The Route of Ascension
Mike carried Callie back to the cave end (the section they had first entered this Realm from); which was now well-lit by many fires, and devoid of creatures. Those Mike had not firebombed, had scurried off in terror.
He placed Callie in one of the cleaner niches, and began the work of healing her many wounds. The most grievous of these was the poison in the bite on her shoulder; as well as the smaller bites of the bat-babies.
From her memories he catalogued every harm done to her; down to the small bite on her right hand: between her thumb and index finger. Nothing escaped his attention.
At last, there was nothing left to do but let her sleep.
And she slept for a very long time.
Callie awoke to find Mike hovering over her with concern in his eyes.
“Hello, sleepyhead.” he said with a smile.
Callie grabbed and hugged him tight.
“What the hell took you so long, dumb-ass?!” she asked.
“Well, I woke up in that blue place, badly disoriented. It took me awhile to get my bearings straight and get back here. Then I couldn’t find you, and had to tear up the joint.”
“My adventure was a little less mellow than that.” Callie said.
“I know.” Mike said, “I saw.”
“Have you been perusing my private brainwaves again?”
“Just a tad,” Mike said, “I had to know all the damage that was inflicted on you so I could heal you.”
“A likely story.”
“I’m afraid that left ear’s gonna have to go on being lobe-less, though.” Mike said, “I looked everywhere for it, but couldn’t find it.”
“I hope that bat-baby chokes on it.” Callie said, “Not that I was ever much into earrings anyway. No big loss.”
“Other than that, you’re good to go.” Mike said, “Are you hungry?”
“What are you offering?” Callie asked, “If it’s toasted critter, I’ll pass.”
“No, look.” Mike said, turning his back to her.
On his back was the backpack with their travel food; Callie had forgot all about it.
“It was Jon’s turn to carry it, around the time we first saw the Cathimites; but in the middle of that whole situation, we forgot to switch it over. I’ve had it on since.”
Mike took the pack off his back, and set it down before her. He unzipped it and retrieved two sodas and two sandwiches.
They ate quickly and silently.
Once finished, they got up and began to walk down the length of the cave.
Illuminated by Mike’s many fires, Callie could now see with her eyes how the cave was pock-marked with holes all along its sides and (she shuddered) along the ceiling. Those, she knew, led to upper regions.
“We’re gonna have to be extra careful with those.” she said.
“Don’t worry. I firebombed a whole batch of them while you slept.” Mike said, “Then took out everything that tried to escape.”
“Still, there are a lot of hollows up there.”
“Yeah, but all the beasties I’ve met here have one thing in common: they all fear light…and especially, fire.”
Mike hurled more fireballs into the darkening area ahead of them. As they lit up areas of the cave, creatures big and small scampered away from the light, and into their holes.
“I think we should try another route.” Callie said, “Make another rift, I mean. Enter this realm through another point; preferably somewhere outside of this damn cave.”
“We might lose track of Sinestri, if we do that.”
“Wake up, Mike. This place was a trap, and it worked.”
“Perhaps,” Mike replied, “But Sinestri had to pass through here to set it; which means we’re on his trail. If we try another route, there’s no telling where in this world we’ll end up; maybe a thousand miles away from where we need to be.”
There was a far off flickering of red.
“Shanky, up ahead.” Callie said.
“Yes. We’ll have to be careful.”
They continued onward, in silence.
Fifteen minutes clicked by, before one of Mike’s fireballs were met with more red flashes just up ahead of them.
“Get behind me!” Mike said.
As Callie did so, Mike extended forth his hand and summoned a sekari into it; only this sekari flattened itself into a curved shield, that grew within a second to about Mike’s size.
From the darkness just beyond the light of Mike’s last fireball, came a rush of red lightning. It hit the sekari shield and lit it up like fireworks. The lightning fought to penetrate, but the shield held up to the assault.
Mike released the shield, and sent it toward the Shanky. It hit the Shanky, encased it, and made it visible to Callie’s non-Ma’jai eyes. Then it crushed it to death with an audible crunch, before dissipating.
Mike sent a quick succession of fireballs, one after the other, into the dark. They revealed a section of the cave, up ahead, wider than what they had seen so far. The holes at the sides where larger than in the rest of the cave, and from them emerged dozens and dozens of Shankys. They lined up along the sides of the cave, like a gauntlet, and seemed to await them.
“It seems we hit the jackpot.” Mike said.
“Oh booger.” Callie retorted.
The length of Shanky territory was about a hundred yards, and beyond that was the opening of the cave. The dark of night made the world outside the opening indistinct, but occasional flashes suggested a thunderstorm was currently in process.
“I’ll take the left side, you take the right.” Mike said, “We watch each other’s back.”
“As always.” Callie replied.
They ran headlong into Shanky country.
The response was immediate. Every Shanky close enough to attack, did so. With one hand Mike produced a sekari shield that protected him from their lightning, while with the other hand he lobbed fire balls that hit and ignited individual Shankys, and blinded the wide sensitive eyes of those near them; disrupting their line with chaos and confusion.
Meanwhile, Callie bent back the lightnings of four Shankys that launched a simultaneous attack on her. She had the lightnings take out various other Shankys, before she had them take out the four that had produced them. She then levitated the stunned Shankys, and tossed them at the advancing troops on her side of the cave; knocking them over.
On his side, Mike took over the mind of one of the Shankys, and had it zap it’s fellows, before one of it’s fellow Shankys took IT out. Then, Mike took over another, then another after that. He dipped in and out of different Shanky heads, just long enough to have each zap one of it’s brethren, before he moved on to another. Soon, he had them so unhinged; they began to attack each other without provocation.
Mike no longer needed his shield; he was able to use both hands to pick off the Shankys with fireballs and sekari.
As they cleared out whole sections of Shankys, Mike and Callie moved closer and closer to the opening of the cave. They managed to reach the halfway point, when the remaining Shanky troops still ahead of them funneled into the main central walkway before them, and headed for Mike and Callie en masse.
“Uh oh! They’re swarming!” Callie said.
Mike produced a massive sekari and threw it into the heaviest concentration of Shankys between them and the cave opening; the explosive effect of which cleared out the path ahead of them, and knocked over every still-standing Shanky into two piles.
“RUN FOR IT!” Mike yelled.
When they were just past the Shankys, Mike stopped, turned, and sent two offhand fireballs into the two piles and disrupted their attempts to stand and resume their attack.
Mike turned and ran. He caught up with Callie, and the two reached the end of the cave.
They ran out through the opening…and almost off of a cliff.
Callie’s intuition stopped her, a step or two before the edge; but Mike stopped too late and teetered on the precipice. Callie grabbed the back of his shirt collar, and pulled him back.
The cave, they now understood, was inside of (and about three fourths of the way up of) a mountain; a big one. Outside the cave opening was a ledge about the width of a sidewalk. To their right, the ledge snaked downward; to their left, the ledge spiraled upward, around the sides of the mountain (presumably, all the way to the top).
As for the landscape, it was all grey mountains against a backdrop of dark night. Heavy thunder clouds prevented the seeing of any stars or moons; and if it wasn’t for the constant flashes of lightning that seared the darkness, little could be seen by non-Ma’jai eyes.
It was cold and wet and harsh.
It made the cave seem like a comfy environment in comparison.
Mike and Callie looked down into the bottomless drop they had almost blundered into, and gave each other a look.
“This just keeps getting better and better, dunnit?” Mike asked.
They backed off a few steps from the edge. Something on the floor of the ledge caught Mike’s eye.
“So, which way do we---?” Callie started to ask, but a clap of thunder from above that sounded like the hammer of the Gods, startled the both of them.
“Where else?” Mike said, and jabbed his thumb to their left.
“How do you know?” Callie asked.
Mike hunkered down to his knees, and Callie followed suit. He produced fire from his hand, and held it close to the ground, like a torch. Callie looked and saw an arrow etched there on the stone floor of the ledge; it pointed to the upward path. The etching was light, like a quick sandpaper rub on a fine wood desk; done, no doubt, with a sekari.
“Damn.” said Callie.
From behind them, in the cave; the buzz of Shankys neared.
“Time to go.” Mike said.
They turned left, and started on their way up.
Though the ledge was wide enough for two to walk side by side, neither of them wanted anywhere NEAR the edge; so they went single-file. Not only that, but they went sideways as well, with their backs to the wall of the mountain; slow and cautious.
Mike led the way, and Callie followed.
And if any Shanky dared to poke it’s head out of the cave opening, Callie would be more than happy to shove it over into the abyss.
None did, however; Mike and Callie were out of sight, and thus out of mind, as far as the Shankys were concerned.
“I hate thi-i-i-s!” Callie whined, “This is insane! I’m on the side of a shigging mountain in a thunderstorm on another world! How the hell did we get to this, Mike?!”
“With one bizarre situation after another.” Mike replied.
They were now soaked, and every fresh gale of wind chilled them to the bone. Another clap of thunder overhead made them wince.
“I may be wrong, but shouldn’t the thunderclouds be below us at this altitude? We are pretty high up here!” Callie said, “Come to think of it, shouldn’t we be having trouble breathing or something? I don’t mean to be annoying; I just have a lot of questions.”
Mike shrugged. “Different worlds, different rules, I guess.”
“Great. Another answer that answers nothing.” Callie retorted, “You’ve gotten really good at those! Is that a Ma’jai trait?”
“Yeah,” Mike said, “It comes with the kit.”
After about half an hour of slow sideways movement, that hassle of walking with their backs to the mountain overrode their fear of the unprotected edge, and the two began walking right; though still in single-file, and at a cautious pace. They wished to hell there was a guardrail, or handrail, or something; but there wasn’t, and they had to get used to it.
At one point Mike’s foot slipped on the wet stone, and he fell forward. He uttered a high shriek, afraid he was headed over the edge, but merely fell to his hands and knees.
But he succeeded in scaring the crap out of Callie as well.
“Don’t DO that to me!” she yelled, “DAMN!”
Mike got to his feet.
“Watch your step, for Gloeis's sake!” Callie continued, “Do you think I wanna be stuck up here all alone?”
“Sorry, Cal.” Mike said, his breath ragged, “I thought it was all over there, for a moment.”
Callie shivered in the wind.
“We’re gonna catch our death of cold up here.” she said.
“Nah,” Mike said, “This place will probably kill us long before that!”
They continued onward and upward.
Sometime later, Mike saw something up ahead, around where the periphery of the mountain began to disappear from his line of sight.
It was still far off, but it looked like a bump on the mountainside. The ledge did not go around this, but stopped right at it; as if one was expected to climb over this outcropping, to get to the ledge on the other side (if there was one).
“What the hell is that?!” Callie asked, all of a sudden.
“What?” Mike asked in return. He stopped and turned around to face her, and saw that she was looking outward.
“I thought I saw something moving, during a lightning flash.” she said, “Over there, somewhere.”
Mike’s eyes needed no lightning flash; he now saw what looked like a small black cloud, about level with them. It was moving towards them; closer and closer.
“Oh shig.” Mike said.
“What? What is it?” Callie asked.
“It’s your old friends…the bat-people.”
Lightning illuminated the landscape once more, and Callie got a clear look at the horde of bat-things that approached. They smiled toothy open-mouth smiles, licking their chops, as they flew toward what they no doubt thought was easy pickings.
There had to be about fifty of them.
“Damn the luck.” Callie said.
“Damning our luck is like damning the wind, Cal,” Mike said, “It’s gonna blow regardless.”
“How long have you been hoarding THAT chestnut?”
“Oh, ages.” Mike smiled.
He extended his hands forward and produced a sekari shield in each. The two shields grew and met, and melted into each other; forming a single half-shell shield all around them that stopped at the wall of the mountain behind them. They were sealed in.
Mike scrunched down a little, and braced himself for the onslaught. He looked at Callie. “Be ready with the---“
But there was no more time for words; the bat-things attacked.
They hit the shield and were repelled with explosive force. The individual bat-things were thrown back, fell, regained flight control, then attacked again and again. The sound of these things, as they hit the shield, was like giant bugs hitting a giant bug zapper.
“Can’t these things take a HINT?!” Callie shouted over the noise.
Mike’s face was a grimace of exertion. The constant attacks forced him to pour more and more power into the shield to keep it from collapsing. Callie could see sections of the shield where the now-familiar blue glow was getting threadbare.
“These things are a bit more obstinate than I anticipated.” Mike said through gritted teeth, “We’re gonna have to switch to offense.”
“I’m so there.” Callie said.
“Just keep them off of us while I light them up.”
“Oh, and I’d hold my breath about now.”
Fire erupted from Mike’s hands, and grew along the inside curve of the shield. Callie got the picture, and took a deep breath.
The fire flowed out of Mike’s hands and pooled vertically into the tub of the shield in a mockery of gravity. Mike’s hands became lost to sight below the wrists; immersed in liquid fire.
“hereweGO!” Mike yelled, and released the shield.
The shield flew forward and out, and behind it unfurled a great sheet of fire. The shield enveloped one of the bat-things, and it dropped like a brick to the abyss below. The sheet of fire, propelled forward by Mike’s Ma’jai will, ignited a good twenty or so bat-things. These, in turn, flew around in a panic. They would bump into others, and light them up too. Quite a few flew right into the wall of the mountain below and above Mike and Callie; knocked themselves out, and fell to their deaths.
Mike wasted no time. Once able to, he sent out long streamers of fire from his hands, like flame-throwers. These he aimed at every unignited bat-thing within the flame’s reach. Within a minute, another twenty bat-things were on fire; either by Mike’s hands, or their panicking compatriots. The drenching rain was of little help to them; Ma’jai fire does not snuff out as easily as natural fire.
Callie watched for advances from above and below. Mike’s fire lit up the night, allowing her to see everything now. Whenever a bat-thing would zoom in for a sneak attack, Callie would use her mental power to catch it in flight, and slam it against the mountain-side.
One of these fell too close to her, and managed to grab on to her pant leg, on its way over. Callie screamed as her foot was pulled out beneath her; she fell, and was dragged over the edge. She managed to get a handhold on the ledge at the last second.
“CALLIE!” Mike yelled.
He bent to the edge, to help her up. Callie looked up at him and saw a bat-thing descend upon him from above.
“WATCH YOUR BACK!!” she screamed at Mike, as the weight of the wounded bat-thing hanging off her pant leg caused her to lose her grip on the wet stone of the ledge.
She plummeted into the abyss.