The second half of the Galapansky Bridge, unlike the previous, was strewn with vehicles. There was evidence of violent crashes, here and there; more than a few cars had broken through the side rails, and had either fallen into the river, or were protruding outward in a dangerous fashion.
It was like a maze. They made their way around this mess at a slow but steady rate. When they reached an impasse, the three would clamber over the obstructing car to the next open path, then Callie would lift the shopping cart with her power, and bring it to rest in front of Mike (whose turn it was to haul it around).
Most of the vehicles (those whose doors weren’t open), had either broken windows, or windshields, with black tarry stuff caught at the edges of the shattered glass; inside, the seats were inevitably stained and smeared with more of the same.
“You know this didn’t end well.” Mike said, as he looked through the broken windows.
“You think any of these vehicles might be usable?” Jon asked.
He had not failed to notice that most, if not all, of the cars still had their keys hanging from their ignition switches.
“After eleven years?” Mike asked, “I doubt it.”
“But not everyone in this city was in their cars when the curse hit,” Callie said, “There should be a lot of parked cars in good shape, don’t you think? How long can a car battery lie unused before it becomes useless? Or gas, for that matter?”
“I have no idea.” Mike answered, “It doesn’t matter anyway. The city’s streets are probably just like this, so driving isn’t likely in the cards.”
They continued on.
When Jon began his shift with the cart, they had finally gotten to the end of the bridge. Cathim lay ahead; already half clear of the rapidly disappearing haze.
“We should stop here and rest a bit, before we go on.” Mike said, “Give the Voss Vedu’un a chance to finish its work.”
“Well, if we’re gonna stop here, let’s go ahead and eat something.” Callie said, “I’m hungry and we might not get the chance later.”
Jon nodded in agreement, so they got their food out of the cart, sat on the hood of a car a few feet from Cathim’s threshold, and ate; not knowing that this would be the last time the three of them would share a meal together as a group.
“We should leave the cart here.” Mike said, when they had finished, “It’s become a liability, and is slowing us down. Let’s just stuff everything we have left in the backpack, and take turns carrying that.”
“It was gonna be my turn next with the cart,” Jon said, “So I guess I’ll carry the backpack around for awhile.”
They proceeded to transfer their remaining supplies to Jon’s backpack. Jon slung the heavy pack over his shoulder, and ran his arms in through its straps.
“Ready to go.” he said.
“We can leave the chest and the duffel bag with the cart.” Callie said, “They’re just dead weight now, anyway.”
They walked over the threshold into Cathim.
“From this point on,” Mike said, “Things are likely to get a little weird.”
“Which should be a nice change of pace.” Jon replied.
“Less talky, more walky!” Callie said.
They entered the city.
Massive vehicular asymmetry greeted them on the streets of Cathim. Cars of all kinds were rammed against each other on the road in jagged diagonals. In places, they had been knocked over on their sides; victims of wrecks, sideswipes, and cascading pile-ups. More than a few cars had gone off the road altogether, and had rammed into buildings. Evidence of long-ago fires were scattered everywhere.
The damage stretched as far as they could see.
The three quit trying to negotiate the road, and instead climbed, and started hopping from car to car; which was easier.
“The Domino Effect was not these people’s friend.” Callie said, as she transferred from one car hood to another.
“Looks like the curse hit during rush hour.” Mike said, “Whether morning or evening is anyone’s guess.”
“Has anyone seen any bodies?” Jon asked, “Curse or not, a lot of catastrophic events happened here; crashes and fires. Some people had to have died before their transformation was complete.”
“I don’t think death was an option for these people.” Callie said, “If we learned anything from our experiences in Murgent; it’s that a powerful spell can hold back death.”
“That would explain the absence of bodies,” said Mike, “But that only leaves us with another question: where are the transformed peoples of Cathim now? I sure as hell don’t see ‘em; the place looks empty.”
Neither Callie nor Jon could answer that.
Mike himself didn’t know…but he had a hunch.
Since entering Cathim, a growing sense of déjà vu had settled over him. Not so much a feeling that he had been here before, as much as a feeling that he had done this before.
How this could be, escaped him at the moment; but revelation was dancing on the tip of his mind, awaiting its moment to arrive.
Empty skyscrapers like vast grey monoliths, surrounded them.
Not for the first time they marveled at the scope of Sinestri’s curse. It bespoke a power beyond their imagining; a power they were setting themselves against. A power dwarfed by the malice of he who wielded it. Mike and Callie’s meager talents seemed infinitesimal in comparison.
“Does anyone know where we’re going?” Callie asked, “Or are we just gonna wander around until we hit something?”
“Into the heart of the city.” Mike said, “That’s where we’re going. Something is waiting for us there.”
Callie and Jon looked askance at Mike.
“How would you happen to know this?” Callie asked, “And would you mind sharing it with the rest of the class?”
“I don’t know how I know.” Mike answered, “I just know that I know. When I know how, I’ll let you know.”
“That’s very illuminating, thanks.” Jon said.
The backpack went from Jon’s back, to Callie’s, to Mike’s.
They came to a point where the cars were so packed, they could not have gotten so naturally. They had been moved, and not by gentle hands. The sides of these vehicles were all bashed in, and smothered with black gunk. Mike, Callie, and Jon were able to step from car to car, with little or no hopping necessary.
They went on.
It was almost Jon’s turn with the backpack again, when the landscape changed once more. They could see that at some point ahead the road became devoid of all vehicles, not just on the street they were on, but on the intersecting streets as well; almost as if a large, spherical, area had been cleared out by a work crew.
They arrived at the last car, looked out at the street before them, and saw a heavy criss-crossing of oily black streak marks. Up ahead, about a quarter mile away, at the central crossroads of Cathim; a massive hole in the road, big enough to drop a good-sized house in, could be seen.
Mike opened his mouth as revelation at last washed over him.
“I can’t believe I forgot about this…” he said.
“What?” asked Callie.
“Remember our first day on the road, Cal?” Mike asked, “We stopped to eat supper in a field somewhere, under a tree…?”
It was now Callie’s turn to open her mouth in remembrance.
“The dream!” she said, “This is that dream!”
“What dream?” Jon, out of the loop, asked.
“I saw all of this in a dream I had Saturday before last; even your participation in it, Jon.” Mike said, “Four days before we even met you. Funny, you didn’t strike me as familiar when we first met; but by then, the dream was long-forgotten. I hadn’t remembered it until now.”
“And that hole?”
“That’s where THEY are…the cursed citizens of Cathim.”
As if summoned, a series of pig-like grunts rang out from the direction of the hole. Startled, the three stopped talking, and looked over at it.
A single “citizen” flopped out of the hole. At first blush, it looked kind of like a seal; in that it was shiny oil-slick black, and had a seal-like shape. In size and heft, though, it was closer to a sea-lion. It had no eyes or ears or any orifices whatsoever; no appendages either. Yet, it moved it’s “head” from side to side, as if looking around. Mike tried to read it’s mind, but got the mental equivalent of static.
“What the hell is that?” Jon whispered.
“The answer to your earlier question.” Mike whispered back, “That is what Sinestri’s curse was turning us into.”
“Shhhh!” Callie shushed, “It’ll hear us!”
“With what?” Jon hissed, “It has no sensory organs!”
“Nonetheless…” Mike said.
The thing swiveled it’s head-like protuberance toward them and, as if seeing them at last, let loose a loud ear-shattering squeal.
As the three covered their ears, the hole disgorged an innumerable flow of “citizens” onto the street; all of them grunting and squealing in that horrible pig-like way. Mike, Callie, and Jon could even feel the ground beneath the car they were standing on tremble with the multitudes moving underground. They were moving as a whole.
And they were headed their way.
“What do we do, Mike?” Callie asked.
“Run like hell!” Mike replied.
The three turned and did just that.
When the front line of Cathimites hit the cars, the three felt it, though they had run back a good distance. The force wave of crunching cars rolled toward them, and when it got to them, Callie lost her footing and fell into a crevasse between two cars.
“CALLIE!” yelled both Mike and Jon, and ran over to help.
Callie levitated herself up, and back onto the car she had fallen off; just in time too, as the crevasse squeezed shut behind her.
“Look!” she said, pointing back.
Behind them they could see a wave of cars thumping up and down violently. The wave was approaching fast.
“They’re moving under the cars!” Callie said, “And we can’t outrun them!”
“Then we fly.” Jon said.
Mike pointed to a building to their right, with large tinted windows.
“Second floor,” he said, “I’ll take care of the window.”
Callie took Mike and Jon’s hands with hers, and levitated the three of them toward the building Mike had pointed to, just as the wave of thumping cars arrived beneath them. Mike called a sekari into his free hand, and threw it at the office window, shattering it so completely that not one shard of glass was left on the frame.
The three floated into the office building. There was damage here, and not all due to the sekari; a violent overturning of chairs and desks and partitions that told of a catastrophe comparable to what had happened on the streets. Everything was smeared over with dried black sludge.
“This stuff is becoming oppressive.” said Callie.
“I’ll bet the inside of every building is like this.” said Jon.
“Look!” said Mike, pointing outside.
Callie and Jon turned and looked back outside.
The Cathimites had left the road, and now moved toward their building. Beyond that, the hole still poured forth a constant stream of them like there was no tomorrow.
Crashing sounds from the floor below met their ears.
“I can’t imagine they’ll use the elevators.” Jon said, with a nervous laugh, “Right?”
“The elevators won’t be working anyway, hon.” said Callie, “Now if they can go up stairs…that might be a problem.”
“Let’s find out.” Mike said.
They found a door marked STAIRS, and it led to the building’s main staircase. They leaned over the handrail in time to see the Cathimites break through to the ground floor below them. They flowed up the stairs with spooky ease.
“Oh you are kidding my ass!” Callie said.
“What now?” Jon asked.
Mike pointed up. The building’s staircase was a square spiral, all the way to the top; with an open center.
“Can you get us to the top?” Mike asked Callie.
“Yeah. Lucky for us, I got a boatload of telekinetic go-go juice from that Malignium with Babbidaz.” she said.
The three locked arms, and began to levitate. Once out at the open center, they rose at a quickening pace that became an upward rush at stomach-churning speed. The stairs spiraled around them in a dizzying fashion. The squeals and grunts below fell further and further away, until they couldn’t be heard anymore.
They slowed as they neared the top.
Once there, Callie set them down at the topmost landing.
“I’m gonna need a little breather.” she said.
Without waiting for a reply, she went to a corner and sat on the floor. Jon joined her. Mike took the other corner and sat alone.
“They won’t come up all this way, will they?” Callie asked.
“I’ll check it out.” Mike said.
He closed his eyes and detached from his body.
He travelled down the stairwell at five times the speed with which they had gone up. The Cathimites, he saw, were still ascending the stairs with relentless speed. Their ululating bodies defied gravity and seemed to be slipping and sliding upwards, leaving behind oily black streaks that, by all rights, should have the whole lot of them flippeting and floppeting all the way down like greasy sardines on a steep incline; but didn’t.
Suddenly, all of the Cathimites turned their “heads” toward him, and squealed even louder than before.
Good gods! Mike thought, They can sense me, somehow! They know I’m near!
Mike zipped as fast as he could, back to his body.
He opened his eyes and looked over at Callie and Jon.
“They’re coming.” he said, “And fast.”
“How fast?” Jon asked.
“They’ll be here in ten minutes, fifteen tops.”
“Why are they coming after us?” Callie asked, “What do they want?”
I don’t think it’s you or Jon they’re really after, Mike thought, but instead said: “I don’t know. Their minds are closed to me.”
“What do we do when they get up here?” Jon asked.
“I’m open to suggestions.” Mike said.
“You could throw fire balls at them.” Callie said.
“Yeah, great, and set the building we’re in on fire, in the process.”
“What about those power sphere thingies?” Jon asked.
“I couldn’t get all of them,” said Mike, “There’s so many.”
“Maybe we can lead them to the roof, and Callie can use her mind power to sweep them all off.” Jon suggested.
“Again: too many of them. They’d just keep coming. Callie would tap out before we saw the last of them. Besides, we’re here to help these people, not hurt them.”
“I thought you said that they can’t die, like the kids in Murgent.”
“Maybe not, but we might damage them somehow, and make their suffering worse.”
“What does that leave us with,” Jon said, “But to escape?”
“Escape where?” Mike asked, “To another building? The same thing would happen. To the street below? They’d swarm us. There’s a whole city of these things out there, and they know we’re here now. They have no eyes or ears, but they know. Wherever we go, they’ll be there.”
“Why are we here?” Callie asked, out of the blue.
“What?” Mike asked.
“You said we’re here to help these people, right?”
“Well…Mom specifically; but yes, by extension, all of these people as well.”
“How can we help them if we keep running away from them?”
Mike blinked, not quite sure what she was getting at.
“You say there’s no place to hide, no way to escape them. Well, if we’re screwed anyway, why not face them? See what happens?”
Mike considered her words.
“You know, I think you may have a point there, Cal.” he said.
“What?!” said Jon, “Are you guys crazy?”
“Pretty much.” said Mike, getting to his feet.
“Is it too late to quit this crazy train?”
“Pretty much.” said Callie, getting up as well.
Jon got to his feet. “Alright then, how do we do this?”
“We’ll need to get down to the street.” Mike said.
“Let’s get to the roof.” she said.
There was a padlock on the door which led to the roof, but Mike’s sekari made short work of it, and they kicked the door open.
Outside, the sun shone bright, now that the haze had been cleared out. The three went to the edge of the roof, and looked down.
The hole was still pouring forth what now looked like a single black mass that surrounded the building. The cars between their building and the hole had been crunched further back, with many of the vehicles crushed by the unstoppable force of the Cathimites.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
“Holy Gloeis in the sky!” Callie shouted. Unlike Mike and Jon, who were looking over at the hole, she was looking across the street. The building there had mirror-like tinted windows, through which she could see their own building reflected.
Mike and Jon followed her gaze and saw in the reflection, a shimmery black coating moving up the side of their building.
“HOLY CRAP!” shouted Jon, “How can they do that?”
“After everything we’ve seen, you can ask that?” Mike said.
The situation was the same on all four sides of the building; the Cathimites were coming, and were already a third of the way up.
“The flow is headed in this direction, but the area on the other side of the hole is clear.” Mike said, pointing down to the street, “That’s where we’re going; but we’ll have to take the long way round.”
“How do you mean?” Callie asked.
“We hop from rooftop to rooftop, in that direction; about three or four times. Then we zip down to the area I just mentioned.” Mike said, “And we gotta do this fast, before they catch on to where we’re going.”
“And once we’re down there, what next?” Jon asked.
“We'll see what happens.” Mike said, keeping his true plans to himself, as Ma’jai are wont to do, “You up for this, Callie?”
“Not near to running out of juice yet.” she said.
“What about you, Jon?” Mike asked, “You ready for this?”
“You know me,” Jon said, “I love a half-assed plan.”