Friday, May 27, 2011

Chapter 59


          It was blessedly dry inside, and warm.
Mike and Callie entered a long vaulted hall. Ornate pillars with silver and gold hanging lamps hung between them greeted the Longstreets on both sides of the hall. The floor was a checkerboard of white and black marble tiles.
Once they reached the end of the hall, they entered the main chamber of the mansion.
Mike and Callie gasped.
The main room had to be hundreds of yards across and in area; the ceiling was so high, it was lost to sight. The far-flung walls were rounded, and a staircase spiraled up and around its sides, with many and various halls and doors along its way.
Taking up much of the real estate on the ground floor of this grand chamber, was what could only be called a little town. Homes and huts and small one-storey buildings made up this diminutive town, as well as roads and alleys. Wagons were ridden through those roads; pulled by beasts of burden that looked like a cross between ponies and sheep. The town (and to a lesser extent, the mansion) was inhabited by a small pallid people, with black horizontal stripes either painted or tattooed across their faces, arms, hands, and (theoretically, at least) entire bodies. None of them were taller than five feet high. They all dressed in identical grey hooded cloaks.
About fifty or so feet above the center of the city, a miniature sun shined, providing light and warmth.
With that, the booming voice stopped.
“What do you think?” Mike asked.
“Well, I trust Sinestri only as far as I can throw him.” Callie said, “But on the other hand, I am so fricking hungry!”
“I think you could probably toss him a good distance.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I agree,” Mike said, “I’m hungry too.”
From the little town now came forth a Dedden on one of those wooly ponies, with an empty open two-seat cart behind it. It plodded towards them at a brisk, if quiet, pace.
“I think that’s our ride.” said Callie.
The sheepony (as Callie now referred to it, in her mind) stopped in front of them. The Dedden on its back had his hood down, which revealed him to be bald, and showed that the tattoo stripe went all around his head, and ended in a spiral at his crown.
“Mraw.” the Dedden muttered, and motioned them to the cart.
Mike and Callie got on the cart, and sat down. The Dedden lightly slapped the sheepony’s rump, and it started off; it’s heavily padded feet making hardly a sound on the marble floor.
They were taken, not into the Dedden town, but towards a wide arched doorway a bit far off in the wall of the chamber, close to where the massive stairway began.
There was a line of Deddens exiting through this doorway, removing their hoods as they made a beeline towards their town.
As they approached the doorway, Mike and Callie could see that beyond it was a kitchen of enormous size. A long wooden table, enough to seat an army, took up its center, with two equally long wooden benches on either side of it. The table top was empty except for the section closest to the entrance, upon which was set a small feast of meats and fruits and vegetables of many, if unfamiliar, kinds; along with goblets and glasses of varied juices. By the time they reached the doorway, the kitchen was entirely empty.
Despite not knowing what most of these foodstuffs were, Mike and Callie’s bellies groaned with impatience.
The Dedden stopped his pudgy steed short of entering the kitchen. Mike and Callie needed no further prompting; they stepped off and dashed into the kitchen posthaste.
The Dedden and his sheepony turned around and headed for the town, but Mike and Callie paid him no heed; they sat opposite each other, on either side of the table, and dove into the food like impoverished orphans at a rich man’s dinner party.

They ate their fill. Ate until they were ready to burst. Still, they did not exhaust half the bounty laid out before them.
“I guess we’ll leave this for the Deddens to clean up.” Callie said when they were done.
Mike’s reply was a long and obscene burp.
“That’s nice!” Callie said, but could not suppress one of her own.
Mike laughed. “Not so hoity-toity after all!” he said.
“Alright.” Callie replied, “Should we go, or what?”
“Let’s go, then. We didn’t come all this way to dawdle.”
The two got up, and exited the kitchen.
They made for the stairs.
“Great. More walking.” Mike said, as he looked up the long climb ahead. The insane interior spiral upwards seemed to invert the insane exterior spiral they had just completed.
“Screw walking!” Callie said.
She grabbed Mike’s arm, and the two started flying up the stairs like a rocket. They zipped up along the stairway; the hallways and doors along the way whooshing by like blurs. Occasionally, they had to detour around Deddens roaming the place; but the higher they went, the less and less there were, allowing Callie to speed up even further.
They made three complete circuits of the great chamber, before Callie had to stop and rest awhile.
“Whew!” she said, breathing heavy, “I think I just chopped a few hours off our trip.”
“Sit down, take a break.” Mike said.
They were at the entrance to a hallway. The two slid down the wall of this hallway, and sat on the floor.
“How’s the power level?” Mike asked.
“Barely put a dent into it. Still good to go.” she said, “I just got a migraine from the effort. I’ve been pushing myself too hard for some time now. I doubt the levitation ability has ever been put to such a harsh field test before; and by a rookie, to boot.”
“I wouldn’t try again too soon.” Mike said, “Take all the time you need to refresh yourself. We’re gonna need to be at our best when we make it to Sinestri’s floor. Gods only know what awaits us there.”
Callie nodded, and the two fell into a relaxed quiet.
Eventually, Mike got up to stretch his legs, walked over to the handrail of the stair, and looked down. The miniature sun was now slightly below them, but close enough to make Mike squint when looking at it.
It was an amazing sight, and Mike found the more he looked at it, the less he needed to squint. After a few seconds, he could make out dark moving splotches out of which no illumination passed.
“Looks like Sinestri’s sun is dying.” Mike said, absently.
Yet, there was something mesmerizing about the mini-sun. Mike realized he could see pulsating colors past the yellow “sunshine”.
“You should see this, Cal, it’s quite beautiful…” he said, his words slurring. He suddenly became aware that he was being drawn into a trance, but this knowledge came too late to be of any help.
Callie had closed her eyes against the dull throb in her head. She was about to say something to the effect that, now that the miniature sun was below them, maybe she could fly them straight up to the top floor without having to follow the stairs (after a suitable interval of rest, of course). Then Mike made his comment about Sinestri’s sun dying. Something in his voice troubled her, but she knew not what until he spoke again, and she heard the sluggishness in his voice.
She opened her eyes, and looked over at Mike. His back was to her, and he seemed to be staring down at the mini-sun with rapt attention.
She knew something was wrong.
She got up, and made to go over to him.
“Callie!” someone behind her called.
Callie froze.
It was a familiar voice; a tantalizingly familiar voice, that made the hair on the back of her neck rise.
In spite of herself she turned, and saw a cloaked and hooded figure standing at the end of the hall. At first she thought it was another Dedden, but the figure removed the hood, and smiled at her.
Callie’s heart stopped.
It was Jon.

“Jon?” Callie called out.
Jon smiled, “Got something to show you, babe.”
He turned and walked into an intersecting hall, and out of her view.
“JON!” Callie cried out.
She turned to Mike, still entranced by the sun, and then turned back to the way Jon had gone, and ran that way.
She ran, and caught glimpses of Jon here and there, always ahead of her, always just turning a corner; but when she’d turn the corner, he’d be ahead at the next turn.
“Jon! Stop! Wait!” she cried.
He led her down a maze of corridors, until at last he stopped at a door, and entered. Callie reached the door, and entered behind him.
She stepped inside, and entered a thick tangle of vegetation. The room seemed to have opened into a jungle. There were dense vines hanging all around her, and the floor beneath her feet was carpeted with moist dirt. She pushed past the vines until she entered an area clear of vegetation. There was a sofa, and Jon laid there with his hands behind his head.
He smiled up at her.
“Hello, beautiful.” he said.
He sat up and patted the spot beside him on the sofa. Callie sat next to him, and they faced each other.
“Jon. How?” was all she could muster.
He smiled patiently at her.
“Give us a kiss.” he said, and leaned in to do so.
His lips touched hers, and she could not deny him. She leaned into him and returned in kind. For a moment, it was heaven.
Then his tongue entered her mouth, and she felt it split in two.
Callie pushed him back and found herself face to face with a creature with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and a serpent for a tail.
“Ha! Ha!” it said, “Fooled you!”
Callie screamed.

Mike snapped awake from his trance.
He shook his head and blinked his strained and blurry eyes.
Had he heard a scream? Or had he imagined it?
He turned away from the stair and saw that Callie was no longer in the hallway. How long had he been mesmerized?
“CALLIE?” he called out, but there was no answer.
Then, there was another scream, faint and far off. It came from somewhere beyond the hall, and it was definitely Callie.
“I’M COMING!” Mike yelled, and started running toward where the sound had come from; but trap doors swung open beneath him, and he plunged down a dark rectangular chute.
Mike screamed, as his Ma’jai eyes perceived the bed of spikes and spear-points that awaited him at the bottom of the silver-lined chute; and without a Conjuura around, there was no denying gravity.

The room was different now.
It was a blindingly white room without windows or door; and unfurnished except for the sofa, which alone hadn’t changed.
“What’s this?! What’s this?!” Callie cried, getting up and backing away from the patchwork creature on the sofa.
“Wanna liplock summore?!” the creature grinned, then stuck it’s forked tongue out at her, “What you need, hotstuff, is some more of my SALIVA! Here, hava batch!”
It opened it’s mouth and fire poured out at Callie. She screamed the scream Mike would follow into the trapdoor, and extended her power before her, slanting the fire away.
“Oh, you’re gonna be FUN!” the thing said, retracting it’s fire.
“What are you?!” Callie asked.
“We is Jiskijik.” it said, “We is many!”
Jiskijik began changing it’s body parts into a constant stream of animal parts; some known, some unknown, and some insane. The flow of transformations upon transformations increased until the sight of it hurt Callie’s eyes and Callie’s mind.
“STOP IT!” Callie yelled.
Jiskijik stopped, and it was Jon again.
“C’mon, hunnybucket,” the fake Jon said, “Let’s bop!”
“How do you know about Jon?” Callie asked, “When and where exactly did you see him?”
An idea had entered her mind, and a faint and fragile hope had entered her heart.
“Is he HERE?! IS HE ALIVE?!!”
Perhaps, she hoped against hope, the mess back in that Cathim building had been an illusion, left there for her to find, by Sinestri. Perhaps Sinestri had actually brought Jon here, for some purpose. More importantly, perhaps she could find and rescue him!
“Aww, sorry honey!” Jiskijik said, transforming into Charles Longstreet. It got up off the sofa, and the sofa disappeared, like the vegetation before it. “Hate to burst your bubble, snookums, and trample on your dreamy dreams; but your boyfriend isn’t here. He’s in a dozen little pieces back in Cathim. Our master merely let us watch along with him, as you and your little group made your way across the wasteland. Facinating viewing, by the way; riveting!”
Callie was crestfallen.
“That’s the thing about Jiskijik, luv.” it said, now looking like Babbidaz, “We step on your heart, before we eat it!”
It lunged at her.

As Mike fell, he produced a sekari shield. He hit bottom a split-second after its completion, and the shield held against the spear and spike points, which seemed to be welded to the floor of the trap, since they did not turn, fall, or get pushed aside by the shield. Nor was there anywhere for Mike to step, or place a foot, as the spears and spikes were all too close together, and took up every inch of space.
“Oh crap!” Mike said.
How the hell do I get out of this?! he thought to himself, I can’t hold this shield forever!
Indeed, it was taking him great power and focus to hold the shield’s form and keep it solid against the uneven surface of the spikes and spears that threatened to burst it.
It occurred to Mike, that the only way out was the way he had entered, and there was only one way he was going to do that.
He drew in power from the Voss Vedu’un, and channeled it into the shield. 
He willed it to expand.
As the sekari shield grew, it bore him up. Like a balloon in a bottle, it conformed to the shape of the chute. Up and up he went, until his back was confronted by a barrier.
The trapdoors. They had reclosed after his fall.
They did not open upwards.
“Uh oh!” Mike said.
He was trapped between unopenable doors on one side, and his own overinflated sekari shield, on the other. The hell of it was, he knew precisely what it would take to break through the doors; but it was going to hurt like hell, if it didn’t kill him.
Then there was the question of whether his body would be thrown free of the hole or merely thrown upwards. If the latter occurred, he’d simply fall back into the hole, which would not be good at all.
Mike decided it was worth a try.
He continued expanding the sekari shield until he was flattened against the unyielding doors in a painful squeeze; but continued to push the sekari to its limits.
Then it exploded, and Mike felt a split-second of unbearable pain and flight, before the world went black.

Jiskijik (as Babbidaz) lunged after Callie and might have had her if the sound of an explosion somewhere nearby hadn’t distracted it in mid-trip. This was all Callie needed. She grabbed Jiskijik with her power, lifted it up in the air, and hurled it against the opposite wall with great force; whereupon it broke and burst into eleven separate pieces. Each piece transformed into lizard-like creatures, each a different bright color. Those eleven lizards then split into twenty-two smaller lizards.
They all turned and looked at her…and curtsied.
“What the hell?!” Callie said.
“We is Jiskijik.” the lizards all said in unison, “We is many.”
They tittered with unrestrained glee, and then split up dashing in all directions; like cockroaches when the light is turned on. Some ran toward her along the floor, many ran up and along the walls, some continued onward up to the ceiling, and ran upside down.
Callie understood what was about to happen, and extended her power around her like a sphere of protection.
The lizards launched their attack from every direction at once. Every time a Jiskijik tried to get on her, or spew fire at her, she smacked them off with enormous violence. The Jiskijik in question would then hit a wall, and disperse into smaller giggling pieces.
“TIME TO CHANGE THE RULES!” the Jiskijiks all shouted, and upon this utterance, the room exploded into a moving and swirling nightmare of primary colors; like a madman’s acid trip. The colors were not just on the floor, walls, and ceiling; they moved all around her like three-dimensional waves of liquid hues.
Bad enough she could no longer see where the Jiskijiks were in this mess; the exhibition was making her dizzy and nauseous, as well as exacerbating her migraine.
Worst of all, she had an idea that the colors were intended to entrance her, like the miniature sun had Mike; so the little monsters could take her out at their leisure.
Not today, jerks! Callie thought.
She closed her eyes, and felt immediate relief. That was better. Without the visual noise, she could “see” the room and the Jiskijiks, with the extension of her power.
She walked to the center of the room, swatting the little bastards off all the way.
Time to bring this party to an end!
Callie concentrated. Hard. She extended the sphere of her power until she could feel every Jiskijik in the room. Then she grabbed every single one of them in her mental grasp.
The giggling stopped.
Callie opened her eyes. 
The room was white again, and damn if there wasn’t a door there after all.
She brought and held all the Jiskijiks in the air before her, and squeezed. They squealed and squirmed, but could not escape her grip; nor, in their pain, were they able to access their gift for illusion.
“No more jibes? No more laffs?” Callie asked.
“LET US GO!!!” the Jiskijiks squealed in unison.
“I get the feeling that if I tear every one of you apart, I’ll only make more of you.” Callie said, “So maybe I’ll go the other way!”
She brought every Jiskijik, and slammed them all together into one mass; and began to crush it.
“NO! STOP!! PLEASE!!!” they cried, in quavering voices, “YOU’RE KILLING US!! YOU’RE KILLING US!!!”
“That’s the thing about Callie, luv,” she said coldly, “Step on my heart, and I’ll squash you like a bug!”
With one powerful squeeze, she did just that.
Jiskijik screamed a high awful shriek, as it became a single mass of colors bleeding into each other, until they merged into a dark brownish color, like feces; and it’s multiple flesh melted into a loathsome goop.
Then, it screamed no more. Callie released it, and it plopped to the floor with a disgusting flatulent sound.
Callie walked to the door, and exited the room.

Mike woke up, feeling like crap.
He had been blown free of the hole as he had hoped (and just barely at that); which was good, because the trapdoors had been blown off. One of which had landed on top of him.
Sekari bursts were explosive in effect, but not fiery (as opposed to fireballs, which were); so Mike wasn’t burned in any way. But being in one still hurt like a mother, nonetheless.
Mike groaned, and pushed the trapdoor off of him. He tried to get up, but his head swam, so he flopped back to the floor.
He closed his eyes and summoned forth healing energy from the Voss Vedu’un, into his own body.
“What the hell happened to you?!” a voice said.
It was Callie.
“I could ask you the same question, but I need a minute or two to get my crap together.”
Callie went over to the hole Mike had so recently exited, and looked down.
“What was in there?” she asked.
“A great many pointy and unpleasant things.” Mike answered, “And where the hell were you when I needed you?”
“When YOU needed ME?! I just barely escaped with my life from a roomful of tiny monsters, to find YOU lounging around on the floor like the King of Happytown!”
“Hey! I was nearly skewered to death here! I literally had to EXPLODE myself out of that hole, to escape.”
“Pish posh! I had to fight a swarm of shape-changing, fire-breathing, illusionist lizards!”
“Really? Damn. Alright, you win.” Mike said, “Help me up, would’cha?”
Callie grabbed Mike’s arm and pulled him up. They walked past the hole in the floor, and were back on the stairway.
“Are we done here?” Mike asked.
Callie nodded.
“Well then, let’s get up there.” he said, pointing to the top floor, “Can you pull that off, or do you need more rest?”
“Actually, I need more rest now than I did when we got here.” Callie said, “However, Sinestri’s little traps are getting on my nerves, and I can’t wait to throttle the bastard. So let’s go. I can rest when I’m dead.”
Callie and Mike linked arms, and the two floated over the handrail of the staircase, and shot straight up the center of the main chamber.

They reached, at last, the top floor.
There was only one hall here, and only one door at the end of it. The hall was high-ceilinged, and filled with vast hung tapestries, whose geometric designs danced and changed with kaleidoscopic frequency; and sinuous sculptures, that writhed like living things and threatened to reach out and grab at them.
“Don’t look at them, Callie.” Mike said, “They’re distractions. Look straight ahead.”
The door ahead of them seemed to be the apotheosis of all doors; a tall, heavy thing, varnished to within an inch of its life. Its dark woodgrain was almost elemental against the white of the marble walls.
Upon reaching the door, they saw something. Carved deeply on it with some sharp implement (recently, perhaps, for there were still wood shavings on the floor below it), was writ the following:
“What does that mean?” Callie asked, “I’m assuming you know, since it is no doubt meant for us.”
Mike nodded. “It’s Vaunto for: ‘the burning awaits’.”
“What does THAT mean?”
“Aside from the literal meaning of the text, I don’t know.”
        “Sounds fricking ominous.”
“We didn’t come all this way to turn back now.”
“This is really it, isn’t it?” Callie asked.
“Yes it is.” Mike replied, “Let’s go.”
He grabbed the doorknob, and gave it a turn.
The door opened.


Chapter 60
(and the End of the Road)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Chapter 58

The Dark Mansion

          It took Callie a long second to summon forth her powers of levitation, and stop her fall. When she did, the bat-thing lost it’s grip on her pant-leg, and continued on it’s trip down.
Callie levitated upward, though not at the speed or ease she had gotten used to; her power level was on the wane. She would not be able to self-levitate like this for much longer.
She looked up and saw fireballs take out the last of the remaining bat-things. They fell past her; the sound of their shrieks dragging behind them into the darkness of the abyss.
Callie reached the ledge. Mike stood there with fire emanating from his open hand. He looked alright.
“Took you long enough.” he said, when he saw her. He helped her step onto the ledge with his free hand. “For a second there, when you fell, I forgot you could levitate. If you hadn’t warned me about the bat-thing above me, I might have jumped after you!”
“From here on out, let’s not press our luck.” Callie said, “My levitating days are about over. My power level isn’t what it used to be.”
“Bottom of the barrel?” Mike asked.
“Not yet, but getting there fast.” Callie replied.
“It has been in heavy use of late.” Mike said.
Callie noticed something missing from Mike. 
“What happened to the backpack?” she asked.
“That’s what I’ve been wanting to tell you.” Mike said, “The damned bat-monster that swooped in from above me; it grabbed hold of it and tried to cart me off. Actually got me about a foot off the ground, before the sticky straps gave way; unfortunately, batty dropped the backpack, with our food supplies, down the mountain.”
“Crud.” Callie said.
“If it’s any consolation, I turned batty into a crispy critter not two seconds later.”
“Oh well,” said Callie, “We’ll just have to make do without food. Can’t be too hard, right?”
“Let’s get moving.” Mike said, extinguishing the fire in his hand by closing it, “The sooner we get to where this ledge is going, the sooner we can get the hell off of it.”
They continued on their way.

Half an hour later, Mike began to make out the outline of a door, on the outcropping he had noticed earlier.
“Do you see that?” Callie asked, seeing the outcropping at last in a fortuitous flash of lightning.
“Yes.” Mike replied.
“What is it?”
“It’s just a bump in the mountainside.”
“Are we supposed to go around, or over?”
“Through.” Mike said, “I’m pretty sure I see a door.”

Twenty minutes later, there was no doubt. There was a door. It was made of dark varnished wood, with metal bands that braced the edges, and criss-crossed its span like a black X. The wood of the door looked heavy, and there were some deep talon scratches sunk into it.
Mike turned the stylized lever that served as a doorknob. The latch clacked, and the door opened inward with a loud creak.
Inside was a small cavern about the size of a storage shed. There was a bench on one side, and a thick bed of furs on the floor, on the other. There was also a wooden chair bolted to the floor, with a hole in its seat that corresponded to a hole in the cavern floor that opened to the sheer drop below the cavern, outside.
A toilet, Mike thought, with an interior snicker.
Beside this was a sheaf of rough-looking paper.
Yikes! Mike thought, Not exactly a four-star establishment!
There were two oil lanterns hanging in each corner. Mike lit them with his fire. Their illumination of the cavern was adequate, if dim.
Callie entered behind Mike. “Oh cool!” she said, “A rest stop!”
She went to the bed of furs, and burrowed under them.
“Thank Holy Gloeis in the sky!” she exulted, “We’re out of that damn cold and rain and wind and maddening thunder!”
“For a little while, at least.” Mike said.
“Killjoy as always.” Callie muttered under her breath.
Mike closed the door.
There was a locking plank bolted onto the side of the doorway. Mike brought it down into its holding clamp on the other side of the door. He noticed the door on the opposite side of the cavern also had a locking plank. He walked over to the other door, and locked it down as well.
“I guess these are to keep the beasties out.” he said.
Callie sat up against the wall of the cavern. She had one of the furs wrapped around her like a mink coat.
“These are WARM, Mike!” she said, “I’m taking one with me when we have to leave!”
“Good idea.” Mike said.
He grabbed one of the furs, wrapped it around himself as well; and sat down next to Callie. He found the bedding of multiple furs to be thick and comfortable.
Thunder roared outside, but sounded muffled and faint in the cavern.
“I think we’ve earned ourselves a little R and R.” Callie said. She was still trembling in spite of the fur’s warmth.
“More than that, I think we need some sleep.” Mike said, “We don’t want to face Sinestri exhausted or fatigued.”
“Should we take turns keeping watch?” Callie asked.
“No, I think we’re pretty well locked in here.” Mike said, “But I want to try something first, before we snooze.”
“Just a quick spirit travel expedition; I want to see what’s at the end of our road. Can you keep watch while I’m gone?”
“Can and will.” Callie said.
“Okay, here goes.” Mike said.
He sat back, closed his eyes, and detached from his body. It was easy for him now. 
He moved through the wall of the cavern, floated out some distance, and turned to face the mountain.
In this state neither cold nor rain could touch him. In the Voss Vedu’un there was no darkness; all things glowed, even the mountain itself. When lightning flashed, Mike could see the ripples and roils it caused in It.
Mike looked down at the abyss below him, but his astral self felt no vertigo. He then willed himself up, higher and higher, faster and faster; until he reached the top.
And there it was…as he had suspected.
The tip-top of the mountain seemed to have been scooped off, as if by the hand of a titan, and on this lot was built a black, massive, and windowless mansion, that looked like the abode of the gods (and not the pleasant ones). Thick dark thunderclouds poured rain upon it. Lightning danced above and around this structure; yet, somehow, never struck it.
Without windows, Mike found it difficult to figure how many floors the highest central section of this complex edifice had; but it had to be in the double-digits. From a higher perspective, it looked like a small city had been forcibly mashed together into forming a single vast building, with varying rooflines, towers, flying buttresses, and the like.
Only an egomaniac, with delusions of Godhood, would make a place like this his home, Mike thought.
He moved closer, to get a peek inside.
He got as far as a few yards from its walls, when he hit some unseen force that circumferenced it. He was knocked back down into his body so hard and so fast, he gasped upon opening his eyes.
“What happened?” Callie, beside him, asked.
Mike showed her all that he saw.
“Yeah, that looks like the kinda place Sinestri would call home.” she said, “It’s gonna be a heckuva long slog to get there, though.”
“Yeah, I know.” Mike said, “So let’s take full advantage of this place while we got it.”
They made pillows out of rolled up furs, and they laid themselves down, blanketing themselves under the warm furs. Their tired bodies fell into sleep within minutes.
They slept deep, and for untold hours.

When they awoke, they did so almost at the same time; though they did not rise just yet. They just lay there for awhile.
“I don’t wanna leave.” Callie said.
“Neither do I, but we gotta get going.” Mike said, “Did you not sleep well?”
“Oh no, I slept great. And I feel refreshed and all…I just don’t want to go out there in the cold and wet again.”
“Ditto, but…”
“I know, I know. We gotta.” Callie said, “I understand that. I just hope there’s some kind of daylight now. I’m so sick of the constant dark! And I hope that damn thunderstorm is over; my nerves got frayed from jumping at every crack of thunder!”
“Me too.” Mike said, “Me too.”

Despite not really wanting to, the two got up.
They availed themselves of the primitive toilet; an embarrassing necessity, though a necessity nonetheless (at least the toilet paper wasn’t as harsh as it had seemed at first look). Both took turns staring at the opposite wall while the other “took care of business”.
They unlocked the planks on both doors (as a courtesy to whatever poor bastard might have to pass this way at some point), and blew out both lanterns. 
They were both cloaked in furs.
Mike opened the door. The ledge awaited them.
It was still cold and dark; and the thunderstorm still raged.
“I hate this place.” Callie grumbled, “I really really do.”
They closed the door behind them, and began to walk again.

They walked for hours.
The wind went from being an irritant to an active danger, as they entered a point where their mountain and a neighboring mountain created a natural wind tunnel. They had to grasp their furs tight, as the wind sought to rip them away. They did not speak to each other at this point, as it was impossible for them to hear each other above the din of the screaming wind. Mike maintained an open connection to Callie’s mind, in case one of them needed to communicate something to the other.
Then they reached a point where the ledge was damaged (possibly by an avalanche). It was busted up and in places down to a foot in width. This slowed them down considerably, and it took them a long tense hour of cautious movement with their backs to the mountain, to get past the damaged region. And it was worse for Callie, who was in the dark (except during lightning strikes), and had be carefully directed with mental images of the ruined ledge from Mike’s Ma’jai-enhanced vision.
Sometime after that, they passed beyond the wind tunnel.
“Finally!” Callie said, “I couldn’t take another minute of that damned wind! I thought I was gonna go insane!”
They continued onward.

After another long interval of silent trudging, Callie spoke up again. “I’m hungry.” she said---almost whined.
“I second that emotion.” Mike replied.
“We haven’t eaten since the cave, last night.” Callie added, “Or last…umm…whatever. I don’t even know what time or day it is anymore! It’s always dark here!”
“Next critter we run into, I’ll fry for you.” said Mike.
“As long as it’s not disgusting.”
“Better disgusting chow than starvation.”
“I don’t know, I’d hafta be pretty skeletal before I’d eat certain things,” Callie said, “My gag reflex is a harsh mistress.”
“Give it another hour or two, and you’ll be humming a different tune.” Mike said.
“Hmmm…I wonder how it went with the Cathim people.” Callie said, changing the subject without a hint of subtlety.
“It just occurred to me that we pretty much left them in the lurch back there, without much answers. They have no food, no electricity, no help, and no idea of what kind of world they now inhabit.”
“Just like us, wouldn’t you say?” Mike asked, “And like us, they’ll have to figure it out on their own.”
“I just hope they don’t descend into cannibalism.” Callie said.
For some reason, this struck Mike as hilarious, and he began to laugh uncontrollably.
“You crack me up, Cal!” he said, as he wiped tears from his eyes with his hand, and had to stop a moment. When finally he stopped laughing, he turned and faced Callie. His mood went from amused to serious.
“This is ridiculous, Callie,” he said, “We’re not putting up with another hour of this shigging mountain.”
“What do you suggest?”
“I suggest we fly.”
“Sorry, tanks too low. I’ll tap out at twenty or so feet, and then we’ll fall to our deaths in a most unhappy fashion.” Callie said, “Besides, that mansion’s WAY too high up there. Even fresh off that brain-drain with Babbidaz, I couldn’t pull that off.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have expected you to fly us all the way to the top in one leap. This ledge does spiral up and around the mountain; so you could just fly us to the next ledge section above us, rest, then up to the next, until we reach the top.”
“Huh, I didn’t even consider that.” Callie said, “That’s actually a good idea, but the point is academic. I don’t have the power anymore.”
“You just need to refuel.” Mike said.
“Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”
“You can’t honestly say it hasn’t crossed your mind.”
“Well, I’m not gonna lie and say it hasn’t, cause it has; especially since we found ourselves on this stupid pile of rocks.”
“I know.” Mike said, “It’s crossed my mind as well; but fear and selfishness have kept me from putting my brainwaves on the line. Of all of us, I’m the only one who didn’t have to undergo that particular procedure, and I was kinda hoping to keep it that way; but this shigging mountain’s gonna do us in---unless I allow this.”
“Are you sure?” Callie asked.
“No, but that’s never stopped me before. Come on now, before I change my mind.”
“Alright then,” Callie said, “I assume you can see my eyes in the dark; so we don’t need to do this the hard way.”
“Yup, just don’t let me fall if I get woozy or something.”
“Don’t worry, I got you.” Callie said, putting her hands on his shoulders, and pulling their faces close.
Callie’s eyes began their trancing effect, and she felt it when he fell under their power.
Like a hypodermic needle allows the passage of fluids through the barrier of flesh; the Malignium pierced into Mike’s mind with ease, and allowed Callie to slip right in.
Because of the depth of powerful emotions, the mental energy of most people pooled into their moments of despair and suffering; forcing the subject to relive these memories, allowed the Conjuura access to this energy. Mike’s mind was different. It was reminiscent of Babbidaz’s, in that his mental energy was unmixed with any emotion; it was simply there for the taking, like water from a river.
And what a mighty glowing river it was! More than could ever pass through the tiny spigot of his current level of Ma’jai ability. More than had resided even in Babbidaz.
Callie immediately understood several things at once: This is why Zedda so wanted to drain Sparo, once he came in to his full power, she thought, And this is also why she was afraid of him; why she had him caged and surrounded by all those circles of containment. The Ma’jai are walking power plants! No wonder Mike was able to kick Babbidaz’s mental ass!
She drank deep of this bounty. Drank until she felt her head would explode; drank until a curtain of green fell over her vision.
When she disengaged from his mind, for a moment, she could see the night as he did; she could see the Voss Vedu’un at last. Then, it faded away.
“Was that it?” Mike asked.
For him, there had been a woozy moment, when he was tranced; then the session had come to an end.
“Yeah…” Callie said, looking woozy herself, “That’s it.”
“It was not what I expected. I don’t even feel any different from before. You look more numbed and put out than I do. You okay?”
“For a big dummy, your mind was a lot more densely-packed than I expected.” Callie said, rubbing her temples like she had a headache, “I got a lot more from you than what I got from Babbidaz; but even that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s there. No wonder you didn’t feel a damn thing; you’re a freak of nature!”
“It goes without saying,” Mike replied, “But is it enough?”
“More than enough!” Callie answered.
They turned toward the mountain, and linked arms.
“Up yours, mountain!” Callie yelled, and the two flew straight up.
Mike kept a live feed to his spectral vision running in Callie’s head, so she could see the wall of the mountain become a grey blur as they ascended at an ever increasing speed.
In the end, Callie was so juiced up; they only had to stop at three separate points on the ledge, to take three fifteen minute breaks.
In this fashion, they soon reached the top.

There it was.
Sinestri’s mansion.
About twenty yards away, the double-doors to this abode were swung open wide; looking in to a well-lit (and dry!) interior.
“Looks like we’re expected.” said Callie.
“I feel at home already.” added Mike.
The two walked toward the open doors.
Mike looked down and saw a metal ring set flush into the smooth stone floor of the mountain-top; encircling the mansion, like a perimeter. The metal was a dark, blotchy, copper color; and about six inches in width. On this ring was etched writing of the mystical and cabalistical type. This writing appeared as silver, so the copper color was, perhaps, a mere discoloration of the surface. The fine cursive strokes of the delicate letters looped and linked each other, all the way around (at least as far as Mike could see).
It was a magic circle.
Mike remembered how he got knocked back into his body when he had tried to spirit travel into the mansion. This magic circle had no doubt been responsible. 
But what else would it do?
They approached the threshold of the ring, and passed without a problem. Mike breathed an interior sigh of relief. What happened next happened so fast, it caught them both off guard.
A glowing pair of orange wedge eyes appeared between them and the mansion, and flew towards them at tackling speed. As it did so, a dark purple body (gaseous at first, then quickly gaining an inky, gooey, solidity) pulsated into existence around it.
“What the hell---?!” was all Mike managed to get out, before the thing slammed into both of them so hard, they went tumbling and rolling back to the unprotected edge.
Callie managed to catch the ledge, but Mike went over.
“MIKE!!!” Callie yelled.
Her fur coat was lost to the wind, as she pulled herself up (which was just as well, since it had gotten smeared with the sticky grape jelly-like goo the thing was made of and had slathered all over them, on contact).
“MIKE!!!” she screamed into the abyss.
I’m here, Cal! came the response, from inside her mind, Look.
He sent her an image of himself: his fur cloak snagged on a protruding rock, some distance down; and he hanging from it. But his grip was slipping, because the cloak was sodden from the rain (and gooey with the purple gunk as well).
He had seconds; before he either lost his grip, or the fur tore away from the rock.
Callie extended her power downward, and found him. She levitated him back up to where she stood. He released his fur as he cleared the edge. The wind caught it, and it flapped away into the night like some great dark bird.
“Okay, now I’m pissed off!” Mike said, as he and Callie turned to face the mansion again.
Their purple friend was nowhere to be seen.
“Can you see him, Mike?” Callie asked.
“No, but I know he’s here somewhere.” Mike said, “Stay right here, Cal, and be ready in case he whacks into me again.”
“Okay,” said Callie, “But be careful.”
Mike walked up to the metal ring. With fire from his hand, he illuminated it for Callie.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Our friend’s leash, if my guess is correct.”
Mike cautiously set his right foot past the ring, like a swimmer testing the warmth of a pool. He leaned into the foot, as if to step further in.
Immediately, the orange wedge eyes returned, and its purple gooey body slobbered into existence as well.
“I see it!” said Callie.
The thing barreled toward Mike.
“Get outta the way, Mike!” Callie cried.
Mike removed his foot, and the thing slammed into an invisible wall the magic circle represented.
“It can’t get me outside the circle, see?” Mike said.
The thing, now angry, slammed itself again and again against the invisible wall, trying to get at Mike.
“It’s like a guard dog.” Mike continued, “Just a dumb creature set there to protect the place against intruders. Invisible, so we’d blunder into it’s territory, and get slammed off the mountain. Another of Sinestri’s traps.”
“And it worked, did it not?” Callie replied, “Pure dumb luck is all that saved us right now, let’s be honest.”
“That’s the best kind of luck!” Mike said.
“What I wanna know, is how we get past Rover here, and get inside?” Callie asked.
Mike turned to the newly-named Rover, and sent streamers of fire from his hands, into the guardian; but Rover’s body did not catch fire nor seem affected by it in any way. Nor by fireballs. Mike threw a sekari at it, but the sekari (like the fireballs before it) disappeared into the goo to no effect. Finally, he tried trapping it in a sekari shield. That seemed to work at first, Rover was entrapped; but then it disappeared, then reappeared outside the shield, still unperturbed.
“Well, I’m out of ideas.” Mike said, “I’d try to take over its mind, but there seems to be no mind there to take over. I don’t even think this thing was created with Ma’jai magic; the writing on the circle isn’t Vaunto. Do you think you can levitate it, Cal?”
Callie walked over to Mike’s side and tried, but her power seemed to go through the guardian as if nothing was there.
“Sorry,” she said, “Can’t do a damn thing to it.”
The two scratched their heads.
Rover seemed to tire of them, and disappeared once more.
“I’d hate to be the mailman around here.” Callie groused.
Mike hunched down to take a closer look at the metal ring on the ground. The strange unfathomable writing on it was etched light and delicate, like the strokes of a fountain pen. That, in conjunction with Callie’s mailman comment got him to thinking, and when he stood up again to face her, he had a smile on his face.
“Uh oh,” Callie said, “That’s your patented ‘I have a crazy idea that’s gonna put us both in terrible danger’ smile.”
Mike nodded. “Why do you suppose Rover is circumscribed like this?” he asked, “Why not let him run free?”
“Well, he’s probably not too bright, like you said,” Callie replied, “Without the leash, he’d probably just run off---“ and then it hit her, “---The cliff! He’d just zip right off the precipice like a dope!”
“Bingo!” said Mike, “Break the circle, break the leash!”
“You think you can do it?”
“All I need to do is bust the ring up enough to break the spell.” Mike said, summoning a sekari into both hands, “Just be ready for your part.”
He hurled both sekari down, one after the other, down at the metal ring; at the same location. The ring broke apart at that point, and even popped up a little at the broken ends, as if it had been under some tension that was now relieved.
Mike and Callie linked arms, and took two steps into Rover’s domain.
Rover felt the infraction, and burst forth into existence.
“He’s coming!” said Mike.
Rover, in his rage, rocketed toward Mike and Callie, but at the last second, Callie levitated them up and out of reach. 
With no invisible wall to stop him, Rover zipped past the broken metal ring and, without even a yelp, flew over the edge and disappeared into the chasm.
Mike and Callie floated back down.
“Do we kick ass or what?” Mike said.
“No time for getting cocky, Mike.” Callie replied, “Let’s get inside, quick. For all we know, Rover can fly.”
“Good point.” Mike said.
The two hurried to the entrance of the mansion. Without a second thought, they walked into Sinestri’s abode, and closed the doors behind them.