch, but he retained control of his innards. The flight had a downward trajectory, and once he was over the massive hole in the heart of Cathim, he looked down.
The hole was alive with a moving mantle of Cathimites. As he flew over them, they all raised their head-like protuberances, and followed him as if they had eyes.
Then, they began to squeal en masse, and changed the direction of their movement.
Hurry it up, Cal! Mike thought, but didn’t send the thought to Callie; as it might disturb her concentration. He doubted being dropped bodily into the hole would be good for anyone; least of all him. He was moving fast enough, though it didn’t seem so at the moment.
At last he cleared the hole, and was set down some distance beyond it. There was the usual momentary weirdness of getting his legs to accept the weight of his body again, but he reasserted his balance quick enough.
Not a moment too soon, as the Cathimites now poured out of his side of the hole, and surged toward him like a dark tide.
“Okay…” Mike muttered under his breath, “Now what?”
From their perch in the building, Callie and Jon looked over at the scene unfolding below; Mike, a single solitary figure, about to be overrun by an army of Cathimites.
“What’s he going to do?” Jon asked.
“I don’t know,” said Callie, “And neither does he.”
Michael Longstreet stood before the storm; eyes closed.
Like a pilot flying over a dark fog, he searched the landscape of his memory, looking for a flicker of light to lead him home. He remembered Jon telling him, after the bridge incident, that the answer to Cathim’s problem might just lie within him. He believed this to be true, so he rifled through his own mind and memories, looking for something---anything---that might reveal the answer.
And there it was.
A golden key hidden in plain sight.
A single word.
Hiding in his memory where Rufus Kantry had placed it, when he broke the spell Sinestri had put on them in the Rough Country. That was why bright green sparks had flowed from his hands; it was overkill. The Word of Power he had used was a lot more than what was necessary for the task of breaking that particular spell.
It wasn’t for that spell: it was for this curse.
Kantry had known somehow that Mike would come to this point, and had left a Word of Power lodged in his memory like a time-bomb; harmless and forgotten until the right moment.
At the time, the Word was gibberish to Mike’s ears; but now that he had come into his Ma’jai powers, the word, now recalled, glowed and throbbed in his head like a living thing. The Voss Vedu’un itself, shuddered in anticipation of its utterance.
Mike opened his eyes.
The Cathimites were almost upon him. The span of time between the closing of his eyes and the opening of them had been mere seconds; but the Cathimites had not dallied in the interim. Mike raised his arms and sucked in breath at the same time as he summoned the Word of Power from out of his memory, and into his voice.
At the top of his lungs, he shouted: “ABRESIIM!”
The Word took hold of Mike’s vocal cords and boomed out of his mouth as through a megaphone. Its effect was like an electric current. The Cathimites stopped dead in their tracks, and writhed and convulsed as if being shocked with high voltage.
The Word also affected Mike. Its power flowed through him, using him as a conduit; and like any channeled force, it expanded the parameters of the conduit. Latent talents unfurled within him. The ancient language of the Ma’jai, Vaunto, unspooled in his mind like a vast parchment. The other Words of Power made themselves known to him. They were not Vaunto, but scraps of an older and more powerful language from which Vaunto was derived.
He had the curse where he wanted it.
Now he had to break its back.
“PEL VRAS MAALA’NA,” he cried out, “JAO’AN NIE E’YEUG VRAS ZEUXIS UROEN ZABUL AMISON! OGUNDO!”
Each word shook the Cathimites with more violence than the last; and the final word sent them into merciless paroxysms. The shiny black stuff on them dulled, and then cracked like parched land during a drought. Each Cathimite seemed to expand, then burst into flame; but it was the black tar stuff that combusted off of them. What was left behind was an unconscious man, woman, or child, lying on the ground. They still had the clothes they had been wearing eleven years ago when Sinestri had cursed them.
The strain on Mike throughout all this had been tremendous. The power he had channeled had taken its toll.
He looked over at the citizens of Cathim.
“There,” he said, “Done.”
He then collapsed onto the ground alongside the others.
Witnessed from the ledge of a broken window, on the building they were still on; the preceding events had passed quickly for Callie and Jon.
The small, far-off figure of Mike had stood, about to be stampeded to death by wave after wave of rushing Cathimites. He had raised his arms, and said something.
The word had been spoken loud enough somehow, to be heard clearly by Callie and Jon; though it meant nothing to them. But its effect on the Cathimites had been miraculous.
They had stopped. One would think that, at their speed and oiliness, they would have slipped and slided a bit; but they didn’t. They shook and shuddered like worms with their tails pinned to a table.
Mike then spoke some gibberish (at least to Callie and Jon it was gibberish), and that seemed to batter the Cathimites even more. At the final word of his chant, a ring of bright light sprang out of Mike, and passed over the whole city. This caused the tarry gunk to blow up like fireworks; not only on the Cathimites, but on the streets and cars and buildings---even in the room in which Jon and Callie stood.
What was left behind were the people, as they looked the day the curse took them. The curse had transformed them, but it had also kept them hermetically sealed.
Then Mike had collapsed.
“Mike!” cried Callie, and flew down to him upon the instant; forgetting Jon and leaving him behind, and alone, in the building.
Jon considered calling after her, but decided against it. Better to let her go to her brother and see if he was okay. She would remember him sooner or later, and come to get him. If not, he could always find the stairs and get down there on foot; now that the crisis was over.
So Jon relaxed; content to stand there on the window ledge, look down upon the incredible scene below him, and take it all in.
Oblivious to the dark figure closing in behind him.
Callie reached her brother and found, to her relief, that he was alive and well; merely unconscious.
A sound behind her startled her, and she turned to see the citizens of Cathim waking up.
“Oh! Dearest Gloeis! It’s over!” a balding man in a white shirt said, “What a nightmare! Was it just me?”
Similar statements were spoken as more and more Cathimites awoke. All of them expressed shock in discovering that they had not been alone in the experience. Not only that others had gone through it, but that the entire city had, as well.
They all seemed to crowd around Callie, as if she could supply answers. Well, she could…a little.
“What happened to us? WHAT HAPPENED?!” the chorus went.
“An evil Ma’jai put a curse on you. ALL of you.” Callie said to the thickening multitude.
“Curse?” the crowd murmured, “CURSE?!”
“Damned Ma’jai!” someone shouted, “Nothing but trouble. They should be shot! ALL magic-makers should be taken out and SHOT!!”
The crowd murmured some more.
“It was a Ma’jai who saved you!” Callie said, pointing to Mike, “MY BROTHER broke the curse, and saved all your asses! And it wasn’t easy, as you can see!”
Again, the crowd murmured, but they were interrupted by screams coming from the hole; there were still people in there, and countless more underground. Many of the growing crowd ran to help them, but most remained with Callie.
“Why would anyone curse us?” someone asked.
“I don’t know.” Callie answered.
“Young lady,” the balding man in the white shirt said, “How long have we been out?”
Callie hesitated, and then said, “Eleven years.”
Dropped jaws and gasps met this information; many refused to believe it, many wept bitter tears. These reactions expanded outward, as the news spread out through the teeming multitudes.
“Eleven years?! I had a LIFE!” someone cried, “I had THINGS TO DO! PLACES TO GO! I HAD A LIFE DAMMIT!!”
“MY CHILDREN!” a young woman in her late twenties yelled, “WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN? WHERE’S MY HUSBAND?”
She was not the only one shouting; others shouted out for lost children and parents and siblings and friends. Amongst the crowd wandered children, alone and scared; the younger ones shrieked for their mamas. Although she couldn’t see any offhand, Callie knew that somewhere there had to be babies. Could they have survived the process of being cursed, then uncursed? The thought of it boiled her blood.
She posed a question to the balding man, as the others were still reacting to the news that they had, in effect, taken an eleven year nap.
“What did it feel like?” she asked him.
“Terrible stomach pain, at first.” he said, “Like some kind of gastric attack. Everything went dark, though the pain remained. Terrible feeling of suffocation, like my mouth and nose were full of mush. After an endless interval of that, the pain was gone, and it felt like…” he scratched his bald head, looking for a proper description, “It’s like when you’re sick and feverish. When you sleep sick like that, your dreams aren’t regular dreams, at least mine aren’t; they’re broken and in pieces. It’s like being insane. A flood of meaningless images you can’t escape until you wake up; only this time, I couldn’t wake up! Until now, that is. Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” said Callie, “Everyone else is.”
“What the hell have we been doing for eleven years? And how did we all end up here?”
“Perhaps I can help with that.” a voice from behind Callie said.
It was Mike; he had awoken.
“Mike!” said Callie, “Are you okay?”
“Slightly brain-fried, but mostly okay.” he said.
“So this is the Ma’jai who freed us.” the balding man said, and shook Mike’s hand, “Ted Macwadden, great to meet you.”
“Michael Longstreet. This here’s my sister Callie.” Mike said.
The crowd around them had not dispersed. Some talked amongst themselves, some listened, eavesdropped on the conversation, and passed on the information to those further away from the epicenter of interest.
“I can answer your question,” Mike said; to Ted in specific, but also to the folks surrounding them, “But not with words.”
Into as many minds as he could, he sent an image of the Cathamites in their former state, flowing out of their hole. Some gasped at the image, most cried out at having foreign thoughts brought into their minds.
“Good Gloeis!!” said Ted.
“I can’t do that for everybody, so those of you who got it will have to describe it to the others.” Mike said out loud.
“Michael? Callie?” a voice in the crowd called out, having just received that piece of information, “LONGSTREET?!”
Callie recognized the voice as that of the woman crying out for her children and husband moments earlier.
“MICHAEL! CALLIE!” the woman’s voice moved closer and closer.
The multitudes then parted between the woman and Mike and Callie, in a manner almost slow-motion and dreamlike; as if Fate had parted them with an invisible hand. As if the crowd understood intuitively that this was a moment Meant To Be.
“Who’s that?” Callie asked.
“It’s Mom.” Mike said.
She looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties. She had green eyes and long black hair like Callie, pulled back into a ponytail. In fact, she sort of looked like a grown-up version of Callie.
She ran to them, and when she reached them, she stopped and looked at them; shaking her head, unable to understand.
In her mother’s heart, she knew it was her children; but only what seemed like yesterday ago, Michael had been five years old, and Callie three. She had expected to find them unchanged, like her.
She had expected to find her babies.
“H-How?! When?! How!?!” she stammered.
So many questions, and she wanted to ask them all at once.
“We weren’t here when it happened, Mom.” Mike said, astounded at being able to speak with his mother, a dream long denied, “Dad took us away before it happened; before the curse. Eleven years did not pass for you, but it passed for us.”
Elizabeth Shale Longstreet put her hands on the cheeks of her children. “My babies,” she said, tears running down her face, “All grown up.”
The three of them hugged then and there.
Elizabeth and Callie cried. Mike, despite his best efforts, did as well.
When they separated, their faces were blurry and red. The mass of people around them moved back, and gave them their privacy. They disassembled as a large mass, and reassembled into smaller clumps.
“I can remember it so clearly,” Elizabeth said, “How it happened. It’s still so fresh, in my mind. Like it just happened an hour ago.”
“Tell us.” said Callie.
“I woke up late that morning, which is strange because I’ve always been an early-riser; my parents were like that too. When I saw that it was nine o’clock, I just about fell out of bed! It felt like someone had drugged me, I was all sluggish. I went to your room, but neither of you were there. I got scared and called Charley, but he wasn’t there either. I went into a panic, going from room to room, looking for you.
“Then, this awful-looking man appeared out of nowhere. He looked like a wizard or something, and his eyes were terrible! He had this triumphant look on his face like someone who’s about to do something they’ve been dreaming about for years and years.
“He said: ‘My vengeance is upon you, descendant of Threed, and this city that has hidden you and those before you from me for so long! In the name of Hissig Shiffat, I wreak my curse upon you all!’
“Then he began to speak in some language; it sounded like gibberish to me. Of course, I would have run off at the first syllable from his mouth, except that I couldn’t. I was frozen to the spot! Then the awful pain began, and what came after.”
Suddenly, at that moment, a black-sleeved and bloody hand appeared from behind Elizabeth, and placed a blood-smeared knife against her neck.
It was the very same knife that had been used to corrupt Charles Longstreet eleven years ago. The blood on it drew a red line across their mother’s neck, like a marker for surgery.
Callie shrieked and jumped back a step at the suddenness of the hand’s appearance; and now, stepping out from behind their mother, but with knife still held at her throat, came Araboam Sinestri.
“I hope I am not interrupting a private discussion.” Sinestri said, his voice a deep baritone.
He didn’t seem to have changed much, from when their father had met him; and he still dressed in a black sorcerer’s cloak, though there were dark stains on it here and there.
“It’s YOU!!!” Elizabeth screamed, but did not move lest the sharp blade flick and take out an artery, “THIS IS THE ONE WHO DID THIS TO US!!” she yelled at the top of her lungs.
The crowd murmured, and began to close in.
“Now, now,” Sinestri addressed the crowd, “This is a private matter and none of your business. What was done to you once, can be done again.”
The threat sunk into the crowd, and they drew back.
“You will shush now, lady,” he cooed, “If you value your life. I have pressing business with your children.”
Sinestri pressed the blade tighter to Elizabeth’s neck, to underscore his instruction. The blade’s sharpness now tasted a bit of Elizabeth’s blood. She squealed a little, but controlled herself into silence.
Mike realized then that the dark stains on Sinestri’s cloak were blood stains, and fresh. But who’s blood…?
“I must say, young Ma’jai,” Sinestri said, “You have impressed me with the way you’ve dealt with these matters. You as well, little witch. But playtime is over children, and your dark roads are nearing their destination.”
“What do you want with us?!” Mike asked, “What did we ever do to you?! Why did you curse these people?!”
“Why did you ruin our father?” Callie added, “Ruin our lives?”
“What do you want with our mother?!” Mike continued, “What is all this ALL ABOUT?!”
“Excellent questions, but the answers are not here.” Sinestri said.
With a circular gesture from his free hand, a rift in reality opened beside him, and expanded into a door-sized hole large enough to jump through. An aqua-colored void awaited beyond the rift.
Some of the people of Cathim marveled, some screamed; but all backed away even further. None of them wanted anything to do with this; they’d all had more than enough of magic for a lifetime. This didn’t mean they weren’t interested in watching.
“If you want answers…” Sinestri said, “If you want her back…” he jerked his head toward his hostage, “You’ll have to follow me.”
Mike called a sekari into his hand.
“You’re not taking her ANYWHERE!” he said.
“Vlah norati,” he sneered, “Fah zann ey ushi Ma’jai!”
“Krollok guna!” Mike shot back, “I’ll do it!”
“But if you do, you’ll miss out on the surprise!” Sinestri said.
“What surprise?” Callie asked. She didn’t like where this was going, and a growing feeling of having forgotten something was gnawing at her.
“The small gift I left for you in yon building.” Sinestri said, and pointed to the building where Callie had left Jon.
Now at last, Callie remembered what she had forgotten; and a terrible possibility froze her blood.
Without preamble, she flew towards the building; astounding the hell out of some of the people in the bargain.
Mike, slow to realize the implication of Sinestri’s words until he saw it in his sister’s mind, turned to stop her, to warn her that it might be a trap; but she was gone.
In Mike’s distraction, Sinestri grabbed Elizabeth, who shrieked, and the two disappeared into the rift.
Mike turned back to see the rift begin to seal itself up quickly. He stretched out his hand, and willed the rift to remain open.
Then, he heard Callie scream.
“Please be alright! Please be alright! PLEASE BE ALRIGHT!” Callie repeated again and again, like a mantra, all the way to the window ledge.
“JON?” she called out upon getting there, “Jon, PLEASE be there!”
Callie stepped into the room, to see that Jon was indeed there.
Jon was EVERYWHERE.
Jon was in one corner, in a little pile. Jon was in another corner. Jon was smeared on the wall, on the floor, on a desk, even on the ceiling, hung like office decorations.
Sinestri had made damn sure Mike would not be able to bring him back this time. Nor ever again.
It occurred to Callie in that moment, that she would never be able to remember Jon: his beautiful eyes, his darling smile, his goofy wit; without the memory being sullied by the horrific image before her. All she would ever have of him now was memory; and not even that.
She sceamed and screamed and SCREAMED.
Then, when she was done screaming, she spoke a single word.
“Sinestri!” she hissed, with enough venom and fury to peel the paint off the room.
Callie, I’m so sorry about Jon! Mike spoke in her mind, But we can’t let that bastard Sinestri get away! Get back down here, or I’ll have to go after him by myself.
“I’m sorry, hon.” she said to the mess that was once Jon, “It was my fault. I shouldn’t have forgotten you. Shouldn’t have left you alone. We’re gonna get that sonofabitch Sinestri, and make him pay, I promise you.”
Tears coursing down her face, she turned and went to the window ledge where her Jon had stood, alive and well, not moments ago.
“Goodbye, my love.” she said, “Goodbye.”
She flew down to where Mike waited.
“Are you ready for this?” Mike asked.
He was holding the rift open somehow, with an outstretched hand, fingers forward.
“Let’s go.” Callie said. Her face was wet, but her eyes were set.
For the first time since they met Rak in Metromax City, it was just the two of them again; on their own.
Arm in arm, they jumped into the other side; and the rift sealed itself shut behind them.