Friday, May 6, 2011

Chapter 56

A Path of Monsters

          Mike and Callie floated in what might be considered space; if space was neither cold, dark, hostile to life, nor a vacuum.
        They discovered they could breathe in this place between places; though, it was not like breathing oxygen. The sensation of it was bizarre, but not unbearable.
And in this blue space resided the Realms of Creation.
What a sight to behold!
Perfect spheres of varying hues and patterns of color; gigantic in size (at least compared to Mike and Callie), but tiny compared to the worlds somehow crammed within. They floated like pearls in gelatin; in no particular order, with no rhyme or reason to their ordering, yet always somehow equidistant from each other. They moved with the flow of blue space, but exceedingly slowly; like the hour hand of a grandfather clock. The number of Realms seemed to spread out into infinity.
“Hello? HELLO?” Callie shouted out; wondering if, and how, sound moved in this place. Her voice sounded muffled, as if she had shouted into her cupped hands.
“Weird.” said Mike.
“How are we supposed to move?” Callie said, “I tried to move us just now, but my power has no purchase here.”
“That’s my job, methinks.” Mike said.
His Ma’jai instincts told him that the aqua-colored space around them was, in fact, another form of the Voss Vedu’un; and the ability to move the Voss Vedu’un (or have it move you, in this case) was a power inherent in every Ma’jai. So, Mike moved them forward; though his inexperience, and the extra weight of Callie, slowed things to a crawl.
“Do you know where we’re going?” Callie asked.
“Yes.” said Mike, and pointed to a sphere of dark grey, shot through with strands of black and red.
“How do you know he went there?”
“He left us a trail.” Mike said, “Take a close look at the area between us and that Kaadu.”
“That what?”
Mike shook his head, “Oh, sorry…I just recently had the entire Vaunto dictionary dumped into my brain, and things pop up from time to time. What I meant to say was: take a close look at the area between us and that Realm-sphere.”
“Oh, is THAT what they are?”
“Yes, now look carefully.”
Callie looked where Mike said. She couldn’t see anything at first, but after some blinking, she finally made out what he was talking about: a thin seam, like a thread, running from their position, all the way to the grey sphere they were moving towards. The seam seemed to be dissipating from their end onward, like a long fuse working its way to the dynamite.
“That’s a mighty faint trail.” Callie said, “No wonder I couldn’t see it; I could never read a thermometer either. How do you know it isn’t designed to lead us right into a trap?”
“We’ll know soon enough.” Mike said.
Callie looked down.
“What’s keeping us up?” she asked. (Whatever feelings of vertigo Mike had felt when Callie had levitated he and Jon over between rooftops, was nothing compared to what she felt now, seeing the infinite drop below her.)
“I don’t know,” Mike said, “But my guess would be that there’s no up or downs here, except from your personal point-of-view. How are you gonna fall if there’s no down?”
“So you just float in place until you decide to move?”
“I figure.”
“So if you were to leave some non-Ma’jai person here, they would just float in place until they died of starvation?”
“I…suppose so.” Mike replied.
Callie turned to look back.
“I think we should get a good look at what our own Realm looks like,” she said, “So we can find it on the trip back; should there be one.”
“Not exactly a safe assumption, is it?” Mike replied, bringing their forward motion to a stop, “But it’s a good idea, Cal.”
Mike turned them completely around, to face the Realm from whence they came (turning, at least, was easy).
It was a pale green sphere, with light blue bands encircling it; pretty, but something of a plain Jane when compared to some of the others around it. Nothing special.
“I can feel its vibrations in the Voss Vedu’un,” Mike said, extending his free hand towards the Realm, “We’re still close enough.”
A smile appeared on Mike’s face.
“It’s talking to me!” he said, “It’s alive!”
“What’s it saying?” Callie asked.
“It’s telling me it’s name!” Mike said, eyes full of wonder, “It’s name is Statamer!”
“That’s great. Tell it ‘hi’ for me.” Callie said, severely, “But we got places to go, remember? We don’t want the trail to get cold; or give Sinestri too much of a head-start.”
“Alright.” Mike said, turning them back around.
They resumed movement toward the grey Realm.
“Do you know what THAT one’s called?” Callie asked.
“No. We’re still too far,” Mike said, “Or maybe it’s just not in the mood for talking.”
“Maybe it’s dead. It LOOKS dead.” Callie said, “Can those things die? And if they can, what would it be like for those inside?”
“I don’t know and can’t imagine.” Mike said, “I suppose if they CAN die, it would be like cells in a dead body; after awhile, everything inside would die too.”
Callie’s face crumpled.
Mike kicked himself.
“Cal, I’m sorry, I---”
“No, don’t.” Callie said, her voice tremulous, “It just…hit me, all over again right now. My own damn fault; I was the one who went there with the stupid morbid questions.”
She wept quietly. “It’s not just about what happened to Jon; it’s the GUILT! It’s the damn GUILT that chews on the wound and makes it worse every damn time!”
She put her free hand over her eyes, and tried to regain composure.
“Look, Callie,” Mike said, “You can’t blame yourself for what happened to Jon. You weren’t the one that killed him, it was Sinestri. You didn’t make Jon join us; he made that choice for himself. It was not your fault.”
“Oh Mike, but it WAS!” Callie shouted, though the sound didn’t carry, “IT WAS! And it was YOUR fault too!
“If you hadn’t pulled Ma’jai rank on us back in Cathim, we would have stood right beside you and faced the Cathim-things with you! And when you passed out, we would have been there to help, and I wouldn’t have forgotten Jon back in the building, and he’d be alive right now, and right here with us! But NO! YOU had to be the big shigging Ma’jai and go it alone!” she took a deep trembling breath, “So, yes Mike! It WAS YOUR FAULT just as much as it was mine, because YOU didn’t trust us enough to let us come with you and help you!”
“Alright, Callie.” Mike said, “If it makes you feel better, you can go ahead and blame me.”
Callie growled: “Awwg! I HATE it when you do that! You always take the ‘noble’ way out, so you don’t have to argue or defend yourself, and you can pretend to be the reasonable one, when what you are is a coward!”
Mike bit his tongue, and said nothing. He knew Callie’s pain would make her unpleasant for a time. It would do no good to say something in the heat of anger that would only make things worse; so he kept quiet.
The two fell into an uncomfortable silence; and the silence between them remained until they reached the grey Realm.

It loomed before them, getting larger and larger until it dominated their entire view. When they were close enough, Mike reached out and tried to touch the sphere; but his hand could not get close due to an opposing force that repelled his hand back, and made it feel numb. It reminded Mike of trying to get two strong like-sided magnets to connect.
Like Statamer, this Realm was alive. It’s name was Sellavellan.
Mike made a circular gesture, as close as he could to the Realm, and opened a rift into it as smoothly as cutting a slit into a ripe peach with a sharp knife. He motioned it to widen, and it did; into what Callie saw as a pitch black world. Mike’s Ma’jai sight, on the other hand, could see what appeared to be the inside of a cave.
“Let’s go.” he said.
They entered. Then, something flashed red in the dark.
“What was that?” Callie asked.
Mike saw it almost too late. He pushed Callie clear, as bolts of red lightning struck him full on, and blasted him backwards through the opening of the rift; which then started to close.
“MIKE!” Callie shouted.
His push had sent her sprawling into a deep depression in the uneven floor of the cave. She landed in time to see Mike blown back into what she thought of as “Blue Space”. Then, everything was swallowed in darkness again, as the only light was that coming through the rift.
She put her hands on the ground, in order to get up, and touched some hairy, yet prickly little thing with her right hand. It hissed, and bit her on the thin flap of skin between her thumb and index finger.
She uttered a shriek; not only at touching something unexpectedly hairy, but because the bite hurt like hell.
She set the pain aside, got up, and ran towards the rift, which was now a slit; too thin for her to cross, but wide enough to see through.
She saw Mike falling away from her, end over end; limp as a rag doll.
“MIKE!” she shouted.
She tried forcing the rift open, with her mind power, then with her hands; to no avail.
The rift sealed shut; leaving her alone in the darkness.

Callie sobbed openly. The bitter irony that she had called her brother a coward moments before he sacrificed himself to save her life was not lost on her; but the sound of movement scared her out of her misery.
Whatever had zapped Mike was still there with her.
Not having a Ma’jai’s spectral vision, Callie could not see her hand before her face; or what was moving around in the dark, grunting like a heavy-set man trying to exercise.
Red light flashed, illuminating the surroundings for a second. Enough time for Callie to make out some pudgy beasty that had something sticking out of it’s head that generated the red electricity.
Callie closed her eyes, stretched her hands forward, and focused the full emanation of her ability before her. The thing shot out at her it’s red lightning, which crossed the distance between it and her in a millisecond, and hit the invisible wall of her focused power. Callie bent it’s lightning upwards, to the ceiling of the cave (taking out a slew of critters nestled up there), and then folded it back toward its originating point.
With great satisfaction, she opened her eyes to see the beasty get the full measure of it’s own medicine, until the lightning stopped, and the thing fell over; encircled with little wormlets of electricity still running over it’s body, making it shudder and spasm.
“That was for Mike, you SHANK!” she shouted.
Once again, the cave went dark. Although she couldn’t see anything, Callie realized she could get a feel for things by extending her mental power around it, as if to levitate it. She now sent that power over the creature.
During the confrontation, she had gotten only a vague sense of it’s size and shape. Now she could get a better “look”.
It was short, but stout. It’s shape was roughly cylindrical, with stubby legs and thin stick arms that ended in claws. It had a light bulb shaped head and no discernable neck as far as she could tell. It had holes in the sides and back of it’s head that might possibly be ears. Of it’s eyes, Callie could only sense that they were large and saucer-shaped. It’s mouth was wide, and arrayed with can-opener teeth that would shame a shark. It had long hairs, like cilia, that grew out of the top of it’s head, and stood up, as if under water. Red currents of it’s electricity buzzed between the hairs.
That’s how it does it, Callie thought, It sees or senses something it wants, or is threatened by, and it points those hairs at it and zaps ‘em. Once it’s toast, it trundles over and has an easy meal. It may not look like an impressive predator, but I’ll bet it’s the most feared creature in here. It can kill from a distance.
The Shanky (as she now referred to it in her mind) let out a hiss of breath.
It’s still alive! Callie thought.
That could mean one of two things: the Shanky had a strong constitution, capable of getting zapped without getting killed; or, the red electricity was used to stun prey, not kill it outright. If the latter one was true, then Mike might still be alive!
Something growled in the dark, and Callie realized that she and the Shanky weren’t alone in the cave.

Callie sent her mental power in the direction of whatever had growled, and found it. 
It was as big as a gallanash, and as muscular as a cwarna. It moved toward her in slow, cautious steps.
Callie dashed nimbly, and skipped over the Shanky, putting it between her and her stalker. A quick application of her power lifted the Shanky to it’s feet, and held it there. She hoped her pursuer would be startled by the Shanky’s apparent awakening.
Instead, it growled again, and the growl shifted closer as it’s owner leapt toward them. Callie lifted the Shanky into the air, and the Growler hit it head on. Callie felt the hit, and hurled both Shanky and Growler a good distance away.
They hit the ground with a good meaty THOOMF!
The Shanky then awoke, as proven by both the sudden lighting up of it’s “hair”, and it’s horrible scream, as the Growler tore into it. The Shanky poured it’s lightning into the Growler (which, in the intense red light, looked like a cross between a possum and a panther), but the Growler’s jaws had locked tight in it’s seizure.
This had the wonderful effect of illuminating the cave for a good few seconds. Enough for Callie to get a good look at her surroundings.
The cave she was in was high ceilinged, wide as a high school auditorium, and long; far longer than the shifting red light could penetrate. The walls and ceiling of the cave were honeycombed with holes along its run. Some were just niches, others were connectives to other sections of the cave; and most were occupied with beasties. Callie could see their eyes, reflecting in the red light. Most were watching the Growler vs Shanky show with great interest; but a few had noticed her.
Callie realized that her only way out of this place was to travel the length of the cave, for who knows how long, in the dark, along a path of monsters. It gave her no joy knowing she’d been right: Sinestri had indeed set them a trap.

Out of one of the holes in the side of the cave, Callie sensed a pack of what were either baby Growlers, or perhaps a smaller species of the same. These Growlies were interested in her, and made their advance.
Callie felt around and detected a pile of bones on the other side of the cave. She rocketed these at the Growlies, hit every one of them hard, and sent them whimpering back to their hole.
The Growler attached to the Shanky was at last torn off; but the Shanky did not get a chance to relax it’s electric hairs. Five other Growlers now encircled it, perhaps thinking that this was their golden opportunity to take down a nice fat wounded Shanky.
They weren’t the only ones. Callie could sense the other creatures of this portion of the cave leaning forward. Ready to take over if the Shanky (which had lost a lot of blood) somehow managed to bring down the Growlers. One way or the other, that Shanky was gonna get his.
This is my chance, Callie thought. When those Growlers attack, this place is gonna light up again. If that Shanky’s a die-hard, it’ll give me the chance to run a good distance. The more ground I cover, the sooner I can get the hell out of this cave.
The Shanky smelled it’s peril, and lit up again.
The Growlers pounced.
Callie turned and hauled ass in the opposite direction.
She heard a cacophony of growls, animal screams, and the buzz of electricity behind her, as she ran. The quality of the light shifted, fluctuated, and at last flickered out.
The Shanky had joy-buzzered it’s last opponent; and Callie was in the dark once more.
She kept on running.
The dark around her was not quiet. The battle for the body of the Shanky had now started. Callie could hear different creatures fighting over the meat; but the sounds were falling further and further behind.
She so wanted to levitate, but feared an overuse of her ability might leave her defenseless at a crucial moment. Her power supply (so to speak) was not infinite. There was no way to know how long this cave ran, or what other dangerous creatures she might still have to face; then there was Sinestri to deal with, at some point after.
So she ran in the dark, with her mental power extended forward; against the possibility of hitting a wall or some creature.
Neither happened; instead she stubbed her foot on a rocky protuberance and went sprawling to the ground. The landing was painful and disorienting. Still, she lifted her head, and prepared to rise again.
From somewhere above her, there came a flapping noise, and then a heavy weight fell on her back. Callie screamed as strong ropy arms wrapped around her upper waist, and sharp fangs sunk deep into her left shoulder. The thing had leathery wings, and began to flap them.
Callie felt herself being lifted.
She fought to disengage the hands, but they held tight. Her head swam, and she found it difficult to focus enough to use her power against her attacker. With horror, she realized that the bite was poisonous; meant to incapacitate her.
The bat-thing (which stunk like the pit) flew straight up into a hole in the ceiling of the cave. They went up and up and into a whole other section of the cave altogether.
Callie felt the pain of the bite travel deep, moving toward her heart. She was dropped on a pile of sharp bones that cut her like broken glass wherever they came into contact with her.
I’m gonna bleed to death, she thought. If that thing doesn’t tear my head off first!
The thing that had picked her up had flown deeper into that section of the cave, leaving her be for the moment.
Or so she thought.
Suddenly she sensed something shuffling towards her in the dark. A LOT of somethings; smaller, much smaller, than what had brought her here.
Then it dawned on her.
Holy Gloeis! This is a NEST! And those are…
She didn’t have time to finish the thought, as the children of the bat-thing were now upon her.
They attacked her from all sides; biting and scratching her raw. They gnawed at her fingers, they sliced up her legs, and they snapped at her face. One jumped on her shoulder-blades, pulled her hair back, and bit her on the top of her head.
She was dizzy, in pain, and couldn’t see a damn thing.
Below, somewhere, pandemonium erupted. Things growled and screamed and something like thunder roared.
Oh Gods, I’m in hell! 
Hell or not, the sounds gave her the direction of the hole; and, except for attacks on her eyes, she quit trying to fend off the Batlings, and crawled towards it. Her hands and knees felt shredded with each inch earned, but she continued regardless. One of the things bit off the lobe of her left ear. Callie screamed and smacked it off.
The poison in each of their bites weakened her with every second that passed. If she didn’t make it to the hole soon, she would be eaten alive by the baby monsters.
At last she found the edge of the hole. A dim light came from it. A light that drove away the little beasts. She wondered if more Shankys had waded into the battle; but the light was not red.
She crawled down into the hole, then let gravity take her.
She did not have the strength or focus to catch herself in midair with her power. That no longer mattered. Not avenging her brother, or Jon, or saving her mother. A choice of deaths was all she had before her, and right now she would settle for a quick one.
A talon caught her by the foot about two thirds of the way down.
“NO!!!” Callie screamed, knowing that the bat-thing had caught her, and would now fly her up back to it’s children, “LET ME GO!!!”
She began to writhe and shake, so it would drop her; though the pain it caused her foot was unbearable.
The thing sunk it’s talon deeper into Callie’s foot, piercing through her sneakers, and Callie shrieked, but continued to shake; unbalancing the thing’s attempt at flight.
The thing dropped her. Callie fell to the ground painfully, rather than lethally. She felt the thing land in front of her. She looked up and could see it’s demonic shape because of some light source behind it.
Suddenly, it was blown away by a fireball that sent it flying and shrieking over Callie, and to the ground a short distance away, in a burning heap of crispy bat-thing.
“CALLIE!!” she heard, and damn if that wasn’t Mike standing before her; the cave behind him lit up with many piles of burning monsters.
“Ah, Mike!” she said, her voice weak, “Thank Gloeis for you!”
Then she closed her eyes, and darkness took her. 

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