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.
“WELCOME TO MY HOME, YOUNG LONGSTREETS.” Sinestri’s baritone voice boomed all of a sudden, from somewhere in the heights above them, “WELCOME TO ROANATH! DO NOT FEAR THE DEDDENS, THEY ARE MERELY SERVANTS. THEY MEAN YOU NO HARM. IN FACT, THEY HAVE PREPARED A SUPPER FOR YOU IN THE KITCHENS. YOU HAVE MY ASSURANCE, UPON MY HONOR, THAT THE FOOD IS NEITHER POISONED NOR DRUGGED IN ANY WAY. WHEN YOU HAVE EATEN YOU FILL, COME UP AND VISIT ME. WE HAVE MUCH TO TALK ABOUT.
“YOUR MOTHER AND I WILL BE WAITING.”
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.
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!”
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.
“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:
VRAS SALORA ETAYALI.
“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.
(and the End of the Road)