Shadows Present, Shadows Past
Mike was dreaming.
In his dream he saw a great battle; a battle of Ma’jai against Ma’jai.
It took place in a stone valley surrounded by grey mountains; a vast and lifeless basin at the center of which stood the ruins of a long-abandoned temple carved out of the rock. There was an evil aspect to the place that suggested that the temple was once used for the worship of unspeakable gods.
Fireballs and sekari were hurled and deflected; wild animal were controlled like puppets and set against each other and enemy combatants. Some Ma’jai tossed glowing packets of earth and seeds, which upon hitting the ground exploded forth ferocious beasts made of vegetation. Some threw vials that flashed brightly upon impact, and blinded their enemies. Some threw explosive concoctions half practical, half magical. Others merely engaged one on one, sekari to sekari.
Mike recognized two faces in the battle. The first one was a young Rufus Kantry. The other he saw later, and almost didn’t recognize him: an even younger Araboam Sinestri.
Though they weren’t fighting each other specifically, Mike could tell they were on opposite sides of the fight.
Kantry’s side was trying to stop some black-cloaked sorcerer types from performing a ritual within a circle of stylized pillars in the center of the temple ruins. Sinestri’s side was in their way, protecting the sorcerers.
After an interval of deadlock, a tipping point in the battle was reached, and Kantry’s group began to overtake Sinestri’s (although Mike lost track of Sinestri in the chaotic fray).
Sinestri’s side started to fall apart, and the battle became a massacre, as Kantry’s brigade wiped out their opponents; however, before they could take out the sorcerers…the ritual was completed.
A massive tear in the fabric of reality appeared within the circle of pillars, announced by a thunderous crashing roar like that of giant boulders rolling down a mountainside. The tear expanded without warning, and consumed both the pillars, and the sorcerers that had conjured it; along with the bodies of the dead that had fallen close by.
Out of that black hole poured forth a putrid, yet material, darkness that polluted the Voss Vedu’un, like filth discharged into a pristine river.
It was darkest magic in its purest form.
Behind it followed a swarm of hideous monsters; all mouths and fangs, with red, raw, and asymmetrical slits that passed for eyes. These tore and gnawed at the edges of the hole, forcing its further expansion.
Kantry’s battle-weary group now took on the monsters; firebombing them off the edges of the rift. Half the monsters broke off to take on the Ma’jai, while the others remained on the job.
“BEAT THEM BACK!” Mike could hear someone yelling, “RASHAS TO THE OPENING! WE HAVE TO CLOSE THE RIFT BEFORE IT COMES THROUGH! EVERYONE ELSE, TAKE OUT THOSE THINGS! BEAT THEM BACK!”
The voice belonged to the leader of the Ma’jai; and those he referred to as Rashas seemed to be an honor guard or something. They were dressed finer than the others, and their position in the front lines of the battle suggested they were perhaps the most powerful Ma’jai of the group. Rufus Kantry was among their number.
Their leader was tall, dashing, and charismatic; the fierceness of his green eyes would put Callie’s to shame, in comparison.
The Rashas now worked on sealing the rift, while the rest of the remaining Ma’jai took on the monsters.
Then, from beyond the palpable darkness of the rift, Mike saw two great cyclopean eyes open; insane alien eyes, evil beyond description. Mike screamed with a soul-shattering fright almost beyond endurance. Screamed to wake or die; anything, rather than to look upon the owner of those horrible awful eyes! Eyes that grew larger as they approached the rift.
“MIKE!! WAKE UP!!”
Someone shook him to wakefulness. It was Callie.
Mike never loved his sister more than at that moment; when her voice and hands saved him from the dreadful vision.
He was sweating, and his heart hammered in his chest faster than he thought possible.
“Are you okay?” Callie asked, concerned. She had crossed over to the backseats to awaken him. “Another nightmare?” she asked.
“No.” Mike said, in gasps; he was still having trouble getting his breath, “No nightmare that bad ever. It was a vision.”
He noticed that the car was not moving. Jon had stopped the car, and was looking at them from the driver’s seat.
“A vision of what?” he asked.
“Something horrible from the past.” Mike replied.
“Well, show us.” Callie said.
Mike sent into their minds a replay of the dream, from start to finish, as best as he could remember; though already, certain details had started to evaporate to where forgotten dreams go. When they got to the part about the infernal eyes, though it was but a paltry recollection of the image, with only a fraction of the power of the original; it was strong enough still that both Jon and Callie were taken aback. Jon with a shout, Callie with a squeal of terror; both shuddered and paled.
“Damn!” Jon said, “I’m sorry I asked!”
“No wonder you screamed.” Callie said.
“Tell him what he said, Callie.” Jon said.
“I said something?” Mike asked.
“Right before you screamed.” Jon said.
“What did I say?”
“You said ‘Shadaro’, or something like that.” Callie replied.
“Shadaro?” Mike asked.
Something about the word felt familiar, but it also sounded wrong.
“Best guess.” Callie said, “It went by so fast, we can’t be sure.”
“That might be the thing’s name.” Mike said, “And whatever IT is, I think that it’s the true source of Malevolencia, not Sinestri.”
“So, what does that make Sinestri?” Jon asked, “A servant of this Shadaro?”
“I don’t know,” Mike said, “But it was his group that summoned it.”
“A more important question is,” Jon continued, “Is this Shadaro something we’re gonna hafta face somewhere down the road? Because if it is, I’m gonna hafta depart this happy troupe right here and now, cause there is no way I’m gonna wanna face THAT. Ever.”
“I don’t think so.” Mike said, “It was clearly an image from long ago. If Rufus and his group had failed to seal the rift before IT got through…believe me, the history of the world as we know it would’ve been a whole lot different; and not in a good way.”
“Well that’s good,” said Jon, “I was beginning to get nervous.”
Feeling a little calmer now, Mike looked out the window and noticed the afternoon cast to the daylight. The last thing Mike remembered before falling asleep was switching driving duties with Jon, and eating a late lunch in the backseats alone.
“How long did I sleep?” he asked.
“Three hours or so.” Callie said, as she climbed back to the front passenger seat.
“It was less a nap, than a coma.” Jon said with a laugh, “That battle with Babbadabba, or whatever the hell it’s name was, must have wore you out more than you knew.”
“I don’t remember feeling worn out.” Mike said.
Then again, he had been channeling so much Voss Vedu’un energy through his body, it was possible that he had somehow fried its ability to transmit feelings of tiredness. Perhaps his body had kept on going until taking the first opportunity shown it to shut down and recuperate.
“Well,” Mike said, “I’ll have to remember to pace myself better, from here on out.”
“Pace yourself later,” Jon said, “I’m tired of driving.”
An hour into Mike’s shift, as the three enjoyed a supper of sandwiches and sodas, the Vawx Woods dwindled away, and were replaced with what appeared to be ghost towns. Abandoned buildings, empty homes, overrun lawns, and silent, unlit streets greeted them at every turn.
“Were these towns cursed too?” Callie asked.
“I don’t think so,” said Mike, “I think after Cathim got cursed, these towns just dried up. They must have felt isolated; between a cursed city on one side, and the wilderness we just passed on the other.”
“Don’t forget Murgent.” Jon added, “After Cathim and then Murgent got screwed over, they must’ve felt like they were next.”
They continued onward.
As the sun undertook the final leg of its descent, the first hazy spires of Cathim could be seen in the distance; unlit and lifeless.
For the next hour, as darkness fell, the three talked to keep a growing sense of uneasiness at bay. They talked of Edward, of their battle with Babbidaz, of what might await them when they reached Cathim.
When darkness in its totality at last cloaked everything around them, Callie turned on all the interior car lights; making them feel like a tiny bubble of light and warmth, in a cold and dark world.
Then, as they knew it would, the car ran out of gas.
Their vehicle came to a shuddering stop, and left them in the dead center of an intersection.
“Well, that’s that.” Mike said.
“What do we do now?” Callie asked; she looked out the windows at the forbidding landscape around them.
“It’s too dark to undertake anything now,” Mike said, “I say we call it a night. We can start walking to Cathim tomorrow.”
“Sleep in the car?” Callie asked.
“Well yeah, hon,” Jon said, “Unless you want to go look over some of those nice empty houses in the dark…”
“Umm, no thanks.”
“The car it is then.” Jon said, “There’s gonna be some space issues, though. This car is kinda small, compared to the wagon.”
“That’s a problem you two are gonna have to work out between yourselves.” Mike said, raising the cup holder/auxiliary compartment in the middle of the front seats, up into its recess, “I got the front seats!”
With Mike taking the front seats, Callie and Jon had to work out how they were going to divide their space in back. As much as they might have liked to share the backseats; they were simply not wide enough for the both of them, so Jon had to lie on the floor of the car with a strategic placing of blankets, bags, and pillows, to even out the low parts with the hump in the middle. Callie shared her covering blanket with him, though.
They turned off the interior lights, locked their doors, and settled down for the night.
“G’night, Mike.” said Callie.
“G’night Callie.” said Mike.
“G’night Callie.” said Jon.
“G’night Jon.” said Callie.
“G’night Mike.” said Jon.
“Oh, just shut it already.” said Mike.
Callie and Jon snickered in the dark.
Sleep did not come easy to any of them. Aside from the discomfort of sleeping in a car, they were surrounded by a dark dead world outside that, despite its emptiness, still emanated threat and menace.
They kept their eyes at the windows, lest some tenebrous force should attack.
Still, weariness took its toll, and the three eventually, one by one, fell into a deep sleep.
The fierce glowing eyes of Araboam Sinestri appeared in mid-air outside the car, and looked inside at the sleepers.
Soon, children, Sinestri thought to himself, Oh, so soon…
Callie and Jon awoke the next morning to find that Mike was not inside the car. They got out and found him sitting on the roof of the car, looking towards Cathim. That city’s visible towers seemed to float on a cloud of haze.
“How long have you been up?” Jon asked.
“Not long.” Mike said, “Woke up early, couldn’t get a wink after. Too much thinking about things I don’t understand and can’t control. So I got out and sat up here, to clear my head.”
“Too bad,” Callie said, “It was half-empty already.”
Jon snorted with laughter.
Mike ignored the jibe. He turned and slipped off the car to join them. He pointed to Cathim’s towers. “By the look of that, how far do you think Cathim is?” he asked Jon.
“Walking?” Jon asked.
“Unless you can fly.”
“Uhhh---I don’t know.” Jon replied, “It’s hard to say, the haze is really funky; it makes judging distances difficult.”
Mike nodded. “I’m having the same problem, even with my Ma’jai-enhanced vision. That haze is screwy.”
“But what is it?” asked Callie, “It doesn’t look…natural.”
“Well, we damn well know it’s not natural.” Jon said, “The million-dollar question is: is it dangerous?”
“We’ll just have to find out when we get there.” Mike said.
“Are we really gonna hafta walk?” Callie asked.
“I'm afraid so, Cal.” Mike said, “I don’t think I’ve seen a single viable vehicle since we left the woods.”
“We’ll have to pack light.” Jon said, “Anything we carry will feel like three tons after several hours of walking; I speak from experience.”
“We have to carry food, though,” Callie added, “Have you two taken a gander at any of the store-fronts we passed along the way? Nothing but empty shelves. The people who lived here might have left---but they took the time to take everything useful with them.”
Mike nodded, “Alright then, we take as much food as we can, no blankets or pillows or extra clothes to bulk us up.”
“I brought a duffel bag and a backpack with me from Metromax,” Jon said, “We can fill those with what’s left of the dry foods. One of us can carry the little ice chest with the more perishable stuff.”
“What about the sodas?” Callie asked, “We can’t lug the big ice chest around, it’ll slow us down too much.”
“We can put some in a plastic bag and carry it.” Mike said.
“Looks like a plan.” Jon said.
“Fantastic,” said Callie, “Now let’s eat. I’m hungry.”
They ate a quick breakfast, and then were ready to go.
Mike carried the small chest with the foil-wrapped sandwiches, burgers, and hot dogs in it; Jon wore his backpack and carried his duffel bag (both loaded with goodies); and Callie carried the plastic bag (double-bagged, for safety) with the sodas.
They started walking.